Homeric Questions

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Throughout this work, the central aim was to reintroduce the vitality of performance, of oral tradition in general, to the conceptual framework of the Classics. This aim addresses the need to be vigilant over tradition itself, all tradition. Earlier, I had argued that the field of Classics, which lends itself to the empirical study of tradition, seems ideally suited to articulate the value of tradition in other societies, whether or not these societies are closely comparable to those of ancient Greece and Rome, given that we live in an era when the living traditions of traditional societies are rapidly becoming extinct, when many thousands of years of cumulative human experience are becoming obliterated by less than a century or so of modern technological progress. The rapid extinction of old living traditions by the same technological progress that points towards the less rapid but equally certain extinction of Nature itself is forcefully expressed in the poem of a Native American:

I link the quest of going back in time through the human experience, rescuing values in societies about to be extinguished, with the quest of rescuing Nature from the onslaught of technology and ideology. Or let us talk about nature as it connects with the human condition, calling it the environment.

Today the environment itself is in danger, but the elders presiding over what they call “Western Civilization” may seem to be indifferent to the damage caused by the technology of this civilization. If we follow for a moment the line of thought suggested just now by Lévi-Strauss, we could say that the ancient world, the world of myth, is in fact still a young world when it comes to the experiencing of Nature. The Ancients, along with what is left of the so-called Primitives of today, see the world in a way that may yet rekindle our own passion for that experience.

This talk of passion brings us back to the assertion, My poems are my fires. Here is where the diachronic perspective is needed, with regard to cultures on the verge of becoming extinguished. Here is where philology is needed, with regard to the poems. I mean philology in the broadest sense of the ancient term, as forcefully restated by Rudolf Pfeiffer: [5]

The Sophists had a predilection for compounds with phílo-, and it may be due to them that we find philólogos first in Plato … and once in a comedy of Alexis in the later fourth century…; it means [someone] fond of talk, dispute, dialectic in a wide and rather vague or ironical sense. But when Eratosthenes used it, or when the new Diegesis … to the first Iambus of Callimachus says that Hipponax coming from the dead calls toùs philológous eis to Parmeníōnos kaloúmenon Sarapideîon, the compound refers (according to Suetonius) to persons who are familiar with various branches of knowledge or even the whole of the logos.

We come back to the report of Suetonius that Eratosthenes was the first scholar to formalize this term philologos in referring to his identity as a scholar, [
6] and that in doing so he was drawing attention to a doctrina that is multiplex variaque, a course of studies that is many-sided and composed of many different elements. This ideal is built into the name of the American Philological Association, into its very identity as a group of scholars that is multiplex variaque. It is an ideal that is built into the city where it met for its 1991 annual convention. More than that, it is an ideal that is built into the very country whose name is part of the name, the American Philological Association. In {150|151} this particular moment in the history of the organization, when some of its members may be anguished at perhaps being made to feel that they do not really belong to the American Philological Association, this ideal of a doctrina that is many-sided and composed of many different elements needs to be reaffirmed. It is an ideal that we can reaffirm in the lingua franca of America, the English language, if we use the Anglo-Saxon word love to recapture our shared longing for the Logos. I am thinking here of the way in which Gilbert Murray happened to use this word in his own musings about philology:

When Achilles predicts in Iliad IX that the song about him will last for all time, unwilting forever, we may marvel at the fact that his prediction holds true—up till now. If we follow Gilbert Murray’s reasoning, the word did not die, has not yet died, and will not die if it is indeed loved. Philology lives. Long live philology! {152|153}


[ back ] 1. Printed in Hobson 1981:69.

[ back ] 2. I have explored at length the ritual aspects of performing song or poetry in Nagy 1990a:29–46; for variations on the theme of fire as a symbol of sacrifice and ritual in general, see Nagy 1990b:143–180.

[ back ] 3. Lévi-Strauss 1958:23.

[ back ] 4. Ibid.

[ back ] 5. Pfeiffer 1968:159.

[ back ] 6. Suetonius De grammaticis et rhetoribus c. 10 (see Pfeiffer 1968:158n8).

[ back ] 7. Murray 1909:19.

[ back ] 8. On the function of the myth of Meleagros as retold by Phoenix to Achilles and the rest of the audience, see Nagy 1990a:196–197, 205, 253, 310n164, following up on Nagy 1979:105–111.

[ back ] 9. Martin 1989:44. See pp. 122–123 above.

[ back ] 10. Martin 1989:80.

[ back ] 11. See pp. 122–123 above.

[ back ] 12. Martin 1989:77–88.

[ back ] 13. The accusative case of an object of a verb of remembering seems to denote an exterior goal, as opposed to the genitive case, denoting an interior goal. The genitive, as a partitive, implies the remembering of a part of something. The accusative implies total recall.