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Heroic Values in Classical Literary Depictions of the Soul: Greece, Rome, China

Something unusual for today. Rummaging through my old papers it returned to my attention that I had never published my senior thesis. So I have put it on my website and am making it available: Richard Carrier, “Heroic Values in Classical Literary Depictions of the Soul: Heroes and Ghosts in Virgil, Homer, and Tso Ch’iu-ming,” Senior Honors Thesis UCB (1997; rev. ed. 2004). For the entry at my publications page at Academia.edu I wrote this description:

Compares the language, depictions, and explanations relating to ghosts (as souls of the dead) in ancient Greek, Roman, and Chinese classics and finds connections between them and those cultures’ respective understandings of the ideal hero.

[BTW, anyone not already aware of my Academia.edu page might want to bookmark it, as it has become my main collection of entries for my more formal work online and in print; although just print publications I keep updated on my cv and publications list, which is the same list but without the rest of the cv. And all new publications I always announce, of course, here on my blog.]

In the paper itself, I explain the text now online with this leading remark:

The following essay was my senior honors thesis at UC Berkeley for the awarding of the Bachelor’s degree in History (minor in Classical Civilizations). It was originally written in 1997. In 2004 I reorganized and numbered its sections, updated its references, revised some sentences, and added some paragraphs, all with the intent to consider publication, but decided I was no longer confident in its core thesis. There are interesting insights and information here, but ultimately the evidence of afterlife beliefs and heroic ideals in ancient Greece, Rome, and China is a little more complicated than this. I am publishing it now only for the sake of what utility and interest in may have. But I no longer fully endorse all of its conclusions, and its treatment of the evidence is not adequately broad to be considered thorough. It’s quite good as an undergraduate thesis. It probably won me my doctoral fellowship. But it meets only minimum standards for graduate level work. — Richard Carrier, Ph.D.

To give you an idea of what’s in it, I will produce here a table of contents and some excerpts:

1. Introduction [p. 1]
2. Why Focus on These Classics? [p. 2]
3. The Classical Hero [p. 6]
3.1. Homeric Heroism [p. 7]
3.2. Chinese Heroism [p. 8]
3.3. Roman Heroism [p. 11]
3.3.1. Pietas as the Essence of Roman Heroism [p.12]
3.3.2. The Role of Homeric Heroism in Virgil [p. 14]
3.3.3. The Context and Cultural Message of the Aeneid [p. 16]
4. The Classical Soul [p. 19]
4.1. The Portrayal of the Soul [p. 20]
4.2. The Vocabulary of the Soul [p. 23]
4.3. The Metaphysics of the Soul [p. 27]
5. Conclusion — with Related Speculations from Cultural Science [p. 33]

Bibliography [pp. 38-42]

In the introduction, among other things, I explain that in this essay:

[I] examine three cultural classics, great works that lay at the origin and heart of the Chinese, Greek, and Roman cultures and thus reflect important fundamental differences among them. Western individualism is reflected, even exaggerated, in Homer, against an idealized Chinese communalism in the Tso Chuan. Yet Virgil’s Aeneid reflects a middle ground of tension between both kinds of perspective. In many ways, Roman cultural ideals regarding the hero and the soul were somewhat more like the Chinese than the Homeric, exhibiting an early attempt to reconcile such different ways of viewing the world, presaging modern cultural struggles between materialistic individualism and social responsibility.

In the conclusion, among other things, I summarize some of my findings as follows:

Homer saw heroism as involving bodily accomplishment and perfection, which was also by and large the most popular view among the early Greeks, and remains to a lesser but still notable extent in modern Western culture. The two most idolized types in the West today are the celebrity and the athlete, who each achieve their status through physical beauty or prowess, while in film and fiction the ultimate hero is not the wise elder, but the handsome loner righting wrongs through gratuitous displays of righteous force. Homer would approve.

But Homer also perceived the souls of the dead as feeble and fleeting. And this idea was strongly connected with the lack of a body, even with words implying the opposite of “body,” such as “image,” “shadow,” “dream,” [etc. ... ]. This does reflect the Western obsession with individualism and materialism, and in Homer we see the exaggerated roots of this mindset. However, our modern view of the soul has followed more in the footsteps of Virgil. Most Westerners imagine the dead as ‘better off’, free from the travails of the flesh, their souls perfected in heaven. Yet, like Virgil’s ghosts and unlike Chinese spirits, they are hardly able to meddle in earthly affairs.

In contrast, Tso Ch’iu-ming saw heroism as involving a “cultural” accomplishment and perfection rather than bodily perfection. He also perceived the souls of the dead as potent and energetic, an idea connected with the cultural role of the hero in his society, and his submission to communal duty. Thus, there is an evident connection in Homer and the Tso Chuan between the concepts of heroism and the soul. Even when other factors are at work, such as the ideology of ancestor worship in China (paralleled to a lesser extent in Rome), which logically entails a belief in the potency of departed spirits, we might expect a culture’s view of heroism and the soul will approach a logical consistency.

There is a section at the end about cross-cultural psychology and anthropology and its connection to the thesis just explored, and an extensive bibliography (though not even remotely complete, and only updated to 2004).



  1. ROO BOOKAROO says

    As one who has studied ancient Greek and modern German philosophy, and also analyzed with great interest Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”, I find your Senior thesis a valuable effort at clarification. And I always pay attention to your forays into all kinds of directions, applauding your effort at clarity and rigor of thinking.

    First of all, I find it unsatisfactory that many of the papers posted on academia.edu do not indicate the effective date of composition.

    Second, I would find interesting to know the title of your Ph.D. dissertation, perhaps the gist of its argumentation and conclusions (a kind of abstract); and, only if you felt it instructive for us readers, the posting of its Table of Contents, and the most meaningful key passages.

    • says

      (1) All my entries are dated. Did you find one that wasn’t?

      (2) See the entry in dissertation abstracts (at a library you can even use that to view the first 24 pages for free, which will include the full TOC and half the introduction; some libraries will give you access to the whole thing).

      Note that I long ago revised it for publication in two vols. (a lot developed since I completed, so it is already outdated, which is why I’m waiting for the book edition to come out), but those have been floating in search of peer reviewers for ages. Only just recently did the first of those land a reviewer. An academic press wants both and has been actively working on it for several years now, but everyone it asks to review them is always busy. So I consider that project on hold. I’ll start pressing the issue when On the Historicity of Jesus is finally off my plate.

  2. ROO BOOKAROO says

    For readers here of this posting who may share my interest in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, here is the sketchy information provided by ProQuest:


    Attitudes toward the natural philosopher in the early Roman Empire (100 B.C. to 313 A.D.)
    by Carrier, Richard C., Ph.D., COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, 2008, 574 pages; 3333315

    Adviser William V. Harris
    Source DAI/A 69-10, p. , Dec 2008
    Source Type Dissertation
    Subjects History of education; Ancient history; History of science
    Publication Number 3333315


    The present study demonstrates the existence of significant praise and admiration for the aims and achievements of the natural philosopher among the pagan elite of the Roman Empire from 100 B.C. to 313 A.D.

    Chapter 1: surveys the problem, focus, and methodology.

    Chapter 2: explores what a natural philosopher was thought to be and do, finding it was the nearest prototype of the modern scientist.

    Chapter 3: shows that natural philosophy had little place in Roman education except for the highly motivated, but finds considerable praise and appreciation for those who did pursue it.

    Chapter 4: explores what natural philosophers as ‘scientists’ actually achieved, and finds a positive belief in the reality and value of ‘scientific progress’ among educated Romans.

    Chapter 5: surveys evidence of praise and admiration for the natural philosopher and his goals and activities.

    Chapter 6: surveys the conclusion that the natural philosopher and his activity were not completely marginalized but were held in high esteem by many among the educated elite.

    I am particularly excited because this period also includes Lucretius.

    In the oral examination for my master in philosophy I had to make presentations of Lucretius (in Latin) and David Hume.

    I had spent a full year studying the Latin text word for word, and have retained unbounded admiration for this ancient thinker.

    I posted a Wikipedia article on Poggio Bracciolini, who discovered the first manuscript of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura in 1417, and an Amazon review of “The Life of Poggio Bracciolini”, the early Italian humanist who became famous partly due to this find.

    Stephen Greenblatt wrote his famous book “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” (Sept. 2012) on the subject of the miraculous retrieval of Lucretius’s manuscript, and its importance for modern thinking and modern science.

    So it will be vastly interesting, to me anyway, to read what you are saying in your Ph.D. dissertation.

    • says

      You may be amused then by my old article Predicting Modern Science: Epicurus vs. Mohammed (2004). And Stenger’s recent book God and the Atom builds on the ideas you are talking about (unabashedly claiming it was atomism, not Christianity, that had it right and drove the rise of modern science).

      In my dissertation, I’ve only fully updated the education chapter, expanding it into a short monograph, which is the one I think they finally found a reviewer for. The other chapters need the same reworking, given that some points in them may need revising in light of new stuff that has come out since (and in light of my finding better ways to word things and so on). So if you read my dissertation, keep in mind that there are updated versions of that material waiting to be published.

  3. ROO BOOKAROO says

    Yes, you seem to be right when it comes to the dates of the items listed in your publication page on academia.edu.

    The entry comes with a cover page by academia.edu, with a link leading to an uploaded version of the paper. It is when going to this link and the uploaded version that I occasionally could not see a date for the paper.

    However the cover page always shows the date of publication.

    In the specific case of the item “The Formation of the New Testament Canon”, opening the listing on the publication page leads to an academia.edu page which is not the usual cover page to the document. There’s no link leading to the uploaded version of the paper, as the uploaded paper is presented directly in this opening academia.edu page. There is no trace of a dating of this document I could find. If it is buried somewhere in the notes, it is not visible in the initial examination of the uploaded paper, and there’s no cover page or text by academi.edu explicitly showing a date.

    Clicking on the green button Download (.pdf) just produces an identical copy to the text presented in the academia.page, neatly broken up in 31 pages, but no additional dating info.

    Am I doing something wrong?

    Many papers listed in the publication page of academia.edu have alluring titles that can only excite the interest of a learned reader. Clicking on the title opens up the academia.edu cover page, neatly showing the date, but too often with the indication that the paper was not uploaded by the author. Unfortunately.

    I read your superbly documented article on “Flash! Fox News Reports that Aliens May Have Built the Pyramids of Egypt!” of 1999, and I appreciated your perspicacious comment that in this kind of fantastic interpretation of the fabulous Egyptian past, “Statements are made as if they were facts”. Reminding me of the style of Murdock or Doherty’s writings. Especially when Doherty, who is an autodidact without any instruction in Egyptian culture and mythology, asserted pundit-wise that there were indeed “3 magi” in the engravings at Luxor depicting the birth of Horus/pharaoh, because there were three crouching silhouettes, thus confirming Murdock’s speculations about Horus’s story being similar to the nativity of Jesus in the gospels.

    Your article illustrated once again how easy it is to bamboozle an unlearned public by playing on their emotional excitement. The world’s population is large enough for any fantastic fiction to find charlatans as promoters and credulous suckers as converts.

    Jerome had already noted the phenomenon: “THERE IS NOTHING SO EASY AS BY SHEER VOLUBILITY TO DECEIVE A COMMON CROWD OR AN UNEDUCATED CONGREGATION.” (Ep. 52, 8: Ad Nepotianum de vita clericorum et monachorum, Epistle to Nepotian. AD 394)

    And your article and the Fox News special prove once again that the US is a wonderful market for new “spiritual” beliefs, innovations in religions and practices, as Helena Blavatsky had noted during her 1875 New York visit to to set up the Theosophical Society of New York. She found the US “A MOST PROLIFIC HOT-BED FOR MEDIUMS AND SENSITIVES OF ALL KINDS, BOTH GENUINE AND ARTIFICIAL.”

    And your article had no warning effect on the appearance of the great special documentaries on fantastic fictions such as “The God Who Wasn’t There” and “Zeitgeist”.

    • says

      It is when going to this link and the uploaded version that I occasionally could not see a date for the paper.

      Ah, yes. Some papers in there might not have the year in the paper itself (though the one I am writing about here does; I haven’t checked all of them). But the year (along with all other data) is in the list you are getting to the article from. So, for example, go look at the entry for the NT canon article, and you’ll see the date there. That paper was not created by me, BTW (someone else created and loaded it; they edited it from my SW article, which is in HTML and still in its original location, which is not cataloged at academia.edu). So its creator may have done things differently as to those other details. But the entry itself (in the full academia.edu list of papers) has the date.

      Clicking on the title opens up the academia.edu cover page, neatly showing the date, but too often with the indication that the paper was not uploaded by the author. Unfortunately.

      Right. Because I don’t control the copyright on them.

  4. ROO BOOKAROO says

    In the same order of interest, it is worth remembering that Karl Marx composed his Ph.D. dissertation in 1841 on the subject of “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature”.

    His supervising professor was his friend Bruno Bauer, who, the same year, had written his famous “Critique of the Evangelical History of the Synoptics”, where for the first time, he stated his conclusion that Jesus had never existed, but had been a mythical figure constructed by the worshippers of the cult of Christ.
    Bauer had been exiled to the Un. of Bonn from Berlin because of his intransigent critique of the theologian establishment. The younger Karl Marx had become his friend there. When Bauer moved to Bonn, Marx followed him, and had him direct his Ph.D. thesis.

    A year later, in 1842, after a polling of the heads of the major German universities, Bauer was expelled. And was never again able to teach as a university professor.

    Marx completed his Ph.D., but prudently presented his dissertation to the University of Jena. And after Bauer’s eviction form German academic life, Marx decided that he had no future in this area, and became a journalist.

  5. seleukos says

    I was fascinated by the title of your thesis and promptly read it all, finding it enjoyable, but there is one thing that I found puzzling. The first thing that popped in my mind after reading the title was Odysseus’ conversation with Achilles in Hades (Od.11.465), where the latter says “Glorious Odysseus: don’t try to reconcile me to my dying. I’d rather serve as another man’s labourer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead”. I would have thought that that passage, which turns the heroic theme of the Iliad on its head, would merit some discussion, yet it’s completely absent from your thesis. Achilles does seem to walk away happy after Odysseus tells him what glory his son has won in battle, but Odysseus also told him that his son returned home with no wounds upon him. Before that, Achilles was mostly worried about his old father, and wished that he could return to the land of the living – not for his own glory but to help him. It seems to me like Achilles would wish he were a Chinese spirit, but was stuck in the wrong underworld…

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