J. H. Lesher, ‘Archaic Knowledge’ in William Wians, ed. Logos and Mythos (suny press, 2009), 13-28

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J. H. Lesher, ‘Archaic Knowledge’ in William Wians, ed. Logos and Mythos (SUNY Press, 2009), 13-28.

Archaic Knowledge

In some ways it may seem anachronistic to speak of ‘knowledge’ in the context of archaic Greek poetry.1 The Greek expressions we routinely translate into English as ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’—epistêmê, gnôsis, sophia, and nous—were either unattested in this earlier period or else had a more specialized meaning. When epistêmê makes its first appearance, in a 5th-century poem by Bacchylides, it is placed in apposition with the arts of poetry, divination, and archery.2 The noun gnôsis appears for the first time in a fragment of Heraclitus (composed at some point near the outset of the 5th century) with the apparent meaning of ‘awareness’ or ‘recognition’.3 In its one appearance in the Homeric poems (Iliad XV, 412) sophia designated the skills possessed by an expert carpenter4; only gradually will it come to connote mastery of a particular field of study or a generally intelligent approach to living.5 And even when the poets speak of individuals who either have or lack knowledge they do so in verbal rather than nominative ways. Homer speaks of the seer Kalchas as one who ‘knew (êdê) the things that were, that were to be, and that had been before’ (Il. I, 69-70), of the Muses who ‘know all things’ (iste te panta, II, 485), of the experienced counselor Nestor who ‘well knows (eu eidôs) the battles of old’ (IV, 310), and of the wily Odysseus who ‘knows many things’ (eidota polla, Od. IX, 281). The nouns noos and mêtis figure prominently in both epics but designate a quality of ‘intelligence’ or ‘cunning’ (as exemplified by Odysseus and Penelope) rather than a body of knowledge of facts or truths. The noun histôr (meaning ‘observer’ or ‘judge’) appears twice in the Iliad (XVIII, 501 and XXIII, 486) but historia, meaning ‘inquiry’ or ‘the knowledge obtained through inquiry’, is unknown before Herodotus’ History and the Hippocratic treatise On Ancient Medicine. In the light of all this why should we suppose that anything like knowledge was a matter of interest or importance for the poets of archaic Greece?

It would be a mistake to infer from the fact that the speakers of the language in a particular period lacked the noun form ‘X’, that they could have had no concept of X or no appreciation of what is involved in being an X. Homer’s Greek lacked a noun corresponding to our English ‘will’ but no one would want to say that neither Homer nor his audiences had any sense of the nature of willful conduct.6 In this case, as elsewhere, the lack of a nominative expression can be offset by the use of various related verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. So if we find evidence that early Greek poets spoke of human beings engaged in an effort to grasp the significance of the events taking place around them we might fairly speak of an ‘early Greek concept of knowledge’ even in the absence of any noun equivalent in meaning with our English ‘knowledge’.
As we shall see, early Greek poets spoke often and in different ways of individuals who discover, notice, realize, and come to know about various matters and, perhaps more often, of those who fail to do so. From time to time they also speak of one or more of the impediments to human knowledge as well as the degree to which they as divinely inspired singers were able to overcome them. As a result, when more philosophically minded individuals such as Xenophanes and Heraclitus began to articulate and explore epistemological questions they could draw upon a set of shared assumptions about the sources and methods appropriate to knowing as well as a set of its acknowledged paragons.
I. Until rather recently there was something approaching a consensus view of the general character of ‘the early Greek view of knowledge’. According to Bruno Snell, Kurt von Fritz, and Hermann Fränkel, among others, during this early period the various Greek expressions for knowing—eidenai, gignôskein, noein, manthanein, and sunienai--were closely associated with sense perception. One datum often cited in this connection was that the Greek verb oida (typically translated as ‘I know’) was actually a second perfect tense form of eidô (‘I see’) and meant ‘I have seen’. 7 Thus, as Snell put it, in the Homeric poems ‘knowing’ was essentially a matter of ‘having seen’; only gradually did the Greek expressions for knowledge acquire a more ‘intellectual’ orientation.8 One important corollary of the early outlook was that where there was no prospect of direct experience, neither there was any prospect of knowledge. When combined with some awareness of the obvious spatial and temporal restraints under which human beings must live and operate, the identification of knowledge with what can be directly experienced gave rise to a decidedly pessimistic view of the prospects for human knowledge. The classic expression of this outlook is the famous ‘second invocation of the Muses’ in Iliad II: ‘for you are goddesses, you are present at and know all things, whereas we mortals hear only a report and know nothing’ (485-86). According to some versions of what we might term the ‘developmentalist’ view, the close connection between knowing and seeing continued to be felt by various Presocratic thinkers (e.g. in Heraclitus’ conception of nous as a capacity for direct intuition of the nature of things) and only with Parmenides’ identification of ‘reasoned discourse’ (logos) as an alternative way of inquiry did early Greek thought begin to move away from a virtual identification of knowledge with accumulated sense experience.9 According to other versions, a ‘higher’ or ‘more intellectual’ way of knowing emerged when the poet Archilochus urged his thumos (his ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’) to ‘know what rhythm holds man in its sway’ (fr. 67a Diehl) and Solon spoke of ‘the hardest part of judgment (gnômosunê)’ as ‘grasping the unseen measure that alone holds the limits of all things’ (fr. 16 Diehl).10
Recent scholarship, however, has challenged the ‘developmentalist’ view on a number of fronts.11 It has been pointed out that even Homer allowed for knowledge gained from a source other than direct visual observation (e.g. in Iliad XX when Aeneas claims that he and Achilles know (idmen) their lineage strictly on the basis of what they have been told by others).12 In addition, whatever degree of pessimism may have been expressed in the invocation to the Muses in Iliad II did not prevent the singer from claiming to have ascertained the names of ‘all those who came beneath Ilios’.13 And while there is good reason to think that the Presocratics came increasingly to focus on the importance of grasping the intelligible structure that lies beneath or beyond appearances, there is no reason to suppose that every advance in philosophical thinking was immediately reflected in ordinary language.

Nevertheless, it is possible to identify some basic features of ‘Homeric knowledge’. First, as Snell and others noted, Homer commonly credits both gods and mortals with discovering the truth by means of direct observation of events. Menelaus affirms the connection between the two when he says to Antilochus:

Since you have observed it for yourself (auton eisoroônta), I think you

Already know (gignôskein) that a god has rolled destruction on the Danaans

And given victory to the Trojans. (Iliad XVII, 687-88)14

Elsewhere, as just mentioned, other sense faculties are involved. As Aeneas explains to Achilles:

We know (idmen) each other's lineage and each other's parents,

Having heard words of mortal men of olden times (epea prokluta),

But not by sight (opsei) have you seen my parents, nor I yours.

(Il. XX, 203-05)15

We also find references to knowledge in the form of physical skills or expertise achieved through extensive experience or practice:

But well I know (eu oida) the battles and slayings of men.

I know (oida) how to wield to the right and left a shield of seasoned hide. . .

I know (oida) also how to charge into the battles of swift mares,

And I know (oida) how to do the dance of Ares one-on-one. (Il. VII, 237-41)

Similarly, we hear of warriors who are epistamenoi polemidzein--'skilled in fighting' (Il. II, 611) and toxôn eu eidôs--'well skilled in archery' (Il. II, 718), and of healers who are êpia pharmaka eidôs--‘skilled in soothing drugs’ (Il. IV, 218). In the Odyssey there are fewer references to skill in the arts of war or medicine and more references to individuals such as Odysseus who are ‘skilled in all manner of devices and tricks' (eidotes...kerdea, Od. XIII, 296-97).16

In addition, both mortals and gods can achieve knowledge through the use of an especially instructive trial or testing procedure. When Zeus threatens to hurl into Tartarus any god he catches giving aid to either side of the conflict at Troy, he boasts that such an act will confirm the magnitude of his powers:

Then you shall know (gnôsete) just how mighty among the gods I am.

But come, gods, make trial (peirêsasthe) so you will all know (eidete). (Il. VIII, 18)

In the Iliad, the relevant form of testing is often a 'trial by arms' in order to determine which is the superior warrior:

But come, make trial (peirêsai), so that these too may know (gnôôsi)

Straightway your dark blood will flow around my spear. (Il. I, 302-03)17

While in the Odyssey, the testing can also take the form of athletic competition:

Of the rest, if any man's heart and spirit bid him,

Let him come here and be put to a trial (peirêthêtô). . .

But of the others I will refuse none and make light of none,

But I wish to know (idmen) and try them (peirêthêmenai) face to face.

(Od. VIII, 204-05, 212-13)

The frequency with which we hear of various ‘tests’ or ‘trials’ reflects the high level of concern felt by Homer’s heroes to prove themselves ‘to be the best and excel all others’ and to avoid the ‘disgrace or shame’ (to elenchos) that comes from failing the test.
Each of these ‘ways of knowing’—direct observation, relying on the testimony of others, and the staging of a test or trial—figures in the discovery of Odysseus’ identity by the members of his household. Telemachus learns the truth when Odysseus tells it to him outright (Od. VI, 188); the old hound Argos knows his master the moment he spots him (hôs enoêsen, XVII, 301); while Eurycleia and the shepherds recognize Odysseus by first touching (XIX, 468) and then seeing (XXI, 217-25) the identifying scar on his leg. Penelope, however, discovers the stranger’s identity neither from any visual indicators nor on the basis of any verbal assurances, but rather by putting the stranger to a trial or test (cf. peirômenê at XXIII, 181). When her seemingly casual request to relocate the marital bed sparks a flash of anger from Odysseus (XXIII, 181-204), she gets the unmistakable indicator (sêma) she had been waiting for. Thus while Homer and generations of singers before him invoked the aid of divine powers as they set out to perform their songs, the stories they told often portrayed individuals engaged in the process of acquiring knowledge through a variety of means. A person might appropriately assert autos oida—'I know for myself'18—on the basis of what he or she had directly observed; another might claim to have learned the truth from a reliable source; while a third might make a claim to knowledge on the basis of a trial or testing process.19

  1. Three broad themes relating to human knowledge run through much of early Greek poetry. The first, especially important for the unfolding drama of the Odyssey, relates to the frequency with which human beings fail to grasp the full significance of the events taking place around them. While others fail to see Odysseus weeping, for example, Alcinous notices him (enoêsen, Od. VIII, 533). When Odysseus appears in disguise among the Trojans only Helen recognizes who he really is (cf. anegnôn, Od. IV, 250). And although there are many signs of impending disaster, only the seer Theoclymenus is able to 'take note of' (noeô) the evil about to befall the suitors (Od. XX, 351). The ability to manipulate as well as ‘see through’ appearances is a hallmark of Homeric noos, with Odysseus and Penelope its twin exemplars. So frequent and central to the story of Odysseus’ return are moments of discovery--or failures in discovery--that Aristotle identified 'recognition' (anagnôrisis) as the poem’s main theme (Poetics 1459b15).

A second theme, developed in both the Iliad and Odyssey, highlights the importance and difficulty of achieving a broad understanding of what might be termed ‘the larger scheme of things’--or as Homer expresses the idea--‘knowing how to think of what lies before and after’ (eidenai noêsai prossô kai opissô).

The phrase prossô kai opissô has commonly been understood to imply that the ancient Greeks conceived of the past and future as lying ‘before and behind’ so that what has already occurred lay directly before them, while future events were approaching them from behind.20 It now seems clear, however, that this understanding is at odds with a considerable body of linguistic evidence. G. E. Dunkel has shown that the association of past events with what lies ‘in front’ and future events with what lies ‘behind’ was not peculiarly Greek but attested in Vedic and Hittite, and in all probability reflected a feature of Indo-European. In a number of Vedic texts, for example, past and future events are said to lie ‘before and after’ relative not to the observer but to each other—i.e. past events lie ahead of present and future events in the order of succession. 21 In this connection Dunkel quotes a portion of the Vedic hymn to Dawn:

Among the days <=along time>, of these earlier sisters, the back/later one approaches the front/earlier one from behind. Let these newer ones now, just as of old, shine richly for us, dawns who bring good days. (1.124.9)

So if we are to think of events in accordance with epic Greek ways of speaking, we must think of them as occurring in much the same way in which cars exit from a tunnel, or bullets are shot from the barrel of a gun. The event that happens first (and is now past) was the first one ‘out of the chute’; the event just behind that one was the next event to occur, etc. So the poet’s claim that mortal beings lack the capacity to look ‘before and after’ means that they are incapable of broadening their viewpoint to comprehend two series of events, one that stretches into the past as well as the other that extends into the future.
The headstrong Achilles faults the headstrong Agamemnon in just these terms:

Nor does he know how to think of before and after (prossô kai opissô)

So the Achaeans might safely wage war beside their ships (Il. I, 343-44)

Similarly, the failure of Penelope's suitors to sense the disaster that awaits them marks them as nêpioi--'fools who did not realize (ouk enoêsan) that over them one and all the cords of destruction had been made fast' (Od. XXII, 31-32). In his speech to the suitor Amphinomous Odysseus identifies the inability to direct one’s thoughts toward future events as a defining characteristic of the race:

Nothing feebler does earth nurture than man,

Of all the things that move and breath on the earth.

For he thinks that he will never suffer evil in the time to come (opissô),

So long as the gods give him prosperity and his knees are quick;

But when again the gods decree him sorrow;

This too he bears with a steadfast heart.

For such is the mind (noos) of man upon the earth,

Like the day the father of gods and men brings to him. (Od. XVIII, 130-37)

On occasion, those who are able to ‘see prossô kai opissô’ are said to ‘know this best themselves’; i.e. those who can take up the broader view must expect that their knowledge and advice will go unheeded by all the others who lack such a capacity.22 As the seer Poulydamus explains the problem to Hector:

To one man god has given works or war,

To another, dance, and to another lyre and song,

And in the breast of another, Zeus, whose voice is borne afar,

Puts a valuable mind (noon...esthlon)

From which many men get profit, and many he saves,

But he knows this best himself (malista de kautos anegnô, Il. XIII, 730-35)23
The restricted temporal range of mortal noos provides one of the major themes in early Greek poetry, as in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (256-7):

Unknowing (nêides) are humans and foolish

Not foreseeing the good or evil that comes upon them.

Similarly, Archilochus, Fr. 70:

Of such a sort, Glaucus, is the mind (thumos) of mortal man,

Whatever Zeus may bring him for the day,

For he thinks such things as he meets with.

Semonides, Fr. 1:

There is no mind (noos) in men,

But we live each day like grazing cattle,

Not knowing how god shall end it.

Theognis, 141-42:

'Mortals think vain things, knowing nothing,

While the gods accomplish all to their intentions.

Simonides, Fr. 22:

You who are a human being,

Never say what tomorrow will bring,

Nor when you see someone prosper, how long this will last.

For change is swifter than the changing course of the wide-winged fly.

Solon Fr. 13:

We mortal men, good and bad, think in this way:

Each holds his opinion before something happens to him, and then he grieves, But before that we rejoice open-mouthed in vain expectations.

Solon Fr. 1:

All that we do is fraught with danger;

No one can ever know where a thing may end, when it has once begun. . .

For us no visible limit of wealth is appointed;

Those blessed beyond others with wealth hunger for double the sum.

Pindar, Nemean VI, 6-7:

We know not where, according to what the day or night brings to us, fate has Appointed as the end toward which we hasten.

Pindar, Nemean XI, 43-47:

What comes from Zeus is not accompanied by any sure sign (saphes tekmar). We embark on bold endeavors, yearning after many exploits,

For our limbs are fettered by importunate hope.

But streams of foreknowledge (promatheias) lie far from us.

Since mortals can think of events only in terms of what they themselves have experienced or ‘met with’, they inevitably fail to detect the larger patterns in human affairs--how long health and prosperity will last, whether victory or defeat lies ahead, and what end awaits each individual. ‘Wisdom’ for such creatures resides in seeking the kind of truth that accords with their nature, and ‘not aiming too high’.

The archaic view of knowledge is, therefore, entirely consistent with what William Arrowsmith once termed the Greek view of ‘the great gamut of being’:

At the very top is god, sheer power, intense being, the quality possessed by what is wonderful and unique, the special radiance of the exceptional and the prodigious… every power a being possesses is pertinent to his place along this great gamut of being running from the omnipotence of Zeus to the undifferentiated powers of the great feudal barons of Olympus, down to the modest particularisms of the nymphs, and lesser powers, to the god-aspiring arête [excellence] of the hero, to the routine world of ordinary mortals, to weak women, helpless children, and chattel slaves. Each order suffers the cumulative anankê [necessity] of the orders above it in an ascending curve of freedom and power.’24

The Olympian gods and goddesses are exemplars of knowledge in so far as they live forever and can observe the wide world from their superior vantage points.25 And when Homer speaks of the noos that Zeus ‘puts into the breast of a man’ he implies that all human knowledge or understanding is ultimately a divine dispensation, a gift of the gods.26 Particular areas of expertise are also spoken of as divine gifts—as in the case of the carpenter who is ‘well skilled in all manner of craft (sophiês) by the promptings of Athene’ (Il. XV, 411-12); Kalchas ‘who had guided the ships of the Achaeans to Troy by the soothsaying Phoebus Apollo had bestowed upon him’ (Il. I, 69-72); and the Sirens who promise Odysseus that he will 'know more' since they themselves 'know all things that come to pass' (Od. XII, 188). The poets of archaic Greece surveyed the powers and limitations of human intelligence from a distinctly religious perspective, and thereby articulated a view of the limits of what any mortal being may hope to know.27
A third, related theme was the conception of the poet as one whose association with divine powers both empowers and authorizes him to speak on a wide range of questions. At the outset of the Catalogue of the Ships in Iliad II the singer explains how the Muses empower him to perform such ‘superhuman’ feats as reciting the names of all the leaders who came to fight at Troy:

But the vast number [of leaders] I could neither tell nor name,

Not if I had ten tongues, and ten mouths,

An untiring voice, and a heart of bronze within me,

Did not the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who bears the aegis,

Call to my mind (mnêsaiath') all those who came beneath Troy. (487-92)

Hesiod also speaks of his role as poet in the context of widespread human ignorance: ‘Yet the will of Zeus who holds the Aegis [i.e. the order of events as they unfold] is different at different times, and it is hard for mortal men to grasp it.’ (Works and Days, 483-84). At least part of his task is to impart his knowledge of the various recognizable signs that mark important turning points so that Perses and indirectly those in the poet’s audience will know how best to conduct their affairs. (Cf. Works and Days 661: ‘Nevertheless I will tell you the will of Zeus who holds the aegis, for the Muses have taught me to sing in marvelous song.) ’ Similarly, at the outset of the Theogony, Hesiod asserts his claim to epistemic superiority by describing the scope of his art in the same terms Homer used to character the knowledge possessed by the seer Chalkas—ta t’eonta ta t’essomena pro t’eonta (38).28 And as he undertakes to relate 'the mind of Zeus'—as seen in the cycles of winds and weather—he claims that because he is a servant of the Muses he can tell the truth concerning matters with which he has little or no direct experience:

I will show you the measures of the loud-resounding sea,

Alhough I am skilled (sesophismenos) in neither ships nor sea faring;

For never yet have I sailed by ship over a broad sea. . .

So much is my experience (pepeirêmai) of many-pegged ships.

Nevertheless, I will tell you the mind of Zeus who holds the aegis,

For the Muses have taught me to sing in marvelous song. (648-50, 660-62)29

Theognis also speaks of the poet as obligated to share his superior knowledge:

A servant and messenger of the Muses, if preeminent in knowledge (perisson eideiê), should not be begrudging of his expertise (sophia), but should seek out these, point out those, invent other things, for to whom is he useful if he alone is knowledgeable (epistamenos)? (769-72).
Pindar similarly assigns to the poet a greater than human level of understanding:

…concerning these things the gods are able to prompt wise poets, though it is impossible for mortal men to find it out. But since you maiden Muses know all things, you are permitted this, along with Memory and the cloud-wrapped father, so listen now, for my tongue loves to pour forth the choicest and sweetest bloom of song (Paean VI, 51-58).

The singers who appear in the Homeric poems speak of the aim of their craft as affording pleasure to others, but the stories they tell are rich in moral exemplars—of individuals who strive always to be the best, gain honor and fame through their actions while avoiding the disgrace of defeat, demand recognition in proportion to their merit, give aid and protection to their family and friends, offer and receive good advice, and show respect to gods, parents, suppliants, and strangers. 30 In Works and Days Hesiod offers advice on sound business and agricultural practices but he speaks also of the value and importance of hard work, personal hygiene, a good marriage, and remaining on friendly terms with the neighbors. The criticisms of Homer and Hesiod leveled by Xenophanes and Heraclitus confirm their standing as acknowledged authorities on a wide range of practical questions: ‘…since from the beginning all have learned according to Homer ’ runs fragment B10 of Xenophanes, where the verb for learning (manthanô) carries a connotation of learned behavior.31 Heraclitus similarly criticizes those who follow the poets and take the singers as their guides to conduct:

What understanding (noos) or intelligence (phrên) do they possess? They place their trust in the popular singers (dêmôn aoidoisi) and take the throng for their teacher, not realizing that the many are bad and the few are good.’ (B 104)

And when the goddess of Parmenides’ poem declares to the youth who has come to her house for instruction that it is ‘both right and just’ (themis te dikê te) that he should learn all things (B1. 28) it seems clear that the old stricture against ‘aiming too high’ is being set aside.
III. One might wonder how, in the context of an assumed association of knowledge with direct experience, Greek poets could have credibly presented themselves to their audiences as paragons of wisdom on a wide range of factual and moral questions. Or to divide this complex question into its component parts, one might ask: ‘How could the poets have imagined that in creating and performing their works as they did they were displaying a body of factual and moral knowledge?’ And, second, ‘How could they have imagined that the knowledge they claimed to possess had been obtained from some divine source?’
Part of the answer to the first question relates in the way in which early Greek poets and their audiences understood the nature of the poetic art. Democritus and Plato will later characterize the process of poetic creation as a matter of ‘divine madness’ or ‘possession’ in which the mind (or thumos) of the poet is taken over and manipulated by powers external to him. Recent accounts, however, have called attention to the frequency with which early Greek poets spoke of their poetic abilities as a teachable and learnable craft.32 In a remark to the suitor Antinous the swineherd Eumaeus groups the ‘divine minstrel’ (thespin aoidon) together with prophets, physicians, and builders as one of the ‘public workers’ (dêmioergoi) who are welcomed in whatever city they may visit (Od. XVII, 383-86), thus suggesting the view of the poet as a practitioner of a kind of expertise. And while Homer speaks in terms of a god ‘breathing’ or ‘implanting’ a song in the thumos or noos of the poet, he speaks also of what the poet has been ‘taught’.33 Singers are praised when they perform their works ‘in due order’34 and references to the ‘skill’ or ‘expertise’ of the poet appear throughout early Greek poetry.35 In the act of performance the bard achieves access to the past, the names of persons and places of ancient places and times live on in his creations, and his prodigious powers of recall are obvious for all to see.36 In the absence of competing written accounts, the singer’s version of events would naturally be accepted as an invaluable link with the events of yesteryear.37
In answering the second question, it is worth remembering that the poets were not the only individuals who believed that mortals could come into contact with powers or agents that in some sense existed ‘outside’ or ‘above’ them. Evidence that the idea of divinely inspired knowledge was widely accepted can be found in the enormous popularity of the ancient oracles at Delphi, Dodona, and elsewhere. And no account of ancient political and military decision-making would be complete that did not include an acknowledgement of the important role played by diviners who practiced mantikê of one sort or another.38 In an age in which the occurrence of any unusual event readily provoked suspicion of a divine intervention, it would have been natural for a gifted poet to conclude that his ability to perform extremely complicated works over great periods of time betokened some degree of divine assistance. As E. R. Dodds has explained:

The recognition, the insight, the memory, the brilliant or perverse idea, have this in common, that they come suddenly, as we say ‘into a man’s head.’ Often he is conscious of no observation or reasoning which has led up to them. But in that case, how can he call them ‘his’? A moment ago they were not in his mind; now they are there. Something has put them there, and that something is other than himself.39

Modern poets still speak of the creative process as an experience that brings them into contact with powers that lie in some sense ‘outside’ or ‘beyond’ them. Performers of various kinds still speak of their successful performances as exceeding their own expectations and understanding, of being ‘in the zone’ or having ‘a golden touch’. So it is not difficult to understand how, in spite of the traditional association of knowledge with direct experience, the poets of archaic Greece could think of themselves, and be regarded by others, as purveyors of a wisdom imparted to them by greater than human powers.40

 The limits of the archaic period have been variously defined. Here it is understood to extend from approximately 800 to 450 BCE. Poets active during this period include Homer (8th-7th centuries); Hesiod and Archilochus (7th century); Solon (c. 640-588); and Ibycus, Sappho, Semonides, and Theognis (6th century); and Simonides (c. 556-468). I include Pindar (522-443) in the discussion since his work reflects the older poetic traditions rather than the thinking of his philosophical and scientific contemporaries.


 Bacchylides, fr. 9 (Edmunds): ‘Various are the paths men seek that will lead them to conspicuous fame,/And ten thousand are the epistamai [Doric for epistêmai] of man./ For one thrives in golden hope because he has expertise (sophos)/ Or is honored by the Graces, or skilled (eidôs) in divination,/ And another because he can pull the dappled bow against all.’

3 Fragment B 56: ‘People are deceived in their gnôsis of what is obvious.’


 ‘But as the carpenter’s line makes straight a ship’s timber in the hands of a carpenter skilled in all manner of craft (pasês… sophiês).’ Similarly, in Works and Days (649) Hesiod speaks of himself as ‘unskilled in seamanship’ (oute ti nautiliês sesophismenos); and in fr. 306 (Clement, Strom. I, p. 121) Hesiod describes the singer Linus as ‘learned in every skill’ (pantioês sophiês dedaêkota).

5 The course of development is summarized in W.K.C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy (Cambridge, 1965), Vol. 2, pp. 27-34.

6 As pointed out by Bernard Williams in his Shame and Necessity (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Oxford, 1993). Of course it would also be an error to conclude that no such term existed in the language simply because it does not appear in any surviving text.

7 See the pioneering study by Bruno Snell, Die Ausdrücke für den Begriff des Wissens in der vorplatonischen Philosophie (Philologische Untersuchungen 29; Berlin, 1924), and his Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought (Harper and Row: New York and Evanston, 1960), an English translation by T. G. Rosenmeyer of the 2nd edition of Die Entdeckung des Geistes (Hamburg, 1948), with a chapter added on ‘Human Knowledge and Divine Knowledge’; and ‘Wie die Griechen lernten was geistige Tätigkeit ist,’ in The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 93 (1973), pp. 172-84; reprinted in Der Weg zum Denken und zur Wahrheit (Hypomnemata 57, Göttingen, 1978); Kurt von Fritz, ‘Noeô, Noein, and Their Derivatives in Pre-Socratic Philosophy (Excluding Anaxagoras),’ Classical Philology, Vol. 40 (1945), pp. 223-42 and Vol. 41 (1946), pp. 12-34, reprinted in A.P.D. Mourelatos, ed. The Pre-Socratics: A Collection of Critical Essays (Anchor/Doubleday: Garden City, New York, 1974); and Herman Fränkel, Dichtung und Philosophie des frühen Griechentums (Munich, 1962), trans. by M. Hadas and J. Willis, Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy (New York and London, 1973); and ‘Xenophanesstudien’, Hermes, Vol. 60 (1925), pp. 174-92; reprinted in his Wege und Formen frügriechischen Denkens (Munich, 1960); a portion of this study was translated by Cosgrove and Mourelatos and included in the latter’s Pre-Socratics as ‘Xenophanes’ Empiricism and His Critique of Knowledge’, pp. 118-31.

8 Snell (1960), p. 137.

9 Von Fritz (1946), pp. 40-41.

10 Snell (1978), pp. 20-21.

11 I present these objections here only in summary form; for a more extended discussion see Lesher, ‘The Emergence of Philosophical Interest in Cognition’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, Vol. 12 (1994), pp. 1-34. While it seems clear that there were some significant developments in the early Greek view of knowledge (perhaps most notably, in the disparaging remarks made about ‘the testimony of eye and ear’ by Heraclitus and Parmenides), it is implausible to see these developments as marking a change in the commonly understood meaning of the various Greek verbs for knowing.

12 As noted by E. Hussey, ‘The Beginnings of Epistemology: From Homer to Philolaus’ in S. Everson, ed., Companions to Ancient Thought I: Epistemology (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 11-38; E. Heitsch, ‘Das Wissen des Xenophanes’, Rheinisches Museum, Vol. 109 (1966), pp. 193-235; and Lesher (1994), p. 6n.

13 The skeptical reading has recently been challenged by H.M. Zellner (‘Scepticism in Homer?’, Classical Quarterly, Vol. 44 (1994), pp. 308-15), on the grounds that the invocation of the Muses in Iliad II, and similar passages elsewhere in the Homeric poems reflect not so much a ‘folk epistemology’ or ‘pre-philosophical theory of knowledge’ but rather the religious conviction that mortal capacities pale by comparison with those of the gods. In what follows here, however, I attempt to identify three themes that collectively merit being identified as a ‘pre-philosophical’ view of the sources, limits, and nature of human knowledge.

14 Cf. Od. XVI, 470: 'And I know (oida) at least one other thing, for I saw it with my own eyes (idon ophthalmoisin); similarly Il. XI, 741; XIV, 153-54; XVII, 84-86, 115-16; Od. V, 77-78, 215; VIII, 560; XV, 532; XVI, 470-71, among many others.

15 Among many other instances: Aegisthus learns his fate when the gods 'spoke to him, sending keen-sighted Hermes' (Od. I, 38); Echenor the Corinthian learns his from the expert seer Polyidus (Il. XIII, 666); and Odysseus learns what the future holds for him from the words of the ghost of the seer Teiresias (Od. XI, 100 ff.). W. Wians has pointed out to me that this exchange between Achilles and Aeneus presents the poet as a paragon of knowledge in so far as his stories transmit knowledge of ancient persons and their exploits to later generations.

16 As has often been noted, Homer also speaks of 'knowing' where we might speak of experiencing certain feelings and desires, or of harboring certain dispositions. Menelaus says of Patroclus that pasin gar epistato meilichos einai -- ‘for he knew gentleness to all’, while Nestor and Menelaus are described as sailing home from Troy phila eidotes allêloisin--'knowing friendliness to one another' (Od. III, 277). For a detailed discussion of this aspect of early Greek thought, and its relationship to classical accounts of thought and action, see M. J. O’Brien, The Socratic Paradoxes and the Greek Mind (Chapel Hill, 1967) and J.R. Warden, ‘The Mind of Zeus,’ Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 32 (1971), pp. 3-14.

17 For other examples, cf. Il. XIII, 448-49, 457; XVI 243; XVIII, 269-70; and XXI, 226.

18 For this use of autos meaning 'of one's own accord' or 'by oneself', see Smyth, Greek Grammar (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), Sec. 1209a and Od. XVI, 470; Od. V, 215: 'I know for myself (oida kai autos) that in appearance and stature wise Penelope fails to compete with you'; Od. I, 216: 'For never yet did any man know for himself (autos anegnô) his own parentage'; cf. also Il. XIII, 729; XVII, 686-88; Od. VI, 188.

19 Cf. also the common expression 'tell me so that I/we may know' (as in Il. I, 363, and elsewhere). So natural is the idea of learning from the words of others that the verb peuthomai/punthanomai commonly means 'to learn about some matter from another person'. Similarly, akouô--'hear' can mean 'learn of or come to know about by hearing', as at Il. XXIV, 543: to prin akouomen olbion einai--'we hear/know that earlier you had been prosperous.' The same attitude is reflected in the odd remark at Od. VI, 185 that when two like-minded people become husband and wife, 'they become a great sorrow for their enemies and a joy to their friends, but they hear this best themselves--malista de t' ekluon autoi.

20 Cf. LSJ s.v. opisô II; and Bernard Knox, Backing into the Future: the Classical Tradition and Its Renewal (New York, 1994), pp. 11-12.

21 For an analysis of this feature of ancient Greek and other Indo-European languages, see the discussion by G.E. Dunkel, ‘Prossô kai Opissô’, Zeitschrift für Vergleichende Sprachforschung, Vol. 96 (1982-83), pp. 67-87.

22 As is evident from the responses to the advice given by the seers Poulydamus and Halitherses at Il. XVIII, 250 and Od. XXIV, 452).

23 Hesiod similarly praises the man who ‘taking thought thinks of all things himself, both the things to happen next (epeita), and how it will be better at the end. Good also is one who can learn from others wiser than himself, but useless is he who can neither think for himself nor take the good advice of others’ (Works and Days, 293-97).

24 William Arrowsmith, Euripides’ Alcestis (New York and London, 1974), p. 7.

25 Cf. Il. VIII, 51-52: 'And [Zeus] himself sat on the mountain peaks exulting in his glory, looking down upon both the city of the Trojans and the ships of the Achaeans'; Hesiod, Works and Days 267:'…the eye of Zeus, seeing all things and taking note of all things', among similar remarks.

26 Cf. Luc Brisson: ‘Going back as far as we can in ancient Greece, we find that human knowledge, both practical and theoretical, originated with the gods. All the efforts made over the centuries to ground knowledge in observation and to confirm it by experimentation never severed that link; indeed, by the end of antiquity it had grown stronger.’ (From ‘Myth and Knowledge’ in Brunschwig, Lloyd, and Pellegrin, Greek Thought (Cambridge and London, 2000), p. 39).

27 In general terms, this conclusion is consonant with Snell’s view of the emergence of a more optimistic outlook among the philosophers, against a broad background of ‘poetic pessimism’. My reservations about Snell’s account (or accounts, since he returned to this topic on numerous occasions) relate to his view of the meaning of the Homeric knowledge verbs, when the more optimistic view may be said to have emerged, and how that novel development is best understood. For additional details, see the discussion in Lesher 1994.

28 Cf. Detienne: ‘The prehistory of the philosophical Alêtheia leads us to the system of thought of the diviner, the poet, and the king of justice, three figures for whom a certain type of speech is defined by Alêtheia.’ (M. Detienne, The Masters of Truth in Archaic Greece (New York, 1996) trans. Janet Lloyd from Les Maîtres de vérité dans la grèce archaïque (Paris, 1965). p. 37). Similarly Chadwick: 'The fundamental elements of the prophetic function seem to have everywhere been the same. Everywhere the gift of poetry is inseparable from divine inspiration. Everywhere this inspiration carries with it knowledge--whether of the past, in the form of history and genealogy; of the hidden present, in the form commonly of scientific information; or of the future, in the form of prophetic utterance in the narrower sense. . .The lofty claims of the poet and seer are universally admitted, and he himself holds a high status wherever he is found’ (N.K. Chadwick, Poetry and Prophecy (Cambridge, 1942), p. 14). And Dodds: ‘By that [divine] grace poet and seer alike enjoyed a knowledge denied to other men. In Homer the two professions are quite distinct; but we have good reason to believe that they had once been united, and the analogy between them was still felt’ (The Greeks and the Irrational , p. 81).

29 Similar testimonials to the powers of the Muses appear in Ibycus 3.23; Solon, 1.49; Bacchylides 19.1, 5.31, 9.3; Pindar Paean VIIb5ff.

30 I owe to Jessica Wissmann the point that while Homer was universally regarded as the didactic poet par excellence, Homer himself consistently praised the poet’s art on the basis of the pleasure it afforded to those in his audience.

31 ‘Since from the beginning all have learned according to Homer’ (ex archês kath’ Homêron epei memathêkasi pantes, from Herodian, On Doubtful Syllables 296.6). For the behavioral connotation of manthanô cf. Iliad VI, 444-5: learning (manthanein) to be valiant always’ and Xenophanes B 3: ‘having learned (mathontes) useless luxuries from the Lydians’.

32 For Democritus see B18 (Clement, Stromateis, VI, 168) : poiêtês de hassa men an graphêi met’ enthousiasmou kai hieroou pneumatos, kala karta estin. For Plato’s view of the poet as possessed by a divine mania, see the Ion, esp. 533d ff. The difficulties in Plato’s views as applied to early Greek poetry are discussed in E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1951), pp. 80-82; E.N. Tigerstedt, ‘Furor Poeticus: Poetic Inspiration in Greek Literature before Democritus and Plato’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 31 (1970), pp. 163-78; and Penelope Murray, ‘Poetic Inspiration in Early Greece’, Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 101 (1981), pp. 87-100.

33 Cf. edidaxe at Od. VIII, 488; dedaôs at Od. XVII, 519; and autodidaktos at Od. XXII, 347; similarly edidaxan in Hesiod, Theogony 22.

34 Cf. kata kosmon…eideis at Od. VIII, 489; and kata moiran katalexêis at 496.

35 Cf. Homer, Od. XI, 368 (aoidos epistamenos); Theognis, 771 (sophia), Archilochus 1 (epistamenos); Xenophanes B2 (sophiê); Solon fr.13.52 (epistamenos); Sappho 56 (sophian); Pindar, Ol. I, 116 (sophia); Ol. XIV, 7; Pyth. I, 41; and Fr. 52h 18-20 (sophos). For eidenai: ‘For I sing graceful songs and know how to speak graceful words’ (charienta d’oida lexai, Anacreon 374); ‘The truly expert poet (sophos) is one who knows/has skill in (eidôs) many things by nature’ (Pindar, Ol. II, 86); etc.

36 Studies of modern oral poetry describe performances that extend over days and weeks. See the discussion of the work of Mathias Murko in Hermann Fränkel, Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy (New York and London, 1962), pp. 19 ff.

37If it seems implausible to suppose that what was in many respects an artfully crafted tale could be taken seriously as a historically reliable version of events, one need only note the number of moviegoers who accepted Oliver Stone’s version of the Kennedy assassination. Of course we moderns have access to alternative written accounts, but when individuals know nothing of those accounts, or choose to ignore them, they are in essentially the same position as the members of an oral society.

38 For an account of the various techniques of seers and oracles, and their impact of public life see Walter Burkert, Greek Religion (Cambridge, Mass., 1985), pp. 109ff.

39 Dodds, p. 11.

40 Some portions of this essay appear in Section II of ‘The Humanizing of Knowledge’ in P. Curd and D. Graham, eds, The Oxford Guide to Presocratic Philosophy (Oxford, 2007). I am grateful to William Wians and Alex Purves for their helpful criticisms of an earlier version of this paper.

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