Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.05.21

Jochen Althoff (ed.), Philosophie und Dichtung im antiken Griechenland. Akten der 7. Tagung der Karl und Gertrud Abel-Stiftung am 10. und 11. Oktober 2002 in Bernkastel-Kues. Philosophie der Antike Band 23.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2007.  Pp. 156.  ISBN 978-3-515-08824-4.  €30.00.  

Reviewed by Carl O'Brien, University College, Cork (C.O'
Word count: 2040 words

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

This volume of conference proceedings explores the interrelation between ancient Greek philosophy and poetry from a variety of different angles, such as the Greek perception of this relationship (Kullmann), the relationship between poetic or prose form and philosophical content (Asper), as well as the effect of philosophical thought upon Greek literature (Hellmann, Rengakos, Althoff, Föllinger). There has also been concentration on themes of a predominantly philosophical nature, such as the Aristotelian concept of friendship (Liatsi). The title of the volume is a homage to Fränkel's 1962 study Dichtung und Philosophie des frühen Griechentums, while the foreword defines the relationship in modern terms as that between fiction and scientific or academic themes (p. 7), noting that the ancient conception of philosophy was considerably broader than the contemporary one.

Kullmann's paper concerning the Greek perception of the relationship between fiction and philosophy serves as a suitable introduction to the topic. Kullmann opens with the observation that Greek philosophy developed out of epic poetry, and regards the comments expressed by Aristotle at Poet. 1. 1447 b 17ff. as the first acknowledgement of the division between philosophy and epic. Kullmann draws on Aristotle's distinction between the poet (dealing with the general) and the historian (treating of the specific) to illustrate the difference between Homer and an academic text (p. 12). While events such as the fight between Achilles and Agamemnon could have been recounted by a historian, Homer also recounts elements on the divine plain. Kullmann then analyses the Homeric portrayal of the gods in philosophical terms, from the religious seriousness in which prayers and sacrifices are represented, to the entertainment value of the anthropomorphized divinities. He subsequently discusses Plato's response in theRepublic and Laws in moral and ontological terms. One of the most interesting sections of the paper is the final appendage, locating Aristotle in an intermediary position between Homer and Plato, based upon his statements in the Nicomachean Ethics.

In a detailed investigation of the philosophers' perception of poetic heroes, Oliver Hellmann considers moralizing judgments made by the philosophers concerning the questionable figure of Achilles and some of his more brutal acts, such as the slaughter of twelve Trojan prisoners of war on Patroclus' grave or the treatment of Hector's corpse. Hellmann initially discusses Plato's disgust at Republic III that Achilles as the son of a goddess could behave in such a way (p. 28), before considering Aristotle's position. Drawing on Aristotle's comparison of the cyclic epics with the Iliad and Odyssey in the Poetics and Rhetoric, Hellmann illustrates that Aristotle's perception of Achilles is more complex than ours, as we have been shaped to a much greater extent by our reading of Homer. He also investigates Aristotle's response to the moral problem posed by Plato, suggesting that the slaughter of the Trojans on Hector's grave relates to a Thessalian custom of placing the murderer on the grave, pointing to Aristotle's treatment of the epic as a literary work, rather than the Platonic method of reproaching it in philosophical terms (p. 33). The article provides a detailed analysis of Aristotle's use of Achilles as a paradigm, from his use of Peleus and Achilles as an example of the father-son relationship in the Metaphysics, to his reference to Achilles as a suitable dramatic character in his discussion of tragedy at Poet. 15. 454b 8-14.

Rengakos discusses time and narration in Apollonios Rhodios' Argonautika and its relationship to the Callimachean concept of dienekes. Rengakos explores Homeric techniques for dispensing with the monotony of temporal succession, such as the integration of elements relating to the prehistory of the Iliad, or the accounts of the multiple nostoi of the Odyssey and the interlocking storylines of Telemachus and Odysseus (pp. 43f). After briefly surveying how the problem of temporal narration is handled elsewhere in the epic cycle, Rengakos comments on the linearity of the account (p. 47). Though he mentions the use of flash-back to reveal the prehistory of the play, he points out that certain elements remain unclear. Much is made of Apollonios' other techniques for handling temporal narration. One such example is the mise en abyme at 2.762ff, when Jason is asked to inform the Mariandynian King Lykos about his adventures and begins at the starting point of the epic. Another feature is the lack of explicit information relating to the ultimate destiny of the characters outside of the time frame of the epic (in contrast to the situation in the Homeric epics). Rengakos then considers whether this linearity of treatment is a Hellenistic technique by examining the practice in Antimachos of Kolophon's Thebais, the Hermes of Philitas, the Messeniaka of Rhianos of Crete and the Hekale of Callimachus, thereby analyzing epics from different stages of the Hellenistic period.

Sabine Föllinger investigates the function ofagnosia in early Greek literature, linking it to amechania. Föllinger sets out to examine whether this agnosia, as it is expressed in early Greek lyric poetry, can be viewed as the expression of a pessimistic world-view and to what extent it develops the philosophical concept of agnosia. An analysis of Simonides Fr. 8 leads to the conclusion that this agnosia in fact relates to lack of knowledge or uncertainty concerning the future (p. 56). Such a view is also expressed by Solon at V. 65f of his "Elegy to the Muses" when he comments that humans never have the security of knowing how the projects which they have begun will turn out. The nous which the gods are depicted as possessing is in fact an understanding of the future. Föllinger finally explores the mode of expressing uncertainty regarding the future in lyric and philosophy with a comparative schema based on the model of "speech-theory" (p. 64). This leads Föllinger to conclude that one must develop a genre-specific view of "archaic mentality", rather than a unified mood regarding agnosia in the period as a whole.

Markus Asper in a particularly scholarly paper concerning the development of Greek technical writing investigates the choice of prose over poetry as the dominant medium for philosophical writing. Pointing out that while for us prose is a natural choice for scientific literature, one cannot assume this for the sixth century (p. 67), he advances a well-researched and carefully reasoned argument to explain its choice by philosophers such as Pherekydes, Thales, Anaximander and Herakleitos. Asper investigates a host of prose models, such as the use of lists in Mesopotamia, memoranda and contracts and even medical prescriptions or descriptions of illnesses (p. 76). The relationship of diagrams to prose is also considered (p. 89). The article analyses the potential advantages of prose as it may have presented itself to early philosophers (pp. 90ff): its suitability for more complex discussion than poetry, and prose as a form of control, limiting reception to a certain social caste, if it can be linked with the (quasi-) institutionalization of the symposium (p. 99). Asper concludes with the relevant observation that the influence of new media (such as hypertext or PowerPoint etc.) encourages new textual forms.

Althoff provides a clear and systematic account of the extent to which Socrates, as he is presented in Aristophanes' Clouds can be considered a Natural philosopher. After summarizing the plot of the Clouds (pp. 103f), Althoff proceeds to compare certain scenes and elements of the play with the intellectual activity of the day. For example, he links the experiment on the number of its own foot lengths a flea can jump with the homo mensura statement of Protagoras or the flatulence of the gnat with Aristotle's comments at Historia Animalium IV 9.535b 3ff on the manner in which the buzzing of insects is produced, though noting that while it is perhaps the only relevant example of zoological research from antiquity, it is later. While other articles on the topic tend to mention some of the more obvious comparisons, such as the famous scene of Socrates sitting in a basket in order to be able to think more clearly, which can be seen as a garbled version of the doctrines of Diogenes of Apollonia, it would be fair to say that Althoff provides a more wide-ranging and detailed series of examples than is generally to be found in other discussions.

Liatsi questions whether the concept of philia in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics should be considered as a virtue or as an external good. She points to the distinction Aristotle makes in speaking of philia as a virtue, but when he regards it as an external good, he speaks ofphiloi (p. 124). Aristotle distinguishes between three sorts of friendship: that founded on the good, that on pleasure and that on utility (p. 125). Therefore, Liatsi points out that the philia of Book 8 which is a function of arete refers to the highest form, that based on the good. However, philia, unlike other ethical virtues, is reciprocal (requiring a second person before it can be actualized). Liatsi considers this aspect to be an external good, as it can only be obtained through luck, though like an ethical virtue, an individual is responsible for the relationship (p. 129).

Meyer analyses one of the most famous examples of philosophical exegesis from antiquity: Porphyry's interpretation of the Cave of the Nymphs of the Odyssey. Meyer notes that Porphyry's commentary of the description of the nymph grotto as an allegory for the entire transcendent structure of reality is an exception amongst the literature of the third century A.D., because it is the oldest surviving independent commentary on a Homeric passage. The commentary, with its comparisons to Mithras, Persian astral theology, and the wisdom of the Egyptians, can be viewed as a search for the universal truth, which he equates more with Pythagoras than with Plato (though Meyer does refer to Plato's use of the image of the cave in Book 7 of the Republic). Porphyry's commentary can be viewed as equivalent to a hieros logos (p. 135), since, though it begins as a literary treatise, it develops into a philosophical/theological discussion. Meyer, however, is concerned with more than merely recounting the correspondences that Porphyry draws between the cave and the cosmos, namely with placing this exegesis within its intellectual context. This philosophical interpretation of Homer can be traced back to Numenius (p. 137), and Meyer discusses Porphyry's justification of his exegetical method in De antro 1-4 and 34-36, with the arguments being borrowed directly from Kronios. Porphyry however goes further than Kronios, who advances the Aristotelian conception of poetry as credible fiction, pointing out that several elements of the description of the Cave of the Nymphs are unbelievable as contrivances (p. 143), illustrating that this is not poetic fiction, and the actual existence of the grotto, according to Artemidorus, lends further scientific weight to his argument. Meyer concludes by mentioning Porphyry's use of a standard philosophical reservation: it is not possible for mortals to discover the entire truth regarding the cosmos, the gods and souls.

This volume presents an interesting selection of topics, with conspicuous balance between articles which are predominantly philosophical in nature and those which are primarily concerned with aspects of literary criticism. Although certain aspects of this subject have received detailed treatment before (such as the portrayal of Socrates in the Clouds or Porphyry's interpretation of the Cave of the Nymphs), it will be useful to have such a comprehensive and wide-ranging treatment of the important question of the relationship between Greek philosophy and literature conveniently assembled in one volume, particularly when the collection consists of articles exhibiting such a high level of scholarship.


Jochen Althoff: Vorwort, 7-9

Wolfgang Kullmann: Das Verhältnis zwischen Philosophie und Dichtung in griechischer Sicht, 11-25

Oliver Hellmann: Aristoteles und Achilleus: Der poetische Held aus der Sicht des Philosophen, 27-41

Antonios Rengakos: Zeit und Erzählung in den Argonautika des Apollonios Rhodios, 43-52

Sabine Föllinger: Die Funktion von Nicht-Wissen in der frühgriechischen Literatur, 53-65

Markus Asper: Medienwechsel und kultureller Kontext. Die Entstehung der griechischen Sachprosa, 67-102

Jochen Althoff: Sokrates als Naturphilosoph in Aristophanes' Wolken, 103-120

Maria Liatsi: Philia bei Aristoteles: Ethische Tugend oder äußeres Gut?, 121-130

Doris Meyer: Die verborgene Wahrheit der Dichtung. Zur allegorischen Interpretation in Porphyrios' Schrift über die Nymphengrotte in der Odyssee, 131 -143

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