BMCR 2020.09.04

Logoi and muthoi: further essays in Greek philosophy and literature

, Logoi and muthoi: further essays in Greek philosophy and literature. SUNY series in ancient Greek philosophy. Albany: SUNY Press, 2019. x, 368 p.. ISBN9781438474892 $90.00.

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

This volume is a sequel to the same editor’s Logos and Muthos (2009). Although the once-accepted notion of historical development from (irrational) mythos to (rational) logos in Greek thought during the Archaic and Classical periods has been rightly discredited, Wians argues persuasively that the paired categories of mythos (tradition, poetry, story, performance) and logos (inquiry, argument) remain valuable as tools of analysis for classicists and philosophers. As Wians and the contributors to these two volumes demonstrate, this interpretive lens is especially suited to Greek literature and philosophy, where mythos and logos often manifest themselves together in complex interdependency. The present volume enlarges upon its predecessor (as the shift from singular to plural in its title implies) while maintaining the same central aims. Whereas the original volume focused on Homer and Athenian tragedy, the sequel addresses a wider range of topics, sources, and authors. Contributors again include both philosophers and classicists, with no repeat appearances from the first collection apart from the editor.

Following a brief editorial introduction, Kevin Robb (Ch. 1) examines guest-friendship (xenia) and supplication (hiketeia) in Homer and their role in shaping interpersonal ethics. Discussions of xenia and hiketeia largely follow classic studies by Moses Finley and John Gould; F. S. Naiden’s Ancient Supplication, which casts doubt on the chapter’s assumptions about rejection of suppliants, is not cited.[1]

The editor’s contribution (Ch. 2) studies poetic authority in Homer, Hesiod, and Xenophanes. In both Homer and Hesiod, the Muses’ inspiration authorizes the poet to pronounce on human epistemological limitations. Xenophanes, Wians suggests, extends this traditional role to reflect skeptically on the limits of human knowledge about the gods themselves. Wians follows other scholars who have studied the importance of traditional poetic self-presentation for early philosopher-poets (especially Parmenides and Empedocles).[2] Luc Brisson (Ch. 3) examines mythical accounts of the origins of the human condition (Hesiod’s Pandora, Orphic anthropogony, and Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium) and the ethical implications of such stories, especially regarding sexual difference and the relationship of gods and humans. Tracing shared assumptions among myths of this type, Brisson also makes clear that this myth-making framework could accommodate a variety of inflections with different ethical consequences. Noted in an appendix is the Neoplatonist Olympiodorus’s use of Orphic anthropogenic myth to argue the immorality of suicide (In Phd. 1.3-4 Westerink).

Robert Hahn (Ch. 4) studies Anaximander’s sundial (gnômôn) (fr. 12A1.13-16 DK = D.L. 2.1.1-2). Hahn incorporates a wealth of ancient evidence, both written and material, as well as experimental reconstructions. According to Hahn, Anaximander’s seasonal sundial (i.e. marking solstice and equinox) was developed to meet needs of Spartan and Milesian festival calendars and was influenced by architectural techniques.[3] Hahn offers an ingenious (if highly speculative) reconstruction of the sundial, provocatively suggesting that Anaximander’s world map and globe were in fact features of the gnômôn constructed in Lacedaemon (though testimonia mention these as separate inventions). The chapter is generously furnished with visuals: Figure 4.6 on p. 108 (sundial with solstices and equinox) would be better placed with the discussion on p. 117.

Lawrence J. Hatab (Ch. 5) and Marina Marren (Ch. 6) offer ethical readings of Greek literature. Hatab focuses on the role of mortality and negative eschatology for value-construction within the Homeric world and in Sophocles’ OT, drawing a concluding contrast with Plato’s positive eschatology. Marren’s chapter is a literary essay on the Oedipus’s “tyrannical” character in the same play.

Ruby Blondell’s outstanding entry (Ch. 7) examines the tradition of argument in defense of Helen. The exculpatory claim that Helen was brought to Troy under a god’s compulsion – a suspension of divine/human “double determination” in favor of a unicausal explanation – first appears in Homer (Il. 3.164-5) before being taken up in Gorgias’s Encomium and dramatized in the agôn of Helen and Hecabe in Euripides’ Troades (919-62). As Blondell shows, the effect of the “Divine Defense” varies according to context: the same argument carries a different import when addressed to Helen as a consolation (Homer) than when presented as a playful argument on her behalf (Gorgias) or spoken by Helen herself in indignant self-defense (Euripides). Blondell also spotlights these three texts’ respective performance genres – rhapsody, oratory, and drama – and the responses each might have evoked from external Greek audiences.

Roslyn Weiss (Ch. 8) compares Sophocles’ Antigone with Plato’s Socrates, arguing that their shared “heroic” stubbornness stems from different character types: Antigone is a hero, but Socrates is a “saint” (though, Weiss insists, he need not have believed in gods). Although the argument is insightful in certain respects, some of its categories – the anachronistic “saint,” for instance – need closer interrogation. Engagement with relevant literary scholarship is uneven.[4]

Marina McCoy (Ch. 9) reads Glaucon’s and Adeimantus’s arguments against justice in Republic 2 (357a-367e) as philosophical deployments of mythos and logos. Glaucon’s “ring of Gyges” story enables imaginative engagement with the argument, and Adeimantus recasts his brother’s case as a logos (no longer imitating the poets, but calling them as witnesses). For McCoy, Adeimantus’s treatment of the poets and Socrates’ subsequent critique of poetic mimêsis do not represent Plato’s “final” positions: rather, the speeches in Book 2 signal that mimetic mythos and logos, properly used and understood, can serve as philosophical tools. Pierre Destrée (Ch. 10) analyzes the concluding Myth of Er from the same dialogue. Demonstrating point-by-point the intertextual engagement with Odyssey 11, Destrée interprets Er as an appropriation of epic tradition. The chapter offers a persuasive exposition both of the myth’s place in the Republic and of Plato’s complex responsiveness to Greek poetry. (It may be profitably read alongside recent work on Orphic tradition and Plato’s engagement with it in this myth and elsewhere.[5])

Marjolein Oele (Ch. 11) considers the role of emotions in virtue formation for Homeric characters. Beginning with an account of fear, hope, courage, and their interconnection in Aristotelian ethics (Eth. Nic. 3, Rh. 2), Oele examines two moments in the Iliad where fear, hope, and/or courageous action are especially important (Priam’s and Hecabe’s appeal to Hector in Il. 22 and Priam’s supplication of Achilles in Il. 24). While insightful, the analysis at times imposes Aristotelian concepts on Homer’s emotional vocabulary to less than persuasive effect.

A. A. Long (Ch. 12) looks at the interrelation of poetic and philosophical elements in Parmenides, Lucretius, Plato, and Wordsworth (in that order).[6] Poetry and philosophy, in Long’s account, are neither a natural pair nor natural antagonists: when certain authors combine them successfully, however, the result is hybrid in which the objectivity of philosophical inquiry (logos) is blended with poetry’s subjective appeal to the reader (mythos). Long’s insistence on Parmenides’ poetic virtues (based on criteria not limited to meter, including imagery, emotion, and possibly live recitation) is welcome: these poetic elements, as Long notes, offer Parmenides’ audience a promise of salvation rather than a bare argument. Although Lucretius’s “honeyed cup” simile (1.936-50, 4.10-25) is often thought to separate its philosophical and poetic aspects, his poetic style in fact “adds” to Epicurus by presenting his philosophy as an exhortation to a way of life rather than merely a physical or ethical theory. Plato, too, often resorts to prose-poetry rather than argument to present and defend his Forms and other central doctrines. Wordsworth, Long suggests, follows the pattern of ancient philosopher-poets in the romanticized Platonism of his Intimations of Immortality. Poetry, then, serves as more than just a decorative filigree for philosophical topics: at their best, philosopher-poets invite readers to heightened attention by fusing argument with appeals to emotion and imagination.

Chapters are not grouped by topic (as in the original volume), but certain themes connect the book’s strongest contributions. McCoy, Destrée, and Long reexamine Plato’s attitude toward poetry. Wians and Brisson study mythic and poetic traditions as modes of reflection on the human condition, while Hahn explores the pre-philosophical roots of ancient science. Wians, Blondell, McCoy, and Long deal with interactions between poetic form and philosophical argument.

Some small shortcomings should be acknowledged. Owing to the volume’s cross-disciplinary nature, the knowledge assumed of the reader differs sharply from chapter to chapter. Bibliographic gaps are apparent, especially in philosophical treatments of Greek literature (some are noted above). There are a significant number of typos.[7]

Critiques aside, Logoi and Muthoi is to be welcomed as a worthy and important sequel. It presents Wians’ logos-mythosparadigm across an expanded field of play, and its most successful entries contribute substantively to several subfields in Greek literature, ancient science, and philosophy.

Table of Contents

Introduction: “From Logos and Muthos to…” (William Wians)
Chapter 1. “Xenia, Hiketeia, and the Homeric Language of Morals: The Origins of Western Ethics” (Kevin Robb)
Chapter 2. “The Muses’ Faithful Servant: Moral Knowledge in Homer, Hesiod, and Xenophanes” (William Wians)
Chapter 3. “How Philosophy is Rooted in Tradition: Stories Describing the Appearance of Man and Woman in Ancient Greece” (Luc Brisson)
Chapter 4. “Muthos and Logos on New Year’s Day: Trial and Error in Anaximander’s Seasonal Sundial” (Robert Hahn)
Chapter 5. “Tragic Values in Homer and Sophocles” (Lawrence J. Hatab)
Chapter 6. “Sketches of Oedipus in Sophocles’s Play about Tyranny” (Marina Marren)
Chapter 7. “Helen and the Divine Defense: Homer, Gorgias, Euripides” (Ruby Blondell)
Chapter 8. “The Hero and the Saint: Sophocles’s Antigone and Plato’s Socrates” (Roslyn Weiss)
Chapter 9. “Myth and Argument in Glaucon’s account of Gyges’s Ring and Adeimantus’s Use of Poetry” (Marina McCoy)
Chapter 10. “Myth Inside the Walls: Er and the Argument of the Republic” (Pierre Destrée)
Chapter 11. “Priam’s Despair and Courage: An Aristotelian Reading of Fear, Hope, and Suffering in Homer’s Iliad” (Marjolein Oele)
Chapter 12. “Poets as Philosophers and Philosophers as Poets: Parmenides, Plato, Lucretius, and Wordsworth” (A. A. Long)


[1] M. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (New York, 1954), J. Gould, “Hiketeia,” JHS 93 (1973), 74-103, and F. S. Naiden, Ancient Supplication (Oxford, 2006).

[2] See G. Most, “The Poetics of Early Greek Philosophy,” in A. A. Long (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy (Cambridge, 1999), 332-62, and Long’s discussion of Parmenides in the present volume (Ch. 12 below).

[3] See also R. Hahn, “Proportions and Numbers in Anaximander and Early Greek Thought,” in D. Couprie, R. Hahn, and G. Naddaf, Anaximander in Context: New Studies in the Origins of Greek Philosophy (Albany, 2003), 73-166.

[4] For example, R. C. Jebb’s venerable but dated 1891 commentary is used as a foil while newer works are omitted: on p. 228, reference to “the commentators” is supported with a citation of Jebb alone. M. Griffith (ed.), Sophocles Antigone (Cambridge, 1999) is absent from the bibliography.

[5] See especially F. Graf and S. I. Johnston, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets, 2nd ed. (New York, 2013), 94-136 (esp. 101-2).

[6] An earlier version of this essay appeared as A. A. Long, “Poets and Philosophers and Philosophers as Poets,” in B. Huss, P. Marzillo, and T. Ricklin (eds.), Para/Textuelle Verhandlungen: Zwischen Dichtung und Philosophie in der frühen Neuzeit (Göttingen: 2011), 293-308.

[7] On p. 72, read “be fitting” (not “to be fitting”); p. 94 n. 9, “Bernabé 2005” (not “Berubé 2005”); p. 103, “below it” (not “below is”); p. 104, “the center was equidistant from the circumference” (not “equidistant from the center”); p. 148, “Od. 1.11ff” (not “Od. 11ff”); p. 179, “must needs imagine” (?) (not “imagines”); p. 263, “how it contributes” (not “contribute”); p. 275, “delight at Glaucon’s” (not “the Glaucon’s”); p. 306, “he imagines himself [?] to be killed” (not “imagines to be killed”); p. 309, “smeared it on” (not “smeared in on”); p. 310, θυμὸς ἀνώγει (not θυμὸςἀνώγει); p. 317 n. 31, “Achilles does not really value Priam” (not “values”). Glaucon’s ring of invisibility is found inside a bronze horse, not a bull (Pl. Rep. 2.359d6; p. 265 says both within the same paragraph).