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Glorifying the Archaic

Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy

by Hermann Fränkel, translated by Moses Hadas, by James Willis
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 555 pp., $25.00

With the publication in 1903 of Diehl’s collection of the pre-Socratics, an idea of the independent grandeur of the “archaic” period of Greek literature (ca. 650-450 BC), distinct both from the epic period of Homer and Hesiod and from the classical age, came into its own. The archaic age of Sappho, Pindar, and Archilochus was not only recognized as a distinct tradition but was thought to represent particular and admirable values in art, literature, and philosophy. It was also at the turn of the century that archaic sculpture was appreciated for the first time and the reputations of classical sculptors like Phidias (fifth century) and naturalist sculptors like Praxiteles (fourth century) suffered a commensurate decline.

Hermann Fränkel, professor of Classics at Stanford since 1935, partly shares this view of the archaic age and has given it new significance. When his Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy was first published in German by the American Philological Association in 1951, it was immediately admired by classical scholars. (The recent English translation was Moses Hadas’s last project before his death.) Fränkel’s book has been considered important not only because he was able to make a continuous narrative from the fragmentary record of the archaic period but because he claimed to have discovered in it a consistent pattern of thought.

The archaic period in his view was marked by an unsentimental realism, in contrast to the “romanticism” of the epic period. While in the Iliad man is “completely part of his world,” the archaic poets, Fränkel believes, discovered “the inwardness of personal life.” But Fränkel intends to do more than prove the separateness of epic and archaic thought. He admires archaic values. “The literary monuments of the archaic age,” he writes, “have revealed to us a mode of being that is in its own way complete and which is able to give meaning to man’s living and dying. It is one of the noblest primal images and patterns of humanity that are known to us.”

The heart of Fränkel’s book is an analysis of lyric poetry from Archilochus to Pindar and of philosophy from Thales to Heraclitus. While by no means neglecting them, he discusses Hesiod and Homer mainly as they represent ideas different from those of the archaic poets and philosophers—that is, as evidence of the discontinuity he is proposing. The ancients spoke of Homer as “the poet.” Fränkel would claim that title for Pindar, who wrote “autonomous poetry,” as vivid as life itself and more satisfying. To Fränkel Pindar is the consummation of archaic art, and proof of the discontinuity between the archaic and classical mentality, since hardly any of the values that Pindar stood for survived him. After him, Fränkel writes, “a whole age became dumb.”

Fränkel has by no means written a conventional history of early Greek literature. Aeschylus, Pindar’s contemporary, is left out and Bacchylides receives only cursory attention because of Fränkel’s overriding concern with his thesis: that the archaic period of Greece must be understood on its own terms and not as a precursor to the classical age. There is a certain lack of harmony between Fränkel’s masterly analysis of the evidence and his much cruder thesis about what constituted the unity of the archaic period. For Fränkel, the texts are “documents of their age,” and the artists embody the age. Thus Pindar “was and remained an archaic Greek,” while Aeschylus and his other contemporaries did not.

Fränkel’s attempt to discern the unity of the archaic age rests on two complementary ideas: those of polarity and of the self. By polarity, Fränkel means the idea, which he believes archaic thought introduced, that “qualities could be conceived only if [their] opposites were conceived at the same time.” The archaic Greeks expressed thought and feeling in opposites. As a consequence, Fränkel writes, the archaic period saw “opposing forces imminent in the same thing” and “life as a sequence of alternations between opposite extremes” while, in philosophy, “cosmic structure and cosmic process [were] interpreted as the interplay of opposites.”1

Fränkel’s account of the archaic self, while much more detailed, is reminiscent of Bruno Snell’s Discovery of Mind (1947). Snell proposed that it was in the archaic age that the self as a separate reality was discovered. By this Fränkel and Snell mean that it was in archaic lyric poetry that man discovered he had a soul and that his feelings were not wholly a matter of his physical functions. These feelings originate in the person but are by no means uniquely his. The individual is isolated but he is also typical. “Greek lyric poets,” Fränkel writes, “did not aim to make themselves interesting by their peculiar sensibilities, but sought rather to demonstrate the general and the basic by the example of themselves.” How Fränkel tries to make these two ideas of polarity and self work together can best be seen in his discussion of the poet Archilochus.

Archilochus, according to Fränkel, founded the archaic age. His poetry is of the here, the now, and the individual ego; they are both his primary data and final data, “without qualification and without doubt.” In order to demonstrate his contentions about the autonomy of the archaic age, Fränkel puts two fragments from Archilochus together: “the fox knows many things, the hedgehog one big one” (fr. 103) and “…the one big thing I know how to do—terribly repay with sorrow sorrow that is done to me” (fr. 66). According to Fränkel, Archilochus is the hedgehog, and “for the first time in European literature the ego becomes a polar opposite to the nonego. The self whose existence is threatened with dissolution and destruction by recognition of the ‘ephemeral’ nature of man, affirms its own being by conflict and defence against others.”

But is Archilochus the hedgehog? In another fragment (fr. 1) Archilochus says he knows two things: “I am both, the follower of the god Enyalios [Ares], and I understand the art which is the gift of the Muses.” Fränkel does not consider that one of the things a fox might know would be how to look like a hedgehog. Moreover, Archilochus is not allowed any irony. Fränkel quotes fragment 22:

For Gyges’ golden riches I care not at all: I feel no envy of him. How the gods behave leaves me unmoved; a tyrant’s throne I do not want since I see none of that before my eyes…. But when I see So-and-So pass me in the pride and power of his dirtily gained money, then all I want is to throw my axe at his head. So spake Charon, a carpenter of Thasos.

Fränkel has no doubt that Archilochus is Charon. Nor, for Fränkel, could Charon’s moral indignation have been a disguised form of envy. Archilochus wanted to show simply that the “glitter of the highest” means little to him by comparison with the modest success of a man he hates. “World history pales in the face of what goes on in our own street.”

Further, although much of his poetry consists of invective, it does not necessarily follow—as Fränkel assumes—that Archilochus understood himself to be in opposition to Homer. Since anger is inseparable from the sense of injustice, we do not know whether Archilochus simply was exploring one of the themes of the Iliad, whose very first word is “wrath.”

According to Fränkel, Archilochus’ poetry delineates in a pure way “the momentary state of the individual ego.” But this seems unconvincing, since Archilochus did present himself in other guises (such as that of Charon the carpenter). For Fränkel, the individual ego is, at the same time, a representative or typical ego—he remarks that “early lyric is entirely, or almost entirely, talking to someone.” But this undermines his view of archaic polarity; for if the “I” is always correlated with a “you” they form a “we,” and the opposition between ego and nonego vanishes. If Archilochus can be read as a representative ego, then there is an unresolved contradiction in Fränkel’s thesis about the nature of the archaic mentality.

In his attempt to isolate the archaic age from both what preceded it and what followed it, Fränkel is sometimes forced into other inconsistencies which—even when they are not substantive—are confusing. He appeals to the unity of the archaic age—which is, after all, his own construction—as the standard for interpreting the extant texts and fragments. One result of Fränkel’s construction is that each poet or philosopher ceases to be interesting in himself. His age is always “deeper” than he is. Hence, the philosopher Anaximander is a “good archaic thinker,” and “good” obviously modifies archaic and not thinker; that is, Anaximander thinks as an archaic person.

By calling on the spirit of the age Fränkel also tends to minimize the difficulty of interpreting what are, after all, largely fragments. At the beginning of the period Fränkel covers we have four complete (though not uninterpolated) poems—Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days. At the end of it we have Pindar’s Victory Odes. In between we have one complete poem of Sappho, some minor pieces—and fragments. We do not know whether any poets wrote books in the years between Hesiod and the Attic tragedians. (It would make a great difference if we did know, for in a book the silences between the poems are part of the poet’s speech and must be considered when we try to interpret them.) Fränkel, while well aware of the state of the evidence, insists on using these works and fragments as illustrations of a larger entity, the archaic lyric.

The difficulty that arises from Fränkel’s use of the evidence becomes clear in his reading of the one complete poem by Sappho that has come down to us. Sappho’s poem is addressed to Aphrodite. She prays that Aphrodite come to her aid as she has in the past; she then recalls that Aphrodite once asked Sappho who had wronged her, and promised that soon the tables would be turned and the beloved would become the lover. Sappho finally repeats her prayer and asks Aphrodite to come as her military ally. The poem illustrates how the goddess of love can be unloving; the lover in her pain experiences unrequited love as an injustice, and therefore looks upon the beloved’s own later suffering for love as a punishment whose justice a god guarantees. That morality finds its way into the seemingly most amoral of experiences is our reflection on the poem. But we shall never know what Sappho wanted us to make of it.

Fränkel, however, reads the poem confidently: “Sappho experienced what we should call an inward event, a transition from pangs of torment to confident hope, which was later realized, which she understood and rendered in words appropriate to her belief in the divine power of love.” Fränkel’s reading may, of course, be the correct one. But one cannot help wondering whether he is not more interested in Sappho as an illustration of a certain aspect of the archaic lyric than in interpreting her in the light of herself.

  1. 1

    G.E.R. Lloyd presents a more elaborate version of this view in Polarity and Analogy (Cambridge University Press, 1966).

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