Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Epistemology of Divine Poetry

This post is one in a series on the Epistemology and Worldview Throughout History.  Previously in this series: Ethics in the Theogony.

Now that I've introduced Hesiod's teachings in his Theogony (regarding cosmology, history, human nature, and ethics), let us consider the grounds upon which he establishes the truth of those teachings.  Hesiod establishes his intellectual authority in the proem (introductory part of a poem) of his Theogony.  In it he tells the tale (which I have previously summarized) of his magical initiation as a poet which occurred during an encounter with the Muses.

As I previously wrote, "Assertions and arguments regarding particular topics (for example, ethics, economics, physics, etc) all rest on an epistemology (whether explicitly or implicitly): that is, a theory of knowledge, truth, and falsity.  Therefore, the first task of a thorough scholar is to make the case for his own epistemology."  Hesiod shows himself to be a somewhat thorough scholar by at least addressing the question of epistemological credibility, if not satisfactorily answering it.  In the proem of the Theogony Hesiod answers the fundamental question of "how do you know that?" with the perennial answer, "The gods told me so."  Hesiod's teachings, according to the proem, rest on divine revelation.

In Hesiod's own words:

hai nu poth' Hêsiodon kalên edidaxan aoidên,

which is translated by Hugh Evelyn-White as

And one day they taught Hesiod glorious song

"Taught" is translated from "edidaxan", which is a tense of "didaskô" ("to teach"), from which the English word "didactic" is derived.  What does it mean to teach someone song (aoidên)?  One can teach the skill (tekhne) of singing well (tone, enunciation, etc).  But this encounter was no mere singing lesson, for out of it Hesiod acquired the divine voice (audên thespin) of the Muses.  What is this "divine voice" of the Muses?  The Muses themselves explain their power in the following:

idmen pseudea polla legein etumoisin homoia,
idmen d', eut' ethelômen, alêthea gêrusasthai.


"we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things."

The power of the Muse is divine persuasiveness ("to speak many false things as though they were true") and divine knowledge ("to utter true things").

There are two instances of the adjective "true" in the above passage as translated by Evelyn-White, but they represent two different Greek words.  The first instance (from "false things as though they were true") is from the word "etumoisin", a tense of "etumos" which can also be translated as "real" or "actual".  The second (from "to utter true things") is from the word "alêthea" a tense of "alêthês" which can also translated as "unconcealed".  From this we can get the sense that the power of the Muses is to expound upon formerly concealed things: the mysteries of the universe.

Hesiod tells us exactly how the Muses they taught him song in the following:

enepneusan de moi audên
thespin, hina kleioimi ta t' essomena pro t' eonta.


"breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things there were aforetime"

Here we see evidence of what I believe is a fundamental monist materialism in archaic Greek thought.  The divine voice is not a purely psychic power: it is a material breath which can be transferred via literal exhalation of the Muse and literal inhalation of the poet.  This process is where we get our word "inspiration".  Also in this passage, we get more detail as to the kind of mysteries that can be revealed by the inspired poet (and which Hesiod does reveal in his Theogony).  The poet is a prophet ("things that shall be"); he is also a super-human cosmologist and historian who can miraculously recount  events he did not himself witness, including the evolution of the entire universe and the prehistory of man ("things that were aforetime"). 

Next in this series: Hesiod and Aristotelean Demonstration.

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