Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Renaud Gagné, Ancestral Fault in Ancient Greece. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. ix, 556. ISBN 9781107039803. $130.00.

Reviewed by Ruth Scodel, The University of Michigan (

Version at BMCR home site


To apply the distinction between lumpers and splitters—those who see similarities, and those who perceive differences — that goes back to at least Francis Bacon's Novum Organum (1.LV), Gagné is as dedicated and energetic a splitter as you could easily find, and he examines a topic that needs his knife. "Ancestral fault" is what he calls what many of us were accustomed to call "inherited guilt" or "ancestral curses" (I wonder if "ancestral liability" might be an even less weighted term.) He argues that the idea that people may suffer because of wrongs committed by their ancestors is not a primitive survival into the classical period. On the contrary, in its earliest form it is confined to the oath in which the swearer calls down ruin not only on himself, but on his descendants. It develops as symposiastic poetry debates issues of heredity and wealth. In the classical period, politically relevant at Athens because of the alleged impurity of the Alcmaeonids, it is a cluster of ideas peculiarly well-suited to tragedy and to Herodotus' concern for causally linking events in time. It cannot exactly be called a belief, since each manifestation is different, although especially in tragedy each deployment of a form of ancestral fault depends on those that came before. Only after the classical period is it systematized as implicit theology becomes explicit; it is a cultural concept that can be named, but there is no doctrine. It was also not some kind of core belief. While it is important in some tragedies, others completely ignore it. Oedipus the King never raises the possibility of ancestral fault, even though the Atreids and Labdacids were the families most associated with the idea. Thucydides had no interest in it, and neither Plato nor Aristotle found it ethically meaningful or relevant.

The argument is convincing, and it has methodological value beyond itself — it provides a workable model for thinking about such cultural concepts without reifying them. Furthermore, the book is full of enlightening discussion of individual passages and problems, showing how different apparently similar treatments can be (the disentangling of the various versions of the affair of Cylon on 306-25 is both convincing and delightful). The treatment of tragedy is especially rich. Sometimes ancestral fault entails a hereditary disposition to wrongdoing; sometimes, on the contrary, it is a mechanism for defending a speaker's innocence (as it is for Oedipus in Oedipus at Colonus). This is a valuable and important book.

That said, it is also irritating. Many readers will be happier if they begin at p. 159, with Hesiod. The first section concerns itself with Proclus' De decem dubitantionibus circa Providentiam and Plutarch's de sera numinis vindicta, and with the history of the reception of ancestral fault. This is not uninteresting in itself, but I found it very hard going. I did know a little (a very little) about Grotius, but not about Sebastokrator or William of Moerbeke. More to the point, although I felt myself on firmer ground when the discussion reached Rohde, Glotz, and finally Dodds and Lloyd-Jones, I did not find that the journey paid for itself as preparation for the argument proper. Certainly the history of assimilating Greek ancestral fault to Christian original sin and the punishment of children for their fathers' sin in the Hebrew Bible has not helped our understanding of archaic Greek ideas about ancestral fault, nor has reading archaic Greek texts through the systematizations of Plutarch. (I would actually be interested in a real discussion of Hebrew and Greek thought about the matter, but that would be another book.) After reading all this, I have a better understanding of why different scholars had the views they had, but the rest of the book would have been as effective without it. I see why Gagné did it this way, but I think it is off-putting rather than helpful.

The style of the book also makes the reader's work harder than it needs to be, and the book would have benefitted from more pruning and editing. It is sometimes repetitious, and sometimes less important passages are quoted in full and then the argument depends on lines that have not been cited. Some points are hammered to death. I have rarely read anything that used the word "instrumentalization" quite so often. Especially in the section on symposiastic poetry, the splitter's rhetoric is extreme, so that a really fine analysis of how poems of Solon and their close relatives in the Theognidea differ makes them into polar opposites, and Herodotus' Croesus is not just profoundly different from the Croesus of lyric, but polemically different. Gagné says (p. 17) of Sewell-Rutter's book on inherited guilt in tragedy that "the danger is to mistake the forest for the trees"; Gagné sees both forest and trees, but maybe he is sometimes too eager to place each tree at the greatest possible distance from every other.1

Occasionally the analysis seems to me to go wrong or to miss something. In the discussion of Herodotus 6.86, the story of Glaukos, Gagné sees the message that intending to commit perjury and steal a deposit is as bad as the action. I would have appreciated a comparison with 1.159, where asking Apollo about betraying suppliants is itself a crime: I suspect that an evil intention will not bring on divine wrath if the potential violator stops himself before he commits the offence, and maybe even if others convince him not to commit it, but that consulting an oracle, and thereby trying to involve the gods in a wicked deed, will arouse their anger as if the consulter had performed the action.

Gagné's reading of one very important text, Solon's Hymn to the Muses, did not convince. Gagné sees the two halves of the poem as distinct only in the perspective: in the first part, the poet speaks from his understanding of the workings of the gods, while the second addresses the limited understanding of humanity; ancestral fault is central to the whole poem: "everything that moves is either a transgression or a punishment" (240). I simply cannot see how ancestral fault is to be linked to all the delusions of humanity, even the ugly man who thinks he is good-looking (40). Since the second part of the poem attributes deluded optimism to all human beings, this interpretation must posit, if I understand it correctly, that everyone has an ancestor who was wicked and whose crimes have not yet been expiated, and that all failure is the result of personal or ancestral wrongdoing. I just do not believe that Solon believed that. Rather our ignorance of potential ancestral fault is an especially strong example of our wider ignorance of Moira. I would also argue that poems like this one do not present a thought as the poet has worked it through in advance, but represent the process of his thought. So the movement from the inevitable punishment of wickedness leads to the punishment of the innocent for their ancestors' crimes, and because people do not consider the possibility that an ancestor's wrongdoing may bring destruction on them, ancestral fault leads him to consider the general human propensity to false expectation and false belief, and finally to greed and its result, which works back to ancestral fault.

A learned, wide-ranging, and original book. Everyone should read it who is interested in Greek ethics, or symposiastic poetry, or Greek political debates about pollution, or tragedy, or Herodotus, or Greek theology in the imperial period. But some of those readers may want to skip the first section.


1.   N. J. Sewell-Rutter, Guilt by Descent: Moral Inheritance and Decision Making in Greek Tragedy, Oxford (2007).

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