The Homeric Greeks

According to the origin claim, universal philosophy began with the ancient Greeks. Before then, in ancient Greece and around the world, there was only religion and a communal mind-set ruled the days. But this changed with the dawn of Western philosophy, and Socrates was one of the first people to truly think for himself. This beginning of “thinking for oneself” is what renders Western philosophy universal, since it is not, unlike other philosophical traditions, based on the acceptance of tradition. With Socrates everything was open to being questioned.

The origin claim makes it seem as if while all was dark before, suddenly there was light; as if while until the 6th century BC everyone was walking around in a daze of conformity, thereafter a new, hitherto unknown capacity for challenging tradition dawned on humanity. We can put the point in terms of reflective distance, the ability to step back from one’s impulses and reflect on what one should do. The origin claim states that the ability of reflective distance was first exercised by the pre-Socratics.

But can there be any human society without reflective distance? Even if we focus just on ancient Greece, could it really be true that before the pre-Socratics there was only a blind adherence to tradition?

Imagine you are a Homeric poet in 8th century BC. There is a gathering to hear parts of The Illiad, and you are entranced as you are reciting the poem. You are in the flow of the activity, and while narrating the tale you feel pulled from your everyday activity and drawn into a visceral sense of the activity of the Gods. The audience, which before the recitation was milling about talking gossip or quarreling, is drawn into your activity as well, and they feel lifted from their everyday activity. They don’t experience the tale as just a fun story, though it is fun and enlivening, but as reflecting the best of who they are and can be, as capturing how the world actually is, which they in their ordinariness often seem to forget, or fail to hold in their awareness.

What is the significance of this poetic event? Is it like going to the Opera now for us, or, even more, being at, say, a U2 concert? Yes, to some extent. But it was so much more for the ancient Greeks. When we go to a concert now, even when we are inspired by it, there is a certain amount of detachment from the concert experience, a kind of meta-reflection, built into that experience. No matter how much we might love U2, we are aware that there are other people in our own community who don’t care for U2. And even if we love U2, we have other modes in which to reflect on our lives, such as science, philosophy, literature, movies, etc.

But this was not so for the Homeric poet and his audience. For them the epics were the embodiment of the greatest achievement of their community, and which was central to their sense of their own potential as human beings. The poetic event was for them a group experience of reflective distance, a shared trip which pulled them together, brought out the best in them and in the process gave them a better perspective on day to day lives.

In Mircea Eliade’s term, the Homeric Greeks experienced the epics as a hierophany – a manifestation the sacred. Here we see the fundamental role of the sacred and the profane in ancient and primitive culture: the profane was their day to day experience and the sacred was the experience of reflective distance which pulled them out of the day of day, and gave them a heightened perspective on their lives such that they were able to focus on what matters most and what is most real and true.

So the contrast between the Homeric and the Socratic Greeks isn’t that the former mindlessly went about their lives and the latter thought for themselves. For implicit in the tradition of the Homeric Greeks, like that of all cultures, is reflecting on one’s culture: avoiding the bad impulses to greed and falsehood and trying to be attuned to the true and the good.

What is different between the Homeric and the Socratic Greeks is the form the reflective distance took. In Homeric Greece, there was communal reflective distance: reflective distance was a feature of the society as a whole. The community reflected on itself and its issues as a society through engaging with the epics. And this was enabled through select individuals, the poets, through whom the communal reflection happened. It’s not that the poets thought it all out on their own and passed it on the society. Rather, they were the vehicles for the epics such that through the epics the entire community could gain reflective distance.

This changed with the pre-Socratics. Now some people were able to have reflective distance without going through the group form of reflective distance. A new thing came on the scene: individual reflective distance. This was not unique with Socratic Greeks, since something similar was happening in other parts of the world (for example, in the Middle East, China and other places). But it was nonetheless a significant difference between Homeric and Socratic Greeks.

The change is akin to reading out loud as opposed to reading silently. Whereas in Homeric times people depended on the social structures of the epics to reflect on their impulses, Thales, Pythogoras and so on started to be able to reflect on their deepest assumptions without going through the social structures of the epic, and in fact by rebelling against those structures.

This doesn’t mean Thales, Pythogoras and so on could reflect on their assumptions independent of any social structures. To the contrary, in their time there started to form new social structures, due to political, social and economic changes in ancient Greece, that enabled the new thinkers to have a new form of reflective distance. In fact, the political, social and economic changes were the transformative context which gave rise to the need for reconceptualizing Greek society. And it was to this practical task of reconceptualization that the different worldviews of the Greek philosophers were meant to be solutions.

By saying that in ancient Greece individual reflective distance started with the pre-Socratics, I don’t mean to deny that the Homeric Greeks were able to think about their own beliefs and desires. Surely Achilles could think about whether to join the war and reflect to himself about that. And more mundanely, every day people could think about their hunger, whether they want their neighbor’s things, whether they knew their spouses’ desires, and so on. But none of this mundane self-reflection was a way in which they had transcendent experiences, the kind which pulled them out of their everyday habits and pulled them into activities in a way in which they felt themselves to be excelling as human beings. For that kind of experience, they had to rely on the epics, the religious rituals of their society, and their social roles as defined by those epics and rituals.

Not so for Socrates. He could have transcendent experiences through what to most of his fellow citizens, still guided by the Homeric ethos, must have seemed the most mundane of activities: conversations. The locus of the transcendent experience shifted for Socrates from the communal ritual to the friendly, yet spirited and combative, conversation. The tide was turning. There was a shift in the organizational structure of Greek society, and with it a change in who was the shaman of the society, who could bring the public into a state of rapture of excellence: the poet or the thinker. As with most changes, to the people going through the change, it seemed ground-breaking, and the choice stark. Seen from the long arc of history, it was but one among thousands of similar shifts in organizational structures in human societies.

Contrary to the origin claim, reflective distance didn’t appear with the pre-Socratics. A new mode of reflective distance came on the scene. We didn’t go from darkness to light. We went from one kind of light to another, slightly brighter kind of light. It was not a change in fundamental kind, but a shift in degree.

3 thoughts on “The Homeric Greeks

  1. Alex Scott

    I’m wondering whether your concept of reflective distance is, or is not, compatible with the existentialist notion that we cannot be truly objective about our own being. Karl Jaspers (1951) says that even if we try to stand apart from our own being and try to consider our being as something that confronts us as an object, we cannot be objective about our own being. We’re still subjects who determine the objectness of all objects (Way to Wisdom, Yale University Press, p. 29). Similarly, Gabriel Marcel (1951) says that we’re part of, and thus cannot be objective about our own experience of being. Being may transcend our attempts to define it objectively; intersubjectivity is therefore a starting point for any mode of ontological inquiry (The Mystery of Being, Volume II, Faith and Reality). Does reflective distance demand a degree of objectivity that, from an ontological standpoint, we’re incapable of attaining?


    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      Alex, I agree with Jaspers and Marcel. I think what they are saying are at least three things, which are good to keep apart: (1) we cannot understand ourselves the way we understand physical objects like rocks and electrons; and this is because (2) our understanding of ourselves has to take into account our understanding of ourselves; and (3) even when we reflect on ourselves, there is no abstract point of view from which we can say, universally and absolutely objectively, what a true understanding of ourselves should look like.

      None of this is required for reflective distance as I think of it. Think of a basketball player who is in a zone. As I think of it, he is then in a state of reflective distance from his normal way of playing basketball, since the flow state he is in pulls him into the world so strongly that when he comes out of it, his everyday mode of playing basketball is slightly altered and improved. So reflective distance doesn’t have to involve the person consciously reflecting on one’s own beliefs or desires. It is a structural feature where the excellence of a person’s activities is itself a mode of heightened awareness of the world and of one’s possibilities, where new possibilities are opened to the person.

      Similarly, I think there is such a thing as reflective distance not for basketball or carpentry, etc., but of living as a human being as such. This reflective distance is achieved when one excels at living: the excellence at living is itself a way of gaining reflective distance from one’s day to day way of living. This is one reason trying to be too self-conscious about living well can get in the way of doing it: because the relevant self-consciousness of living well isn’t one which precedes actually living well, but it is something which is experienced just through living well, and seeing the world differently through that excellence. This is a way that the existentialist and Aristotelian conceptions are compatible.



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