BMCR 1993.01.16

1993.01.16, Lamberton/Keaney (eds), Homer’s Ancient Readers: The Hermeneutics of Greek Epic’s Earliest Exegetes

, , Homer's ancient readers : the hermeneutics of Greek epic's earliest exegetes. Magie classical publications. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992. xxv, 195 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780691069340

The title of this volume, with its promise of new vistas of scholarly interpretation both ancient and modern, will pique the reader’s interest. Unlike “the philological tradition,” this book addresses “the real and acute problems of reading and interpretation that all readers confront every day” (viii). “The philological tradition” is represented here and elsewhere in the book by Rudolf Pfeiffer, who, despite his advancing age, provides scholars working in this particular field with a convenient background against which to situate their own endeavors (cf. esp. 49, 71-3). In contrast to the tradition Pfeiffer represents, this collection is to approach the problems of reading in two ways. It will both “clarify the position of the Iliad and Odyssey in the intellectual world of antiquity,” and “throw light on the nature of reading itself and as such constitute a chapter in the history of reading” (viii).

The papers assembled in this nicely produced volume were first delivered at Princeton in 1989, at a conference “conceived as a comprehensive survey of all the ancient readings of the Iliad and Odyssey for which we have any substantial evidence” (xxiii). The book includes chapters on the internal audiences of the epic poems (by Charles Segal), on Aristotle (N.J. Richardson), the Stoics (A.A. Long), Aristarchus and Crates (James I. Porter), the Neoplatonists (Robert Lamberton), the Byzantines (Robert Browning), and the Renaissance (Anthony Grafton). The net result is a somewhat motley collection, uneven not so much in quality as in ambition. Some chapters, like Richardson’s, are useful introductions to their topic, while others are highly complex and sophisticated reinterpretations.

The question of what to include in such a volume is a tricky one, and has clearly exercised the editors. Readings whose only evidence is rewriting, or other traces of influence in autonomous literary works, have sensibly been excluded (vii-viii). Longinus, among other later critics, is also excluded, on the ground that his “appreciation of the esthetic qualities and imaginative scope of the text … does not in itself constitute an interpretive reading” (xxi). The volume focusses rather on “interpreters who offered their acts of interpretation as ends in themselves (ends subordinated, of course, to the larger goal of the understanding of Homer)” (ix). But this criterion is itself hard to pin down. Aristotle is considered, according to this definition, to be the first of “Homer’s readers” (xi). Yet the collection begins with an essay on the internal audiences of the epics. And in just what sense does Aristotle care about the interpretation of Homer “for its own sake”? This gets us into muddy waters indeed. To complicate the issue further, a central chapter will turn out to argue that even for the Stoics, “interpretation of the meaning and composition of Homer or Hesiod per se was not their concern” (64; cf. 86 n. 52).

The difficult preliminary task of characterizing the Homeric texts’ own construction of their “readers” falls to Charles Segal. In “Bard and Audience in Homer,” Segal ranges thoughtfully over mostly familiar passages from the two epics, often offering new insights on the way. Of particular interest is his observation that in the Odyssey, “how an audience … listens to a bard or a bard-like narrator is a touchstone of its moral character” (21).

N.J. Richardson’s chapter has, as Lamberton admits, “a vast … task to perform. It must bridge the gap between the audiences projected in the poems themselves and readers of the third quarter of the fourth century” (xi). But how could anyone hope to accomplish such a task in a scant ten pages? In “Aristotle’s Reading of Homer and its Background,” Richardson does little more than touch on the contributions of the fifth-century critics, Plato, and Aristotle himself. This brings me to the book’s most surprising and problematic omission, and one that Lamberton seems rather defensive about, namely the absence of a chapter on Plato. Lamberton acknowledges that “Plato is the first author in whom we find an examination of the paradox of reading, coupled with a detailed critique of the epic tradition” (xi). But Plato is nonetheless excluded, because he does not provide “what we could call a reading of the Iliad and Odyssey,” and because of the hostility towards Homer expressed through the Socrates of the dialogues (115). Yet Plato is of enormous importance, both for the reasons Lamberton acknowledges and also for his influence on later interpreters (including some of those discussed elsewhere in this volume). Moreover he provides much of our scanty evidence for the way Homer was read in the fifth century. Richardson calls his own contribution a “necessarily rather rapid survey” of the period. But the modest length of the book leaves room for a far more substantial reconsideration of these centuries, and above all of Plato and Aristotle.

The fact is that the book short-changes the entire period between the epics themselves and Stoicism. This is perhaps an unfortunate by-product not only of the nature of the evidence, but of a laudable desire to introduce readers to other, less familiar traditions of Homeric interpretation. Yet if the book is to serve as “a systematic introduction” to its subject (xxiii), it requires a fuller consideration of this crucial period. The editors would have done better to eschew any claims to be “comprehensive” or “systematic,” and simply present their book for what it is: a collection of mostly very fine essays in an important and neglected area of scholarship.

With Chapter 3, after this rather bumpy start, the book starts to take off. In “Stoic readings of Homer,” A.A. Long provides a characteristically lucid account of the disparate evidence for Stoic allegorizing, with the traditional understanding of this evidence, then offers a radically new interpretation of his own. The Stoics did not, as is usually supposed, naively “interpret Homer himself as a crypto-Stoic” (41), who is “really talking about, and understands himself to be talking about” a Stoic universe (42). Rather “what passes under the name of Stoic allegorizing is the Stoic interpretation of myth. The Stoics seem to have recognized that myths are allegories, stories told in order to explain problematic features of the physical world. They thought that elucidation of these myths could help to confirm their own understanding of nature” (64). We can be grateful to Long for rescuing the Stoics from a view that he rightly terms “nonsensical” (47).

Long’s contribution is followed and complemented by James Porter’s long and intricate essay, “Hermeneutic Lines and Circles: Aristarchus and Crates on the Exegesis of Homer.” Porter offers us a detailed interpretation of Aristarchus’ hermeneutic methods—in particular the Homerum ex Homero maxim—and of his rival, Crates of Mallos, who, Porter argues, was not a Stoic (as is commonly thought), but was eclectic and heterodox in his thinking. “Crates’ alleged Stoic motivations turn out, upon closer scrutiny, to have been literary and critical ones; on the other hand, Aristarchus’s practice is more philosophically indebted than is readily admitted” (73).

Next comes Lamberton himself, with a judicious investigation of the neo-Platonist interpreters. After examining the influence of earlier thinkers, especially the Stoics, on the neo-Platonists, he seeks to isolate what was unique to their reading of Homer. He sees in them “an intellectual seriousness about issues of interpretation on a grand scale, about hermeneutics, that is a genuinely new departure” (116). They give us “the first evidence for any reading of the poems that was holistic in the sense of reaching beyond specifics and interrogating the meaning of the whole poem, the whole story” (124). He therefore characterizes their unique contribution to Homeric exegesis as one of “scope” (125-6). This is nicely illustrated by means of Porphyry’s Essay on the Cave of the Nymphs.

These three essays constitute the meat of the book—and a substantial main course they indeed provide. The last two contributions move “beyond the area specifically designated in the title of the volume,” to deal with the influence of the various traditions of reading Homer, rather than with Homer’s ancient readers themselves (xxi-xxii). First, in “The Byzantines and Homer,” Robert Browning provides an instructive survey of the place of Homer in Byzantine education and scholarship. (How many people know that Eustathius was “the only Homeric scholar to have been recognized as a saint”?) The book concludes with Anthony Grafton’s “Renaissance Readers of Homer’s Ancient Readers,” a fascinating account of the complex relationship between Renaissance critics and their ancient predecessors. Grafton argues that “from the ancient hermeneutical manuals, formal commentaries, and other scattered materials mobilized in the sixteenth century, one could frame almost any imaginable interpretation of the canonical but alien text, from shattering critique to unwavering defense” (164). He ends by discussing the work of the curious M. Budé, who not only “tasted every flavor of ancient Homeric criticism” (168), but included in his marginalia “skillful caricatures of the faces of gloomy scholars” (171).

An intriguing aspect of this book as a whole is the various more or less explicit foreshadowings it offers of contemporary theoretical issues and debates. This is especially true of Porter’s contribution. Porter reveals ancient scholars jousting over readings in support of conflicting theories (92-4), compares an Aristarchan reading to Barthes (81), hints at an Aristarchan understanding of “the author in the text” (80), and speaks of Crates as “the first instance of a thematic critic in the history of literary criticism” (111). Lamberton similarly sees in the neo-Platonists “the elevation and integration of allegorical reading to a level that makes it look very much like the beginning of what we may call literary hermeneutics” (133). There is even hint of proto-Straussianism in pseudo-Plutarch’s treatise on Homer, which argued that “the ancient sages had set out their deepest thoughts in poetic form because by doing so they both pleased the learned and baffled the ignorant, who could not despise what they did not understand” (Grafton, 166).

Above all, however, there is a pervasive sense of lively intellectual warfare between earth-bound philologists and high-flying allegorists, which sounds the familiar notes of the partisan hostility between “philologists” and “theorists” today. This is most entertainingly illustrated by invectives like that directed by a Cratetean allegorist at an Aristarchan philologist, as quoted by Porter: “Flee, you Aristarchans, … buzzing in dark corners, you monosyllabics” (112 n. 118). But it also finds echoes in Lamberton (126) and Grafton (150-2). Perhaps some of us can still learn from Eustathius’ “stern warning” against both those who “have … turned everything into allegory,” and those who “have clipped Homer’s wings and not allowed him to fly on high” (Grafton, 143).