Phillip J. Webster, "Psukhai that Matter: The Psukhē in and behind Clement of Alexandria’s Paedagogus." PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2016.
In this dissertation, I argue that ancient references to the soul (Greek: psukhē), refer to an object that should appear strange to us. Not because it is an inherently strange object, but because of how sharply this object departs from modern expectations of its alleged analogs: the soul, mind, and/or self. If we resist temptations to conflate the psukhē with the soul, mind, or self, the distinctiveness of the psukhē becomes quite salient. The uniqueness of its physical properties, moral functioning, and bodily presence emerges, and we see that a strange and unfamiliar object lies at the heart of much ancient moral instruction.
By arguing how foreign the psukhē is to modern perspectives, this dissertation suggests that the study of the ancient psukhē can greatly benefit from being placed in the context of wider questions about the body, materiality, and the self. While scholars like Teresa Shaw and Gregory Smith, in addition to L. Michael White, Heinrich von Staden, and Christopher Gill, have correctly shown that belief in the psukhē’s materiality and its physical interaction with the body was widespread in Greek and Roman antiquity, especially among first- and second-century moral philosophers, their observations have yet to be put into conversation with models of the body, the self, and materiality that do not implicitly reify them as stable and fixed.
The common assumption in this scholarship on the psukhē has been that references to the psukhē’s material presence, interaction with the body, and status as a moral self are adequately described as beliefs about the psukhē, under the presumption that, given the historically static nature of bodies, the psukhē could not have materially interacted with the body. Despite the regularity of references to the physical interactions between the psukhē and the body, the psukhē is viewed an object of belief or philosophical speculation and not of sensations, sight, and anatomical demonstration.
We should not let modernist assumptions about the body frame references to the psukhē’s materiality and corporeal presence. The a priori assumption that the psukhē was fundamentally an idea or theory blocks us from investigating the psukhē as a corporeally present object, an object that was felt and seen on and through the body. Additionally, when the psukhē is presumed to be just an idea, a theory, it only seems as strong as the arguments made in support of it. Conversely, if we are open to the possibility that the psukhē appeared on and through the ancient body, we are exposed to other ways that it might have wielded power, namely, through its corporeal materiality.
To make my argument and to suggest that the psukhē appeared as a material fact in antiquity, with all of the accompanying power that materiality included, I examine Clement of Alexandria’s references to the psukhē in his late second- or early third-century manual for Christian living, the Paedagogus. The Paedagogus provides a particularly rich set of references to the psukhē presence and visibility. As I show, Clement justifies and frames his project in the Paedagogus in terms of the psukhē, specifically its need for healing. Nevertheless, the Paedagogus itself is not “about” the psukhē. Clement only rarely and tersely reflects on it directly. Instead, he simply presumes its physical and material presence. Rather than evincing any anxiety about convincing his audience of the importance of the psukhē and its physical health, the frequent references to it suggest an agreed upon reality. Clement freely cites it as a reason to act one way and not another. We thus find in the Paedagogus an object that is used more than it is thought about, pointed at rather than theorized.
I suggest that, in order to study the psukhē in its particularity, the problem we face is strikingly parallel to a problem described by some scholars in gender, queer, and transgender studies. Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, and Gayle Salamon have suggested that while the modern western body is often assumed to be self-evidently and “naturally” (1) material, (2) sexed, and (3) correlated with an internal gender core, its matter, sex, and associated gender-core are less the product of nature than of history. Much of their argument, their task, is to convince their readers that the putative body of modernity is strange—that it is neither natural, nor self-evident. Insofar as they show that a historically contingent body, contingent in its materiality, anatomy, and relation to a type of self, can appear to be a material, “natural” fact, they have prompted me to ask how the psukhē and its materiality might have appeared in antiquity. Even though the body (including the psukhē) described by ancient moralist looks strange to modern eyes, that body could have seemed self-evident and “natural” to Clement and his readers.
Yet, insofar as the gender, queer, and transgender studies approaches that influence my approach to Clement’s comments about the psukhē might broadly be construed as “social-constructionist” approaches, where the body, anatomical sex, and gender are described as culturally constructed phenomena, I have tried to take critiques of social constructionism seriously in my study of the psukhē. Some of these positions, rooted in long-standing challenges to the Cartesian dualism that I argue have unduly influenced modern approaches to the study of the ancient psukhē, are especially helpful in thinking about the potential material power of the psukhē. Leaning most heavily upon Bruno Latour, I find in this line of critiques a resource for thinking about how the psukhē itself as a material entity might have possessed and wielded significant power. Its moral force was not just an appeal to piety; its physical features made their own demands. I see this as a useful reminder in a field that has all too often depicted writers like Clement as possessing tremendous power, whether as theologians or as authors of “discourses.” Clement might have been discursively constructing the psukhē, trying to wield it to his own ends, but he also would have been subject to it. Clement could not fully control it, because it existed corporeally, not just linguistically. This is the topic I explore most directly in Chapter 1, where I examine Clement’s references to the soul’s need for healing and punishment.
In Chapter 2, I argue that Clement’s instructions about the substances and activities that could damage the psukhē, especially in its materiality, provided hints of how the psukhē could have been a physically-felt part of the body. Bodily sensations and feelings were registered as those of the psukhē. The psukhē could be felt in and by the drunken body, to mention one example.
In chapters 3 and 4, I turn my attention to the production of the psukhē as an internal moral and rational core. In Chapter 3, I argue that it gained a certain durability as an object—the coherence of being a singular thing even as it changes states or conditions—through its near constant visibility on the body and the body’s material addenda, such as jewelry, hair, and shoes. I also suggest that through its constant visibility it became subject to a panoptic gaze, thus functioning as a key fulcrum of power. By being visible, it could be policed. More specifically, however, it was less the psukhē that was policed and more those things that made it visible. Since, for instance, shoes revealed the psukhē’s moral condition through their visibility, then it was shoes more than the psukhē that were subject to the policing gaze that Clement would inflict upon his readers.
In the fourth chapter, I examine this internal object itself. I argue that Clement’s comments about the psukhē reveal a specific type of internal core whose features should be considered apart from any previous conceptions of “the self.” Clement uses the psukhē to frame his moral instructions in terms of an internal core that is cohesive, delimited, and eternal. The existence of such a core should not be taken for granted, nor should its central features. Clement interpolates a specific type of moral and rational subject through his references to the psukhē.