BMCR 2021.03.34

Thinking the Greeks: a volume in honor of James M. Redfield

, , Thinking the Greeks: a volume in honor of James M. Redfield. Routledge monographs in classical studies. London; New York: Routledge, 2018. Pp. xiii, 252. ISBN 9781138671867 £115.00.

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

This collection of essays examines the many themes investigated throughout his career by James M. Redfield, professor of classics in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago for about 50 years, until his retirement in 2016. It is a tribute to Redfield’s intellectual curiosity and enormous learning, as is clearly evident from the variety of topics examined by the authors. Redfield is perhaps most famous for his 1975 book Nature and Culture in the Iliad: The Tragedy of Hector, which examines in an anthropological perspective the role of Hector in the Iliad, but his intellectual curiosity led him to study such diverse topics as Greek myth and Orphic rituals, the Attic orators, Plato and Aristotle, Greek comedy and tragedy, always combining the perspective of the classicist with that of the anthropologist.

The volume is divided in three parts—one devoted to Homer, the second to Plato (in dialogue with epic, comedy and tragedy) and the third to other themes explored by Redfield, from Philostratus to the history of influence of texts. It begins with an essay by Laura Slatkin on the role of counterfactuals in the Iliad. Slatkin argues that “alternatives are in fact constitutive of the plot design” (p. 19) and gives as an exemplification the idea of ‘home’, which for the warrior-hero is both the distant fatherland and the actual plain of Troy. Slatkin has also some insightful remarks on the role of anonymous warriors who appear only to be killed by some hero. Next, Wendy Olmsted examines the role of boundaries in the Odyssey, arguing that during his adventures Odysseus establishes “boundaries that allow interaction and recognition” (p. 24), as in the case of his encounter with the Cyclopes: with them, he reinvents the “protocols of hospitality”.

Sarah Nooter investigates some instances of “making”, connected to a craft, in the poem, such as the making of the wooden horse. The horse is a piece of art and, in this case, techne brough death to the Trojans while it offered life to the Greeks and made Odysseus the real hero of the war. Odysseus has a wily counterpart in his wife Penelope, who uses an artisanal craft to weave and undo the shroud; their union is well symbolized by the wooden marital bed Odysseus himself sculpted. Nooter also examines the connection between craft and enchantment, evident in many places in the Odyssey, as in the preparation of Odysseus to meet Penelope by Athena and Hephaestus: Odysseus becomes a work of art himself.

Froma Zeitlin’s complex essay intertwines many research perspectives in a study of the Homeric representation of the human body as an artifact and an aesthetic object. Zeitlin first focusses on the description of the making of Achilles’ shield and notices that armour did not only serve the purpose of protecting the body but also was an extension of the owner’s body meant to emphasize his strength. The armour was also “an important influence on the depiction of the male body of the archaic kouros” (p. 62) and on vase-painting. Zeitlin also observes that Athena uses Odysseus’ body as the material to create a work of art—improving him, making him taller and more beautiful to charm Nausicaa and, later, his own wife.

Katherine Kretler revives a theme explored in Redfield’s work, namely the parallel ring structures of the Iliadand of Aristotle’s Poetics, and the light the former can shed on the latter. Kretler argues that Aristotle found in Homer the perfect example of the notion of “one complete action” he places at the foundation of tragedy. Aristotle argues that plot is the soul of tragedy and suggests that the ideal composer of plots is also a performer, in a circular process. Aristotle’s account of the birth of tragedy is thus a ring composition which imitates the Iliad.

Part II begins with an essay by Glenn Most on the notion of mimesis in Plato’s Republic. Most observes that in Republic 10 Plato identifies Homer, mimetic poetry and tragedy “in a striking and perplexing way” (p. 93); this contradicts the differentiation of Homeric epic and tragedy made in book 3. Believing that book 10 was intended as “the fitting culmination of the project of the whole treatise” and not a later addition to a pre-existing text of the Republic, Most concludes that in it Plato wanted to develop a comprehensive theory of imitative poetry considered as a kind of mimesis.

Kendall Sharp analyses Plato’s Hippias Minor and argues that in it Socrates develops principles of literary criticism in his interpretation of the Iliad. More specifically, Socrates shows the importance of context in interpretation and thus hints at the way Plato’s dialogues should be read: literary dialogues should be interpreted as conversations in real life, namely as personal interaction.

Stephanie Nelson turns to the Symposium and argues that Plato puts forth a vision of philosophy which stands in-between comedy and tragedy, where the former symbolizes the contingent realm of Becoming while the latter identifies the absolute world of Being: philosophy is thus like satyr-drama, which lies between the two. Nelson adds that Plato describes Aristophanes and Agathon as the respective representatives of the two genres and makes the interesting comment: “Tragedy’s association with the divine and comedy’s with the human appears as much in Aristophanes’s and Agathon’s speeches as it did on the Athenian stage” (p. 113). The Symposium is thus interpreted more generally as a drama of the absolute and the contingent, with philosophy occupying a middle position.

Bruce King reads Plato’s Lysis, whose dramatic date is 409 BCE, alongside Sophocles’ Philoctetes, which premiered in that very year. We know that the Philoctetes was performed in the spring of 409 while the Lysis’ action is set in that year: both works examine a significant topic in the wake of the failed coup of 411 BCE, nemly the notion of aristocratic philia. King focusses on counterfactuals, such as Neoptolemos’ educable nature in Sophocles and the use of the historic character of Lysis, a virtuous man, in Plato, arguing that both texts represent a drama in education: they explore the possibility of a durable change of character and the eventuality of failure.

Paul Ludwig begins his essay by reminding the reader that Socrates’ charge of corrupting youth had a sexual overtone and the proceeds to examine “vulgar eros” in the dialogues, focussing on the Phaedrus. Ludwig emphasizes the similarity between sexual initiation and philosophic initiation: philosophy is an erotic enterprise, after all. He goes on to argue that Plato wishes to exonerate Socrates from the charge of corrupting youth in the sexual meaning: Socrates was an erotic man, a moderate lover of beautiful bodies and an immoderate lover of truth.

James McGlew examines the use of sortition, allegedly a typically democratic tool, in the city of the Laws, which cannot be characterized as democratic by any stretch of imagination. He starts at the very foundation, examining the very working of sortition in Greek institutions, and then goes on to argue that in the Laws Plato does not design a city that is a simple rejection of Athens but rather “offers an analytic engagement with democracy” (p. 164). In his city, lottery from a prequalified set is used to elect the members of the council, thus providing the officeholders with “a sense of rightness and even inevitability” of their power which should prevent the rising of envy.

Part III includes essays that trace the transformation of ancient texts and themes into subsequent ages and in different contexts. It opens with Gregory Nagy’s examination of a set of myths and rituals found in Philostratus’ Heroikos. Nagy uses the methodology set forth by Redfield in his study of the “ritual of the Locrian maidens” in The Locrian Maidens (Princeton, 2003) for the Locrian maidens had to take a recurrent voyage to the city of new Ilion in Asia like the Thessalian pilgrims examined by Nagy, who had to sacrifice at a tumulus believed to be Achilles’ tomb. The features of these stories should be viewed as ritualised dramatizations of historical facts: in the case of the Thessalians, Nagy supposes that this ritual enabled them to claim a special connection to the place in Asia where Achilles died and was buried.

In her witty essay Wendy Doniger examines the theme of “the clever wife” that is found in the Indo-European and Semitic world; this theme is taken up in Greek and Roman comedy and found also in Renaissance Italy and Elizabethan England. The theme has many variations but essentially revolves around the same plot: a husband challenges his wife to get a child fathered by him although he will not sleep with her; there is often the additional detail of a ring, property of the husband, which the wife must take with some subterfuge. In the Graeco-Roman world this theme is present also with an element of sexual violence unknown in the other versions. Doniger examines Menander’s Arbitrators and the comedy Terence derived from it, the Mother in Law and points out that the two playwrights, bowing to their cultural traditions, insert rape at the beginning of the story and all but erase the role of the young woman: the rapist husband has thus no sense of guilt nor need to apologize.

Philippe Borgeaud studies the interpretative procedures used by Matteo Ricci to give an account of the religions of China and, conversely, to translate the tenets of Christian religion in Chinese culture. More specifically, he is interested in the stories already found in Tacitus and Plutarch of the connection between emperors’ dreams and the introduction of new deities. These stories reappear in Jesuits’ narrations in seventeenth-century France.

Claudia Zatta examines the influence of Aristotle’s works on animals on Hobbes’ thought and, more specifically, on his view of man. Zatta draws our attention to Book 8 of Aristotle’s History of Animals, where the philosopher depicts a scene of universal fight between animals who live in the same place in condition of scarcity of food. She argues that Hobbes’ discourse on man in the state of nature is strikingly similar, although Hobbes reduces the diversity of pursuits to a common denominator: human beings search for pleasure and avoid pain, thus resembling Aristotle’s animals. However, Hobbes’ men are more savage than Aristotle’s animals, because their war does not know boundaries of time or space; human beings are able to think about the future and therefore they live in anticipation of future evils. Furthermore, Hobbes takes seriously an objection to his view of man in Aristotle’s reference to “political animals” which can live sociably together. They can do so, in Hobbes’ view, because of their lack of speech (a “trumpet of warre”—as we read in De cive 5. 88) and reason and their inability to make moral decisions. Hobbes considers human beings vain and always in competition for honour and glory; they must subordinate their individual wills to one single will in order to become political beings; this is not the case with animals, which therefore should not be termed ‘political’—though Aristotle does characterize them as such. Zatta can thus conclude that Hobbes “constructs his political discourse by both opposing and endorsing Aristotle’s views” (p. 223); for Hobbes endorses Aristotle’s discourse on animals while rejecting his separation of man from other animals because of his unique moral status.

In the final essay of the collection, Ian Desai examines the practice of civil disobedience in Gandhi, to trace the possible influence of Socrates (as portrayed in Plato’s Apology) and Thoreau. Desai shows how deeply Gandhi was influenced by the thought of Thoreau, whom he got to know through Tolstoy and poses the question whether these two authors were instrumental also in developing his views on civil disobedience. Tolstoy, on his part, knew very well the ideas of Thoreau and of such American radicals as the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and through Tolstoy Gandhi learned about them and their thought. Throughout his life Gandhi considered Thoreau a precursor of his practice of civil disobedience and stressed that Thoreau had a theory and had put that theory into practice, intimating with his example that it was thus possible to do so also in India. In 1908 Gandhi published on his journal Indian Opinion a translation, or rather a reworking, of Plato’s Apology, titling it “The Story of a Soldier of Truth”. Gandhi’s avowed reason was to illustrate the nature and virtue of passive resistance. Desai then examines the sources of Gandhi’s knowledge of Socrates and argues that he read a volume published by the small publishing house Arthur C. Fifield in The Simple Life series. This series was characterized by its Tolstoyan spirit and Socrates was presented as a member of a radical tradition of thinkers and was thus enrolled by Gandhi in his army of champions of civil disobedience. With sweeping but persuasive touches Desai shows how a Tolstoyan Socrates, Thoreau, and Tolstoy himself contributed to the development and presentation of Gandhi’s notion of civil disobedience.

The variety of themes are held together by the common intellectual-history approach of the authors. All the essays are characterized by the originality of perspective and stylish interdisciplinarity of the Committee on Social Thought. This book will satisfy both the curious general reader interested in ancient Greece and specialists, who will find unusual approaches to their subject-matter.

Table of contents

Part I: Homer
Bruce M. King – Lillian Doherty, “Editors’ introduction”, pp.1-10.
Laura M. Slatkin, “Counterfactuals and the plot of the Iliad”, pp. 13-23.
Wendy Olmsted, “Odysseus at the boundaries of pre-culture”, pp. 24-37.
Sarah Nooter, “The wooden horse and the unmaking of the Odyssey”, pp. 38-52.
Froma I. Zeitlin, “Constructing the aesthetic body in Homer and beyond”, pp. 53-69.
Katherine Kretler, “Tapping the wellsprings of action: Aristotle’s birth of tragedy as a mimesis of poetic praxis”, pp. 70-90.

Part II: Plato in conversation with epic, tragedy and comedy”
Glenn W. Most, “’Homer, the first of the tragedians’? Remarks on Plato Republic 10”, pp. 93-101.
Kendall Sharp, “Plato’s Hippias Minor as literary criticism”, pp. 102-111.
Stephanie Nelson, “Between Being and Becoming: comedy, tragedy and the Symposium”, pp. 112-127.
Bruce M. King, “Contrafactual education in Sophokles’s Philoktetes and Plato’s Lysis”, pp. 128-142.
Paul Ludwig, “Vulgar eros in the Phaedrus”, pp. 143-158.
James McGlew, “Equality and sortition in Plato’s Laws”, pp. 159-170

Part III: Travel and transmission
Gregory Nagy, “A ritualized rethinking of what it meant to be “European” for ancient Greeks of the post-heroic age: evidence from the Heroikos of Philostratus”, pp. 173-187.
Wendy Doniger, “Menander, Terence and the rape of the clever wife”, pp. 188-199.
Philippe Borgeaud, “Sarapis and the emperor of China: some thoughts on comparison”, pp. 200-215.
Claudia Zatta, “The desire to live: Aristotle’s animals in Hobbes’s philosophy of man”, pp. 216-228.
Ian Desai, “The alchemy of influence: Socrates, Thoreau, Tolstoy and Gandhi”, pp. 229-243.