Poetics before Plato: Interpretation and Authority in Early Greek Theories of Poetry

By Grace M. Ledbetter | Go to book overview

Chapter Two
Hesiod's Naturalism

THE HOMERIC POEMS promise their audience supernatural knowledge. Such a grandiose undertaking leaves them vulnerable to criticism that Homer endeavored to deflect. Xenophanes, and later Plato, famously criticize both Homer and Hesiod for portraying the gods as immoral.1 Heraclitus's charge that Hesiod and others possessed “learning of many things” (polumathia) rather than intelligence views poetry through the lens of Homeric poetics and turns that theory against itself. The charge of polumathia amounts to the charge that a certain kind of poetry amasses and conveys information, but does not lead us toward true understanding of the logos, which would require interpretation.2 As we shall see, this is not the only time that the particular type of knowledge exploited by Homeric poetics will be criticized as an inadequate conception of knowledge. The Homeric theory may indeed contribute to the enchanting nature of Homeric poetry, but when its claim to provide knowledge comes to be assessed philosophically, it must compete with rival conceptions of knowledge. So too, the Homeric poems are open to charges of immorality precisely because they purport to offer nothing less than knowledge—a definitive and authoritative account of their subject matter, secure against all challenges. Hesiod's Theogony may also appear vulnerable in this regard, since it graphically depicts the gods engaging in cannibalism, violence, and deception. As we shall see, however, Hesiod's poetics effectively insulates his poem against such censure. Like Homer's poetics, Hesiod's theory of poetry holds that all knowledge of his poem's subject matter is divine knowledge. But unlike Homer's, Hesiod's theory embraces and exploits a kind of skepticism. According to his theory, neither the poet nor his audience can know whether what poetry conveys is true. The source of the poet's gift is divine,

1 Xenophanes DK 22 Β 11 refers specifically to theft, adultery, and deception; Plato Re-
public
377e-383c to deception, to the gods' being the cause of anything bad, and to the
gods' inconstancy of appearance. As we shall see in the next chapter, Pindar belongs in this
tradition as well.

2 Heraclitus DK 22 Β 40 does not mention Homer explicitly:



(“Learning of many things does not teach intelligence; if so it would have taught Hesiod and
Pythagoras, and again Xenophanes and Hecataeus.”). But his remarks at DK 22 Β 42 may
imply that the charge of polumathia applies to Homer as well. See Kahn's discussion in The
Art and Thought of Heraclitus,
pp. 107–10.

-40-

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Poetics before Plato: Interpretation and Authority in Early Greek Theories of Poetry
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Abbreviations xi
  • Introduction - Poetry, Knowledge, and Interpretation 1
  • Chapter One - Supernatural Knowledge in Homeric Poetics 9
  • Chapter Two - Hesiod's Naturalism 40
  • Chapter Three - Pindar: the Poet as Interpreter 62
  • Chapter Four - Socratic Poetics 78
  • Chapter Five - Toward a Model of Socratic Interpretation 99
  • Bibliographic References 119
  • Index 125
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