Ancient Literary Criticism: The Principal Texts in New Translations

Ancient Literary Criticism: The Principal Texts in New Translations

Ancient Literary Criticism: The Principal Texts in New Translations

Ancient Literary Criticism: The Principal Texts in New Translations

Excerpt

There are a number of recent surveys, both long and short, of the Greek and Roman contribution to literary criticism. The purpose of this book is to provide, in English and with brief explanatory comments, the most important texts on which any judgement must be based. We have tried to keep in mind the intrinsic interest of what our authors say, its importance as a commentary on ancient literature, and its influence on later criticism. Some of the texts are well known and have often been translated; others, especially the later Greek ones, are less familiar.

In date, these texts are concentrated -- by the accident of survival -- in two main periods: the century which ended with Aristotle, and the two centuries beginning with Cicero. Of the first beginnings of Greek critical thought in the casual but illuminating remarks of poets, we have only scraps: enough however to show that the basic ideas of inspiration, social or didactic commitment, and levels of style and genre, were present and natural in the Greek approach to literature long before speculation became articulate. Yet most of the first part of this book (chaps. 2-3) is devoted to the two great philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Plato's view of literature is indeed a curiously negative one; concerned always with his moral counter-revolution, his attempt to defend inherited values in a hostile world, he seems to give most of his attention to the task of counteracting the bad effects of poetry and rhetoric. It is obvious thatAristotle in the Poetics is activated by the need to answer Plato's austerity; the contrast between master and pupil is perhaps more interesting in this marginally philosophical field than in the issues of logic and metaphysics. We see how Aristotle's detachment from civic emotion and the limitations of his own literary talent lead him to a saner and more illuminating view of what poets do and ought to do for their fellow men.

It is, as we said, the accident of survival that determines the chronological pattern of our texts. The Hellenistic age is a blank. One candidate presented himself, but could not be included: Philodemus the Epicurean, a contemporary indeed of Cicero, but an active debater in the controversies of the Hellenistic schools. The fragments of his work (papyri from Herculaneum) are obscure and thorny; it is often difficult to distinguish his own views from those he is arguing against. But the reader who wishes . . .

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