• Email
  • Print

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.

In one rare instance, Fränkel’s thesis leads him to mistranslate a fragment of Sappho. The fragment begins, “He seems to me to be equal to the gods,” and near the end says, “I seem to be almost dead” (fr. 31). This is rendered by Fränkel as: “He seems equal to the gods…almost I am dead.” By the omission of “to me” at the beginning and of “I seem” at the end, Fränkel can say of the poem that “everything stands upon one and the same level. No depths of the soul are opened up.” In order to keep Sappho simple and direct, he misses the artfully implied contrast between Sappho’s illusion of death-lessness in another person and her illusion of her own death.

Fränkel’s excellence lies more in his discussion of styles of thinking and writing than in his analysis of what is thought and written. (This is even more evident in his collection of essays, Wege und Formen frühgriechischen Denkens, which forms the technical underpinning of Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy.) It is striking that he devotes no more than a sentence or two to the plots of the Iliad and Odyssey but examines Homeric man and his gods at length. What he has to say about them is almost always illuminating, and there are many observations that one will not find anywhere else in the literature. But Fränkel somewhat exaggerates the distinction between the poet and his material: to him the material is not entirely under the control of the poet and can be understood by itself as a document of the age.

Fränkel writes, for example, that “the mature and late epic art of the Iliad, which owes its perfection to humanization and spiritual purification, glorifies the wilder and cruder types of humanity which it has transcended.” He gathers all this from a single passage in which Nestor, trying to assuage the anger of Achilles and Agamemnon, recalls how even the most savage heroes of old listened to him. But Nestor’s appeal to reason, according to Fränkel, cannot be “authentically epic” since the Iliad glorifies the savagery of a bygone era. “Nestor with his advice for a friendly reconciliation represents modern reasonableness.” Thus for Fränkel only the savagery of the poem is authentic; its humanity foreshadows the corruption of the epic form. He cannot allow that the Iliad was morally ambiguous in its intentions.

Fränkel’s distinction between authentic savagery and corrupting reason in the Iliad seems artificial;2 when he makes it, we may see that he upholds a particular reading of Greek literature that itself has a history. While he describes Archilochus as the poet of a new realism, Fränkel also suggests that in Archilochus “Humanity steps forward as it is, in heroic nakedness; with virile resolution it strips itself of all restricting conventions and all meretricious adornment.” It sounds as if Fränkel himself, if not Archilochus, were guilty of the very “romantic glorification of existence” which he finds in Homer. Just as Fränkel’s enthusiasm for the archaic period recalls late-nineteenth-century tendencies in German classical scholarship, so he still reads the Iliad in the way in which it was read at that time, between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I, when Homeric scholarship was at its height and the jeunesse dorée of Europe found in the Iliad the glorious justification of the war for which they increasingly longed. Once again, there is something old-fashioned in spirit about Fränkel’s book even while its scholarship is up-to-date. He ignores the Iliad‘s dispassionate gaze on war—the honor it grants, as well as the bestiality it compels.

Not implausibly, Fränkel sees in Hesiod’s Theogony the beginning of philosophy. “Profound ontological speculations are embodied in these verses,” he asserts, arguing that the Theogony “includes speculations on basic questions of metaphysics.” The form of the Theogony is, in part, “a mythical cover” beneath which much more is expressed. Fränkel calls the Theogony an unorganized poem, but it is not unorganized and he has not adequately formulated the metaphysics he detects in it.

Even a brief summary of the Theogony (literally the generation or birth of the gods) can suggest why and how the work has a structure as it recounts the struggles between Uranus (heaven)—the first lord of the universe—his children the Titans, and their children the Olympians.

At the beginning of the genealogies are not only Chaos and Earth but the beautiful Eros, who overpowers the minds of men and gods alike. Earth produces Uranus and unites with him; but Uranus hates their Titan children and tries unsuccessfully to banish them to Earth’s bowels. They overthrow him, and their leader, Cronus, castrates his father as Uranus lies atop Earth. Cronus and the Titans then hold sway over the universe. Thus the separation of heaven and earth comes about through the hatred Uranus bears for his children. Heaven is made neuter and hence permanent. When Aphrodite is born—out of the foam of the sea where Cronus cast his father’s genitals—Eros becomes tainted with revenge.

The Olympians, children of the Titans, rebel and—led by Cronus’ son Zeus—banish them to the underworld where Zeus’ brother Hades holds sway. Zeus’ reign represents the final ordering of the universe. Where Uranus was unable to banish the Titans, Zeus succeeds. He restores the beauty of love by creating the all-powerful illusion of Pandora and (though Pandora is also a punishment for Prometheus’ theft of fire) reconciles mankind to generation through her beauty. Zeus then replaces the supposedly permanent separation of heaven and earth with a willed separation—Atlas keeps the two apart and may cease doing so at any moment. Thus men are also reconciled to generation through fear. Both terror and beauty make them content with their lot.

The Theogony describes the order Zeus imposes on men and also his organization of the divine realm where, although not the oldest of the gods, he makes the older divinities fit into his new order. Within the genealogical history of the gods, Hesiod sees teleology, an ultimate purpose revealed in Zeus’ organization of the universe. In the Theogony‘s rendering of the genesis of the universe, there is, moreover, theodicy—a vindication of the divine order that serves to justify the ways of the gods to mankind. Hesiod shows how, with the reign of Zeus, mind and love finally work together. Zeus’ marriages (his first is to Metis, craft, mother of Athena) symbolize the order he brings.

But if Hesiod is to be read as a protometaphysician, it would first be necessary to work one’s way through the strange story of the Theogony and not, as Fränkel does, choose those phrases and passages which suggest speculative insight about being and non-being. Fränkel argues that Hesiod’s discussion of being and non-being expresses the archaic conception of polar opposites. “Everything in being,” he writes of a passage in the Theogony, “exists by the fact that it is opposed (spatially, temporally, and logically) by an empty non-being.” Hesiod, according to Fränkel, opposes a positive system of earth, sea, and sky to a negative one of void, Tartarus, and night. But what Fränkel has done here is to obliterate the difference between the poetic pair Night and Day and the philosophic pair One and Many—that is, the difference between an aesthetic and a noetic phenomenon—under the rubric of polar opposites. It thus becomes all too easy for Fränkel to claim that the poets and philosophers “agree.”

For when he discusses the beginnings of philosophy in the archaic age, Fränkel is trapped by his theme. Hesiod and Heraclitus both embody the archaic age’s “polarized way of thought.” Hence “what Hesiod had begun, Heraclitus brought to fulfillment.” Fränkel is not troubled by the fact that Hesiod was a poet and Heraclitus a philosopher, for he believes that before the appearance of philosophy in the sixth century “philosophical thoughts could only be defined in the form of myth.” While Fränkel does acknowledge the difference between poetry and philosophy, his conception of the unity of the archaic age blinds him to the irreducibility of the difference. Fränkel sees myth as one “medium” of archaic thought, lyric poetry as another, and philosophy as a third, all three representing for him the spirit of the archaic age.

But there is a difference between the poets and the philosophers. The philosophers assume that human reason by itself is competent, while the poets rely on the Muses, who once told Hesiod: “We know how to tell lies like the truth, and we know, whenever we wish, to make known the truth.” The Muses, as far as we know, are uniquely Greek; no other people have recognized that their sole access to knowledge of the gods was through poetry. In Hesiod, the only gods that are individually called Olympian are Zeus and the Muses. Since the Muses are as much the obstacle as the way to knowledge, the poets’ wisdom is as ambiguous as their gods. It seems to stand somewhere between conventional and philosophic wisdom, and therefore ultimately depends on what is either lower or higher than itself.

The lover of myth, Aristotle says, is only in a sense a lover of wisdom. Fränkel has not taken account of Aristotle’s criticism of poetry and, as a result, has missed the true meaning of the philosophic revolution. If Homer has Hera say that Ocean is the genesis of all things, and Thales says that water is the principle of all things, Thales has not simply “demythologized” Homer, as Fränkel would have it. For Homer, Ocean is the beginning but not the end of all things; the genealogies of the gods are open-ended and never turn back on themselves to enclose a world. Thales, on the contrary, was apparently the first to suggest that the sum of things formed an intelligible whole; the out of what, the through what, and the to what were the same.

Fränkel’s flattening of the distinction between poetry and philosophy leads him to make a similar mistake in his discussion of Hesiod. Whereas for Hesiod the existence of separate and distinguishable generations or genealogies is fundamental, all the early philosophers deny generation, holding that nothing comes to be or has a separate nature. The pre-Socratics were not concerned with becoming but with being. Similarly, Earth is the highest or among the highest gods for the poets; none of the philosophers ever allowed earth to be, by itself, the principle of all things.

Philosophy differs from mythology because it is content to explain not just the unfamiliar and terrifying, but the familiar and comforting as well. It is essentially, pace Fränkel, anti-anthropomorphic. Life is not a cause for wonder in Hesiod; death is. In a myth, the eclipse of the sun usually means that a god has willed it; but for pre-Socratic philosophy the cause of the sun’s eclipse is grounded in the cause of the sun’s shining. Fränkel has here run up against the chief difficulty in interpreting Greek literature and philosophy: the nature of the gods. The Roman encyclopedist Varro distinguished between the gods of the city, the gods of the poets, and the gods of the philosophers. Since Fränkel does not start from this useful distinction, he can never get beyond the common “religiosity” of the poets and philosophers. He is guided throughout by two things: an understanding of morality which finds “good” and “beautiful” ambiguous but not “just,” and the will to be enchanted, which comes out most plainly in his praise of Pindar.

The Greeks invented poetry and discovered philosophy. Homer taught the poets how to lie, and Thales first proposed to know the truth about the whole. The philosophers argue, the poets represent. The poets, however, came before the philosophers. The conscious imitation of what is seems to antedate by centuries the questioning of what is. Further, the poets concealed before the philosophers realized what was to be revealed, and all the philosophers would deny that beauty and falsehood gave birth to truth. Despite Fränkel’s eloquent contentions to the contrary, the philosophers seem to owe nothing to the poets.

The historical problem of philosophy’s origin is, however, less important than the essential issue for both poetry and philosophy: the status of wisdom. The poets were the first to call themselves wise, and the philosophers never succeeded in wresting that title away from them. The quarrel between poetry and philosophy, which is now known in its most degenerate form as the problem of the two cultures, was first formulated in the period between Homer and Pindar. This is the deepest theme of Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy. It is to the articulation of this theme that classical scholarship should turn, now that Fränkel has laid the foundations for its understanding.

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    Fränkel claims to see it again in the Odyssey. Odysseus and Penelope celebrate their second marriage with a feast in order to conceal from their kinsmen the slaying of the suitors; but Fränkel thinks that originally it was not so: “The new piety [of the singers] spoiled the fine [sic] old scene of the bloody marriage feast in the Odyssey, and in the Iliad it created the fine new scene of ransoming Hector.” Fränkel thereby admits, contrary to his own thesis, that the same spirit informs the Iliad and the Odyssey as we now have them, and consequently that one would have to begin with the overall intention of the poet before one looked at the elements of his poems.

  • Email
  • Print