37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 1999
If you want to start with Plato, this is the place. Plato, through Socrates, indulges in a huge polemic. The problem with a polemic is that unless you have a clear idea of who he is arguing against and why you won't understand what is being said. Havelock's aim is to situate you in the ancient Greece of Plato's day and explain exactly what Plato is on about. Suddenly Plato doesn't seem quite so bizarre if you have some idea why he says what he says. Havelock starts with the tenth book of the Republic: why does Plato ban poets and poetry (especially Homer) from his utopia? Plato was no mean poet himself, so what does this mean? Havelock tells you in technicolor the why's and wherefore's of the historical situation so that you can read Republic (and the other dialogues as well) without flying blind.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 10, 2011
for anyone interested in Plato. The empirical mindset is so ingrained in us that it's hard to imagine that it was once otherwise, especially in a classical civilization so influential to our history. Cultural knowledge and values were retained and passed down through practices that resemble ritual more than anything else. Knowledge and myth were indistinguishable.
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 3, 2013
This book provides a very insightful approach to the origins of abstract thinking, i. e. the development of the "knowing subject" as one entity different from the "known object", in the Western tradition. Once you read it you can develop a better understanding of why Plato banned poetry and poets from his ideal state. The book helped me understand what exactly mimesis meant for Plato. Far from being a Platonic eccentricity Havelock manages to present Plato's views on poetry and mimesis as the logical consequence of his ideas about knowledge and ethics. After Havelock's book Plato has never been more Platonist. It's a great analysis of the Greek mind's transit from the Homeric "state of mind" --the realm of orality-- to the Platonic "state of mind" --the place of Ideas--.
on June 25, 2014
This book is valuable not only for his reading of Plato, but also for his understanding of Homer. Havelock is a classicist, versed in the original Greek texts, but his book is accessible to all.
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. We can surely agree that Plato wanted to place morality on a firm, rational basis; that's clear. But Havelock has not really answered his question of why Homer and the poets were banned from the Republic. Homeric epic could have well served, as it does today, as a supplement to rational teaching of virtue. There doesn't appear to be any strong contradiction between Homeric poetry and traditional morality. Granted, Homer's gods do not always serve as moral exemplars, but that is only a side issue for Plato and for Havelock's reading of Plato.
Another weakness is Havelock's characterization of Homeric society as essentially poetic, in which people spoke in verse, etc. This seems idealized. He arguably overstates or misunderstands the differences between oral and written culture.
Havelock also has a story to tell about how and why philosophy originated in ancient Greece, beginning with Hesiod's catalog of the gods, and the following attempts to abstract knowledge as concepts from its original mythic context.
10 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2001
Frequently I receive comments via the Internet some of which prove to be of value. One such was the Class of 2000/2002 that points out that these graduates have very little direct knowledge of even their recent past. It only proves that if they are to be enculturated, they must first be taught. In Plato's day, the means was by oral transmission, the effect of which was to perpetuate what might not be true. "Memesis," the total act of representation, that part of of our individual consciousness to which it is designed to appeal, is the area of the non-rational, of the pathological emotions, the unbridled and fluctuating sentiments with which we feel but never think. It is the affect imagery of emotion that hits us directly in the gut before being filtered through the brain, there to be digested before accepted. When indulged in this way emotion weakens and destroys that rational faculty in which alone lies hope of personal salvation and scientific assurance. Memesis is the "active" personal identification with which the audience sympathies and is enculturated because it is taught. He who cannot justify his own conclusions cannot be considered a totally educated person. Still, there is a need for guidance if the pupil is not to get in over his head and tend to drown rather than learn to swim and particpate for the good of all.