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Dodds, Eric R. - The Greeks and the Irrational

Dodds, Eric R. - The Greeks and the Irrational



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The Greeks and the Irrationalhttp://content.cdlib.org/xtf/view?docId=ft0x0n99vw&chunk.id=0&doc....1 of 1657/11/2006 1:33 PM
Preferred Citation: Dodds, Eric R.
The Greeks and the Irrational.
Berkeley: University of CaliforniaPress, c1951, 1973 printing 1973. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft0x0n99vw/
The Greeks and the Irrational
By E. R. Dodds
Berkeley · Los Angeles · Oxford 
© 1962 The Regents of the University of California
Preferred Citation: Dodds, Eric R.
The Greeks and the Irrational.
Berkeley: University of CaliforniaPress, c1951, 1973 printing 1973. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft0x0n99vw/
THIS BOOK is based on a course of lectures which I had the honour of giving at Berkeley in theautumn of 1949. They are reproduced here substantially as they were composed, though in a formslightly fuller than that in which they were delivered. Their original audience included manyanthropologists and other scholars who had no specialist knowledge of ancient Greece, and it is myhope that in their present shape they may interest a similar audience of readers. I have thereforetranslated virtually all Greek quotations occurring in the text, and have transliterated the moreimportant of those Greek terms which have no true English equivalent. I have also abstained as far aspossible from encumbering the text with controversial arguments on points of detail, which couldmean little to readers unfamiliar with the views controverted, and from complicating my main themeby pursuing the numerous side-issues which tempt the professional scholar. A selection of such matterwill be found in the notes, in which I have tried to indicate briefly, where possible by reference toancient sources or modern discussions, and where necessary by argument, the grounds for theopinions advanced in the text.To the nonclassical reader I should like to offer a warning against treating the book as if it were ahistory of Greek religion, or even of Greek religious ideas or feelings. If he does, he will be gravelymisled. It is a study of the successive interpretations which Greek minds placed on one particular typeof human experience—a sort of experience in which nineteenth-century rationalism took little interest,but whose cultural significance is now widely recognised. The evidence which is here brought together
illustrates an important, and relatively unfamiliar, aspect of the mental world of ancient Greece. But an
The Greeks and the Irrationalhttp://content.cdlib.org/xtf/view?docId=ft0x0n99vw&chunk.id=0&doc....2 of 1657/11/2006 1:33 PM
aspect must not be mistaken for the whole.To my fellow-professionals I perhaps owe some defence of the use which I have made in severalplaces of recent anthropological and psychological observations and theories. In a world of specialists,such borrowings from unfamiliar disciplines are, I know, generally received by the learned withapprehension and often with active distaste. I expect to be reminded, in the first place, that "theGreeks were not savages," and secondly, that in these relatively new studies the accepted truths of to-day are apt to become the discarded errors of to-morrow. Both statements are correct. But in replyto the first it is perhaps sufficient to quote the opinion of Léy-Bruhl, that "dans tout esprit humain,quel qu'en soît le développe-ment intellectuel, subsiste un fond indéracinable de mentalité primitive";or, if nonclassical anthropologists are suspect, the opinion of Nilsson, that "primitive mentality is afairly good description of the mental behaviour of most people to-day except in their technical orconsciously intellectual activities." Why should we attribute to the ancient Greeks an immunity from"primitive" modes of thought which we do not find in any society open to our direct observation?As to the second point, many of the theories to which I have referred are admittedly provisionaland uncertain. But if we are trying to reach some understanding of Greek minds, and are not contentwith describing external behaviour or drawing up a list of recorded "beliefs," we must work by whatlight we can get, and an uncertain light is better than none. Tylor's animism, Mannhardt'svegetation-magic, Frazer's year-spirits, Codrington's mana, have all in their day helped to illuminatedark places in the ancient record. They have also encouraged many rash guesses. But time and thecritics can be trusted
to deal with the guesses; the illumination remains. I see here good reason to be cautious in applyingto the Greeks generalisations based on non-Greek evidence, but none for the withdrawal of Greekscholarship into a self-imposed isolation. Still less are classical scholars justified in continuing tooperate—as many of them do—with obsolete anthropological concepts, ignoring the new directionswhich these studies have taken in the last thirty years, such as the promising recent alliance betweensocial anthropology and social psychology. If the truth is beyond our grasp, the errors of to-morroware still to be preferred to the errors of yesterday; for error in the sciences is only another name forthe progressive approximation to truth.It remains to express my gratitude to those who have helped in the production of this book: in thefirst place to the University of California, for causing me to write it; then to Ludwig Edelstein, W. K. C.Guthrie, I. M. Linforth, and A. D. Nock, all of whom read the whole or a part in typescript and madevaluable suggestions; and finally to Harold A. Small, W. H. Alexander, and others at the University of California Press, who took great and uncomplaining trouble in preparing the text for the printer. I mustalso thank Professor Nock and the Council of the Roman Society for permission to reprint asappendices two articles which appeared respectively in the
Harvard Theological Review
and the
Journalof Roman Studies
; and the Council of the Hellenic Society for permission to reproduce some pagesfrom an article published in the
Journal of Hellenic Studies
IAgamemnon's Apology
The recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch realfact in the making.
The Greeks and the Irrationalhttp://content.cdlib.org/xtf/view?docId=ft0x0n99vw&chunk.id=0&doc....3 of 1657/11/2006 1:33 PM
SOME YEARS ago I was in the British Museum looking at the Parthenon sculptures when a young mancame up to me and said with a worried air, "I know it's an awful thing to confess, but this Greek stuff doesn't move me one bit." I said that was very interesting: could he define at all the reasons for hislack of response? He reflected for a minute or two, Then he said, "Well, it's all so terribly
, if you know what I mean." I thought I did know. The young man was only saying what has been saidmore articulately by Roger Fry
and others. To a generation whose sensibilities have been trained onAfrican and Aztec art, and on the work of such men as Modigliani and Henry Moore, the art of theGreeks, and Greek culture in general, is apt to appear lacking in the awareness of mystery and in theability to penetrate to the deeper, less conscious levels of human experience.This fragment of conversation stuck in my head and set me thinking. Were the Greeks in fact quiteso blind to the importance of nonrational factors in man's experience and behaviour as is commonlyassumed both by their apologists and by their critics? That is the question out of which this book grew.To answer it completely would evidently involve a survey of the whole cultural achievement of ancientGreece. But what I propose attempting is something much more modest: I shall
merely try to throw some light on the problem by examining afresh certain relevant aspects of Greekreligious experience. I hope that the result may have a certain interest not only for Greek scholars butfor some anthropologists and social psychologists, indeed for anyone who is concerned to understandthe springs of human behaviour. I shall therefore try as far as possible to present the evidence interms intelligible to the non-specialist.I shall begin by considering a particular aspect of Homeric religion. To some classical scholars theHomeric poems will seem a bad place to look for any sort of religious experience. "The truth is," saysProfessor Mazon in a recent book, "that there was never a poem less religious than the
Thismay be thought a littlesweeping; but it reflects an opinion which seems to be widely accepted.Professor Murray thinks that the so-called Homeric religion "was not really religion at all"; for in hisview "the real worship of Greece before the fourth century almost never attached itself to thoseluminous Olympian forms."
Similarly Dr. Bowra observes that "this complete anthropomorphicsystem has
of course
no relation to real religion or to morality. These gods are a delightful, gayinvention of poets."
Of course—if the expression "real religion" means the kind of thing that enlightened Europeans orAmericans of to-day recognise as being religion. But if we restrict the meaning of the word in this way,are we not in danger of undervaluing, or even of overlooking altogether, certain types of experiencewhich we no longer interpret in a religious sense, but which may nevertheless in their time have beenquite heavily charged with religious significance? My purpose in the present chapter is not to quarrelwith the distinguished scholars I have quoted over their use of terms, but to call attention to one kindof experience in Homer which is
prima facie
religious and to examine its psychology.Let us start from that experience of divine temptation or infatuation (
) which led Agamemnonto compensate himself 
for the loss of his own mistress by robbing Achilles of his. "Not I," he declared afterwards, "not I wasthe cause of this act, but Zeus and my portion and the Erinys who walks in darkness: they it was whoin the assembly put wild
in my understanding, on that day when I arbitrarily took Achilles' prizefrom him. So what could I do? Deity will always have its way."
By impatient modern readers thesewords of Agamemnon's have sometimes been dismissed as a weak excuse or evasion of responsibility.But not, I think, by those who read carefully. An evasion of responsibility in the juridical sense thewords certainly are not; for at the end of his speech Agamemnon offers compensation precisely on thisground—"But since I was blinded by
and Zeus took away my understanding, I am willing to makemy peace and give abundant compensation."
Had he acted of his own volition, he could not soeasily admit himself in the wrong; as it is, he will pay for his acts. Juridically, his position would be thesame in either case; for early Greek justice cared nothing for intent—it was the act that mattered. Noris he dishonestly inventing a moral alibi; for the victim of his action takes the same view of it as hedoes. "Father Zeus, great indeed are the
thou givest to men. Else the son of Atreus would neverhave persisted in rousing the
in my chest, nor obstinately taken the girl against my will."
You may think that Achilles is here politely accepting a fiction, in order to save the High King's face?But no: for already in Book 1, when Achilles is explaining the situation to Thetis, he speaks of 

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