Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.11.10


Christopher Gill, Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy, and Philosophy: The Self in Dialogue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. x, 510. $85.00. ISBN 0-19-814676-0.


Reviewed by Robin Waterfield, Teddington, UK, 101650.757@compuserve.com.

This is an extraordinarily rich and fascinating book, one which is destined, I am sure, to alter the course of work in the several classical disciplines on which it impinges. It ranges over topics, both literary and philosophical, from Homer to Galen. I could choose the area most familiar to me and devote the majority of this review to critical assessment of Gill's work in that area, but that would do the book, and the readers of this review, a disservice. It would give no impression of the book's impressive breadth and depth. Since the book is long and dense, I feel the best service I can offer is a summary of its contents, with hardly any comment (since the repetition of approval becomes monotonous). It consists, apart from thorough indexes and so on, of an introduction, and then six chapters, none of which is less than sixty pages long.

The introduction is strictly introductory and concerned above all with methodology. Gill places himself squarely within the scholarly line which seeks to combine 'the exploration of Greek thinking about selfhood and personality with the re-examination of our own ideas on this subject' (p. 4), as opposed, above all, to the type of approach which assumes, sometimes uncritically, the correctness of modern ideas about selfhood (or indeed about anything else), and then sees how ancient Greek ideas measure up against this standard. Modern ideas on the subject, developed by and since Descartes are subject-centred, whereas, Gill claims in summary form in this chapter, Greek ideas were objectivist. A subject-centred concept of the self thinks of the 'I' -- the single reasoning, feeling, etc., subject -- as the defining locus of selfhood and consciousness; what Gill calls the 'objective-participant conception', by contrast, stresses shared, communal, non-private mental states as what define the self. Both conceptions will, of course, carry a great deal of ethical baggage with them, and Gill announces his intention of opening that can of worms as well as elucidating the subject of selfhood and personality. As Descartes stands to scholarly work on Homeric psychology, for instance, so Kant stands to quite a bit of scholarly work on Homeric and ancient Greek ethics. By contrast to this 'subjectivist-individualist' conception, Gill will illuminate, gradually through the chapters, a conception that is objectivist in its psychology and participant in its ethics.

This programme is immediately, and devastatingly, put to work in the second chapter. Gill shows beyond the shadow of a doubt that certain studies of Greek selfhood -- he picks on Snell and Adkins -- take for granted a modern, subjectivist conception as normative, and then puzzle over how and why the Greeks fell short of this. And, while of course the Homeric hero in Snell and those who followed him fell short of the less scholarly oddities of a book like Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (not mentioned by Gill), he was consigned to some kind of peculiar half life, for failing, as we now see, to be a Cartesian subject.

Gill next goes on to show how close, in fact, the types of deliberative reasoning employed by the Homeric heroes are to the types analysed by Aristotle, and typified by the common Greek philosophical idea that thought is a kind of internal dialogue. This implies, of course, that there is some kind of common substrate of Greek presuppositions at work, manifesting in contexts as diverse as Homer and Aristotle (and the Stoics). And, as Gill brings out, if we lay aside post-Cartesian assumptions, we can begin to understand the Greek way of going about such practical reasoning as coherent in its own right, and as psychologically credible (and in fact as resembling in some ways certain current philosophical approaches to action theory). That is, if we stop trying to search for a unitary conscious 'I', and begin to see the psyche as a complex of functions engaged in dialogue with one another, and, as a result of such internal dialogue, stimulating action or whatever, we can begin to appreciate the Greek conception of the self.

The same goes for Homeric ethics. Ridding ourselves of Kantian viewpoints, and adopting instead an ethics drawn from recent work by, especially, MacIntyre (who is expressly concerned to resuscitate an ancient Greek framework), allows a proper appreciation of the moral values of the Homeric hero as forming a coherent ethical system. Instead of talk of Kantian universal imperatives, Gill stresses talk of fulfilling relevant roles within society, and of the virtues as qualities which enable one to fulfill such a role. Again we find that the implicit structure of the Homeric moral world coincides to a remarkably large degree with later analyses of moral ideas by Aristotle and the Stoics. So again this makes it look as though Gill is clearly on the right track: he is uncovering something distinctively Greek.

Now, the basis of all this is not particularly original. The recent book by Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity, had covered quite a bit of this ground we find, for instance, a related criticism of Snell (Williams, pp. 21-6); in any case, Snell's views have hardly been prevalent for many years. The chief virtues of Gill's work at this point are its methodical thoroughness and its development of the kind of discussion initiated by MacIntyre and Williams into close analysis of particular texts (especially, in this first chapter, the four deliberative monologues of the Iliad), to prove the point. After his opening chapter, there can be no doubt left in one's mind as to the correctness of this line of work. It is obviously the right framework, because it copes adequately, coherently, and well with all the major features of the texts in question.

The question of the correct framework for viewing the tragic hero occupies the second chapter but briefly surfaces also at the end of the first chapter, in outlining the fit between Bernard Williams' non-Kantian idea of 'agent regret' and the impression we get that Hector, say, is describable as to some degree a tragic hero. The second chapter of the book follows much the same pattern as the first: criticism of anachronistic views (in this case, especially those of Butcher and Bradley on the tragic hero) and comparison with Plato and Aristotle, make way for the development of Gill's own views on the 'problematic hero' -- the character who simultaneously invites our sympathy and, to a greater or lesser degree, puts us off. Again, the chief value of Gill's work lies in his minute and acute analysis of texts, in this case Achilles' long speech in Iliad 9, and Medea in Euripides' play. Again we are shown that rather than being post-Romantic 'outsiders', both characters are operating within the framework of the objectivist standards of Greek society. They do so, despite appearances, chiefly by developing (and inviting us to partake in) what Gill calls 'second-order' reasoning -- that is, reflection about the goals or rules which are operative in a given situation. So Achilles' complaints are shown to be based on his second-order reasoning about the 'heroic code', rather than being manifestations of a Kantian or Nietzschean desire to place himself outside the code, as a lone individual expressing his subjective will. And, Gill argues, Medea is driven to kill her own children by her own brand of chilling logic based on reflection on inter-personal relationships. Personally, I found Gill's discussion of Medea fascinating. We do need some explanation as to why we find ourselves sympathizing with the perpetrator of such terrible crimes, and Gill comes close to it. His analysis shows that it is her awareness of the fact that, as human beings, our lives are intertwined with those of others that drives her to teach Jason this truth in the most telling and hurtful way, in what Gill calls an 'exemplary gesture', designed to reflect her understanding of her ethical position in contrast to that of others.

What is important about the distinction between first- and second-order reasoning is that it allows Gill to explain how two people, apparently adherents of the same code, can disagree. Either one of them (Jason, say) is relying on first-order reasoning, which jumps straight from ethical principles to action, while the other (Medea, say) is relying on second-order reasoning; or, conceivably, their second-order reflections lead them in different directions. Whereas Gill's first chapter concentrates more on first-order reasoning (that is, he develops a plausible theory of motivation based on the hero's inferences from his beliefs about what constitute desirable goals, and on his engagement or dialogue with his peers), this second chapter deepens the picture by demonstrating the place of second-order or reflective reasoning on top of first-order reasoning.

The third chapter focuses on a number of passages from Homer and tragedy which show a hero divided against himself or herself. These passages fit fairly straightforwardly into Gill's objectivist framework. So, once we have accepted that the 'self' can consist of, and act from, a psyche with different functions, the 'divided self' is easy to accommodate: it is a case of one function disagreeing with another function. So far, so good. But important further questions arise. To what extent is the division one between reason and passion? Why do characters identify with one psychological function and call it 'I', while seeing another part as the source of conflict? Gill argues, interestingly, and again from close analysis of texts, that the reason-passion division is largely a red herring; in so far as the two are shown to conflict in Greek literature, passion is reasonable or justified passion, not as it were a pure irrational emotion. Hence, in fact, the internal conflict: two reasonable approaches clash. In answer to the second question, Gill seems to suggest that mere expediency, or the prevailing circumstances, will dictate which psychological part is perceived as central, and which more distant. He usefully adds the Freudian concept of self-distancing to the arsenal of the objectivist conception of the self.

In so far as the heroes of Homer and Greek tragedy are responding, in their internal conflicts, with reasonable claims to counter the reasonable claims of their peers, or of someone who has the right, perhaps through friendship, to try to divert them from a course of action, then monologues implicitly become dialogues (as we have already seen earlier in the book). Gill continues, in this third chapter, by using this framework to develop plausible analyses of two notoriously difficult and controversial passages in Greek tragedy, Ajax's 'deception speech' (Ajax 646-92) and Medea's monologue (Medea 1019-80, of which he excises only 1055-64). Both yield fairly easily and persuasively to his objectivist framework. One might say that, on Gill's terms, there is no such thing as a true Greek soliloquy. And again he uses the concept of the 'exemplary gesture' to illuminate how the clash between the hero's second-order reflections on his ethical situation and others' understanding is dramatized by the authors in question. This, rather than any neo-Kantian reason-passion split, Gill suggests, is the correct framework within which to grasp what is going on with the problematic hero. The chapter concludes by arbitrating between an ancient psychological debate between Galen and Chrysippus who couched their analyses as readings of Medea; rather than Galen's talk of an akratic clash between reason and passion, Gill prefers Chrysippus' concept of a more unified psyche, with one set of beliefs clashing with another.

Many readers will by this stage of the book have been anticipating a discussion of the apparently divided psyche, with its talk of reason and passion, in Plato's Republic. As one who has before now come out in print with an interpretation of Plato's psychology in this book as allowing that reason can desire, and desires can reason, I was fully sympathetic with Gill's discussion in his fourth chapter, which draws the same conclusion, though rather tentatively. But Gill does not stop there: he goes on to show how this interpretation in its turn casts light on Plato's educational programme. Gill argues that the educational programme of Republic consists of two stages. The first is designed to educate the whole self -- reason, passion, appetites and all -- to the stage of first-order reasoning, whereby the community's mores are accepted and one has a virtuous disposition, and acts virtuously, according to the lights of one's society. This is Plato's desired goal of reason's rule, but only in a qualified sense; it is, if you like (as I put it in my edition of Republic), education of the auxiliaries. But, with obvious parallels in Aristotle, reason's rule in its fullest sense, and true virtue, is developed only by the second stage of the educational programme, which trains up full-fledged philosopher-guardians. Gill argues that the second stage of the programme is designed to work only on the basis of the first stage, so that one should not decry or ignore the first stage; but the real novelty of Gill's discussion in this chapter lies in his stress (drawn in contrast, mainly, to Irwin's influential book on Plato's moral theory) on the participant ethics which the programme produces. This is obvious enough in the case of the first stage of the programme, which is specifically designed to make one adopt society's norms, but is less easy to see for the second stage. To demonstrate the point in the case of the second stage, Gill first argues that the second stage brings one to the state of understanding the reasoning behind the reason-based rules one adopts by the end of the first stage, and, second, he stresses the shared communal aspect of dialectic, restoring it to its original sense of conversation, rather than the sense which it seems to gain in most discussions by scholars of rarefied introspective reflection.

Gill does not deny that Plato's philosophers are meant by means of their studies to gain knowledge of eternal verities, but he is concerned to bring out the fact that, as with Homeric and tragic heroes, Plato's philosophers engage in debate as much as introspection, and that the results of their dialectical debates are taken to be legitimated by whether the ethical principles they come up with are recognized as valid by other members of their community. This leads inevitably to some extremely interesting reflections by Gill on the old chestnut of why Plato's philosophers have to return to the Cave. He approaches this topic by means of asking whether Plato takes 'post-dialectical knowledge' to confirm or transform pre-dialectical virtue. Does reflective debate merely provide analytic understanding of virtue, or does it alter the person's conception of what virtue is so radically that he or she will actually behave differently? Republic is notoriously ambiguous when it comes to answering ethical questions that concern us, and Gill rightly finds evidence in favour of both answers, and therefore finally settles for the view that post-dialectical knowledge deepens pre-dialectical beliefs and virtue, and even alters them, but does not invalidate them. In the end, the return to the Cave is interpreted as a kind of exemplary gesture, and Gill then turns to some (to me) less plausible remarks about Plato's awareness of the similarity and sympathy towards the kind of exemplary gesture the Homeric and tragic heroes display, despite the apparent hostility of the second and third books of Republic. Nevertheless, whatever one makes of these remarks, it is clear that Gill has established a strong case for saying that Plato's philosophers are acting within an objectivist participant framework, at least to the extent that they are not concerned with themselves as individuals, but with the community they are supposed to be serving.

In the fifth chapter Gill grasps the bull by the horns and reinterprets a number of passages from ancient Greek philosophical authors which have commonly in recent years been taken, in a post-Kantian fashion, to display a concern with self-realization and with altruism as a means towards that goal. The chief passages in question are Aristotle's account of friendship and his conception of 'what each of us is' in NE, the ascent passage in Plato's Symposium, and Epicurus' balancing act between strongly emphasizing benefiting one's friends and at the same time the value of self-content. In all cases Gill argues with a high degree of plausibility that these discussions should be reconsidered in the light of the objectivist-participant framework. What we meet is not so much altruism, in our sense which involves sacrifice of self-interest in favour of another's interest, but a mutually beneficial relationship between people with communal interests. Not that this means that all Greek actions are selfish. Greek agents do genuinely forego goods, even if not in a purely altruistic fashion, for the sake of friends or community; so the 'ethics of reciprocity' has constantly been stressed by Gill throughout the book, as opposed to the stark contrast between egoism and altruism. The Greek conception of the good life -- the life that is good for us -- always included reference to the fact that we are members of a community and share interests with others. Even the contemplation that Aristotle regards as the highest good is not necessarily a solitary occupation (as, more obviously, the final stages of the ascent in Plato's Symposium aren't either); and recognizing contemplation as the highest happiness involves sharing that recognition with others, and so doing them good too. And Aristotle's idea of 'what each of us is' assumes that we exist in relation to others, rather than as self-subsistent individuals; indeed, as Gill has masterfully uncovered throughout the book, 'the principal determinant of what is or is not "oneself" is that which seems "reasonable" (justifiable by ethical reasons) either by conventional interactive standards or by those which are the outcome of reflection' (p. 378).

In his final, sixth chapter, Gill concentrates less on the exegesis of particular Greek passages or the unravelling of problems in ancient Greek philosophy, and focuses more on the theoretical aspects of his analysis, comparing, in particular, ancient Greek ideas about selfhood, as uncovered in this book, with modern theories, in order to increase our understanding of the objectivist-participant conception we have been given. Since I have been summarizing Gill's book, I have been concerned to express his thought as clearly as possible; so in so far as this final chapter serves a clarifying role, there is little point in my summarizing it too. Although this is the main role of the final chapter, Gill is also concerned to paraphrase certain modern philosophical theories which resemble and so shed light on the objectivist-participant conception he has attributed to the Greeks. But the chapter does not add substance to the views already developed in the book; instead it is concerned to wield them against or alongside other, modern theories, both to clarify the ancient theories and to test the modern theories. One important new point that comes up, however, is that post-reflective ethical positions may well not be available to everyone if they cannot engage in the relevant, and often quite refined and abstruse, kinds of dialogue with their peers. The failure to do so, Gill argues, is not, according to the Greek philosophers, the person's fault; in Plato, for instance, it requires the whole mechanism of the ideal state and its educational programme to ensure the transition from pre-reflective to post-reflective ethics. This is an important point for Gill, because otherwise it could be argued that reason alone was sufficient to guide our lives towards Platonic and Aristotelian goals of the highest good; and if that were so, we would be right back to an individualist and Kantian position of some kind.

I hope I have understood the principal issues raised by this dense and complex book. I am aware of not having done justice to the wealth of ideas found in it. If it is sometimes hard work, that is in large part because it is not easy, for either the reader or the writer, to peel back layers of Cartesian and Kantian conditioning in order to uncover what is peculiarly Greek. But the enterprise of trying to understand how the Greeks themselves regarded their 'selves' is worth the hard work, and will be found extremely attractive to both classicists and philosophers. If I have one single complaint about the book, it is that it is not long enough! What I mean by this is that it is bound to be such a seminal book that, as one reads it, one thinks, 'I wish he had spent more time on this', or 'I wonder how this analysis affects such-and-such an issue.' Here are some particular topics that spring to mind. Akrasia is briefly touched on from time to time, but now needs a full-scale treatment in the light of Gill's work; several features of Socratic dialectic will now become clearer, such as his insistence that his interlocutors lay their beliefs on the line when doing dialectic with him, and his constant use of shared ethical beliefs to test other, more controversial views; it would be good to see the concept of pleonexia brought in, since this is arguably the immoralist's main sin in Greek terms, and we can now see that it involves transgressing what Gill calls 'the ethics of reciprocity'; it would also have been good to see more discussion of the sophists, since one or two of them -- Protagoras with his relativism, Callicles with his egoism -- might offer test cases to aspects of Gill's theories. But all this is work for a later date, for Gill or other scholars. In the meantime, I am sure that the work as it already stands will be profitably plumbed for many decades.