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Douglas Cairns

Thymos (or thumos), cognate with Indo-European words meaning “smoke,” is one of a number of terms in Greek which associate psychological activity with air and breath. In the Homeric poems, thymos is one of a family of terms associated with internal psychological process of thought, emotion, volition, and motivation. Though the range of the term’s applications in Homer is wide, that in itself gives us a sense of the unity of cognitive, affective, and desiderative processes in Homeric psychology. No post-Homeric author can rival that range, but something of the richness of the Homeric conception of thymos as an interrelated set of motivations re-emerges in Plato’s conception of the tripartite soul in the Republic and the Phaedrus. Plato’s thymos represents a pared-down model of human agency typified by one central desire or aim in life but also exhibiting whatever further capacities of persons are necessary to enable it to pursue that aim in interaction with the other elements of the personality. As in Homer, the metaphorical agency of Plato’s thymos does not detract from the notion of the individual as the real centre of agency.


Christopher Gill

The notion of “self” is a non-technical one, bridging the areas of psychology and ethics or social relations. Criteria for selfhood include psychological unity or cohesion, agency, responsibility, self-consciousness, reflexivity, and capacity for relationships with others. “Self” is a modern concept with no obvious lexical equivalent in Greek (or Latin); the question therefore arises of the relationship between the modern concept and ancient thinking, as embodied in Greek literature. Three approaches to this question can be identified. One focuses on the idea that there is development within Greek literature towards an understanding of the self or person as a cohesive unit and bearer of agency and responsibility. Another approach sees certain aspects of Greek literature and philosophy as prefiguring some features of the modern concept of self. A third approach underlines the difference between the Greek and modern thought worlds in the formulation of concepts in this area, while also suggesting that Greek ideas and modes of presenting people can be illuminating to moderns, in part because of the challenge posed by their difference. These approaches draw on a range of evidence, including psychological vocabulary, characterization in Greek literature, and Greek philosophical analyses of ethical psychology. There are grounds for maintaining the credibility of all three approaches, and also valid criticisms that can be made of each of them.


Thomas Habinek

Although the Latin language has no single term equivalent to the English expression “the self,” Latin literature has been understood by scholars to rely upon and engage with various concepts of selfhood or personal identity. Inquiry into the Roman self or selves is a relatively recent phenomenon, with antecedents in social scientists’ longstanding concern with culturally specific models of identity.1 Despite such precedents, classical scholars have generally focused more on the possible resemblance of the Roman self to modern Euro-American concepts than on analyzing Roman notions of individual identity on their own terms.

Perhaps the best-represented type of self in Latin literature is a rhetorical self, that is, an identity projected to the public by means of speaking, writing, and other types of social performance. Elite Romans would have received training in personal image construction as part of their literary and rhetorical education, which was explicitly concerned with the practice of and selection among various possible projections of character.