Building upon the scholarship of an earlier volume, Dionysus Reborn, Spariosu her continues to draw on Dionysus—the “God of many names,” of both poetic play and sacred power—as a mythical embodiment of the two sides of the classical Greek mentality. Combining philosophical reflection with close textual analysis, the author examines the divided nature of the Hellenic mentality in such primary canonic texts as the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Theogony, Works and Days, the most well-known of the Presocratic fragments, Euripides’ Bacchae, Aristophanes’ The Frogs, Plato’s Republic and Laws, and Aristotle’s Poetics and Politics.
Spariosu’s model illuminates the many of the most enduring questions in contemporary humanistic study and addresses modern questions about the nature of the interrelation of poetry, ethics, and politics.
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God of Many Names
Play, Poetry, and Power in Hellenic Thought from Homer to Aristotle
By Mihai I. Spariosu
Duke University PressCopyright © 1991 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
The Hawk and the Nightingale: Play, Power, and Poetry in Homer and Hesiod
In his Works and Days, Hesiod recounts an ancient fable. A hawk is carrying away a nightingale in his claws, and when the latter cries, "Pity me!," the proud predator replies: "Foolish thing, why are you shrieking? Your captor is much stronger than you./ There shall you go wherever I take you though you are a singer,/ and, as I wish, I shall eat you for dinner or let you go free./ Foolish the man who wishes to fight against those who are stronger;/ he loses the victory and suffers pain in addition to disgrace [I'aischea ]."
This fable perfectly illustrates the relationship between archaic power and play that I wish to examine in this chapter. On the one hand, there is the perspective of the hawk, for whom might makes right and for whom power is unashamedly playful, arbitrary, and violent. The hawk experiences power as freedom of action: he can let the nightingale go or eat it as he pleases, that is, he can play with it, the way a cat plays with a mouse. The hawk cannot identify with the shrieks of his toy object any more than the nightingale could identify with the wriggling worm he might have caught earlier that morning. The hawk thus asks the nightingale to accept a "natural" state of affairs in which the strong and the weak continually switch places, each having his play before they both perish without a trace in the cosmic hecatomb. In other words, the hawk asks the nightingale to accept living dangerously.
On the other hand, there is the perspective of the victim, the nightingale or the worm that can no longer experience power as joyous, free play but as painful constraint. Once the aggressor finds himself in a weak position, he cries foul play and sets about changing the rules of the power game. This shift of perspective from aggressor to victim, I shall argue, ultimately accounts for a change in emphasis from archaic to median values in Hellenic thought.
Hesiod's use of the fable also points to the problematic relation between poetry and archaic power. Because the poet addresses his fable to "lords who understand," he obviously alludes to the might-makes-right mentality of his archaic community, a mentality of which he apparently disapproves. He seems to identify with the nightingale (who is, like the poet, a singer, aoidos), and thus implicitly to distance himself from the world of the hawk, which is also the heroic world of the epic. By attempting a critical use of this fable, the poet seems to shift from the point of view of the hawk to that of the nightingale, emphasizing median values over archaic or aristocratic ones. Hence he problematizes both the prevalent warlike mentality and the role of the poet in his archaic community. I shall first turn to the hawk's world as it appears in the Homeric epic, and then I shall look at this world as both Homer and Hesiod seem to do, through the eyes of the nightingale. I shall focus especially on the shifting relationship between power and play in the Homeric and Hesiodic texts, arguing that this shift is central to understanding the conflicting worldviews embedded in these texts.
Aien Aristeuein: The World of the Hawk
The Homeric heroic world, as it comes across in the Iliad and the Odyssey, is a predominantly aristocratic, warrior-culture whose mentality is largely governed by power in its naked, immediate form. Arete, a key word in understanding the Homeric hero's behavior, points to the ethical ideals of the aristoi (noblemen, aristocrats)—significantly, the two words seem to have a common etymological root—and it emphasizes the agonistic nature of their values. Although it is usually translated as "virtue" or "excellence," arete in Homer can more accurately be rendered as "prowess in battle" and is geared toward those qualities that are most needed in a warlike society, such as physical strength, valor, endurance, and so on. Homeric arete also has a second meaning, describing intellectual rather than physical abilities, but again in a competitive context: for example, Odysseus is praised as being aristos in counsel, that is, because of his ability to bring about, through skillful manipulation or cunning (metis), his own party's success in war or peace. In the Homeric world, therefore, power presents itself as agon or competitive play. This means not only that contest has an important function in Homeric society, but also that the hero sees his relationship to other humans and to the divinities, as well as to existence at large, in terms of a universal game of power. Hippolochus' valedictory words to his son Glaukos, "Aien aristeuein kai hupeirochon emmenai allon " ("always be best and excel others," Il. 6.208), repeated by Nestor, who this time puts them in the mouth of Peleus as the latter sends his son Achilles off to the Trojan War (Il. 11.784), aptly express the Hellenic aristocratic ideal of life, based on play as contest.
Before examining the various forms of agonistic play in the Homeric epic, it would be useful to recall briefly the semantic history of words such as agon and aethlos. In Homer, agon designates "an assembly with games or contests," "the place where the games are held," and the "competitors or the potential competitors" themselves (any member of the assembly may join in the competition). Some dictionaries list "place of assembly" as the original meaning of agon and "assembly to witness games" as a secondary meaning. A closer look at the Iliad and the Odyssey, however, shows that the agon semantic group is almost always used in connection with games or contests. Out of the twenty-three lines where agon appears in the Iliad, sixteen relate to the funeral games held in Patroclus' honor (book 23), whereas in the Odyssey all six lines where the word appears are in some way associated with games. G. G. P. Autenrieth lists the Homeric meanings of agon in the correct order: (1) assembly, especially to witness games; contest, games; (2) assemblage or place of assemblage of the ships; (3) place of combat, arena, including the space occupied by the spectators. At the outset, therefore, the word agon clearly holds a central position in the Hellenic vocabulary of play. In post-Homeric times, agon becomes increasingly abstract, designating only the game or the contest itself. It gradually transcends the sphere of athletic games, extending to such abstract contexts as law, politics, warfare, eros, rhetoric, history, philosophy, and literary criticism; even in these contexts, however, its connection with the notion of play remains firm.
In turn, Homeric aethlos (Att. athlos) specifically signifies "prize-contest," but it can also mean "combat in war" as well as "toil" and "hardship," such as Euristheus imposes on Heracles (Il. 8.363). Like agon, athlos turns increasingly abstract and in the classical period the two terms become interchangeable: both of them can denote "athletic contest," such as the great Panhellenic festivals. At the same time agon undergoes an ethical polarization, acquiring negative meanings; like athlos, it can signify "hardship" or "toil," for example, in agonia. This polarization appears approximately at the moment when, in certain Sophists and in Plato, paidia comes to denote not only "children's play" but also "play" in general. It is the moment when philosophy separates play from agon, that is, from violent contest and power—a separation that took place especially in the context of the Platonic theory of education (paideia) and that was adopted and perpetuated by subsequent classical scholarship. It can be concluded, then, that the semantic development of agon and aethlos equally reflects the shift in emphasis from an archaic to a median mentality in Hellenic thought, where the aristocratic notion of contest undergoes a process of ethical polarization, acquiring an increasingly ambivalent emotional value.
In the Homeric epic, play as agon governs the transactions among heroes, among gods, between men and gods, and between mortals and Moira. Heroes relate to other heroes in terms of a competitive game, the goal of which is to establish a relative hierarchy (primus inter pares) within the aristocratic group. This hierarchy, however, remains highly unstable. The hero ceaselessly worries about his order of rank in relation to his peers and about "what people will say," because success is labile by nature. He constantly has to prove his arete in battle and in the assembly, constantly has to remain in the public eye. For instance, after his quarrel with Agamemnon, Achilles cannot afford to stay away from the battlefield for too long lest he should be forgotten, a fate worse than death for the Homeric hero. He has no moral scruples in enlisting the help of his mother, Thetis (even if this means bringing almost total disaster upon the Greek camp), in order to make sure that his comrades need his services. Moral scruples (in the modern sense, arising from the notion of ethical responsibility toward fellow humans at large) are irrelevant in a heroic society, where intentions count less than performance, and where performance is judged largely in terms of success and failure. Achilles is less concerned with the common good than with his own time (fame, reputation, but also sphere of influence), which depends only indirectly upon this common good. (Actually, the welfare of the Greek camp can only be, and should have been, Agamemnon's concern, being part of his time as the commander-in-chief of the army.)
Like any game, including games of power, heroic agon has rules, but these rules seem to have little to do with moral responsibility in the modern sense of the word. Rather, they are based on mutual agreement, which remains in force only as long as it is perceived as being advantageous to all parties involved. Neither is playing by the rules, or "fair play," a moral exigency; it is merely the result of cooperation among almost equally powerful contestants, guaranteeing the continuation of the game. Competitors are "fair" not because of inner, but because of exterior compulsion, which comes from the other contestants (in this regard, archaic cooperation appears more openly—and unashamedly—based on self-interest than its median counterpart). When Agamemnon finally acknowledges his mistake, which he predictably seeks to explain through ate (blindness sent by the gods), it turns out that he regards it less as moral error than as miscalculation. To him, his action against Achilles does not seem unfair or morally objectionable per se; it proves to be so only in hindsight, after its consequences become known and he is in danger of bringing ta aischea, disgrace, upon himself through the defeat of the Greek army. Agamemnon's "flaw," then, is not so much that he is morally in the wrong, but that he lacks cunning or the intellectual ability to gauge the political consequences of his actions accurately. By contrast, someone like Odysseus is often presented as a model of heroic and political conduct: he combines physical force with metis, the kind of agonistic intelligence that is most valued by an archaic mentality (Zeus himself, as the embodiment of supreme power, could not have maintained his position without cunning, so he swallowed his own daughter Metis, after she had helped him defeat Cronus, in order to become invincible).
Whereas cunning is the main agonistic virtue needed in the assembly, physical prowess is the main arete needed on the battlefield, and aristeia is the most important means by which the hero can display this arete. Being etymologically related to aristos and arete, aristeia is a hero's single-handed tour de force whereby he proudly displays his fighting skills over the entire battlefield. Although aristeia is undoubtedly an important form of combat, it seldom decisively affects the outcome of a battle; it is first and foremost a highly ritualized agonistic game, designed partly as a display of power for its own sake and partly as a means of establishing fighting hierarchies among heroes.
A hero about to engage in aristeia does not randomly take on just any opponent, but wanders around the field in search of a worthy match. Once he spots his man, he does not immediately proceed to fight him, but pauses to find out his identity and fighting record. Both combatants may deliver a vow or boast (euche), which is itself a sort of verbal contest. They may also decide not to fight, but rather to exchange courtesies and gifts, as in the case of Diomedes and Glaucus (Il. 6.119–236). Even in this case, however, the contest is carried on beyond physical prowess, in terms of metis, because the poet comments at the end of the episode: "But Zeus the son of Kronos stole away the wits of Glaukos/who exchanged with Diomedes the son of Tydeus armour/of gold for bronze, for nine oxen's worth the worth of a hundred." If the fighting does take place, it is highly ritualized, rather like the single combat between knights in the Middle Ages or like the modern duel. The encounter does not end with the death (or the ransom) of the defeated, but with additional parting words from both sides. The slaying of the vanquished is moreover to be followed by the victor's no less ritualized despoiling of the corpse, over which renewed fighting may break out.
During his aristeia, the hero is possessed by charme (battle-lust), which renders combat "sweeter" than going home (Il. 2.453–54). Hector, for example, is forever "avid of battle" (Il. 13.80), while the two Aiantes are "joyful in the delight of battle the god had put in their spirits" (Il. 13.81–82). The warrior joyfully "sweeps over the field with instincts and energies free, [experiencing] the supreme realization of the pride of power." Carried away by this pride of power, he can even attack and temporarily defeat gods, as in the case of Diomedes. For the hero, aristeia is the delightful and exhilarating activity that modern theorists usually associate with physical play. He experiences power both as pleasure (it is in this sense, and only in this sense, that aristeia can be said to be a display of power for its own sake) and as desire. This desire can, however, become insatiable and the hero can go, beyond aristeia, on a killing spree that betrays an obsession with death ultimately leading to insanity—this is the case of Achilles after the death of Patroclus, or the case of Telamonian Ajax after his contest of metis with Odysseus (see Sophocles' Ajax). Power as contest can easily degenerate into wrath or "irrational" violence, always oscillating between what Freud calls a pleasure-principle and a death-wish. It is precisely this "dynamic" pleasure-desire (the German Lust), derived from power in its violent, unmediated form that later thinkers distrust and attempt to replace by the "static" pleasure of philosophical contemplation (for example, Plato, in the wake of the Pythagoreans, distrusts the realm of the senses not so much because of their epistemological unreliability as because of their explicit connection with violent power).
In addition to aristeia (a war-game in which the hero literally gambles for life or death), there are other heroic games that can be called "peaceful"—not because they are not equally agonistic, but because they normally take place either during the temporary cessation of hostilities in war or during periods of relative peace. The stakes of the peaceful games may often be less dangerous but no less serious. These games can be divided into ritual and leisure games. The ritual games can in turn be connected with the funeral of a warrior who dies in combat (and here ritual games bespeak their violent, sacrificial origin) or with a public occasion.
The games that are part of the funeral rites for Patroclus offer an excellent insight into the agonistic nature of play in Homeric society. They can be seen as serving several cultural functions. For example, they honor, bring delight to, and thereby propitiate the deceased hero: through the games both the participants and the dead hero accumulate kleos (fame), an important kind of immortality sought by heroic society. The funeral games also serve to reestablish and reconfirm hierarchies among the surviving heroes, thus guaranteeing the continuation of the heroic order even in the face of and beyond death. They may finally attempt to heal or, rather, dress up the wounds of warring contest (resulting almost invariably in violent death), within the relatively safe space of the athletic playground. In the funeral games, violent contest is downplayed and therefore appears only in its positive role as creator of cultural values. In this respect, the criteria of awarding prizes in a funeral game differ from those employed in public games: the contestant is first and foremost rewarded for his participation in or even for his mere presence at the games—for example, Nestor is awarded fifth prize in the chariot race, hors concours, in token of his arete as a horseman—and only secondarily for winning the event. Prizes can literally be given away, although the selection criteria are by no means arbitrary, being often based on past heroic accomplishments or on current heroic hierarchies.
Excerpted from God of Many Names by Mihai I. Spariosu. Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents
1 The Hawk and the Nightingale: Play, Power, and Poetry in Homer and Hesiod,
2 Agones Logon: Power and Play in Presocratic Thought,
3 Masks of Dionysus: The Bacchae and The Frogs,
4 Plato and the Birth of Philosophy from the Spirit of Poetry,
5 Aristotle: Poetics, Politics, and Play,