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Havelock on Greek Orality and Literacy

Author(s): John Halverson


Source: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1992), pp. 148-163
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
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Havelock on Greek
Oralityand Literacy
JohnHalverson

For nearlythirty
yearsEric A. Havelockadvocatedtheviewthatalphabetic
fortheGreekEnlightenment
or evensolely,responsible
and
literacywas chiefly,
of westerncivilization.In thisviewthe creation
thusprovidedthe foundations
oftheGreekalphabet(and it alone) was able to bringaboutwidespreadliteracy,
transformed
human consciousness.
which in turnradicallyand permanently
of"oral mind,"
Alphabeticliteracyenabledthoughtto transcendthelimitations
of logic,philosophyand scirepresented
by Homer,to becomethe instrument
ence-an entirelynew kind of consciousness,whose firstgreatexponentwas
Plato. Havelock's theoryfirstappeared in 1963 in his Prefaceto Plato, was
developedfurtherin The GreekConceptof Justiceand in a seriesof papers
in Greeceand Its CulturalConsequences
and
collectedin TheLiterateRevolution
' Though
in TheMuse Learnsto Write.
receiveditslastcompendiousformulation
his theoryhas remainedessentiallythe
Havelock made minormodifications,
same and its claimsevermoreresolutelyvoiced.
Havelock'sworkhas not on thewholebeen verywell receivedby his fellow
classicists(a receptionaboutwhichhe seemeda bitruefulin his lastbook).2But
theirobjectionshave forthe most part revolvedaroundthe historyof Greek
literacy-itsorigins,the chronologyand extentof its spread,and so on. They
of
have givenhardlyanyattention
to Havelock'sclaimsforthecognitiveeffects
literacy,whichare the centerof his project.Elsewhere,however,Havelock's
influencehas beenconsiderable.His bookshave beenand continueto be widely
read and cited(especiallythe seminalPrefaceto Plato, whichhas remainedin
printforover a quarterof a century).His influencehas been greatestamong
studentsof oralityand literacy-a fieldthathas grownenormouslyin recent
to his workas foundadecades-who frequently
acknowledgetheirindebtedness
1 Eric A. Havelock,PrefacetoPlato (Cambridge,Mass., 1963); The GreekConceptof
Justice(Cambridge,Mass., 1978); The LiterateRevolutionin Greeceand Its Cultural
Consequences(New Haven, 1982); The Muse Learns to Write(New Haven, 1986).
2 Even in whatis essentially
a Festschrift-KevinRobb (ed.), Languageand Thought
in Early GreekPhilosophy
(La Salle, Ill., 1983)-some ofthecontributors
are politelybut
firmly
in oppositionto his theories.

148
Copyright 1992 by JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF IDEAS, INC.

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Eric A. Havelock

149

In his book Oralityand Literacy(1982) Walter


tionalto theirown enterprises.3
Ong, a leadingfigurein thisfield,cites Havelock morethan any otherwriter
He clearlyembracesHavelock'saccountof"primaryorality"and
excepthimself.
consciousness,"the titleof his
the centraltheorythat "Writingrestructures
JackGoody-no doubtthemost
fourthand longestchapter.The anthropologist
widelyread(and criticized)exponentofthe"literacythesis"-has acknowledged
byHavelock
thathisoriginalworkon thesubject(withIan Watt)was influenced
toPlato.4ThoughGoody's own exploraevenbeforethepublicationof Preface
returnedto it
tionshave gonefarbeyondthe Greekexample,he has frequently
as a kindofbedrock,especiallydevelopingtheHavelockianidea thatwritingis
David Olson, whosework"restsheavily"
the sourceof logic.The psychologist
voicein thefield,arguing
becomea prominent
on thatofHavelock,has recently
foralphabeticliteracyas thebasis of modernscience.5
It seems evidentthat Havelock's main theorieshave been veryinfluential
outsideclassicalcircleswhilewithinthosecirclestheyhavebeenlargelyignored
theseotherwritershave been
ratherthancriticized.Unlikeclassicalhistorians,
issueoftheactualextentand timingof
less concernedwiththeveryproblematic
Greekliteracythanwiththe theory(oftentakenas fact)thatthe old Homeric
that alphabetic
"oral culture"had certaindefinablecognitivecharacteristics
syllopropositional,
intonewmodesofthinking-abstract,
literacytransformed
would
It
gistic-howeverand wheneverliteracymay have been established.6
appear thata generationof writershas acceptedHavelock's authorityand put
theirtrustin his views,whichhave never-so faras I know-been subjectedto
any detailedcriticism.I thinkthistrusthas been misplaced,and it is theobject
ofHavelock'sworkin respectto
of thepresentcritiqueto showthedeficiencies
See, forexample,Suzannede Castell,Allan Luke,and KieranEgan (eds.),Literacy,
Societyand Schooling:A Reader (Cambridge,1986); Jack Goody and Ian Watt,"The
Studiesin Historyand Society,5 (1963), 304-45;
Consequencesof Literacy,"Comparative
oftheSavageMind (Cambridge,1977);JackGoody,The
JackGoody,TheDomestication
and the Oral (Cambridge,1987); HarveyJ. Graff,The
Interfacebetweenthe Written
Labyrinthsof Literacy(London, 1986); Harvey J. Graff,The Legacies of Literacy
Gospel(Philadelphia,
Ind., 1987);WernerKelber,TheOraland theWritten
(Bloomington,
1983);RobertK. Logan, TheAlphabetEffect(New York, 1986);David R. Olson,"From
Utteranceto Text:The Bias of Languagein Speechand Writing,"HarvardEducational
Review,47 (1977), 257-81;David R. Olson, "The CognitiveConsequencesof Literacy,"
27 (1986), 109-21;David R. Olson, "LiterateThought,"C. K.
Canadian Psychology,
Literacyand Cognition(New York,
Leong and B. S. Randhawa (eds.), Understanding
1982);TonyM. Lentz,Orality
(London,
Literacy
and
Orality
J.
Ong,
Walter
1989),3-15;
and Literacyin HellenicGreece(Carbondale,Ill., 1989).
4Jack Goody, "Introduction,"Jack Goody (ed.), Literacyin TraditionalSocieties
(Cambridge,1968), 1.
I Olson, "From Utteranceto Text" (note 3 above), 262.
6 See, forexample,E. G. Turner,AthenianBooks in theFifthand FourthCenturies
B. C. (London, 1951); F. D. Harvey,"Literacyin the AthenianDemocracy,"Revue des
Etudes Grecques,79 (1966), 585-635;J.A. Davison, "Literatureand Literacyin Ancient
Greece," Phoenix,16 (1962), 141-56;AlfredBurns, "AthenianLiteracyin the Fifth
CenturyB.C.," JHI, 42 (1981), 371-87;Rosalind Thomas, Oral Traditionand Written
Record in Classical Athens(Cambridge,1989); William V. Harris,AncientLiteracy
(Princeton,1989).

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JohnHalverson

150

ofalphabetic
effects
and thetransformative
boththenatureof oralliterature
literacy.
ofHavelock'sgeneralargument.
exposition
is a summary
The following
istopreserve
oforalliterature
function
theprimary
societies
1. In nonliterate
toeachnewgeneration.
ofthegroupandpassitonintact
knowledge
thecollective
role.The
havingat besta secondary
entertainment
didactic,
It is fundamentally
thetraditions
especially
ofpractical
knowledge,
isan"oralencyclopedia"
content
It is,in
therightwaysofactingandthinking.
beliefandconduct,
ofacceptable
the
100)."It reflects
ofcultural
(Preface,
indoctrination"
"theinstrument
short,
overagainstwhichtheparticular
of thesociety,
proprieties
morepermanent
24). Its function,
bodyhaveto be framed"(Justice,
decisionsby a governing
tomakethecollective
wisdom
continuis nottocreatebuttopreserve,
therefore,
group
goal of preserving
allyavailableforrecalland reusewiththeultimate
29),andthis"whole
information"
(Justice,
ofcultural
It is "oralstorage
identity.
in linguistic
formulas
andskillshas to be preserved
secularbodyofknowledge
whichareritualistically
andinreenactments
memorized
whichareritualistically
25). Thoughoftencouchedin generaltermsapparently
(Justice,
performed"
areparticularly
on
theseassumptions
dependent
to anyoralsociety,
applicable
In his
oftheHomeric
epicsandtheGreekexperience.
understanding
Havelock's
quitefit
ethnography,
bymodern
thosestudied
including
viewnoothersocieties,
thefirst
TheHomericepics"constitute
oralism."
for"primary
hisrequirements
recordof 'orality'"and "theonlyone we are everlikelyto have"
complete
intergiventoHomer,Havelock's
167).Becauseofthegreatweight
(Revolution,
lateron.
ofthepoemswillbe givencloseattention
pretations
to succeed,theyhadtobe
oftheoraltradition
2. In orderfortheteachings
For Havelockthismeansthattheyhadtobe put
andmemorizable.
memorable
or at
thatis,metrical
formwhichis aboveall "poetized,"
in suitablelinguistic
verbaltechnology
onthis:"Theonlypossible
He is veryinsistent
leastrhythmic.
oftransmission
wasthatofthe
andfixity
thepreservation
availabletoguarantee
whichwere
patterns
inverbalandmetrical
cunningly
wordorganized
rhythmic
hadtobe poetic
content
uniqueenoughto retaintheirshape.... The linguistic
had to be
statement
42-43);"Orallypreserved
or elseitwasnothing"
(Preface,
" (Revolution,
74). So muchis thisthecasethatprose,any
'poetizedstatement'
is
(Muse,48); "Thevernacular
tobe ... non-oral"
prose,"mustbe pronounced
186).Such
(Revolution,
thatrequire
preservation"
... notusedforanystatements
form.
thatis,putintosomekindofstory
mustalsobe "narrativized,"
statements
sinceitallowsmaxims
thantheruleofpoetizing
lessabsolute
Thisruleis slightly
Thisrequireinnarrative.
embedded
buteventheseareusually
intooraltradition,
nouns
syntaxin whichactionverbsand concrete
mentcreatesa performative
to) "is stateandwhichdoesnotallow(oris at least"unfriendly"
predominate,
statements
usingabstractnounsand thetrue
ments"-thatis, propositional
Havelock
all usesoftheverb"tobe" inHomercanbereduced,
copula.Virtually
"actors
or
An
also
action
agents"
to a locativesense.
language requires
believes,
on
to
be
must
public
emphasis
"since
the
content
great
place
and
preserved
by
and
or,
people"
the
be
political
must
conspicuous
and privatelaw,
agents
heroic
or
Hence
the
"saga,"
epic,
171).
extension,
"gods"(Preface,
metaphorical
is
statements
oral genre.All thelanguageof preserved
becomestheessential
to
facilitate
memorifrom
distinct
ordinary
speech
enough
"contrived"
language,

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Eric A. Havelock

151

zation: "Linguisticstatements
could be remembered
and repeatedonlyas they
werespeciallyshaped" (Revolution,167).
[A]n oral culturewillfounditselfon a compendiousbodyofstoredinformation,
whichis expressedin rhythmic
directiveor descriptive,
languageapartfromthe
vernacularand whichcan be thoughtofas an enclaveofcontrived
speechexisting
withinthe vernacular.Its vocabularyis likelyto be specializedto some extent
... to increasetherhythmic
To thisenclavetheoral
capacityof thestatements.
societywill entrustthe overtexpressionof its nomos and ethos,its mores,its
"values".... (Justice,30)
3. The adventof writingchangesall of thisradically,forit allows cultural
information
to be storedmorepermanently
and reliablyand withfarless mental
thanis possiblefororal memory.It relieved"thepressureto have storage
effort
form"as wellas "thecorresponding
languagein memorizable
pressureto narrativize all preservable
statement,"
and "psychicenergies... werereleasedforother
constraints
purposes"(Muse, 101). The linguistic
postulatedfororalismwereno
longernecessary,
so languagewas freeto developin otherdirections,
particularly
in the directionof propositionalstatementsusing abstractnouns and a nonperformative
syntaxwith the true copula and withoutpersonalagents.The
of a visual elementinto languagebroughtabout new modes of
introduction
devices.Seeinga textpermits"backwardscanand newcompositional
reflection
on how thesubjectmatteris organized.This induces"topining"and reflection
calization,"a mentalanalysisof the materialinto categories,which leads to
In short,the"narrativized
logicalsystemization.
usage has turnedintoa logical
since preservedstatements
need no longerbe
one" (Muse, 105). Furthermore,
restrictedto familiarcontents,noveltywas now allowed and new statements
could be made. "Under acousticconditions"none of thiswas possible(Muse,
109-10).
4. The overallresultwas a "revolution... bothpsychological
and epistemological,""a new stateof mind"(Revolution,
87, 7). The new prose"becamethe
vehicleofa wholenewuniverseoffactand oftheory.This was a releaseofmind
as well as of language. . ." (Muse, 110). "May not all logical thinking,"it is
rhetorically
asked, "be a productof Greek alphabeticliteracy?"(Muse, 39).
Havelock is convincedthat theserevolutionary
possibilitiesinhereonly in an
was theGreekone.Though
alphabetand thattheonlytruealphabeteverinvented
it by
borrowedfromthe Phoeniciansystemof writing,
it radicallytransformed
addingvowelsigns.This in itselfwas a featoflinguistic
analysissinceconsonants
have no independencefromvowelsin speech: theycannotbe pronouncedby
left
themselves.
The earlySemiticquasi-alphabets,
representing
onlyconsonants,
it to thereaderto decidewhichvowelsand therefore
whatwordswereintended.
The earliercuneiform
vowelsbutonlyas tiedto a consosyllabariesrepresented
fouror fivetimesas manyseparatesignsas a consonant-only
nant,thusrequiring
systemand also leavingit to thereader,in thecase of consonant-final
syllables,
whichvowelsto omit.Bothsystemswereimperfect
to determine
representations
favoredcommunicaofspeechsoundsand,becauseoftheirinherent
ambiguities,
tionsdealingwithfamiliarmaterialas an aid to decipherment.
"They tendto
deal with action and thoughtin typicalsituationsand use a stylewhich is
formulaicand repetitive.... The recordof a culturewhichis composedunder
is likelyto centeron religionand myth,forthesetendto codify
theserestrictions

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JohnHalverson

152

thevariety
ofhumanexperience
so thatthereaderofsuchscripts
andstandardize
72-73).
is talking
about"(Revolution,
whatthewriter
is morelikelytorecognize
signs
and
by
taking
the
number
of
byusingan economical
TheGreekalphabet,
wasa greatimprovement
overitspredecesoutoftheirsignification,
guesswork
it
Unliketheothersystems
wereevengreater.
sors.Its culturalconsequences
up
the
possibility
to
master,
and
it
opened
little
training
required
comparatively
anyoneand couldalso easilyexpressnovelstatements.
of literacy
to virtually
bytheGreeksovera periodofthree
weregradually
exploited
Suchpotentialities
in
bookproduction,
and the
widespread
literacy,
or so, culminating
centuries
the
None
of
elsewhere
of
fourth
this
GreekEnlightenment
happened
century.
a truealphabet.
to Havelock,couldit havehappenedwithout
nor,according
literacy
and the
"The Greeksdid notjust inventan alphabet;theyinvented
82).
thought"
(Revolution,
literate
basisofmodern
from"oralmind"
forthetransformation
Suchinbriefis thebasicargument
fromtheliterary
andphilological
mind."Thusextracted
richness
to "alphabetic
in their
revealsproblems
lessreadilydiscernible
itimmediately
ofseveraltexts,
howmuchoftheargument
It is particularly
evident
restson
original
settings.
andthisis particularly
anddoubtful
trueof
unexamined
inferences,
assumptions
ofHomer.Sincetheentiretheory
ofprimary
orality
Havelock'sinterpretations
hisunderstanding
oftheHomericepics,itis important
tosee
derives
solelyfrom
placethereis a paradox,
howwellhisviewson thesubjectstandup. In thefirst
andacknowledges,
inthefactthattheepics
understands
whichHavelockclearly
be verbatim
texts.Theoretically
transcriptions
we knowareliterary
theymight
ButHavelock,
oralmaterial.
likemany
ofpurely
ofoneormorebards'recitations
an
represent
others,does notbelievethis;forhimtheHomericcompositions
Homerwasa readeras wellas a writer
andliteracy.7
orality
"interlock"
between
histextsfromalreadywritten
228) andwhose
whocomposed
episodes(Justice,
ofsuchwritings
(Revoluwasinfluenced
bythevisualexamination
composition
butthenonenaturally
wonders
howwe
tion,181-82).Thisis notunpersuasive,
"
can be so surethattheHomerictextsare an accurate"recordof 'orality.'
apparently
swayedbytheoralstyleof
Havelockhas no doubtson thematter,
fora literate
poetcouldeasily
thepoems.Butthisis noguarantee
ofauthenticity,
in thetraditional
of
manner,
justas someoftheauthors
composenewmaterial
the"HomericHymns"imitated
Homer.
Thefactis wehaveno directknowledge
at all ofwho"Homer"wasorwhat
isinference.
It isnotimpossible
hedidorwhy.Everything
thathewasanoriginal
to be surewitholdermaterialfromoral
and creativepoet,thoughworking
Indeedthiscouldbe a legitimate
Herodotus's
tradition.
wayofunderstanding
and
thatHomerandHesiodgavetheGodstheirgenealogies
well-known
remark
totheGreeks(II, 53).Certainly
thereisnoprimafaciereason
presiding
functions
a passiverecorder
oftradition.
How can we possibly
to assumehe was merely
he
"totalacceptance
ofthemoresofsociety"
knowthatHomer'svisionincluded
notbypersonal
choicebut
described
orthathe"profoundly
acceptsthissociety,
roleas itsrecorder
andpreserver"
(Preface,
89)?Clearly
becauseofhisfunctional
7But see Adam Parry,"Have We Homer'sIliad?," Yale ClassicalStudies,20 (1966),
175-216,and the responseby G. S. Kirk, Homer and the Oral Tradition(Cambridge,
1976),ch. 6.

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Eric A. Havelock

153

thathe was
we cannot,and as I shall pointout laterit is a reasonableinference
actuallycriticalof "Homeric" society.Even if he did conceiveof his role as
no reporterhas everbeen totallyunopinionated
merelyrecorderand preserver,
aboutwhathe reports,and thisappliesas wellto the(evenmoreunknown)bards
who precededHomer.
it is a gratuitousassumption
As to thepurposeoftheHomericcompositions,
thatit was merelyto storeculturaltraditionin memorableform,and thatthe
storiesare secondaryto thataim. Both Homer and Hesiod suggestthaton the
contrarythe task of the bard was to singthe deeds of men and gods: it is the
the story,thatcomesfirst.Thus thebard Phemiusknows"the deeds
narrative,
of men and gods thatsingerscelebrate"(erg' andronte theonte,ta te kleiousin
aoidoi [Odyssey1.338]).The effectof thesongs,accordingto theoldestsources,
In Book IX of theIliad the
pleasureand delightnot instruction.
is consistently
his heart"(phrena
embassyfromAgamemnoncomesupon Achilles"delighting
witha lyre;"he delightedhis heartand sang thegloriousdeeds of
terpomenon)
aeide d'ara klea andron[Iliad 9.186-89]).Whenthe
men" (hoge thumoneterpen,
Odysseus
blindbardDemodocussingsthescandaloustaleofAresand Aphrodite,
"delightedin his heart"(terpet'eniphresin[Odyssey8.368]). Hesiod aversthat
whena singerchantsthegloriousdeedsofmenofold and theblessedgods(kleea
humnesemakaraste theous),eventhepersonin griefforgets
proteronanthropon
his cares (Theogony98-103). The HomericHymnto Apollo acclaimsthe bard
simplyas "thesweetestofsingers... in whomyoumostdelight"(hedistosaoidon
to the
malista[169-70]).In none of these,theoldestreferences
... teoterpesthe
is
there
Nor
any
or
bards,are thereany hintsof didacticpurpose reception.
Homer
If
of
suggestionthatthe singerswereconceivedas custodians tradition.
regardedhimselfin sucha role,itwouldappearto be a newidea,nota traditional
But this is not likely,and as we shall now see, the
one-a self-appointment.
notionof thebard as educatoris prettyclearlypost-Homeric.
Wheredid theconceptionofHomeras "theeducatorofGreece" comefrom,
and whatdid it mean?Havelockhimselfhas assembledand translatedthechief
ancientallusions(Revolution,122-25),whichare as follows.Firstthereare two
philosopherXenophanes.One is too fragmenfromthesixth-century
fragments
theotherseemsto reproachHesiod and
taryand ambiguousto mean anything;
to the gods. Heraclitus,somewhat
humanmisdemeanors
Homerforattributing
later,opinedthat"whatHomerdeservesis to be flungout oftheassemblies"Next, Herodotus,in a passage
but uninformative.
a startlingpronouncement
alreadymentioned:"As to whencethegods severallysprang,and whetherall of
themwereeternaland theseveralshapesofthem-it was in a mannerofspeaking
thatthe Greeksformeda clear idea about thesematters.For in
onlyyesterday
myopinion... itwas they[Homerand Hesiod]whocomposeddivinegenealogies
the privilegesand skillsover whichthe
and assignedthe titlesand distributed
gods preside,and indicatedtheirrespectiveshapes."Then thereis thetestimony
who in theFrogsputsthefollowing
comedianAristophanes,
ofthefifth-century
wordsin themouthofAeschylus:"as fordivineHomer,/ Surelyhishonourand
/ In mattersof
gloryaccruedsimplyfromthis,thathe gave needfulinstruction
is
there
Plato's critique
men."
and
arms
finally
And
battleorder,valorousdeeds,
to
consider
is
now
time
"It
tragedyand its master
of Homer in the Republic:
on the one hand
masters
are
that
told
'they'
Homer,because we are sometimes

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JohnHalverson

154

to virtueand
and on theotherofall humanematterspertaining
ofall technology
vice, not to mentiondivinematters."I would add to these anotherrelevant
passagefromtheRepublic,whichrefersto the "praisersofHomerwho say that
thispoethas educatedGreece"-the origin,I wouldsuppose,ofthetitle"educatorof Greece" (Rep. 10.606E).
Xenophanesand Heraclitus,iftheythought
Obviouslytheearliestwitnesses,
of Homer as an educatorat all, did not thinkmuchof him.It is hardto guess
thecomicpoet;itwouldat leastbe imprudent
howseriouslyto takeAristophanes,
expressedherewerecommonplace.In anycase the
to assumethatthesentiments
is limitedto mattersof warfare.Similarly
to
Homer
educativerole attributed
Herodotus'sremarksare limitedto theology.It is onlyin Plato thatwe findthe
claim,8and thatis in an ironiccontext."We hearfromsome"(tinon
encyclopedic
Who these"some" may be
akouomen)is whatthe firstpassage says literally.9
of
Homer"(Homeronepainelater
"the
clear
from
the
praisers
becomes
passage:
of
Homer?
Almost
who
the
certainly
rhapsodeslike Ion,
And
are
praisers
tais).
his
In short,the
in
name.
the
Platonic
ridiculed
bearing
dialogue
mercilessly
of
sarcastic
remarksby
rest
on
a
claim
to
entirely
couple
appears
encyclopedist
and self-serving
group.Havelock would like
Plato about a small,insignificant,
us to believeit was commonlyheld thatHomerwas a masterof technai-arts,
practicalknowledge-butno real evidenceis offered.
skills,technology,
Plato mockedthe idea, as well he might,and even Havelock is drivento
modifythe claim almost out of existence.His favoriteexample of practical
knowledgeis a seriesof passagesin Book I of the Iliad in whichnavigational
routinesare described(308ff,432ff,480ff).Here is Havelock'ssummaryof one:
"Firstyoureachharbor,secondfurlsail,thirdlowerthemast,fourthrowto the
beach,fifthanchorthe sternin deep water,sixthgetout (by thebow), seventh
getthecargoout,eightdisembarkthepassenger"(Preface,83). This maybe "a
ofexperience"or a "paradigm,"butitis hardto discernitseducational
synthesis
instructions
on how to boil
value. It is as if the followingpassage constituted
cauldron/ and poured
water:"They set up overthe blaze of firea bath-water
waterintoit and put logs underneathand kindledthem./ The fireworkedon
the swellof thecauldronand thewaterheated."10
Is thisalso a piece of the "oral encyclopedia"?Or considertheIliad's absoScenesofkillingfollow
lutelyfavoritesubjectofdetaileddescription-mayhem.
ad nauseum,aboundinginclinicaldescriptions
oneanotherendlessly,
relentlessly,
of exactlywherespearsenterhumanbodies and come out and whatorgansare
theprincipalelementofthe
Thesedetaileddescriptions
mustconstitute
affected.
on how to kill a
to read themas instructions
"encyclopedia,"but it is difficult
man or as anatomylessons.As a fundofpracticalknowledge(techne),theIliad
and theOdysseymustbe accountedprettyworthless.The technicalinformation
in themis eithertoo vacuousor too generalto be of any real use. Homer'slove
and a well-known
featureof his style.But it
forconcretedetailis unmistakable
whichit vivifiesand
is moreplausiblyexplainedas an adjunctof the narrative,
enriches,thanvice versa.
8 WernerJaeger,
Paidea, tr.GilbertHighet(3 vols.;New York, 1943-45),I, 427, n. 9.
9 Jaegertransforms
this"some" to "many" in paraphrase:"Plato tellsus thatin his
timemanybelievedthatHomerwas the educatorof all Greece" (ibid.,35).
'0Iliad 18.346-8.Lattimore'stranslation.

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Eric A. Havelock

155

On theotherhand,fewwouldarguewiththeclaimthattheepicsare a great
storehouseof culturalinformation
of a different
kind-historical,genealogical,
etiological,mythical,theological,ethical,and so on-in short,thattheyare a
fundof traditionallore. Here Havelock is on saferand well-acceptedground.
The poemshave something
of an encyclopedicqualityin thissense.However,it
was an extremely
incompleteencyclopediaas theabundanceofothertraditional
it carriedis veryquestionstoriesin othersourcestestifies.
And whatauthority
able-though not forHavelock,who writes:"The Homericpoet controlledthe
culturein which he lived for the simple reason that his poetrybecame and
utterance"(Preface,145).This
remainedtheonlyauthorizedversionofimportant
credible,norevenintelligible.
is a broad claimindeed,butneithersubstantiated,
Whateveran "authorizedversionofimportant
utterance"maybe, it mustsurely
applyto theDelphic Oracle,Draco, and Solon,as wellas to a massoftraditions
nevermentioned
bythe"Homericpoet." As faras I know,Homeris nevercited
forany customarylaw or practice.Even in the
by the ancientsas the authority
area ofmythand religion,whereit mightbe expected,thereseemsto have been
nothing"scriptural"about the poems. Religiouspractices,largelycultic,show
It is questionablewhethermanypeople even seriously
no Homericinfluence.'1
was overton thepartofintellectubelievedin themythsofthegods.12 Skepticism
als such as Xenophanes,Heraclitus,and Plato. And who knowswhetherHomer
meantmuchof anythingat all to thecommonpeople?We mightguessthatthe
forthegeneralpublic;ifso it wouldalso be a good
Homericrhapsodesperformed
werereceivedprimarily
or
guess,based on Plato's Ion,thattheirperformances
notas one mightlistento a readingoftheBibleor the
as entertainment,
entirely
Koran.
In one area, and perhapsonlyone, Homerdid undoubtedly
carryauthority
in antiquity,
and thatwas in thehistoricalarea. Some mightdiscountthesupernatural,mythicaspectsof thestories,but no one doubtedthattheepicsgave an
Even theextremely
trueaccountoftheTrojanWar and itsaftermath.
essentially
cautiousThucydidesgave the poemshistoricalcredence.This tendsto confirm
thatHomer'sprimarypurposewas to tellthatstoryas accurately
theinference
The
wealthof incidentalinformation
would follownaturallyfrom
as he could.
sucha purpose,butitwouldbe incidental.It wouldalso followthata storyworth
tellingin such detail should be thoughtto containmuch that is worthyof
admirationand emulation,
thatitwouldpresentmodelsofproper(and improper)
behavior.Hence thefairlycommonview,sharedby Havelock,of Homeras the
ethicaleducatorof Greece,the greatexponentof the heroicideals.13 A passage
in Plato is oftencited in supportof this view,wherein a discussionof poetic
thecountlessdeeds
"possession"he refersto thekindof poetrythat"kosmousa
of men of old, educatesposterity"(Phaedrus245A). The Greek participleis
but keepingin
translated"adorning"or "glorifying,"
usually(and legitimately)
mindthe basic meaningof "puttingin good order,"it would appear thatit is
Nilsson,A Historyof
GreekReligion,tr.F. J. Fielden(New York, 1952); JonD. Mikalson,AthenianPopular
Religion(Chapel Hill, N.C., 1983).
12 Paul Veyne,Did theGreeksBelievein TheirMyths?
tr.P. Wissing(Chicago, 1988).
13 Jaeger,
tr.George
Paidea I, ch. 3; H. J.Marron,A HistoryofEducationinAntiquity,
Lamb (London, 1956),ch. 1.
II WalterBurkert,
GreekReligion(Cambridge,1985); MartinP.

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JohnHalverson

156

inhismind'4
andthatthe
thatPlatohasforemost
qualities
ofpoeticcomposition
ishistorical
thanethicalorinspirational.
Ifhehad
rather
(or"textual")
education
klearather
thanthenoncommittal
deeds,"hewouldhavewritten
meant"glorious
aboutheroicidealsortheir
muriaerga.In otherwordsthepassagesaysnothing
perpetuation.
Thisbringsus againto Havelock'sHomeras onewhototallyacceptedthe
recorded
and preand unreflectively
moresofhissocietyand whouncritically
ofhowonereadsHomer.A remarkable
feature
servedthem.Thisis all a matter
different
fromHesiod):the
is its neutrality
(altogether
of Homericnarration
extolsnor
praiseor blame,neither
takesno sides,does notovertly
narrator
them.All suchviewsareleftto
eventswithout
herecords
evaluating
condemns;
orauditors
arelefttoformtheirownsympahischaracters,
withwhomreaders
in theIliad, are freespecially
Manyofthesecharacters,
thiesor antipathies.
uncertainties.
Thegreatest
tenseizedbyethicaldoubtsandideological
quently
thewarrior
idealofgloryand theveryhumandesireto live.15
sionis between
intheIliad andalwayshateful,
andthereis surprisingly
Butdeathis ubiquitous
painfuland brutal
littleglory.Warriorafterwarriorsuccumbsto a horribly
inthedirt.Waris profoundly
Men
uglyanddeathignominious.
death,writhing
andfearofshame.The
aredrivenlessbythedesireforglorythanbyfatalism
celebrates
warrior
ideals.In facttheycan be
Iliad is nota poemthatactively
of Achillesafterhe has been
as in thefamousreflections
openlyquestioned,
to thefight:
honorand "greatglory"ifhe returns
promised
hard.
Fateis thesameforthemanwhoholdsback,thesameifhe fights
thebravewiththeweaklings.
We areall heldin a singlehonour,
A mandiesstillifhehasdonenothing,
as onewhohasdonemuch.(9.318-20)16
poem,anditsauthor
Inbrief,
as anantiwar
theIliadcanbereadquiteintelligibly
criticoftraditional
mores.
seenas a profound
encyclopedic
I concludethatHavelock'sportrait
ofHomeras thedidactic,
custodianof tradition
lacksverification
fromthe Homericpoems;it is very
himself
orwasperceived
bytheGreeksintherole
thatHomerperceived
unlikely
hassaid(anda greatmanyothers
tohim.Yetitremains
true,as Burkert
assigned
ofall education
wasHomer."'7
Thereis noparadox
agree),that"thefoundation
ofthestatement
is simply
thatthetextofHomerwasbasic
here,forthemeaning
intheclassicalperiod.As literacy
education
spreadandliterate
reading
required
in Homer.By the
becameinstitutionalized,
youngreaderslearnedtheirletters
fourth
theoratorIsocratesindicatesthatthepracticehad beenlong
century
"in
thatitwas"ourforebears"
whohonored
Homer'sart(technen)
established,
He wasthegreatpoet,comparaoftheyoung"(Panegyricus
theeducation
159ff).
in themodern
tooas a
bleto Shakespeare
world,comparable
English-speaking
But no morethan
and a mineofapt quotation.
and artistic
influence
literary
doesHomerseemtohavebeentakenas an ideological
orethicalor
Shakespeare
14 This seemsalso to be thebasic senseof Odysseus'spraiseof Demodocus: "forvery
muchin good order(kata kosmon)do you singthe fateof theAchaians" (Od. 8.489).
15 JasperGriffin,
Homeron Life and Death (Oxford,1980).
16 Lattimore's
translation.
17 Burkert,
Religion,120.

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Eric A. Havelock

157

or as a guidefortheperplexedor as a storehouseof cultural


religiousauthority
information.
One last Homericquestionis whetheror not Homer's linguisticidiomwas
truethatthe
syntaxand use ofthecopula. It is certainly
capableofpropositional
thanthe Platonicidiomto
less friendly
languageof thepoemsis incomparably
such statementforms,but it is also a strangecomparisonto make, giventhe
different
purposesofthesetwobodiesofwriting.Socraticdefinitions
completely
syntax"in
as "performative
would be as out of place in Homericstory-telling
manyof the dialoguesare
Platonicdialogue.The epics are about performance;
obtains.
thatsuch a difference
So it is hardlysurprising
about definition.
Greekidiom,bothHomericand classical,mayjoin a subjectand predicate
nominativeor predicateadjectivewithor withoutthe verb"to be": it can say
equally,"Achillesis strong"or "Achillesstrong."Havelockmakesa case that
whentheverbis expressedin Homer,it usuallyindicatessome sortofpresence:
notjust "being"but "beingthere."This maybe generallytrueand wouldbe in
keepingwiththeHomericstyle.But whethertheverb"to be" was expressedor
not may oftenhave dependedon nothingmorethanmetricalconvenience.For
example,in Book III of the Iliad, thereis a conversationbetweenPriam and
variousGreekwarriors.It goes
Helen in whichhe asks about,and she identifies,
likethis:
Priam:Who is thisone? (hos tis hod' esti[192])
Helen: This Laertes'son (houtosd'au Laertiades[200])
Priam:Who thisotherAchaean man?(tis t'ar' hod' allos Achaios aner [226])
Helen: This is Ajax (houtosd' Aias esti[229])
on the
In suchpassageswhethertheverbis expressedor notclearlyhas no effect
by Havelockas "locameaning.These exampleswould no doubtbe interpreted
tive,"withsomesuchsenseas "who is standingthere,"etc.This is notimplausithe largenumberof
a pointto interpret
ble, but it does seem to be stretching
and descriptivepredicatessuch as "I am a messenger,""I am a
identifying
god," "you are valiant,""you are kingliest,"as implyingpresenceand so to be
as
a messenger"or "you present-yourself
understoodas "I present-myself-as
valiant,"etc. Havelock rightlyobservesthat most such clauses have personal
themfromthe impersonal,abstractsubjectsof
subjects,which distinguishes
about
whichis entirely
Platonicidiom,butthisis almostinevitablein a narrative
theactionsand wordsofpersonsand cannottellus muchabout thecapabilities
in thepoems.Whetheror
ofHomericlanguagein othercontextsnotrepresented
as "You are valiant"surelyfitthe
not the subjectis personal,such statements
employedin attachinga specificsubjectto a
patternof "the copula as routinely
genericpredicate"quiteas well as "the house is big" (Justice234).
But thereare passagesthatdo notconformto Havelock'sscheme,according
to whichtheverbshouldbe unexpressed.For example:
kings,
2.196-7.Greatis theheartof god-nurtured
and theirhonoris fromZeus
basileon,
(thumasde megasestidistrephe6n
timed' ek Dios esti)

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JohnHalverson

158

9.116-7.A matchformany
people is the man whomZeus loves in his heart
(anti nu poll6n
la6n estinanerhon te Zeus keriphilese)
theverbis inthe"timeless"present;no activity,
In suchaphoristicgeneralizations
or
no "happening"is represented implied,and the subjectsare not particular
dropped,butit is not.Each
persons.In each case theverbcould be idiomatically
any of themas "locative"would be
estiis prettyclearlya copula. To interpret
"Justiceis truth"as "Justicepresents
as forcedas readingthePlatonicstatement
seems
inescapablethatHomericlanguage
The
conclusion
as
truth."
stands
itself/
was quite capable of propositionalsyntaxusingthe copula, thoughit had little
forthelogical,philosophical
occasionto use it.'8This shouldnotbe surprising,
existent
from
possibilities.
must
have
developed
use of the copula
meant
We maynow turnto thesupposednecessityof "poetizing"statements
fororal storage.If we were obligedto accept Havelock's contentionthat the
Homericepicsare ouronlycompleteand genuinerecordofan oral culture,there
would notbe muchto say at thispointsincetheyare indeedpoetized.But it is
oflivingcultureshavebeenrecorded
Countlessoral traditions
a falsecontention.
in the last century,and thereare manyrecordsof historicalculturespreserved
long ago, one of the most repleteand remarkablebeingthe oral traditionsof
century
medievalIceland,thefamoussagas firstwrittendown in thethirteenth
memoriesgoingback to theninthcentury.Anotherwouldbe the
butpreserving
Hebrewtraditionrecordedin theBible. In all ofthisenormousbodyofmaterial
one thingemergesclearly,and thatis thattheprincipalmediumofpreservation
characteristics
thatmight
is prose,mostof whichhas no metricalor rhythmic
qualifyit in any way as poetic.Yet mostof it standson quiteas good a footing
ofeventsand statements,
as theHomericepicsin termsof accuratepreservation
and in some cases better.Havelock dismissesprose as beingtoo susceptibleto
changeto servein anymemorialcapacity,butpoetrymaybe no betteroffin this
respectthanprose.This is veryeasyto see whencomparingEnglishand Scottish
fromoralsourceswiththeirAppalacentury
balladstakendownintheeighteenth
especially
century.As is well-known
chianequivalentsrecordedin thetwentieth
oral poetry,bards oftenchangethe content
frommuchstudiedSerbo-Croation
so thatversionsof the same materialmayvaryquite
of theirsongsquitefreely,
to anto anotherand fromone performer
considerablyfromone performance
19
how
oral
traditions
of
contemporary
other. Finneganhas shownfroma variety
In
most
can
be.20
individualsinger-composers
consciouslycreativeand innovative
cases wherecomparisonscan actuallybe made,it is evidentthatpoetizingperse
the spokenword.
in fixingand preserving
is ineffective
18 A. S. H. Adkins,"Oralityand Philosophy,"Robb (ed.), Language and Thought
examples(note2 above),207-27,has cometo muchthesameconclusions,usingdifferent
to find.
whichshowsthattheyare not too difficult
19AlbertB. Lord, The Singerof Tales (Cambridge,Mass., 1960); HermannFrankel,
tr.M. Hadas and J. Willis(New York, 1973),6-25;
Early GreekPoetryand Philosophy,
and theOral (note 3 above), ch. 3.
JackGoody, The Interfacebetweenthe Written
Anyway?,"B. A. Stolzand R. S. Shannon
20 RuthFinnegan,"Whatis Oral Literature
III (eds.), Oral Literatureand theFormula(Ann Arbor,1976).

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Eric A. Havelock

159

ofverification-isneveranyworse
Prose-again wherethereare possibilities
offand oftenfaresverywell. There is littledoubt that the Icelandic sagas,
especiallythe historicaland familysagas, give an account of laws, customs,
economy,geography,
attitudes,
beliefs,values,politicaland religiousinstitutions,
greateraccuracyand
history,
and genealogiesofa bygoneage withconsiderably
in Homer.2'Theyare also muchmorefreeofanachronism
realismthananything
and conflationof historicalperiodsthanHomer.This is a largewrittencorpus
and a substantial
thathas preserved
thousandsoffamilynamesand relationships
witharcheologihistoricaleventsand has provedconsistent
numberofverifiable
cal discoveries.To theextentthattheconceptofan oralencyclopediais meaningthatcould be asked of one is providedby the sagas of Iceland,
ful,everything
in
whichwerecomposedand preservedforthreeto fourhundredyearsentirely
or formulaic
prose.Moreover,the languageof the sagas lacks any rhythmical
and in no sense a "contrivedlanquality;it is veryplain and straightforward
guage."
It wouldbe easyto extendthisdiscussionto theproseofotheroraltraditions,
to refutethe contentionthat "Orally
but the Icelandic example is sufficient
74). Havelock
has to be 'poetizedstatement'" (Revolution,
preservedstatement
has foundplentyoforal literatures
thatdo
recognizesthatmodemethnography
not fithis scheme,and has triedto explainthemaway as the resultof cultural
into"residualentertainprimaryoralitydeteriorates
inertiaor foreigninfluence:
ment"(Muse, 44-45). But thatcannotbe arguedhere,forneithercircumstance
of literary
appliesto medievalIceland. Thereremainsthetheoreticalpossibility
made by literate
of oral styleand contentin thetranscriptions
"contamination"
but thisholds as muchforHomer as forany otheroral corpus.In any
writers,
as prose,
thatthesagas wereoriginally
poetrytranscribed
case it is inconceivable
but
also
there
was a
lack
of
evidence
because
of
the
total
not only because
in
itself
both
the
same
manifesting
tradition
culture,
coexisting
powerfulpoetic
in
poemsof theElder Edda and withinthesagas themselves
in theindependent
the clearlyset offSkaldic versesthat oftenpepperthe prose stories.(Skaldic
has a formidabletechnicalcomplexityof styleand content
poetry,incidentally
in oral literature.)
thatbeliesany assumptionsof simplicity
in thefirstplace,
It is clearthatpoetizingis notnecessaryformemorization
it is just as fallibleas prose. What about
and that as a mode of preservation
Here Havelockis at leaston solidempiricalgroundsincenarra"narrativizing"?
in oral literature.
But it wouldbe fallaciousto infer
tiveformdoes predominate
of narrativeformand actionsyntax.At
fromthisany theoreticalrequirement
least one commongenre-proverbs-oftendoes not have thesecharacteristics.
Finnegangivesa numberofproverbsfromAfricaexpressedin non-actionsyntax,
forexample,"Wealth is dew," "The heartof a man is a sea."22Old English
maximsregularlyhad thisform:"Life is short"(lifis lerne),"Fate is strongest"
etc. But accordingto Havelockthesecannotbe trulyoral.
(Wyrdbithswithost),
In his example,"The formula'Honestyis thebestpolicy'is a creatureofliterate
21 E. V. Gordon,An Introduction
to Old Norse(London, 1957); PeterHallberg,The
Icelandic Saga, tr. P. Schach (Lincoln,Nebraska,1962); TheodoreM. Andersson,The
ProblemofIcelandicSaga Origins(New Haven, 1964); JesseL. Byock,MedievalIceland
(Berkeley,1988).
22
Ruth Finnegan,Oral Literaturein Africa(London, 1970),ch. 14.

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JohnHalverson

160

speechthisbecomes'An
speech.In orallypreserved
speech,of documented
" (Muse,76).It maybe granted
form
thatthelatter
manalwaysprospers'
honest
formulae
on this
ofnon-narrative
butto denytheorality
preferred,
is generally
andquestion
begging.
basisis purelyarbitrary
any
in virtually
can be memorized
anything
Surelythefactis thatvirtually
birthrelatives'
telephone
numbers,
themultiplication
tables,
form.
Wememorize
ofEngland,
themonarchs
baseballstatistics,
days,all thestopson oursubway,
is
thestatesandtheircapitals,thebooksoftheBible,thesevendwarfs-there
without
benefit
ofspecialform.
storedinmemory
information
noendofcultural
andthelikeandlegends,
myths
As toprinciples
ofbehavior,
beliefs,
ideological
rather
tobe remembered;
theyarestored
statements
theserequireno formulaic
in transmission,
ofverbalexpression
thatallowfora greatvariety
as concepts
andreproduction.
remembrance,
is unconvincing
andiforalliteraof"primary
orality"
IfHavelock'sanalysis
to it,he is no more
northeformhe attributes
thefunction
turehad neither
ofthought
thattookplace
inhisaccountofthegreattransformation
convincing
is thathe seemsto wantto makealphabetic
in classicalGreece.The problem
inandofitself
as ifwritten
created
language
thesolecauseofthechange,
literacy
reston a posthocpropter
thecase,Havelock'sarguments
As is so often
thought.
itmusthavecausedit.He is also
ifwriting
preceded
logicalthought
hocfallacy:
fromempirical
an
observation:
ofuniversal
principles
givento hastyabstraction
thatwritten
textspermitted
Thusheobserves,
enough,
astutely
fallacy.
inductive
thatled,or couldlead,to the
topicalization
perusalandretrospective
reflective
thatthis
oflogicalcategories;
butthenhe leapsto theconclusion
development
Thisis certainly
a falseconcluunderacousticconditions.
wouldbe impossible
inthesamewayon an oralpresentationsion,foritis quitepossibleto reflect
what
itin memory,
askingourselves
or reorganizing
to mullitover,organizing
It is notonlypossible
ouranswers.
thespeakerwasgetting
at,andtopicalizing
lifewhenwethinkovera conversation,
speech,
butan ordinary
factofauditory
rather
itis credible
thatwriting-or
orlecture
wehaveheard.Similarly,
though
musthavereadersforHavelockis quiterightto insistthatwriting
literacy,
itis notcredible
thedevelopment
ofnewideas("novelstatements"),
facilitated
incontempoinanoralsociety.
Weknowitispossible
thatnovelty
wasimpossible
itisjustas likelythatHomerandhis
directobservation;
from
raryoralcultures
thoseoftheirown
notexcluding
newstories
totheGreeks,
brought
predecessors
forat sometimethestories
infact,itis inescapable,
Morethanlikely,
invention.
of
The testimony
had to be new-theycouldnothaveexistedfrometernity.
new
clearlyimpliesthatHomerand Hesiodintroduced
Herodotus,
moreover,
ofthedivineorder.
conceptions
isunexceptionofliteracy
MuchofwhatHavelockhastosayabouttheeffects
and
is thegreatadvantage
of comparatively
permanent
able.Mostimportant
humanmemory.
Thedissemination
ofinformation
fallible
outside
storage
reliable
wouldhavebeengreatly
enhanced
ofideasandinformation
bythegradualspread
a
anachronistic
use
somewhat
ofliteracy
andthegrowth
of"bookpublication"
(to
It
is
that
the
ofa text
presence
and
a
also
true
physical
public.
reading
phrase)
is
a
more
flexible
medium
careful
and
that
enablesandencourages
prose
study,
than
formulaic
ofcommunication traditional
poetry.
As we
is moreproblematic.
Theputative
influence
onprosesyntax
ofwriting

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Eric A. Havelock

161

syntaxwereapparhave alreadyseen,all theprincipalfeaturesof propositional


thattheywerepresentin ordinary,
entlyalreadyavailableto Homer,suggesting
nonpoeticspeech and that the prose that foundits way into writingwas a
fromtheartificial
ofthatspeech.Thus theattemptto plota transition
reflection
idiomof Homericverseto essayisticproseis an emptyexercise,forit is hardly
Ofcourse-particcrediblethatwritten
proseevolvedfromHomerichexameters.
ularlyin early philosophicalthinking-itwas necessary(as Havelock rightly
says) to develop a suitable,unambiguouslanguageforthis kind of discourse,
that
idiom.Nevertheless,
whichnecessarily
departedfromcasual conversational
idiommusthavebeenitssource.Againitseemsevidentthatmuchofthecontent
of early philosophizingand the problemsit was concernedwith arose from
on language-as in manyofHeraclitus'sparadoxes,Parmenides'fascireflection
meaning
nationwiththeverb"to be," and the Socraticsearchforthedefinitive
ofwords.But noneofthisrequiresor presupposestheexistenceofwriting.Both
the linguisticstyleand contentof philosophicaldiscoursecould in principle
oral context.Indeed,accordingto Havelock's own
have developedin a strictly
culturalfactorbefore
chronologyofGreekliteracy,writingwas nota significant
Plato.
mighthavebeeninstrumental
It is notveryclearhow,evenin theory,writing
is thatbyremovin creatinga newpropositional
language.Havelock'ssuggestion
languagefromtheneed
ingthepressureto memorize,writingfreedpreservation
to be poetizedand narrativized.But if neitherthe pressurenor the need ever
existed,as seems to be the case, thereis no obvious role leftfor writingto
utterance"approach.
play.The same thingis trueifwe take the "authoritative
Havelock is so persuadedthat only poetized language carriedauthoritythat
he is willingto suggest(apparentlyseriously)thata generalmightbreak into
hexametersto give an order(Preface,94). But as I have triedto show, it is
doubtfulthatHomer or Homericlanguageeverhad such authority.
extremely
was literaryprestige,and it is at least possiblethat
What it did have,evidently,
writinghelped prose to gain a comparableprestige,but that would have no
bearingon thelinguisticnatureof prose.
thanHaveThe Greekalphabethas probablyneverhad a greaterpanegyrist
lock,but his enthusiasmled him to attributealmostmysticalpowersto it-to
overlookotherrelevantfactorsin the evolutionof the "Greek mind" and to
of the
of otherwritingsystems.That the difficulties
exaggeratethe deficiencies
Semiticscriptstendedto confinethemto recordingthefamiliarand typicaland
unwarranted
generalization.
to centeron religionand mythseemsa particularly
was forofficialcorrespondence,23
Afterall, one oftheprincipalusesofcuneiform
was thewholepoint.It was oftenprecisely
in whichexchangeofnewinformation
to seekand
commanders
and administrators
untypicalsituationsthatled military
used thescriptto
and mathematicians
receiveguidance.Babylonianastronomers
compriseonlya minusrecordtheirdiscoveries.Mythicaland religiouswritings
claytablets,mostofwhich,like
cule percentageofthevastnumberofcuneiform
B
are
the Mycenaean Linear tablets,
occupied with day-to-daybureaucratic
23 I. J.Gelb,A Studyof Writing
(Chicago,1963);JamesB. Pritchard(ed.), TheAncient
Near East (2 vols.;Princeton,1969); A. Leo Oppenheim,AncientMesopotamia(Chicago,
1977).

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JohnHalverson

162

Ancient
butnotbecauseofthescript.
enough,
Thesemaybe mundane
matters.
intheBiblewherethereligious
entirely
Hebrew,
ontheotherhand,hassurvived
butitishardtoimagine
indistinguishable;
perhaps
andthesecularareinseparable,
to thetypical
as restricted
visions,
theBookofDaniel,say,withitsprophetic
Havelocksuggests
In another
lineofthought
orlackinginnovelty.
andfamiliar
shortlengthoftheGilgamesh
epicand itscomparative
thatthecomparatively
beingto theIliad) are due to the
lack of lexicalvariety(bothcomparisons
and thatit is therefore
theworkin cuneiform,
laborof recording
prohibitive
oralepic(Revolution,
168-73).But
ofa longerandricher
an "epitome"
probably
It maybe noted
thereis littleto thisconjecture.
exceptfora priorireasoning,
as Gilgamesh,24
andtheSongofRolandareofaboutthesamelength
thatBeowulf
nothampered
wasobviously
script
used.
bythealphabetic
andtheirtranscription
in lexicalvariety.
difference
I also doubtthatthereis anysignificant
thattheancientscripts
wereseldomthe
a fairgeneralization
It is probably
thereis certainly
notmuch
from
information);
vehicles
fornewideas(as distinct
ofclassicalGreece.But forall their
ferment
to comparewiththeintellectual
novelthought.
The
thesescriptswerequitecapableof expressing
difficulties,
butwiththefactthatin therigidly
systems
problem
was notwiththewriting
civilizations
oftheancientNearEast therewerevery
conservative
traditional,
Itismuchtobedoubted
thatthepresence
fewnewideasaroundtobetranscribed.
All
in thesecultureswouldhavemadeanydifference.
of alphabetic
writing
can do is recordwhatpeoplethinkand say;it cannotitself
writing
alphabetic
thesixor
Western
throughout
alphabet
createthought.
Europehaditsexcellent
progress
anynotableintellectual
sevenhundred
yearsofitsDarkAgeswithout
andinnovation
werenotmuch
Indeedintellectual
progress
or eveninnovation.
anda largereading
intheRomanEmpiredespite
literacy
widespread
inevidence
in
earlier
Empire.
Byzantine
public,nor the
thanalphaClearlytherehadtobe muchmoreto theGreekEnlightenment
have
found
no
reason
to
had
we
anymore
literacy
beticliteracy.
So far,
suppose
of
of
and
dissemination
But
thought.
minor
role
the
storage
thanthe
facilitating
on
the
nature
and
this
a
role
entirely
whether
ornot was consequential depended
The etiology
of the
and published.
beingtranscribed
qualityof thethoughts
much
discussed
been
GreekEnlightenment-which
was
truly revolutionary-has
ofprobable
causesadduced,
andcombination
overtheyears,anda widevariety
andeven(improbably)
demographic,
ideological,
economic,
political,
including
instead
toa simplistic
factors.25
Aboutall thisHavelockis silent,
clinging
genetic
idiosynThoughsometimes
reductionism
thatlacks,orshouldlack,credibility.
significantly
he wasa brilliant
scholarwhocontributed
craticandextravagant,
and arguments
on thehistorical
to hissubject.Nevertheless,
hisbasicposition
24 So is theAfrican
proseepicofMwindo:Daniel Biebuyckand KahomboC. Mateene,
The MwindoEpic (Berkeley,1971).
25 See,forexample,WilhelmNestle,VomMythos
zumLogos(2nd ed.; Stuttgart,
1942);
Public du
Louis Gernet,"Les Originesde la Philosophie,"Bulletinde l'Enseignement
Maroc,No. 183 (1945), 239-50;P.-M. Schuhl,Essai sur la Formationde la penseegrecque
Sapientiae(Cambridge,1952); GeorgeThomPrincipium
(Paris, 1948); F. M. Cornford,
son, The FirstPhilosophers(London, 1955); Bruno Snell, Die Entdeckungdes Geistes
(Gottingen,1975); G. E. R. Lloyd,Magic, Reason and Experience(Cambridge,1979);
Jean-Pierre
Vernant,The Originsof GreekThought(Ithaca, 1982).

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JohnHalverson

163

roleofGreekliteracyin thecreationofmodemconsciousnessare finallyuntenahis


ble; and in some cases, when his views have been accepted uncritically,
His theoriesofHomerand Homericlanguageinfluencehas beenunfortunate.
ingeniousand provocativethoughtheymaybe-do nothold up underscrutiny.
about therequirements
for"preservedlanguage"or
Nor do his generalizations
of the alphabet.Some scriptsare certainlybetterthan
effects
the emancipatory
spokenlanguage,but no scriptcan create
othersforrecordingand transmitting
causal rolein thehistory
thought.Whetheralphabeticliteracyhad anysignificant
of cognitivedevelopmentremainsan open question.The claim thatit was the
cause fortheevolutionof logical,abstractmodesof
sole, principal,or sufficient
is withoutfoundation.
thinking
of California,Santa Cruz.
University

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