The Origins of Criticism: Literary Culture and Poetic Theory in Classical Greece

The Origins of Criticism: Literary Culture and Poetic Theory in Classical Greece

The Origins of Criticism: Literary Culture and Poetic Theory in Classical Greece

The Origins of Criticism: Literary Culture and Poetic Theory in Classical Greece


By "literary criticism" we usually mean a self-conscious act involving the technical and aesthetic appraisal, by individuals, of autonomous works of art. Aristotle and Plato come to mind. The word "social" does not. Yet, as this book shows, it should--if, that is, we wish to understand where literary criticism as we think of it today came from. Andrew Ford offers a new understanding of the development of criticism, demonstrating that its roots stretch back long before the sophists to public commentary on the performance of songs and poems in the preliterary era of ancient Greece. He pinpoints when and how, later in the Greek tradition than is usually assumed, poetry was studied as a discipline with its own principles and methods.

The Origins of Criticism complements the usual, history-of-ideas approach to the topic precisely by treating criticism as a social as well as a theoretical activity. With unprecedented and penetrating detail, Ford considers varying scholarly interpretations of the key texts discussed. Examining Greek discussions of poetry from the late sixth century B. C. through the rise of poetics in the late fourth, he asks when we first can recognize anything like the modern notions of literature as imaginative writing and of literary criticism as a special knowledge of such writing.

Serving as a monumental preface to Aristotle's Poetics, this book allows readers to discern the emergence, within the manifold activities that might be called criticism, of the historically specific discourse on poetry that has shaped subsequent Western approaches to literature.


At their winter festival for Dionysus in 405 B.C.E., the Athenians awarded the prize for best new comedy to a play devoted to traducing literary discussion, parodying its jargon, lampooning its better-known practitioners, and even twisting familiar tragic lines upon the rack of linguistic science. To be sure, Aristophanes had leavened his Frogs with political farce and social satire and had seasoned it with dashes of obscenity; and he was no doubt flattering many in his audience when he described them as “veterans” in the wars of criticism who came to plays armed with texts and a knowledge of the finer points of literature (1109–18). But Frogs is only one among a number of Greek texts that attest to a widespread and often heated interest in innovative approaches to literature twenty-four centuries ago.

We may feel affinity with Aristophanes' audience because we have also witnessed a great burst of critical activity since the 1960's, when the relatively placid reign of New Criticism broke up and was succeeded by a series of theoretical revolutions as structuralist, poststructuralist, psychological, and sociological approaches to literature radically reconceived its nature, and in some cases rejected its coherence as a concept. These debates became quite sharp at times, and certain critical themes and slogans were heard beyond the seminar room, attracting the notice not only of other disciplines within the academy—such as law, history, and politics— but also of a wider public questioning the goals of a traditional education in literature. One of the benefits of our own critical wars has been at least that we have been forced to reconsider what literary criticism can and ought to do and what value literary study might have in education. in such a reexamination, a historical perspective on criticism may be of interest, as is suggested by recent work that has turned from the absorbing complications of theory to examine the social and institutional history of criticism. Within this perspective, which has so far focused on the rise of “modern” criticism since the eighteenth century, the period to which this book is dedicated may be of special interest, for it can fairly be described as the point when Greek, and hence Western, literary criticism was founded. the teachings ridiculed by Aristophanes came from intellectuals with widely varying avocations, none of whom was interested in poetry simply as poetry. They would have preferred to be called “wise men” (sophoi) or even “professors” (sophistai) rather than “critics” (kritikoi). But in the aggregate, the effect of their ideas was great: they shaped the youth of Isocrates and Plato, both of whom would write influentially about literary . . .

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