In ancient Greece, probably from the Archaic period and certainly from the Classical period onwards, Homer was seen as the preeminent poet. More than that he was a symbol of nationhood, a historian who told the Greeks about their origins and ancestors, and also a witness to the actions and character of the gods. Given this status one would expect on first looking at the Iliad and the Odyssey a Bible or some great treatise in philosophy. Instead, as Finley (1964) points out, what one finds are two very long and somewhat repetitious narrative poems. Yet the poems resonated with their initial audiences, and they still do today.
Given the status of Homer in Classical Athenian society as a source of wisdom, knowledge and values it is surprising that some also saw the text as inherently dangerous. Whilst Plato, perhaps in an obligatory fashion, is ‘ready to acknowledge that Homer is the greatest of poets and first of tragedy writers’ (Republic 607 E) he is also compelled to exclude him from his ideal city, his Kallipolis (Καλλιπολις). Why?
Education is essential for Plato, and education must be composed of three things: reading and writing, physical education and literary education. It is in this last category that we would expect Plato to insist that young people learn the classics, but this is not the case. On the contrary, Plato insists that Homer (and Hesiod) be excluded from a literary education syllabus because they tell false stories, they lie, about the gods:
“‘The greater part of the stories current today we shall have to reject.’
‘Which are you thinking of?’
‘We can take some of the major legends as typical. For all, whether major or minor, should be cast in the same mould and have the same effect. Do you agree?’
‘Yes: but I’m not sure which you refer to as major.’
‘The stories in Homer and Hesiod and the poets. For it is the poets who have always made up fictions and stories to tell men.’
‘What sort of stories do you mean and what fault do you find in them?’
‘The worst fault possible,’ I replied, ‘especially as the fiction is an ugly one.’
‘And what is that?’
‘Misrepresenting the nature of gods and heroes, like a portrait painter whose portraits bear no resemblance to their originals.’
‘That is a fault which certainly deserves censure. But give me more details.’
‘Well, on most important subjects, there is first and foremost the foul story of Ouranos and the things Hesiod says he did, and the revenge Cronos took on him. While the story of what Cronos did, and what he suffered at the hands of his son, is not fit to be lightly repeated to the young and foolish, even if it were true; it would be best to say nothing about it, or if it must be told, tell it to a select few under oath of secrecy, at a rite which required, to restrict it still further, the sacrifice not of a mere pig but of something large and difficult to get.’
[The verses reproduced here are from Lee’s Penguin Classic 1955 translation; the Jowett translation is, I think, much better at this point: ‘But if there is an absolute necessity for their mention, a chosen few might hear them in a mystery, and they should sacrifice not a common [Eleusinian] pig, but some huge and unprocurable victim; and then the numbers of the hearers will be very few indeed.’]
‘These certainly are awkward stories.’
‘And they shall not be repeated in our state Adeimantus,’ I said. ‘Nor shall any young audience be told that anyone who commits horrible crimes, or punishes his father unmercifully, is doing nothing out of the ordinary but merely what the first and greatest of gods have done before.’
‘I certainly agree,’ said Adeimantus, ‘that these stories are unsuitable.’
‘Nor can we permit stories of wars and plots and battles among the gods; they are quite untrue, and if we want our prospective guardians to believe that quarrelsomeness is one of the worst evils, we must certainly not let them be told the story of the battle of the giants or embroider it on robes, or tell them other tales about the many and various quarrels between gods and heroes and their friends and relations. On the contrary, if we are to persuade them that no citizen has ever quarrelled with any other, because it is sinful, our old men and women must tell children stories with this end in view from the first, and we must compel our poets to tell them similar stories when they grow up. But we can admit to our state no stories about Hera being tied up by her son, or Hephaestus being flung out of heaven for trying to help his mother when she was getting a beating, not any of Homer’s Battles of the Gods, whether their intention is allegorical or not. Children cannot distinguish between what is allegory and what isn’t, and opinions formed at that age are usually difficult to eradicate or change; we should therefore surely regard it as of the utmost importance that the first stories they hear shall aim at encouraging the highest excellence of character.’
‘Your case is a good one,’ he agreed, ‘but if someone wanted details, and asked what stories we were thinking of, what should we say?’
To which I replied, ‘My dear Adeimantus, you and I are not engaged on writing stories but on founding a state. And the founders of a state, though they must know the type of story the poet must produce, and reject any that do not conform to that type, need not write them themselves.’
‘True: but what are the lines on which our poets must work when they deal with the gods.?’
‘Roughly as follows,’ I said. ‘God must surely always be represented as he really is, whether the poet is writing epic, lyric, or tragedy.’
‘And in reality of course god is good, and he must be so described.’
‘But nothing good is harmful, is it?’
‘I think not.’
‘Then can anything that is not harmful do harm?’
‘And can what does no harm do evil?’
‘And can what does no evil be the cause of any evil?’
‘How could it?’
‘Well then; is the good beneficial?’
‘So it must be the cause of well-being.’
‘So the good is not the cause of everything, but only of states of well-being and not of evil.’
‘Most certainly,’ he agreed.
‘Then god, being good, cannot be responsible for everything, as is commonly said, but only for a small part of human life, for the greater part of which he has no responsibility. For we have a far smaller share of good than of evil, and while god must be held to be the sole cause of good, we must look for some factors other than god as cause of the evil.’
‘I think that’s very true,’ he said.
‘So we cannot allow Homer or any other poet to make such a stupid mistake about the gods, as when he says that
Zeus has two jars standing on the floor of his palace, full of fates, good in one and evil in the other; [ME: Iliad 24. 527]
and that the man to whom Zeus allots a mixture of both has “varying fortunes sometimes good and sometimes bad”, while the man to whom he allots unmixed evil is “chased by ravening despair over the face of the earth”. Nor can we allow references to Zeus as “dispenser of good and evil”. And we cannot approve if it is said that Athene and Zeus prompted the breach of solemn treaty and oath by Pandarus, or that the strife and contentions of the gods were due to Themis and Zeus. … But if a state is to be run on the right lines, every possible step must be taken to prevent anyone, young or old, either saying or being told, whether in poetry or prose, that god, being good, can cause harm or evil to any man. To say so would be sinful, inexpedient, and inconsistent.’ (Plato Republic 377d – 380c: Lee’s 1955 translation)
I think this is a very interesting passage from Plato. This is a point that Feyerabend identifies as being the consolidation of a huge rupture between the pre-Parmenidean thought or archaic time, and the classical Greek thought of the preSocratics and onwards. In this passage there is slippage here between gods and (a) god. Are two things happening at once: Monotheism emerging and ‘god is (only) good’ emerging at the same time. It is a very dramatic break from the thought style of Homer.
Disrespect to the gods in Homer is frowned upon by Plato:
‘We must not therefore allow descriptions of reputable characters being overcome by laughter. And similar descriptions of the gods are far less allowable.’
‘Far less, I agree.’
‘So we can’t have Homer saying of the gods
and a fit of helpless laughter seized the happy gods as they watched Hephaestus bustling up and down the hall.
Your argument won’t allow that.’ (Republic 389a)
But Plato does approve of some parts of Homer, for example where self-control is depicted:
‘Then again we shall want our young men to be self-controlled.’
‘And for the mass of men does not self-control largely consist in obedience to their rulers, and ruling their own desire for the pleasures of eating, drinking, and sex?’
‘We shall approve, therefore, the sort of thing that Homer makes Diomedes say,
Be quiet, man, and take your cue from me;
And verses like those which follow it,
The Achaeans moved forward, breathing valour, in silent obedience to their officers.
And there are other similar passages.’ (Republic 389e)
Plato is loath to say that Homer is guilty of impiety:
“Loving Homer as I do, I hardly like to say that in attributing these feelings to Achilles, or in believing that they are truly attributed to him, he is guilty of downright impiety. As little can I believe the narrative of his insolence to Apollo, where he says,
’Thou hast wronged me, O far-darter, most abominable of deities. Verily I would be even with thee, if I had only the power;’ “ [The Republic Jowett translation 391a]
And again, at the start of book X Plato expresses his admiration for Homer, but he must speak against him because Homer is not on the side of the truth:
“’Of the many excellences which I perceive in the order of our State, there is none which upon reflection pleases me better than the rule about poetry.’
‘To what do you refer?’
‘To the rejection of imitative poetry, which certainly ought not to be received; as I see far more clearly now that the parts of the soul have been distinguished.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Speaking in confidence, for I should not like to have my words repeated to the tragedians and the rest of the imitative tribe–but I do not mind saying to you, that all poetical imitations are ruinous to the understanding of the hearers, and that the knowledge of their true nature is the only antidote to them.’
‘Explain the purport of your remark.’
‘Well, I will tell you, although I have always from my earliest youth had an awe and love of Homer, which even now makes the words falter on my lips, for he is the great captain and teacher of the whole of that charming tragic company; but a man is not to be reverenced more than the truth, and therefore I will speak out.’ [Republic Jowett translation 595d – e]
(There then follows an extended digression where Plato speculates upon Homer’s life and works.)
But ultimately Homer can not improve and educate mankind because he is a ‘mere imitator’
“But can you imagine, Glaucon, that if Homer had really been able to educate and improve mankind–if he had possessed knowledge and not been a mere imitator–can you imagine, I say, that he would not have had many followers, and been honoured and loved by them?” [Republic Jowett translation 600e]
In The Republic book X (‘Theory of Art’) Plato again states that poets can not be allowed in the ideal state. Poetry has a bad effect on audiences who imitate the faults that it represents. Again, he singles out Homer:
‘The gravest charge against poetry still remains. It has a terrible power to corrupt even the best characters, with very few exceptions.’
‘It is indeed terrible if it can do that.’
‘Then listen. When we hear Homer or one of the tragic poets representing the sufferings of a hero and making him bewail them at length, perhaps with all the sounds and signs of tragic grief, you know how the best of us enjoy it and let ourselves be carried away by our feelings; and we are full of praises for the merits of the poet who can most powerfully affect us in this way.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘Yet in our private griefs we pride ourselves on just the opposite, that is, on our ability to bear them in silence like men, and we regard the behaviour we admired on stage as womanish.’
‘Yes, I’m aware of that.’
‘Then is it really right,’ I asked, ‘to admire, when we see him on the stage, a man we should ourselves be ashamed to resemble? Is it reasonable to feel enjoyment and admiration rather than disgust?’ (Republic 605d – e)
‘And so, Glaucon,’ I continued, ‘when you meet people who admire Homer as the educator of Greece, and who say that in the administration of human affairs and education we should study him and model our whole lives on his poetry, you must feel kindly towards them as good men within their limits, and you may agree with them that Homer is the best of poets and first of tragedians. But you will know that the only poetry that should be allowed in a state is hymns to the gods and paeans in praise of good men; once you go beyond that and admit the sweet lyric or epic muse, pleasure and pain become your rules instead of law and the rational principles commonly accepted as best.’
‘Quite true.’ (Republic 607a)
Lee, in an endnote, explores this aspect of Plato’s opposition to Homer. He notes that there is a parallel to Plato’s treatment of poetry and art in Tolstoy’s What Is Art? “Both Plato and Tolstoy think the poet and artist in some way infect those who read or see their production with the feelings which those productions portray, and since the feelings portrayed are often morally questionable, such portrayal must be treated with the greatest caution.” (Lee 1974 p. 352)
It is clear that Plato is against Homer for a) his impiety and b) just being a poet as poetry makes us feel emotions that are not our own and are inappropriate. But I think there is more here: the impiety is an indicator of something deeper – a lack of respect for ‘natural’ order and hierarchy. Plato is clear that he respects people who know their place and wants us to know our place in society. We need gods above us, and they are above us because they are much, much better than us; they are perfect and true. We need leaders above us because they, too, are better than us. That’s why Plato simply refuses to believe Homer’s account of Achilles’ actions following the death of Patroklus:
‘He refuses to obey the River Scamander, who is a god, and is ready to fight him, and he sends a lock of his hair dedicated to the River Spercheius as a gift to “Lord Patroclus”, who was already dead. We can believe none of this, and we shallregard as untrue the whole story of the dragging of the body of Hector around the tomb of Patroclus, and the slaughter of prisoners at his pyre. We cannot, in fact, have our citizens believe that Achilles, whose mother was a goddess, and whose father, Peleus, was a man of the utmost self-control and a grandson of Zeus, and who had in Chiron the wisest of school-masters, was in such a state of inner confusion that he combined in him self the two contrary maladies of ungenerous meanness about money and excessive arrogance to gods and men.’ (Republic 391c)
However, this idea that gods and leaders are better than us is not so clear cut in the Iliad. Quite the opposite: Homer shows flawed leaders who make bad decisions (Agamemnon, most notably) and gods who squabble like children (actually, worse than most kids). It is the mortals who are the heroes of the Iliad, not the gods.
Plato’s opposition to Homer’s alleged impiety isn’t simply at the level of the theological; it is social too. Homer’s Iliad does not show appropriate respect for godliness and for authority: this is what the charge of impiety encapsulates. Given this alleged impiety, lack of respect for authority, and falseness (for making us feel what we are not meant to feel) the Iliad is, for Plato, a fundamentally dangerous text, and people need to be protected from it.
In a later blog post I will explore further this idea of the Iliad as a dangerous text by considering the late works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury.
Finley, M.I. (1964) The World of Odysseus, London: Chatto & Windus.
Plato and Jowett, B. (1944) The Republic, New York: The Modern Library.
Plato and Lee, H.D.P.S. (1974) The Republic. Translated with an introduction by Desmond Lee. 2nd ed, Harmondsworth: Penguin.