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Who is Hesiod?

by August 29, 2014

By Ben Potter

Regular readers will recall our discussion on the dubious and debated identification of Homer i.e. was he one man or two? Was he a woman? Was he a school of poets and compilers?

Homer’s contemporary, the Boeotian Hesiod, if anything, is even more troublesome in this respect. Like with Homer, two poems are ascribed to Hesiod: Theogony and Works and Days.

N.B. A third, Shield of Heracles has been almost universally discredited as his work.

And (as with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey) the prevailing point of debate is that a different man was responsible for each poem.

Hesiod and the muse

Interestingly, the main evidence for this is not the extremely different themes and tones, or the inability to date the works, but the fact that they vary significantly in quality.

Propagators of this idea claim the Theogony is laboured, stifled… often tedious in parts. To a lesser extent the same accusations have been levelled again the Iliad, i.e. that gods, catastrophes, sex, intrigue and violence rescue a text lacking in the pace and drive to do full justice to such subjects.

And, with the Theogony, comments about pace do not bemoan the lack of it, but the uniformity of it. In other words, there is too much high drama, too much repetition, too many and too frequent powerful adjectives. With no down time and no juxtaposition, there is no possibility for tension to build; all ebb, no flow.

Also, opportunities for toe-curling tension are wasted. Man’s genesis is ignored and long lists of names trudge along without passion, each as monochrome and forgettable as the last. Moreover, Zeus is so powerful and so perfect that we never fear for his position or safety.

Regarding tension, take this example of Kronos castrating his father Uranus:

“The hidden boy stretched forth his left hand; in his right he took the great long jagged sickle; eagerly he harvested his father’s genitals and threw them off behind”.

Cronus castrating Uranus

Such pungent tragedy is given scant attention; Uranus loses his manhood without even a whimper of resistance, whilst the list of the offspring of Nereus and Doris lasts for 31 dreary lines!

However, these criticisms are asking for a different text; one like the Iliad. If we take at face value that this is a work of religiosity (see the Bible of Ancient Greece) then we can excuse certain dramatic shortcomings, much like the unendurable ‘begat…’ passages of the bible, or the sanitized and colourless canti of Dante’s Paradiso.

Additionally, we mustn’t forget that this is a poem designed to be sung to music. Therefore, there would have been some scope for understating or emphasising supplementary to the mere text.

Likewise, the musical aspect accounts for repetition. In this respect Homer is far more guilty than Hesiod, but understandably so. A repeated or ‘stock’ phrase would allow the performing bard time to gather his faculties before singing the next verse.

It should be stressed that the caveats above do not hope to diminish just how different Works and Days is from Theogony.

The former poem is a treatise on mythology, ethics, sailing, home-spun wisdom, superstition and, above all, farming.

It is a world away from the ethereal Theogony and its laudation of the practical, noble and wholesome unravels in a charming and, often, very amusing manner.

The poem is a long letter from Hesiod to his feckless and reckless brother, Perses.

In Works and Days Hesiod adopts the persona of, or actually really was, a curmudgeonly old son of the soil.

He comes across as…

  • Puritanical and joyless: “your wife should have matured four years before, and marry in the fifth year. She should be a virgin; you must teach her sober ways”.
  • Misogynistic: “Hermes the messenger put in [woman’s] breast lies and persuasive words and cunning ways”.
  • Sanctimonious: “Oh foolish Perses, sailing in a ship because he longed for great prosperity”.

He’s also distrustful of city-folk, pleasure-seekers and dishonesty. But above all we recognise his industriousness, simplicity and innocence.

He is naïve, rural and quaint, bordering on twee.

If this really were a letter to an errant sibling, then one could imagine the response consisting of only two words; the second being ‘off’.

Farming olives

That’s not to say the advice is bad. Much of it gives an ignorant city-dweller (like myself) a pretty good rough guide to the mysteries of tilling the soil. Also, some of the more general and axiomatic fragments are heavy with sagacity.

Indeed, one can identify within the poem’s pages the inspiration for Polonius’ famous speech in act I scene III of Hamlet: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry”.

However, the superstitious snippets are often risible: “don’t piss towards the sun” is one such unforgettable piece of counsel.

Despite this, it would take a debater of Ciceronian stature to make a decent case that Theogony were the better poem.

Works and Days has greater and more flexible poetical guile, a more judicious use of vocabulary, and more evocative comparisons and contrasts than Theogony.

That said, there are undeniable crossovers between the works.

The Muses of Mount Helicon are invoked at the beginning of Theogony and again in Works and Days. Even supporters of the ‘two-poets’ argument admit that this is no coincidence. However, the best argument justifying this is that Helicon was some sort of literary pilgrimage site; an artistic Lourdes.

If the Hesiod of the Theogony had been the first such divinely inspired bard then it’s perceivable that a ‘Hesiod school’ could have appeared with countless scribblers using his name.

Perhaps this straw-clutching explanation isn’t as farfetched as it sounds. After all, it’s widely assumed some of Aristotle’s work was written by his pupils and colleagues. The same goes for the works of many Renaissance painters.

It’s also been hypothesised that ‘Hesiod’ was an honorific given to the most able poet among his contemporaries. However, given by whom and how are questions uncomfortably sidestepped.

Suffice to say this ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ idea holds about as much water as Tantalus drinks in a month.

Certainly such thinking, had it even been contemplated, would have been dismissed out of hand by the ancients. They didn’t merely think, but assumed both texts were the work of one man.

And though a majority of modern scholars argue for two poets, their numbers are partly outweighed by the leading cheerleader for a unified author; the exceptional American scholar, Richmond Lattimore.

Hesiod

Much like with the corresponding Homeric one, this is a debate which classicists love as there is hardly any evidence with which to make a refutation. What is more there’s nothing new likely to come to light and, providing there is always one dissenting voice, no chance of a resolution.

Something which does strike a note of concord is the assertion that Works and Days is a superb poem and Theogony is, at the very least, an extremely interesting one.

It may strike you that repudiating a two-and-a-half millennia old assertion that Hesiod wrote two poems simply because one is a better read than the other is a rather flimsy and extreme position to take. In such a respect you only have to think of your favourite author and compare their best to their worst book.

Luckily there is one way in which to reach a really satisfactory conclusion on the matter… but I’ll have to let you get on with that one yourself.

The Prince of Ancient Comedy

by May 2, 2014

By Ben Potter

To translate Ancient texts correctly is no easy task, even for the most proficient student of Greek. To attempt it at all is commendable, but to do so when the subject matter is a comedy, is a project fit for only the insanely brilliant or the brilliantly insane.

Translation from a dead language, with all its subtleties, nuances and ambiguities, is made all the more difficult when one hopes to round off a day with more than merely a sense of accuracy, but with that most elusive and intangible of things… a sense of humour.

Although there is no short supply of ancient comedy, there is one writer who shines above all the rest. One who was not only the most famous in his own time, but has stood the test of ours: Aristophanes of Athens.

Aristophanes

In addition to being the undisputed master of all ancient mirth-making, Aristophanes (b. 445 BC) is, in fact, the only extant example we have of Old or ‘Attic’ Comedy. Indeed, he is the only individual antiquity produced about whom we can use the over-flaunted term ‘comic genius’.

Not everyone, however, agreed with this synopsis.

Within 100 years of their inception, the plays Aristophanes wrote, produced and directed at the theatrical festivals of Athens were considered to be crude and dated. At least by the likes of Aristotle.

And there can be no denying that boorishness, lubricity, slapstick, innuendo and scatological humour feature throughout the Aristophanic canon.


However, this ‘low’ humour is complemented by political satire and parody, witty one-liners, puns of all calibre, surrealism and farce.

This juxtaposition of the lofty and the base was perhaps essential for Aristophanes’ audiences, who made up a (10,000 person strong) microcosm of Athenian democratic life, from the illiterate market trader to the most learned aristocrat.

About Aristophanes himself we know almost nothing, save what we can infer from his own texts and from Plato’s Symposium, in which he features as a character.

Symposium

In this work, Plato portrays other notable Athenians (e.g. Agathon, Alcibiades and Socrates) with enough accuracy to add verisimilitude to the whole piece. Thus we assume that the Platonic character of Aristophanes correlates, at least in part, to his flesh and blood model.

Plato presents the comedian as convivial, popular, creative and intelligent, while Socrates states that his “whole concern is with Dionysus and Aphrodite”. Although Dionysus was the god of both wine and theatre, in the context of The Symposium it is easy to imagine that Socrates is accusing him of being a drunken womaniser.

This is reinforced at the end of the text, when everyone has fallen asleep except Socrates, Agathon and Aristophanes, who are still drinking as the sun rises.

Peloponnesian War

Aristophanes was also renowned as one who took politicians to task for their avarice and incompetence. The fact that he lived through the Peloponnesian War meant that he had no shortage of opportunity to do so.

In this respect, the law was complicit with the artist, as there was no legal recourse for a citizen who believed himself defamed in a comedy. Blasphemy and treason, however, were dealt with severely. Aristophanes found this out first-hand during the trial, which followed his less-than-patriotic play The Babylonians, in 426 BC.

The fact that he was never tried for impiety gives us a good deal of knowledge about what was generally considered acceptable.

For example, in The Frogs, he portrays Dionysus as lazy, cowardly and generally useless… during a festival held in the god’s honour!


Much like the eclectic Athenian audience then, a modern reader gets more from Aristophanes’ comedies with a greater knowledge of Greek history and culture. That said, it would be boggling to imagine anybody would have to plod through the text, laboriously wrenching the jokes from the page.

This is because some of the plots alone are enough to raise a smile, e.g. women of the city taking over the government, the gods being held to ransom, all wives of warring Greeks going on a sex strike, etc.

Just try not to laugh.

As ever, there is another who can put it far more eloquently than I. Scholar and translator, David Barrett:

Reading Aristophanes we fall under the spell of this illusion [of personal participation]: we sit among his audience, indistinguishable from the rest; we laugh when they laugh, are moved when they are moved, hardly conscious that we sometimes have no idea what it is all about.

Epicurus: The Nature of Death and the Purpose of Life

by May 14, 2013

Early philosophy in ancient Greece sought to explain the nature of the universe. For instance, there was Thales of Miletus, who held the rather bold belief that the entire universe is made of water in one form or the other. This dramatic delve into the study of metaphysics was very popular with early philosophers and was inevitably built upon and reproduced in various forms.

Ancient SamosBy the time Epicurus was born in 341 BCE on the Aegean island of Samos, popular philosophy was shifting emphasis from metaphysics (determining the nature of the universe) to personal ethics. It was a change that was prompted by Socrates some hundred years beforehand. Socrates, through his teachings and lectures, forced individuals to examine basic human values and ethics.

And because of this, people began asking themselves some very profound and fundamental questions. What does it mean to be moral? What is the true nature of human ethics? How should one live their life?

Epicurus sought to answer these questions. His teachings would gain attention for their dramatic departure from commonly held religious beliefs. He was determined to help others comprehend the true purpose of life and come closer to understanding the nature of death.

EMPIRICAL WISDOM AND THE TRUE NATURE OF THE GODS

Epicurus was taught philosophy as a boy by a disciple of Plato on the island of Samos. As a man, he diligently studied the teachings of the atomist philosophers Democritus and Leucippus. Epicurus would eventually adopt the view that the entire universe is composed only of atoms and empty space, which is a line of thought that we are more accustomed to.

Epicurus BustEpicurus believed that the universe was logical and behaved with predictable tendencies. Because of this, he was a strong proponent of finding true knowledge through observable, objectively verifiable phenomenon. In this regard his thinking was very similar to the modern scientific method. His beliefs ran counter to the commonly held idea that knowledge can be found through mythology and religion.

This stance was not one that was accepted by much of ancient Greece. It would appear that Epicurus was denying the existence of the gods in favor for a reliance on scientific thought. And indeed, Epicurus is said to have stated, “It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to attain by himself”.

Needless to say, this made him rather unpopular.

Keeping in line with his belief that the gods did not determine the course of one’s life, he was also a strong proponent of the idea of free will. To Epicurus, each human was the captain of his or her own ship. You may choose to be virtuous or you may choose to be evil. It is your decision.

But if we are the author of our own stories, then that might seem to put a lot of pressure on an individual. If I am the sole force determining the course of my life, then how should I best lead my life?! Epicurus had an answer for this as well.

HOW TO LEAD YOUR LIFE

What is the goal of life? To Epicurus the goal of living was to find happiness through friendship, living humbly and avoiding pain and anxiety. He believed very strongly that by living peacefully and avoiding fear and pain, we could live fully. To Epicurus, living a virtuous life and a peaceful life were one in the same. This is seen when he states…

Epicurus qupte“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely, honorably, and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely, honorably and justly without living pleasantly.”

A common, and incorrect, assumption of Epicurus was that he promoted finding happiness through material wealth and superficial excess.

Epicurus preached quite the opposite. He believed that the rich man was not the man who has the most, but rather the man who needs the least. He advised us, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you have now was once among the things you only hoped for.”

According to Epicurus, we should all seek a life of knowledge and temperance, surrounded by friends and free from fear and pain. And to Epicurus, there was one obstacle that plagued the hearts of men; it was this one thing that kept us from living a happy and fulfilled life.

DEATH IS NOTHING TO US

Epicurus believed that finding a life of peaceful contentment devoid of pain or fear should be the goal of every life. Epicurus believed that the one thing that was holding people back from truly accomplishing this feat was the fear of death.

The inhabitants of ancient Greece lived in constant fear of the wrath of the Gods. They viewed their mortal life as a temporary condition. Their sins and wrongdoings would be judged harshly by temperamental, vengeful gods. The expectation of pain and torment for eternity at the hands of Thanatos, the terrifying personification of death, was commonplace in ancient Greece.

Epicurus believed that the main obstacle to a fulfilled life was the irrational fear of incurring the wrath of the gods and suffering for eternity in the lair of Hades. We are so preoccupied with fearing death that we refuse to acknowledge life.

Epicurus sought to remedy this. And he did so by explaining the nature of death.

To Epicurus, the entire world was constructed entirely of atoms and empty space. Epicurus reasoned that the human soul could not be constructed of empty space. The consciousness (the soul) interacted very closely, very dynamically with the body. This would mean that the soul was made of atoms, presumably dispersed throughout the body. However these atoms would be fragile. Epicurus taught that at the time of our death, the soul would evaporate entirely.

Death marks the end of consciousness and sensation. This would mean that we would be unable to feel any emotional or physical pain. If we are no longer capable of feeling fear or pain when we decease, then it is foolish to be preoccupied with the notion of death. Epicurus believed that this fear was an obstacle to true happiness in this lifetime. If we could accept death, not ignore it or mystify it, but truly accept it as the end of being, then we could find happiness in this life.

As Epicurus said himself,
Epicurus quote death“Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And once it does come, we no longer exist.”

Epicurus was viewed as dismissive of religion and therefore disliked by much of Greece. He did however gain a small but very loyal following. He founded a school of philosophy in Athens named “The Garden”, after a garden he enjoyed as a child on the island of Samos.

A stone’s throw from Plato’s Academy, The Garden was one of the first philosophical establishments that welcomed both women and slaves.

Epicureanism, the name for the teachings of Epicurus, would be revisited by contemporary ethical philosophers like John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. The teachings of Epicurus can be heard resounding from the United States’ Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Epicurus lived his life free from a fear of death. He tried to teach others to pursue similar goals. He was a man who knew that he was the master of his own life, the sole captain of his ship. He inspired others to pursue scientific knowledge and to live freely.

True to his teachings, Epicurus described the last day of his life in 270 BCE as ‘a truly happy day.’

 

—-

“Epicurus: The Nature of Death and the Purpose of Life” was written by Van Bryan

Thales of Miletus and the Birth of Western Philosophy

by May 2, 2013

Living sometime between the 8th and 6th century BCE, Thales of Miletus is often considered one of the very first of the Greek philosophers. It was Thales who initially attempted to decipher the world without reference to mythology, and he was impressively influential in this respect. Indeed, almost every pre-Socratic philosopher followed his thinking as they tried to unravel the universe. For this, many say ‘Greek philosophy begins with Thales’.

Around this time period, the people of the ancient Greek peninsulas began to settle into established city-states. They developed a structured system of counting, as well as created an alphabet. But it was Thales who revolutionized a way of reasoning and endeavored to explain the world around him.

Until this time, Greek men and women lived by the whim of the gods. All natural phenomenon such as rain, thunder and even earthquakes were believed to be the result of temperamental and powerful deities. Thales, however, being the bold individual that he was, concluded that the universe was logical, rational… and even predictable.

Solar Eclipse

Solar Eclipse

While the rest of Greece prayed to the gods for healthy crops and peaceful seas, Thales diligently studied geometry and astronomy. Subsequently, through the power of his own observations, he accurately predicted a total solar eclipse in 585 BCE.

As you can imagine, this foresight meant he was considered something of a demi-god or sorcerer. Never before had a man been capable of predicting the erratic nature of the universe! For Thales, however, the solar eclipse only cemented his belief that the universe behaved with predictable tendencies.

Thales’ conviction in order and reason had additional benefits, something that separated him from the rest.

You see, one of the most common criticisms of philosophers was that they provided no influence or solutions to everyday problems. It was said that these thinkers kicked up dust and then complained that they could not see. Indeed, it was noted that Thales, while walking one night with his head turned up to the stars, fell face-first into a ditch.

Aside from being embarrassing, this would appear to be evidence that philosophy distracts us from our earthly condition and that it holds no sway in practical matters. And yet, Thales is still a shining example of a man who used philosophy as a means to arrive at a very practical and profitable end.

Olive mill

An olive mill and an olive press dating from Roman times in Capernaum, Israel.

For instance, Thales deduced that good crops were due to favorable weather conditions, and not the result of the gods. Thales used this knowledge to predict a high yield of olives one harvest year. He bought out a large number of olive presses at a low price early in the season. Several months’ later farmers indeed were met with a bountiful supply of olives. Thales, being the owner of a majority of olive presses, was able to rent and sell the equipment at a considerable mark up. The man made a substantial profit and proved that philosophy, in fact, could lead to success in business.

While Thales had many intellectual successes, he also had a few ideas, while influential, that were eventually dismissed.

It had occurred to Thales that the state of the universe was due to natural causes. Consequently, he set about to try to understand the world… but first, he needed an original principle from which to work.

Thus the question he posed was this: ‘what is the basic material of the cosmos?’ He believed there must be a common denominator of sorts that could accurately compose all of matter. Surely there was some first substance from which came all other materials.

And to Thales, that substance was water.

This idea, that the entire universe is composed of one fundamental element, is known as “Monoism”. It is a branch of metaphysics that was very popular in ancient Greece, and indeed, many of Thales’ followers would build on his idea that the universe is composed of one essential substance.

It is not hard to imagine why Thales drew the conclusion that everything was made of water. He believed that the fundamental material of the universe would have to be something from which all life could be formed. It would be a material necessary for sustaining life. Additionally, it would have to be a substance that was capable of motion and change. Water satisfied all of these criteria.

Living in the Greek peninsulas, the world very much appeared to come from water. Men traveled upon boats in the rivers and the oceans, and in fact all land ended at water. Much of the food in ancient Greece was fished from the sea. The livelihood of the farmers was determined by the rainfall of that season. Water was life, and to Thales, it was also the universe.

But it is not because of his assertion that everything was made of water, that we remember Thales. His claim might seem far-fetched by the standards of modern science, but for the time period, it was a dramatic leap forward in the arena of critical thinking and scientific study.

Of course we can’t be sure, but this initial step of challenging institutionalised ideas might have helped to blaze the way for the next controversial thinkers. By seeking rational explanations for observable phenomena, he laid the foundation for future philosophical and scientific thinking. For this reason, Thales of Miletus was one of the first pair of shoulders on which a long line of philosophers would stand…

“Thales of Miletus and the Birth of Western Philosophy” was written by Van Bryan

Diogenes of Sinope and the Modern Cynics

by April 24, 2013

Diogenes of Sinope is often considered one of the more eccentric, or at the very least untraditional, of the ancient Greek philosophers. He is credited as being one of the founders of cynicism and practiced these ideals through the eccentricities that filled his life.

Diogenes of Sinope

Diogenes of Sinope

It was his belief that all artificial growths of society, such as status and wealth, were unimportant, and could, in fact, be damaging to men’s souls. Diogenes held open contempt for abstract ideals such as reputation, property rights, or patriotism to any city-state.

He is often credited with the first use of the word “cosmopolitan” when he stated: “I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites).”

While living in Athens, it is said that he resided in a large ceramic jar on the outskirts of the marketplace. He made a career out of begging and lying about; all while surviving on a steady diet of discarded onions. During the day, he wandered the streets with a lantern because he was “looking for an honest man”.

Diogenes was constantly dirty, disheveled, and often smelled of filth. He urinated and defecated in public, and it was not uncommon for him to literally spit in the faces of those who disagreed with him. For this reason, Diogenes was sometimes referred to as “Diogenes the dog”.

Rather than being offended, Diogenes reveled in the idea of being more like a dog. A dog, he believed, was more in touch with nature and therefore more closely in tune with true happiness. The dog does not care for social status or material possessions; the dog does not make himself a slave to the superficial desires that so plague the hearts of men. The dog lives life in the present and does not concern itself with abstract notions that might damage the soul.

Diogenes and Dogs

Diogenes and Dogs

The philosopher believed very firmly that man is not above nature. We are inescapably a part of it, and the further we retreat from this truth, hiding behind our lavish houses and material treasures, the further we withdraw from true virtue.

Whatever lessons you wish to learn about cynicism from Diogenes, you will have to do so indirectly. Although it is claimed he authored several books, letters and tragedies; none of them have survived.

So, it is left to us to learn through the anecdotes of his life.

Fortunately, there seem to be no shortage of interesting stories regarding Diogenes of Sinope. One rather intriguing tale that demonstrates Diogenes’ particular brand of philosophy regards an altercation with Plato and a disagreement on the definition of “man”.

As we’ve said, Diogenes disapproved of abstract philosophy, and thus was a harsh critic of Socrates and Plato. At this particular time in Athens, Plato had given Socrates’ definition of a man as a “featherless biped”. This description was highly praised and admired by Athenian intellectuals and commoners alike.

The only person who wasn’t impressed, it would seem, was Diogenes. It is accounted that upon hearing it; Diogenes promptly plucked a chicken of its feathers, visited Plato at his academy, and then threw the featherless bird at the man’s head.

Diogenes declared, “Behold! I give you Socrates’ man!”

It has been told that Plato was so shocked by this “counter argument” that he immediately added to his definition “…with broad, flat fingernails”. The event stuck with Plato and he would later describe Diogenes as ‘Socrates gone mad’.

While Diogenes did not care for Plato or his fascination with intangible philosophy, it appears he held even more contempt for ideas like material wealth and power. And he was not afraid to defy anybody who represented these ideas, even if that person was the most powerful man in the world.

Alexander the Great standing in Diogenes' light

Diogenes and Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great met with Diogenes one morning in Corinth. The conqueror had heard stories of ‘Diogenes the dog’ and wished to meet the filthy philosopher. The legend goes like this: while Diogenes was bathing in the morning sunlight, Alexander appeared before him. The King of Macedonia asked Diogenes if there was anything he (a man who seemingly had everything) could do for him.

The philosopher responded, “Yes, stand out of my light”.

Alexander was said to have been so impressed with the remark that he then stated “If I were not Alexander, I would wish to be Diogenes”.

Now there are a few interpretations to this story. Maybe Diogenes was sun bathing and did not appreciate the unwarranted shadow that Alexander cast. Or perhaps it means that Alexander, the man who exemplified the ideas of status and material wealth, was standing in the way of Diogenes finding his truth, his light.

Despite the historical setting, the teachings of Diogenes have not been lost to the ages. While the man has long been dead and buried, his spirit is very much alive today.

It is not unreasonable to draw a parallel between the ideas of Diogenes and modern cynics today. Diogenes’ rejection of modern values and material wealth is not unlike the hippy revolution of the late 1960’s.

At the time the social experiment known as “The summer of love” rocked the social and political climate of the United States. It was fueled by a defiant generation that made it a mission to rebel against the conformist values of the Cold War era. And while these modern-day Diogenes’ took strides to find happiness in ‘free love’ and returning to nature, the rest of the world looked on in disbelief.

Charles Bukowski, a modern Diogenes

Charles Bukowski

The ideals of Diogenes can be found in modern writers who have fueled what is sometimes referred to as “The hipster movement”. One of these authors is Charles Bukowski; a man who lived his life trapped in back alleys and seedy bars. Through his writings he seamlessly sews the spirit of Diogenes within the pages of books about degenerates and losers who refuse to care about modern expectations and find their solace in a modern-day ceramic jar and a steady diet of whiskey.

Jack Kerouac and his hipster anthem On the Road could also be considered a modern take on the life of Diogenes. Kerouac writes of young people who sought a life of free exploration, unfettered by the modern aspirations of status and wealth. It is not hard to see the essence of Diogenes reborn when Kerouac states, “Man lowers his head and lunges into civilization, forgetting the days of his infancy when he sought truth in a snowflake or a stick. Man forgets the wisdom of the child”.

The children of Diogenes are the modern nomads and poetic beggars that wander Greenwich Village. They are the aging hippies found on the corner of Haight and Ashbury. They seem content enough to sit all day playing guitar and writing poetry on the terrible state of humanity.

And while some homeless individuals have found their status in life through unfortunate circumstances, there are others who live the way they do very purposefully. They sleep when they want, and eat when they can afford it. They are not concerned with living in an upscale area or finding a job with good benefits.

They wish only for their peace and ask that we stay out of their light.

 

“Diogenes of Sinope and the Modern Cynics” was written by Van Bryan

Herodotus: Father of History or Father of Lies?

by April 12, 2013

Insatiably curious, prone to whimsy, a talented writer, a slave to gossip, an innovator, a barbarian apologist, a cosmopolitan, a partisan egoist; Herodotus has been praised for and accused of much since the publication of his Histories.

He was both denigrated and venerated in his own time…and has remained so ever since.

However, it is almost as difficult to understand his legacy as it is to chronicle his life. Because, for the latter, in the words of George Rawlinson: “the data are so few…that to compile them into a biography is like building a house of cards”.

mausoleum of Halicarnassus

mausoleum of Halicarnassus

It was circa 484BC that Herodotus was born into a sophisticated family in the Persian-loyal city-state of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, Turkey). However, from hereon in, there is little solid evidence of the precise movements of his extraordinary life.

We know he was exiled at least once. It is possible that, with his family, he fled to the island of Samos due to conflicts with the tyrant Lygdamis. Indeed, some fancifully think Herodotus may later have returned to lead an uprising against his oppressor.

It is likely that Herodotus experienced an unusually multicultural upbringing. Halicarnassus, originally a Greek colony, was also a key trading post with Egypt and would thus have been awash with a diversity of peoples.

Having grown up with a privileged background, a good education and a window to the outside world, it should not be surprising that Herodotus became the traveller and chronicler he did.

Visits to Egypt, Greece, Tyre, Babylon and Italy are reported with enough veracity to suggest that they really occurred – e.g. he considered Egypt an ‘opposite land’ as the Nile flooded in the summer.

bust of HerodotusAdditionally, the fact that his work was known in his lifetime and was thought (by Lucian) to have been performed at the Olympic Games, indicates his contemporaries did not doubt, as some later did, that these journeys really happened.

His fame seems to have been largely to his benefit, though not quite enough to win him a citizenship vote in Athens. However, even to be considered for this was a great honor in itself.

His literary clout was respected by the tragedian Sophocles; there are echoes of The Histories in Antigone. Herodotus also received the ultimate back-handed compliment of being important and well-known enough for comic playwright Aristophanes to lampoon him in The Acharnians.

The final resting place for a famous writer of no fixed abode is almost inevitably open to dispute. The main contenders are Thurii in Southern Italy, Thurium in Macedonia or, of course, Athens. However, the notion that he was buried alongside Thucydides is fantastic in the extreme.

So why does this debate about his reputation constantly flare up? How could he manage to be of differing credibility to men like Plutarch, Strabo, Aristotle and Cicero (not to mention a host of modern scholars)?

The Histories was never fully taken on face value and never will be, but as more and more evidence builds up to vindicate Herodotus (e.g. he described Gelonus, a gigantic Scythian city which was only discovered in 1975) it becomes harder to dismiss him entirely as a fantasist, a defamer, or a fraud.

In fact, there is no logical reason to presume he was anything other than what he claimed to be, a publisher of inquiries.

So, was he the father of history or the father of lies? Well, he could simultaneously be considered both and neither.

herodotus histories fragment

Herodotus histories fragment

Most problems with Herodotus arise when inspecting him from a ‘modern’ point of view. Modern in the sense that we view history as a series of hypotheses and probabilities which must be investigated, debated and, ideally, resolved. Herodotus is far detached from this, content merely to play the role of reporter. Consequently, we cast over him a patronizing and judgmental eye, an eye that isn’t compatible with his method.

Thucydides used a different ‘modern’ eye to belittle his contemporary.

Herodotus was interested in a range of human and natural characteristics as well as customs (together with their backgrounds). In contrast, Thucydides was primarily concerned with tangible facts that were directly relevant to him (i.e. politics and warfare). He considered his work historically definitive in a way Herodotus never did.

Indeed the very problem arises because of our obsession with viewing Herodotus as an historian, something he himself never claimed to be for the simple reason that the word didn’t exist! ‘History’ comes from the Latinized version of the Greek historia – ‘inquiry’.

As John P.A. Gould succinctly put it: “He nowhere claims to have been an eye witness or participant in any of the major events or battles that he describes”.

So, if not an historian, then what?

One could argue he was more of a travel writer, a chronicler of a general encyclopedia, or a journalist. Though actually calling him a novelist is perhaps a stretch too far.

Herodotus made it perfectly clear that he was not reporting truth or fact, but making a record of what others had told him: “I owe it to tell what is being told, but I by no means owe it to believe it”. [7.153-2]

If he were an historian, then he could only be said to have been a war, or anti-war historian. This is made clear from the preface to his work in which he states his wish to record how Greeks and non-Greeks came to strife. Thus, everything else (topography, local customs etc) becomes entertaining garnish.

And it is precisely the garnish, the tall-tales, the meandering yarns, the detailed landscapes, the curious dress and peculiar fauna, that have brought him in for such weight of attack.

However, as one man travelling in an unknown world, desperate to learn and share all it had to teach him, he is no more worthy of censure then the authors of obsolete entries in the Lonely Planet.

Modern assumptions and misinterpretation wound Herodotus. It is not up to him to justify himself to us, but up to us to read him as he wrote, without certainty, without authority, but with keen interest, enthusiasm, a willingness to think and an thirst to learn.

And, naturally, a pinch of salty skepticism.

Interested in reading the Histories by Herodotus? You can access it here for Free:
http://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/herodotus-histories-book-i/

“Herodotus: Father of History or Father of Lies?” was written by Ben Potter