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Davis, Michael. The Soul of the Greeks: An Inquiry.

DAVIS, Michael. The Soul of the Greeks: An Inquiry. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 237 pp. Cloth, $35.00.--Michael Davis describes The Soul of the Greeks as an attempt to recover "the problem of soul" by "thinking through ... twelve texts that are especially complementary in their understanding of [this] problem." On Davis's reading, two themes in particular lie at the heart of soul, which is the cause and unifying principle of human thoughts and actions, and it is these themes that structure the book. On the one hand, there is the desire for immortality (perfection, completion, wholeness); on the other, there is the poeticizing capacity of human beings.

In the Introduction, Davis begins with Achilles, who exemplifies humans' highest aspiration and longing: the longing to overcome death, "to become a god--a perfect soul." This longing, says Davis, is "exemplary of humanity." Davis continues this theme in chapter 4, on Herodotus's Egypt. According to Davis, "Egyptian religion is born from an attempt to get at what is absolutely fixed and stable"; "the instability closest to us is our own mortality"; "an awareness of this instability leads to a contempt for the human and an elevation of what is not human." Davis's deepest reflection on this theme is offered in chapter 6, on Euripides' "Helen." Helen, in the play, has spent 17 years living a double existence: in Egypt as a flesh-and-blood woman, and in Troy with Paris, and later with Menelaus on his ship as a phantom (eidolon). Her phantom self, claims Davis, is like a god (an abstraction, therefore universal; see also chapters 1-2: De Anima), whereas the real living person is particular and mortal. Phantoms can remain ideally what they are forever; living persons age and, eventually, die. Whereas Achilles and the Egyptians long to overcome their mortal self, on Davis's reading, Helen's desire is to unite the phantom/ideal with her real self.

What enables human beings first to conceive and then to pursue an abstract ideal is that we have imagination (phantasia) and are therefore poetic makers. As Davis discusses in chapters 1-2 on Aristotle's De Anima, poetic making is an essential aspect of thinking: "thinking things through [dianoia] needs phantasia"; phantasia is independent of reality, but as such, it "makes it possible [for us] to make claims about reality." While these claims may contain the deepest insights, however, they may also be deeply in error.

The Scythians (Herodotus, book 4) offer a Vivid example of imagination at work. "In 4.7 [Herodotus] remarks that the Scythians say of the country to the far north that it is possible neither to see nor to go through it because of 'being showered with feathers. For both earth and air are full of feathers, and these shut out sight.'" Herodotus' gloss on this is that "the Scythians are using feathers as an image [eikazountas] for snow." The Scythians illustrate both the power and the danger of imagination. Imagination allows us to "see what is in terms of what ought to be or is meant to be," for example, to explain a perhaps unknown phenomenon (snow) in terms of something known (feathers). The danger is, we have a tendency to forget that an image is a representation and begin to take the image as the real.

The desire for immortality (perfection) and the poeticizing capacity of human beings go together: our poeticizing capacity allows us to create gods, which we then set before us as the ideals toward which we strive. This striving, however, is tragic. For immortality universalizes us (empties us of particularity); should we achieve our goal, all that would "live on" would be our name (or form). Davis, however, argues that Plato offers philosophy, exemplified in the person and actions of Socrates, as the way to unify the dual aspects of soul toward a non-tragic end. Thus, in chapter 11 on the Phaedrus, Davis argues that Plato shows that the ideal or perfection for which any individual longs and strives is actually a projection of himself. The black horse in the Phaedrus, he suggests, is the image of our longing, while the white horse "is a projection of nobility by the black horse," for "love is ... always of what one thinks to be other but is really an idealized version of oneself projected as other." Plato, Davis claims, shows us that if we focus on understanding our poetic makings through self-examination, we can avoid the phantom Achillean ideal and perfection and achieve instead the truly human perfection that is available to us as human beings. For, concludes Davis, the real truth of soul is "eros, its experience of humbling itself [admitting its ignorance and imperfection] in the pursuit of its own perfection."

Individually, the essays in this book offer provocative and insightful readings of the particular texts they address that may well be of interest to students of these texts. The book's deepest contribution, however, is, as Davis claims, to "the problem of soul." The two themes that Davis discovers in the ancient Greek philosophers' and poets' writings about human beings and human actions and his own reflections on these themes are a significant help to anyone grappling with the question.--Evanthia Speliotis, Bellarmine University.
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Author:Speliotis, Evanthia
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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