Soul-searching in the Homeric man

Flesh and Spirit in the Songs of Homer
September 7, 2001

The habit of approaching Homer's vocabulary of mental life with categories in use today, only to show how different Homeric man was from the later Greek and the modern individual, can be traced back to the studies in Homer's terminology initiated by Bruno Snell and other German scholars in the 1920s and 1930s. Although the importance of these studies, which have led us to realise that Homer's vocabulary lacks many terms whose relevance used to be taken for granted, is incontestable, in all that concerns the better understanding of Homeric man their effect was rather negative. As soon as concepts such as "self" or "body" are said to be irrelevant to Homer, and what is proposed instead is a loose conglomerate of the so-called "mental" and "physical organs", Homeric man inevitably turns into an incomprehensible entity, estranged from everything normally understood as human. Yet the essential humanity of Homeric man is felt by every reader of Homer, and the incompatibility of this experience with the image created by terminological speculations about Homeric man was strong enough to call into question the validity of the terminological approach. As a result, it is unsafe to follow Snell's The Discovery of the Mind without confronting the criticism expressed by Albin Lesky, Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Kenneth Dover or Bernard Williams, to mention only a few. However, this is precisely what Michael Clarke does in his book.

Proceeding from the fact that the descriptions of people in the Homeric poems do without the soul-body dualism, Clarke assumes that this amounts to a lack of distinction between flesh and spirit, and between the inner and the outer self. Since man's mental functioning is described in Homer through the so-called "mental organs", such as thumos , phrenes or kradie , which are the same as breath, midriff and heart, and since physical functioning is described through parts of the body rather than the body as a whole, Homeric man's spirit is "fleshy" and his flesh "spiritual". Accordingly, there is no self or soul or body beyond the mental and physical organs in question, so when man dies, he dies altogether and his shade in the underworld is nothing more than an image of the man it used to be when still alive. The concluding parts of Clarke's book deal with the mythology of death in the Homeric poems and the developments that took place after Homer.

As critics of Snell's approach have pointed out, the fact that Homer has no specialised word for "self" does not force the conclusion that the mental experience of his men differed from that of the men of other historical epochs, including our own. His use of the pronoun "I" testifies to the contrary. Each time a Homeric character takes control of his thumos , the principal seat of strong emotions such as anger, the agent involved in this act of self-restraint is invariably "I". The Homeric "I" is therefore something that cannot be reduced to the mental organs, and it is not difficult to see that the function it performs is tolerably equivalent to what we understand today by "self". The fact that we see brain as the seat of emotions and intellect in a sense makes our own mental functioning no less "fleshy" than Homeric people's. One may wonder how our own mental experience would look if someone approached our civilisation by taking literally all the expressions involving words such as "heart", "spirit", "stomach", or "guts".

In his nuanced prologue, Clarke states that "the only way forward is to... let the Homeric words speak for themselves". But he supposes that approaching a language through the literal meanings of its words can excuse one from making any methodological presuppositions about how language works or how the meanings of the words are created. Homeric words are valued in this book for their own sake rather than as a vehicle to express human thought and emotion. The result is that they speak to us through the highly idiosyncratic mediation of its author.

Margalit Finkelberg is professor of classics, Tel Aviv University, Israel.

Flesh and Spirit in the Songs of Homer: A Study of Words and Myths

Author - Michael Clarke
ISBN - 0 19 815263 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £48.00
Pages - 378

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