Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Early Greek Concept of the Soul By Jan Bremmer

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Title and context 
Chapter 1 
Chapter 2 
Chapter 3 
Selected bibliography 
Complete book 

Jan Bremmer presents a provocative picture of the historical development of beliefs regarding the soul in ancient Greece. He argues that before Homer the Greeks distinguished between two types of soul, both identified with the individual: the free soul, which possessed no psychological attributes and was active only outside the body, as in dreams, swoons, and the afterlife; and the body soul, which endowed a person with life and consciousness. Gradually this concept of two kinds of souls was replaced by the idea of a single soul. In exploring Greek ideas of human souls as well as those of plants and animals, Bremmer illuminates an important stage in the genesis of the Greek mind.

Although the publication date given for the paperback edition is 1987, that represents the rather plain-looking "Limited Paperback Edition" reissue of this 1983 Princeton publication, not the later (1993) MYTHOS series paperback, with its beautiful cover. If you happen to order a used copy, you may get something a lot less attractive than you expected, but the contents are identical.

And the contents are worth having, if you are interested in the problems of early Greek thought about human personality, consciousness, and survival after death. Since later developments of these are still influential in Western Civilization (Jewish as well as Christian) -- and help distinguish it, and its Islamic cousin, from say, Taoism, Hinduism, or Buddhism -- this is not exactly a trivial topic, of interest only to academics who love to quarrel over texts in dead languages. 

Bremmer's short book picks up a long-running argument -- apparently going back before Plato -- about just what Homer was talking about when he describes the thoughts, emotions, vital organs, and deaths of his characters, and how the poetic vocabulary of the epics influenced -- or didn't influence -- Greek popular and elite thought through the classical period. (If "breath" and "spirit" are the same word, are lungs "spiritual" organs? What about the heart, which Odysseus admonishes for its unruly emotions? Is losing consciousness a form of death?) Plato raises objections to Homer, and Aristotle splits up Homeric ideas between his treatises on animals, on physiological issues, and on "The Soul," but the philosophers still wind up quoting the same familiar lines. 

There have been a number of late-nineteenth and twentieth century landmark studies -- those familiar with this field of classical studies will think at once of, among others, Erwin Rohde's "Psyche: The Cult of Souls and Belief in Immorality Among the Greeks," Bruno Snell's "Discovery of the Mind," and Richard Onians' "Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate" to mention two prominent German scholars and one English. Rohde and Onians in particular produced encyclopedic surveys; the latter also covering non-Classical cultures (as well as a wider range of subjects). 

Bremmer masterfully condenses a lot of complicated evidence and its interpretations, and advances several new arguments, which I found plausible and intriguing, if not always absolutely convincing. Since his book is short (mercifully short, some might say), he does not try to evaluate all of his predecessors, or refute every argument. This makes his writing a lot easier to follow than it might otherwise be; it also has the potential to mislead the novice reader who fails to follow up on Bremmer's short, but well-chosen, Selected Bibliography, or ignores the footnotes citing the major literature of the preceding century (or so). 

Since I came to Bremmer *after* reading the above-mentioned books, and several others, I can only suspect that "The Early Greek Concept of the Soul" would serve as a good introduction to this complex, and still controversial, subject, but it is a very strong suspicion.

The author has since returned to the subject, covering later developments in another brief work, "The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife: The 1995 Read-Tuckwell Lectures" (2001). 

 --by Ian M. Slater (Customer Reviews)

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