The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101 is a series of articles which opens a major project dedicated to analysing perceptions of body in different civilisations, cultures and societies.
This broad-brush study of this issue draws a prospect of a large-scale work, since the visual, performative and the literary traditions from ancient times to this day have left an immense amount of research material for us. The relevance of addressing this subject seems to be permanent, because it will always be attributable to the problems of a particular period and society. The real and the illusory social pressure that dictates rules of self-presentation is being actively comprehended and discussed at the moment, and it is a topic of acute importance. Also, the almost universal identification of people with their bodies easily leads to the fallacy that if an individual belongs to a society, their body belongs to this society too. Further, depending on the circumstances, rules are dictated, often endangering both mental and physical health of individuals or whole social groups.
The series is divided into the following chapters:
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Ancient Greek Philosophy
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Athletic Body in Classical Athens
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Hellenistic Period
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Ancient Greek Mythology
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Culture of Late Antiquity
Raphael. (1509-1511). The School of Athens. [Fresco]
The Perception of the Body in Ancient Greek Philosophy
Originating from the desire to cognise reality in all its manifestations, philosophy forthwith pondered over the issues of the physical embodiment of a human being. The matter of perception and of understanding of the body were developed and solved under cross and mutual influence with the development of cultural and social traditions, philosophical thought, natural sciences and medicine.
Early Greek philosophers, presumably following Pythagoras, considered closely the matter of soul, developing the idea of its ability of internal reincarnation. The latter contrasted the former concept, broadly illustrated in the Homeric literature, by which a soul, after the death of the body, turns into shadows in the underworld (Huffman, 2018). Around the late 6th century, new ideas of the so-called Natural Philosophers gave rise to a process of complete reformation of the common worldview, foreshadowing a scientific approach in studying the physical reality. Philosopher Leucippus is credited with the intuition of the concept of atomism, stating that nature consists of atoms and void, and the matter is mutable due to the rearrangement of atoms. Following Leucippus’ intuition, at that time also began to rise the concept of correspondence of the smaller to the larger, a highly significant idea that laid the basis for future reasoning (Burtt, 2003).
Plato. Copy of the portrait made by Silanion ca. 370 BC for the Academia in Athens. [Marble]
The Pythagorean idea of metempsychosis, the transmigration of the soul, had a notable influence on Plato. Though, despite a common misconception – that perceived Plato devaluating corporeality, mostly because of the Neoplatonic interpretation (Zoller, 2018) – the body too represented a crucial element of the philosopher's worldview since the components of its perception organically existed in Plato’s idealistic reasoning. In Republic, a Socratic dialogue concerning the concept of an ideal and just city-state, he signified dependence of body on soul does not exclude but presupposes a certain regime for keeping the body in proper condition. Therefore, for instance, when discussing the training of guardians in the third book, Socrates highlights the importance of nutrition and physical activity:
For I, for my part, do not believe that a sound body by its excellence makes the soul good, but on the contrary that a good soul by its virtue renders the body the best that is possible. […] From intoxication we said that they must abstain. For a guardian is surely the last person in the world to whom it is allowable to get drunk and not know where on earth he is. […] What next about their food? These men are athletes in the greatest of contests, are they not? […] Is, then, the bodily habit of the athletes we see about us suitable for such? […] that is a drowsy habit and precarious for health. […] we need some more ingenious form of training for our athletes of war, since these must be as it were sleepless hounds, and have the keenest possible perceptions of sight and hearing, and in their campaigns undergo many changes in their drinking water, their food, and in exposure to the heat of the sun and to storms, without disturbance of their health. (403d-404b)
In addition, Plato contradicts himself on the interrelation between the soul and the body, considering the latter, in different works, either as a container, a “prison” for the soul or as an instrument of it (Olshewsky, 1976). These two views propose different perceptions of the physical selves, but they do not appear that contrasting in the applied understanding, since the body containing/serving the soul needs to meet certain criteria. According to Plato’s theory of Forms, physical objects or abstract concepts consisted of merely shadows of the forms which were perfect, transcended time and space, were impossible to conceive but could be recognised and remembered by souls (Dancy, 2004). A self-aware person should therefore enter the impossible pursuit of perfection of the forms in their thoughts and deeds. Thus, the comprehensive nature of the concept implied the body in this mission.
Aristotle, portrait bust, Roman copy of the 2nd century BCE from a Greek original of the c. 325 BCE. [Marble]
Aristotle’s philosophy offered a different perspective on form and its relation to the matter. He turned the connections between the physical and the metaphysical phenomena more complex, asserting the existence of matter as a potential that finds its embodiment in form. Nevertheless, in the case of the human body the matter determines the form’s manifestations (Lloyd, 1968). Here is the abstract from Aristotle’s De Anima demonstrating a developing humanistic approach to the understanding of the physical self:
That is precisely why the study of the soul must fall within the science of Nature, at least so far as in its affections it manifests this double character. Hence a physicist would define an affection of soul differently from a dialectician; the latter would define e.g. anger as the appetite for returning pain for pain, or something like that, while the former would define it as a boiling of the blood or warm substance. (403a)
Aristotle is traditionally considered to be an ideological opponent to Plato. However, already the Early Christian scholar Boethius was pointing out the essential similarities in the works of both philosophers (Ukolova, 1989). In particular, there is a common self-identification, physical as well, as a part of the whole – the society, which is evident in Plato’s Republic (1969) and Aristotle’s Politics (1944). Since the political community in both cases is seen as a natural form of human coexistence and the ideas of the philosophers are focused on establishing favourable conditions for this community, the role of the individual body in the public body might resemble the concept of atomism in social application. Aristotle, however, criticised and rejected the ideas of physical atomism (Lloyd, 1968).
As an opposition to the concepts of community and collectiveness, the philosophy of Diogenes of Sinope, who often expressed his ideas with his own body, can serve as a contrast example of an individual protest. He demonstrated a rejection of social norms and conventional ideas about happiness by socially unapproved behaviour including acts of public urination, defecation, and masturbation (Dorandi, 2013).
Jordaens, J. (ca. 1650). Diogenes searching for an Honest Man. [Oil on canvas]
Generally overlooking the variety of the philosophical teachings of the Hellenistic period, it is possible to observe a positive climate for dialog and search for answers in the field of self-identification. The cynics, led by Diogenes, declared rejection of socially enforced ideas of success and suggested living the most modest and close-to-nature life. Epicureans identified the main value of life in psychological and physical comfort, the absence of fear and pain. The Stoics, in turn, were occupied with the cognition of truth, which, according to their teaching, was being formed in the process of cognising the surrounding reality (Edwards, 1967). Arguably, in the entire history of ancient Greece, its idealistic diversity turned the Hellenistic in the period which the most allowed freedom in the process of self-knowledge, liberating the body from the religious and social norms turning it into an independent object and subject of study. The situation would change with the developing of the Neoplatonic ideas and the Christian philosophy, setting back the control over the body (Remes, 2008).
The explosive development of the philosophical thought in the Greek antiquity couldn’t eradicate this field from the social influence: the human self-cognition developed within the strong communal tradition. Thus, the achievements in the way the body was perceived were subordinated to the characteristics of the Greek society. With the mentioned exceptions, the body belonged to something ideologically more significant than self.
Aristotle. (1944). Aristotle in 23 Volumes (Vol. 1 translated by H. Rackham). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd. Perseus Digital Library. Retrieved from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0086.tlg035.perseus-eng1:1.1252a
Aristotle. (n.d.). De Anima (On the Soul). Classics in the History of Phycology. Retrieved from: https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Aristotle/De-anima/de-anima1.htm
Burtt, E.A. (2003). The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science. New York, NY: Dover Publications.
Dancy, R. M. (2004). Plato's Introduction of Forms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511482502.
Dorandi, T. (Ed.). (2013). Diogenes Laertius: Lives of Eminent Philosophers (Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511843440.
Edwards, P. (ed.) (1967). The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York, NY: Macmillan.
Frede, D. & Reis, B. (2009). Body and Soul in Ancient Philosophy. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter. doi:10.1515/9783110216523.
Huffman, C. (2018). Pythagoras. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) Retrieved from: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/pythagoras/
Karasmanis, V. (2006). Soul and body in Plato. International Congress Series, volume 1286, 1-6. doi:10.1016/j.ics.2005.09.061. Retrieved from:
Lee, M. (2015). Body, Dress, and Identity in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107295261.003.
Lloyd, G. (ed.) (1968). Aristotle: The growth and structure of his thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Olshewsky, T. M. (1976). On the relations of soul to body in Plato and Aristotle. Journal of the History of Philosophy 14 (4):391-404. doi:10.1353/hph.2008.0163
Plato. (1969). Plato in Twelve Volumes (Vols. 5-6 translated by P. Shorey). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd. Perseus Digital Library. Retrieved from:
Remes, P. (2008). Neoplatonism. Stocksfield, UK: Acumen
Ukolova, V.I. (1989). Antichnoje nasledije I kultura rannego srednevekovja [The heritage of the antiquity and the culture of the early Middle Ages]. Moscow: Nauka.
Zoller, C.P. (2018). Plato and the body: Reconsidering Socratic asceticism. New York, NY: SUNY Press.
Aristotle. Portrait bust. Roman copy of the 2nd century BCE from a Greek original of the c. 325 BCE. Marble. Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome, Italy. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aristotle/images-videos#/media/1/34560/76426
Jordaens, J. (ca. 1650). Diogenes searching for an Honest Man. Canvas, oil, 120x162 cm. Douwes Fine Art, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Retrieved from: https://douwesfineart.com/product/diogenes-searching-for-an-honest-man/
Plato. Copy of the portrait made by Silanion ca. 370 BC for the Academia in Athens. Marble. Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plato_Silanion_Musei_Capitolini_MC1377.jpg
Raphael. (1509-1511). The School of Athens. Fresco. Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:%22The_School_of_Athens%22_by_Raffaello_Sanzio_da_Urbino.jpg