In the ancient world, texts are written for the ear, not for the eye. Continue reading
We must always be seeking better rituals and conventions; but we moderns tend to gag at these as stifling to freedom. So we Romantic moderns, especially we Americans, tend to see the issue as simple: rituals and conventions are likely bad, as they are almost certainly not good. Cowboys like things to be so simple. At some level of our common cultural judgments, inherited from our dual heritage stemming from both Puritanism and the Enlightenment, we see ritual and convention as oppressive Catholic priestcraft, or else as either Monarchical or Aristocratic elitist oppression. It is simply in the water here — even if one were to be an American Catholic Monarchist.
Plato was also quite wary of rituals and conventions of a sort that he called “poetry” (ποίησις, from ποιέω “to make, to show, to put/place”), although he practiced a form of it. Although his concerns about convention and “poetry” come from a different place than our concerns about convention and ritual, there are important lessons for us both where his concerns overlap with ours and where they do not overlap.
We are not ourselves terribly troubled by what we call poetry — which we see as perhaps an expensive or eccentric taste at worst, and as a liberating possibility for the human spirit at best. For us, it is decidedly not conventional, or ritual. For Plato, however, Poetry was something very different; when we translate the word ποίησις as “poetry” we collude with an infelicitous conflation of two very different enterprises. We consider “poetry” as part of the “arts”, but the ancient Greeks didn’t have a word to designate the group of disciplines and activities that we would call “art”. Instead, they had the word “τέχνη” (“skill”), which would cover the range of “τέχναι” from medicine to ship-building to masonry to cooking to farming to dancing to making love to poetry, &c.  Disambiguation is helpful. Were we to first trace some of the historical backdrop that occasioned Plato’s concern, we might be in a better place to understand Plato’s Socrates, only then later to see an overwhelming number of analogues in our own world.
Before we look at Plato, then, let us sketch a few outlines of the nature of “poetry” prior to him.
Translators are confronted with numerous choices when rendering ancient Greek words into English, and one of these is how to bridge the distance between the world of the text and the world of the reader. This historical distance can be notoriously difficult to see when one engages with a text that has already been translated, and which arrives in the world of the innocent reader as pre-chewed food. (A recent post on the shift in words we translate as “happy” reminded me of the need to write something on this more specifically.) This highlights a central feature of the secularity of our modern world: historical distance, the autonomy of historical epochs and local worlds, and the seeming worldliness of every bridge or road we might build to traverse them. Continue reading
In the world of Homer, it is difficult to think of anything that cannot be described as alive, from the highest power to the lowest impulse. The Homeric world restricts the title of “god” to something that is “deathless”, and this boundary between divinity and mortality cannot be crossed so as to make a mortal become immortal (V.440-442). Yet if we insist on the rigidness of this divide too strictly, we ignore the tissue of connections and participations between the deathless gods and mortal men.
The most obvious connections are through the half-god children of the sexual unions of gods and mortals (who receive special divine care, and mourning — the sons of Zeus and Ares, respectively). There are other connections, however, such as dream-visions (II.1ff.), prophets (who are given to “hear” divine speech [VII.53, clarifying the odd VII.44-45]), and especially through reciprocal gifts. These gifts include libation and sacrifice on the part of humanity (which secure protection, the failure to perform them making the gods wroth [V.177-178] even when such failure is merely due to human forgetfulness [IX.535-540]; the gods, it should be noted, take pleasure in these sacrifices [“savoring” the smell of them in I.66; IV.49; and, in a lesser sense, IX.500], and can even be said to “dine” on them [IX.535]). On the part of the gods, this reciprocity of exchanges can be seen in the “gifts” that they “lay on” people ([XIII.726-734, etc.] — for people are sometimes spoken of as godlike, and some are likened to the gods they have some symmetry with [II.169; III.16ff.; III.156-160; III.309; VII.47; VII.207-213; XV.603-606, etc.], and by which they are loved [so Aphrodite to Helen III.413-417]).
Focusing too hard on the divine-mortal spectrum, and the threads that connect the poles of it, overshadows not only the presence of divinity amidst mortality, but also occludes a feature of the Homeric world that it does not share with ours: the pervasiveness of life. In the increasingly rational environment that followed in the centuries after Homer, it is a short distance from presenting all things as full of life to Thales’ reported position that all things are modifications of water (the gods themselves come from Ocean in Homer), and Thales’ famous alleged statement that “all things are full of gods.” Continue reading