March 17, 2023

The Fleeting and The Infinite: Psychosomatic Theories
of the Ancient Greeks

Are mortality and immortality eternal opposites? Or are they merely two ends on the same continuum?

Homer, Plotinus, and Plato have all posited answers to this question, whether directly - in the case of Plato and Plotinius - or through story - in the case of Homer.

Plotinus, having been a proponent of Platonism, naturally concurs with Plato, postulating that each of us is comprised of an everyday, embodied experience (the physical body), and an immortal, incorporeal spirit (the mind, or soul).

These two constituents, as put forth by the Platonists, are entirely separate entities; bifurcated into the finite body, and the infinite soul. Plotinus further asserts that ‘full human experience’ requires the maximization of the incorporeal spirit, with minimal focus on the physical body, though whether this remains a practically viable pursuit, I can not agree.

Now how does this hypothesis compare to that of Homer? Having lived almost four-centuries prior to Plato and nearly ten-centuries prior to Plotinus, Homer was most likely completely unacquainted with the ‘mind-body dualism’ theory held by the later Greek philosophers.

Characteristic of his writings, Homer drew no binary distinction between the nous (mind) and soma (body). Choosing instead to have his characters represent a ‘psychosomatic whole’, with the constituent entities (mind and body) possessing an almost ‘amphibious’ quality.

British-American classical scholar Anthony Long, author of Greek Models of Mind and Self, writes: “[Homer] Gives a marvelously detailed and realistic anatomy of the feeling… In his description both mind and body are represented, but rather than being distinct, they are conjoined”, and, of Homer’s description in Iliad of Ajax and Teucer prior to battle: “It’s neither in one’s mind nor in one’s body, but in one’s chest, one’s hands, and one’s feet, all together.”

Long describes Homer’s overall style to be that of ‘sensuous immediacy’, writing: ‘Homer delights in the vibrancy of every living moment.’

Whether this was purely a stylistic decision in service of crafting an eerily immersive experience for the reader, or if it were truly indicative of Homer’s personal psychosomatic beliefs, it’s difficult to argue that his approach to storytelling has proven at least mildly effective.

As for the Platonists, I would hope that they can let down their epistemological guards for a brief moment from time to time, and join the rest of us to bask in the sensuous immediacy of Homer’s eternal masterpiece.

Simon Archibald
Executive Creative Director