Transcript: 74 - Tony Long on the Self in Hellenistic Philosophy

Leading Hellenistic philosophy scholar Tony Long talks to Peter about the self, ethics and politics in the Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: So what we're going to be talking about in this interview will be the self in Hellenistic philosophy as a kind of crowning moment for this whole series of episodes on Hellenistic philosophy. Can you begin by telling us just what you mean by the self in this context?

Tony Long: The best way to start I think is from the Greek word "psyche," which has given rise to our word psychology. To go back to the very beginning of our recorded literary history, in the poems of Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey, psyche is what leaves the body when the person dies. Psyche in the Homeric poems is something like a ghost, except that the ghost that survives the death of the body is what we might call an ex-person. The reason I bring this up is because self I think in the Greek context that we're going to talk about is primarily thought of as something like the person, the character, rather than the fully embodied human being. It's an aspect of the human being, what we might call the mental, the moral, the psychological aspect of a human being. Just as I might say, 'John is an amazingly strong character, but did you know that he's been a terrible asthmatic all his life?' When we draw distinctions between body and mind, self is going to figure on the mind side.

Peter Adamson: Would you say that for most speakers of Greek, the word psyche would have meant something more like that and something less like "soul," which is how it's usually translated in say Plato and Aristotle?

Tony Long: The problem with "soul" of course in English is that we don't really have a contemporary use for "soul." We talk about "soul music." We can still use old expressions like "keeping body and soul together," but in everyday life "soul" has really vanished. When I was a student, I was asked to write a paper on psyche in Plato without using the word soul, which was quite a good exercise. I would say that in traditional Greek, and that philosophers inherit this, the idea that there are body predicates we could say to do with physique and stature and weight and so forth, and there are what we might call mental predicates to do with intelligence and personality and those figure on the side of psyche.

Peter Adamson: I guess that in the context of Hellenistic philosophy, that contrast might be somewhat problematic because of course the Epicureans and Stoics are materialists. Thus, they wouldn't think that there was, or at least it might seem that they wouldn't think there was a distinction to be drawn there between the mental and the physical. So would they handle that problem by saying, 'well, by the physical we don't necessarily mean the body, there might be the soul which is physical and also the body which is physical.'

Tony Long: Yes. That is a possible problem that one might have if one was a very strong materialist, physicalist. One might say all there ever is to a human being are physical states. But I think even the strongest materialist is going to have to recognize that in everyday life we need to distinguish between things like feelings, which are emotions on the one hand, and pains and pleasures which are physical on the other hand. So I think we're not going to ever be able to get away with some sort of distinction as such between body and mind, body and soul.

Peter Adamson: And what do the Hellenistic schools then bring to the conception of self that we don't already find in Plato and Aristotle?

Tony Long: Let me just say a word about what I do think we find in Plato and Aristotle because I think that tends to push the discussion in a certain direction. In the early dialogues of Plato where Socrates of course is the principal character, we find Socrates for instance in Plato's Apology telling the Athenians that he's god's gift to the city because the city needs someone to tell them that what's much more important than making money and looking after their reputation is caring for justice, and he says there, and caring for the soul more than the body. So I'm using the word soul, the word psyche. This has been picked up by the modern philosopher Michel Foucault in what he called with a rather literal translation of Plato, "care of the self." So to get now to the Hellenistics, I think what's happening in Hellenistic philosophy, perhaps partly because the political structures of ancient Greece have ceased to be as effective for people's sense of their own identity, perhaps a certain sense in which people are being thrown back upon what, to beg the question, is themselves. And the philosophers pick up on that by getting into very detailed analysis of what kind of state of soul, mind, spirit - however we want to translate this word, is going to make for the happiest, the most effective life.

Peter Adamson: And one of the things that they put a lot of emphasis on would be the idea of being autonomous, having control over yourself.

Tony Long: Absolutely. And another way to try to look at analysis of the self is to think of the self as that with which you identify. There's a very famous modern book by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor called Sources of the Self. when you study this book, what you find Taylor is really talking about is 'self' in the sense of what makes my life worthwhile? What could I say at the end of my life I'd been here for? What would I be willing to live or die for? So in that sense, identifying with the Hellenistic philosophers who likewise are very concerned about coming up with what they see as a valid value system, and anchoring the self to a certain set of values.

Peter Adamson: It's interesting that they share that approach given that they have such radically different ideas of what's valuable. So the Epicureans are hedonists, obviously. They think that what will bring them happiness is maximizing pleasure, whereas the Stoics think that pleasure doesn't matter at all really, and that the only thing that matters is virtue. But you're saying that they share some kind of commitment to an idea of the self, which is really the same idea in both Stoicism and Epicureanism?

Tony Long: Well, of course, Peter, you're totally right in drawing very sharp contrast between the officially hedonistic Epicureans and the Stoics who officially maintain that pleasure is entirely unimportant to the quality of a life. But when you probe more deeply into these two philosophies, you're going to find quite a lot of features that they have in common which I think are very relevant - a question we're exploring, the question of the kind of selfhood that will make for a successful and happy life. And Epicureans are going to agree just as strongly as Stoics that a life which was not grounded in some sort of valid and truthful understanding of the nature of things is going to be an impoverished life - that we need, in other words, to have something we can call a rational life, a life which is grounded upon some defensible system of values and also a life in which we feel we are in control of where we're going. So to give an example from the Epicurean system: while the Epicureans, of course, insist that nothing is per se good except pleasure and nothing is per se bad except pain, they have a very radical way of trying to analyze what kind of pleasures and what kind of pains are the things we should be concerned about. And what we typically think of as a hedonistic life, a voluptuous life, an Epicurean life in the way the word "Epicurean" has come down through our own culture, is quite the reverse of the very austere life that Epicurus himself advocated. As you remember, he said that if he had a bit of cheese and bread, he would feel he was having as much as a feast. I mean, the crucial feature here for the Epicurean being to control one's desires and maximize one's autonomy in that way.

Peter Adamson: And I guess that because they're hedonists, the reason why they would place value on self-mastery and autonomy and self-control couldn't be that these things are intrinsically worth pursuing. It must be because they think that self-mastery will prevent you from undergoing pain, for example. So if you're in control of your own life, then, for example, you might not need to worry about what will happen to you because you're in control. And so it's a way of forestalling pain rather than putting the value on self-mastery as such. Do you think that's fair?

Tony Long: Yeah. The official bottom line would be exactly as you say. I'm not sure in the last resort where the Epicureans are entirely consistent. There are two areas, I think, where critics have perhaps said that they're really pushing the limit here as far as hedonism is concerned. One is over the theory of friendship because the Epicureans seem to say that what we need friends for in the first instance is our own self-advantage. Friendship begins with utility. But friendship, according to some Epicureans, can then flower into something which is valuable for its own sake, even to the point that an Epicurean is prepared to die for his own friend.

Peter Adamson: Actually, then, if you think about the Stoics, there's a problem maybe in Stoicism as well - something I haven't really talked about much in the podcast so far, which is how the Stoics think they should relate to other people. Because in the Stoics, especially, I guess, the Roman Stoics, you have this great emphasis on the idea of the agents' autonomy and their independence. Yet the Stoics also seem to want to say that it's important for us to have relationships with other people, and not merely because it would be vicious to treat other people wrong, but also because there's some actual value to the relationships we have with other people. Is that right?

Tony Long: Yes. Seneca is interesting in this regard. He's perhaps of all the Stoics who survive, the one who has the deepest and most interesting things to say about friendship. On the one hand, and this picks up on your first point, the Stoics are very concerned to insist that if you can truly live the Stoic way of life, all your unreasonable desires are going to be satisfied. You are self-contained, you're self-sufficient, you won't be having to look over your shoulder all the time to think about things you're missing out on. So for instance, he says that the wise man -  this wise man being the Stoic ideal - even on a desert island would be completely happy. But does that mean that he wouldn't prefer to have friends? No, it doesn't mean that he wouldn't prefer to have friends. He would prefer to have friends not because he needs them, but because if he has the opportunity to have them, then the friend and his own virtues would somehow set up a kind of symphony. It's as if friendship is a requirement of Stoicism, not in the sense that you need a friend in order to fulfil wants that you have. But the true Stoic life is a sociable life, and of course this would be, I think, true of all ancient philosophies. We might want to consider about Plotinus here, it might be somewhat different, but Stoics, Epicureans, Platonists, Aristotelians are all very much more concerned, I think, than modern moral philosophers are - where the typical question is 'what's the right action?' - much more concerned with what would make a fulfilled life.

Peter Adamson: I guess that you just mentioned Aristotle, and I guess that there's an interesting possible contrast between the Stoics and Aristotle here. You just said that the Stoics would encourage us to have friends because we could set up some kind of symphony of virtuous action, and that sounds a lot like Aristotle. But on the other hand, it's hard to imagine Aristotle saying, well, look, in the last analysis, friends are indifferent, but we should prefer them the way that we should prefer health. So, are the Stoics really just going to say that a friend is preferred indifferent the way that money or health might be?

Tony Long: No. The material we have on Stoic friendship suggests that true friendship is actually a good, even in the strict Stoic sense. The strict Stoic sense is that the only things that can be strictly good are virtues and things that are related to virtue. So virtuous character, and a true friend for a Stoic would have to be another person with a virtuous - if you yourself had a virtuous character, how wonderful that would be - your friend would also, to be a true friend, would also need to have a virtuous character. And in that sense, they say that friends are external goods. And I wonder what that could mean, because surely all goods for a Stoic are strictly internal. Well, I think it means that they're external in a very literal sense. You and I are external to one another. In that sense, the friend is an external good. But to be a good friend, he has to have the same kind of virtues that you have. And so this comes back to my symphony point. There's going to be a kind of congruity of minds. And the notion is that a true friend - and this would go across all of the schools - a true friend will be someone who can benefit you, not in the sense that you need them to, say, augment your bank balance, but benefit you in a much deeper sense that you can feel you're gaining in amity and other psychological goods from friendship. And it's only virtuous friends who could therefore help each other, because virtue intrinsically is something that is beneficial to you.

Peter Adamson: Maybe we could extend that to look at something else I haven't talked about a lot in the podcast, which is political philosophy in the Hellenistic period, because certainly in Aristotle, there seems to be a very close connection between friendship and political union. Now, the Epicureans famously aren't very much in favor of political engagement. So maybe we could focus on the Stoics. How would they extend this idea of virtuous friendship into the  idea of political union or political action, or would they not do that?

Tony Long: Yes, I think they would extend it. People often, I think, misunderstand the Stoics, because the Stoics were rather in the habit of trying to divide the world into two categories of persons: the truly virtuous and the non-virtuous. And then they got into paradoxes, because they said, well, perhaps there never have been any truly virtuous people, so everybody is non-virtuous. And so then if you say, well, the only true friends can be virtuous friends, there are no friends. Yes, there are texts which put things in an extreme way like that, but I think this is meant to be sort of challenging rather than the end of the story. And so there can be gradations of friendship, just as in Aristotle: Aristotle talks about utility friends, pleasure friends, and virtue friends. So the Stoics would agree that just ordinary people can have friendships of a certain kind, and no doubt what would make those friendships true friendships, would be in some sense approximate to the ideal friendships. And in this sense, political friendships would be, of course - perhaps a lower form of friendship - but they would be certainly a necessary thing for society to work at all. There have to be social groups and bondings between people.

Peter Adamson: And in fact, the Stoics even sometimes talk about being citizens of the universe. So that to some extent, there must be a feeling of union with not just all other humans, but with everything. But it just tails off so that if I'm an Athenian, I should have a greater feeling of union with other Athenians than I do to people from outside Athens.

Tony Long: And ultimately, and again, this of course is again a very different, I think, way from looking at how we relate to things than, say, Christianity. I mean, to say you're a 'friend of God' would perhaps almost seem impious in traditional Christianity, whereas that comes as a very natural thing to the Stoics.

Peter Adamson: Does this actually have any concrete political ramifications? I guess what I mean by that is, does it tell us what a Stoic minded politician would actually do? Or does it just say, well, when you're in political affairs, bear in mind that you have this kinship to other people?

Tony Long: Good question. And I think I can give an answer in some depth by reference to Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius, as many of your listeners may know, was not only the most powerful figure in the Roman world in the second century of our era, but he was also a really committed Stoic. And we have his own reflections on what it was to be a ruler and a Stoic ruler. And of all the ancient Stoics, he is the one who emphasizes what he calls one's social or political nature. He seems to say... I mean, Aristotle had already said that human beings are political animals, meaning political not in the sense that they want to get into parliament or something like that, but "politikos" in the Greek sense, being a member of a polis. It's fascinating, I think, therefore, that the Roman emperor - who probably in many ways was an incredibly lonely figure - was at the same time someone who had this intense feeling, not of being bonded in the 'hail fellow well-met' sense to other people, but that this is his role. His role is to be sociable to people, finding out the best of what would be in their interests. So in this sense, I think of all ancient philosophers, Marcus Aurelius, perhaps, would come closest to someone we might think of as a truly benevolent person. The 19th century English essayist Matthew Arnold described Marcus Aurelius as perhaps the noblest figure in literature, and then went on, I think, rather to spoil it by saying if only he could have had the benefit of Christianity, how much better he'd even off.

Peter Adamson: An idea that would not have appealed to Marcus himself.

Tony Long: No, indeed, indeed it didn't.

Peter Adamson: I guess one other thing that springs to mind here is that if you are committed to this idea of kinship with all other humans, you might think that one particular ancient institution, namely slavery, is something that is pretty questionable.

Tony Long: Yes. Stoics, of course, have an interesting way of looking at this. Well, both schools do. I mean, let's just start with the simplest, to mention the Epicureans. Epicurus, of course, founded his school as a garden community, and then after his death, other such communities spread in the Mediterranean world. And one of the interesting things about those communities was that they admitted women and slaves as full members of those communities. In the case of Stoicism, Stoics liked to take traditional words like "slave" or "wise" or "foolish" and give them a special kind of colouring. So Stoics want to say that anybody who is not trying or is not succeeding in being a Stoic is actually a slave. It doesn't matter. They could be the freest and wealthiest person in the world if they are not in control of their desires - if they are in thrall to needs and other impulses, then in that sense they are self-enslaved. And so in that way, the chattel slave could be a freeman and the non-chattel slave could be a slave.

Peter Adamson: The emperor could be a slave. And in fact, Epicurus often addresses his hearers as "slave."

Tony Long: This goes right back, I think: The origin of that is Socratic, or at least Plato's Socrates in the Gorgias, where the tyrant is supposed to be the least free man.

Peter Adamson: Before we finish, I should try to get the last of the main Hellenistic traditions in, namely the Skeptics. And I guess you might think that the Skeptics would have very little to say on this topic of the self, because they don't have anything positive to say about any topic, just by the nature of their philosophical persuasion. But it seems to me there is a question here because the Skeptics, in a way, are, you might say, alienated from themselves. They're walking around acting like normal people, seeming to have beliefs, and yet they claim not to have any beliefs. So do you think that the Skeptics, in a way, have a problem with some kind of dissonance or tension within the self?

Tony Long: It might appear that way. The question, I think, is quite complicated because when we say that the skeptic has no beliefs, then there's a question of precisely what we mean by a belief. The skeptic, or skeptic ideal, is a life without belief but in a rather special sense. The skeptic doesn't think that he is in a position, or she is in a position, to get to anything like the ultimate nature of things. And in that sense, we should suspend judgment about, say, is there such a thing as the 'real good' or is there such a thing as the 'real bad,' in a way that Plato would say that there was - and probably the Stoics too. So what are we left with? Well, we're still left, according to the Skeptics, with certain inalienable feelings, what they call "pathe." We can do nothing about those. If you say, well, 'I want to rationalize my feelings,' I think the skeptic will say, well, you just have to go along with your feelings. In that sense, these can be a guide to living. You drink when you're thirsty, you feel cold in the snow - but you don't say feeling cold in the snow is good or bad. You don't say drinking when you're thirsty is good or bad. It's just something you do. So in that sense, the skeptic may seem to be following in their instincts, what we might call our instincts, rather than trying to live a rational life.

Peter Adamson: The Stoics, though, often say that the pathe, these feelings or emotions that we have, are not part of ourselves. They're something external. They're something that we stand in judgment over. Are the skeptics then objecting to that, and suggesting that we should identify more with our feelings? Or are they accepting the idea that we have this detachment with respect to our feelings, but that there's nothing else for us to do other than just let these things affect us and be at their mercy?

Tony Long: Okay, good. Let's start with your point about the Stoics. The Stoics, I think, have a slightly more complicated view than that might have suggested, namely that even the most committed and successful stoic will still start if there's an earthquake or feel cold in the snow. I mean, there's nothing he can do about that. There's just an irreducible physical reaction. What the stoic will try to avoid doing is then simply committing a judgment to those feelings without reflection. And that's where Stoic rationality comes in. The stoic won't think that there's anything rational about having these feelings. And indeed, it will then be irrational on the stoic's part just to let your judgment go along with those feelings. I think there's an interesting question here about the Skeptics. A skeptic perhaps cannot officially claim to be following reason, because if he were, then you'd have to ask him to define what reason is. On the other hand, in the sense in which I think the skeptic does think of himself as being almost hyper-rational, in the sense that what is irrational for the skeptic is to think that you know things when you don't know them. And so in that sense, the Skeptic's suspension of judgment is quite an arduous thing. It's not actually, perhaps I'm a bit misleading before when I said it would amount to simply going along with your feelings. Because after all, you might say you've gone to listen to a Stoic professor this morning, and he was pretty good. And then you listen to a Epicurean professor this afternoon, and he was pretty good. So which way do you go? And the Skeptic way is to then try to distance yourself from both these positions by coming up with counter-arguments, and in that way suspending your judgment. And what's that going to leave you with? Well, ideally it will leave you with perhaps a sort of mental blank at the level of theory, but all the normal human reactions. And then there's a little bit more to be said about that because Skeptics recognize that how we react and behave in the world very much depends upon our own culture. And so in certain cultures, the seemingly natural thing to do will be 'X' and otherwise it would be 'not-X.' And so you sort of, 'when in Rome, go along with the Roman way.' That may sound a little bit sort of evasive, and I think there's a lot more we could say about that, but that's the official line. We follow the guidance of our feelings and our cultures.

Peter Adamson: And so the upshot of that then is that what you were saying at the very beginning, that Hellenistic philosophy is committed to the idea that we're trying to care for the self, is something that the Skeptics would go along with as well.

Tony Long: Oh yes, I think so. Yes, they might have a bit of a problem about saying what the self is. But then I think we still have that ourselves.


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