Epigenetics and Environmental Ethics II: The Ancient Greeks and then the Romans


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

In addition to the potential to unify the biological sciences and the social and the life sciences as discussed here, the first post in this series proposes that  epigenetics also has the potential to unify the seemingly opposed ethical poles of anthropocentricism and nonanthropocentricism in environmental ethics through the common intellectual heritage shared by the modern Western concept of the self and the equally modern concept of the gene.  As epigenetics challenges so many of the conventional orthodoxies of genetics, and particularly the assertion of definite boundaries between the organism and the environment, epigenetics likewise challenges the same philosophical assertion in regards to the self which is such a fundamental component of both anthropocentric and nonanthropcentric environmental ethics.

This post will supply important background information in regards to the evolution of this modern concept of a self as a “bounded, unique…dynamic center of awareness…organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against its social and natural background,” and its relation to the description of genes which are described  in much the same language.

The ‘Self’-less Greeks and the ‘Self’-ish Romans

The ancient Greeks are usually the starting point for discussions about the origins of modern conceptions such as the self, but the Greeks are notable in this instance for their lack of articulation of an autonomous and distinct ‘self’ as understood in the modern sense. The Greek view of person as depicted by Aristotle, for example, is intimately intertwined with its external contexts. “Man,” Aristotle writes, “is by nature a social and political being,”[1] to the extent that a person living outside of a polis [i.e., a Greek city-state] is not capable of actually being a person and is not even capable of being fully human.[2] In other words, the Greek notion of a human self in particular is dependent almost entirely on the social and environmental context of the individual, and is thus not autonomous in the sense we moderns understand the self.

This is why the sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss, in his history of the evolution of the concept of the self and personhood, identifies the Romans as the more likely source for the distinctly modern notion of this autonomous self that is the basis of both modern ethics and contemporary genetics. What was distinct about the Romans in this sense, according to Mauss, is that through them the identity of a person became more than an inherited name or a social role as it was for the Greeks, but actually became a “basic fact of law.”[3]

Early Roman law was originally premised upon the same basic distinctions as in Ancient Greece and was applied according to what is called the “personality principle,” or that the laws of a community did not apply to a particular territory (i.e., territoriality) but rather applied only to persons recognized as members of the community. This principle left outsiders and their property entirely unprotected unless or until they secured the personal protection of a member of the community.

However, as the Empire expanded and aliens became more prevalent and trade with foreigners more important, the legal concept of personhood expanded as well, though still revolving around the ownership of property.[4] Eventually, Roman jurisprudence divided all things legal into jus personarum, or Law of Persons, and jus rerum, or Law of Things, the principal object of which is to ascertain how far a person can have a permanent dominion over things, and how that dominion is acquired. From this legal division of persons from things, the notion of personae, by which is meant a human individual, first gained its more modern meaning through opposition to res, or things external to persons which can be possessed as property.[5]

Mauss traces the further development of this modern self through the influence of some Greek moralists, and the Stoics in particular, on the classical Roman thinkers who enriched this more legalistic definition of persona with the addition of a moral sense, or “a sense of being conscious, independent, autonomous, free and responsible.”[6] According to Mauss, this addition of a moral conscience as part of the self is the result of the introduction of “consciousness into the juridical conception of the law,” which entails a necessary knowledge of right and wrong in order to be justly judged guilty or innocent of legal infractions.[7] Eventually, this legally necessary awareness of laws expanded to become consciousness of rights and obligations in general as a necessary attribute of a moral person, such that legal conscientiousness eventually became self-consciousness. Mauss refers especially to Epictetus (AD 55 to AD135), the Roman Stoic philosopher, for the way Epictetus combines the dualism of Plato with the emerging Roman concept of a legal person, resulting in an individual person composed of two distinct parts: a “poor donkey” of a body that is directed by some kind of reasoning soul or mind.[8] Because a person is now conceived as possessing both a reasoning capacity and a body to be directed by this capacity – ideally so as to achieve the person’s highest good[9] – these increasingly individualized and autonomous persons were granted increasingly more legal and moral responsibility for their choices.

Mauss does not mention this, but this same legal division of persons and things was later adopted by Sir William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England published in 1765,[10] a book which has had a remarkable influence over the trajectory of modern Western thought coincidental with the spread of the British Empire. [11] For example, in regards to America specifically, Blackstone’s Commentaries have shaped “all our formative documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and the seminal decisions of the Supreme Court,” ranking “second only to the Bible as a literary and intellectual influence on the history of American institutions.”[12] In fact, Blackstone’s Commentaries has been referred to as “the bible of legal American institutions,”[13] which speaks to how profoundly this conception of the dichotomized and autonomous individual self has permeated American culture specifically and modern Westernized culture in general.

However, at this stage – with the classical Romans – this concept of the self still lacks a clear metaphysical foundation (which is the root of the modern philosophical self), as well as a physical explanation (which is the root of the gene or genome as the embodiment of this individual self). According to Mauss and others, Christianity supplied the metaphysical foundation, which then strongly influenced the physical explanation, such that in contemporary Western societies “our own notion of the human person is still basically the Christian one.”[14] As will be seen in the next section, this metaphysical legacy from Christianity also plays a significant role in the eventual definition of genes which constitute the Modern Synthesis.

I am curious to hear what you think so far. Leave your comments below and I will respond.

Also, if you find these thoughts I’ve shared interesting and worthwhile, Like this post, Reblog it, or Tweet about it using the buttons below.

[1] Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. T. Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1985; 1097b6-11.

[2] Aristotle. The Politics. Trans. T.A. Sinclair. London: Penguin Books, 1981: 1253a1-17.

[3] Mauss, M. “A category of the human mind: the notion of person; the notion of self.” The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. 1-25.

[4] Wolff, H.J. Roman Law: An Historical Introduction. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954.

[5] Clark, E.C. History of Roman Private Law. Vol. II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914: 455-456.

[6] Mauss 1985.

[7] Mauss 1985.

[8] Epictetus; The Discourses, translated by W. A. Oldfather. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1926; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, II, Book IV, Chap.I, pp. 265-273; (Epictetus, 1904, pp. 10, 20, 53, 93-94, 108, 212)

[9] Epictetus. Discourses of Epictetus. Trans. G. Long. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1904: 27, 44.

[10] Blackstone, W. Commentaries on the Laws of England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

[11] Austin, J. Lectures on Jurisprudence or the Philosophy of Positive Law. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1880: 362-366.

[12] Bader, William D. 1995. “Some Thoughts on Blackstone, Precedent and Originalism”. Vermont Law Review 19(5).

[13] Boorstin, Daniel J., The Mysterious Science of the Law (Beacon Press 1958): iii.

[14] Mauss 1985.


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