Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.05.01

Tobias Reichardt, Recht und Rationalität im frühen Griechenland.   Würzburg:  Königshausen & Neumann, 2003.  Pp. 234.  ISBN 3-8260-2649-7.  €36.00.  

Reviewed by Markus Asper, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (
Word count: 2658 words

With this book, Tobias Reichardt (R.) addresses one of the key problems of archaic Greece: why did the specific forms of reasoning we are used to thinking of 'abstract' or 'rational' emerge in this time period and in this region? For an answer, R. investigates the law and legislation of the archaic Greek polis as rational practices or, even more pointedly, as causes of rationality. His claim is that the legislation and jurisdiction of the archaic polis is the ground on which Greek rationality has grown. Promising as this approach certainly is, the argument is flawed by at least three major shortcomings. First, R. confines himself almost exclusively to evidence from archaic poetry or presocratic texts. Inscriptions are discussed only in the case of Draco. Secondly, his argument focuses more or less entirely on Athens. Thirdly, his main objective is not historical but philosophical, as he announces, namely to show that rationality as such is not autonomous, but embedded in social, i.e., historical, practices, which today hardly anyone will dispute. Often it appears as if R. is fighting a battle which has already been fought long ago: his idea is to demystify rationality by looking at its historical, i.e. socio-political, setting (12). However, this demystification remains in such a preliminary state that I fail to see what profit a student of philosophy would gain from this work.

In his introduction R. traces the prehistory of investigations like his own, beginning from Gernet, G. Vlastos, Vernant and ending with G.E.R. Lloyd1 and Ch. Meier. He gives us a rather general, though useful, picture, obviously aiming at an audience which is not abreast of the debate in ancient studies but looks at archaic Greek rationality from the angle of modern philosophy. R. correctly observes that all these former theoretical approaches have failed to inspect closely the actual rational practices of the polis. At this point already, the reader is disturbed by both the anachronistic and excessive use of terms like 'reason' ("Vernunft"), 'enlightenment' ("Aufklärung") etc. which are hardly ever qualified historically. Although R. constantly talks about social practices, he does not seem to be aware of social stratification or local differences in archaic Greece (he only knows 'ages' that, in his view, have their specific line of thought, as e.g. Cassirer's 'mythical thought' ("mythisches Denken")). Having alerted us to the range and importance of the topic, R. divides his book into three sections, dealing with the 'age of epics' ("Die Zeit der Epen"), the archaic legislations (i.e. at Athens) and presocratic and sophistic thought.

In his first chapter, R. discusses 'epic society' and its use of law and social norms. In contrast to the introduction, this chapter's arguments are ill-informed and lead R. more often than not to odd conclusions. According to R. epic society is characterized by its inability or unwillingness to discern nature and society, that is to perceive established systems of power, law or legislation as contingent, or, in more imposing terms, mankind is still not free and still not enlightened (74) because it believes in divinely legitimized power. R. is convinced that abstract thought could develop only in the city-state because the strictly personal forms of power in 'epic times' did not encourage criticism and rationality (for R., these always go together) whereas in the city-states law as a contingent generalization emerged.

Obviously, R. assumes that 'epic society' depicts a historical reality, in social and political ways, whereas there is increasing agreement in scholarship that we cannot expect the Homeric poems to present us with a coherent picture of the political organisation of the societies described.2 R. does not reckon with the possibility that the Homeric epics present a fictitious heroic world to an archaic society as a sort of distant mirror. Therefore, he generalizes epic concepts into historically accurate depictions of the social groups that listened to these epics. R. does not distinguish the 'mythical thought' ("mythisches Denken") which he finds in archaic epic from actual practices of law in a given historical setting. This 'mythical thought' is, according to R., pervaded by 'irrational' practices like magic and ritual and 'primitive religion' (here, as throughout the whole book, R. would have profited from either defining terms like 'rational' etc. or at least from illustrating them with material from cultures other than Greece -- which R.'s explicit disdain for 'relativism' prohibits him from doing). Sometimes, R. indulges in digressions concerned with modern esoteric mythology (57) or, rather surprisingly, with comparisons of 'capitalism' and 'archaic consciousness' ("archaisches Bewusstsein", 60). The conception of kingdom and divinely legitimized hierarchy, which we find in archaic Epic, is, R. tells us, simply 'wrong' ("falsch" 62), because the epic poets were not aware of the historical contingency of these forms of power. On top of this decidedly anachronistic stance, R. seems to overlook the fact that even archaic poets have intentions that could prevent them from launching any criticism at socially established forms of power. Because Homer and especially Hesiod allegedly rationalize and systematize religious beliefs, R. calls them 'agents of enlightenment' ("Agenten der Aufklärung"). Lengthy expositions of 'epic' religion (80ff. about man and gods and anthropomorphic religion as progressive compared to personifications of nature) present Homer and Hesiod as forerunners of Xenophanes. R. never bothers to consider actual, non-literary religion. Methodologically, R. here and throughout the whole book favours a 'Snellian' approach in the sense that he tries to discover and to defend a strictly linear development from archaic epic to the presocratics and the sophists. Simplistically, this linear development is presented as a progress of increasing rationality. To the present reviewer, this seems to be an all too narrow-minded outlook on Greek archaic society which, above all, blindly assumes that one or two voices suffice as witnesses for entire centuries. The reader may ask why people in the fifth century were reading Homer at all if they had made such a significant progress in terms of rationality. Although his own line of argument is anything but waterproof, R. feels entitled to attack e.g. P. Veyne in strong terms (86 n. 31: "konfuser Blödsinn").

Chapter Two deals with Draco's laws, and above all, with Solon. As was to be expected, R. singles out Athens as a typical polis (92), although it is commonly agreed that in archaic times Athens was quite atypical, especially in economic terms. After a short sketch of Draco's legislation which, as far as I can tell, neither supports his argument nor present new insights, R. deals extensively with Solon, whom he sees as a person through whom rationality finally had its triumph. A lengthy exposition of what we still know of Solon, based on the works of Ruschenbusch, leads R. to the conclusion (118) that this astonishingly radical reform was based exclusively on the rationality and authority of one single man, not on some religious authority. In a second step, R. tries to reconstruct the political thought ("politisches Bewußtsein") of Solon which turns out to be more or less a summary of or commentary upon Solon's poetical fragments. (In fact, many of these commentaries have nothing to do with rationality.) Here, R. perceives Solon as a rationalizer of the old epic gods (p. 125 commenting upon fr. 15 G.-P.). However, as R. himself admits, Zeus in Od. 1 already stated essentially the same thing, which should have made R. doubtful about his linear constructions. The elaborations of R. concerning the role and function of religion in the Greek polis are as anachronistic as they are prone to simplification: e.g., he confronts the 'state' with the 'priests'.3 R. seems to claim (p. 136) that Solon's duties as diallaktes forced him to think in general terms because he was compelled to develop a concept of general interest. Hence, R. christens Solon the discoverer of general theory because of the objectivity of his position in the polis. Regrettably, R. does not discuss the Gortyn law code, which after all is the only archaic legislation we can still lay our hands on: this would have shown the evolutionary character of the 'rationality' inherent in archaic Greek legislation. (On p. 150 R. dismisses other archaic legislation compared to Solon's as less systematic, i.e. more rhapsodic which strikes me as a somewhat surprising qualification when applied to the Code of Gortyn.4) Furthermore, R. assumes, correctly, as it seems to me, that general law rationalized broad groups of the population (but how, exactly, is left to the reader's imagination). Thus, these examples of archaic legislation are, R. claims, the background (obviously he means something like a presocratic archê) of the emergence of autonomous theory.

Some minor remarks. In this chapter, for one, we find a comparison with Egypt and the ancient Near Eastern cultures (149). All the more problematic, though, is the category of 'progress' which R. constantly applies to his material. He obviously wants us to conceive the Greek polis as a political system that has 'progressed' or 'advanced' from an earlier stage represented by the ancient near Eastern city-states. But, one may ask, what is the starting-point and what is the direction of such progress? R. seems to imply a teleology of increasing rationality in world history within which the Greek polis allegedly marks a more advanced stage. The whole argument is pervaded by surprisingly strong overtones of Marxist terminology: 'society' ("die Gesellschaft") often is made to stand for 'economy'; in order to characterize the oikos Marx is quoted. This is fine, but a modern scholar like R. could do better than that, particularly since R. makes it clear that he does not adopt a Marxist stance. The utopian perspective of R. is apparent in his idea that the pursuit of power in itself was somehow irrational (151): the polis of Athens is mainly rational, in so far as free, male citizens are taken into account, but its military activities that were geared towards domination of other poleis are not. To this perspective most Athenian citizens would hardly have subscribed.

The third chapter is concerned with 'the beginnings of philosophy'. After a narration of Athenian history 550-404 R. discusses (164ff.) dike, nomos, themis and related concepts in the fragments of Anaximander, Heraklitus, Parmenides and the Atomists. Here, R.'s overall claim that the progress of rationality is linked to the development of the polis is less clear than in the case of Solon (even if we accept the doubtful concept of a progress of rationality, p. 176ff.). Although there is agreement in scholarship that some concepts, esp. the famous fragment of Anaximander, are derived from the polis's organization, it seems quite perverse to reduce the whole of presocratic thought to political structures (not surprisingly, the Eleatics are nearly invisible in this picture). Again, the concept of 'enlightenment' and the glorious progress of rationality loom large in R.'s discussion of the sophists (179ff.). R. explains the 'individualism' (another one of these unnecessarily anachronistic notions that often blur R.'s argument) of the sophists by their economic situation (189), independent of any oikos or larger family structure. Sophistic core issues like relativism, the physis-nomos debate, or criticism of religion are reduced to the new economic situation. To be sure, R. is absolutely correct in claiming that the experience of discussions in the law courts would have backed up the sophistic idea of relativism (195). He is right as well that the practice of legislation at Athens (and elsewhere) will have furthered the nomos-physis debate since all these laws and edicts were obviously made by man. Just as Homer and Hesiod before them and, naturally, even to a greater extent, the sophists become agents of criticism and forerunners of modern thought about human rights etc. (195f.) However, to the disappointment of R., they did not aim at changing society. The individualism of the sophists is the consequence, according to R., of the liberation of the individual by the polis' development into a state ("Staatswerdung der Polis", p. 201), because according to R. only a 'state' would present individuals with freedom in economic terms. This argument lacks historical foundation. The sophists admittedly may have been not entirely embedded in a polis, which may have helped them to take a critical look at some institutions of the poleis in general. However, I fail to see any significant change in the polis in these times that might have liberated individuals from the economic constraints of the oikos. Besides, in purely economic terms, i.e, in terms of economic individualism, the sophists were not much different from the physicians or highly specialized migrant workers of earlier ages,5 who are not known to have developed relativist positions. R. concludes his argument (203ff.) with a discussion of A. Sohn-Rethel's theories, according to which Greek rationality is due to coinage and use of money. R. refutes, with much justification, Sohn-Rethel and his modern successors. Here, as the reader gratefully acknowledges, R. finally declares his distance from some of the more orthodox Marxist positions that had played a prominent, albeit implicit, role in many parts of his book.

In addition to what I stated earlier, there are some objections which severely limit the usefulness of this inherently intelligent book. First, we nearly totally miss comparisons with other cultures, with other practices of law. Secondly, though R. is talking about practice all the time in his introduction and though he has scolded Vernant and his disciples for not dealing with the actual practices of reason in the archaic polis, he himself nearly entirely neglects actual practices. With the exception of Draco he does not take into account the large number of inscriptions of legal matter which have come down to us from archaic Greece and which are now collected, disputed and even translated.6 Instead, R. looks at poets and philosophers talking about these practices, which means essentially that he is stuck with a secondary discourse. Thirdly, to neglect the inscriptions and to concentrate on literary testimonia automatically turns any investigation of 'Greek' reason into one of 'Athenian' reason. As a result, we have here another Athenocentric account of alleged Greek rationality which, of course, fails to explain archaic Greek practices of reason because they were not centered around Athens at all. Fourthly, the use of concepts like 'mythical thought' or 'scientific thought' to designate not individual acts of thinking (this, if anything, could be defended, perhaps), but epochs or places, will probably frustrate historically interested audiences.

This book suffers from four further defects. First, R. has embraced certain theoretical positions which, though they dominate the exposition, are highly disputable in themselves. They are, however, never defended. Behind many of the arguments we sense a charming (according to the readers' tastes) but nonetheless outdated and inappropriate second-hand Marxism (e.g., R. frequently talks of 'means of production' and occasionally the good old "Sklavenhaltergesellschaft" slips in), without making any but the most superficial statements about archaic Greek economic factors. Secondly, the reader seeks in vain for the philosophical substance or impact of this book. The "philosophical" approach R. boldly announces seems to confine itself to the occasional quotation taken from Hegel, Marx or Cassirer and to the nowadays quite common conclusion that 'rationality' is not autonomous in social terms. Thirdly, R. has adopted a prose which is as old-fashioned as it is high-sounding. Occasionally it plays tricks on him.7 Fourthly, R. sometimes seems to be unable to withhold his judgments concerning topics utterly remote from the subject he happens to have chosen. The reader comes across pompous meta-remarks concerned with, e.g., the situation of a student writing his dissertation for an allegedly 'narcissistic' market (pp. 7, 216, 219), the present state of socio-political affairs (9, 219) or sweeping dismissals of 'postmodernism' (156).

Although this book is well produced in terms of format and there are hardly any misprints, and although the Greek which R. supplies lavishly in the notes is flawless, I regret to say that I did not derive much pleasure or instruction from reading it.

[[For a response to this review by Tobias Reichardt, please see BMCR 2004.06.02.]]


1.   Although R. quotes some of the works of G.E.R. Lloyd, he obviously does not know 'Demystifying mentalities' (Cambridge 1990) which systematically addresses the problem R. is concerned with.
2.   Cf. now K.-J. Hölkeskamp, "Ptolis and agore. Homer and the Archaeology of the City-State," in F. Montanari (ed.), Omero tremila anni dopo. Atti del Congresso Genova ..., Rome 2002, 297-342.
3.   For a balanced view of the mutual relations of polis and religion, see now M.H. Hansen, "95 Theses about the Greek Polis in the Archaic and Classical Periods", Historia 52, 2003, 257-82, p. 278, prop. 75f.
4.   J.K. Davies addresses questions of systematicity in the Code of Gortyn in "Deconstructing Gortyn: When is a Code a Code?" in L. Foxhall/A.D.E. Lewis (edd.), Greek Law in Its Political Setting. Justifications not Justice, Oxford 1996, 33-56.
5.   Cf. W. Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution. Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age, Cambridge, MA/London 1992, 20ff.
6.   H. v. Effenterre/F. Ruzé, Nomima. Recueil d'inscriptions politiques et juridiques de l'archaïsme, 2 Bde., Rome 1994/5; R. Koerner, Inschriftliche Gesetzestexte der frühen griechischen Polis. Aus dem Nachlaß von R.K. hrsg. v. K. Hallof, Köln 1993 (used by R.); R. Meiggs/D. Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C., rev. ed. Oxford 1988; K.-J. Hölkeskamp, Schiedsrichter, Gesetzgeber und Gesetzgebung im archaischen Griechenland, Stuttgart 1999. I have dealt tentatively with archaic practices of reasoning and law texts in: Stoicheia und Gesetze. Spekulationen zur Entstehung mathematischer Textformen in Griechenland, Ant. Naturwiss. & ihre Rez. 11 (2001), 73-106; Medienwechsel und kultureller Kontext. Die Entstehung der griechischen Sachprosa, in: J. Althoff (Hg.), Dichtung und Philosophie im antiken Griechenland, Stuttgart (forthcoming in 2004); Law and Logic. Towards an Archaeology of Greek Abstract Reason, Ann. dell'Ist. or. di Univ. di Napoli (forthcoming in 2005).
7.   E.g., p. 24 "verdangen", 78 "ihnen ungebührende Fesseln", 172 "vergölten", 180 "Zuordbarkeit", 186 "Befassung".

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