Saturday, September 4, 2010

Reasoning: A Grand Narrative Approach to Greek History #1

I just finished re-reading Jean-Pierre Vernant's The Origins of Greek Thought, which entertained me during my recent jury duty.
Origins of Greek Thought
Although I thoroughly enjoyed it, the book did not have quite the same impact as the first time I read it. I believe that this is because my most recent book before this was Early Greece, which is a much more current and detailed account of Greek History than The Origins of Greek Thought. Unfortunately, not only am I out of the loop on the current understandings of archaeology and I have no idea how to tell what is out of date and what is not. Is there some kind of community somewhere?

Apparently I have some modernist tendencies that college (and two wonderful literary theory classes) did not strangle out of me, because I still like the grand narrative approach to history. However, I think that Vernant's narrative leaves out a lot of details (from what I've gleaned from Murray) about the development of Greek politics.

One of the problems that I notice with Vernant's narrative is that he constructs a development from Mycenean kingship (which Vernant refers to as devine-kingship) to isonomia (an alternate term for democracy that is less aggressive than and predates democracy). His narrative seems to go straight from Mycenean kingship to aristocracy of the basileus (in the Homeric use of the term as a lord, opposed to wanax, the high king) class. However, Vernant seems to place too little emphasis on the age of tyrants in the city states. For example, Peisistratos's reforms in Athens (such as, among many others, the changes to the Panathenia and the invention of the Greater Dionysia (Murray 270-272)) which created some of the civic institutions that would later become a forum for dialogue and democracy. Also, some of Sparta's power, as well as the hoplite-class-lead constitutions coming about through Sparta's removal of tyrants from power (Murray 263). To be fair, Vernant does provide a chapter on the sages (Chapter Five, The Crisis of the City: The Earliest Sages) some of whom were tyrants, but it places its emphasis too early and does not account adequately for the later tyrants, like the Peisistratidai.

Furthermore, Vernant blurs the distinction between the concept of equality in the citizens as homoioi (equals) in the hoplite state and the citizen equals in isonomia that appears so radically important in Murray's assessment of the development of Athens into a democracy (Murray 265-284). Murray explains that after Kleomenes dethroned the Peisistratidai, Kleisthenes' reforms were so radically different from the eunomia (good order) that the Spartans intended to impose, Kleomenes and a small band of Spartans attacked Athens for a second time, and were repulsed by the Athenians (Murray 265).

It feels a little strange, to me, criticizing Vernant's book. Ever since, my freshman year in college when I read Feminine Figures of Death (which is available on jstor for anyone whose school/library/etc has access), I have adored Vernant and his writing. However, The Origins of Greek Thought was written in 1962, so I do have almost 50 years of scholarship and archaeology on him.

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