Glorifying the Archaic

Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy

by Hermann Fränkel, translated by Moses Hadas and 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…

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