Monday, January 18, 2016


Harald Haarmann, Myth as Source of Knowledge in Early Western Thought: The Quest for Historiography, Science and Philosophy in Greek Antiquity. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2015. Pp. viii, 238. ISBN 9783447103626. €48.00.

Reviewed by William Wians, Merrimack College (

Version at BMCR home site

The title of the book under review immediately arouses interest by promising a far-ranging study of a persistent and important question. The table of contents, listing ten chapters plus an introduction and epilogue, seems to project a systematic approach to the central question, beginning with a theoretical foundation and moving through considerations of early philosophy and history to Plato as mythmaker and concluding with the place of myth in Hellenistic thought. The book is handsomely produced, so the reader might expect scholarship at a high if sweeping level to match.

Haarmann argues that scholars beholden to an Enlightenment "cult of reason" overlook and disparage the value—indeed, the treasure—contained in the mythic inheritance from ancient Greece. The argument is advanced over ten chapters, plus a short epilogue. Haarmann begins by situating myth within various larger contexts: culture, worldview, science, and politics. He moves to reflections on myth as a vehicle for cultural memory and as a mechanism for ancient knowledge construction. This in turn leads to an analysis of mythopoetic conceptualizations of the world, in which the role of myth in culture formation is central. Haarmann then considers myth-making in the social and political contexts of the rise of the city-state, with a special emphasis on Athens, arguing that myth played a central role in constituting the Athenian identity. At this point, Haarmann returns to an earlier phase of Greek culture to examine the connection between myth and orality. He delves into an extended treatment of Linear A and B and Cycladic and Minoan culture, bringing the digression back to the question of orality and literacy in classical Greece. There follows chapters devoted to mythic dimensions and holdovers in the pre-Socratics, to Herodotus as myth-maker, and to the sense in which Plato could be said to create myths for his own purposes. Haarmann's broad survey concludes with a briefer chapter on the transformations of myth in the Hellenistic period, where the first loss of appreciation of the value of myth occurs.

Despite Haarmann's ambitious program and broad reading, things start to go wrong from the very beginning, and the accumulation of problems makes the book essentially unreadable. For several decades scholars have regarded the old opposition between myth and reason as discredited. It is now widely recognized that mythic thinking never entirely disappeared from ancient thought. Haarmann ought to be aware of this—he quotes from a limited but competent set of scholars of ancient thought on the value and persistence of myth. But already on the introduction's first page he writes as if the old opposition still dominates the current landscape and that contemporary scholars are guilty of keeping it alive: "Indeed, the alleged displacement of mythos by logos in ancient Greece is itself a myth, a myth of our modern age, to be precise" (p. 1). Who these modern perpetuators are he never says, nor does he support his assertion with so much as a single passage from recent scholarship. Instead he writes as if he is the first to object to the old opposition, as in both the title of his second chapter ("Myth and knowledge—An intimate but little known relationship"), and in that chapter's closing sentence: "… it seems extraordinary that scholars through the ages could have ignored the dynamic interplay of mythos and logos—as concepts on an equal footing—in the intellectual life of classical antiquity" (p. 35). He repeats such claims often, from the introduction through to the final pages (see p. 246ff). Whether such an attitude is tendentious or merely uninformed hardly matters. It alone would make it impossible to recommend the book. Unfortunately, there are many other reasons not to do so.

Though Haarmann has read broadly and quotes liberally from what he has read, his scholarship is worse than weak. Haarmann makes no real use of Greek, confining himself to a small set of transliterated terms, e.g., logos, mythos, and a few others, and snippets from what his sources have said about them. Though, for example, Chapter Six discusses Linear A and Linear B as part of a consideration of orality and literacy and the "preconditions for the making of history and philosophy," Haarmann relies exclusively on secondary sources. There is no original discussion of the issues.

Haarmann rarely cites ancient texts in either the original or translation. I found no quotation from an ancient text prior to page 46, and no second ancient passage quoted until 30 pages later. Instead, he relies on a small group of competent current specialists—Morgan, Rowe, and Murray in ancient philosophy, for instance—who talk about Plato, or about Parmenides, or about Homer. And though he seems to cite established scholars from the various fields he discusses, specialists will quickly spot the gaps in his bibliography and the odd selectivity of whom he cites. By that I mean that that the secondary literature is at best skimmed, and only those opinions useful for Haarmann's purposes are cited.

When Haarmann does quote, whether the rare ancient text or the frequent selections from recent opinion, he does so without a hint of scholarly controversy. What passes as argument consists mainly in stringing together block quotations. Haarmann makes an assertion, quotes some recent authority in support, then moves on to the next point without further discussion. Absent in case after case is any acknowledgement that key texts are problematic, any review of the history of interpretation that has brought scholarship to its current position, any mention of rival approaches and solutions, or even of the original reasons and arguments behind the opinions Haarmann cites.

We are told, for instance that Plato regarded myth, including the stories in Homer, as an essential tool in educating the young. But Plato's complex attitude toward myth and his fraught engagement with Homer are presented as if they are unproblematic in their own terms, without any acknowledgement of the controversies in the vast secondary literature surrounding them. Similarly with an extended discussion late in the book devoted to gender in the Laws (ignoring for a moment how this topic relates to his central theme). Haarmann gives no indication that the topic is one of the most contentious in Platonic scholarship or that the scholars he cites are partisans in such disputes. Even the most controversial claims are handled in this way. Yet despite the book's polemical tone, Haarmann's world of citation is a peaceable kingdom in which everyone cited to seems to agree with one another—and with him. There is no engagement with other scholars. They are merely used. The frequent quotations from his broad reading seem intended to close questions, not open them.

Related to his desultory practice of citation, Haarmann's argument both on a large scale and in fine lacks coherence. In every chapter, and I dare say on almost every page, one wonders how the author got from A to C, and often even to B. The inclusion of the topic of gender in Plato is one example (pp. 227-34). A loose connection based on a vague conception of Plato as mythmaker provides the link. Another is a discussion coming out of left field about primitivism in the sculptures of Henry Moore (pp. 154-57). Haarmann had set up a straw man in a previous paragraph imaging an opponent to his argument claiming that Greek myth is somehow primitive (though no definition of the term is given). He knocks down his straw man by extolling the prominence given to the concept of the primitive in modern art, with Moore as his example. One is consistently surprised by the digressions the author allows himself, sometimes in passing but in other cases as subjects of more extended discussions, and typically with only a tangential relation to the ancient subject ostensibly under consideration: nineteenth-century Prussia, European emigration to the US, the Cold War, current Russian adventures in the Ukraine, the disappearance of the Aral Sea (complete with maps), and climate change (apparently as a possible contemporary instance of an eikos mythos, though whether in a good sense or bad I cannot decide).

Perhaps the most telling indication of the lack of coherence is the various senses of myth Haarmann employs, seemingly unaware of how poorly they cohere. The "most general property" of myth receives a competent specification taken from Graf that myth "is told, that is, its manifestation is narrative…", with an expansion of the concept of narrative based on a long quotation from Barthes (p. 37). One could quibble that Barthes's conception of narrative goes far beyond myth, whereas Haarmann seems immediately to make narrative equivalent to myth. But there are larger problems. Already from the book's beginning, other senses, sometimes merely different and sometimes incompatible, are employed. Myth is a way for early peoples to engage with and attempt to explain the world. Myth is a condition of the world we inhabit. Myth evokes images—they are visual and iconic. They are a tool for instructing the young. They are taken as true by those who hear them. Myths need not be taken as true. They are a "precious resource" of cultural knowledge and a "rich heritage of human cultural memory." They are imbedded in our subconscious and are a model of human symbolic activity. The supposedly narrow current conception of myth is wrong because myth is fundamentally ambiguous. Myth, it seems, is all of these things—and I've taken these senses from just the book's introduction. Reading the book, one is constantly challenged to decide which sense of myth is operative in a given context.

I said that the book is well produced. But one notices there is no index locorum, just before realizing there is no need for one. The index that is included is problematic. Titles of works—the Republic, the Laws, the Poetics, De Anima, the Metaphysics, the Memorabilia—are listed as main entries without indicating their author. Entries for Plato and Aristotle do not have subheads for specific works or concepts. There is no entry for Xenophon. There are entries for muthoi (not italicized), mythoi and muthos, all without subheads.

For whom is this book written? It cannot be the specialist in ancient history or philosophy (except as a kind of ill-informed scold. If not the specialist, then perhaps the book is targeted at a general reader. No doubt every person reading this review has enjoyed and benefited from such books outside his or her specialty. But Haarmann's lack of any evident concern, much less engagement, with scholarly debates and the absence of disclosing such debates to his reader makes the book seem intended to tell others what to think, an instructive product in the worst sense. Both the specialist and non- specialist need competent books that will interest and enlighten them. I cannot recommend this book to either audience.

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