Original Source

Review of Eric Havelock's

Preface to Plato

By Anthony J. Mioni
Graduate Student at Northern Illinois University
November 13, 1996

Preface to Plato. Vol. 1 A History of the Greek Mind, by Eric Alfred Havelock, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,Cambridge, MA: 1963.

About the author: Eric A. Havelock was born in London, England, in 1903 and became a U.S. citizen in 1955. He was educated at Cambridge University, where he received his B.A. in 1926 and his M.A. in 1929. Havelock was an educator and author. He well as a leading scholar of ancient Greek culture and was a professor of classics and chairman of the classics department at Yale University from 1963 until his retirement as professor emeritus in 1971. He had previously taught at several colleges and universities, including Harvard University from 1946 until 1963. His writings include Lyric Genius of Catullus, Crucifixion of the Intellectual Man, History of the Greek Mind, The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics, as well as many articles. Havelock made his home in Merryall, New Milford, Connecticut. He died April 4,1988. (Taken from Contemporary Authors, Permanent Series, Vol.1. Detroit: Gale Research, 1975, and Contemporary Authors, Vol.15. New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1988.

About Preface to Plato: This book may be seen as a preface to Plato in two ways: The first is that it prepares us for reading Plato by explaining the meaning of Plato's writings; the second is that it prepares for reading Plato by explaining the historical developments that lead up to and influenced Plato.

In it, Eric Havelock explains Plato's battle with the poets for control over Greek paideia. Plato criticizes poetry as being restricted to doxa, or opinion, and proposes to replace this traditional paideia with his own based on logos.


Chapter One: Plato on Poetry

Plato argues that the Greek poets (Homer to Euripides), who until Plato's time had been not only the primary but the sole educators of the Greeks, are the enemies of truth and with their poetry spread a mental poison. The deeds expressed in Homer, Plato argues, are hardly things in which the youth should be educated: murder, incest, cruelty, treachery, uncontrolled passions, weakness, cowardice, and malice. He argues that among the Greeks, social prestige is exalted above morality, for immorality is often more rewarded. And it is the poets who are mostly to blame for this. But the problem of poetry is not restricted to its substance. For Plato, even the style of the poets is reproachable: pure narrative, he says, is tolerable, but drama is not--unless the characters in the drama are ethically superior. Plato's conclusion is that the major Greek poets must be excluded from Greek education. But Plato's target, the author tells us, is not poetry as we understand it. It is rather something more fundamental and powerful in the Greek experience.

It is an over-all cultural condition that no longer exists. And it is this cultural condition that the author seeks to define in the rest of the book.

Chapter Two: Mimesis

Havelock's explanation of Plato's condemnation of the poets begins with an explanation of how mimesis (imitation) works inpoetry. In all verbal communication we can distinguish a descriptive method (third-person narrative) from dramatization. It is in dramatization that impersonation occurs, that is, when an actor puts himself into a role, he or she impersonates or imitates the character of that role. But imitating a base thing (whether it be a man, beast, or other thing) has a "basing" effect on the one imitating. The poet should instead use a minimum of dramatization and a maximum of description. The problem with Plato's argument, Havelock tells us, is that, though the actor playing the part must 'identify' with the character to reproduce him, this does not seem to hold true for the poet. But Plato uses the term mimesis to describe not only the state of the performer, but also that of the poet and the listeners.

In addition to the weakening of the moral character, Plato says that poetry also causes a crippling of the intellect. For poetry totally lacks precise knowledge that, for example, a craftsman needs in his trade or an educator needs in forming the intellect. Instead, it appeals to the shallowest of our sensibilities. It is non-rational and destroys the rational faculty. Finally, it puts us under a spell, or mob psychology.

Chapter Three: Poetry as Preserved Communication

Poetry in Greek society was always oral rather than written. The audience was one of listeners, not readers. Even in Plato's day we have a primarily oral culture. Poetry for the Greeks is a memorized tradition that depends on constant and reiterated recitation. In order to learn something, it must be repeated again and again until it is memorized. Through this process there is a total participation and an emotional identification with what is being learned. While memorizing the speeches of Achilles (through rhythmic memorized experience), one must throw oneself into the part and identify with Achilles' anger. "Such enormous powers of poetic memorization could be purchased only at the cost of total loss of objectivity." This kind of reliving experience becomes for Plato the enemy. And the main target for Plato is Homer. For through him more than anyone else, tradition was maintained, and paideia was transmitted.

Chapter Four: The Homeric Encyclopedia

The intent in Homer's poetry is primarily didactic, and the tale is subservient to the educational task. In his work, as in Hesiod's, we find the nomoi (custom-laws) and ethea (folk-ways) of Greek society. We find lessons, for example, on how a king, prince, or general should behave; on how to address a priest or any man of importance; the acceptable roles of men and women; table manners; etc. Certain lines like "what is fitting" are frequently used to introduced something that ought to be done. Plato describes Homer's instruction as dioikesis, or the "management" of personal and social life. He even includes technical instructions on subjects like seamanship: in the first book of the Iliad, Homer teaches the techniques of loading, embarking, disembarking, and unloading. This is why Plato states that by popular estimate the poets "possessed the know-how of all techniques." ( Rep. 598eI)

Chapter Five: Epic as Record versus Epic as Narrative

Homer's work is a record of what the Greeks in general thought. Thus, a Greek poem was not a personal invention, but was a report that was shared by all the bards. Reading Homer is like walking through a great room of Greek customs, beliefs, etc. It was the way in which these things were reported that made poet's work. "The route [the bard] picks will have its own design." (page 88). And "only in the route he chooses does he exercise decisive choice." Such is the art of the encyclopedic minstrel, who, as he reports also maintains the social and moral apparatus of an oral culture.

Homer's vision, moreover, is encyclopedic. His work is dispassionate and he totally accepts and reports the customs of the Greeks as he sees them. The meter allowed for variation with each recitation. But what varies is the tale, while the nomos and ethos of are kept.

Chapter Six: Hesiod on Poetry

Hesiod (at the beginning of the transitional period) described the role of the poet as educator. In his Hymn to the Muses, he describes the role of the poet as teaching history and prophecy, prescribing morality, and issuing judgements. This being the main purpose of the poem, the role of storyteller is even more minimized and the role of recollector and describer emphasized.

Hesiod defines the role of the muses as "not the daughters of inspiration or invention, but basically of memorization. Their central role is not to create but to preserve." (100). Moreover, Hesiod's poem makes it clear that poetic record pervades and controls every sphere of the human condition. In the Theogony, Hesiod includes directives on education, marriage, children, property, etc.

Hesiod also states that a leader's political power "has its source in his command of effective utterance..." (108). His speech might be a legal or political decision, but it was framed so as to persuade and win over the disputants. It was not merely oral, but metrical and formulaic. And in the pleasure of hearing the meter there was a certain seduction. And it was through this power that a man could gain political leadership.

Chapter Seven: The Oral Sources of the Hellanic Intelligence

The pre-Homeric epoc, the Dark Age (about 1175 BC or later), relied for its preservation upon oral tradition alone. This oral tradition developed in this period essentially as the encyclopedic and moral instruction of Greece. Its purpose was pan-Hellenic. Homer's style therefore represents the Greek international style, just as his content provides the tribal encyclopedia for all the Hellenes.

There were three levels or areas of communication: legal and olitical transactions, re-telling of tribal history, and indoctrination of the youth through recital. "They would be required to listen and to repeat, and their memories would be trained to do this." (121). Thus, the prince or judge would make decisions based on what they remember from the training from their youth. And power came from the ability to speak well.

The educational process: during the day the youth would work with the adults. After dinner the tales would be told. The youth would learn the tales and with them the customs, laws, etc. of their ancestors. Everything was memorized. The minstrel, however, was not necessarily a professional, and they were not always creators of stories, but perhaps just repeaters.

Plato's idea of poetry in this period was correct: it was not "literature," "but a political and social necessity. It was not an art form, nor a creation of the private imagination, but an encyclopedia maintained by co-operative effort on the part the best Greek polities.'" (125).

In addition to metrical devices, the Greeks used assonance and parallelism. Intelligence to these men meant "superior memory and a superior sense of verbal rhythm." (128). This made them strive to attain this ability and thus created "the necessary medium in which the Greek genius could be nursed to its maturity." (127). The specific genius of the Greeks was rhythmic. And it was the mastery of musical rhythms that brought the Greeks to master other kinds of rhythms also. Thus, "their supposed disadvantage in the competition for culture, namely non-literacy, was in fact their prime advantage." (128).

Chapter Eight: The Homeric State of Mind

Although we moderns view poetry as not part of daily communication, the Homeric-age Greeks did. "The whole memory of a people was poetised, and this exercised a constant control over the ways in which they expressed themselves in casual speech."(134). When things were composed, they were composed poetically (not first prosaicly). Thus, Homer, Hesiod, and the other Greek poets were not "special" or "gifted" people, like our poets might be considered today, but they represent the normal state of mind of this people. The Greeks thought in this way.

But the poets, in creating tales, had a certain control over the minds of their listeners. Plato, in fact, was certain that "poetry and the poet had exercised a control not merely over Greek verbal idiom but over the Greek state of mind and consciousness." (142). This situation continued virtually unchanged through Classic Greece.

Chapter Nine: The Psychology of the Poetic Performance

Though the subject matter of poetry (common tradition,customs, etc.) was something common to all poets, the individual poet still had to move his listeners in an individual way. This is why Plato felt that the way in which the poet spoke was . . .(the manuscript of this review is damaged at this point, and the rest is not, at present, recoverable).

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