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Preface to Plato (History of the Greek Mind) Paperback – May 15, 1982
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A book bursting with new ideas, all of them exciting. It may well turn out to be a landmark in the study of Greek thought and literature. (B. M. W. Knox)
This book makes a major contribution...will offer the reader many hours of stimulating thought and a powerful challenge to reexamine some basic assumptions about the early Greek mind. (The Classical Bulletin)
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Havelock's book is an valuable contribution, but I do have some reservations about it. Havelock feels that Plato's mysticism is regrettable and this to me is a mistake. However valuable reason is to our lives, we still are not emotionally integrated beings. The ritualistic practices of classical Greeks may be obsolete from an empirical point of view, but not at all from an emotional one. For Plato to put spirituality on a rational basis was as important a contribution as putting science on a rational basis. Plato is not Aristotle, and that's a good thing.
But read it and decide for yourself. You won't be wasting your time.
The basic question is why Plato is so adamant about banning all poets from his Republic, in the dialogue by that name. For Greeks, poetry meant Homer, and so Havelock argues we need to understand the role of Homer in traditional Greek society. Homer's texts were composed and written down in an essentially oral culture. They were written not only as entertainment, for the plot and characters, but also as a record of the Greek's values, traditions, and ethos. Much of Homer's epics record things like the proper role of priests, prophets, kings, how to make a supplication to a superior, the ritual procedures of sacrifice, and so on. This was knowledge that was taught in an oral culture by poetry, specifically the recitation and memorization of Homer's epics, a predominant cultural activity up to and including the time of Plato.
Plato wanted to reform education, which meant replacing Homer with training in philosophy. Havelock sees Plato correctly as, in one sense, a conservative, a moralist. But the unresolved contradiction here is that Homer serves generally, by Havelock's own argument, to reinforce traditional morality. In Plato's time, according to Havelock, traditional morality had been generally replaced by the sophistic cynicism we find, for example, with Socrates' interlocutors in the Republic, that justice is just a convenient name for whatever is in the strongest party's interest. But Havelock doesn't make any persuasive case for why Plato should target Homer for this corruption, since his epics support traditional morality.Read more ›