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The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 45, Number 2, April 2007
pp. 324-325 | 10.1353/hph.2007.0026

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Christopher Gill's masterful treatment of the notion of the self in Hellenistic and Roman thought manages to shed remarkable clarity on a complex and fascinating field, even while challenging a prevailing view of the nature of the self in post-classical ancient Greek philosophy. Leading the reader through the views of figures as subtle and difficult as Plutarch, Posidonius, Epictetus, Arius Didymus, Hierocles, Chrysippus, Galen, and Epicurus, Gill never allows the reader to lose track of the main thread of his argument. This is that Stoic and Epicurean thought have in common a holistic and naturalistic approach to the self, and this—married to a Socratic ethics—is what constitutes the unifying feature of moral psychology in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. He rejects, that is, the view that Hellenistic thought moves to a subjective and individualist conception of the self, showing that what he calls the 'objective-participant' view of the self is as alive in Stoic and Epicurean thought as in the fourth century. To maintain such a clear and convincing focus through the discussion of recent scholarly controversies over such a vast array of difficult material is no small achievement.

From his earlier work, Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy and Philosophy: The Self in Dialogue, Gill takes up a characterization of a modern Cartesian notion of the self as a stable subject of experience, removed from the public eye and uniquely accessible to the subject. He contrasts this to a view compounded of the counter-claim that the self can be equally accessible to others, and the notion—developed by Williams and MacIntyre—that ethical development and awareness of oneself as moral agent depend on being a participant in social roles, and not merely on the isolated self-reflections of the individual. Gill argues that the distinctive feature of Hellenistic ethical thought is not the abandonment of this "objective-participant" view of the self, but rather the focus on what he calls the 'structured self'.

Platonic and Aristotelian thought shared a conception of psychology as composed of competing parts, with one part central and essential to the person. There are, Gill suggests, some moves away from this part-centered conception of the self in Plato's Timaeus, in fourth-century Greek medicine, and in Aristotle's hylomorphism. Gill sees these holistic and naturalistic tendencies becoming dominant in the third century BCE, in philosophies that both embrace a unified view of the substance of reality and focus on the life of human beings regarded as embodied rational animals. Combined with the revival of Socratic ethical ideals—the attainability of virtue, the invulnerability of the wise person to passion, and the unity of virtue in knowledge of the good—this explains the surprising convergence of Stoic and Epicurean ethical psychology. On this model, the self of the wise and virtuous person is stable and structured around a conception of the good, in contrast to the disordered and unstructured chaos of the non-virtuous person. This contrasts with the Platonic-Aristotelian model, within which vices can be seen as lapses or cases of weakness of will, while imperfectly virtuous personalities are seen to maintain a degree of stability.

A good portion of the book focuses on the reading of Stoic thought, disentangling it from the various lenses through which it is reflected in the surviving texts. Gill rejects arguments for reading Stoicism as introducing modern subjective notions of the self centered around the role of appropriate (oikeiôsis) in the account of ethical development, on the emphasis on choice, and on the role of self-examination. He examines the controversy over Galen's readings of the philosophies of Chrysippus and Posidonius, arguing that Chrysippus' view is less narrowly rationalistic than Galen suggests, and Posidonius' less revisionary. He engages with the Stoic readings of Plato, showing how they might have seen Plato as a precursor, and traces the growing self-consciousness about the conflict between a holistic and a part-based psychology to the doxographical tradition. He finishes with an illustration of the prevalence of these competing conceptions of the self in literature, showing the differences between the Platonic-Aristotelian view exemplified in Plutarch's Lives, the Stoic-Epicurean view...



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