This course will examine the confrontation between myth and philosophy that from the 6th century BC on structured the intellectual heritage of Greece. By myth is meant the fables of the poets, primarily Homer. One should not assume that these stories provide a clear window onto ancient religion; instead the relation between mythology and religion was problematic and unstable. Philosophers, beginning with the presocratics, intervened disruptively in this problematic relation either to magnify the difficulty or to resolve it on their own terms. Philosophical speculation concerning the nature of space and the role of the gods in shaping or controlling space challenged mythology. This speculation had implications, sometimes troubling, for ancient religion — especially for the traditional practices of prophecy and sacrifice. To contest these practices was to challenge the site and expression not only of religious, but also (because of the relation between ancient cult and the state) of political power.
Power in the ancient world was concentrated and disseminated by means of images. Visual objects occupied a cultural category quite different from modern conceptions of “art.” To what extent were ancient paintings, sculpture or architecture occupied by religious, philosophical or political power? To explore this question, significant visual works will be studied alongside of the literary, philosophical, and political currents of their day.
The “Greek tradition” in art, literature, and philosophy is conventionally understood as limited to its pagan expression. This course will take a somewhat wider view. The terms of that tradition — the literary forms, the philosophical preoccupations, and the difficult status of the image — were in fact taken up by learned Jewish commentators and subsequently by Christian intellectuals of the Byzantine period who viewed this tradition as their own. Their participation in and contribution to the heritage of Greece deserves recognition.
Homer, “Odyssey;” selections from Early Greek Philosophy; Aeschylus, “Oresteia;” Sophocles, “Antigone;” Euripides, “Hecuba;” Plutarch, “The Decline of the Oracles;” Anonymous, “Book of Wisdom;” Gregory of Nyssa, “Life of Macrina.”