“Any real work of art defies summary; it defies explanation; it defies just one interpretation that is the interpretation of it.” Father Thomas Hopko, the speaker on the podcast from which this quote was taken, was not referring to Michael Davis’ The Soul of the Greeks; however, these words can be applied to Davis’ volume in three ways. First, it is apparent that Davis writes as if he fully believes that Homer’s, Aristotle’s, Herodotus’, Euripides’, and Plato’s writings (treated in his book in this order) are works of art. There is no attempt to summarize the works discussed; there is no attempt to fix them in categories and definitions. But there is certainly an essay to understand them through love—that is, an effort to see beyond what sentences say. Such an approach is not surprising if we consider Plato, Euripides, and even, perhaps, Herodotus. Davis is not the first to engage philosophical, literary, and historical discourses by looking beyond the arguments themselves. In the case of Aristotle, though, his interpretation is fresh and often surprising.
Second, consider that the main topic of the book is the soul. Is not soul that which defies summary and explanation by its own very nature? The Greeks themselves had a hard time to place psyche in any category. Davis emphasizes too that “the nature of soul does not admit of being spelled out directly, that it cannot have an altogether determinate structure” (4). In line with this thought, he treats soul by focusing on the tension between the desire to objectify the world outside and the instability of the world within.
Third, I think Davis’ own book is in tune with its subject, the soul—the book lives and so fights with its readers, subjects them to profound thought, and asks them to follow it in its embracing of the soul of the Greeks. To be sure, this feature of the book renders any attempt to summarize it futile—and this applies to the present review as well. While I do not fully agree with some of his claims, I must say that I find Davis’ “mistakes” to be more seductive than many “correct” interpretations. In what follows, my main purpose is to offer, as much as possible, a taste of this volume.
In the introduction, Davis writes about Homer. One can see from the beginning that the author is not interested in a historical approach. Instead, Davis emphasizes here the struggle of soul with human imperfection, pointing that the nature of soul is the “longing for, but necessarily falling short of, perfection” (6). The apparent conflict produced by a necessary desire for the impossible remains in the background of all of Davis’ readings of the ancient authors.
For Aristotle, Davis nicely avoids the traditional questions of Aristotelian scholarship and states from the beginning that one of the most peculiar characteristics of psyche is that it appears to be double: it is principle of life or motion, but it is also a principle of awareness. As a principle of awareness, it is again double, for it senses changing things and it cognates unchanging things. This doubleness of soul does not stop here. In fact, Davis finds the same approach even in Aristotle’s distinctive approach to plants. All living things, including plants, have a nutritive soul. In the process of nutrition, living things take something from the outside in order to maintain themselves as what they are. Davis now introduces a new kind of dualism: that between the inside and the outside of living beings. The desire of ensouled beings to stay alive and their dependence on something other than themselves (nutrition) show that “only for ensouled beings is there an outside” (29). The awareness of the outside is explained by the need ensouled beings have of the outside. And so Davis comes back to the doubleness of soul. In a very poetic sentence that mirrors his previous claim about the impossible and necessary longing for perfection, he says, “nutrition and reproduction represent the essential, albeit necessarily incompletely successful, tendency of soul to resist time in time” (29).
I take it that it is a bit odd to talk about the nutritive soul’s connection with immortality. Granted, Aristotle himself may do so when he says that the only way natural beings can participate in immortality is by begetting other natural things according to their kind. But I fail to see that Aristotle suggests that “the desire of all soul to be always is a desire to differentiate itself from everything else” (31). Such a claim focuses too much on individual ensouled beings —all individual ensouled beings, even plants. Davis does say, however, that individuals have less of a chance at reproduction toward immortality if they get “individual enough to get a name” (30), so he acknowledges that there is a difference in the awareness of individuality. Beings that are more aware of their individuality are less likely to reproduce themselves toward immortality. If immortality is of the species, individuals which perceive themselves as individuals become aware also of their individual death. So, Davis says, in the case of species in which particulars are clearly individuated—his example compares a dog with a begonia—the longing for being always is less fulfilled. The puppies of my dog will not be the same with my dog, regardless of how much they resemble him.
In any case, the idea that the longing for immortality is of particulars strikes me as not truly Aristotelian, especially if we consider that psyche in Aristotle is the first actuality of a natural being. This first actuality makes an ensouled being, let us say a dog Rex, that which it is specifically: a dog. Suppose we admit that such a soul manifests a will to remain alive. In this case, such will seems to be a characteristic of Rex’s dogness, and not of Rex’s being the particular dog he is. Perhaps an explanation of Aristotle’s interest in plants may come handy in here. While Aristotle may be genuinely interested in the lives of particular beings, I fail to see this as an interest in how a particular plant remains in existence or tries to gain immortality. The focus of the De anima seems more directed toward the status of that which makes something what it is, and what it is as a member of a species, not as an individual that strives for individual immortality.
After pushing his view about the double function of soul, Davis acknowledges that when we think about how nous appears in Aristotle, there seems to be a controversy. He says, “Insofar as thinking requires the possibility of error, it will require something like phantasia, which, in turn, will require sensation, which, in turn, requires body. Even though Aristotle certainly sometimes seems to argue that mind cannot be mixed with body (for example, 429a24-26), it will prove a difficult claim to sustain” (35). At the same time, one of the problems that De Anima brings forth is the unity of soul, especially if we consider the connection between psyche and nous.
Not surprisingly, Davis finishes his reading of Aristotle by looking at the Nicomachean Ethics. Perhaps the main point he establishes here is that the nature of soul is to go outside of itself in order to affirm itself. He makes this statement several times using various expressions. If I understand correctly, Davis points out the tension between the desire to understand and the impossibility of doing so when understanding transforms that which is to be understood into an object—when understanding fixes into a concept that which is not fixable in its nature. I am very sympathetic to Davis’ general claim that “in the very act of spelling out the fact that the human good cannot be understood as an object, it is turned into an object” (61). However, I wonder whether Davis reads too much into Aristotle. To be sure, his interpretation goes against the mainstream of Aristotelian scholarship, and Davis does not manifest any intention to enter into dialogue which such scholarship. He makes no secret that he reads Aristotle through the same lens Seth Bernadete did. And the reading is beautiful. Debatable, but beautiful.
Davis’ work on Herodotus begins with one of the most suggestive and, at the same time, explanatory sentences about the Presocratics’ view of matter. After reminding us that Thales is supposed to have said, “Everything is water,” Davis says, “Had he said, ‘Everything is matter,’ it would have ill served him since, not knowing what this stuff matter was, it would have been equivalent to having said, ‘Everything is something, but I don’t really know what that is’” (77). This statement summarizes, I think, one perhaps surprising but true aspect of Greek thought—the absence of dualism. Nevertheless, Davis continues his analysis of soul based on his dual understanding. Everything is double here. First, there are two chapters, one on the Egyptians, the other on the Scythians. Second, in each chapter Davis sees a longing of these respective peoples for what they already have, but this longing actually brings the opposite. Egypt is described by Herodotus as a fixed place that longs for permanence, and such longing brings change. On the contrary, the Scythians have as defining principle to be always in motion, which brings about a “strange and despotic stability” (90). Both accounts, Davis claims, are meant to be images of “modes of understanding the world, and so being in the world” (97) of different peoples.
In the chapters on Euripides, Davis tackles the problem of soul from yet another angle: how the real is taken to be not-real. Davis focuses on two plays, Helen and Iphigeneia among the Taurians. The former presents an identity problem. The question of the play in Davis’ description is whether Helen is the one abducted just before Paris left with the ghost Helen, or is the ghost Helen, who slept with Paris for ten years, and then with Menelaus for another seven, without any of them doubting whether she was indeed Helen or not. The play then suggests two things. On the one hand, it shows the level of ambiguity that one may find at the core of our being. On the other hand, it suggests that fictional characters and real people are who they are “by virtue of being embedded in a story” (108). The Iphigeneia among the Taurians is read as a performance of ambiguity. Inviting the audience to wonder about whether someone was sacrificed, Euripides also questions what it means for a human to be sacrificed.
Davis’ four chapters on Plato have an odd feature: in two of them, he analyzes dialogues which are not included by all scholars in the Platonic corpus. While the Cleitophon is accepted by some and rejected by others, the Hipparchus is generally excluded by scholars. The other three, the second book of the Republic, the Phaedrus and the Euthyphro, are certainly familiar, but are not the usual places where one may go for analyzing Plato’s view of soul. In fact, the Phaedo, which famously has the subtitle On the soul, is virtually absent from the discussion. This is one more element that shows Davis’ lack of interest in the history of the concept of soul. One may even say that Davis is preoccupied with grasping that which makes us human, and since such a thing is ungraspable in its very nature, he muses with various texts hoping that the reader may understand the invisible whole behind the visible details.
Are Davis’ conclusions correct? I think it is in tune with this volume to say there are no correct conclusions. Such an approach would do nothing but miss the mark—objectify that which, perhaps, is performed and so finds its place outside of the realm of idolatry. In any case, the volume is a feast, and I encourage any lover of the Greeks to taste of it.