The puzzle of how to define the relationship of the mind to the body is familiar to philosophers, psychologists, yoga teachers, and neuroscientists. Many modern thinkers in these fields believe that the dualistic notion of the mind and body as separate spheres is misguided, although it may be hard to eliminate from the lumber of everyday thought. Still, is it possible to imagine alternatives to the dualistic model? And if it is not self-evidently true that we “have” bodies (rather than being physical creatures), then where did the notion of the mind or self as a separate entity come from?
A.A. Long’s splendid book, Greek Models of Mind and Self (Harvard; $25.95), suggests that to answer such questions one could return not to Descartes or the Christian tradition, long regarded as the Western origins of the modern self, but instead to antiquity, where are to be found not only sources for modern ideas, but also alternative ways of imagining ourselves as conscious physical beings. Long goes as far back as the Iliad and the Odyssey, our earliest Greek texts. These poems imagined complex human characters with deep emotional and rational capacities, but without relying on the binary model of mind and body. In describing death, Homer distinguishes between the psyche—a ghostly presence that goes to Hades after one dies—and the actual person, identified with the corpse. But for living people in Homer, their consciousness is an inseparable part of their bodily existence. Long insists that there are no “empirical facts” about whether this psychosomatic model is better or worse than modern ideas about the soul, but one may find his agnosticism to be rather disingenuous. The claim found in Descartes and Plato, that the mind or soul is a special kind of substance, essential to the person but distinct from the body and capable of surviving death, is surely something that is either true or false—however difficult it may be to determine the truth of the matter.
The earliest evidence in the West for the idea that the essence of a person can live on after death seems to be traceable to about 500 BCE, when the cult leader Pythagoras began to teach that the psyche can be reincarnated into other animal bodies after death. As Long emphasizes, the notion of the soul as something essential to the person that can survive death is an attractive one because it mitigates the terror of oblivion. But this does not explain why the idea of an immortal human essence should be absent from Homer, or why it emerged when it did. Long hints at an explanation, noting that Pindar, in the late sixth century and early fifth century bce, may have used the idea of postmortem rewards as a means to flatter and console his rich patrons. Perhaps (although Long does not make this claim) the notion of personal immortality assumed its dominance in ancient Sicily in the age of tyrants because rich, powerful men wanted to be flattered by the idea that they might live forever—and one might speculate that those subjected to their power had particular reasons to dream of another world, in which conditions might be reversed.