I was recently present in a seminar-style gathering over the proem of the epic poem, Homer’s Iliad. As most of you know, I teach the text in my own seminar style classes to adults and students at least once a year, and even so, being a participant in a seminar, I was still brimming with questions and was equally reflective about the questions asked by the other students present. At one point it was asked whether the “muse”–who is actually not addressed as muse, but as thea, goddess, who is invoked in the first line “Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son, Achilleus” was a stand-in, like the name Homer, for the objective creative influence of the Mycenaeans alive during the last centuries of the Bronze Age (of course there was no Greece yet, and Greece itself comes from a Latin word graeci for a small segment of the Hellenic population). But the real lynchpin of the discussion, beyond the function of the muse and the question of Homer’s authorship, became, and indeed was strongly insisted upon by the leader, whether the ancient Mycenaeans perceived this text, then a song, as historical truth or simply as literary truth.
Now, the initial answer to this answer, attempting an amelioration, suggested that literary and historical truth are one and the same ontologically, truth being represented in narrative form always, so long as it is expressed by words. And then citing Aristotle, it was mentioned that in fact literary truth can be “more true” than historical truth because of its capacity to convey what “ought” to happen rather than what “did” happen:
“From what we have said it will be seen that the poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e. what is possible as being probable or necessary. The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse—you might put the work of Herodotus into verse, and it would still be a species of history; it consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.” (Aristotle, Poetics 9, 1451a37-1451b8, Barnes tr.)
So immediately we perceive by the help of Aristotle that poetry, better than history, conveys truth in an objective or universal way. This line of reasoning, however, did not sway the trenchant leader. He was adamant that Homer must have been received literally and as fact by his audience, regardless of the many, many interpretations of him still extent in scholia, and popularized by Plato and Aristotle. It was essentially the perspective of the leader that the listeners to Homer would have accepted the divine truth of what he said without use of the interpretive faculty at all. Now, regardless of the wealth of perspectives listed above being direct proof against this, there is another problem with this perspective which I call the “originalist” bias. When one makes an attempt to read a text in “the way that it was first received”, one is, ideally, attempting to remove one’s contemporary prejudices and opinions from one’s reading and to remove barriers to understanding which might otherwise hinder one’s understanding. This is at first glance a noble undertaking. There is a problem with this method, however.
For one, in so attempting to understand a text as a body of people one does not have direct experience of, nor knowledge of the language of, one substitutes one interpretive, or fictive framework, with another. One assumes, rather than deduces, that a people must have received a text or story in a certain way. Now, it is possible that a people, in general, did accept a text as true. But in the same breath, it is equally true that people of differing perspectives and levels of intellect would have been just as capable of interpreting the text, rather than simply accepting it. Two examples of post-Homeric thinkers, then:
“When we hear persons saying that the tragedians, and Homer, who is at their head, know all the arts and all things human, virtue as well as vice, and divine things too, for that the good poet cannot compose well unless he knows his subject, and that he who has not this knowledge can never be a poet, we ought to consider whether here also there may not be an illusion. Perhaps they may have come across imitators and been deceived by them; they may not have remembered when they saw their works that these were but imitations Plato’s theory of the Forms from the truth, and could easily be made without any knowledge of the truth, because they are appearances only and not realities?” (Plato Republic 598e, Book X, Cooper tr.).
Now, of course, Plato and Aristotle came a little after Homer, but they, still, would be far more his “audience” than we, sharing his language, locale, and largely his values as well. Is it then possible to maintain an “originalist” perspective that Homer’s audience must have unthinkingly accepted his word as “historical truth” without discernment? Certainly not, given the facts.
Nota Bene: In the original draft of this piece, Heraclitus the first century grammarian, was mistaken for the 6th century Pre-Socratic philosopher. He, writing in the first century CE, wrote this:
“From the very earliest infancy young children are nursed in their learning by Homer, and swaddled in his verses we water our souls with them as though they were nourishing milk. He stands beside each of us as we start out and gradually grow into men, he blossoms as we do, and until old age we never grow tired of him, for as soon as we set him aside we thirst for him again; it may be said that the same limit is set to both Homer and life.”(Heraclitus, Homeric Problems 1.5-7)