Narcissism: Ancient and Modern - written by Stanley Wilkin at

Narcissism: Ancient and Modern

Narcissism: Ancient and Modern

written by: Stanley Wilkin



Modern psychology presents the importance of narcissism, self absorption, in the construction of mental illness. Evidence of narcissism, indicates mental instability. Ambitious individuals have, from this perspective, damaged psyches. Freud saw Narcissism as a default mechanism, energy that should have been going outward being turned inward with destructive effects. It can be observed, if one chooses to do so, in a number of psychotic and sociopathic conditions. This article will consider the one dimensional nature of such an approach, and how the Narcissus and Echo myths, utilised by Freud, demonstrate wider cultural truths and that the insights of ancient people were deeper more compelling than those of recent modern thinkers. It suggests that the modern belief in healthy relationships as evidence of psychic health and unimpeded emotional growth is absurd.

This article will look at the Narcissus and Echo myths, considering their relevance to the Ancient Athenians, the Roman poet Ovid, as well as to psychoanalysis, critiquing the views of Melanie Klein, Alice Miller (who rejected psychoanalysis) and the Object Relations’ School and examine what can be learned of differing cultural perspectives on human behaviour, and what light this throws upon psychoanalysis, exploring the contradictions and similarities of the different approaches, placing the psychoanalytical understanding of the myth in its cultural context. Psychoanalysis is in this view, only another cultural interpretation.

Both psychiatry and psychoanalysis insist on the differentiation of human beings according to largely subjective categories, so ambition, success, exemplary achievement is re-classified within various terms denoting pathological behaviour. This article rejects such ideas.

The Ancient Athenian Concept of Human Nature

With the evolution of the Greek polis, or city-state, there existed a tension between ideas of civilisation, civilised nature and the natural world. Athenian men, as citizens of the polis, distinct from women, symbolised the concepts of reason and rationality. The perfect expression of human kind was a man who lived within a city and was part of a city community. The notion of an individual set apart from a city was not understood, viewed as an aberration or as a primitive form of consciousness.

Homosexual relationships were normal in most ancient Greek societies during adolescence, usually between a younger and an older man. Male romantic passion was reserved for their own sex rather than towards members of the opposite sex. Friendship between men was prized above all. Lastly, in Athens there was a sharp division between public life, a male domain, and private life, a female domain.

The Attia of Flower Myths. (Metamorphosis)

‘And in its stead they found a flower-behold/White petals clustered round a cup of gold.’

There were different versions of the myth in ancient Greece, used and developed mainly by Hellenistic poets, serving a didactic purpose. The myth may originally have concerned the worship of Eros. Ancient Greek myths which detailed metamorphosis into flowers usually had an erotic connotation, linking youth and beauty, often telling of boys dying young with their virginity intact and their metamorphosis into beautiful, useful plants. The metamorphosis stories, while erotic, do not end in sexual fulfilment and fertility. According to Forbes Irving the metamorphosis of humans or deities reflects human development, or in the case of transformation into plants, evidence of early cults. It involves the primitive side of human nature before socialisation and urban life.

Narcissus is warned that he will die young unless he learns to know himself. Such knowledge comes from sharing in a relationship. Narcissus sees his reflection in a pool, falls in love with it, and slowly dies, transforming into a flower. He did not understand that he image was his. He did not therefore know himself. The flower is a narcotic, suggesting the transformational effects of such plants and the subsequent self-absorption. The point is, by expressing fertility a youth becomes a man, that is a citizen of a polis. Ovid’s myth concerns the essential value of human development, growing sexually and emotionally.

To the Greeks, the myth expresses also the problem of excess. Too much beauty meant that Narcissus was competing with the gods and had therefore to die. Also the natural world was unable to tolerate too much wealth, luck or beauty and destroys it. The same responses can be found in our world with the sometimes hidden anger towards celebrities and the more fortunate. For Klein excess encourages the envy of others. Narcissus suffered not only from an excess of beauty but also from his virginity, in the latter offending Eros, according to Bremmer.

Echo. ‘Her love endures and grows on grief.’

It is likely the first connection between Narcissus and Echo was made by Hellenistic poets, not Ovid.

Narcissus was unable to love Echo, a nymph of trees and springs. He rejected her and she faded away until only her voice remained. I suggest that Echo personifies bestial sex through her relationship with Pan, with whom she had a son, and through being a woman. In ancient Athens women symbolised irrationality. They were associated with nature, the uncivilised part of humankind and unbridled lust.

The destructive relationship between Narcissus and Echo may therefore have reflected the tensions between civilised man and nature. Narcissus declares in Ovid: ‘Keep your arms from me/Be off! I’ll die before I yield to you.’ This may not simply be youthful arrogance. It certainly looks like that stage when a youth becomes a functioning sexual being or symbolic of exclusive homosexuality. Echo’s decline into a voice repeating the last word of other’s sentences may symbolise the suppression of Athenian women and their lack of involvement in the polis.

The Athenian males’ suppression of women may have had its roots in their upbringing. Exclusively cared for by their mothers until adolescence they were then brought up by their fathers and taught to despise and fear women. This presents an alternative to Klein’s view that primitive emotions of ‘envy and gratitude’ stemmed from reactions to the primary object. The mother. Athenian’s present such emotions as subject to ritualised behaviour, motivated by community drives. The primitive emotions envisaged by Klein would have been modified for use by the community, aiding the polis, as a community run by men with an emphasis on militarism, debate and public work, with all the intellectual contracts of rationality and reason that ensued.

The myth may reflect the tensions of the time within society between gender and the nature of erotic love. It is thus inappropriate to attach individual psychological positions to Narcissus and Echo. The two stories concern reciprocity, which obsessed ancient Greeks. The relationships ancient Athenians enjoyed with their wives carried less emotional value than in the present day. The sex act between men and women was practical in nature, assuring women lacked influence in society. In ancient Athens a man’s individuality was expressed as a component of the community, not as modern day individuality. Narcissus’ metamorphosis returns him to the natural world, where, because of the medicinal powers of the plant he becomes more useful to society. The narcotic qualities of the flower express, I believe, fertility rather than obsession or addiction.

The Myth According To Ovid:

Perry: ‘True perceptions cannot be distinguished from false ones, for every perception that is true, there is one resembling it that is false.’

Ovid composed in the Classical Tradition, meaning he imitated and referenced Greek and Roman writers before him. His poetry is didactic in the manner of Callimachus, the Hellenistic poet, and Metamorphoses debates the nature of literary form, reality and the materialistic philosophy of Lucretius. Ovid changes the myth from a homosexual to heterosexual account.

I will look at Ovid’s rendering of the myth of Narcissus to find if he agrees with or throws light onto the Freudian interpretation with his focus upon individual character as understood through sexual nature. I will examine Ovid’s understanding of love, reality, experience, gender, paradox and fate. Certainly Narcissus’ predicament reflects for Ovid Plato’s views of knowledge and reality.

Ovid questions the validity of perception through love and/or permanence of gender. Tiresias, who foretold the future, was for a brief period transformed into a woman, experiencing sex as both a man and a woman. By so doing, the unfixed nature of sexuality was emphasised. Freud sees sex as fundamental in the development of human character, interpreting the objective world through sexual drives, childhood trauma, memory and ego. For Ovid sexuality concerns the ontological nature of reality. He perceives human sexuality as more fluid and less liable to categorisation than Freud.

Narcissus’ love for his own reflection concerns for Ovid the deceptiveness of love and shows how falling in love can distort reality, confusing boundaries between subject and object. This perhaps more reflects Klein’s views on ‘the defences of the early ego’, whereby reality is structured by early development of the self through its relation to an object. Subject and object become confused.

Narcissus’ nature in Ovid, transfixed like stone by his reflection, suggests his character before metamorphoses according to Forbes Irving. This is not about the ‘tragedy of the loss of self’, as Miller believes, denied by the effects of grandiosity from adapting to the needs and desires of others, but about his own ability to deceive. He is deceived by the fluctuating nature of reality (‘You see a phantom of a mirrored shape’) and the demands of his fate.

For Ovid, Echo serves as a further example of the insubstantiality of reality, rather than the individual, as understood in modern psychological theories, caught within a dependency relationship upon another. Echo reflects back vocally in the same fashion as water reflects Narcissus’ image. Also, it may concern how language forms identity, prefiguring Freud’s grabbling with the matter. As with the Greeks from whom Ovid took many of his ideas and literary forms, the paradoxes’ of reality contained within the myth are transformed into something of greater general use.

Narcissus and Psychoanalysis:

Freud believed that narcissism is the ‘libidinal complement to the egoism of the instinct of self-preservation.’

In this section I aim to show that psychoanalysis represents a shift in perspective with regard to our understanding of objective reality from an emphasis on the external world and humankinds’ relationship to it to an emphasis on an internal world, with a corresponding shift in the understanding of reality and experience. Subjective reality became thereby a consequence of individual experience, and a splitting of reality becomes apparent. Individuals relate to only part of the world rather than the world as a whole. The later concepts of Freud (Civilisation and Its Discontents) merely acknowledge the importance of external reality, which is a commonsense strategy, but not its part in constructing objective reality. He perceives the external world as providing stimuli for the structuring of reality through individual impulses. This encourages the view that individual sexual drives or ego create events.

Such a perspective can be observed in Klein’s views on the child’s internalisation of external objects and the introjections of the ‘good internalised breast and the bad devouring breast’ which underlines her understanding of Narcissism. The myth shows Narcissus metamorphosed into an element of the greater world, becoming a flower of beauty and medicinal qualities. In psychoanalysis individuals become defined through their relationships with others, not through relationships with ideas, God, or the greater world. In object relations (Winnicott and Kohut) this is often reduced to a relationship with the primary object, the mother. It is a lesser world.

The Narcissistic Personality: ‘so long as he suffers, he ceases to love.’

Freud perceives the self-absorption of Narcissus as primary narcissism, the ‘libidinal cathexis of the ego’, and preceding cathexis of the primary object, the individual’s first nurse, and an inability to properly relate to others if continued into adulthood. They could not relate to or love others. Freud perceived these characteristics within psychotic personalities, who appeared unable to exhibit interest in the external world, but showed interest only in themselves. He also saw it in paranoiacs and homosexuals who may have identified with the mother when children. Narcissus’ rejection of intimacy in Ovid’s telling of the myth is not, according to Freud, about the mutable quality of reality but the individual’s creation of an ego-ideal that results in ‘overvaluation’ of their own qualities and capacities.

Freud’s observations seem to have been exclusively connected with the apparent self-absorption of psychically damaged individuals within his own practice, or those suffering addiction. This one dimensional characteristic may have been exaggerated by Freud due to his limited exposure to the ordinary activities of his parents. His relationship with his patients was limited to their relationship with themselves, with others through their own interpretation, failing to invest them with a valid intellectual life or allowing any influences to bear beyond the narrow focus of their sexual and emotional lives and those of others acquainted with them. The Narcissist of Freud appears attached to a smaller, sterile world, bound by individual egoism or libidinal drives compared to Ovid’s Narcissus. Freud’s early association of Narcissism and homosexuality may have had its roots in the specific delineation of gender attributes of his period.

Klein: ‘the mean and grudging breast.’

Beautiful Narcissus, for the ancient Athenians, was the envy of others. That decided his fate. Klein sees such narcissism as evidence of the sufferer’s envy. The world is perceived from the inside out, the individual born with an un-cohesive ego and temperamental predisposition restructuring the world according to early experiences with a primary object. This can be altered through the later Oedipus period and the depressive position. For Klein, the destructive envy of Narcissism begins early, and, the prime object of envy, as a consequence of dependency and subsequent fear of annihilation, is the mother’s breast. The mother becomes the bad object; a function of the baby in the paranoid schizoid position before the baby has a perception of the mother’s being a separate object. Fairbairn appears to view the mother as determining the development of psychic problems. The death of Narcissus’ putative lover, himself, and Echo’s fate, from this perspective is part of the envious destructive quality of narcissism. The ‘scooping out, sucking dry, and devouring’ of ‘the breast’. The destruction of the creativity the Narcissist envies in others. This envy prevents the proper development of object-cathexis, focusing upon a mature love object. The baby’s ego is early split between itself and the primary object, which is usually the mother.

For the Athenians, Narcissus and Echo represented the tensions specific to the polis, their relationship to the erotic, homosexual inclinations they owned, and to the journey of early life that culminated in an assumption of communal responsibilities. Childhood was part of that journey, regarded as a preparation for the real business of life, serving the community. This youths did at nineteen when they were expected to fight for the city-state. The years with their mothers were to ensure preservation. Learning began under the auspices of fathers. The traumas itemised by Freud and Klein would, assuming they exist, have been subsumed into the drives of the whole community. The early years of manhood were considered of far greater importance than childhood, an unproductive period of dependency. Children were not useful. Narcissus occupied the point between unproductively and usefulness.

Ovid dealt with the complexities of reality, the fashion that love, erotic intimacy, reflects that complexity. He understood the world intellectually and would probably have dismissed Miller’s refutation of intellectuality as a source of self-knowledge on the basis that reality is not determined by feelings or individual histories. Freud, Klein, Miller and the Object Relation’s School appear to have believed this disturbing notion. People’s relationships are perhaps a reflection of different notions of reality and do not construct it. Both the ancient Athenians and Ovid emphasised the drives of communities and of ideals beyond themselves. Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry view driven, high accomplishing individuals as exhibiting evidence of Narcissistic personality disorders when their drives are more complex than self-absorption and often informed by intellectuality which neither of the above considers a formative force.

Object Relations’ School

This mainly British version of psychology views relationships as the goal of human existence, and all other endeavours as distractions from this goal. These other endeavours, creating a business empire, writing books, other less agreeable activities, were put down to self-grandiosity (see Miller, 2001). Neither the ancient Athenians nor Ovid would have understood this notion. In fact the Athenians would have considered it shocking. While they would have appreciated the association with hubris, the alternative focus on relationships would have horrified them. Ovid would probably have viewed it as an absurd trivialisation of existence.

In societies where the individual was an expression of greater ideals, the polis or Imperial Rome and its mission, perceiving life as being about the pursuit of healthy relationships would have been treasonable or childish. Historical drives, for at least the elite, took the place of individual drives. Sexuality was not necessarily connected to individual happiness, conceived of as either a deeply serious matter (Athens) or connected to power and the state (Rome), it was far too important for that. Object Relations foisting of later individual development on the mother alone appears like an assertion of masculinity as a reaction to Britain’s loss of Imperial and political power.

Viewing individual drive, intellectuality and choice as simply evidence of a damaged psyche, controls and limits self-expression, individuality and creativity. It was, and remains, a dangerous step forward. The accompanying celebration of relationships sanctions conformity and mediocrity.

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