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The Gaze in the Mirror: Human Self and the Myth of Dionysus in Plotinus

Panayiota Vassilopoulou

Abstract

At the core of Plotinus’ exploration of human selfhood, lies a reference to the myth of Dionysus-Zagreus and his mirror, one of the toys the Titans used to seduce the young Dionysus (iv.3[27].12). In interpreting the myth within this context, the mirror has been invariably regarded by scholars as a symbol for matter, an external surface on which the soul is projected and becomes embodied as a human individual by dispersing in the material depths. This paper challenges this established view and advances a new interpretation of Plotinus’ allusion to the myth and its philosophical significance. It argues that the mirror is not a symbol for matter, but rather a symbol for the soul itself, for its power to transform itself and retain its identity in the process of becoming a human individual. The function of the mirror is thus both deceptive and protective. While the desire that the soul, deceived by the mirror, feels for its own image guides it to leave behind its original condition and unity, it is this same desire that keeps the soul within itself: protected by the Dionysian mirror, even the most dispersed soul cannot desire anything other than what it takes to be itself, hence rather than disappearing in the radical alterity of matter, soul reaffirms its identity as an individual human self.

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Published Online: 2020-11-20

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