The Soul of the Greeks: An Inquiry

Barbara Graziosi is underwhelmed by a restrictive reading of the ancient Greek soul

July 21, 2011

This book starts with an invigorating set of questions: "Soul? Greeks?...why 'privilege' the Greeks? there even such a thing as the soul?" Taking his cue from Aristotle's De Anima, Michael Davis starts with the difference between animate and inanimate entities: that difference will be called "the soul".

Davis' initial distinction between living beings and things has been questioned by many thinkers, but they seem to have made no impact on him; for the author, the interesting question concerns the nature of the soul beyond that initial distinction. The answers he offers are only tangentially related to what the Greeks called "soul", psyche. So, for example, he finds it "curious" that Homer never talks about the soul of the gods. (This is, in fact, not curious at all: Homeric psyche features when somebody dies and his soul leaves the body in order to join the shadows of the Underworld. The gods are immortal, so it makes no sense for Homer to talk about their souls.)

Undeterred, Davis claims that the Homeric gods do in fact "have souls and make choices". And here we begin to catch a glimpse of what Davis might mean by soul: it apparently has something to do with deliberation. It also has something to do with love: Davis talks of "loving another soul", of "soul music" and of "soulful looks", even though his declared aim is to uncover pre-Christian views of the soul. But, ultimately, he finds it impossible to define the soul precisely because, he claims, it is no object for enquiry after all: "at the heart of the being of soul is a resistance to being named, objectified". Any "truth about the soul is delicate, for articulated too straightforwardly, it becomes so structural as to dissolve".

I am not sure I understand what Davis means by this, but that may be his intended effect. "Soul must have an edginess to it," he argues. "Making it too neat a package, by engendering complacency with alienation, fundamentally misrepresents what the soul is. Edginess loses its edge when embraced with open arms."

Nobody will accuse this book of offering a neat package. Still, in the course of reading, some recurrent themes begin to emerge.

The soul is what is distinctive about individuals, but also what makes us want to become other than what we are (through, for example, eating, understanding, travelling or falling in love). Davis' reading of Aristotle insists on the fundamental duality of the soul: it cannot understand itself without achieving some division or distance, and it cannot fulfil its desire to become immortal without destroying itself.

By engaging with Herodotus' Histories, he reflects more explicitly on knowledge and identity. The results are, at times, startling, as when he claims that "because Herodotus' Egyptians have no knowledge of why the Nile floods, they have no knowledge of who they are". The Greeks allegedly had a more "exemplary humanity" but, through a reading of Euripides, Davis finds that "there is no simple resolution of the tensions that constitute our humanity. We are none of us simply 'Greek'." Finally, through a reading of Plato, Davis concludes that "for Socrates, love of himself means love of whoever draws him out of himself".

Davis does not offer a guide to what historical Greek authors wrote about the soul. He offers instead a philosophical, and more specifically a Straussian, enquiry. This is never stated explicitly, but Seth Benardete is constantly invoked in the footnotes, and hardly anyone else is. Davis was a pupil of Benardete, and Benardete was in turn a pupil of Leo Strauss. The book's insistence on the telling silences of ancient authors is typically Straussian, as is the belief that the greatest authors of ancient Greece produced esoteric texts whose meaning emerges only through a philosophically engaged reading.

Whether a Straussian approach persuades depends, to my mind, on the results. The Soul of the Greeks strikes me as very self-regarding: "to study the soul of the Greeks is to study what studies the soul". Many aspects of ancient Greek literature are declared strange simply because they seem strange to Davis: had he consulted the standard commentaries, many difficulties would have been resolved.

But the real problem is not as prosaic as that. Strauss developed his approach through a vast and diverse intellectual experience; indeed, an enviable aspect of his (otherwise very difficult) life was that he experienced first- hand many different intellectual traditions. Benardete also engaged with a range of views: he put ancient commentaries to good use, for example. For Davis, the soul is best explored by reading a selection of canonical Greek authors through Benardete. This seems rather restrictive to me: after all, even accepting the focus on Greek authors, one of the advantages of reading them is that they enable us to join a vast, rich and diverse community of readers.

The Soul of the Greeks: An Inquiry

By Michael Davis

University of Chicago Press

248pp, £22.50

ISBN 9780226137964

Published 19 April 2011

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