Friday, January 24, 2020
Obsession with the Past
The deep and instinctive conservatism of all but the most progressive Greek intellectual thinking — τιμιώτατον γὰρ τὸ πρεσβύτατον, said Aristotle, "what's oldest is most valuable" (Met. A3, 983b32) — has often elicited comment,7 but its impact on mythic historiography has not, I think, been fully appreciated. This obsession with the past, above all the heroic past, was ubiquitous and intense. To an overwhelming extent, the past and everything it stood for had been better, and it was not only Homer's heroes8 who thought so. Plato, Isocrates, Aristotle all shared the same outlook: when they attacked witnesses to that lost world, it was for misrepresenting it.9For ἡ τῶν προγόνων ἀρετῆ read ἡ τῶν προγόνων ἀρετή.
7. Most strikingly by Van Groningen 1953, 1–12, who surveys our sources from Homer to Aristotle. For the status quo as the economic ideal, cf. A.E. Samuel, From Athens to Alexandria: Hellenism and Social Goals in Ptolemaic Egypt (Louvain, 1983), 123, and Green 1993, 363–67, 374–75.
8. E.g., Il. 1.260–61; 5.302, 447; Od. 8.223.
9. Plat. Phileb. 16C: Socrates speaks of οἱ μὲν παλαιοί, κρείττονες ἡμῶν καὶ ἐγγυτέρω θεῶν οἰκοῦντες. Isocrates, as Van Groningen comments (1953, 7), "places everything which he thinks desirable in the past; the Athens of former days was exemplary; only imitations of the forefathers can bring real prosperity ... with him 'the excellency of the fathers' becomes a synonym of the fathers themselves." For ἡ τῶν προγόνων ἀρετῆ, see Isocr. 12.5, 15.76. For the spirit of emulating the past, cf. 5.113–14; 6.12–13, 98; 7.84; 8.93; 12.137; 15.114; and in general, Orat. 4 and 7. Aristotle believed that "antiquity appears to be a near approach to what is by nature," Rhet. 2.9.9, 1387a16 (trans. Van Groningen).
Van Groningen is B.A. Van Groningen, In the Grip of the Past: Essay on an Aspect of Greek Thought (Leiden: Brill, 1953 = Philosophia Antiqua, VI), unavailable to me.
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