Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The more I read about it the more my knowledge diminishes - The Greeks and the Irrational by E. R. Dodds

Sometimes I need to read a book of criticism that is full of ideas, just to loosen up the drier parts of the brain.  The subject of the book hardly matters.  The Greeks and the Irrational, the 1949 study of the title subject by classicist E. R. Dodds, inflected with the latest in philological, anthropological, and Freudian thinking, was just what I needed.  Some of it is likely wrong, but what does that have to do with ideas?

The point of the book is to set aside Athens as the birthplace of Reason and work through the available evidence about the irrational side of Classical Greek thought and life, the superstitions and magic and weirdness.  Plato, Homer, and the tragic playwrights get most of the textual attention, along with the Pythagorean cult, the Orphic cult, the Bacchic cult, all of the best cults.

The book is packed with witches, oracles, dreams, and daemons, and was nicely complementary to Carlo Ginzburg and Rudyard Kipling, and I assume will mesh nicely with Little, Big.  Dodds – here we see the influence of contemporary anthropologists – would like to link Greek cultic practices to those of Siberians shamans (direct ancestors of Ginzburg’s semi-pagan witch-fighters), which I thought was a stretch until he began to pull examples from various sources about mystics coming to Greece from the North:

Out of the North came Abaris, riding, it was said, upon an arrow, as souls, it appears, still do in Siberia.  So advanced was he in the art of fasting that he had learned to dispense altogether with human food.  He banished pestilences, predicted earthquakes, composed religious poems, and taught the worship of his northern god, whom the Greeks called the Hyperborean Apollo.  (“The Greek Shamans and Puritanism,” 141)

I have omitted the many footnote numbers, five in the above passage, for example, leading to not one but many sources mentioning Abaris, a historical, not mythic, figure, and then many more mentioning other shamans, leading to this wild claim:

Such tales of disappearing and reappearing shamans were sufficiently familiar at Athens for Sophocles to refer to them in Electra without any need to mention names.

I obviously did not understand that particular passage (ll. 62-5) of Sophocles at all, an experience that Dodds let me know repeatedly, in Homer, in Pindar, and especially in Plato; oh how poorly I must have read Plato.  Dodds sympathizes:

But I must confess that I know very little about early Orphism, and the more I read about it the more my knowledge diminishes.  Twenty years ago, I could have said quite a lot about it (we all could at that time).  Since then, I have lost a great deal of knowledge; for this loss I am indebted to [list of scholars]  (147)

This might give an idea of how Dodds’s book is pleasingly readable.  My own great hope is that if I read enough, I will at some point have no knowledge whatsoever.  Dodds has been a big help.

I hope that The Greeks and the Irrational will help spur some ideas about Little, Big.  Dodds ends with an account, social and psychological, of the collapse of reason during the Hellenistic period.  “The Return of the Irrational was, as may be seen from these few examples, pretty complete” (“The Fear of Freedom,” 253).  That has a nice touch of the cyclical ethos of Crowley’s fairy story.  The strange coincidence, though, were the many correspondences between what I was finding in Dodds and what I was reading at the same time in Far from the Madding Crowd.  Talk about the Return of the Irrational!  So as I write about Thomas Hardy next week, I will, if nothing else, lard my posts with quotations from this rich book.


  1. "So advanced was he in the art of fasting that he had learned to dispense altogether with human food."

    Some contemporary cult-leaders make the same claim. We learn of it at the inquests on their followers who tried to follow their example.

  2. Yes, it would seem like, even presented with extraordinary willpower and an unusual physiology, you might want to be suspicious of a claim like that. It is a little too easy to cheat.

    Dodds has a lot of sympathy for the truth of these kinds of claims, more than I have - he was president of the Society for Psychical Research, for example - but he does keep pushing them back to the anthropologists and Freud. In other words, whatever is going on, it is not exactly what is claimed.

  3. I've wanted to read this book for years and keep putting it off in favor of other reading choices--many much less celebrated and/or presumably less rewarding works. Glad to hear from you that Dodds manages to live up to the hype, and that passage you borrowed your post's title from is sheer genius by any measure!

  4. Plato, Homer, and the tragic playwrights get most of the textual attention,

    Wait, he's going to discuss the irrational and doesn't devote the bulk to Aristophanes?

    I'm adding this book to my buy pile, sounds like a fascinating topic to learn less about...

  5. Definitely lives up to the hype. It is a difficult book, certainly. Difficult and rich.

    What I now wonder about is how much of what Dodds says has been disproven. I mean the anthropological ideas, or the use of the Greek texts. Dodds uses Freud with a light touch, but some of that may have been discarded as well.

    As far as generating ideas, though, who cares?

    I have some guesses about why Aristophanes does not do what Dodds is looking for. Plato was the real surprise to me. Well, there were lots of surprises. I came away feeling that Euripides is the only Greek I understood. Dodds did flatter me in that regard.

  6. Thanks for bringing back memories of a book I read long ago.

  7. I wish I had read it long ago. I wish I had read it in college.

  8. The Greeks and the Irrational is a wonderful book, but there's so many ideas in it that I've never managed to get past chapter 3. Last time (which was quite recently), I got distracted by the idea that motivational emotions (hate, love, anger etc) in Homer are always externalised (i.e. some god makes Achilles feel anger), so I went off and read some Homer, and discovered it was true.

    His short piece (which I know I've linked to before) on why all his undergraduates (and indeed, most people) misunderstand Oedipos Tyrannos is one of my favourite essays, but even that I remember, for all its brilliance, ends up spouting some more dubious hypotheses about Greek religion.

    1. Obooki, the idea that motivational emotions in Homer are always externalized is explored further in Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, a book about ancient Greece that's even odder than Dodds'.

  9. The best way to use the book is more like what you did. I hope I can do that someday. On these grounds, there is no way I will get past the Plato chapter.

    The Oedipus essay is brilliant, and mostly true. A reminder how much damage some critics - not Dodds, not us, of course, no - do to books for the best reasons. Educating the youth, encouraging reading.

  10. Thanks for the prodding by posting about this. I've had it in my tottering TBR pile so long it's near the bottom. I just needed a reminder of why it was there in the first place.