February 20, 2010


by John Finley
Stanford University Press, 1966
108 pages

Review by Marc Nash

Since I started Booksquawking, my choices of reading matter have failed to bowl me over. My bad. Actually no, scrub that, the bad of contemporary literature, seeing that my choices included the great white hope of American lit and the Nobel Laureate. It’s therefore ironic that my first disproportionate, decidedly unBritish enthusiasm on this site comes from a work of non-fiction. Come on Fiction, pull your finger out of the orifice it’s currently residing in…

I never studied Ancient Greek. Latin and Classical Hebrew (the lingo of the OT) yes, but when I expressed a desire to add Greek to the triune, my Father put his foot down declaring that there were only so many dead languages one could uselessly not find a use for. And yet I have come to the centrality of Greek etymology within our language through my writing. At least two of my novels abound with Greek derived words and full-on Greek concepts expressed in words. And no, neither were hubris nor catharsis.

So I’ve picked up bits and bobs of Greek thought along the journey of life, but in no more of a systematic way than a magpie picks up baubles and secrets them in its nest. I’ve read the Odyssey but only parts of the Iliad at school. I studied Plato & Aristotle, but only what they wrote on political thought. I’ve seen a couple of the Greek Tragedies performed, but preferred reading Sartre’s “The Flies” in the style of…

So I need all these stray flyaways combing into an elegant, readily accessible coiffure. And via a heads up somewhere from the Blogosphere, someone put me on to Finley's book. Based on 4 lectures delivered in 1965, this 108 page book is divided into, unsurprisingly, 4 chapters delineating 4 stages of Greek thought. Moving from Epic, oral poetry, through tragic plays, then the comedies and ultimately into the philosophy of Plato & Aristotle. Finley titles the Chapters, "The Heroic", "The Visionary", "The Theoretical" and "The Rational", but intimates all stem from the Heroic and still were defined by it even in opposition.

It was really the opening chapter that got my pulses racing. As a treatise of all Heroic literature it was explained with such crystal clarity I almost wept (okay, bit of an exaggeration there, but then I'm not heroic). Heroic literature works with recognisable archetypes (don't forget the audience is listening to vocalised words, not reading them). But Finley's point is that this entails a strict one-to-one correspondence to reality as perceived through the senses. There is perception, but there is no interpretation. No ideational musing, for this is pre-formal epistemology. This is literature (once it was set down), but interestingly it is not literary. Words do not seek to recast the world, only uphold it.

The rest of the book sees the introduction of ideas, analysis and a quest for knowledge. The heroes represented the ultimate living fully in the world. Cynosures burning brightly but briefly, shunning the domestic world for the life of a warrior at Troy. Dialectic is introduced, so that even knowledge itself ploughs forward through the synthesis of former analysis. This is a dynamic period and begins to subtly shift the gods sideways as man contemplates his place in the universe. The primacy of the senses are challenged by the superimposition of thought trying to organise and arrange them. Similes are replaced by metaphors.

I didn't quite get the subtleties of Chapter 3, it didn't seem to move the argument on much from the ideas behind Chapter 2 and kept harking back to the Heroic epic. It seemed to be making the point that it reconciled the mundane, domestic life by putting them in art, side by side with the stories of cursed monarchs’ blighted communities. As part of this, Finley paints in well the social context of the War between Athens & Sparta as the backdrop to such a period and the development of the city-states with their differing notions of citizenship.

Chapter 4 was a bit too brief for considering the mighty works of Plato & Aristotle, given that they set the terms of intellectual debate for all Western thought for the next 2000 years and both were heavily transfused into Christian theology. For me, Plato's nominalism and theory of the Ideal Forms is absolutely the key concept that needs to be challenged in language and in literature. It gets cursory treatment here. But then there is so much also to fill in on the notion of virtu, of living a good life, being a good citizen of the polis. This era was the triumph of both the specialised tutors and the middle classes who could send their kids there as well as the landed gentry. With such freedom to meditate, small, everyday objects came even more into focus and again became the subject for art. These Greeks searched for the order that lay beneath the surface of the observable and governed it. A final, delicate balance of the Greek sensibility and the inquiring Greek mind. Plato located the ordering principle in a divine ideal of form, Aristotle plumped for natural laws. My meagre contention is if you replace Plato's ideal forms with the nominalism of language naming them, then you have the dialectic between the two. But I'll save that for a novel.

Our house is very small. So small that it can’t afford me the space to shelve books. Fortunately there is a summer house at the bottom of our small garden, where all my books are stored. When it’s warm, if I need to reference something directly from the source, it’s no great labour to tromp down and get the book. The winter is a different story… So I have a limited shelf above my writing desk in which to lodge strategic texts for reference. A book on anatomy. A book on the history of the letters in the alphabet. Another book on typography. A book on the history of the Metropolitan Police. A book on the history of sex. A book on the German language. A dictionary of myth and folklore. And now this delightful slim volume on the history of Greek Thought. If another invaluable source book comes along, I WILL have to eject one of these august titles. I’ll take votes now.

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