Saturday, March 13, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
William Wians (ed.), Logos and Muthos: Philosophical Essays in Greek Literature. SUNY Series in Ancient Greek Philosophy. Albany: SUNY Press, 2009. Pp. vii, 281. ISBN 9781438427355. $75.00.
Reviewed by Christopher Moore, The University of Texas at Austin

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This book's cover wonders whether literature and philosophy "are in fact two rival forms of discourse mutually opposed to one another." But really its dozen essays take on less programmatic issues. Each submits an early Greek text--frequently the Homeric epics or the Agamemnon, but also archaic poetry and classical tragedy--to the sort of careful reading such texts, by themselves, occasion. As a loosely coordinated collection of readings, a couple of which I would recommend to others, this collection proves satisfactory. As an argument about the position of philosophy in works outside the philosophical canon, it proves less so.

The book, according to its editor, means to "explore philosophical dimensions of literary authors." This goal gets haphazardly glossed across the first several pages as, e.g., (i) to "consider philosophical issues and ideas as they arise from or can be applied to literary... texts"; (ii) to "challenge [the] assumption ... that literary texts are somehow lacking when measured against standards of philosophical reasoning and argument"; or (iii) to "demonstrate that the poets... exhibit a high degree of critical self-awareness and reflection on issues more typically associated with ancient philosophers" (1-2).

The last of these glosses best reflects the success of the book: the poets come out looking highly well-worth reading by people concerned about their own self-knowledge and all those topics such a concern could entail. The second gloss, about the relative rigor of argument, is never addressed, and struck me as almost by definition impossible (if a philosophical text is called so just because of its preponderance of explicit argument). The first gloss, with no attention to what would make an "issue" philosophical, as opposed simply to what reasonable people would think about, struck me as vacuous.

By leaving "philosophy" undefined, or, at best, by treating it as claiming things about knowledge, or identity, or the soul, or the four elements, the book forewent a chance, I think, to ask as seriously as possible what role the appreciation of literature could have played in a classical Greek philosophical life. Assume, for instance, that philosophy is an activity that involves bringing ourselves to have only those commitments (i.e., about truth and value) for which we can find good reasons to maintain. Or assume that it's a practice meant to achieve self-knowledge, whatever self-knowledge might be. From either of those perspectives, the question about the philosophicality of a text would be a question about how that text could contribute to living rationally or to developing self-recognition. Homer's or Aeschylus's occupation with problems of ignorance or fate or virtue could then be judged perspicuous or not, mature or not, persuasive or not, rigorous or not, from some common viewpoint. The analysis of will this text give me a productive site for philosophizing? seems to me often more fruitful (as, in part, the question is answered mainly by trying) than does this text have a high philosophical quotient? In most of the cases developed in this book, the answer to the first question is "yes," and to the second question, so it seems to me, is "I'm still not quite sure what's being asked."

The collection's first essay, J.H. Lesher's "Archaic Knowledge," shows, perhaps accidentally, how to use ancient literature as a corrective to philosophy's habit of undue simplification. The opening page identifies the key terms of Greek epistemology--epistêmê, gnôsis, sophia, nous (13)--and goes on to catalogue their most telling uses in archaic poetry. Lesher takes this catalogue to justify working out an "'early Greek concept of knowledge'" (14), and begins this project by establishing three big themes: humanity's limited awareness, our trials in gaining comprehensive understanding of the past and future, and the poet's special access to divine wisdom. But, it seems to me, the real benefit in acknowledging the synonyms for "to know" might not be in their systemization. Lesher's reminder that "early Greek poets spoke often and in different ways of individuals who discover, notice, realize, and come to know about various matters and, perhaps more often, of those who fail to do so" (14) recalls that there is not just one epistemological activity or attitude. To understand the theoretical relationship between humans and the world we need to attend to the variety of those relationships. Further, by remembering the range of mistakes or limitations to which our familiarity with the world is liable or bound, we might better appreciate the sources of traditional philosophical aporia. And because most poetry has interests beyond conceptual analysis, we may come to see the ethical relevance of such epistemic puzzles, and especially the relevance to living one's life well, in concrete rather than generic "don't be epistemically hubristic!" cases. The poetry Lesher cites could help an everyday thoughtful reader by putting into excellent wording worries about certainty that he or she may have barely begun thinking about, or may expand the scope of what seemed a minor puzzle, or may legitimate one's worries by putting them in the mouth of ideal personages. For the philosophical reader, Lesher's work should provide an antidote to those who without proper grounding conflate all kinds of epistemic attitudes and states, or who assume prematurely that ancient philosophical authors who use epistemic language must themselves be making such conflations.

Fred D. Miller Jr.'s "Homer's Challenge to Philosophical Psychology" calls Homer's poems "aporetic," especially in the tricky relationships between autos, kradiê, thumos, phrenes, and between fate and responsibility. But I was not convinced that something's aporeticity--the fact that a long work seems to include incompatible positions about interesting subjects--is a criterion of philosophicality. After all, its opposites--clarity, or ease of inquiry, or coordination--don't seem very counter-philosophical. It's true that the epics prompt Miller to ask interesting questions (e.g., 33, 39, 42)--"a careful reading of Homer reveals serious aporiai" (43)--but this seems mostly to reveal something about Miller's curiosity, practice interrogating texts, and uptake of a long history of "careful reading." It would perhaps be more interesting to establish whether any of the poems' characters recognize, worry about, or try to eliminate in a thoughtful way the aporiai. Or one could ask what kind of readers would be benefited from the discovery--in Homer--of such apparently incommensurable psychological claims. After all, we're already accustomed to hearing seemingly inconsistent claims being made about souls or selves, given the range of occasions we have for talking about them. Sometimes Miller does recognize what I say: "Homer's purpose was of course not to present a theory of agency and responsibility, but to tell a story in the course of which many characters--mortal and divine--seek to justify their actions or excuse themselves, attempt to change the course of fate, and reconcile themselves to unexpected misfortunes" (39, cf. 45). But it might've been better to continue by wondering whether Homer (therefore?) doesn't dogmatically misrepresent the range of ways we view the actions of ourselves and of others, or by showing whether to understand the plot we have to make some acute (and perhaps not text-constrained) distinctions between types of responsibility.

Rose Cherubin's "Alêtheia from Poetry into Philosophy: Homer to Parmenides" inquires into the meaning of lêthê's apparent opposite by looking at its use in Homer, Pindar, and Bacchlyides (53-58). Cherubin's useful analysis shows that alêtheia means not just "true" or "revealed" or "not false" but instead something like "a comprehensive account," whatever omits all "lies, mistakes, errors, misapprehensions, gaps, or other inaccuracies [, and being sure not to] distort, conceal, omit, or ignore anything pertinent to the topic at hand" (58). She applies her analysis to questions about Parmenides' to eon (59-67). This essay exhibits how the complexity of actual word-use should inform one's philosophical interpretation.

Ramona Naddaff's "No Second Troy: Imagining Helen in Greek Antiquity" details Helen as a shifting exemplar, from the Homeric Helen's strategic or normative self-censure, to the blameless victim of erotic desire, to the wife unfailingly faithful to her husband. This essay might suggest a clever sort of syllabus for an ancient philosophy and literature class.

Gerard Naddaf's "Allegory and the Origins of Philosophy" describes the relatively seamless transition from Homeric-Hesiodic poetry to Milesian physiology thanks to the allegorists' "saving of the appearances." Emphasizing the role of Theagenes (108-111), the essay shows that Xenophanes' and Heraclitus's clumsy dismissal of epic yielded to others' (sometimes self-legitimating) claims that the poets should not be taken so absurdly literally. Drawing on Tony Long's distinction between strong and weak allegorization, Naddaf lays out some ways the stories about clashing heroes and gods got read as (intentionally or accidentally) metaphorical for clashing cosmic elements. He admits that we still don't know much about the theological or mythopoetic commitments of the pre-Socratics, but seems justified in thinking that early conceptions of philosophy involved attempts at systematizing or naturalizing the reading of authoritative literature.

Catherine Collobert's "Philosophical Readings of Homer: Ancient and Contemporary Insights" looks more broadly at the practice of appropriating Homer to "philosophy." The chapter's bulk sets out, later to dismiss, three interpretative positions: that Homer writes allegorically; that he is somehow a philosopher; and that we can understand the West or ourselves, which is a project of philosophy's, only by or through understanding Homer. As a replacement Collobert urges "collecting and gathering elements in a text and making sense of them in a coherent way"; she ends up sketching a claim about "epic immortality... as the negation of time's destructive force." Reading an epic, for Collobert, gives one material to theorize about the human condition. She is not very clear about what in Homer's text accommodates such fruitful reflection, but would presumably accept that it's unusually clear-eyed and forceful about certain aspects of the human condition: the desire for glory, the possibility of heroism, and so forth. A weakness of this chapter is its failure adequately to distance itself from the language of the interpreters it discusses; it includes, with neither scare-quotes nor definitional gloss, "philosophers['] discourse," "philosophical assertions," "philosophical doctrines," "philosophical rationality," "disclos[ing] a philosophy," "an implicit philosophy," "under[standing] reality dialectically," "an unconscious protophilosopher," "philosophical properties in epics," and "imputing... philosophical meaning." I got no sense for what the authors to whom she's responding--or she herself--thought the family of "philosophy" terms meant, delimited, or added to a sentence.

Sara Brill's "Violence and Vulnerability in Aeschylus's Suppliants" gives a useful reading of the Danaids' inner conflict and their strategic use of myth's legitimating power, especially the myth of Io.

William Wians's "The Agamemnon and Human Knowledge" argues that Aeschylus displays a pessimism about the limits of human knowledge deeper than that of Homer or the archaic poets, and quite opposed to the optimism of the Ionian natural philosophers. We see this especially in people's attempts to read and interpret and to know ta megista. "Human knowledge depends not simply on what we experience, but on what the gods allow--or force--us to experience. ... There is no method of patient inquiry a la Xenophanes, no Heraclitean unveiling of hidden nature. The ignorance of the fate of Menelaus is a potent reminder that human beings know nothing that is not taught to them by the gods" (192). But this epistemological skepticism might not wholly moot human rationality: it's possible that "memory of what has been suffered ... teaches human beings the limits of their humanity and the necessity to be moderate." And the poet may help people not by mobilizing his special access to the divine but by writing of the past: "Muthoi ... trace patterns and purposes of what was previously experienced without full comprehension" (193). Of course we might not want to see in Aeschlyus's plays warnings against philosophical optimism, but rather lessons about the usual sort of human overconfidence.

P. Christopher Smith's "Poetic Peithô as Original Speech" argues that people have not always tried to move others to action through rational, articulated argument. Its main example is Cassandra's speech in the Agamemnon, and the paper shows how highly equivocal, temporally jostled, and linguistically innovative it is. Aeschlyus, Smith argues in this "Heideggerian" interpretation, is trying to show us what persuasive speech might really have sounded like.

C.D.C. Reeve's "Luck and Virtue in Pindar, Aeschylus, and Sophocles" gives perceptive readings of the eighth Nemean, Agamemnon in the Agamemnon, and Creon in the Antigone, asking in what way virtue is susceptible to luck, and in what cases luck might neutralize one's responsibility. Reeve differentiates between four kinds of assault on virtue. (i) Chance may overpower underdeveloped virtues; resulting harm ought not to be blamed on happenstance but on the immature or thoughtless person with such bendable dispositions. (ii) A person might, because of mere accidents of birth, fail to have the requisite starting materials for virtue. (iii) Unfortunate institutional arrangements could be so powerful as to prevent virtuous action. (iv) One might exercise virtue but, due to ill luck, reap no benefit. Pindar, Reeve argues, observes that the poet's job is to ensure virtue receives its benefit; virtue causes happiness through the mediation of recognition by friends and gods. Aeschylus shows that Agamemnon's apparent compulsion, his seeming victimization by fate, in fact reflects his easily-overcome sense of morality; he is weak, and the doom that comes to him reflects his childishness. Sophocles' Creon fails both to minimize his exposure to luck and to maximize his control over affairs. His frustrations reflect his own unsympathetic, defective character. Overall, this is the most pleasantly written article, and Reeve puts his texts to a good 'philosophical' use: seeing whether he can develop, on the basis of his reading, some consistent judgment about particular moral qualities.

Paul Woodruff's "Sophocles' Humanism," also finely written, argues that "for every action [Sophocles] puts on his stage he shows a human cause" (234); and that, unlike Thucydides, "Sophocles was able to satisfy humanistic criteria without any disrespect for the background of divine sovereignty" (242). Sophocles depicted only human causes because doing so makes for a better play. But this did not require abandoning the gods, or his "reverence"; they were simply retired to the foundational myth or to ensuring oracular truth.

The final essay, Michael Davis's "The Fake That Launched a Thousand Ships: The Question of Identity in Euripides' Helen," suggests a promising view of tragedy, that it could foster self-recognition and self-knowledge, and shows--in a sort of neat elaboration of Naddaff's earlier paper--how attention to Helen, as phantom, as mistaken, as doubled, prompts rich questions about what it means to be someone.

Disappointingly, given the overlap in ancient authors under consideration, Logos and Muthos contains no subject or passages index; and despite the bulky endnotes for each chapter, and consequent difficulty finding the full information for an abbreviated reference, there is no bibliography.

Table of Contents


Introduction: From Muthos to . . .
William Wians

I: Homer and the Philosophers

1. Archaic Knowledge
J. H. Lesher

2. Homer's Challenge to Philosophical Psychology
Fred D. Miller Jr.

3. Aletheia from Poetry into Philosophy: Homer to Parmenides
Rose Cherubin 4. No Second Troy: Imagining Helen in Greek Antiquity
Ramona Naddaff

5. Allegory and the Origins of Philosophy
Gerard Naddaf

6. Philosophical Readings of Homer: Ancient and Contemporary Insights
Catherine Collobert

II: Philosophy and Tragedy

7. Violence and Vulnerability in Aeschylus's Suppliants
Sara Brill

8. The Agamemnon and Human Knowledge
William Wians

9. Poetic Peitho as Original Speech
P. Christopher Smith

10. Luck and Virtue in Pindar, Aeschylus, and Sophocles
C. D. C. Reeve

11. Sophocles' Humanism
Paul Woodruff

12. The Fake That Launched a Thousand Ships: The Question of Identity in Euripides' Helen
Michael Davis

About the Contributors
Index of Ancient Passages
Index of Names

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