Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.07.62

John Heath, The Talking Greeks: Speech, Animals, and the Other in Homer, Aeschylus, and Plato.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  Pp. 400.  ISBN 9780521832649.  £64.00.  

Reviewed by Deborah Levine Gera, Hebrew University of Jerusalem (
Word count: 2689 words

Table of Contents

"The thesis of this book is embarrassingly unsophisticated: humans speak; other animals don't," reads the opening sentence of this rich and illuminating study by John Heath. The book is an exploration of the use the Greeks made of the criterion of speech -- or, at times, the criterion of intelligible, cogent, and authoritative speech -- to distinguish between gods and mortals, humans and animals, Greeks and non-Greeks, as well as between men and women, slaves, and children. Heath looks closely at passages in Homer, Aeschylus, and Plato, in order to examine how the singular human capacity of language is used by the Greeks to establish and explore the differences between themselves and various types of the Other, most notably non-speaking animals.

In his introduction (1-35), Heath argues first that for early Greeks the ability to speak, rather than, e.g., the capacity for rational thought, was the key difference between humans and other animals. Next Heath contends that the control and command of speech (and silence) was a crucial factor in determining a person's social and political status, the degree of his "Otherness". This two-pronged definition of speech -- both as the very possession of language and also as the persuasive or authoritative use of words -- is problematic, since throughout the book Heath moves from one meaning to the other, as his argument demands. The introduction also includes a brief look at golden age or fantastic accounts where animals are not speechless, and a short discussion of the rise of human culture in the wake of language. Heath stresses that the interplay between human differences from, and similarities to, animals was crucial for the Greek understanding of human nature and the origin of culture. "Most Greeks knew that culture, possible only for a 'speaking beast', keeps us from devolving, or evolving, into our bestial selves" (27).

The first part of the book consists of three chapters on Homer. Chapter 1 discusses the linguistic capacities of animals, the gods, the dead, non-Greeks, and women in Homer. Arguing from the Homeric similes, Heath contends that animals in Homer are very similar to humans, both physiologically and psychologically, with little significant difference between the mental and emotional lives of humans and other creatures. Thus Homeric animals react to the threat of destruction "with all the same thoughts, fears, desperation, hopes, and courage that...characterize...mortals..." (49). This is too sweeping; the similarities between humans and animals in these similes stem in part from the overlapping of the two domains of the comparison. Heath nicely discusses borderline cases such as Odysseus' dog Argus, who, though unable to speak, possesses nous, and thus resembles Odysseus' men who have been turned into swine. Another exceptional animal is Xanthus, Achilles' speaking steed. When Achilles converses with his horse, this reflects both on Achilles' bestial state and the divinity of the horse. Heath also mentions Hephaestus' golden maids (41 and 49 n. 34), but does not explain why they are said to be endowed with speech. Next come Homer's gods. Anthropomorphic though they may be, the gods in Homer do not look or sound human. and they normally disguise themselves in encounters with mortals, changing their appearance and voices. The Iliadic formula (Il. 13. 45, 17. 555 etc.) is "changing their body and tireless voice (ἀτειρέα φωνήν)," but Heath does not explain why a god in the likeness of a human should have a "tireless voice".

In his discussion of the language of the dead (see too Heath's Hermes 2005 article), Heath notes that the unburied dead such as Patroclus and Elpenor can use their own voices, while the suitors on their way to the underworld are inarticulate and squeak like bats: this may be a description of the actual sound of the language of the dead. Those in the underworld (with the exception of the seer Tiresias) need to drink blood before they can speak. The blood grants them nous, a prerequisite for speech, as well--a point Heath glosses over. Non-Greeks (62-68) do not have qualitatively different forms of speech, but Homer's Trojans are noisy and are assigned unflattering animal noises, while the Greeks are disciplined and silent in battle, except when retreating. The final section of the chapter deals with women. Here Heath takes speech to mean the possession of authoritative speech which leads to action, and he argues that women's voices in Homer require male support in order for their words to become deeds. Thus women like Penelope and Andromache are not silenced, but are told to use their authority where it is proper, in the home. "Women, like animals, have the psychological composition to act virtuously, but they possess no complete kleos or authority without husbands" (77). This is not always true. Even by Heath's own account, Helen nearly creates lethal action by her speech when she recognizes the disguised Odysseus in Troy (see Od. 4. 240-255) and she interrupts her husband in order to interpret an omen correctly (Od. 15. 171 ff.).

Chapter 2, "Controlling language: Telemachus learns to speak," opens with a lively discussion of the Polyphemus episode. Heath notes that it is not only Polyphemus' wish that his ram could speak that represents a blurring of crucial differences between animals and humans, but also his wish that his ram could be of the same mind (homophroneois). This blurring of distinctions between humans and animals in the linguistic and cognitive domain is all of a piece with Polyphemus' eating of Odysseus' men. Heath then turns to Odysseus' son Telemachus, showing how he grows before our eyes, not just as a doer of deeds, but as a controller of speech. He discusses the use of the epithets nepios and pepnumenos as means to signal Telemachus' progress towards adulthood in the Odyssey, moving from childish prattle to effective speech (and silence). Heath notes that the word nepios may refer to a child's inability to speak (94-95) and points to children's physical weakness, political subservience, lack of forceful speech, and inability to implement their words; a reference to children's weaker powers of thought is lacking here and, in general, "foolish (like a child)" often seems the best explanation of nepios. Heath defines pepnumenos as "the mark of a man who has reached mature judgement and can speak and act accordingly" (97). Nonetheless, the epithet is used of Telemachus throughout the Odyssey, from Book 1 onwards, so that at times Heath needs to explain away inconvenient uses of the word, arguing for example that "By denying his epithet, he [sc. Telemachus] takes one more step towards earning it" (110). While there are many good insights in this chapter, Heath's arguments do not always convince.

Chapter 3, "Talking through the heroic code: Achilles learns to tell tales" traces the use of language by Achilles throughout the Iliad. Achilles' language is unusually rich and creative, but he is remarkably unpersuasive, thus underlining the gap between powerful words and effective speech. In his duel of words with Agamemnon in Book 1 of the Iliad, Achilles uses language as a weapon, pre-empting Agamemnon's authority by calling the assembly, and interrupting him; he also addresses Athena before she can speak, "an exceptional event in divine visitations" (123). In Book 9, Achilles sings and creates poetry, but cannot let go of his anger; Heath does not really explain or integrate this use of poetry. When Achilles finally returns to battle, driving the Trojans away from Patroclus' body, Heath argues nicely that his bronze voice (opa chalkeon 18. 222) functions as a weapon. In this scene Achilles is both bestial and divine, sub-human and superhuman, and Homer indicates this by assigning Achilles an inarticulate and terrifying cry. In Books 20-22 Achilles uses the taunts and boasts of a warrior, and in Book 23 he uses language in conventional fashion to arrange Patroclus' funeral. In Book 24, at his meeting with Priam, Achilles "puts his considerable linguistic skills to a novel use: the lyre-player now creates a story to console an adversary, to make a truly human connection possible" (130). In this scene language and food connect, for the fasting Achilles now feasts with Priam and Heath turns to a discussion of the use of domestic animals for feasting in the epic world. He also discusses the role of wild beasts, the eaters of raw human flesh, for Achilles would like to have Hector's corpse devoured by wild beasts and even states his wish to eat Hector raw. In his encounter with Priam in Book 24, Achilles reaches new understanding and he struggles to find language to express that understanding and communicate it to the Trojan king. Heath's discussion of Book 24, if only partially tied to his themes of language and food, is original, eloquent, and passionate.

Part II: Chapter 4: "Making a difference: The silence of Otherness" (171-212) is a useful transitional chapter, serving as a bridge between the discussion of Homer to the analyses of Aeschylus and Plato. It is a survey of the use made of the category of the Other -- women, non-Greeks, slaves, animals, the young, the old, and the gods -- in the Classical period, particularly in Athens, to define what it means to be a male Greek. Heath acknowledges that this is well-trodden territory, but he presents a lucid and balanced account, particularly in his discussion of Greek investigation of the barbarian (192-201). Heath concentrates on the speech of these various groups and argues convincingly that "control of speech is central to all Greek hierarchical thought about status" (171) or to put it another way, "the classical bestial in its silence" (212). Less convincing is his claim that the use of speech as a primary criterion of differentiation between groups somewhat paradoxically supplied the tool by which these muted groups were able to improve their position in modern society, because speech could be used to argue against the second-class status of any group denied speech and full humanity. (In the case of slavery, as he notes [202 n. 110], this allegedly Greek-inspired improvement came some two millennia later!) Greek women were denied a public venue for their speech, other than in sacred and ritual activities, and their words had no authority; Heath stresses that they were associated with animals in their lack of language. The use of speech by slaves (202-206) is a complex issue. Heath notes that the slave, an instrumentum vocale, is distinguished from a tool precisely because of his possession of language, but slaves lack a public voice and, of course, authoritative speech. Yet, as Heath points out, slaves were used to bring up and teach Greek children, citizens to be, and groups of slaves who shared a common tongue were considered dangerous (see, e.g., Plato, Leg. 777c-e); in both these instances the speech of slaves seem to demonstrate authority and power. In his discussion of children (206-208), Heath uses all his extended definition of non-speech -- lack of language, cries, wailing and murmurs; enforced silence; lack of authoritative speech; lack of a public forum -- to characterize them. The chapter also includes brief discussions of the stereotypes associated with women's language, the speech of barbaroi and of old men, but has nothing on the language of the gods.

"Disentangling the beast: Humans and other animals in the Oresteia" is a dense and closely argued chapter, where Heath demands a great deal of his reader, who needs to have both Aeschylus' text and a helpful commentary at hand in order to follow the niceties of his arguments. Heath analyzes a series of ambiguous, multivalent similes found in the Oresteia to show how humans and beasts are conflated in Aeschylus' trilogy, blurred and melded together through poetic language. Thus the Atreidae robbed of Helen are described as screeching vultures robbed of their young, and also as eagles which devour a hare and her unborn young. Aegisthus is an impotent lion tumbling in Agamemnon's bed, while Orestes is both lethal snake and one who slays two serpents. The snake-wreathed Furies, whom Orestes compares to hounds, are an outstanding conflation of animal, human and divine. (Heath sees the Furies as "ultimate representatives of the indeterminacy of species" [239], but they must have had a specific physical representation, with actual clothing, hair, masks etc. on stage.) Aeschylus' language and imagery blend the various worlds and this lack of boundaries between animal and human leads to chaos. Heath goes on to show how bestial, human, and divine elements are then separated in the trilogy, while the hunting and animal imagery disappears. The turning point is when "Athena uses a distinctly human quality, speech, to civilize the Furies" (251). The Furies are incorporated into the community by means of the differentiation of the divine, bestial, and human in a social and political context. There is also a transition from family justice to civic justice. Heath argues that it is only after humans detach themselves and use their unique faculty of speech within the context of the polis that dike can be developed. Here Heath broadens his definition of humanity to include laws, in addition to language. "The city-state makes it possible for us to live fully human lives. Humans are speaking, law-needing animals" (221).

Plato's Socrates is the subject of the stimulating final chapter. Heath argues that Socrates for whom "a good life must be a verbal life" (264) was brought to trial and executed for depriving his fellow citizens of their voices, "driving them dialectically into humiliated silence" (265). Socrates' conversations are battles of words held in public, and his partners in the dialogues lose their most human quality, the ability to engage in conversation. For Socrates aporia is "a starting-point, a catalyst for dialectic" (279), while for his opponents it is a bewildered silence, a loss of words at the end of a conversation. This silence leads to defeat, anger, and shame, and Socrates' interlocutors become bestial in their rage and humiliation. Consequently, they turn to revenge and want to harm their enemy by silencing his humiliating voice. "Socrates is killed because his vision of verbal competition varies so markedly from that of the rest of the community" (303-4). Heath uses Thrasymachus' discussion with Socrates in Book 1 of the Republic to flesh out his argument. Thrasymachus begins as a violent, roaring lion and ends as a mute, wordless creature, the polar opposite of a speaking, victorious Athenian citizen. Yet, as Heath notes, in the rest of the Republic, Soc. abandons the methods attacked by Thrasymachus - his use of elenchus and analogies from the crafts - and grapples with the issues raised by the sophist. Heath stresses Socrates' failure in Plato's dialogues, for the shamed silence to which Socrates reduces his interlocutors is the very antithesis of philosophical discussion and his fellow conversationalists do not learn or develop a desire for philosophy. He does not explain why Plato wants to portray Socrates in this fashion. "The story of this struggle is really what matters" (314), says Heath, but this puzzling, paradoxical point should be explored further.

An epilogue dealing with the moral implications of our untested beliefs about the uniqueness of human language and rationality in relation to the mental capabilities of animals concludes the book. Heath contends that the borderline between mentally deficient humans and animal species is not clear; nonetheless, our behavior towards them varies tremendously. His disheartening conclusion is: "Our current treatment of animals does not seem to rest upon a rationally defensible ethical position" (328).

This is an interesting and stimulating book, with a wide-ranging bibliography on both ancient texts and modern ethical questions. Cambridge University Press is perhaps to be congratulated, since only three words (322 n. 21) and one letter (207 n. 126) seem to have eluded the Greek police; the rest of the Greek is transliterated. While the occasional transliterated word may be helpful to the non-Greek reader, it is not clear to me who is meant to benefit from transliterations such as mê pô m' (152). There is no index locorum and no list of abbreviations to help the non-specialist decipher references such as LS 53T (10 n. 32) or Crates 14-17 E (14).

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