Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.02.11


Mott T. Greene, Natural Knowledge in Preclassical Antiquity. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Pp. xxii + 182. ISBN 0-8018-4292-1.


Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

This is an unusual, and at the outset engaging, little book, which touches on classical concerns at numerous points, but comes from a surprising source. Mott T. Greene is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Puget Sound, specializing in 'the history of modern earth science'. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1983, and this volume is one of the results of the leisure and venturesomeness that program was meant to foster.

The express purpose is a critical assessment of certain aspects of the 'history of science' as it affects the temporal and spatial realms just out of reach of the traditional classicist. So after an introductory essay on the whole concept of 'prehistory', the substantial essays deal with Egyptian mathematics, Hesiodic myth, pre-Socratic philosophy in the person of Thales (as hydraulic engineer in the service of Croesus), the identity of the soma plant used in Persian and Indian religious rituals, and 'Plato's Myths'.

Insofar as the essays offer critical analysis of earlier studies of these subjects, they are fresh, insightful, and revealingly skeptical. If Greene has a theme here it is that the application of modern analytical techniques to questions of a natural scientific nature raised by ancient texts and artifacts has been an exercise heavily conditioned by the state of the modern science and preconceptions at the time of writing. His neatest example of this is that those who have sought in the past to identify the soma have begun from analysis of plant morphology -- shape of leaves and the like -- and in so doing have reflected the concerns and methods of nineteenth century botany; a better approach, he suggests, would be to work from the reported effects of the hallucinogenic beverage and apply the canons of biochemistry.

His best work in this vein is the introductory essay on the way in which 'prehistory' was invented to become a kind of substitute Eden myth: a period in which 'mankind' became 'truly human', though there is no direct evidence for the moment of transformation. (The mythical quality of the substitute is well captured, I would say, by the opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: that ape with a club is no more 'history' than Zeus with a thunderbolt, but he well represents our implicit common post-Christian myth of origins.) One is reminded here and often in the book of the ways in which modern scientific students have attacked aspects of ancient life with reductionist zeal, producing as often as not embarrassing mixtures of insight and daffy hypothesis.

Alas, alas. The shrewd and skeptical Mott T. Greene is Dr. Jekyll; Mr. Hyde, bristling with daffy hypothesis, lurks not far behind. So to summarize, we are instructed that volcanic activity explains quite a number of things, and that in particular the Odyssean Cyclops is Vesuvius, the battle of Zeus with Typhoeus in Hesiod reports at a distance an eruption of Etna, and the battle of Zeus and the Titans recounts with admirable scientific detail nothing less than the eruption of Thera/Santorini. Well, after that it's no surprise at all that soma turns out to be ergot, a relative of LSD. The disappointment one feels on reading these pages is palpable: surely the point of Greene's own style of argument in his Jekyll pages is to suggest that there are limits beyond which positivist claims about the historical content of myth simply cannot be pushed, and that to push those claims on whatever grounds is to make new myth, not science. So he can say (72): 'If we cart off the freight of excessive theory and take the texts at their words, we can develop a close connection in logic and content between parts of these earliest Greek texts and the speculations of the Ionian physiologoi, and perhaps come to a better understanding of the approach to natural phenomena that characterized Greek thought in the period down to about 500 B.C.' Alas, he sees the mote of theory in another man's eye but not the beam in his own; he needed to learn the great lesson of the 70s and 80s, that theory is not an excrescence that is occasionally added to reading, but an immanent presence in every reading, and that true progress in reading comes in the revelation of the reader's own presuppositions and weaknesses. Ever alert to the weaknesses of his predecessors, Greene/Hyde sees none of his own and so subsides quickly.

The final essay, on 'Plato's Myths' turns out to be about the Phaedrus. One of the grand-daddy's of modern daffy non-classicists was Robert Pirsig, who put that dialogue on the table in 1974, and scarcely a month has passed since, it seems, without a new study. Greene seems partial to Ferrari's Listening to the Cicadas, as I am, but has nothing to offer to my taste that Ferrari did not say better. The book as a whole is easy and in some ways entertaining reading (the description of Krakatoa's eruption, offered to parallel Thera, is certainly hair-raising), but it belongs on the shelf next to Julian Jaynes, and only about half a shelf down from Velikovsky.