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The teacher’s dilemma in Greek didactic texts

Philip Thibodeau

Brooklyn College

To a first degree of approximation the authors of ancient didactic works were the peers and social equals of their audience members (Thibodeau 2011, 33–7).  Yet in the archetypical scene of instruction, that involving a child student and an adult teacher, the student clearly occupies a subordinate social position vis-à-vis the instructor.  It was also a pragmatic fact that individual members of a poet’s audience could end their lesson at any point by abandoning the recitation or closing their books if they felt demeaned.  Didactic authors thus faced the following dilemma:  how were they to impart instruction to their audiences without violating this notional equality and thus prompting their auditors to turn away?  In the paper I will outline an argument that the various ‘didactic constellations’ (Volk 2002, 37) which we find in Greek didactic poetry – the personae of author, addressee, and Muse or Muse equivalent – were designed as rhetorical solutions to this perpetual dilemma, each serving to forestall any perception of inequality.  This schema can illuminate the didactic constellations in six poems:  Hesiod’s Theogony, his Works and Days, Parmenides’ poem on nature, Archestratus’ Hedypatheia, Aratus’ Phaenomena, and Nicander’s Theriaca.  In the Works and Days, Hesiod’s brother Perses is criticized in ways which cause the audience to identify with the aggrieved poet; by doing so they come to share the teacher’s superior perspective rather than the student’s inferior one.  The Theogony, by contrast, opens with a scene where the Muses demean the poet and teach him what he should sing (22–34); this puts the poet and the audience on the same level, since both occupy the subordinate position qua students.  Parmenides’ cosmological poem elaborates a similar rhetorical constellation, with the goddess informing the poet that because he is a mortal, his forms of knowing are barely capable of grasping divine truth; the same would hold true of the persons attending to Parmenides’ poem (18 DK B 1, etc.).  Archestratus takes a different tact from his archaic predecessors, foregrounding the peer-status of his addressees, his “friends” Moschus and Cleander (frs. 5.2, 18.2, 19.1, 36.4 Olson and Sens), and their membership in a tiny clique of elite gourmands (fr. 4).  In the case of Aratus, the initial invocation of a Stoic Zeus, the supreme god “on whom we all depend” (4), establishes the author and reader as equals sub specie aeternitatis, thus creating an illusion of egalitarianism which is sustained through the work.  Finally, Nicander opens his treatise on poisonous animals by promising to teach his addressee, Hermesianax, things which he can in turn teach others (1–7); the promise implies that his audience members will become the poet’s equal as teachers if they can absorb his lesson.  

Session/Panel Title:

Creating Audiences in Didactic Poetry

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