BMCR 2023.07.08

Selfhood and rationality in ancient Greek philosophy from Heraclitus to Plotinus

, Selfhood and rationality in ancient Greek philosophy from Heraclitus to Plotinus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. 288. ISBN 9780198803393.



This is a most stimulating and enlightening volume, from the hand of an authority who has been giving much thought to these topics for some considerable time now—as for instance, in Greek Models of Mind and Self (2015), but also in a host of articles over the last few decades. And in fact the present volume consists of a selection of these articles and talks, produced at intervals over the last thirty years, lightly re-worked to constitute a coherent book (of the 14 chapters, only Ch. 6, ‘Socratic Idiosyncrasy and Cynic Exhibitionism’, has not been published before—though it was delivered as a Gregory Vlastos Memorial Lecture, at Queen’s University, Ontario, in 2013).

The topics that unite these papers into a coherent whole are (or at least should be) basic to modern philosophy as much as to ancient, those of the nature of the self, and of the role of rationality in both the defining of the self and of the attainment of eudaimonia (happiness, or, more fashionably, ‘flourishing’) in the human being. Long discerns the roots of this complex of topics as appearing first in the philosophy of Heraclitus and, proceeding from him, through Parmenides, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Epicureans and Stoics, and various later Platonists, to Plotinus—who, characteristically, adds various levels of subtlety to the enquiry. A good overview of the subject-matter may be derived from a list of the titles of the chapters:

  1. ‘Finding Oneself in Greek Philosophy’
  2. ‘Ancient Philosophy’s Hardest Question: What to Make of Oneself?’
  3. ‘Eudaimonism, Divinity, and Rationality in Greek Ethics’
  4. ‘Heraclitus on Measure and the Explicit Emergence of Rationality’
  5. ‘Parmenides on Thinking Being’
  6. ‘Socratic Idiosyncrasy and Cynic Exhibitionism’
  7. ‘Socrates’ Divine Sign’
  8. ‘Politics and Divinity in Plato’s Republic: The Form of the Good’
  9. ‘Platonic Souls as Persons’
  10. ‘Cosmic Craftsmanship in Plato and Stoicism’
  11. ‘Aristotle on Eudaimonia, Nous, and Divinity’
  12. ‘Second Selves and Stoic Friends’
  13. ‘The Self in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations’
  14. ‘Plotinus on Self and Happiness’

It can be seen from this litany, I think, how the main themes of the volume fall together. Long sees Heraclitus as initiating the enquiry into who we are, and what we are to make of ourselves. To do proper justice to Heraclitus’ insights, he adduces in ch. 1, most interestingly, Thomas Nagel’s concept of the ‘objective self’, in The View from Nowhere, as an analogy for Heraclitus’ postulation of the logos (p. 12). The development of the concept of the self, both objective and subjective, and of the power of reason as a vehicle for recognising the self, and for attaining eudaimonia, in Heraclitus, together with the view of Parmenides, as Long would maintain against the majority view, that Being is itself a thinking and rational entity, are the subjects of the first five chapters, covering the `Presocratic’ stage of his investigation. I must say that I find all his arguments here persuasive and enlightening.

We then turn, for the next three chapters, to Socrates, before turning to Plato and the various philosophical traditions emanating from him. Socrates himself, by reason of his self-deprecating irony, is a deeply enigmatic figure, but Long wishes to maintain, and I would agree with him, that the daimonion which he claims to intervene from time to time to inhibit him from some action or another is indeed the voice of Reason; and, rather more adventurously, that the Form of the Good, the vision of which one attains to after the long course of preliminary studies as set out in the Republic, is in fact a rational and benign supreme divinity. Long does grant that the details of the ascent to the Good, and its comparison to the Sun, owe a good deal to Plato, but he feels that the original stimulus for this goes back to Socrates, and I find it hard to disagree with that.

The following six chapters, as I say, concern Plato and the traditions taking inspiration from him, in particular the Stoic. First, however, in ch. 9, Long considers how Plato’s treatment of the human psyche may introduce into the Western philosophical tradition the concept of the person as a repository of moral agency, arguing that Plato in this largely anticipates the views of such a later thinker as John Locke.

In ch. 10, Long turns from rationality in the individual to that on the cosmic level, with a comparison of Plato’s presentation of the Demiurge in the Timaeus, who transcends the world which he creates, with the Stoic supreme god, who is immanent in the cosmos, both of whom, however, are agents of rational proportion and harmony for their creations. Long here takes the mythos of the Demiurge literally, which I, following Speusippus and Xenocrates, would not, and this would bring the Demiurge much closer to the Stoic supreme principle, but his points are just as valid either way, really.

In ch. 11, Long turns to Aristotle, and the interesting question as to whether eudaimonia is properly the product of purely theoretical activity, as propounded in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, or can result also from the exercise of practical wisdom (phronesis), as proposed in the body of the work. Long argues plausibly that there is not necessarily any contradiction here, though that based on phronesis would necessarily count as a ‘second-level’ happiness.

Ch. 12 contains a most acute analysis of the Stoic theory of friendship, which owes something to Aristotle’s discussion in Book IX of the Ethics, but superimposes an extra level of dogmatism, since the total self-sufficiency of the Stoic sage makes it hard to see what need he/she has of friends. Arguing that we are gregarious animals (and indeed that the true Stoic sage is as rare as the unicorn), Long makes a good case for rational friendship as sharing in one another’s virtues, and providing one another with moral knowledge and motivation, which can make a virtuous friend ‘another self’.

In ch. 13, he turns to Marcus Aurelius, and explores the Emperor’s concept of the self, which he identifies particularly with the hegemonikon, the highest element of the Stoic psyche. Long notes, with some amusement, how Marcus, though necessarily a materialist, makes a strong contrast between the conscious part of himself and the rest of his bodily parts, in an almost Platonist manner.

Finally, and most fittingly, in ch. 14, Long provides an extended study of Plotinus’ criticisms of the Stoics (with whom he has in fact much in common), but also Aristotle and the Epicureans, on the nature of happiness and the good life. In his treatise I.4, On Happiness (eudaimonia), Plotinus criticises the Stoic claims of freedom from material concerns, on the grounds that they do not recognise an immaterial level of reality, so that their apatheia has really nothing to fall back on. Long argues, though, that in fact his position is based on an adaptation of Aristoteiian theoria and Stoic apatheia, to produce his own Platonic synthesis.

All in all, then, Anthony Long has produced, in this very well constructed sequence of papers, a most instructive and comprehensive study of the concept of the rational self, and of rationality in general, in the Greek philosophical tradition. I would go so far as to say that, if given close attention, it could even prove a life-changing volume. At all events, it produces much food for thought, even as it is plainly also the result of much thought over the years on the part of the author.