Saturday, November 6, 2010

Dr. Stephen Scully : “Language, Myth and Society: Hesiod’s Theogony, Anaximander, and Heraclitus”


Boston University

“Language, Myth and Society: Hesiod’s Theogony, Anaximander, and Heraclitus”


This paper will compare the “language of myth” in Hesiod’s Theogony to its usage in two presocratics, Anaximander and Heraclitus. In antiquity, Aristotle praises the phusikoi for introducing “the language of demonstration” which cast aside the “spurious wisdom of myth” (Met. 2.1000a), and for seeking first principles rather than for thinking “mythically,” that is, with the language of genealogy. In modern times, Jean-Pierre Vernant echoes this sentiment when he criticizes Hesiod for being a “prisoner” of mythic schema which prevent him from being able to envision “conceptual delineation”; “to break with the vocabulary and logic of myth, he would have needed a comprehensive idea capable of replacing the mythic schema of a hierarchy of powers ruled by a sovereign” (1982: 117-18). In this paper, I shall question these criticisms of mythic thought, as exemplified in the Theogony, by juxtaposition with a fragment from Anaximander (DK 12 B1) and from Heraclitus (DK 22 B80). The former: in a world of generation and destruction, things “give justice and pay retribution, to each other for their injustice according to the ordinance of Time.” And the latter: “One must know that war is common, justice discord (dikên erin), and all things happen through discord and necessity.” Both use the language from the human legal system to describe cosmic Dike and a violent reciprocity in nature, seeing justice either as retribution for excess or as the momentary balance in an ever-repeating cycle of discord and change.

Aristotle and Vernant argued that Hesiod was not able to think abstractly or to articulate axiomatic principles of justice as he could not break free from myth-thought and from genealogical sequence. This is the premise that I shall question in this paper. Far from wanting to identify Zeus with universal principles, Hesiod portrays nature as problematic, generative but unstable and endemically violent, as evidenced by the familial romance in the first two generations of gods. Furthermore, Zeus is born into a universe already inhabited by figures like Eris, daughter of “destructive Night,” and Eris’ offspring, including figures like Pseudea (Lies), Neikea (Quarrels), and Dusnomia (Bad Governance). Zeus cannot change the world at large, but he can create an alternative space, call it Olympus or culture, which is set apart from the larger whole, where he can bar eris, neikos, or any god “who lies” (pseudetai). If a god were to try to introduce such elements “within Olympus,” he would be cast into a coma for a year and as a “worse punishment” for another nine years he would be excluded from the boule on Olympus, its feasts and meeting places (eirai, Aeolic for agorai) (Th. 782-804). As Hesiod makes clear elsewhere in the poem, Olympus is itself composed of nomoi and cherished customs (êthea kedna), and characterized by its fair distribution of honors and privileges (Th. 65-74 and 883-5, especially). To employ the language of the fifth century, the Theogonycelebrates nomos for harnessing physis to the social good. Far from being a prisoner of myth, Hesiod employs its genealogies effectively both to establish a pattern of violence in the natural rhythms of biological succession and to expose the need to escape from that pattern. Zeus’ achievement is not cosmic, but political, not of nature but apart from it. The early philosophers differ from Hesiod less in their ability to identify universal laws than in their indifference to the social. Hesiod’s language of myth provides a divine model of social harmony, distant and idealized, that enables Greeks of the emergingpolis to reflect upon the very forms and principles of social cohesion that they seek to obtain.

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