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The Development of a Literary Tradition

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The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby vir litterarum » Sat Mar 14, 2009 11:53 pm

I've been doing a lot of general reading recently on the literary traditions in different languages, and what has struck me is how many are tied directly and inextricably to religion. The Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Arabic literary traditions are all defined by their relation to one important religious text. Anyway, I was just wondering whether anyone had any ideas on why cultures such as these associated literature almost exclusively it seems with religion, whereas Greek and Latin literature from the outset were less tied to Greek and Roman religion.
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby paulusnb » Sun Mar 15, 2009 12:32 pm

vir litterarum wrote:Anyway, I was just wondering whether anyone had any ideas on why cultures such as these associated literature almost exclusively it seems with religion,


I do not know much about Hebrew, Sanskrit, or Arabic, but education in a community, regardless of what the contemporary atheist movement says, is often related to the priestly class and religious piety. Also, Arabic literature is not solely religious. 1001 Nights?


vir litterarum wrote:whereas Greek and Latin literature from the outset were less tied to Greek and Roman religion.


Hmmm. I do not know about this. Homer and Hesiod claimed divine inspiration, and I have often seem Homer as the religious authority of the Greeks.

As far as Latin Lit goes, there is a huge hole in the knowledge of early Latin. Also, the earliest books mentioned in Latin History are the Sybyl's, which would have been prophecies.
I guess one could say that Greece and Rome develop a literary tradition that exists for its own sake, but even then, the plays would have been performed at religious festivals, poetry was written to honor certain gods, etc. Some of Horace's poems are written to the gods.

Rome's literary tradition is unusual in the sense that it emerged because of contact with Greece.

Also, while Ovid and Vergil's description of the gods seems quaint and fun today, I am quite sure that a people who were raised as children with these stories would have responded differently than we do.

So while I see what you are saying, I am not quite sure how far to go down this road.
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby Lex » Sun Mar 15, 2009 7:20 pm

paulusnb wrote:1001 Nights?


Was originarlly Persian, if I'm not mistaken.
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby vir litterarum » Sun Mar 15, 2009 8:04 pm

Even if one considers Homer religious, his version of Greek religion was not set in stone. Euripides often chooses alternate versions of the same myths, and Plato of course completely throws Homer out of the ideal civilization. What would happen if some early Arabic author had thrown the Qu'ran out of the ideal state? My point is that literature for literature's sake existed in Greece and Rome, but by and large that did not seem to be the case in Arabic with the Qu'ran's influence, Sanskrit with the Vedas, and Hebrew with the Old Testament.
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby annis » Sun Mar 15, 2009 9:18 pm

vir litterarum wrote:My point is that literature for literature's sake existed in Greece and Rome, but by and large that did not seem to be the case in Arabic with the Qu'ran's influence, Sanskrit with the Vedas, and Hebrew with the Old Testament.


On the contrary, there is an extensive secular literature in both Arabic and Sanskrit, religious only in the sense that it reflects the religious beliefs of the author's time and place. Pre-islamic poetry continues to be an important strand of Arabic literary life.

Though classical or Biblical Hebrew does have some secular literature (love poetry under the Caliphate of Cordoba, in Andalusia), I can only think of it and Pali (Buddhist cannon) as languages with exclusively or near-exclusively religious documents surviving to us.

paulusnb wrote:but education in a community, regardless of what the contemporary atheist movement says, is often related to the priestly class and religious piety.


It is quite as often a product of a centralized government — often with strong ties to religious institutions, of course — in need of bureaucrats (see: Egypt, several ancient Mesopotamian empires, Mycenae, China). Indeed, the very earliest writing in Mesopotamia appears to be a bookkeeping tool.
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby paulusnb » Sun Mar 15, 2009 11:50 pm

Lex wrote:Was originarlly Persian, if I'm not mistaken.



This does not really change anything. Yeah, it may have been translated or collated from the Persian way back when, but things were added, compiled, etc. The version we have is Arabic for Arabic audiences.
Last edited by paulusnb on Mon Mar 16, 2009 12:39 am, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby paulusnb » Mon Mar 16, 2009 12:00 am

vir litterarum wrote:Even if one considers Homer religious, his version of Greek religion was not set in stone. Euripides often chooses alternate versions of the same myths, and Plato of course completely throws Homer out of the ideal civilization. What would happen if some early Arabic author had thrown the Qu'ran out of the ideal state? My point is that literature for literature's sake existed in Greece and Rome, but by and large that did not seem to be the case in Arabic with the Qu'ran's influence, Sanskrit with the Vedas, and Hebrew with the Old Testament.



You do remember what happened to Socrates right? And Aristotle fled Athens lest it sin against philosophy a second time. And in Book X of the Republic, Socrates apologizes for his treatment of the poets and allows them back into the kalipolis.

Whenever Socrates or Plato take aim at Homer, they are taking aim at Greek religious beliefs. The ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy is the quarrel, in some ways, between reason and revelation.

Yes, it is generally agreed that arts flourished in Ancient Greece rather than ancient Jerusalem. However, the "arts," even Greek art, was much more connected to the good of the state or religion than art as we understand it today. Horace claims that his poems will last as long as there is a Vestal virgin around to light the flame.

Also, the Muslims are the ones that preserved Aristotle and Plato while the West lived in complete oblivion of anything not translated into Latin.

At one point there were tons of Arabic philosophers. (by tons I mean a few. I mean, how many can there ever really be?) Dante puts Averroes in Limbo with Plato and Homer.

I am not trying to argue that art did not flourish in Greece and Rome. I simply do not believe that it was as divorced from religion and the state as we make it. It was not really "art for art's sake."
Last edited by paulusnb on Mon Mar 16, 2009 3:13 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby Lex » Mon Mar 16, 2009 12:41 am

paulusnb wrote:The 1902 edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica claims it was Arabic. And if memory serves, Burton translated it from Arabic.


Well, yes, of course. I was just saying that the main idea behind the tales (the wife delaying her death every night with a new tale) was Persian in origin, and was borrowed and embellished by the Arabs.
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby Lex » Mon Mar 16, 2009 12:45 am

paulusnb wrote: You do remember what happened to Socrates right? And Aristotle fled Athens lest it sin against philosophy a second time.


This brings up the age-old question: Did the elite take the myths seriously, or just they just believe that they were useful as part of a civic religion, the purpose of which was to maintain what we today would call cultural cohesiveness?
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby paulusnb » Mon Mar 16, 2009 12:48 am

I think, learned man, that you are getting at this question: Why did philosophy emerge in Athens and almost nowhere else? Before someone freaks out and mentions some Asian text no one reads, by philosophy I do not mean hard thinking, but thinking based on the the understanding of the existence of certain laws of nature (physis in Greek). Science I guess. From what I have been told, the first appearance anywhere of a word for "nature" is in Homer. The same source told me that Biblical Hebrew had no such word. So, why did philosophy/science emerge from Greece and not somewhere else?
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby paulusnb » Mon Mar 16, 2009 12:54 am

First, sorry, Lex, to have edited something you responded to. I changed my response because I misread your response. I thought you were saying it was written in Persian. My bad. I did not notice you responded until after I edited.

Lex wrote: paulusnb wrote: You do remember what happened to Socrates right? And Aristotle fled Athens lest it sin against philosophy a second time.



This brings up the age-old question: Did the elite take the myths seriously, or just they just believe that they were useful as part of a civic religion, the purpose of which was to maintain what we today would call cultural cohesiveness?
.


I do not know how Socrates' death brings up this question, but Socrates does say that EVERYONE is born in a cave. Even the philosopher who knows of the sun outside of the cave does not live out there, but returns to the cave to save a select few. Socrates never suggests blowing up the cave Matrix style. So, yeah, many ancients believed that it was a waste of time to destroy the myths. But besides this, the question is whether or not one should. Myths create beautiful culture. Philosophy..... Socrates was ugly and beaten by his hag of a wife.
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby Lex » Mon Mar 16, 2009 2:10 am

paulusnb wrote:First, sorry, Lex, to have edited something you responded to.


Not a problem.

paulusnb wrote:I do not know how Socrates' death brings up this question,


Welll... :oops: It brought it up to my mind. I have been accused of having a mind that works in strange ways, though.

paulusnb wrote:Socrates never suggests blowing up the cave Matrix style.


But many people believe that either a myth must be either believed in whole-heartedly, or it ruins the myth. I think there is something to that, especially if the myth is used to reinforce moral values or civic virtues. Only a sophisticated mind can throw out the bath water, but leave the baby. Most people don't have sophisticated minds. Did the elite Greeks believe that the myths were "necessary lies", and to reveal them as untrue would ruin their efficacy (hence the need to kill Socrates before he revealed too much corrupting truth)? Or did they believe the myths as the peasants probably did (hence the need to kill Socrates for before he spread too much corrupting falsehood)?

paulusnb wrote:Socrates was ugly and beaten by his hag of a wife.


True, but he was always out gallivanting with the youths of Athens and corrupting them. If I were Xanthippe, I would have beaten him, too.
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby paulusnb » Mon Mar 16, 2009 3:08 am

Lex wrote:But many people believe that either a myth must be either believed in whole-heartedly, or it ruins the myth. I think there is something to that, especially if the myth is used to reinforce moral values or civic virtues. Only a sophisticated mind can throw out the bath water, but leave the baby. Most people don't have sophisticated minds. Did the elite Greeks believe that the myths were "necessary lies", and to reveal them as untrue would ruin their efficacy (hence the need to kill Socrates before he revealed too much corrupting truth)? Or did they believe the myths as the peasants probably did (hence the need to kill Socrates for before he spread too much corrupting falsehood)?



My understanding of the allegory of the cave is that most people will always live in a cave whether the cave is painted with angels or philosophers. I think Rousseau said that most of the "educated/enlightened" men of his day would have been ignorant monks 500 years ago. I think there is something to this. The "elites"
of Socrates' time might not have believed in the myths, or maybe they did, but that does not mean they were not stuck in a cave of their own. One can educate a complete moron to spout science. The moron part does not change.

Simply because Socrates does not believe in the myths --although I might add that he was always outwardly pious-- does not mean that he wanted to shout it from the rooftops.

Remember, in the Republic, Socrates is not the impious one necessarily. I would argue that the youth he was hanging with had already been exposed to pernicious ideas via the sophists. It has been awhile (7 years), but I remember Glaukon showing signs of corruption before Socrates says anything. Socrates claims, in the Apology, that these youth follow him around, taking joy in the questions he asks people. In Plato, Socrates is almost always reluctant to take on a student. In Xenophon, he takes on students willingly, but by inviting them to seek virtue.

As far as philosophic impiety, Socrates claims in the Apology that anyone with a few dollars can read the philosopher's claims that the sun was a big rock.

Lex wrote:Did the elite Greeks believe that the myths were "necessary lies", and to reveal them as untrue would ruin their efficacy (hence the need to kill Socrates before he revealed too much corrupting truth)? Or did they believe the myths as the peasants probably did (hence the need to kill Socrates for before he spread too much corrupting falsehood)?


I believe that the exact charge against Socrates, according to Plato, was introducing new gods to the city and corrupting the youth. Plato never has Socrates claim out loud that the gods do not exist. Other philosophers did make these claims, yet they were not killed. Socrates' criticisms of the poets in Book III of the Republic is a repetition of a criticism found in the Pre-Socratic philosophers.

Lex wrote:True, but he was always out gallivanting with the youths of Athens and corrupting them. If I were Xanthippe, I would have beaten him, too.

:lol:
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby vir litterarum » Mon Mar 16, 2009 4:02 am

paulusnb wrote:
I am not trying to argue that art did not flourish in Greece and Rome. I simply do not believe that it was as divorced from religion and the state as we make it. It was not really "art for art's sake."


I am not saying religion did not have a profound influence on Greek art, but Homer's pervasive influence on all that followed him was more aesthetic and than dogmatic. The tragedians felt free to choose completely different versions of the myths than Homer chose; were Arabic authors free to contradict the content of the Qu'ran? I'm not as sure about the Vedas, but does anyone know whether reworking of those poems was permitted? Even at the tragic festivals there was significant freedom of expression. Aristophanes jokes about Euripides being an atheist, so clearly there was at least some subversion to accepted dogma within his plays. Homer had as profound and impact on successive Greek literature as the Old Testament or the Qu'ran, but to say that it is qualitatively the same is fallacious.

Paulusnb wrote:
You do remember what happened to Socrates right?


Granted, but you must admit that Socrates' putative atheism was less the impetus for his execution than his opponents' ulterior motives.
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby Kasper » Mon Mar 16, 2009 5:28 am

Isn't this more about the way the Greeks and Romans perceived their gods - as fallible beings who were not all powerful, not all knowing, etc. This seems to have given the Greeks and Romans some leverage in their own conduct and perception of the gods, at least compared to judeo/christian/islamist perceptions of God. Also their view of the afterlife seems to have been quite different, which certainly would have allowed a less fearful lifestyle, and therefore less fearful art.

just my two cents worth...
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby paulusnb » Mon Mar 16, 2009 5:29 am

vir litterarum wrote:were Arabic authors free to contradict the content of the Qu'ran?


Lest I be fallacious, I admit you have a point here. Christians, Jews, and Muslims are "people of the book" more than the Greeks were (or at least what we mean when we say "the Greeks"). Perhaps this is why they are still around.

vir litterarum wrote:I am not saying religion did not have a profound influence on Greek art, but Homer's pervasive influence on all that followed him was more aesthetic and than dogmatic.


Hmmm. I am not sure about this one. I also do not know about this dichotomy: dogmatic or aesthetic. Did Homer's portrayal of Achilles and Odysseus have no ethical/moral effect on the generations raised on them? Can a child--and books are for children--raised on stories about Moses, Noah, and David just appreciate it aesthetically? From the beginning, my only issue with your interpretation is that I felt you have been imposing a modern understanding of art for art's sake onto the ancient world. But maybe not. I guess I would need to hear what you mean by "aesthetic."



vir litterarum wrote:Granted, but you must admit that Socrates' putative atheism was less the impetus for his execution than his opponents' ulterior motives.


Perhaps. But I just wanted to make sure that we did not forget that the city most famous for philosophy killed its most famous philosopher. How many executed Arab philosophers can you name off the top of your head?


I will lay my cards on the table. Art flourished in the ancient world when decay had set in. It takes a certain metropolitan laxness and a corrupt desire for luxury to create good art. Republican virtue gives way to imperial purple.

While some criticize the decay brought on by luxury, the desire seems natural, for when Socrates tries to make Glaucon live in his kalipolis by eating nuts alone, his aristocratic tastes revolt, causing Socrates to build a more imperfect city.
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby paulusnb » Mon Mar 16, 2009 5:32 am

Kasper wrote:Isn't this more about the way the Greeks and Romans perceived their gods - as fallible beings who were not all powerful, not all knowing, etc. This seems to have given the Greeks and Romans some leverage in their own conduct and perception of the gods, at least compared to judeo/christian/islamist perceptions of God. Also their view of the afterlife seems to have been quite different, which certainly would have allowed a less fearful lifestyle, and therefore less fearful art.

just my two cents worth...



Beautifully put. I do not know that I have ever thought through the consequences of the Greek god's behavior in this way. Kind of embarrassing as it staring me in the eyes......
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby vir litterarum » Mon Mar 16, 2009 6:49 am

paulusnb wrote:
Hmmm. I am not sure about this one. I also do not know about this dichotomy: dogmatic or aesthetic. Did Homer's portrayal of Achilles and Odysseus have no ethical/moral effect on the generations raised on them?


Well, the tragedians completely subverted Homer's portrait of Odysseus, e.g. Sophocles' [i]Philoctetes[i], so, even though it did have a moral influence, it was free to be completely undermined.

I'm not trying to make any bold statement here; I'm just wondering why in some cultures literature is inextricably tied to religion and in some it is not.
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby spiphany » Mon Mar 16, 2009 10:58 am

There may be a connection to written language here. I think storytelling is pretty universal, both in secular and religious contexts. But which stories then become part of a literary tradition, in other words, which stories are written down, would seem to depend on who is doing the writing and on what function writing has for a particular culture. If knowledge of writing is primarily limited to priests, then perhaps it makes sense that the stories recorded first would be sacred ones? (Although even here I would be careful about generalizing...the attitude towards stories both in and out of ritual contexts, and the way they are transmitted, and to whom, varies so much.)
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby IreneY » Tue Mar 17, 2009 4:24 am

Well, some of the things I'll say have been mentioned by other poster but, oh well!
I think one of the main reasons literature developed as it did in Greece, is how religion itself developed in Greece. By that I mean that, for instance, no central religious structure really existed. That was of course in part because of the geography of Greece itself which also helped virtually every city to have its own little variant of the myths and each village its own little twist of those.
Then there was the importance of commerce and how we got our alphabet from the Phoenicians. Not by priests.
Then there's how ancient Greek gods where perceived (don't ask me why). Greeks are not unique in having jealous and moody and whathaveyou gods, but I don't know of many religions that have so humanized gods who also interact so much with the humans in an almost daily basis. You may fear such gods, you may respect their powers, but you can't help laughing at them a bit too. (I feel the whole piety thing and Socrates' and Plato's piety or lack thereof is another matter altogether but I just have to mention that the accusations against both Socrates and Alkibiades just used religion as a pretext). I mean look at tragedy: Developed from the Dionysian ceremonies correct? And that's why it retained some Dionysian elements. But consider what god we are talking about. True, he gets mighty upset if you refuse to honour him and, I suppose, if you are stingy with the wine and true, you'd better lock away your girls if you don't want his followers to show them what that protruding bit is for, but he is a god who you honour by getting pissing drunk.
It's not exactly what I call religious respect.
As for Homer; Have you really seen how he depicts gods in Iliad? I mean look at the fearsome god of war for Zeus' sake (and don't bring up Plato; we are talking about the guy who suggests the "noble lie" idea!)
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby paulusnb » Tue Mar 17, 2009 7:55 pm

IreneY wrote:I feel the whole piety thing and Socrates' and Plato's piety or lack thereof is another matter altogether but I just have to mention that the accusations against both Socrates and Alkibiades just used religion as a pretext).



But I think that Plato takes the impious charge very seriously. I think that the questions that Athens asks Socrates, and the demands they make, are very good ones. Going to the noble lie, Socrates admits in Book X of the Republic that the poets are not lying about heroes when they have them behave badly. He says that the poets exacerbate the naturally pitiable condition of humans, making us dwell on our own desires and not the community. In this way, truth gets in the way of a common good. A community's lie becomes justifiable if most people are inherently incapable of dealing with the truth. So, a polis has to ask a philosopher why? Will philosophy create Alcibiades or will it create Leonidas? Which one is better for a city?

As Aristophanes makes clear in the Clouds, a community's suspicion of the philosopher is justified. Odysseus is the philosophic prototype, and look at the way he treats Penelope (a little slow to get home). How well does Socrates feed his children? And, notice, we never really see Socrates with his own children. Plato has Socrates neglect the home for a reason. I believe that he was showing the somewhat questionable position of a philosopher in a community.

IreneY wrote:True, he gets mighty upset if you refuse to honour him and, I suppose, if you are stingy with the wine and true, you'd better lock away your girls if you don't want his followers to show them what that protruding bit is for, but he is a god who you honour by getting pissing drunk.
It's not exactly what I call religious respect.


Perhaps our understanding of piety and respect have been shaped my contemporary conditions. It has always baffled me, but look at the ancient obsession with the penis. As I understand it, Alcibiades violated the Hermes statues by knocking off the penises. In Pompeii, there are wind chime penises. I understand that certain religious processions would contain phalli in them. Every time I think I have the ancient world figured out, I hear or read something that makes me rethink it.

As far as drunkenness and piety, Carnivale is related to the coming of Lent. But excess in this situation--a last donut, or a cigarette, etc--points to piety. Many people who get hammered on Fat Tuesday walk around with ashes the next day. The two are connected.
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby Lex » Tue Mar 17, 2009 8:05 pm

paulusnb wrote:How well does Socrates feed his children? And, notice, we never really see Socrates with his own children. Plato has Socrates neglect the home for a reason. I believe that he was showing the somewhat questionable position of a philosopher in a community.


This reminds me of Paul Johnson's chapter on Rousseau in his book Intellectuals. In fact, that's the whole theme of the book; intellectuals (at least those not constrained by traditional morality, i.e. religion) are as a rule not people to be admired or emulated.
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby IreneY » Wed Mar 18, 2009 4:43 am

paulusnb wrote: But I think that Plato takes the impious charge very seriously. I think that the questions that Athens asks Socrates, and the demands they make, are very good ones. Going to the noble lie, Socrates admits in Book X of the Republic that the poets are not lying about heroes when they have them behave badly. He says that the poets exacerbate the naturally pitiable condition of humans, making us dwell on our own desires and not the community. In this way, truth gets in the way of a common good. A community's lie becomes justifiable if most people are inherently incapable of dealing with the truth. So, a polis has to ask a philosopher why? Will philosophy create Alcibiades or will it create Leonidas? Which one is better for a city?

As Aristophanes makes clear in the Clouds, a community's suspicion of the philosopher is justified. Odysseus is the philosophic prototype, and look at the way he treats Penelope (a little slow to get home). How well does Socrates feed his children? And, notice, we never really see Socrates with his own children. Plato has Socrates neglect the home for a reason. I believe that he was showing the somewhat questionable position of a philosopher in a community.


What to answer first? First of all, I do have to say upfront that, as I've mentioned before, I really don't link Plato. Let me try to be brief. The noble lie is going to be put in such a way that the people will believe it has a divine source. A person who is OK with such a major lie doesn't think much of deities period. I am not sure what you refer to when you say that the questions and demands of the Athenians were very good ones. As for the rest, I disagree but I think that discussion at least, will take us too far away from the main subject and its little subsidiaries.


Perhaps our understanding of piety and respect have been shaped my contemporary conditions. It has always baffled me, but look at the ancient obsession with the penis. As I understand it, Alcibiades violated the Hermes statues by knocking off the penises. In Pompeii, there are wind chime penises. I understand that certain religious processions would contain phalli in them. Every time I think I have the ancient world figured out, I hear or read something that makes me rethink it.

As far as drunkenness and piety, Carnivale is related to the coming of Lent. But excess in this situation--a last donut, or a cigarette, etc--points to piety. Many people who get hammered on Fat Tuesday walk around with ashes the next day. The two are connected.


I won't disagree with that because, for the point I was trying to make, piety or absence of piety is a moot point when piety is defined that way :) When your god is someone who you can laugh at and when the official relgion (as opposed to any local version of the Carnavale in our days) applauds having loads of fun then you can see how taking the religion ceremony for Dinysus and turning it into something completely different is OK.
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IreneY
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Re: The Development of a Literary Tradition

Postby paulusnb » Wed Mar 18, 2009 4:59 am

IreneY wrote:I am not sure what you refer to when you say that the questions and demands of the Athenians were very good ones.


How about these questions? What does philosophy have to offer the state? What good comes of asking these questions about the gods? Why should youth be exposed to philosophy? Rather than promoting virtue, doesn't philosophy corrupt? And isn't all of this philosophy a little silly? I mean, walking around unshod with young men talking about men and women exercising together naked while your wife sits at home hungry.....


IreneY wrote:As for the rest, I disagree but I think that discussion at least, will take us too far away from the main subject and its little subsidiaries.


I am not sure what there is to agree/disagree with other than my interpretations of classical literature (which are not even that extreme). Some of what I said was a working out of the argument Socrates puts forth in the Republic and Aristophanes in the Clouds. I did not even claim I was giving my own thoughts.

Also, a person who supports a noble lie is not someone who thinks nothing of the gods. It is someone who does not believe, but it is not someone who is necessarily indifferent.
When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him. ~Swift
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