The Reading Room
Ancient Perspectives on the Value of Poetry
As one begins to read Homer’s Iliad, one might naturally wonder at who the thea, or goddess, from the first line of the poem really is. μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
Rage, goddess, sing of the son of Peleus, Achilleus (Il.1.1)
Is this curiously general term, goddess, supposed to convey to us the same muse whom we see invoked in the first line of Homer’s later Odyssey?
ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ Man, tell to me, muse, many-wayed, whose exceedingly many... (Od.1.1)
In Homer’s Odyssey, the muse is specifically summoned, and is generally considered to be Calliope, the muse of epic-poetry by the tradition. Is this muse who speaks the same entity as the goddess who sings the rage of Peleus’ son? Could this intangible force itself be a mimetic representation of a received tradition in spiritual form? And if so, would this received tradition hail from the Mycenaean hold-overs (1100 – 600 BCE) still present in the late Dark Ages and early Archaic period? One way of answering this question is that it does not matter whether or not Homer was summoning a definite intangible influence from Mycenaean history, using a typical rhetorical-device, or in fact attempting to summon a goddess to sing through him. What matters in a story, at least according to the ancient philosophers Aristotle and Plato, is the universal message contained within it.
From what we have said it will be seen that the poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e. what is possible as being probable or necessary. The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse—you might put the work of Herodotus into verse, and it would still be a species of history; it consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. (Aristotle, Poetics 9, 1451a37-1451b8, Barnes tr.; my emphases)
Aristotle argues that poetry is “more philosophic” and “of graver importance” than history in that poetry teaches “universal” rather than “particular” lessons. If this is the case, does it matter what and who influenced the poems of Homer? Based on Aristotle’s view, how would one respond to an interlocutor who suggested that Homer’s poems had a literal and religious value for his audience? The first response would be this: just because a work of literature has religious value does not mean that it is taken literally. If the purpose of poetry is to convey a universal value, ostensibly that value must be abstracted from the particularities of a singular narrative. This process itself is meta-literal and involves digesting and articulating the message of a book, rather than simply ingesting and regurgitating it as Ion does in Plato’s work of the same name. The response is this: if a work is considered of religious importance to a people, say 5th century Athenians, does that mean that the work is beyond interpretation or that the work, in contrast, requires interpretation?
Plato also has something to say about the nature of imitation. The character Socrates argues in Book 10 of Republic that the limitations of a poet’s knowledge and skill may in fact require interpretation rather than simple comprehension, whether the poem be religious or not.
When we hear persons saying that the tragedians, and Homer, who is at their head, know all the arts and all things human, virtue as well as vice, and divine things too, for that the good poet cannot compose well unless he knows his subject, and that he who has not this knowledge can never be a poet, we ought to consider whether here also there may not be an illusion. Perhaps they may have come across imitators and been deceived by them; they may not have remembered when they saw their works that these were but imitations thrice removed from the truth, and could easily be made without any knowledge of the truth, because they are appearances only and not realities? Or, after all, they may be in the right, and poets do really know the things about which they seem to the many to speak so well? (Plato Republic 598e, Book X, Cooper tr.)
Plato, Aristotle’s teacher of twenty years, complicates the question of what the value of poetry is. Aristotle clearly writes that poetry derives its value from articulating universal truth, unlike history. Plato considers the possibility that poets, like Homer, might have known “all things human...and divine things too,” and that one who does not know such things might not become a poet. Plato also suggests the possibility that the poets could just be imitators, and not only imitators, but imitators of imitators who “may not have remembered when they saw their works that these were but imitations thrice-removed from truth.” Such poets would then write stories full of falsities, not based on knowledge of the subject, but based on imagining the subject. This complication, however, is essential to the argument for the value of interpretation, especially considering texts which might otherwise be taken (1) literally or (2) religiously. Insofar as any text may be some combination of truth and falsity, and is sure to have limits in terms of the universality of all its content, it is necessary that such a text be interpreted to decipher what in it is of universal value, what of particular value, and what of no value. If one would then desire to take a Platonic-Aristotelian view of the value of reading Homer, one would attempt to discover which truths in his Iliad are universal, rather than attempt to decipher the range of his cultural influences.