The Early Greek Concept of the Soul

Jan Bremmer

As regulars here may guess, I grabbed this book in the wake of my recent obsession with the work of James Hillman. The foundation of Hillman’s psychology is harking back to the Classical Greek roots of the discipline’s name: the logos of psyche, the speech or study of the soul.

Of course, as Hillman makes plain in his more involved works (especially The Dream and the Underworld and Re-Visioning Psychology), while translating psyche as “soul” does manage to convey a little of how our sense of self has shifted (with psyche usually meaning “mind” these days), it still leaves a lot to be desired in terms of appreciating the subtleties in the concepts of self and soul that the ancient Greeks (among others) once possessed.

This succinct book is a good corrective. Hillman’s work is inspiring because it pushes towards a “renaissance”, in the sense that it doesn’t simply revert to archaic concepts, it reforges them in the present context. The past is brought to bear on the present, and something new transpires. Bremmer’s remit is history, pure and simple (as much as this phrase can be applied to history!). It won’t leave you overtly buzzing with revamped perspectives, but it forms a solid point of reference for what we can know about the Greek soul—or rather, souls.

The psyche as a “free soul”, which wanders off in our dreams and goes to Hades when we die, is considered. But also we have the cast of “body souls”, the thymos (Hillman’s bugbear, representing for him the over-emphasis on pragmatic, everyday positivism in modern psychology), the noos and the menos. A few even more obscure soul concepts—such as the aion and the eidolon—are also analyzed, as the soul in life, death, even animals and plants is scrutinized.

Bremmer takes evidence from Homeric works, assuming that these represent traditions stretching even further back into ancient Greece. He also constantly compares findings with the work of Swedish Sanskritist and folklorist Ernst Arbman, Arbman’s pupils’ anthropological work in North America and Northern Eurasia, and Ã…ke Hultkrantz‘s work among American Indians and the Saami in Scandinavia. He makes judicious criticisms where necessary, but generally supports the idea that many archaic peoples shared similar concepts of “soul” (at least, of course, in relation to our own mono-dimensional views).

It always seems like there’s enough for several lifetimes of the study of anthropology and spiritual beliefs in the English language. Bremmer’s work is a sharp reminder that there’s as much if not more important work in other languages, and acts as a valuable summing-up for English speakers.

He’s a model of objectivity. More than any writer I’ve read recently he maintains a fine balance between exploring possibilities and keeping in focus their status as possibilities. He’s sometimes cautious to a fault. Noting that Aristotle mentions that psyche also means “butterfly”, even the fact that this “seems to be the only word for butterfly known by the Greeks” doesn’t persuade him to give any real support for this quite popular identification. Still, he’s never an absolutist either way—he merely comments that “the possibility should not be excluded”.

This is an exemplary instance of the science and art of history. At the same time, Bremmer made me realize why I often enjoy works I disagree with. Authors with hidden, or not-so-hidden biases make me shout for objectivity, but actually getting that objectivity is nowhere near as stimulating! But this is hardly a criticism of Bremmer’s work. He set out to provide a balanced, accessible discussion of what the Greeks said about soul, and he succeeds comprehensively.