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The Discovery of the Self in Antiquity

Author(s): Lloyd P. Gerson

Source: The Personalist Forum, Vol. 8, No. 1, Supplement: Studies in Personalist Philosophy.
Proceedings of the Conference on Persons (Spring 1992), pp. 249-257
Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of the Society for the Advancement of
American Philosophy

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LloydP. Gerson
The Discovery of theSelf inAntiquity

The Delphic oracle proclaimed, "Know thyself."This ambiguous bit of advice is

usually understood as a prudential admonition meaning roughly"know your place in the
universal hierarchy."An honest attempt to heed the advice of theoracle might occasion
reflectivethoughtbut itneed not involve introspection.For that,one needs philosophy.
Iwould locate the introductionof a philosophical concept of'self inHeraclitus around
thebeginning of the 5 thcenturyB.C. Two of themajor themes inPre-Socratic thought
in general are thatof nature and the contrastbetween appearance and reality.Heraclitus
combined theseboth inhis gnomic utterance "Nature likes tohide itself,meaning at least
to identifynature as the realitybehind appearances. It isa furtherPre-Socratic innovation
to claim

that nature

is a cosmos


that persons


parts of nature,



a micro

cosmos, a littleuniverse.Heraclitus embraced this suppositionwith utmost seriousness,

giving a new meaning to an old term,ethos, to representhuman nature.When therefore
Heraclitus pronounced, "I searched out myself, one may reasonably suppose that he
expected to discover something about human nature hidden behind the visible human
form and therebytogain insightinto the logosorprinciple governing all nature.What did
Heraclitus in factfindwhen he seached himself?Alas, likemost everythinginHeraclitus,
theanswer isnot clearly 'souP or 'character'or anythingelse.Yet, theveryformof his claim
- I searched out
myself reveals a portentious possibility, namely, reflexivethought.
draw out an implication inherent in a few simple early philosophical proposi
with therealitybehind appearances; engaging
tions: nature isobjective; itis tobe identified
in reflexivethought reveals something about oneself, something unavailable in principle
to anyone else.Are we not here confrontedwith at least an incohate notion of the selfas
transcendingnature? Some laterGreek philosophers certainlybelieved we are and I shall
we alsomust admit thatHeraclitus
probably did not draw this
presently turn them.But
was resolved to hold to the
implication, perhaps
principle that the logos is
common to all and that
We must also
were materialistic monists
and so, although theycontributed significantlyto thedevelopment of the concept of the
self,were ill-placed to draw an implication of supernatural selfhood.
The recorded substantial beginning of the history of the philosophy of the self is in
Plato. The crude and familiar tagforPlato's view is soul-body dualism. Thus represented,
it lends itselfeasily to parody. Let us set aside such impediments to thinkingand instead
concentrateon two interconnected linesof argument,one ethical, and another
cal,which converge inanew and sophisticated concept of theself.Plato representsSocrates
making the paradoxical claim that it is better to suffer than to do evil. On one


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Lloyd P. Gerson

interpretationthisclaim ispatent nonsense, as, forexample,Canicies in theGorgias insists.

Clearly enough, Socrates believes thisbecause he believes that in sufferingevil nothing can
happen to you which is as bad what happens when you do evil. The worst thing that
Socrates can sufferfrom his enemies isphysical death. IfSocrateswere nothingmore than
the potential victim of homicide, thendoing evil could not be a worse fate forhim than
sufferingit.But Socrates also believes thathe is soul and thathis body is possession
that the reasonwhy doing evil isworse than sufferingit is that in theformercase one harms
oneself and in the lattercase it isonly a possession that isharmed. Once one accepts the
distinction between possessions of the self and the self, it is just irrational to prefer the
former to the latter,particularly if the choice is exclusive. For to prefera possession is to
as possessor. But thiswould be
impossible if the option for possession
posit oneself
entailed the destruction of oneself, thepossessor.
The strengthof Socrates's position restsboth in the fact thatsome distinction between
me' and 'mine' is unavoidably made by everyone and that the distinction is normally
confused and inconsistenlyapplied. But why shouldwe make thedistinction just in the
way that Socrates does, roughly, identifyingthe selfwith the soul and the body with a
no less
might suppose thatSocrates's way of drawing the line is
possession? After all,
idiosyncratic than anyone else's. I do notwish to suggest that in the earlydialogues there

is a completely satisfactoryanswer to thisquestion. Nevertheless, inAlcibiades I, Socrates

makes thedistinction between 'me' and 'mine' depend upon self-knowledge,which can
one comes
only be the self-reflexivity
implicit inHeraclitus's enigmatic intuitions.That is,
tounderstand thedistinction between oneself and one's possessions by reflexivethinking,
not belong to that activity.
separating offfrom the selfwhat does
A deeper understanding of Socrates' intuition is found in themiddle dialogues. I hold
that Plato's proofs for the immortalityof the soul are an innovation and not stricdy
In any case, such
speaking part eitherof theethical psychological doctrines of Socrates.
to a conception of the self,sinceno proof of the immortality
proof logically
of the soul or ofmy soul is likelytobe of the slightest interesttome unless it isat the same
time a proof of the immortalityofme. The point isa delicate one. For one has to identify
the soul both such that the proof of its immortalityis theproof of the immortalityofme
and also do so in a way which does not justmake it analytically true that the soul is

In ancient Greek, psycheor soul in general stands forwhatever it is thatdifferentiates

the livingfrom thedead. Let us call it the lifeprinciple.On thefaceof it, this lifeprinciple
isdistinctfrom thatwhich isalive. So itwould seem thata claim regardingthe immortality
of the soul involves something like a categorymistake. Souls aren't alive or dead; what
possesses soul and then loses it is alive and thendead. Accordingly, what has lost its soul
cannot at the same timebe alive,much lessgo on livingforever.Plato has to show that the
lifeprinciple has a life,a lifewhich for some reason itcannot lose. But ifthis is so,we face
the trivializingencumbrance of analyticityand the threatof irrelevance.For if the life
own immortal life, this is not the same life as the lifeof the incarnate
principle has its
individual me. Then it isnotmy immortalitythat is at issue. Ifitwere the same, then it
is farfrom clear how I could be expected to identifyasmyself something that ismanifestly

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SelfinAntiquity 251
difFerentfrom thatwhich I now identifyasmyself. For in part, I identify
myself now as
thatorganic entitydestined to die.
In order to seewhat Plato does with thisdilemma, we need to askwhy he in factdoes
not accept a crude soul-body dualism. Interpretedas a distinctionbetween me' and 'mine',
the easiestway to see its absurdity is to ask,who it is thatexperiences physical pain? Of

course, people not bodies do, even iftheycould not do sowithout a body. And Plato never
supposed otherwise,hismetaphorical language notwithstanding.And if I
physical pain, then in
completely distinctfrommy
Eschewing simple-minded soul-body dualism, Plato contradictsSocrates argument
in theProtagoras and in theRepublic accepts thephenomenon of krasiaor incontinence.
He describes itas resultingfrom a war within the soul,where the lowestpart battles and
overcomes the
reason by
were thevictory of
highest part. If theovercoming of
idea of conflict
within the soulwould only be verballydifferentfrom a conflictbetween body and soul if
thepartitioningof soul did not entail a partitioningof theself. I have towant to satisfy
appetite asmuch or more than Iwant to refrainfrom doing so.
Underlying thepartitioning of the soul lies thecrucial distinction between selfand its
activities,a distinction evident in thedescriptions of psychic conflict.This in turnopens
up thequestion of how theself is related to thesoul. Briefly,Plato's answer to thisquestion
is that 'soul' comes to referto a rangeof activities and states, some ofwhich do and some
ofwhich do not requirea body, and to theagentor subjectof these.The ordinary incarnate
individual - and herewe should not underestimate Plato's sharp empirical observational
powers variously identifieshimselfas theagent of awide rangeof activit?sand states.For

as the subjectwho is sexually

example, Socrates presumablywould identifyhimselfboth
aroused by the sight of Charmides and
the agent
enraptured contemplation of
invisible reality the Symposium.
one immediate consequence
Returning to thequestion of the immortalityof the soul,
of these distinctions is thatmy personal identity is
exclusively invested in either
incarnateor in discarnate activities and states.Hence, theproof ofmy immortalitydoes

not involve showing that the subject of incarnateactivities is immortal anymore thanmy
good necessarily involves satisfyingmy appetites. The immortalityof my soul then
becomes the immortalityof an agent engaged in activitiesnot requiring a body. I do not
leave behind merely a body, but also whatever it is inme that requires a body.

I suppose thatPlato might expect fairlybroad agreement inhis characterizationofwhat

I shall call theempirical self.The fluidityof self-identificationthat thisencompasses does
indeed have a verymodem ring. But of course Plato also believes in a discarnate self,
basically the agent of contemplative activity. Furthermore, he believes that in the
discarnate stateexclusively the ideal is achieved. I shall call this the ideal self.His reasons
forbelieving thisare familiarand infact theyare identical toAristode's reason forbelieving
that the ideal state isdiscarnate cognitive activity.He differsfromAris tode only in thathe
believes that this is the ideal human state,whereas Aristode believes that it is an ideal
attained only by god.

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Lloyd P. Gerson

Two questions here need tobe disdnguished: first,why does Plato believe that this state
is in factour desriny and second,why does he believe that it ismost desirable. The short
answer to thefirstquesdon takesus back to the
implication ofHeraclitus's aphorism that
self-reflexivethinking is supernatural. The specific Platonic innovation is his parallel
argument for the existence of eternal truthand his claim thatour knowing such truth is
precisely the activity that requires no body. Indeed, ifwe were only empirical selves,we
would have no access to it.The proof for the immortalityof the soul then amounts to the
claim thatwe do in fact know eternal truths, such as the truthsof mathematics. In
our destiny. I think there is a most
contemplating such truths
confirmation of the validity (not soundness) of Plato's argument in contemporary
philosophers who, denying the immortalityof the soul, at least the immaterialityof the
at least itsknowability.
The answer to the second question turnsupon the fact thatpeople construct various
ideal self-images and upon Plato's claim that these are gradable. The differencebetween
the empirical selfand the ideal self is not the differencebetween soul and body, but the
differencebetween activities and stateswhich one identifiesoneself as the agent of on the

one hand and activities and stateswhich one

aspires to identifyoneself as the agent of on
The lives heroes and
the roleof ideals forpersons in thisway. Of
ideal is exclusively attainable. But a ranking or
course, in the incarnate individual
hierarchy of activities and
certainly is, so that one begins to view activities of the
lowest rankwith indifference,almost as if they,and their subject,were a possession and
not oneself.





that the virtuous




to the acratic,

views his own appetites from thevantage point of a purely rational self,almost as ifthey
were those of another, say, a child inhis care. But theyare afterall his appetites and he is


Plato believes that thephilosophical lifeis themost desirable life.For him, itssupreme
desirability is attested to by thosewho live it and are thus in a position to make a
comparative judgment of all the alternatives.This life is that of projected ideal self as
agent of rational activity.A model Platonic empirical self, such Socrates, desires to be
more to his
exclusively an agent desiring nothing but contemplative activity.But there is
practice tobecome
the sort of person who embraces the activity constituting that life. In Plato's heaven,
would be a curse to thosewho had come to identifythemselvesexclusively as

the agents of incarnate activity.They would face everlastingboredom.

However we may construct an ideal self theoretically, the practical problem of
motivation to pursue that ideal isobvious.Why, to put itparadoxically, should someone
desire to have desires thathe does not already possess? Ifyou say to him thathaving these
desireswill make his lifebetteror even lesshelpfully thattheywill make him a betterperson,

he might well reply thathaving themwould make him another person altogether and it
is hard to see how his life ismade better by his becoming someone else. I call this the
on its solution informs Plato's philosophy of
bootstrapping problem and reflection
education, moral philosophy, and even hismethod of doing philosophy.More widely, the
tobe viewed inPlatonic terms, in
problem of conversion in antiquity henceforthgoing

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The Discovery of theSelf inAntiquity


which the transformationof the self isparamount. Human nature is to be seen not only
as the realitybehind appearances, but as an ideal as well.
Aristode has surprisinglylittleto add towhat Plato saysabout the self.Perhaps this is
inpart owing tohis hylomorphic personalism and his consequent denial of the immortal
ityof the soul. Aristode does of course construct an ideal selfmodeled on the lifeof the
unmoved mover, an ideal remarkably likePlato's own. But this ideal is somethingwhich
we can attain only intermittentlyand
are hints, for
example, in his
definitionof a friendas "another self, inhis obscure remarksabout theagent intellect,and

inhis conclusions about theself-reflexivity

of cognidon, that indicate some intereston his
minor themekept well in thebackground.
general, however,
The Stoics, especially members of themiddle Stoa and Roman Stoa, provide an
interestingcontrast.The Stoicswere inspiredby Socrates, well Heraclitus, and though
any version, appropriated a Socratic model of
they rejectedmetaphysical
between the ideal selfand theempirical self is
the contrastbetween the lifeof the sage and the livesof everyoneelse. I call thisa contrast

between selves because the Stoic sage is an incarnate locus of pure rationalwill, one who
has constructedhimself such thathe is impervious to thedesires and statesexperienced by
everyone else. Such a state, if attainable at all, must involve intensive therapeutic
care about the
introspection.One must convince oneself not to
thingspeople ordinarily
care about and to desire onlywhat reason dictates.One must transcend the
empirical self
and become a differentperson. This is clearly a process of self-construction, as Plato

explains. Revealingly, though, theStoics habitually declined to point to any successes in

this regard. For unlike Plato, they rejected a discarnate ideal. Stoic sageswho bore no
resemblance at all to ordinary human agentsmust have been very difficult to find.
Epictetus standsout among theStoics as a philosopher of the self.Epictetus recognizes
a facultyof rational self-reflexivity
calledproairesiszn? in the representationsof thisfaculty
he locates the essence of the self.For him, the self is constituted as a locus of beliefs and
desires.Apparendy, what differentiateshumans from other animals is theability to reflect
criticallyupon these (cf.Discourses 1.6.13-20). Since forEpictetus thefacultyof proairesis
is through and through rational, reflectionon one's own beliefs and desires consists in
criticismof the argumentswhose conclusions are theoriginal representations.Thus, if I
believe orwant something, this is actually a representationwhose content is contained in
proposition which is in turn the conclusion of an argument. Criticism of these
representationsconsists incriticismof theirimplicationsor else,what amounts to the same

thing,criticismof thepremises of theargument.Presumably, thebasis for thecriticismwill

be other representativepropositions,which for the Stoic sage at least constitute an ideal
self.Thus, iftheputative sage should discover inhimself some unworthydesire or emotive
state,he can eliminate theseon thebasis of argumentsborne of representativesconstituting
his real self.Nowhere, though,does Epictetus explain how non-sages can help themselves
propositions towhich theyhave not already assented, therebyof coursemaking them

This analysis leads Epictetus, likeSocrates, but unlike Plato andAristotle, todeny the
possibilityof akrasia. For everyagentwill act according towhat he regardsas best forhim

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Lloyd P. Gerson

or herself, in effect,
to the
or she
representational proposition towhich he
assents. It ismore consistent forEpictetus to deny the possibility of akrasia than it is for
Socrates, who is an incipientdualist, contrasting thebody as a possession with the soul as
the self.By contrast, Stoics are thoroughgoingmaterialists and for them an apparent case
of akrasia could only be either repudiated as fictitious or reductively analyzed in the
direction of some speculative pathology of multiple personalities. And yet, ifEpictetus
insists that such cases are to be described as conflictsbetween rational representations, it
isentirelyobscure whether the self is supposed tobe an impartial judge or a partisan in the

The culmination ofGreek philosophical thinkingabout the self is found inPlotinus.

The centralityof thisconcept inhis philosophy is trulyremarkable.As a disciple of Plato,
we naturally expect him to be seizedwith the psychological and ethical consequences of
a belief in the immortalityof the soul. But Plotinus isalso an assiduous pupil ofAristode

and a criticof Stoicmaterialism.What Plotinus has to sayabout theself is informednearly

as much by his reactions toAristode and the Stoics as by his defense of Plato.
Plotinus tellsus that "everyman isdouble, one of him is the sortof compound being
and one of him is himself' (Enneads I. 1.5.1- 3). The compound

is theAristotelian

hylomorphic composite.
The other "part" of thewhole is theman himself.We have here a clear repudiation of
the crude body-soul dualism we found Plato already to have more or less jettisoned. It is
a dualism of incarnateand discarnate activities.Such a dualism was of course preciselywhat
Plotinus finds lacking in Stoicism. Soul forhim becomes a locus of activities along with
the agents of these activities,actual or potential. For example, he asks, "What is it thathas
carried out this investigation? Is it 'we' or the soul? It is 'we' but bymeans of the soul"

In dealing with the psychology of the embodied agent or self,Plotinus shows himself
an apt pupil ofAristode inmany respects.For example, he quietly drops a partitioning of
the soul in favorof a facultypsychology. But he rejectsAristode's central thematic claim
that the soul is the entelecheiaof thebody. He says that ifthe soulwere an entelecheia, the
reason and desirewould be impossible (IV.7.8 5 12-14). That is,psychologi
opposition of
cal conflictwould be impossible if therewere only one archeof desire. But as Plato insists,
and Aristotle somewhat grudgingly admits, such conflictdoes occur. Plotinus's explana
tion is that the conflict occurs within the empirical self,which isnothing but an unstable

and shiftingcollection of self-conscious agents, linked togetherbymemory and imagina

tion. Sometimes I representmyself tomyself aswanting certains thingsand sometimes as
to have and to refrainfrom
wanting others; and sometimes I discover that I have desired
same thing at the same time.
The empirical self is thusviewed as a slighdyanarchic community of agents or subjects.
What then is the ideal self?"'We ourselves' refersto thedominant and essential part of us;
thisbody is indifferent
ways ours, but ours all the same. So we are concernedwith itspains





as we

are weaker







consider thebody themost honorable part of ourselves and the realman, and, so to speak,
sink ourselves into it". (IV.4.18.15-19) Careful attention to Plotinus's language reveals

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oftheSelfinAntiquity 255
that thecontrasthere isbetween an agent of activities requiringa body and one which does
not, and that these are the same self.Further, the contrast isbetween two attitudes taken
in regard to the incarnate agent of bodily activities, one of detachment and one of
commitment. "Sinking oneself into thebody" can onlymean mistaking the incarnate self
as an ideal instead of a transitorypossession.
Perhaps thefollowing two analogieswill help.We all know about people who, having
experienced some dramatic conversion or change, look back upon their livesbefore that
experience, and perceive a discontinuitywith theirselves theyare now. They say, "that


not me"

or even

"that was


the real me".




experience of discontinuitywith a self,which isof course in one sense the person just as
much as is theperson one looksback upon in timeand claims detachmentfrom. Consider
also an actor in a role.This is actually a favoriteexample of Plotinus. The actor can take
various attitudes towards the characterhe isplaying, rangingfrom total absorption into
it toperfectdetachment. Plotinus views the lifeof theempirical selfas a role, and forhim
itmakes all the difference in theworld how one reacts to it.
Notice that in theabove quotarion Plotinus recognizes degrees of identificationwith
theempirical self.This isprimarilybecause, unlikeAristotle and theStoics, but following
Plato, Plotinus identifies the idealwith a discarnate state. So, even forPlotinus himself,
who was said by his biographer, Porphyry, tohave been ashamed thathe had a body, there
is some residual identificationwith theempirical self.That is the reason, I suspect,why,
in psychological theory,Platonism never took a position as extreme as Stoicism. Inciden
tally,it isworth noting that thepostulation of degrees of identificationwith theempirical
self leadsPlotinus into some provocative speculation about degrees offreedom of thewill.
But I cannot pursue the discussion of thisat the present time.

The ideal selfforPlotinus is the agent engaged eternally in contemplation. The ideal
which Aristotle identifiesas exclusively the divine prerogative is reasserted as a human
endowment. But fivehundred yearsof psycholgical theoryhave added layersof complexity
to the
original Platonic position. Specifically,Plotinus must face the following problem.
Memory seems to be an essential property of personal identity.Yet a self absorbed in
can such
no time for
remembering.How then
contemplation of eternal truthliterallyhas
a statebe my ideal?
personal ideal
arises in part from precisely such a problem.
When Plotinus faces thisproblem, he is in fact reluctantto conclude that thediscamate
individual retainsno memories of its incarnate life.He admits that,apart from ignoble
memories, memories of friends, children,wives, and countrywould not be out of place,
man will attach no emotion to them.
although he cannot resist adding that good
(IV.3.32.1-7) But in admitting that it is fitting thatwe retain such memories after
separationfrom thebody, even ifonly fora short time,Plotinus is significandyqualifying
his account of the ideal self.He is recognizing, ifonly grudgingly, that incarnation,even
ifnot supremelydesirable, involves an essential change in an individual.
But as soon as Plotinus opens a window on the idiosyncraciesof theempirical self,he
slams itshut.Evidently, personalmemories are reta?nableonly forsome unspecified period
of timeprior toachieving the ideal state. "The more the soul presseson towards theheights

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Lloyd P. Gerson

themore itwill forget,unless perhaps all its life,even here below, has been such that its
memories are only of higher things; since here below too it isbest to be detached from
human concerns and so necessarilyfrom human memories". (IV.3.32.12-18) The soul
will not even remember that itengaged inphilosophy and even thathere itcontemplated.
Itwill rememberneither intellectualnor sense related activity.For it isnot possible, when

to remember
anything. (IV.4.1.4-12) The
engaged unqualifiedly in contemplation,
ultimate destiny of the ideal self isas a subject eternallycontemplating,bereftofmemories
aware that it is contemplating. (IV.4.2.30-33) In this
altogether, although apparendy
cognitively identicalwith eternal truth.
as the essence of the self.Since Plotinus believes in
memory as the basis for the continuity in a reincarnated
individual. (IV.4.4.14-20) Reincarnation, however, signifiesa failure,not an ideal. It is
a result of failing to identify sufficiendywith the ideal self.There is a
on a kind ofmiddle state between the
fascinating passage inwhich Plotinus speculates
the stateof the soul as itascends into the
empirical and the ideal. (IV.4.5.13-25) This
descends into another incarnation. In this state,memory is active and even
differences in character are discernable. It is something like a purgatory,where one is

divested of the attachments acquired in incarnation.An unsuccessful purgation would

result in reincarnation; a successfulone would signal eternal release.
Once memory isexcluded from the lifeof the ideal self,personal identityisclarifed.The
ideal contemplatorwill not remember anything,but he will recognize that it ishe who is
seems to be nothing logically amiss in the continuity of personal
contemplating. There
externally,so long aswe do not insistthat identificationbe made by bodily

The contemplator just is the same selfwho used to practice philosophy here below.
What is odd is the psychological implausibility of the continuity of personal identity
without memory, viewed from inside, so to speak. After all, amnesia is precisely the
not recognize the previous lifeas his own. Like Plato,
pathology where the victim does
Plotinus isseizedwith theproblem of explainingwhy anyone ina sortof pre-amnesiac state
should anticipate with any enthusiasm whatsoever the prospect of having his memory


the rewards.

Plotinus has to say about thisproblem isdeeply embedded in hiswide ranging

doctrines, including thoseofmathematics and aesthetics. Since he believes thatall sensible
how one comes to
reality is an image of the intelligible realm, the problem is for him
an image forwhat it really is and thereby to be inspired to desire theoriginal,
however obscurely itmay be glimpsed. The principal image here is thatof the empirical
self,or just ordinary life,which is a representationof the ideal self.Psychologically and
ethically, the strategyis to elicit dissatisfactionwith theprospects for incarnatebliss.
reflection, that does
one is led to have confidence pistis- not knowledge - "inwhat one possesses
without knowing it". ( Perhapswe can call thiswithout undue distortion a "leap
of faith". Plotinus's philosophical protreptic is intended to instill an intimation of an
to one who has attained it.That the ideal is a
activity only unqualifiedly desirable

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The Discovery of theSelf inAntiquity


possession ismeant to indicate continuityof theperson. One, however, has to do more

than recognize thepossession as a permanent endowment, therebyaccepting contempla
tionmerely as a possible activityamongmany others.One must accept the ideal as an ideal
self. If accepting such an ideal self is thought to entail an impossible passion for truth,we
may suppose Plotinus responding thatnothing lessmakes any sense at all as the destiny
for an immortal soul.
University ofToronto

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