The period known as “archaic” Greece begins around 800 years before the birth of Christ. This is the era of the epic poets Homer and Hesiod, and of the lyric poets Archilochus, Ibycus, Alcaeus and Sappho. What we call the _Classical_ period emerges around 500 B.C., the period of the great dramatists Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles, the philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the schools of rhetoric, and the rise of Athenian democracy and power. After this is the _Hellenistic_ period, witnessing the diffusion of Greek culture through much of the mediterranean and middle east, a diffusion vastly accelerated by the conquests of Alexander the Great, and the various dynasties established by his generals after his death in 323 B.C. Over the Hellenised domains there was a common ruling class culture, using a common literary dialect and a common education system.1 The city of Alexandria in Egypt, founded by Alexander in 331 B.C., became a centre of scholarship and letters, housing an enormous library and museum, and hosting such renowned poets and grammarians as Callimachus, Apollonius Rhodius, Aristarchus and Zenodotus. We know of these figures partly through the work of Suetonius (c. 69-140 A.D.) who wrote the first histories of literature and criticism.2
The Hellenistic period is usually said to end with the battle of Actium in 31 B.C.in which the last portion of Alexander_s empire, Egypt, was annexed by the increasingly powerful and expanding Roman Republic. After his victory at Actium, the entire Roman world fell under the sole rulership of Julius Caesar_s nephew, Octavian, soon to become revered as the first Roman Emperor, Augustus. During this span of almost a thousand years, poets, philosophers, rhetoricians, grammarians and critics laid down many of the basic terms, concepts and questions that were to shape the future of literature as it evolved all the way through to our own century. These include the concept of _mimesis_ or imitation; the concept of beauty and its connection with truth and goodness; the ideal of the organic unity of a literary work; the social, political and moral functions of literature; the connection between literature, philosophy and rhetoric; the nature and status of language; the impact of literary performance on an audience; the definition of figures of speech such as metaphor, metonymy and symbol; the notion of a _canon_ of the most important literary works; and the development of various genres such as epic, tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry and song.
Political and Historical Contexts
_Classical_ Athens in the fifth century B.C. — just prior to the time of Plato _ was a thriving democratic city-state with a population estimated at about 300 thousand. However, this democracy differed considerably from ours: not only was it a direct, rather than a representative, democracy, but it was highly exlusive. Only the adult male citizens, numbering about 40-45 thousand, were eligible to participate in the decision-making process. The rest of the community, composed of women, resident aliens, and a vast number of slaves, formed a permanently excluded majority. Even most free men, whether working on the land or in the cities, were poor and had little hope of economic betterment (LWC, 32). This circumstance, widespread in the Greek world, was responsible in part not only for class conflict but for a perennial struggle between different forms of government. The philosophies and literary theories of both Plato and Aristotle were integrally shaped by awareness of these political struggles.
By this stage of her history, Athens was not only a democracy but an imperial power, head of the so-called Delian League of more than a hundred city-states, from whom she exacted tribute. Her rise to such predominance had been relatively recent and swift, though democracy itself had taken some centuries to evolve, displacing earlier systems such as oligarchy or tyranny and monarchy where power had resided in the hands of a small elite or one man. By 500 B.C. the tyrants had been overthrown in all the major Greek cities (LWC, 31). The ideals of social equality and democratic structure were furthered in Athens by leaders and lawgivers such as Solon, who made the law-courts democratic; Cleisthenes, who organised the political structure into ten tribes, each represented by 50 members in the Council of the Areopagus; and Pericles, who instituted pay for people to serve as state officials, so that such service might not be a privilege of the wealthy. In his funeral oration, Pericles defined democracy as a system in which power lies in the hands of _the whole people,_ _everyone is equal before the law,_ and public responsibility is determined not by class but by _actual ability_ (PV, 16-19).
What propelled Athens into prominence was largely her leading role in repelling two invasions of Greece by Persia. In the first of these, the Athenians, without Spartan aid, defeated the Persian forces led by King Darius at Marathon in 490 B.C. The second invasion was halted by Athens_ powerful navy at Salamis in 480 B.C. and on land at Plataea in 479 B.C. Despite the fact that the land battle was won with the help of Sparta, it was Athens who assumed the leadership of the Greek allies, organising them into a confederation, the Delian League, with the aim of liberating the Greek cities of Asia Minor (now Turkey) from Persian rule. These post-war years were the years of Athens_ power, prosperity and cultural centrality: Pericles dominated Athenian politics; the Parthenon and Propylaea were built; the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides were staged; the city was host to professional teachers of philosophy such as Protagoras, and schools of rhetoric, which taught young men of the nobility the art of public speaking and debate (PV, 22-23). The city was alive with free political discussion and intellectual inquiry. Pericles called Athens the _school of Hellas_ (LWC, 35).
In all of these historical circumstances, there were at least three developments that profoundly influenced the nature of literature and criticism, as well as of philosophy and rhetoric. The first was the evolution of the polis or city-state. The Greeks differentiated between themselves and the non-Greeks known as _barbarians_ primarily by this political structure, the polis, which alone in their view could allow man to achieve his full potential as a human being. When Aristotle defined man as a _political animal,_ it was this structure that he had in mind. As the scholar M.I. Finley puts it, the polis was comprised of _people acting in concert, a community,_ where people could _assemble and deal with problems face to face_ (LWC, 27-28). As later thinkers such as Hegel, Marx and Durkheim reiterated, man_s very being is social and public in its essential orientation, and his own fulfilment lies in advancing, not sacrificing, the public interest. These assumptions are common to the otherwise differing literary theories of Plato and Aristotle, who are both obliged to consider literature as a public or state concern. Finley states that _religion and culture were as much public concerns as economics or politics…the great occasions for religious ceremonial, for music, drama, poetry and athletics, were the public festivals, local or pan-Hellenic. With the state thus the universal patron, Greek tragedy and comedy…were as much part of the process of face-to-face discussion as a debate in a legislative assembly_ (LWC, 28). Even the internal structure of drama was influenced by the ideal of the polis: the chorus (whether comprised of a group of dancers and singers, or a single speaking character) was the representative of the community or polis. As Gregory Nagy so eloquently puts it, the chorus was a _microcosm of social hierarchy,_ and embodied _an educational collectivisation of experience_ (CHLC, V.I, 50). It is clear that literature and poetry had a public, even political, function, which was largely educational. T.H. Irwin states that _Athenian dramatic festivals took the place of some of the mass media familiar to us._3 No one was more deeply aware than Plato of the cultural impact of literature. In fact, Irwin points out that the _moral outlook of the Homeric poems permanently influenced Greek thought,_ in ways that conflicted with democratic attitudes. We might add that Plato _ no democrat _ also took great pains to counter the influence of Homer and the poets. Poetry had a primary role in education: children were taught letters for the purpose of memorising poetry and ultimately of performing and interpreting it (CHLC, V.I, 74). In the ancient Greek world, poetry not only had a public nature but served several functions which have been displaced in our world by news media, film, music, religious education and the sciences. Ironically, as we shall see, the image of Plato himself looms behind some of these long-term displacements.
The second political development pertinent to literature and criticism lay in the fact that Athens_ predominance in the Greek world did not go unchallenged. The other major power in the Greek world was Sparta, who counterbalanced Athens_ leadership of the Delian League with her own system of defensive alliances known as the Peloponnesian League. The struggle between these two superpowers was not only military but ideological: Athens everywhere attempted to foster her own style of democracy, whereas Sparta everywhere encouraged its own brand of oligarchy. This struggle convulsed the entire Greek world and eventually led to the Pelopponesian War, which lasted twenty seven years, beginning in 431 B.C. and ending with the utter defeat of Athens in 404 B.C. The first twenty four years of Plato_s life were lived during this war, and the issues raised by the conflict affected many areas of his thought, including his literary theory. Even before Athens_ defeat, she had witnessed a brief coup at the hands of the oligarchical party in 411-410 B.C. (the regime of the _four hundred_). It was during this repressive period that Socrates was tried and executed in 399 B.C. on a charge of impiety. The Spartans imposed another oligarchy in 404 B.C., the so-called regime of the_thirty,_ which included two of Plato’s relatives, Critias and Charmides, who were also friends of Socrates. In 403, however, democracy was restored after a civil struggle. The struggle was effectively between two ways of life, between the _open-minded social and cultural atmosphere_ of Athenian democracy, and the _rigidly controlled, militaristic_ oligarchy of Sparta (CCP, 60-62). It was this struggle which underlay the opposition between Plato_s anti-democratic and somewhat authoritarian philosophical vision and the more fluid, sceptical and relativistic visions expressed by poetry, sophistic and rhetoric. It is in this struggle, as we shall see, that Western philosophy as we know it was born.
A third factor that shaped the evolution of literature in archaic and classical Greece was pan-Hellenism, or the development of certain literary ideals and standards among the elites of the various city-states of Greece (CHLC, V.I, 22). Gregory Nagy points out pan-Hellenism was crucial in the process of the continuous modification and diffusion of the Homeric poems and of poetry generally. It is well known that the Iliad and the Odyssey were products of an oral tradition, cumulatively composed over a long period of time; a given poet would take a story whose basic content was already well-known and modify it in the process of his own retelling; in turn, he would pass these poetic skills and this poetic lore down through his own successors. Nagy’s point is that the process of “ongoing recomposition and diffusion” of the Homeric and other poems acquired a degree of stability in virtue of the development of pan-Hellenism. The standardisation of literary ideals led to a process of decreasing novelty and “text-fixation” in “ever-widening circles of diffusion” (CHLC, V.I, 34). According to Nagy, then, pan-Hellenism had a number of importance consequences. Firstly, it provided a context in which poetry was no longer merely an expression or ritual re-enactment of local myths. The travelling poet was obliged to select those aspects of myth common to the various locales he visited. The word that came to express this “convergence of features” drawn from myth was aletheia or truth. Hence the concept of “poet” or singer evolved into the concept of “the master of truth.” The poet becomes the purveyor of truth, which is general, as distinct from myth, which is local and particular. Interestingly, Nagy etymologically relates the word mousa or “muse” with mne- which means “have the mind connected with.” In this reading, the muse “is one who connects the mind with what really happens in the past, present, and future” (CHLC, V.I, 29-31). Nagy’s perception is crucial for understanding subsequent Greek literary theory: the domain of truth becomes an arena of fierce contention between poetry and philosophy.
A second consequence of pan-Hellenism, furthering the process of standardisation, was the evolution of a certain group or “canon” of texts into the status of classics (CHLC, V.I, 44). It was in the period of Alexandrian scholarship that the term _criticism_ or “judgment” was used to differentiate between works that deserved to be included within a canon. Nagy points out that in this era, nine names comprised the “inherited canon of lyric poetry”: Alcman, Stesichorus, Alcaeus, Sappho, Ibycus, Anacreon, Simonides, Bacchylides, and Pindar. Hence, “a pre-existing multitude of local traditions in oral song” had evolved into “a finite tradition of fixed lyric compositions suited for all Hellenes” (CHLC, V.I, 44). The third, related, consequence was the development of the concept of imitation or mimesis into a “concept of authority.” Mimesis designates “the re-enactment, through ritual, of the events of myth” by the poet; it also designates “the present re-enacting of previous re-enactments,” as in the performer’s subsequent imitation of the poet. Mimesis becomes an authoritative concept inasmuch as the author speaks with the authority of myth which is accepted as not local but universal, timeless and unchanging. It becomes an “implicit promise” that the performer will coin no changes to “accommodate the interests of any local audience,” and will give rise to “the pleasure of exact performance” (CHLC, V.I, 47-49). Even after such oral performance traditions were obsolete, this authoritative or authoritarian ethic of exact mimesis was preserved in education where the text “becomes simply a sample piece of writing, potentially there to be imitated by other sample pieces of writing” (CHLC, V.I, 73). All of these developments outlined by Nagy might be seen as pointing in one general direction: over the centuries, from Homeric times onward, poetry had acquired an increasing authority, established in its function as a repository of universal myth and truth, its fixation into a canon of privileged texts which were no longer open to recomposition but merely to exact imitation or performance, and the predominating educational role of poetry in this exalted status. A final point that we can take from Nagy’s splendid account of early Greek views of poetry is that by the time of Plato, the theatre had become the primary medium of poetry, absorbing the repertoire of both epic and lyric. Tragedy had become the craft of poetry par excellence (CHLC, V.I, 66-67).
Perhaps the most salient factor concerning poetry at this time was the authority and status it had achieved. As we have seen, the evolution of this authority had been multifaceted: poetry claimed to present a vision of the world, of the gods, of ethics and morality that was true. Poetry was not only the repository of collective wisdom, as accumulated over the ages, but it was also the expression of universalised myth. It had a public function that was most evident in its supreme embodiment, tragedy, which assumed for the ancient Greeks the roles of our theologies and religious institutions, our histories, our modern mass media, our education system, and our various modes of ascertaining truth.
There are a number of intellectual currents which can be mentioned here. Interestingly, these currents merged in important ways with the main stream of culture that was comprised by poetry. The first of these was sophistic, which arose in fifth century Athens, and whose major exponents such as Protagoras and Gorgias were contemporaries of Plato. The second was rhetoric, the art of public speaking, an art vital to the effective functioning of Athenian democracy. Both the sophists and the rhetoricians offered training in public debate and speaking, often for very high fees; their curriculum aimed to prepare young men of the nobility for political life. While the two currents, sophistic and rhetoric, were so closely connected that the Sophists were indeed the first teachers of rhetoric, there was a distinction between them: rhetoric was, strictly speaking, restricted to the techniques of argument and persuasion; the more ambitious sophists promised a more general education extending over the areas considered by philosophy: morality, politics, as well as the nature of reality and truth (CCP, 64, 66).
Plato was opposed to both sophistic and rhetoric. He objected to sophistic accounts of the world, which were essentially secular, humanistic and relativistic. These accounts rejected the authority of religion and viewed truth as a human and pragmatic construct. In other words, there was no truth which ultimately stood above or beyond human perception. What Plato rejects in rhetoric is also based on its alleged exclusion of truth: rhetoric is concerned not with truth but merely with persuasion, often preying on the ignorance of an audience and merely pandering to its prejudices rather than seeking a moral and objective foundation. Clearly, the attitudes of sophistic and rhetoric arise in a democratic environment: just as in our modern day democracies, the concept of truth as some kind of transcendent datum is extinguished; as in our lawcourts, we can argue only that one version of events is more probable and internally coherent than another. We do not claim that this superior version somehow expresses an infallible truth. Much of Plato’s philosophy is generated by a desire to impose order on chaos, to enclose change and temporality within a scheme of permanence, and to ground our thinking about morality, politics and religion on timless and universal truths that are independent of human cognition. So profound was Plato’s opposition to sophistical and rhetorical ways of thinking that his own philosophy is internally shaped and generated by negating their claims. His so-called dialectical method, which proceeds by systematic question and answer, arises largely in contradistinction to their methods. What is important for us is that Plato finds the same vision of the world in literature. In fact, he sees tragedy as a form of rhetoric. T.H. Irwin states that “[i]n attacking rhetoric, Plato also attacks a much older Athenian institution, tragic drama.” Like rhetoric, tragedy “makes particular moral views appear attractive to the ignorant and irrational audience” (CCP, 67-68). Jennifer T. Roberts reminds us of “the important role played in the education of Athenian citizens by attendance at tragedies. It was tragic drama that afforded Athenians an opportunity to ponder and debate many of the same issues that arose in Plato’s dialogues.”4 Hence, for Plato, sophistic and rhetoric effectively expressed a vision of the world that had long been advanced by the much older art of poetry. It is not only his dialectical method but the content of his philosophy that arises in the sharpest opposition to that vision.
What was that poetic vision? It was a vision going all the way back to Homer: we may recall the squabbling between Zeus and his Queen Hera, the laughable scene with Hephaistos, the disputes between various goddesses such as Athene and Aphrodite, and in general the often indecorous conduct of the gods. This is a vision of the world as ruled by chance, a world where “natural processes are basically irregular and unpredictable, and that gods can interfere with them or manipulate them as they please_ (CCP, 52). Plato firmly rejects this undignified and unsystematic (and perhaps liberal) vision. As many scholars have pointed out, partly on Aristotle’s authority, Plato’s own ideas were indebted to a pre-Socratic tradition of naturalism, which attempt to offer an alternative account of the world, an account that is not poetic or mythical or based on tradition but which appeals rather to natural processes in the service of a rational explanation. Irwin points out that in agreeing with the pre-Socratics, both Socrates and Plato were challenging _widespread and deep-seated religious assumptions of their contemporaries._ In rejecting the Homeric irregular picture of the universe, they, like the naturalists, were rejecting the view that we incur divine punishment by failing to make the appropriate sacrifices or by fighting on an ill-omened day or by securing a god_s favour by offering gifts. In Plato’s view, the gods are “entirely just and good, with no anger, jealousy, spite or lust.” Both of these views, says Irwin, existed in an unreconciled fashion in Greek tradition (CCP, 52-53). Moreover, like the naturalists, Socrates and Plato distinguished between mere evidence of the senses, which was “appearance,” and an underlying reality accessible only through reason (CCP, 54). Hence, Greek philosophy begins with the application of rational thinking to all areas of human life: _In the lifetime of Socrates reflection on morality and human society ceased to be the monopoly of Homer and the poets; it became another area for critical thinking_ (CCP, 58). In other words, Greek philosophy begins as a challenge to the monopoly of poetry and the extension of its vision in more recent trends such as sophistic and rhetoric. Plato’s opposition of philosophy to poetry effectively sets the stage for more than two thousand years of literary theory and criticism.