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Sophrosyne: A Platonic Problem for the Homeric Scholia

Joshua Smith

Johns Hopkins University

Plato’s critique of Homer in the Republic is by and large one of emotion: poetry causes its audience to neglect sophrosyne (self-control by the rational principle) and to absorb—and later reenact through behavioral mimesis—the anger, lust, and excessive self-pity they see on literary display.  Aristotle’s defense of poetry in the Poetics largely ignores this challenge, offering but one possible solution through the famously unexplained and unexemplified assertion that poetry achieves catharsis of emotion.  In this paper I demonstrate that the Homeric scholia fill this Aristotelian vacuum by systematically applying a type of intellectual catharsis to the very passages Plato attacked in order to prove that Homer is a teacher of self-control, not its opposite.   

Work on sophrosyne in Homer has focused on Homer’s own use of the term (e.g., North 1966, Rademaker 2005) or on the internal application of mythical exempla by Homeric characters to encourage it (see, e.g., Willcock 2001), but to date I find no investigation of how ancient commentators responded to the problem of self-restraint raised by Plato.  My paper offers an introduction to this aspect of the tradition of Homeric reading.  As for catharsis, Janko (1992) suggested a possible connection in a scholion to Iliad 1.1 without commenting on the place of this note in its broader context.  My paper shows that Janko’s claim is correct, but that it is only part of a larger program of Homeric exoneration.  Whatever the “true” nature of Aristotelian catharsis (see Ford 2004, Vöhler and Seidensticker 2007), the scholia advance an intellectual type of “cleansing” as the key to accessing Homer’s value as a teacher of sophrosyne, discovered through contemplating epic poetry as a repository of cautionary tales.

That ancient commentators saw Homer as achieving a catharsis of emotion is suggested by the opening entry in Erbse’s edition of the Iliad scholia, in which a commentator (possibly Zenodotus) alleges that Homer began his poem with menis to cleanse our soul from that particular emotion and to teach us to bear our emotions nobly (ἵν’ ἐκ τοῦ πάθους ἀποκαθαρεύσῃ τὸ τοιοῦτο μόριον τῆς ψυχῆς … καὶ προεθίσῃ φέρειν γενναίως ἡμᾶς τὰ πάθη).  This suggestion of moral purification via presentation of its opposite is evident elsewhere when it comes to wrath, as when Achilles sacrifices live dogs and Trojans to the dead Patroclus; as the commentator points out, Homer cautions against such rage-driven actions by pointedly calling them “evil counsels” (sch. Il. 23.174).  

Similar treatment is given to other vices, including lust.  The infamous adultery of Ares and Aphrodite drew Plato’s ire as a model of licentiousness, but the scholia to Odyssey 8.267 exhibit a different approach: περὶ κοινωνίας Ἄρεος καὶ Ἀφροδίτης μακρόθεν παιδεύει αὐτοὺς μὴ ἀσελγαίνειν, ὡς καὶ θεῶν διὰ ταῦτα ἀσχημονούντων (“By telling about the sexual union of Ares and Aphrodite from long ago, [Homer] instructs his audience not to behave licentiously, since even the gods are disgraced by such actions”).  The commentator turns a lascivious affair into a negative exemplum, and the fact that gods are involved—a major problem for Plato—only demonstrates the point more forcefully.  Under this same umbrella belongs the famed Dios Apate (sch. Il. 14.216), where Zeus’ failure serves as yet another warning: if even the gods suffer when they lose control over their desires, how much more should Homer’s human audience be on guard! 

This program of Homeric exoneration should be recognized as part of the larger ancient attempt to harmonize Homer and Plato.  At the same time, it is distinct in practice from typical neo-Platonist strategies that etherealize Homeric problems via philosophical allegoresis.  The scholiasts follow a line that, whether or not it captures an “authentic” form of Aristotelian catharsis, nonetheless appeals to a theory of intellectual cleansing to defend epic poetry.  If only we know how to read Homer, they say, we will find him to be an eminent moral guide. 

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The Philosophical Life

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