Homerizon Conference: Richard H. Armstrong

Richard H. Armstrong

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From Huponoia to Paranoia: On the Secular Co-optation of Homeric Religion in  Vico, Feuerbach, and Freud.

Herodotus tells us that the Greeks got their notions of the gods from Homer   and Hesiod, “who gave the gods their names, determined their spheres and   functions, and described their outward forms” (Hist. 2.53). For philosophers like Xenophanes of Colophon and Plato, the problem with the pervasive influence of such poetry is that it propagates a shocking theology that misleads people into believing the worst human sins are prevalent among the Olympian divinities. Classicists are of course aware of the ancient strategies for dealing with the negativity generated by this scandalous religious horizon. In the Kallipolis, poets will simply have to follow a rational theology and produce poetry that   follows the basic tupoi of utterances about the divine: god is only   good and the cause of good, god is changeless, god is true and truthful. But   others in antiquity chose to take the outrageous surface of Homeric-Hesiodic myth as a kind of hermeneutical Ansatz, a signal of absurdity (atopía) that the wise can follow in order to get at the huponoia or “undersense” of the myth. The truth of Homeric poetry can thus be converted to an account of phusis (as was reputedly one of the strategies of Theagenes of Rhegium) or a metaphysical narrative of the soul and its imperiled state in the world of matter (Porphyry’s In the Cave of the Nymphs), or any of the   many meta-narratives and meta-verities detailed by the allegorist Heraclitus. We find that after the creeping Christianization of ancient culture, these two options—utter rejection (e.g., Justin Martyr, Exhortation to the Greeks)   and tendentious allegoresis (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata)—remained   available.

This, as I said, is well known to classical scholars, thanks in part to the work of researchers like Robert Lamberton (Homer the Theologian) and James Coulter (The Literary Microcosm). But I wish in this paper to trace a broader trajectory of this story, one that would link the horizon of Homeric religion with the growing secularization of Western European culture during the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. One thread of this secularization is the “naturalization” of mythopoeia, that is, conceiving of the   mythopoeic impulse as a natural human capacity to narrativize the human experience of the world, instead of just an aspect of benighted heathendom or collective idiocy. Homeric-Hesiodic anthropomorphism, which was the basis of the scandal of Olympian religion, suddenly became a kind of virtue, once certain humanistic biases began to look for a primal language of human thought that was closer to nature and at odds with the arbitrary views of Christian authority. On the   hermeneutical horizon, this led away from a hunt for arcane truths in the Homeric   text (based on the notion that Homer hints—ainittetai—at   things he knows) toward the idea that the truths are in a sense naive and unconscious ones, but ones with a certain human dignity to them. In other words, this new hermeneutical stance led to the psychologizing of Homeric religion and the privileging of it as a primal scene of human imagination and self-understanding, making it available for different kinds of humanistic intervention. While initially this psychologizing is done optimistically, underlining the benignly human “nature” of human “culture,” gradually the mythical world of Homer and Hesiod will emerge by the beginning of the twentieth century as a means of pathologizing   this human nature and setting it at odds with the process of civilization/culture   (what Freud calls simply Kultur).

There are chiefly three phases to my discussion. The first details the emergence   in Vico’s Scienza Nuova of an intrinsic appreciation for the sapienza poetica embodied in the Homeric poems as representative of a particular mentality, one openly compared to a childlike mentality and a bodily language. The second describes the robust emergence of a theory of psychological projection to describe the phenomenon of religion overall in the work of Ludwig Feuerbach, a highly influential post-Hegelian philosopher, who first broadcast the idea systematically that wish-fulfillment is at the heart of religious systems. In a very important work (which is neglected on account of its enormous philological detail), Theogonie nach den Quellen des klassischen, hebräischen und christlichen Altertums (1857), Feuerbach uses the first book of the Iliad   as a kind of primal scene of wish-fulfillment that he then traces in vast detail   through a host of Greek, Roman, Hebrew, and early Christian texts, all in the light of his anti-religious polemic more famously formulated before this work (Das Wesen des Christentums in particular). Lastly, I trace in the work of Sigmund Freud how Feuerbach’s still-optimistic project of human enlightenment turns into a tragic description of the incommensurability of human desire (at base a product of human nature) in the context of human civilization, and how “the unconscious language of myth” previously postulated in the nineteenth century becomes a dynamic, urgent issue in the hands of psychoanalysis.

The main import of the paper is to show how much the “modern” projects  of these three thinkers look back to the primal vocabulary of Homer in the light   of a final vocabulary (to use Richard Rorty’s phrase) of their own, in   hopes of opening up a new human consciousness that is both free of myth and   able to read myth (and therefore, human history) for the first time in the light   of a humanistic agenda. Most obviously in the case of Freud, however, we see   the trap of how this new final vocabulary quickly falls victim to its own mythopoeia (as in the case of Freud’s elaboration of the Oedipus complex into a macro-historical myth of culture in Totem and Taboo). The question for all us modern Homerizontes would be: what myth—or more strongly, what humanist   idolatry—do we make for ourselves out of Homer’s myths?