Saturday, May 28, 2011

Allegory in the "Homeric Problems" of the Stoic Heraclitus

All this is not useless erudition: these data are essential in order to assess the "Sitz im Leben" of Heraclitus' "Homeric Questions" and to understand that this work, though perhaps not a masterpiece, does not stand isolated in the panorama of imperial literature but entertains complicated relations with other writings and probably belongs to a class of "halbphilosophische Schriften" that enjoyed wide popularity in that period. The bulk of K.'s introduction (pp. xiv-xxvii) is devoted to a brief and very stimulating survey of ancient allegory. K. clings to the traditional idea that allegory was first created as a defensive instrument against Homer's critics, but he also allows a place for the role of allegory in cultic contexts, at least from Derveni onwards (pp. xviii-xix). K. believes that allegorical meaning and response were in fact coaeval with and deliberately attached to the Homeric epic in the first place (pp. xiv-xv). This is certainly right, as many ancient commentators had already grasped; G. W. Most has even shown one instance (Il. 16, 33-35) in which Homer not only "speaks" allegorically, but solves -- through the words of Patroclus - - his own allegorical riddle.5 More generally, Heraclitus regards Homer as a "strong allegorist", namely a poet who consciously and deliberately concealed allegorical meanings in his poem, much in the same way as Alcaeus and Anacreon, quoted in ch. 5; this was essential in order to defend him from the charge of impiety. K.'s definition of allegory as a metonymy involving at a minimum two terms and a bond (generally an activity) between them (pp. xvii-xviii), is interesting because it provides a very broad basis for defining which interpretations can be called "allegorical" and which cannot. Yet Heraclitus is a peculiar case: as an author who openly speaks of allegory, employs a variety of exegetical practices (physical, moral, historical-rationalizing allegory etc.), and sometimes assents to plainly non-Stoic philosophical doctrines, Heraclitus offers a good starting-point for those who deal with the problem of the boundaries and scope of ancient allegory, and particularly of the Stoic theories in this field.

As a matter of fact, the traditional view of "Stoic allegory" has recently been severely challenged by Anthony Long, who maintains a) that Heraclitus was in fact no orthodox Stoic, the few undoubtedly Stoic elements in his work belonging to a "Gemeingut" devoid of any peculiar philosophical connotation, and b) that the etymological practice of the Stoics did not give shape to an allegorical system suo iure but was intended to illuminate single linguistic elements of mankind's original language, without proposing any organic interpretation of literary works, without acquiring any narrative dimension.6 K. refrains from addressing this issue openly, but he seems to seek a compromise: for him, the Stoics used etymology in order to find justification of their theories in Homer, but they were also interested in the anti-Platonic defense of Homer per se (pp. xix-xxi). In order to grasp how many problems the very concept of ancient allegory poses, and how contradictory the Stoic appropriation of Homer often appears, the reader will consult the recent, sober essay by Richard Goulet.7 What is at stake here is not only Heraclitus' philosophical definition, but also his problematic relationship with Annaeus Cornutus, which cannot be resolved as "allegory vs. etymology", but unveils two very different -- albeit sometimes parallel -- exegetical approaches.

My final remark concerns Heraclitus' frequent references to initiation and mystery cults. K. (p. xii and xxiv) detects here a hint of the "diaeretic" allegorical method, which was typical of Neoplatonic and Pythagorean exegesis from Porphyry to Proclus and beyond. In fact, Heraclitus not only implies that φιλομαθεῖς will understand Homer correctly and ἀμαθεῖς will not (see also for this Ps.-Plut. de Hom. 92, 3), but he openly states that good readers will have to explore the penetralia of Homeric wisdom (3, 2 and 70, 12), he speaks of Homer's "secret truth" (53, 2), he stresses that only an οὐρανία ψυχή will be able to celebrate Homer's Olympic mysteries (64, 4; the text should by no means be altered, as R-K suggest in the app. crit.; cp. Philo, quod deus sit imm. 151), and he presents Homer himself as a hierophant (76, 1) and a "theologian" (22, 1; 40, 2; 58, 4 etc.).8 The system of these numerous references should be compared with the "Mysterienterminologie" that occurs so often in Philo of Alexandria,9 rather than with the tenets of later Neoplatonic allegory: despite Dawson's and Long's recent studies, the profound relationship of Heraclitus with Philo and Biblical allegory is still underestimated by scholars. But what is more important, Heraclitus evidently inherits this tradition without being able to reconcile it with his anti-Platonic defense. Plato's main criticism of Homer (resp. 2, 378d-e) consisted precisely in the observation that his ὑπόνοιαι are not easy to understand for children and young students and become clear only to those who dedicate long and qualified efforts to their study. By depicting Homer's wisdom as a secret knowledge accessible only to the initiates, Heraclitus follows an established topos of ancient (esp. Philonic) allegory but on the other hand paradoxically justifies the main core of Platonic criticism.