Posted by Dennis » 4 Comments »
There’s a lot to be learned from texts that might seem out of date, and while it seems odd to say that to anyone interested in ancient texts, it’s easy to forget that the latest scholarship isn’t necessarily the most instructive. I think that one of the greatest obstacles to the past is the ever-increasing wall of interpretation and with it the endless branching of every field into a thousand specialties.
Classics of history and scholarship endure, despite—and in part because of—the criticism and revision they inspire (think of Gibbon), but equally instructive is the way in which classics help you to see how others see things.
George Grote produced such a classic in his History of Greece (1846–1856), and from the start his method is clear and his reason is sound, at least on a topic that frustrates many students and produces mountains of useless conjecture. Here he is on legends regarding the gods:
I maintain, moreover, fully, the character of these great divine agents as Persons, which is the light in which they presented themselves to the Homeric or Hesiodic audience. Uranos, Nyx, Hypnos and Oneiros (Heaven, Night, Sleep and Dream), are Persons, just as much as Zeus and Apollo. To resolve them into mere allegories, is unsafe and unprofitable: we then depart from the point of view of the original hearers, without acquiring any consistent or philosophical point of view of our own. For although some of the attributes and actions ascribed to these persons are often explicable by allegory the whole series and system of them never are so: the theorist who adopts this course of explanation finds that, after one or two simple and obvious steps, the path is no longer open, and he is forced to clear a way for himself by gratuitous refinements and conjectures. The allegorical persons and attributes are always found mingled with other persons and attributes not allegorical; but the two classes cannot be severed without breaking up the whole march of the mythical events, nor can any explanation which drives us to such a necessity be considered as admissible.
Would that Robert Graves (and many others since) had felt the same.