literary criticism in antiquity

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1. The arts of formal speech played a big part in ancient life; so it was natural that vocabularies and conceptual frameworks should be developed for the purposes of evaluation, speculation about the nature and role of poetry, and practical advice for successful composition, esp. in oratory. In the resulting body of doctrine, this last element—which is the contribution of rhetoric—is dominant, and it is this which seems the most striking difference between Graeco‐Roman ‘criticism’ and most modern analogues.2. Homer and Hesiod speak of their art as a gift of the Muses, who inspire the poet, know all things, and can tell false tales as well as true. Pindar too called himself the ‘prophet’—i.e. ‘spokesman’—of the Muses, and was proud to think of his ‘wisdom’ as the product of natural endowment, not of teachable technique, which was for lesser mortals. The poets did not however escape criticism; they were the transmitters of a mythical tradition which had many offensive features—tales of the gods' immorality and the viciousness of heroic figures—and the early philosophers found these an easy target (see Xenophanes). Allegory—e.g. the interpretation of the Battle of the Gods in Homer, Iliad 21, as a battle of the elements—began as a mode of defence against such attacks, and eventually (esp. with the Stoics (see stoicism) in Hellenistic times and the Neoplatonists (see neoplatonism) later) became the most significant and influential critical approach in all antiquity. The idea of inspiration and the demand for a moral and social commitment are not the only achievements of ‘pre‐Platonic’ poetics. More sophisticated reflection is suggested by the paradox of Gorgias, that tragedy ‘offers a deception such that the deceiver is more just than the non‐deceiver, and the deceived wiser than the undeceived’; and delicate connoisseurship is displayed by the comparison of ‘high’ and ‘low’ styles, as represented by Aeschylus and Euripides, in the great debate in Aristophanes' Frogs.3. Plato pulled the threads together but in a very radical and paradoxical way, in which irony may lurk. Inspiration, as claimed by the poets, was for him no road to knowledge, indeed a thing of no great worth; and in so far as poets failed to promote the right moral and social values, they were to be banished from the ideal state altogether. In rationalizing this attitude Plato developed for the first time a concept of ‘imitation’ (mimēsis) which, in various guises, was to be a central theme of later theory. He held strongly that the spectacle of degrading emotion nourished the same emotion in the hearer. Parallel to his attack on the poets was his criticism of contemporary rhetoric; here too he saw fraud, pretence, and contempt for truth. As a critic of style, he was superb, as is shown by his marvellous parodies, rivalled only by Aristophanes himself.4. Aristotle's Poetics, the fountain‐head of most later criticism, is in part an answer to Plato; this is the context of the improved and very important analysis of mimēsis and of the much‐debated doctrine that tragedy effects a katharsis of pity and fear. This crabbed and difficult book has many themes: a general theory of poetry as a ‘mimetic’ art, and a speculative account of its origins; a detailed analysis of tragedy, stressing the primary importance of plot (mӯthos) over character and ideas; an account of poetic diction, including much that we should call grammatical theory; and finally some discussion of epic and its inferiority (as Aristotle held) to tragedy as a genre. A treatment of comedy is lost, but can to some extent be reconstructed from later writings. The Poetics is a seminal work for the Renaissance and for modern criticism.5. Whereas Aristotle held poetry and rhetoric to be fundamentally distinct—the one was an ‘imitative’ art, the other a practical skill of persuasion—his successors tended more and more to blur the difference. Theophrastus is credited with the observation that, while philosophers are concerned solely with facts and the validity of deductions, poets and orators alike are concerned with their relation with their audience, and this is why they have to use dignified words, put them together harmoniously, and in general produce pleasure and astonishment in order to cajole or bully their hearers into conviction. For criticism, the consequence of this kind of approach is that form may be judged apart from content. The main achievement of post‐Aristotelian criticism is in the analysis of style, rather than in literary theory. The basic distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ writing (we might contrast Homer and his followers with Archilochus and his), the ‘high’ being associated with strong emotion and the ‘low’ with everyday life and character, goes back to Aristophanes; in terms of effect on the audience, it corresponds to the distinction between pleasure and astonishment, of which Theophrastus speaks. It was refined and modified in various ways.6. Though this rhetorical and stylistic doctrine is the main achievement of critics after Aristotle, there were other developments as well. (a) The Stoics (see stoicism) viewed poetry primarily as an educational instrument, and so in a sense continued Plato's moralizing approach. Plutarch's essay on How the Young should Study Poetry is a later example of this tradition: though a Platonist, he tries to overcome Plato's objections to poetry by scholarly attention to context and historical circumstances. (b) The Epicurean Philodemus is an important witness to Hellenistic theory: in his On Poems, parts of which are preserved, he discussed and refuted previous theorists, including Aristotle. He seems also to have had a positive view of his own, namely that form and content are inseparable, and cannot be judged separately. If this is right, Philodemus makes a sharp contrast with the prevailing ‘rhetorical tradition’. (c) The Alexandrian scholars who collected and edited classical poets and orators, and discussed the authenticity of the pieces they found, were also ‘critics’. They needed historical, aesthetic, and grammatical insights. Much of Dionysius (3) of Halicarnassus' work on orators is in their tradition.7. In the classical period of Latin literature (as in the days of the Attic Old Comedy) criticism appears in topical writing in quite unacademic contexts; in Lucilius (1) and Horace, and later in Persius and Petronius Arbiter, it is an ingredient of satire. Horace not only defended his own literary position and expounded literary history in his Satires and Epistles, but wrote a humorous didactic poem (Ars poētica) in which he combined traditional precepts on the drama and views on the poet's place in society with witty and urbane reflections on his own literary experience.8. Cicero's achievement as a judge of oratory is unequalled—naturally, for he was himself a great orator. Political oratory died with him, and the age of the declaimers which followed produced critics of a different cast. Seneca the Elder makes many shrewd points in commenting on his favourite declaimers. The dominant theme in the early empire seems to have been a consciousness of decline. In itself this was nothing new, since Greek critics of music and art as well as of oratory had long been drawing contrasts between admired works of the past and the degenerate efforts of the present. Seneca the Younger and Tacitus (Dialogue) reflect interestingly on the causes of ‘decline’—moral and political, as well as intellectual. With Quintilian, there is some renewed optimism and a return to Cicero's ideals. The chapter in which he catalogues the authors to be read by the budding orator summarizes traditional teaching on ‘imitation’ (his account of the Greek authors is based on Dionysius) but shows a capacity for independent judgement.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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