Bruno Snell

The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature

The Greek influence on Western thinking in the form of a dense intellectual chronicle.

Apr 11, 2022
Dimitris Passas

"The rise of thinking among the Greeks was nothing less than a revolution. They did not, by means of a mental equipment already at their disposal, merely map out new subjects for discussion such as the sciences and philosophy. They discovered the human mind".

Ancient Greek thinking is indisputably the primary foundation of Western science and philosophy as well as the source in which the seeds of the later European art, literature, ethics, and religion can be traced. The study of the ancient Greek texts was Bruno Snell's passion and the German classical philologist, who has also been the establisher of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae research center, devoted his life in the fastidious examination of the Greek intellectual creation and his books became a point of reference for philology and philosophy scholars who still deem his body of work as one of the most influential pertaining to this field of academic knowledge. In The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature, which is Snell's most prominent work, the German academic presents a cartography of the ancient Greek thinking in regards to the concept of mind that is inevitably linked with that of the soul and the consciousness of one's self. Beginning with the epic poems written by Homer, Snell analyzes the development of the perception of mind and self as outlined in ancient Greek art and more specifically in Greek poetry that consists of the epic, the lyric, and the tragedy which constitutes the last stage before the philosophers of the 5th century elevated the subject and its experience to the only true cause of human action and behavior.

In the first chapter of this intellectual chronicle, or as the author himself describes it "a close inquiry into the realm of intellectual history", Snell turns his readers' attention to the Homeric poems that illustrate the more primitive stage of Greek thought for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, Homer's significance as an artist and intellectual is vigorously stressed by Snell: "Homer gave to the Greeks their lingua franca of literature" and "created the intellectual world of the Greeks". Both in Iliad and in Odyssey, the grandfather of epic poetry reveals to the meticulous reader the truth about his contemporaries' notions of the mind, soul, and self and in his texts Snell detects the beginnings of those concepts' journey within human history. The main difference that distinguishes Homer from the philosophers of the 5th century is the lack of the mind and body dualism, an idea that constitutes the backbone of the theories expressed by philosophers such as Rene Descartes and is today considered to be an accepted certainty in the Western world, with the Christian religion also acknowledging the division. Snell writes that "the distinction between body and soul represents a discovery which so impressed people's minds that it was therefore accepted as self-evident".

The author favors the use of the word "discovery" in lieu of invention or revelation as "the European way of thinking did not come into being until it was discovered; it exists by grace of man's cognizance of himself". The concept of the mind has no meaning outside the context of human history and life. The intellect reveals itself in the course of history and it is not similar to a religious epiphany, that inadvertently presupposes the existence of a god, it "grants us only a limited manifestation, always dependent on the individual and his personal characteristics". The emergence of a new understanding of the individualized mind and soul leads to the enlightenment of the classical period and the rationalization of thinking. In Homer's pre-rational world we find three words which are related to the concept of soul as we currently define it: "Psyche", "Thymos", and "Noos". The immediate implication of this threefold division is that a man's soul is not a unity but a sum of different parts. The mental and spiritual activity of a human being is contained in these three concepts and each one corresponds to specific physical organs and has a distinct function. This explanation of the processes of the mind by analogy to the bodily organs and their operation is evident in the etymology of the verb ειδέναι, which means "to know", and originates from the Greek word εἴδω which means "to see". Snell concludes: "The eye as it appears, serves as Homer's model for the absorption of experience".

This perception of the mind and soul leaves no room for the use of abstraction and metaphors in Homer's work, even though the ancient Greek poet makes a heavy use of similes that are the precursors of the metaphor: "The chief function of these similes is to emphasize on the purity or the (...) intensity of an attribute". The motions of the soul are represented by analogy with the animal life and throughout the Homeric corpus is evident that "human behavior is made clear only through reference to something else which is in turn explained by analogy with human behavior". That principle is also applicable to all metaphors as "man must listen to an echo of himself before he may hear or know himself". Snell places simile and mythical paradigm side by side and argues that "similes, i.e. those which apply to human behavior, illustrate the behavior of a third person or persons; the paradigm helps the speaker to reflect upon himself or to assist another in grasping his circumstances". The former corresponds to the aforementioned "primitive" mode of thinking, while the latter is used by the poets that represent the more advanced stages of the artistic creation. The paradigm allows a deep dive into the individual's motivations and is the appropriate narrative vehicle for an author who wishes to explore the psychological aspects of his characters' motivations. Snell concludes that paradigm as found in myth is "a more suitable instrument for interpreting the fate of man in simple and natural terms".

As far as the motivation that lurks behind human behavior, Homer places the Olympian gods as the inciters of human action as the subject himself doesn't possess a unique, individualized mind or soul to direct his own demeanor. His choices are the gods' choices and as Snell writes: "The soul of the man is the deity transplanted into him". It is not until the evolution of the Greek poetry to the form of Attic tragedy that the man becomes conscious of his own self and sees himself as the origin of his actions. Snell writes: "This progress of thinking toward philosophy was effected at the sacrifice of the gods themselves. They lost their natural and immediate function in proportion as man became aware of his own spiritual potential". Nevertheless, tragedy was preceded by lyric poetry, the artistic genre that succeeded the Homeric epics and developed its ideas about the individual. Snell writes that the greatest difference between epic and lyric poetry is the fact that "the lyricists announce their own names; they speak about themselves and become recognizable as personalities". Furthermore, lyric poets emphasized on the present and its glees rather than heroic deeds of the past as Homer did: The purpose of lyric poetry is "to lend an air of permanence to the joy of the moment". Snell cites verses from some of the most significant representatives of the genre such as Archilochus, Sappho, and Anacreon, writers of monodies who were "evidently concerned to grasp a piece of genuine reality: to find being instead of appearance".

Snell juxtaposes the views on war as expressed by Homer and Archilochus and infers that while the former focused on the bravery and the virtues that lead to the victory, the latter lamented the misery and loss, both inextricably linked with the battle. Equally divergent are their perceptions of the concept of love and this is happening perhaps because the lyrics stopped treating the soul by analogy with human organs, paving the way for the emancipation of the subject from its archaic conception that would become apparent in the subsequent tragic plays. The tragic also embraced the broad notion of universality that, according to Aristotle, is connected to poetry rather than history which deals with the unique. In order to better understand Aristotle's assertion, we can take a closer look to the plays written by Euripides, the most humane among the triad which further consisted of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Euripides' hero become the center of action, it is his "passions and his own knowledge that are the only determining factors" of the choices that he makes and the subsequent deeds done by him. The problem of human action which is the main theme of ancient Greek tragedy acquires a universal character as "the human situation which it expresses are no longer, as in the archaic lyric, fixed in time and place by victory, marriage, or cult". It concerns each and every single human being around the world and this pervasive quality of the tragic is what distinguishes it from its predecessors, the epic and the lyric.

The universal determining the particular will become a key theme in the works of the most notable philosophers of the classical period who will shape the concept of the mind in the form that since then became the foundation upon which Western thinking developed. Heraclitus was the first philosopher who used an expanded concept of soul and in his work the body and soul constitute a dichotomy. Each one is attributed with distinct properties and for the sage from Ephesus "the soul, as contrasted with things physical, reached into eternity". The kinship between the soul and the image of depth visualizes this fresh perspective on the idea: "In Heraclitus the image of depth is designed to throw light on the outstanding trait of the soul and its realm: that it has its own dimension, that it is not extended in space". In the chapters that follow, the author explores the origin of scientific thought and its relation to language as his study is based on linguistics and doesn't aspire to be a history of science. For Snell, the language encloses an ontological dimension as a thing only exists after it is named as such. Language provides ontological hypostasis to whatever is human. It is the use of the article that "helped the concrete noun to attain the character of a universal concept" and he adds: "the universal character of the concept is, therefore, already latent in the concrete noun. Snell summarizes his linguistic analysis: "The pregnant vitality of the verb is given up in favor of conceptual clarity (...) The evolution was slow and complex; in the course of it, the verb and the noun were blended into one, and the three basic forms of the noun-name, concrete, and abstraction noun- were themselves, as we have shown, poured into the same mould. The new product which the crucible gave forth was the rational, the concept".

Snell devotes a whole chapter to the topic of ethics in the ancient Greek world, again beginning from Homer, and more specifically from a scene taken from Iliad and in which the goddess Athena warns Achilles not to attack king Agamemnon with his sword, putting a restraint on his impulse. He stresses that Athena doesn't command the Homeric hero, but rather "gives Achilles something to think about". Even though Achilles's retreat has little to do with morality, this fragment provides the first sperm of the subsequent Western pondering on ethics. Snell points out the dominant notion of profit in ancient Greece which is connected with the words for virtue and good, "Arete" and "Agathos". When Homer uses these words he implies that the agent is "useful, proficient, and capable of vigorous action". Nevertheless, their connection with the moral realm is because they "designate qualities for which a man may win the respect of his whole community". Actually, it was the discussion of the aretai, the virtues, that "produces the concepts of state and justice". For Snell "the figure of Socrates constitutes the turning point from the moral thinking of the archaic and classical periods to that of post-classical and Hellenistic ages". Socrates advocated the individual's search of the morally good. As the Greek sage left no written legacy, we learn about his teachings through Plato and Xenophon. For him, the knowledge of the good is enough for the individual to act on it, nobody was born evil and nobody commits a transgression voluntarily. Understanding should be placed above the various passions and hold them in check. Socrates' ethical philosophy presupposes the perception of the individual as the sole responsible for his behavior. There is no external factor such as the Homeric Olympian Gods motivating human actions. People have consciousness of their deeds and their self and they should be the only ones held accountable. It is a prime example of how the new perception of mind and the individualization of the soul altered the traditional ethical conceptions that dominated Greek society during the previous centuries.

The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature is a much debated study in the academic circles and Snell has been criticized by his peers for a number of issues pertaining to the book's assumptions and speculations. The fact that Snell seems to readily dismiss the argument that the Greeks owed some of their intellectual achievements to the Oriental philosophies, his over-analytical philological scrutiny which sometimes becomes tiring, and his exclusion of the irrational aspects of ancient Greek heritage, best diagramed in E. R. Dodds notorious book The Greeks and the Irrational, are only some of the arguments against the German philologist's work. In his article on the book, Brooke Holmes contemplates whether it would be valid to rank Snell's study as an Undead Text. Undead Texts are those "ambitious, erudite works that boldly set forth big, original ideas but were written as much for other scholars as for a broad public". Holmes wraps up his paper arguing in favor of the book's addition to the Undead Texts as "it still functions as a postwar matrix for plotting and replotting the coordinates of Self and and Other in the relationship between "The Greeks" and shifting reception communities and their differing approaches to the past and hopes for the future". I found this title to be one of the most engaging books on Greek antiquity that I've read so far and I consider it as one of the truly classical texts that will be read and re-read by scholars for the decades to follow. Even though there are some parts that are a bit hard to follow, mainly due to the extended philological inquiries made by the author, it is a book that can be easily devoured by a layman who is simply interested on the subject. It would be great if you read The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature in conjunction with E. R. Dodds' incisive research on the "Other" side of Greek tradition, the one which involves the absurd and the illogical, presented in his book The Greeks and the Irrational.


The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature
Bruno Snell
Dover Publications

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