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date: 28 November 2020

the self in Greek literaturefree

  • 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.

The Topic

The term “self,” in modern English, does not have an exact or technical meaning. It is one of a number of bridging or “interface” terms; others are “person” or “personality,” “identity,” “individuality,” and “character.” The areas bridged are, principally, psychology and ethics or social relationships. Common to these terms is a concern with one or more of the following: identifying what makes someone a whole or unified person, what is essential or “core,” what is distinctive or unique, and what makes someone capable of independent action or full participation in social relations. The psychological features regarded as meeting one or more of these criteria include agency or responsibility, consciousness or self-consciousness, having a uniquely first-personal viewpoint, and the capacity to maintain identity over time or to relate effectively to other people.1

Is the notion of “self,” like the other ideas noted, one that belongs only to the modern thought world and is specific to English-language culture, or is it a more universal concept, or at least one that modern English speakers necessarily use to make sense of other ages and cultures?2 All these positions are tenable, and these different views underlie scholarly debate about the concept of self in Greek literature. There is no obvious lexical equivalent in ancient Greek (or Latin) for “self” or “the self,” or indeed the other terms noted, except “person” and “character.” So the topic of “the self in Greek literature” is, in effect, the question whether there are terms, ideas, and concerns analogous to those we associate with this notion. Also important is the question whether Greek culture possesses a conception of self which, while different from ours, is intelligible and illuminating for us to reflect on. Three ways of approaching this topic present themselves. In each case, there is discussion of the approach itself, the evidence on which it is based, and possible criticisms of the approach. “Greek literature” is here understood in a broad sense, both chronologically and in genre (including philosophy, for instance).

Three Types of Approach: “Developmental,” “Prefiguring,” and “Different but Illuminating”

The first approach centres on the idea that there was development in understanding the notion of self in the course of the history of Greek literature, from Homer to Plato, and sometimes beyond. The claim is, typically, that in Homer and Archaic Greek poetry (and to some extent 5th-century Athenian tragedy) there is not yet a secure grasp of the notion of a unified self or person, conceived as a self-conscious and responsible agent. Instead, people are presented as complexes of semi-independent psychological (or psychophysical) entities or forces, which are subject to influence by external or quasi-external forces such as the gods, delusion, or overwhelming impulses, and (in tragedy) madness. Responsibility for actions is seen as shared between the agents themselves and other forces, such as ancestral guilt or a family curse, and gods of various kinds. The evidence on which this approach is based is, principally, a contrast between Homeric, and to some extent later Greek poetic, psychological vocabulary and that found in Plato, Aristotle, and later thinkers. In Homer, thoughts and emotions are attributed to a number of quasi-independent agents, including thumos (“spirit”), menos (“energy” or “excitement”), ētor (“heart”), phrenes (“thoughts”), noos (“mind”), and psuchē (“life” or “soul”), which are not presented as parts of a unified or coherent structure. In philosophical Greek, by contrast, the unitary psuchē provides the organizing framework, even though thinkers also sometimes subdivide the psuchē into parts such as the “rational,” “spirited,” and “appetitive” in Plato’s Republic. Also in Greek philosophy we find terminology (and analysis) of the notions of agency, deliberation, decision, and responsibility, which is more complex and fully articulated than that found in earlier Greek texts, especially poetic ones.

Versions of the developmental approach can be found in the works of Bruno Snell, Arthur Adkins, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Eric Havelock, and Richard Seaford. These accounts differ in various ways, notably in the explanations offered for the development. For Snell, this process reflected the emergence and maturation of Greek civilization. For Adkins, it marked the shift from shame-ethics (and the valuation of results) to guilt-ethics (and the valuation of intentions), For Vernant, it showed the transition from a culture based on the household (oikos) to one based on political structures and associated forms of responsibility. Havelock saw in this shift the impact of the transition from an oral to a literate culture, while Seaford emphasized the effect of the introduction of money into Greek society.3 Although the mode of analysis varies, the evidence cited is largely the same. The criticisms levelled against this approach, especially in the form maintained by Snell and Adkins, are mainly as follows. These views focus on terminology taken on its own, and overlook the extent to which Homeric psychological language, taken in context, can be deployed in a way that shows figures as cohesive agents, aware of their responsibility for their actions (the Homeric deliberative monologues are often cited in this connection). Also, some at least of the relevant features of Homeric psychological vocabulary persist in later periods: for instance, in 5th-century tragedy, lyric poetry at all periods, and in prose the Hippocratic writings and the Greek novel in the late Hellenistic and Roman Imperial eras. This evidence runs counter to explanations based on periodization and suggests that the key factor is the genre and function of the type of Greek writing involved. Furthermore (again mainly in connection with Snell and Adkins), it has been argued that the approach reflects assumptions about what counts as a developed or mature understanding of psychological unity, agency, and responsibility that are based on the influence of later European thought, notably the ideas of Descartes and Kant. Both the relevance and the philosophical credibility of these ideas are open to question.4

The second approach takes its starting point from modern ideas about self and finds these ideas prefigured in certain features of Greek thought, especially in philosophy. This approach is evident in a number of essays by A. A. Long (though not his Greek Models of Mind and Self of 2015), and the monograph Self (2006) by Richard Sorabji; in effect, though not explicitly, this is also the approach adopted by Michel Foucault. Long starts from the ideas of self-consciousness or reflexivity and of a unique first-personal viewpoint on oneself and the world, ideas closely associated with selfhood in contemporary thought. He finds these ideas prefigured in the Stoic conception of phantasia (“impression” or “appearance”), which bridges perception and thought, especially as presented by Epictetus. Long also identifies in several ancient writers, including Heraclitus (also Lucretius and Seneca), an awareness of a duality of viewpoints analysed by Thomas Nagel as a combination of subjective and objective standpoints on oneself and the world.5 Foucault’s study The Care of the Self (1988) also presupposes the typically modern idea that the self is defined in terms of reflexivity and self-awareness. This underlies his influential claim that the Roman Imperial period saw an intense interest among Greek and Roman intellectuals in self-scrutiny and self-fashioning—that is, in forms of reflexivity and self-awareness.6 This approach is also found in Sorabji’s study, which spans ancient and modern ideas. Sorabji first of all defines the self in the characteristically modern terms of self-awareness and unique personal identity, that is, “being me and me again.” He then offers a wide-ranging review of ideas about selfhood, centring on four aspects of the self as he understands this: a “true” self, personal identity persisting over time, individual differences in decision making, and the idea that one needs to look within oneself for ultimate truths or realities.7 Sorabji finds evidence for these ideas, and the debates to which they give rise, in a wide range of ancient writings, especially philosophical ones, by thinkers including Plato, Aristotle, and their followers, and the Stoics.

Possible criticisms of this approach include the charge that it presupposes certain modern ideas of self whose validity is open to challenge. For instance, one can question whether the consciousness of being a unique self (“being me and me again,” as Sorabji puts it) is indeed a universal datum of human experience.8 Also, the appeal to ideas of self-consciousness, reflexivity, and the first-personal view is open to the challenge that these are Cartesian (or post-Cartesian) ideas which do not match much current thinking about human psychology in the philosophy of mind (for instance, functionalism or action theory) or in cognitive psychology.9 A further possible objection is that it is implausible to think that ancient Greek ideas prefigure ideas that have a highly specific intellectual context and significance in the modern thought world.10

The third approach builds on some of the criticisms just noted of the first two approaches. In this approach, the stress falls on recognizing the distinctiveness of Greek thinking in this area, while also suggesting that the Greek ideas may be illuminating for us moderns even when they do not correspond precisely with our standard assumptions about selfhood. For instance, Bernard Williams finds in Homer and Greek tragedy a depiction of human agency and responsibility that is different from typical (post-Kantian) modern thinking on these topics. In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Sophocles’s Ajax and Oedipus Rex, and Euripides’s Heracles, he sees the expression of insights comparable with those that Williams characterizes, in his own philosophical writing, in terms of “moral luck” and “agent regret.” However, he commends these presentations not because they prefigure his ideas of moral selfhood, but because they present in their own terms a response to the human condition whose validity we moderns can recognize in spite of the challenge to our normal assumptions.11

A similar approach has been applied by Christopher Gill in a general study of selfhood in Greek epic, tragedy, and philosophy (Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy, and Philosophy, 1996), subsequently extended to Hellenistic and Roman thought and literature (The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought, 2006). The general claim is that Greek thought typically operates with an “objective-participant” conception of personality, which is different in key respects from the “subjective-individualist” view found in much modern thought on selfhood. Though different, this view is intelligible to us moderns and is indeed useful as a corrective of certain, especially post-Cartesian and post-Kantian, strands in modern thought that are open to intellectual challenge. The “objective-participant” view of the person is symbolized in the idea of the person as engaged in three interconnected types of dialogue: between parts of the psyche, between people, and in shared reflection (dialectic) on fundamental ethical principles. This interpretative approach is applied especially to Homeric psychology, epic and tragic characterization, and ethical psychology in Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.12 Long’s book (2015) on the Greek mind and self is broadly in line with the third kind of approach.13 In addition, some new and forthcoming work on Greek thought and cognition, especially “extended” or “distributed” cognition, can be seen as comparable in its standpoint. While highlighting features of Greek thought on psychology that are divergent from many modern assumptions (especially Cartesian ones and their contemporary descendants), this type of research identifies dimensions that make sense in terms of recent work in cognitive science.14

Possible criticisms of the third approach include the charge that, in being less closely tied to modern ideas of self, its subject matter is less determinate. Also, in underlining links between Greek thought and certain challenges to modern Cartesian and Kantian thought, this approach may be seen as, in effect, another version of the “prefiguring” approach.15 It may also be argued that this approach goes too far in its claims about the distinctive and non-modern character of Greek thought, and understates the role of individuality, for instance, in Greek writing.16

Taken together, these approaches offer a rich and sophisticated set of interpretations of what it means to discuss “the self” in Greek literature.


  • Adkins, Arthur W. H. From the Many to the One. London: Constable, 1970.
  • Cairns, Douglas. “Psuchē, Thumos, and Metaphor in Homer and Plato.” Études Platoniciennes 11 (2014).
  • Clarke, Michael. Flesh and Spirit in the Songs of Homer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Gill, Christopher. Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy, and Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Gill, Christopher. The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Gill, Christopher. “The Ancient Self – Where Now?” Antiquorum Philosophia 2 (2008): 77–99.
  • Long, Anthony A. “Representation and the Self in Stoicism.” In Stoic Studies. By Anthony A. Long, chap. 12. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Long, Anthony A. Greek Models of Mind and Self. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.
  • Padel, Ruth. In and Out of Mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • Padel, Ruth. Elements of Greek and Tragic Madness. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
  • Pelling, Christopher B. R. Characterization and Individuality in Greek Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Remes, Pauliina, and Sihvola, Juha, eds. Ancient Philosophy of the Self. New York: Springer, 2008.
  • Seaford, Richard. Money and the Early Greek Mind. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004. See chap. 14.
  • Snell, Bruno. The Discovery of the Mind. Translated by R. G. Rosenmeyer. Oxford: Blackwell, 1953.
  • Sorabji, Richard. Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Whitmarsh, Tim. Narrative and Identity in the Ancient Greek Novel. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Williams, Bernard. Shame and Necessity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.


  • 1. See Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989). On the social dimension of selfhood, see also Erving Goffmann, Interaction Ritual (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2005) (first published 1967).

  • 2. See Michael Carrithers, Steven Collins, and Steven Lukes, eds., The Category of the Person (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

  • 3. See Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Mind, trans. R. G. Rosenmeyer (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953); Arthur W. H. Adkins, From the Many to the One (London: Constable, 1970) and his Merit and Responsibility (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960); Jean-Pierre Vernant, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, eds., Tragedy and Myth in Ancient Greece, trans. Janet Lloyd (Brighton: Harvester, 1981), chaps. 2–3; Eric Havelock, The Greek Concept of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), and his Preface to Plato (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953); and Richard Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004), chap. 19.

  • 4. See Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), chaps. 1–2; Christopher Gill, Greek Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), chaps. 1–2; Hayden Pelliccia, Mind, Body, and Speech in Homer and Pindar (Hypomnemata 107; Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1995); Christopher Gill, Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy, and Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 3–10,chap. 1, esp. 29–41; Douglas Cairns, Psuchē, Thumos, and Metaphor in Homer and Plato” Études Platoniciennes 11 (2014), esp. parts 3.1–2; and Anthony A. Long, Greek Models of Mind and Self (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), chap. 1, esp. 29–31. For related criticisms of the shame-guilt distinction, see also Douglas Cairns, Aidos (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 27–47.

  • 5. Anthony A. Long, “Finding Oneself in Greek Philosophy,” Tijdschrift voor Filosofie 53 (1992): 255–279; Anthony A. Long, Stoic Studies (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996), chap. 12; Anthony A. Long, From Epicurus to Epictetus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), chap. 10, esp. 218–220, and chap. 17; and Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

  • 6. Michel Foucault, The Care of the Self, trans. Robert Hurley (London: Penguin, 1988), part 2; Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, trans. Graham Burchell (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 81–105. For a contrasting (more socially based) approach to “self-care” in Roman culture, see Robert Kaster, Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

  • 7. Richard Sorabji, Self (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), Introduction, esp. 3–4, chap. 2, esp. 50–53.

  • 8. Sorabji, Self, 17–20, acknowledges this possible criticism.

  • 9. This point can also be made about some developmental treatments; see Gill, Personality, 5–7, 34–38, 41–45, referring to functionalism and action theory. See also Christopher Gill, The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 328–337. On cognitive psychology, see n. 14 below.

  • 10. See Christopher Gill, “The Ancient Self – Where Now?,” Antiquorum Philosophia 2 (2008): 77–99, esp. 85–86; also Gill, Structured Self, 328–344.

  • 11. See Williams, Shame, chap. 3, esp. 68–74, and chap. 6, esp. 133–139, 158–167. On “agent regret” and “moral luck,” see Bernard Williams, Moral Luck (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981), chap. 2.

  • 12. Gill, Personality, Introduction; also Gill, Structured Self, chap. 6.

  • 13. See Long, Greek Models of Mind, Introduction.

  • 14. See, Cairns, “Psuchē, Thumos,” esp. part 2.

  • 15. See Gill, “Ancient Self,” 87–88.

  • 16. See Sorabji, Self, 48–49; also Gill, “Ancient Self,” 88.