BMCR 2023.02.17

Hesiod and the beginnings of Greek philosophy

, , Hesiod and the beginnings of Greek philosophy. Mnemosyne supplements, 455. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2022. Pp. x, 355. ISBN 9789004513914.


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


This volume had its origin in a conference in Leiden in 2016, with some new contributions. The collection is a very fine exception to the tendency of conference volumes to be frustrating to read straight through even when individual papers are excellent. Of course individual readers will be more interested in some contributions than in others, but while the chapters are quite different in their specific concerns the volume is coherent not only in its overall topic but in aspects of its approach to the question of how we should locate Hesiod in relation to the Presocratics. It moves away from the traditional formulation of a transition from mythos to logos and from the relatively crude question of whether we should emphasize that Hesiod composed mythical genealogies and so belongs to a pre-rational strain of thought or instead that he creates a totalizing system that anticipates later efforts to comprehend the whole of nature. Instead, it tries both to rethink the questions and to examine particular ways that later thinkers engaged with Hesiod.

The volume also, though giving more attention to the Theogony, examines the relevance of the Works and Days, relatively neglected in the past. Presocratic thinkers use and respond to both Hesiodic poems in various ways, echoing, polemicizing, adapting and modifying the structures of Hesiod’s work.

The perspective on Hesiod in these contributions is not oralist. He is very much a single author, and, mostly, of these two poems rather than the larger “Hesiodic” corpus. (Most’s chapter declares that the Catalogue of Women is “centuries later.”) Generally the contributors assume that Hesiod invented the catalogues of abstractions in the Theogony. I myself, although I believe in an individual Hesiod, would not dare assert with any confidence that he was the first or only singer to attempt a totalizing theogony. This rarely matters, however, since the contributions see Hesiod through later authors who were recipients of texts. (The likelihood that Hesiod’s earliest transmission was fluid does affect Piano’s defense of WD 124–5; but even there it does not make a serious difference in the overall argument.)

I am not a specialist on the Presocratics, and many chapters address debates, especially about Parmenides and Empedocles, about which I do not know the scholarship well enough to have a worthwhile opinion. For the most part, however, the questions addressed do not require that a reader agree with the authors, or those they cite, about, for example, where exactly Parmenides travels or whether Empedocles composed one or two books, and the chapters are accessible to non-specialists.

Iribarren and Koning’s unusually thoughtful and helpful introduction summarizes the modern history of scholarship on Hesiod and the Presocratics. It contextualizes the fifteen papers that follow, providing a richer and more useful account of how this volume functions in relation to earlier discussions than this review possibly can. The authors are very aware that “Presocratic” is a modern and uneasy category, although the boundaries are not an issue for most of the chapters.

The papers then appear in four divisions. In the first division, chapters by Laks and Hunter address how Aristotle and later doxography understand Hesiod’s place in the origins of philosophy and why Aristotle’s views of Hesiod are not simple. Laks draws a distinction between references to the Hesiodic poems where Hesiod is an authority from the past, and the beginnings of doxography. The chapter proposes an approach in an Aristotelian mode (though not found in Aristotle himself) and suggests that the greatest importance of Hesiod lies in the juxtaposition of the two Hesiodic poems, which together link cosmogony, politics, and ethics. Hunter also offers some interesting if speculative thoughts about how Apollonius’ version of the story of Phaethon could reflect both Parmenides and the Hesiodic Catalogue.

De la Combe argues that Hesiod both remains within traditional myth, since his poem celebrates the individual Zeus rather than one of the Ionians’ first principles, but also rejects it in his linguistic and narrative complexity, a complexity that philosophical discourse rejects. If I understand this argument (I am not sure that I entirely do), I am not entirely convinced, since I mistrust claims that would allow all contradictions within a poet’s deliberately enigmatic style. There is a very interesting point about the tension between the non-temporality of the eternal rule of Zeus and human time.

The second set of chapters concerns form and content. Tom Mackenzie plausibly suggests that, while the Presocratics surely allude to Hesiod, the narratives of Empedocles and especially Parmenides have strong affinities with the Theogony of Epimenides, the Arimaspea of Aristeas, and katabasis poems. Glenn Most, closely associating the catalogue form with the work of memory in oral culture, considers why catalogues persist in Presocratic philosophical works. It is a good question, particularly since they are easily expanded, contracted, and varied in substance as well as ornament. Andolfi takes a nuanced approach to the effect of literacy on self-referentiality, showing how Presocratics adapted different aspects of Hesiod’s claims to truth and authority.

In the third group, Šépanović offers a fine discussion of the epic formula of universality (“what was, is, and will be”) and thought about time. Scully argues that there are two views of Justice in early Greek: the Presocratics (Anaximander and Heraclitus) speak of the kind of Δίκη that constitutes an endless cycle of transgression and response, while in the Theogony Zeus, by creating an order that is fundamentally fair, makes the Olympian order free of strife. I disagree only to the extent that the Olympian world is not entirely free of strife, but the oath by Styx gives Zeus a way of ending disputes before his order is threatened. Tor argues that Xenophanes rejects Hesiodic-style theogony because it implies need and dependence in the gods; one need not be convinced by every point in the argument to find it generally persuasive. Strauss Clay’s chapter imagines a Hesiod who reads Empedocles. It is an interesting move, and the chapter effectively brings out similarities and differences, especially in their attitudes to language. The character of the Hesiod who is imagined here bears little resemblance to my implied author of the Hesiodic poem (who would find Empedocles impious and would never have called his own maxims “superstitious”), so this reader found the effect somewhat odd.

Chapters in the fourth group address “Intertextuality and continuity”—ways in which Presocratics use Hesiod. (This section is closest to the questions raised in earlier scholarship, but the volume gives them a new framework.) Morgan looks at how central binding and release are in the Theogony, as Zeus frees his allies and permanently binds his opponents. Parmenides, she suggests, took from Hesiod the metaphors through which to describe both the struggle to understand Being and its stability. Vergados suggests that sophistic reflections on languages developed Hesiod’s concern in Works and Days with the ambiguity of language, particularly his Begriffsspaltung, where he treats a single abstraction as double. Although I have my doubts about whether Hesiod really splits these concepts or that he was at all original in pointing to the importance of knowing when an emotion was appropriate or when and how it should be expressed (he does of course innovate in splitting Eris, but I am not convinced that even there he is very troubled over the ambiguity of language), it seems very likely that Hippias, Prodicus, and Antiphon’s varying approaches to language were indebted to Hesiod. Gheerbrant’s chapter begins from the observation that both Works and Days and the poem(s) of Empedocles have two different addressees (Perses/Pausanias and the basileis/friends of Acragas respectively). Although others (notably Obbink, “The Addressees of Empedocles,” MD 31 [1993] 51–98) have discussed the addressees in Empedocles, nobody has attempted a systematic treatment of how Empedocles adapted and modified Hesiod’s structure. Santamaría compares Theogony 783–806 (on the penalty for perjury among the gods) with Empedocles DK B115, on the punishment of daimones who spill blood, like Empedocles himself. The chapter convincingly argues that Hesiod is a model for Empedocles, although their larger purposes are very different. Piano, in the final chapter, looks at the daimones in the Derveni papyrus, concluding that Plato’s demonology is less original than has been thought, being a recombination and synthesis of elements found earlier.

The standard of English, even in chapters whose authors are not native speakers, is high. The only eccentricity likely to confuse anyone is Santamaría’s inverted “substitute…for” (Empedocles substitutes ψήφισμα for ὕδωρ, not the reverse).

While some contributions are broader than others, and some persuaded me more than others, all were well worth reading. The conference was part of the “Anchoring Innovation” project; nowhere do the contributors discuss anchoring as such. The theme is not irrelevant to the book, if Hesiod is the anchor that affects how Presocratics innovate. An explicit use of anchoring theory would actually have been welcome. How might Presocratic thought have developed differently if Hesiod had not contributed to defining its questions? That could be worth trying to imagine.


Authors and Titles

Introduction, Leopoldo Iribarren and Hugo Koning

Part 1: Reflections on Hesiod’s Poetry and the Beginnings of Philosophy
1 On Naming the Origins: Hesiod vs. the Ionians, Pierre Judet de La Combe
2 Aristotelian Perspectives on Hesiod: A Programmatic Sketch, André Laks
3 Hesiod and the Presocratics: A Hellenistic Perspective? Richard Hunter

Part 2: Comparisons of Form and Genre
4 Hesiod, the Presocratic Poets, Aristeas, Epimenides and the Gold Tablets: Genre and Narrative, Tom Mackenzie
5 The World of the Catalogue, Glenn W. Most
6 A Grammar of Self-Referential Statements: Claims for Authority from
Hesiod to the Presocratics, Ilaria Andolfi

Part 3: Contrasting Worldviews
7 Thinking about Time and Eternity—From Hesiod and the Presocratics to Plato and Aristotle, Sandra Šćepanović
8 Δίκη/δίκη in Hesiod, Anaximander and Heraclitus, Stephen Scully
9 Xenophanes’ Rejection of Theogony, Shaul Tor
10 Hesiod Reads Empedocles, Jenny Strauss Clay

Part 4: Intertextuality and Continuity
11 Parmenides and the Language of Constraint, Kathryn A. Morgan
12 Hesiod and Some Linguistic Approaches of the 5th Century bce, Athanassios Vergados
13 Addressees, Knowledge, and Action in Hesiod and Empedocles, Xavier Gheerbrant
14 Divine Crime and Punishment: Breaking the Cosmic Law in Hesiod’s
Theogony 783–806 and Empedocles’ Fragment DK B115, Marco Antonio Santamaría
15 From Humans to Kosmos: Daimones in the Derveni Papyrus between Hesiod and Plato, Valeria Piano