The Preservation of Homeric Tradition: Heroic Re-Performance in the 'Republic' and the 'Odyssey.'

Article excerpt

Plato's Republic can be read as an innovative re-performance of significant moments in Homer's Odyssey. I will set this claim against the backdrop of Plato's famous critique of poetry in the Republic, most especially the poetry of Homer, and the apparent rejection of poetry as the appropriate foundation of cities and Greek culture as such. Plato was much more ambivalent about this matter than first appears. I will argue, by comparing the heroic journeys into Hades enacted by Odysseus in the Odyssey and Socrates in the Republic, that Plato is, in certain ways, attempting to preserve a Homeric tradition regarding the founding of cities and the foundations of Greek culture. I will begin and end the essay with some brief remarks on the interpretive approach I employ in my reading of both the Odyssey and the Republic.

Any effort to read and interpret texts carefully, especially ancient works, brings with it a commitment at some point to principles of interpretation or "protocols of reading."(1) As Jay Farness notes, by "protocols of reading one can conceive the customs, conventions, rules, procedures, or strategies by which one decodes, applies, transmits or translates the transcription."(2) Needless to say, there has been wide-ranging disagreement about the protocols for reading the texts of both Homer and Plato.(3) Jacques Derrida remarks that, "Reading is transformational.... But this transformation cannot be executed however one wishes. It requires protocols of reading. Why not say it bluntly: I have not yet found any that satisfy me."(4) Still, we must employ some protocol(s) and move forward. The failure to do so would amount to an admission that "theories" of interpretation prevent us from not only interpreting or understanding ancient texts, but from even "reading" them in the first place.

Farness argues that protocols of reading that have been employed in the interpretation of Plato's writings can be grouped into four basic types: (1) protocols of the professional disciplines, especially philosophy, (2) philological protocols, (3) historicist protocols, and (4) humanistic and hermeneutic protocols (9ff.). He then criticizes all of these in the name of what he calls "literary protocols." In his effort to read Plato's Phaedrus carefully (and, implicitly, Platonic writings as such) he settles for a primarily literary approach and on literary protocols which include philosophical, historical, anthropological, philological, and literary elements (3ff.). It will become clear throughout the course of this essay that my way of reading both Homer's Odyssey and Plato's Republic is similar to Farness' "makeshift approach."(5) I will begin with a discussion of Plato's Republic.

Nicholas White is indeed correct when he says that "The Republic has generally been regarded as the high-water mark of Plato's philosophical career," and represents something of a "culmination of [Plato's] philosophical reflections."(6) Such a judgment is often founded on claims about the shape of the theory of forms, a theory that, it is clear, stands at the center of the arguments in the Republic that are advanced about philosophy, ethics, politics, and art.

With regard to art, and in particular poetry, we witness the Platonic installment of, as Socrates puts it, "the old quarrel between philosophy and poetry."(7) Plato had significant misgivings about the archaic Greek poetic tradition in general and about Homer and Homeric epic poetry in particular. In Book III of the Republic, we hear Socrates argue that, in the poems of Homer and others, the gods are portrayed in an unseemly fashion. They fight, alter their form, and appear to mortals in disguises. The gods deceive, lie, send messages to mortals in dreams, are represented as being responsible not only for. good but for evil as well, and can be swayed from justice by prayers and offerings. Heroes, and even morals, are also often badly characterized in the poems. For example, Achilles, the hero of all heroes, is referred to very few times in the Republic as a whole, although in Book III Socrates chastises Homer for representing Achilles as a money-lover, distraught and lamenting in Hades, and as one disdainful not only of the dead but of gods and human beings (388a, 390e-391c). …