Recent years have seen growing scholarly interest in the question of ‘selfhood’ and subjectivity in ancient societies. Much debate has focused on the question of whether modern, individualistic conceptions of the human subject have antecedents in premodern societies, and whether the early evolution of such a notion of human subjectivity can be detected in the ancient world. Late antiquity has been identified as a crucial moment in the ‘privatisation of the self,’ with a number of scholars suggesting that the flourishing of Neoplationism and Christianity in this period produced a heightened awareness of inner states and new value accorded to personal experience, in contrast to the more ‘objective’ and collectivist conception of personal identity in earlier periods. In his classic History of Autobiography in Antiquity, Georg Misch (1950: II, 551) suggested that the fourth and fifth centuries saw “an inward turning of the mind” manifested in an efflorescence of ‘autobiographical’ literature and a new preoccupation with memory and emotions. More recently, Philip Cary (2000: 140) has argued that the greatest ‘spiritual autobiography’ of the period – Augustine’s Confessions – “stands at the head of the Western tradition of inwardness as it comes down to us.”
This paper will challenge the claim that ‘autobiographical’ writing of the fourth and fifth centuries points to a radically new preoccupation with interiority or with the ‘private’ self. It will argue instead that the notion of ‘selfhood’ underlying first-person life-histories of late antiquity can be understood primarily as a nodal point of intersecting social relationships, and that the autobiographical subject is characterised not primarily by interior states or dispositions, but rather by socially-recognised roles he or she performs in relation to others – including the gods – and to society at large. This argument will be illustrated with examples drawn from two important ‘autobiographical’ texts of this period: the Autobiography (Oration I) of Libanius and the carmina natalicia of Paulinus of Nola. In their different ways these two works illustrate the way that the construction of the autobiographical self in late antiquity centred primarily on interpersonal relations – including relations between human beings and the divine – and the dutiful enactment of the roles that these relationships created. Libanius presents himself in a succession of such personae: he is a devoted teacher, a loving husband and brother, a loyal friend, and above all a phenomenally successful orator. Libanius represents himself as a model of successful interpersonal relationships above all because he enjoyed the special patronage of Fortune (Tύχη). Paulinus, on the other hand, represents himself as an effective bishop and leading citizen in large part because his special relationship with the patron saint of Nola, St Felix, who offers him patronage, and through him the whole Christian community.
These very different texts both illustrate what Christopher Gill (2008: 38-39) has called an ‘objective-participant’ conception of selfhood, emphasising “the capacity for interpersonal and social engagement” as opposed to the post-Cartesian emphasis on “unique individuality, ‘I’-centred self-consciousness and subjectivity.” Both Paulinus and Libanius construct their own self-presentation within important relationships – with the living, the dead, and the divine – that create the interpersonal networks from which the autobiographical ‘self’ emerges.
Narrating the Self: Autobiography in Late Antiquity