The result of a long and unusual gestation, this diminutive book is a treasure. In its preface, A. A. Long reveals the story of how the book came to be: having been under contract to Harvard University Press for “decades” to write on the topic of Greek thought about the mind and self, Long often began the work, but was stymied by the prospect of producing a traditional monograph that exhausted the subject. He finally created a manuscript fitting the bill for his contract when he had the opportunity to give a series of public lectures at Renmin University in Beijing a few years ago.
Readers should be very glad for the delay. Bearing the nimble authority won from an extended and productive career, Long unfurls in these revised lectures a carefully stitched series of observations and discussions about the history of theorizing the human being in ancient Greek literature. Greek Models of Mind and Self may not be the comprehensive treatment Long once set out to create, but with this book in hand, it is hard for me to consider that a loss. Because, here, instead, is something different: a masterful tour through classical Greek psychology, conducted with insight and clarity.
The tour begins in an unusual place, because Long is willing to see theories of mind and self expressed in multiple kinds of literature. Most investigations of ancient concepts of the self spend their attention on philosophical works, the assumption being that only explicit discussion of the person, the psyche, or the nous can capture a society’s ideas about human beings. The first chapter, “Psychosomatic Identity,” follow insights from Michael Clarke’s 1999 work, Flesh and Spirit in the Songs of Homer: A Study of Words and Myths (Oxford) and discusses the theories of persons to be found in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Though these texts are not philosophical treatises, Long explains, they nevertheless have fully-formed concepts of human beings, human emotions, and the limits of human identities. In the poems, characters speak of their bodies as their selves. Motivations for action are located in the gut, the chest, the lungs, the head. The psyche, when it does appear, is a specter or a ghost that has exited a dying body, a mere trace to indicate the former person that once lived as a vibrant, undivided material entity. So these earliest models of mind and self are laid out and considered, given attention that they do not often receive.
In Chapter Two, “Intimations of Immortality,” Long outlines a second conceptualization of the psyche, also rooted in narrative sources. Hesiod’s Works and Days is considered alongside Pindar, Empedocles, and Heraclitus, all of whom in their different ways situate the psyche as one moving part in a system of progression and restoration, between divinity and humanity. Long breaks down the narrative logic of Hesiod’s stories to a set of propositions and results: if, as Hesiod assumes, human beings were once aligned with the gods, there is reason to think that their current state is the result of some lack; there is then also reason to think that the lack can be recovered and humanity can be divine once more (78-79). Aside from the possibility that this could happen during a human lifetime, what is left but the assumption that some bearer of a human identity—the psyche— would persist after bodily death and experience in immortality the results of its actions? The purpose here is to give some early context for Plato’s eventual adoption of the psyche as the location of the stable identity of a person. By mining these narrative sources for immanent conceptualizations of the self, Long gently points out that Plato’s forwarding of the psyche was not quite the innovation that traditional histories of philosophy have tended to make it.
The third chapter, “Bodies, Souls, and the Perils of Persuasion,” then places Plato’s view in a particular political context. As Long explains, the insistence on the division between body and psyche and the resulting priority granted to the psyche was not simply a stage in an almost scientific progression toward a more accurate concept of the human being. Instead, these notions were points of resistance to the increasing role of rhetoric in political life. The psyche, when considered the seat of reason, could be imagined as being utterly independent of the influence of impressions made by the senses of the body. That meant that the ears that heard a persuasive orator, for example, could depend on the well-trained psyche to temper their impulses.
Thus, the discussion of the Gorgias and then the Phaedo in this chapter takes one of the most salient tenets of classical philosophy, body/soul dualism, and transforms it into a local, contingent development that emerged only as a response to a specific configuration of social and political power. Chapter Four, “The Politicized Soul and the Rule of Reason,” does the same to Plato’s later division of the soul in the Republic. For there, Long carefully treats the tripartite model of the soul and the assumption that reason should and can rule it (and ultimately society) in their particular and contingent contexts. Indeed, these two chapters together deliver on the promise of the introduction, namely, to avoid presenting various ancient theories of the self as circling closer and closer to an inevitable truth. Instead, Long observes, all ancient (and modern) theories of the self are equally unmoored from testable knowledge, and so all should be equally available to us to contemplate. That means, for Long, that some need to be made familiar—like Homer—while others long familiar—like Plato—need to be made strange.
If there is a complaint to be made about the book, it is that Long’s discussion of the divinity of the self in Chapter Five, “Rationality, Divinity, Happiness, Autonomy,” does not originate from quite the same fresh-eyed perspective as the rest of the chapters. As Long speaks of the proposition that the soul might be in contact with the divine, he often engages a convenient and longstanding euphemism: collapsing references to a divine spirit or a daimon into the psyche itself, rather than considering the simpler (but perhaps to our minds stranger) option, namely that ancient authors do imagine a divine counterpart to the self and often refer to it as a pair with or a companion to what is best in the human being. (Readers looking for an in-depth consideration of this issue should be on the watch for another book from Harvard University Press, Charles M. Stang’s volume Our Divine Double, due out next year).
This might be a predictable complaint coming from a reviewer who has written extensively about angels in antiquity. Naturally, when an ancient author talks about those who “consistently cultivate their daimon,” I see evidence for a relationship between two beings, rather than a circumlocution for something like “tending to oneself.” That is the case, I expect, because as a historian of early Christianity, I often study texts that give evidence of persons being porous, directed, swayed, and even penetrated by many non-human actors. But, to put my complaint on broader ground, it is simply that I wish Long had attempted in this chapter what he does so beautifully in other chapters, namely, to take the smooth, well-worn pebbles of the concepts of the mind and self that we pass to one another as we narrate ancient psychology and to turn them in the hand, to show us that they are in fact crazed, strange, and far more irregular than we have long been taught to expect. In meditating once more on the material from Greek antiquity, Long leads us to consider questions much larger than simply “what was the soul?” and “where does reason lie?” His work subtly but firmly poses the issue to the reader: why limit inquiry on a topic like the self only to certain kinds of texts? That is the gift of this book, which I enthusiastically recommend for university libraries, upper-level seminars, and the interested general reader alike.