BMCR 2011.02.18

Plato and Hesiod

, , Plato and Hesiod. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. ix, 362. ISBN 9780199236343. $99.00.


Despite recent scholarly interest in Plato as an author with distinctly literary ambitions and complex relationships with earlier and contemporary poetic and prose traditions, surprisingly little attention has been given to his engagement with that other great epic poet: Hesiod. The volume under review is designed to fill that gap. The collection’s stated objectives are twofold: to explore various dimensions of Hesiod’s influence on, or presence within, the Platonic corpus; and, in the editors’ words, “to further our understanding of the reception of Hesiod in the period between the consolidation of the archaic canon and the advent of Hellenistic poetry” (2). The volume succeeds admirably with respect to the first but less so with respect to the second. Fifteen contributions provide a variety of interpretive approaches and illuminating observations tracing Plato’s indebtedness to and appropriations and misprisions of the many Hesiods circulating in the fourth century. Readers, however, should not expect a comprehensive treatment of the 4th century reception of Hesiod. With few exceptions (esp. Koning, Graziosi, Ford, and El Murr), the contributors keep their eyes trained on the connections between Hesiod and Plato with only incidental discussion of other authors. The identity of those fourth-century Hesiods remains obscure. That should not detract from the volume’s many virtues. Boys-Stones, Haubold, et al. have succeeded in elevating the discussion of the neglected relationship between Plato and Hesiod, thereby paving the way for future work. Below I assess each contribution before offering general comments on the collection as a whole.

Haubold opens the volume with a study of Hesiod’s construction of his own literary reception. The relationship between the Theogony and Works establishes a “biographical hermeneutics” (21). The reader is invited to interpret the poems progressively, first by occupying the ignorant but reverent subject position of shepherd-narrator in the Theogony and then by moving on to the mature poet of the Works. The Theogony encourages an “essentially passive” (22) hermeneutic in which we “worship the Muses and suspend our disbelief” (20), whereas the Works “is clearly intended to make us think about the deeper meaning of this text” (27) and thereby question received knowledge and fashion our own wisdom.

The reviewer is skeptical of efforts to pigeonhole the hermeneutics in any ancient text as active or passive, especially in a work like Hesiod’s Theogony which invokes the enigmatic Muses. More to the point, it is doubtful whether Hesiod’s efforts to frame his own reception offer insight into how his poems were read in the fourth century (see Ford below). As much is clear when Haubold explores the relationship between Hesiod’s Myth of Ages and Plato’s appropriation of that myth in the Republic ’s Noble Lie. If Haubold’s reading of Hesiod is right, the philosopher and the poet employ the same myth to opposite ends: Hesiod exhorts the audience to question received truth and discover its own wisdom; the Noble Lie, which reveals profound mistrust of the common man’s ability to apprehend the Forms or become wise, is designed to enforce ideological unanimity and sociopolitical conformity. Plato, it would seem, poaches Hesiod at whim, while disregarding his larger biographical hermeneutic project. To be fair, Haubold’s primary concern is Hesiod and his reading of the Works is illuminating, but his argument would have been more convincing had he offered a compelling reason to regard Plato (or any other ancient reader) as at all informed by Hesiod’s hermeneutics.

Boys-Stones explores the role of Hesiodic motifs in Plato’s account of philosophical progress. Against the common view that Sophist 242c-246c portrays Plato’s philosophy as a dialectical synthesis of his philosophical predecessors, Boys-Stones argues that for Plato the history of philosophy has been one of stasis, intellectual impasse between Heraclitean Giants and Parmenidean Olympians in which competing philosophers fail to progress beyond primitive philosophical positions. Elsewhere Hesiod figures as a spokesperson for the stagnant eristic argumentation against which Plato defines his own dialectical method. Yet Plato’s use of Hesiod is not wholly negative: Boys-Stones finds a plausible (if forced) analogy between Socrates’ initial condemnation and subsequent endorsement of Eros in the Phaedrus, and Hesiod’s disapproving account of Eris in the Theogony and his self-correction of that view in the Works.

Most examines the evolution of Plato’s attitude toward Hesiod over the course of his philosophical career. To the task he brings a number of handy charts cataloguing every reference to Hesiodic works and motifs in the genuine and pseudo-Platonic corpora. Plato knew Hesiod only as the poet of the Works and Theogony; he neither cites nor acknowledges the existence of Hesiodic spuria, though the pseudo-Platonic writers do. Plato’s ambivalence toward Hesiod improves over time, a trend that coincides with a tendency to cite the Works in the later dialogues to the neglect of the Theogony.

Also fond of charts, Yamagata examines the hierarchical relationship in Plato’s work between Hesiod and Homer. In dialogue after dialogue, Homer is more often cited, alluded to, criticized, and mined as a source of myth and controversy than Hesiod. Yamagata concludes that while characters who invoke Hesiodic myth are often shown to argue from weak premises, Plato sometimes inverts the hierarchy and employs Hesiod to undermine Homer’s authority.

For Koning there are two ancient conceptions of Hesiod – the “Homeric Hesiod” and “Hesiod the intellectual” (92) – which filter Plato’s reception of his poetry. The two do not correspond to the Theogony and the Works; they are rather drawn from the contexts within which Hesiod was cited and performed. The first appears alongside references to Homer as a leading (and, in Plato’s view, misguided) authority on moral issues; the second (in the reviewer’s opinion, more interesting) Hesiod is associated with a style of thought and approach to knowledge (e.g. etymology, genealogy, and classification) that Plato and his contemporaries inherited, contested, and redefined.

Also eyeing the larger historical context, Graziosi explores a number of (unrelated) Hesiodic motifs adopted and adapted by Plato’s contemporaries. The most telling is derived from Works 753-64 which warns men neither to cleanse themselves in women’s washing water nor to criticize a sacrifice, lest they become the object of the dreadful goddess, Rumor ( phêmê). Hesiodic Rumor metastasizes and is linked by Aeschines and Demosthenes to that fourth-century bête-noire, male prostitution; an analogous passage in the Laws recommends employing phêmê to discourage homoerotic relationships. Graziosi might have observed that the common denominator in all passages, essential to Rumor’s metastasis, is anxiety over the stigma of male sexual impurity (arising from menstrual waters or prostitution). Yet she does shed important light on Hesiod’s pervasive influence on the intellectual context shared by a number of fourth-century writers.

Like Koning, Ford discovers two fourth-century Hesiods, respectively identifiable with the Theogony and Works. Ford resists viewing the two poems as forming a complementary unity, for neither appears to have been interpreted in the fourth century in light of the other. Instead, each was associated with distinct institutions and served contextually specific functions. Roughly, the Works was excerpted in schools, while the Theogony was popularized in rhapsodic contexts and philosophical circles. Hesiod in Plato is thus mediated by, and must be interpreted in light of, the institutions of literary consumption.

Lev Kenaan adopts a loosely Derridian hermeneutic in which the Hesiod “embroidered into the Symposium ” emerges as that which coyly “hides from the first glance” (160). Lev Kenaan argues (in sometimes foggy prose) that the relationship among works may be understood as “erotic intertextuality” (158) according to which texts, though not directly referring to one another, may nonetheless interpenetrate, inseminate, and beget each other. Seemingly unrelated works may share concepts and common descent, though the authors are unaware of the genealogy of their ideas. With the Derridian framework in place, Lev Kenaan argues that Socrates appears as a Pandora figure or (since erotic intertextuality works both ways) Pandora is a Socratic figure whose dangerous visual allure inspires wonder and arouses philosophical discourse. The suggestion is enticing, but the connection between Socrates and Pandora seems forced; readers may find the promises of erotic intertextuality unsatisfied.

In one of the most rigorously argued and nuanced contributions, Van Noorden offers a wide-ranging interpretation of Hesiodic motifs (most importantly, of the metallic races) in the Republic. In both Hesiod and Plato, the races (esp. the iron and heroic) map onto the identities of the intended audiences (Perses, Glaucon, Adeimantus, and, by implication, the aristocratic readers), with the suggestion that all face a choice between hybris and dikê. By invoking the myth of metallic races, Plato appropriates for his own project the urgency implicit in Hesiod’s mythological exemplum of moral decline.

Offering little discussion of Hesiod (beyond cursory treatment the Catalogue of Women), Capra examines Plato’s stance toward the genre of epic as a whole. According to the Critias and Timaeus, epic violates two principles of poetic composition: the “moralizing rule” (epic sends the wrong message) and the “broadening rule” (it provides too small a conception of world history) (209). Atlantis offers a superior epic mythology since its moral is wholesome and its historical perspective expansive.

“One, two, three” – so begins the Timaeus and such is the number of contributions on that work. Pender offers a nuanced reading of the appropriation of Hesiod’s Chaos in Plato’s cosmogony. The details of her argument are too numerous to summarize, but the title belies its significance; what is offered here is more than a treatment of Hesiod’s “Chaos Corrected.” Theogonic motif after motif reemerges, re-imagined and reinscribed in the Timaeus ’s cosmogony, as Hesiod’s primal figures are divided, dispersed, subsumed, and yet recognizably preserved as Plato’s Demiurge, Receptacle of Becoming, Proto-Matter, etc. This excellent study needs only a conclusion to tie its many strands together.

Where Pender is detailed, Sedley is sweeping. Urging that “we, classicists and historians of philosophy, spend more time discussing [the Theogony and Timaeus ] side by side” (247), Sedley provides tantalizing suggestions of how each text may elucidate thorny interpretive issues in the other (e.g. the introduction of women and emergence of evil in both cosmogonies). Though an odd editorial decision was made in placing Sedley’s exhortation to read the Theogony against the Timaeus after Pender has done just that, Sedley shows that there is still room for future work on both texts.

Focusing on the Demiurge’s address to the gods (41a-d), Regali suggests that the intertextual relationship between the Theogony and the address appropriates a range of traditionally Hesiodic topoi – beginning from the name and function of Zeus ( Dios / Dii / Dia) which is rewritten in the etymology of the Demiurge ( di’ emou) through whom the gods are created. The result is an exemplary study of how a single passage draws on and rewrites the intricate palimpsest of intertextual meanings available in the Greek literary tradition.

The volume concludes with two contributions on the myth of the Politicus (270b-274e) which should be read together, as each argues against the other’s position. El Murr offers a compelling interpretation of the Age of Kronos in the fifth and fourth centuries, but, in the reviewer’s opinion, Rowe’s untraditional reading of the myth is the more convincing. According to Rowe, Plato believes that Hesiodic and Athenian mythology are not to be trusted; both record (and jumble) information from the Age of Kronos and the chaotic intermediate period just prior to the Age of Zeus. The implication is that Athenians anchor their patriotic pride and ethnic identity on the events of a period dimly remembered and marked by grotesque perversions of nature.

Graziosi and Van Noorden stand out as particularly thought-provoking, while Most, Ford, and Koning lay the foundation for future work. The excellent contributions on the Timaeus constitute the volume’s strongest and most illuminating section. It is both frustrating and a testimony to the essayists’ efforts that readers may wish that they had been given more space to present their conclusions in greater detail. The results are nonetheless rewarding and every contributor makes surprising discoveries. Hesiod joins the pantheon of literary rivals with whom Plato sustained a surprisingly deep and complex relationship.