The Discovery of the Mind

The Discovery of the Mind

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by Bruno Snell

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"An illuminating and convincing account of the enormous change in the whole conception of morals and human personality which took place during the centuries covered by Homer, the early lyric poets, the dramatists, and Socrates." — The Times (London) Literary Supplement.
European thinking began with the Greeks. Science, literature, ethics,


"An illuminating and convincing account of the enormous change in the whole conception of morals and human personality which took place during the centuries covered by Homer, the early lyric poets, the dramatists, and Socrates." — The Times (London) Literary Supplement.
European thinking began with the Greeks. Science, literature, ethics, philosophy — all had their roots in the extraordinary civilization that graced the shores of the Mediterranean a few millennia ago. The rise of thinking among the Greeks was nothing less than a revolution; they did not simply map out new areas for thought and discussion, they literally created the idea of man as an intellectual being — an unprecedented concept that decisively influenced the subsequent evolution of European thought.
In this immensely erudite book, German classicist Bruno Snell traces the establishment of a rational view of the nature of man as evidenced in the literature of the Greeks — in the creations of epic and lyric poetry, and in the drama. Here are the crucial stages in the intellectual evolution of the Greek world: the Homeric world view, the rise of the individual in the early Greek lyric, myth and reality in Greek tragedy, Greek ethics, the origin of scientific thought, and Arcadia.
Drawing extensively on the works of Homer, Pindar, Archilochus, Aristophanes, Sappho, Heraclitus, the Greek tragedians, Parmenides, Callimachus, and a host of other writers and thinkers, Snell shows how the Homeric myths provided a blueprint for the intellectual structure the Greeks erected; how the notion of universality in Greek tragedy broadened into philosophical generalization; how the gradual unfolding of the concepts of intellect and soul provided the foundation for philosophy, science, ethics, and finally, religion.
Unquestionably one of the monuments of the Geistegeschichte (History of Ideas) tradition, The Discovery of the Mind throws fresh light on many long-standing problems and has had a wide influence on scholars of the Greek intellectual tradition. Closely reasoned, replete with illuminating insight, the book epitomizes the best in German classical scholarship — a brilliant exploration of the archetypes of Western thought; a penetrating explanation of how we came to think the way we do.

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The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature

By Bruno Snell

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1982 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14346-0



SINCE the time of Aristarchus, the great Alexandrian scholar, it has been the rule among philologists not to base the interpretation of Homeric words on references to classical Greek, and not to allow themselves to be influenced by the usage of a later generation when investigating Homeric speech. To-day we may expect even richer rewards from this rule than Aristarchus hoped to glean for himself. Let us explain Homer in no terms but his own, and our understanding of the work will be the fresher for it. Once the words are grasped with greater precision in their meaning and relevance, they will suddenly recover all their ancient splendour. The scholar too, like the restorer of an old painting, may yet in many places remove the dark coating of dust and varnish which the centuries have drawn over the picture, and thus give back to the colours their original brilliance.

The more carefully we distinguish between the meanings of Homer's words and those of the classical period, the clearer grows our vision of the gulf which lies between the two epochs, and of the intellectual achievement of the Greeks. But aside from the interpretive-aesthetic approach to the richness and beauty of the language, and the historical approach to the history of ideas, there is a third side to the Homeric phenomenon which we might call the 'philosophical'. It was Greece which produced those concepts of man as an intellectual being which decisively influenced the subsequent evolution of European thought. We are inclined to single out the achievements of the fifth century for special praise, and attribute to them a validity beyond time. How far Homer is removed from that stage can be shown from his language. It has long been observed that in comparatively primitive speech abstractions are as yet undeveloped, while immediate sense perceptions furnish it with a wealth of concrete symbols which seem strange to a more sophisticated tongue.

To cite one example: Homer uses a great variety of verbs to denote the operation of sight: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Of these, several have gone out of use in later Greek, at any rate in prose literature and living speech: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Only two words make their appearance after the time of Homer: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. The words which were discarded tell us that the older language recognized certain needs which were no longer felt by its successor. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] means: to have a particular look in one's eyes. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] the snake, whose name is derived from [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], owes this designation to the uncanny glint in his eye. He is called 'the seeing one', not because he can see particularly well, not because his sight functions exceptionally well, but because his stare commands attention. By the same token Homer's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] refers not so much to the function of the eye as to its gleam as noticed by someone else. The verb is used of the Gorgon whose glance incites terror, and of the raging boar whose eyes radiate fire: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. It denotes an 'expressive signal' or 'gesture' of the eyes. Many a passage in Homer reveals its proper beauty only if this meaning is taken into consideration, as is shown by Od. 5.84 and 158: (Odysseus) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] means 'to look with a specific expression', and the context suggests that the word here refers to the nostalgic glance which Odysseus, an exile from his homeland, sends across the seas. To exhaust the full content of our word—the iterative aspect also needs to be brought out—we should have to become fulsome and sentimental: 'he was ever looking wistfully ...,' or: 'his fixed glance continually travelled forth' across the sea; all this is implied in the one word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. It presents us with a suggestive image of a certain attitude of the eyes, just as in our language the words 'to glare' or 'to gaze' describe a particular type—though not the same—of looking. Of the eagle it may be said that [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], he looks very sharply; but whereas in English the adjective would characterize the function and capacity of the visual organ, Homer has in mind the beams of the eagle's eye, beams which are as penetrating as the rays of the sun which are also called 'sharp' by Homer; like a pointed weapon they cut through everything in their path. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is also used with an external object; in such a case the present would mean: 'his glance rests upon something', and the aorist: 'his glance falls on an object', 'it turns toward something', 'he casts his glance on someone'. Convincing examples are furnished above all by the compounds of the verb. I.e. 16.10 Achilles says to Patroclus: you cry like a little girl who begs her mother to take her in her arms, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. With tears she 'looks to' her mother to pick her up. But in English 'look' is a broader term than the Greek word; it resembles the Greek [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] which in later prose encroached upon the area of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. To sum up, then, the Homeric [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] does not designate the proper objective of sight, the special function of the eye which is to transmit certain sense impressions to the human perception.

The same is true of another of the verbs which we have mentioned as having disappeared in later speech. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is also a mode of looking, namely a 'looking about' inquisitively, carefully, or with fear. Like [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], therefore, it denotes a visual attitude, and does not hinge upon the function of sight as such. Characteristically enough neither word is found in the first person, with the exception of one late occurrence of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. A man would notice such attitudes in others rather than ascribing them to himself. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] behaves quite differently. Etymologically it is connected with [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 'gleaming', 'white'; three of the four cases in the Iliad where the verb is followed by an accusative object pertain to fire and shining weapons. The meaning plainly is: to see something bright. It also means: to let one's eyes travel. The mood of the word comes closest to Goethe's 'schauen' in his verse: 'Zum Sehen geboren, zum Schauen bestellt.' Pride, joy, and a feeling of freedom are expressed in it. Frequently [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] appears in the first person, which distinguishes it from [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], those visual attitudes which are mostly noticed in others. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] apparently connotes certain sensations experienced in the act of seeing, particularly in the seeing of specific objects. This is further illustrated by such Homeric expressions as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Od. 8.171), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Il. 19.19), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ... [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Od. 8.200) which bring out the joy that goes with the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; the latter is never used in situations of sorrow or anxiety. It is clear, therefore, that this term too derives its special significance from a mode of seeing; not the function of sight, but the object seen, and the sentiments associated with the sight, give the word its peculiar quality. The same is true again of another verb whose subsequent disappearance we noted above: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. It means to have an impression, especially to have a threatening impression, and thus it approximates to the meaning 'suspect'. Once more, as in the previous instances, the seeing is determined by the object and the attending sentiment.

This is by no means the end of the list; Homer contains still other verbs of sight which depend for their exact significance upon the elements of gesture and feeling. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], for example, is to look with one's mouth wide open, i.e. 'to gape' or 'stare'. And finally, the words which were later combined to form the principal parts of the verb 'to see': [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], show that to begin with there was no one verb to refer to the function of sight as such, but that there were several verbs each designating a specific type of vision. Space does not allow us to discuss to what extent original areas of meaning may be carved out even for these verbs.

Another expression of a more recent vintage, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], was not in origin a verb, but was derived from a noun: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; its basic meaning is 'to be a spectator'. Soon, however, it came to mean: 'to look on', to contemplate'. Whatever the word may have conveyed in its initial stages, in the contexts in which we have it, it does not reflect an attitude, nor an emotion linked with the sight, nor the viewing of a particular object; instead it represents an intensification of the normal and essential function of the eyes. The stress lies on the fact that the eye apprehends an object. Evidently, then, this new word expresses the very aspect which in the earlier verbs had been played down, but which to us conveys the real substance of the operation known as 'sight'.

To sum up: the verbs of the early period, it appears, take their cue from the palpable aspects, the external qualifications, of the act of seeing, while later on it is the essential function itself, the operation common to every glance, which determines the content of the verb. In the later period, the various kinds of sight are modified by the insertion of adverbs and prepositions. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] comes to be reproduced, however imperfectly, by [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 'to look around' (Etymol. Magnum).

It goes without saying that even in Homer men used their eyes 'to see', i.e. to receive optical impressions. But apparently they took no decisive interest in what we justly regard as the basic function, the objective essence, of sight; and if they had no word for it, it follows that as far as they were concerned it did not exist.

At the risk of interrupting the sequence of our argument, we must now turn to the question of the words which Homer employed to speak of the body and the intellect. Aristarchus was the first to notice that in Homer the word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (soma) which subsequently came to mean 'body' is never used with reference to a living being; soma is the corpse. But how does Homer refer to the body? Aristarchus expressed the opinion that for Homer [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (demas) was the live body. That is true in certain cases. 'His body was small' appears in Homer as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and 'his body resembled a god's' is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Demas, however, is but a poor substitute for 'body', seeing that the word occurs only in the accusative of specification. It means 'in structure', 'in shape', and consequently its use is restricted to a mere handful of expressions, such as: 'to be small or large, to resemble someone', etc. And yet Aristarchus is right: in the vocabulary of Homer demas comes closest to playing the same role as the later soma.

But Homer has some further expressions at his disposal to designate the thing which is called 'body' by us, and soma by fifth century Greeks. Our phrase 'his body became feeble' would be the Homeric [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; 'his whole body trembled' would appear as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Where we might say: 'sweat poured from his body', Homer has [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 'his body was filled with strength' is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Here we have plurals where our linguistic tradition would lead us to expect the singular. Instead of 'body' Homer says 'limbs'; [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] are the limbs as moved by the joints, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] the limbs in their muscular strength. The words [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] which occur in similar contexts may be disregarded for our present purposes; there are only two instances of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in place of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] both in the Odyssey, and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in this usage is altogether erroneous, as will be shown presently.

Let us continue with our game of translating our speech into the language of Homer, instead of the reverse which is the usual practice. We find that there are several other ways of rendering the word 'body'. How would we translate: 'He washed his body'? Homer says [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Or how would Homer say: 'The sword pierced his body'? Here again he uses the word chros: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. On the basis of passages like these some scholars have contended that chros is the equivalent of 'body' rather than 'skin'. But there is no doubt whatever that chros is the skin, not the skin as an anatomical substance, the skin which can be peeled off—that is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (derma)—but the skin as surface, as the outer border of the figure of man, as the foundation of colour, and so forth. In point of fact, however, chros is often used in the place of 'body': [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], he placed his armour about his body—or literally: about his skin.

We find it difficult to conceive of a mentality which made no provision for the body as such. Among the early expressions designating what was later rendered as soma or 'body', only the plurals [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], etc. refer to the physical nature of the body; for chros is merely the limit of the body, and demas represents the frame, the structure, and occurs only in the accusative of specification. As it is, early Greek art actually corroborates our impression that the physical body of man was comprehended, not as a unit but as an aggregate. Not until the classical art of the fifth century do we find attempts to depict the body as an organic unit whose parts are mutually correlated. In the preceding period the body is a mere construct of independent parts variously put together. It must not be thought, however, that the pictures of human beings from the time of Homer are like the primitive drawings to which our children have accustomed us, though they too simply add limb to limb. Our children usually represent the human shape as shown in fig. i, whereas fig. 2 reproduces the Greek concept as found on the vases of the geometric period.

Our children first draw a body as the central and most important part of their design; then they add the head, the arms and the legs. The geometric figures, on the other hand, lack this central part; they are nothing but [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], i.e. limbs with strong muscles, separated from each other by means of exaggerated joints. This difference is of course partially dependent upon the clothes they wore, but even after we have made due allowance for this the fact remains that the Greeks of this early period seem to have seen in a strangely 'articulated' way. In their eyes the individual limbs are clearly distinguished from each other, and the joints are, for the sake of emphasis, presented as extraordinarily thin, while the fleshy parts are made to bulge just as unrealistically. The early Greek drawing seeks to demonstrate the agility of the human figure, the drawing of the modern child its compactness and unity.

Thus the early Greeks did not, either in their language or in the visual arts, grasp the body as a unit. The phenomenon is the same as with the verbs denoting sight; in the latter, the activity is at first understood in terms of its conspicuous modes, of the various attitudes and sentiments connected with it, and it is a long time before speech begins to address itself to the essential function of this activity. It seems, then, as if language aims progressively to express the essence of an act, but is at first unable to comprehend it because it is a function, and as such neither tangibly apparent nor associated with certain unambiguous emotions. As soon, however, as it is recognized and has received a name, it has come into existence, and the knowledge of its existence quickly becomes common property. Concerning the body, the chain of events may have been somewhat like this: in the early period a speaker, when faced by another person, was apparently satisfied to call out his name: this is Achilles, or to say: this is a man. As a next step, the most conspicuous elements of his appearance are described, namely his limbs as existing side by side; their functional correlation is not apprehended in its full importance until somewhat later. True enough, the function is a concrete fact, but its objective existence does not manifest itself so clearly as the presence of the individual corporeal limbs, and its prior significance escapes even the owner of the limbs himself. With the discovery of this hidden unity, of course, it is at once appreciated as an immediate and self-explanatory truth.


Excerpted from The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature by Bruno Snell. Copyright © 1982 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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