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Ancient Philosophy


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Turning: From Persuasion to Philosophy: A Reading of Homer's Iliad by Michael Naas (Philosophy and Literary Theory Series: Humanity Books) A major desconstructive reading of Homer's Iliad by the well-known translator of Derrida and Lyotard.
Within the brief compass of a single sentence, Eduard Zeller once mapped the extremities of the axis around which a long tradition of thought revolves: "Homer and philosophy -- these are the two poles between which the world of Greek thought rotates" (25). Zeller observes that Homeric poetry and Greek philosophy emerge from the same site, "the other side of the Aegean Sea ." But in relation to each other, the two remain widely distant and are purposefully set at opposite poles. By long-established tradition we take our bearings from this polarization: it ensures us safe passage and sure trajectory as we trace our courses within and across the space of the irreducible distance between these two fixed points of the turning world. And yet there are times when this movement is temporarily arrested by the possibility of a different reading of the structure of this world, its assumed axes and axioms. Zeller concludes with the observation that "we should not overlook the fact that [the Homeric poems] contain much reflection on the world and life." Indeed, "the notes thus struck" in Homeric pondering upon the turnings of the world "continue to sound." One may detect "beneath the surface of the heroic poetry and its myths" the Logos that "begins to stir" (26).

Similarly, Hermann Fraenkel, in Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy, heralds the rising within the history of thought of "the daystar of pure philosophy" (252). Post-Homeric "pure philosophy" ("divorced from all extraneous associations") "came into existence suddenly and without visible cause" -- "as if by a miracle." "Reine Philosophie," springing up "from the soil of a borderland" ("auf dem Boden eines Grenzlandes"), marked "a clean break with the past" (255). The break, boundaries and limits establish the purity of a totally new realm of thought. But the very term "pure philosophy" is carefully chosen to distinguish this thought from thought "still attached to the framework of the traditional religion and mythology." In an apologetic note within his treatment of Homeric epic, Fraenkel feels the need to qualify some of his more philosophical remarks: "The old heroic epic takes a basically unphilosophic stance; these things are taken unquestionably as they presented themselves for epic treatment. But this does not prevent philosophic premises, conscious or unconscious, from being formed already. Philosophy keeps breaking in." (60 n. 18). Philosophy keeps "breaking in" as if totally from without, and yet "formed already" from within. With Hesiod, there comes another qualifying note: "although the epic deals in myth, it can find room for what amounts to speculations on basic questions of metaphysics, and that it is not correct to make Greek philosophy begin simply with Thales and Anaximander" (108 n. 30).

Within this long tradition, Vico would go so far as to proclaim that his examination of the epic showed "the complete absence of philosophy in Homer" (276). But in this century the significant work of Cornford with regard to the origins of philosophy (which is so often stated to begin with itself) did much to reshape the armature of our conceptions of Greek thought. It is important to bear in mind that much of the discussion of where philosophy commences always already assumes a certain conception of what constitutes philosophy. (In Aristotle's history of philosophy in the Metaphysics, he speaks of Thales as the founder TH= S TOIAU /THS FILOSOFI/AS and considers how the principle of water relates to the poetic thought of Homer, 983b20-984a5. The comment reminds us of the heterogeneity of "philosophy.") One might, without too much controversy, adopt, for example, Gernet's rather broad definition in his piece on "The Origins of Greek Philosophy," which concluded: "First of all, Greek philosophy is the beginning of what we call philosophy as such, or to put it another way, it is the basis of the intellectual activity whereby man, through reason and reflection, attempts to define the meaning of the world and his place in it" (352). A wider appreciation of these aspects of Greek thought might produce a shift which would re-open for consideration some of our fixed preconceptions concerning the nature of Homeric thought. The longstanding distinction between mythos and logos has been effectively challenged, with the result that we might now consider more closely a reminder such as Castoriadis provides for us: "Man is an unconsciously philosophical animal, who has posed the questions of philosophy in actual fact long before philosophy existed as explicit reflection; and he is a poetic animal, who has provided answers to these questions in the imaginary" (147; it needs to be noted that Castoriadis's work redefines what we are to understand as "the imaginary"). Once the fixed, distant poles of poetry and philosophy have been unsettled and begin to drift across the boundaries designed to contain them in their purity, we might give some reconsideration to, and reassess, a number of our dominant presuppositions as we continually renew our approaches to the great Homeric epic poetry.

Michael Naas's book, Turning: From Persuasion to Philosophy, broaches some of these significant questions. In proposing to treat the important subject of persuasion (described as "one of the most elusive and, yet, significant "concepts" or "activities" in classical Greek literature and philosophy"), Naas conducts his own argument with philosophy and its conception of persuasion and philosophy. But there is something troubling in this treatment, and not merely in the aim to disturb more conventional positions. One might note at the outset the hesitation over the term "concept" in the description quoted above ("one of the most significant 'concepts' or 'activities'"), a small index of a far-reaching problem throughout the book. The author states in outlining the major aims of his study, "The point of the work is to show that the movement from persuasion to philosophy can be found in those texts that we assume to precede philosophy" (16). And yet the whole book is haunted by the very question that Naas himself poses, "How, then, do we decide where persuasion ends and philosophy begins?" (208). Or, indeed, where philosophy begins and ends.

The book also promises A Reading of Homer's Iliad, and includes special consideration of books 9 and 24. But it should also be observed that within the scope of Naas's fundamental disagreement with "philosophy" (conceived somewhat monolithically), his decision to treat the Iliad in particular was a strategic choice. In order to achieve his aim, "to disrupt the opposition between persuasion and philosophy," he could, as he remarks, have treated the Platonic texts, cataloguing all Platonic metaphors and similes "in order to show just how much philosophy depends upon its other to be itself" (8). But instead Naas chooses to analyze the Homeric Iliad as a specifically pre-Platonic text. He declares that the Iliad contains the "beginnings of philosophy." The greater part of his analysis, however, moves in a very different direction. The Homeric epic is prized for its pre-philosophical and non-philosophical status. Homeric poetry was, it is argued, created before the concept and prior to conceptualization as such: "In Homer, persuasion precedes the very idea or concept of persuasion" (13). In a work which owes a great deal to the unpublished dissertation of G. M. Pepe ("Studies in Peitho," 1966), Naas devotes considerable effort to reworking and arguing against his predecessor. Pepe had commented, "The absence of the substantive PEIQW/ has been taken as proof that there is no abstract notion of persuasion in the poems." (He compares this argumentum e silentio to the attempt to "establish Homer's illiteracy by the lack of any explicit references in the poems to the art of writing," 11). This issue is central to Naas's thesis and he responds, "Pepe concludes that while the substantive peitho is not to be found in Homer, the concept of it is at work. In principle, the absence of a substantive does not entail the absence of a concept, but in Homer there is no real evidence of a developed concept of persuasion at work, and so the absence of a substantive can be seen as further evidence of a persuasion before the concept" (205). In many respects, Naas's account of Homer recalls (and explicitly cites) the older Hegelian tradition in Homeric studies, most notably the work of Snell. For Hegel, philosophy is distinguished above all by the formation of the Concept ["der Begriff"] traced within the course of its development towards the Absolute. (In relation to the general question raised in the opening to this review, one might note the number of beginnings for "proper philosophy" in Hegel's History of Philosophy.) In striving to follow Derrida's critique of the concept of concept, Naas locates, as he sees it, an early text which is aconceptual.

In this account the aphilosophical receives a different evaluation from that which is customary (and is assumed even among the scholars he cites and whose views and evalutions he generally shares -- for example, Snell). Here the "primitive" or "naive" is good and desirable; it is innocent of philosophical conception and thereby eludes the very conceptions that philosophy would attempt to impose upon it. "In Homer, persuasion is not yet a fully articulated concept but an ambivalent third term that can never be fully mastered or defined" (9). On the other hand, persuasion is given a "pure and proper" definition in Naas's treatment of the epic. Without consideration of the Iliad, "it would be too easy to forget that before persuasion was ever turned into a concept by philosophy indeed, before it ever appeared or was represented in ancient Greek literature and thought, it was, in Homer, just turning" (13, Naas's italics). The emphatic phrase "just turning" -- turning pure and simple -- works to overturn the principal argument of the book. For it is the very notion of pure and simple turning that the author contests (without entirely relinquishing) throughout. Naas aims to be rigorously pure in treating the question of persuasion; he himself upholds a clear break between philosophy and the literature which precedes it: "This work attempts to show that the concepts of philosophy cannot be used to analyze that which "precedes" philosophy" (12). And yet, is not the aconceptual itself a product of a determination formed by a philosophy of the concept? One of the major difficulties in Naas's work is his tendency to pursue the radical aspects of Derrida's thought and at the same time to slip back easily and comfortably into conventional presuppositions which he himself otherwise rejects. It is within this disquieting mode, then, that Naas sets out "to ask about the status of this "thing" called persuasion." He argues that persuasion "eludes all our categories, distinctions, oppositions, and concepts." The claim is familiar, and, in the absence of any profound development, it is less compelling by virtue of its very familiarity (6).

Turning is a very ambitious work. One of its declared aims is "to do for peitho what Detienne and Vernant did for metis in Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society." This involves taking a practice, a form of intelligence, that, "like persuasion, has been condemned or neglected by the greater part of the philosophical tradition" (13). Vernant and Detienne did more than recover what might hitherto have been neglected. In a way which still remains open to question, they actively constructed a form of metis, and one which met with considerable critical success. It would, however, be extremely difficult to sustain the contention that peitho had been "neglected" by Greek and subsequent thought. Nevertheless, what unites the two endeavours is the challenge to "philosophy," a philosophy which is ultimately identified with Plato. Naas cites (13) the condemnation by Detienne and Vernant of "the concept of Platonic Truth": "The various forms of practical intelligence are sweepingly condemned once and for all in the name of the one and only Truth proclaimed by philosophy," "the immutable Knowledge claimed by a system of metaphysics based on Being and by the logic of Identity." It is noteworthy that the one work of Derrida which Naas's book follows most closely is the well-known piece "La Pharmacie de Platon" (1968), published in a revised version in La Dissémination (1972), which announced that "we are today on the eve of Platonism" (in both a political and philosophical sense, 107). This is not to diminish Naas's very wide knowledge of the work of Derrida in general; indeed, he has co-translated two works by that author. It is interesting to note in this context that in "La Pharmacie," Derrida refers to the "remarkable essay" by Vernant which followed the first publication of Derrida's work on the pharmakon, and draws attention to the early published pieces on metis (130-31 n. 56). Derrida even contributed to the Festchrift for Vernant, Poikilia, although major followers of Vernant have vigorously disavowed any relation; here, as elsewhere, Derrida himself is the ostracized pharmakos.

For Naas persuasion is a pharmakon (15), "both remedy and poison," "both a bane as well as a good" (83). Interestingly, Pitt-Rivers describes this ambivalence of power -- "he who can kill can cure and vice versa" -- as an "ancient anthropological principle" (10). Naas constantly reiterates throughout his book the central theme of "the fundamental ambivalence of persuasion" (e.g., 4, 28, 81, 215). In this he amplifies one of Detienne's seminal remarks on peitho in another work which has significantly guided Naas's study, Les Maîtres de vérité dans la Grèce archaïque, where Peitho is observed to be "fondamentalement ambivalente: benefique et malefique" (63). Naas aims "to show that persuasion is both beneficial and threatening"; persuasion, it is argued, is the "pharmakon upon which communication, community, and presence are founded" (35). This point structures the book. After Part One (somewhat predictably entitled "The Middle Voice of Persuasion"), Parts Two and Three, entitled "Turning-Toward: Persuasion as Recovery" and "Turning-Away: Persuasion as Loss" respectively, seek to give an exhaustive account of relations both between mortals and between mortals and gods and to show how persuasion is essential to every aspect of society. Naas treats relations of command, counsel, prophecy, custom, trust, memory, and obedience to the gods, where all are shown to remedy separation and strife. But persuasion is also shown to disrupt the very relations it establishes: "it is associated, in Homer, with political and social deception, erotic seduction, separation, forgetting, madness, hubris and blindness or Ate" (83). Truly "both a bane as well as a good." Later, in Part Six, Naas also examines "exemplary activitiesfquot; related to persuasion, gift-giving and prayer, to conclude: "Prayers, like gifts, then, are pharmaka: they turn one simultaneously toward and away from the turning" (159).

It is this fundamental ambivalence that Naas claims is neutralized by Plato as philosophy distinguishes itself from rhetoric, "such that one could distinguish and separate good persuasion from bad" (5). (In terms of the tension between the argument and the structure of his workl Naas is aware of the "injustice" of his own treatment of peitho in two separate and successive parts, first as a good and then as a bane.) At the same time, Naas also claims that "the conceptualization of persuasion in the fifth century perhaps signals the beginning of the forgetting of persuasion's ambivalence" (24; within this history ambivalence concerning "beginnings" is unavoidable). This contention is elsewhere clearly stated, with names of Greek authors rendering the history a little more specific: "the implicit claim underlying this book is that by the time of Plato, but perhaps already in Aeschylus, a fundamental transformation had taken place in the Greek understanding of persuasion" (5). Naas's suggestion that Aeschylus constitutes a certain landmark in the loss of the sense of the ambivalence of peitho is rather difficult to accommodate. Critics have commented specifically on the transformation of peitho, across the trilogy, from "a curse into a blessing" (Consider Sommerstein, e.g., in his comment on Aes. Eum. 885. Naas's remark on the tendency to reduce the`ambivalence of peitho might perhaps be more justifiably directed towards critics of Aeschylus. Buxton is somewhat equivocally drawn to one pole in his conclusion: "True, peitho in Aischylos is not in all circumstances a good -- as Agamemnon and Choephoroi show, it can be demonic and destructive. But in general it constitutes a healing and charming agency" 113. On the question of peitho in Aeschylus, see now Pucci).

"Conceptualization" plays a critical role in this "history" of Greek thought -- and Naas himself recognizes how problematic the question of such a history is. But this does not inhibit his imposition of a simplified and schematic mould on Greek thought. Homeric poetry was born "before the concept," and it is this which sets it apart. Naas deals with the contentious question of "the subject" in a similar manner. Just as there is, it is argued, no abstract notion or conceptualization in Homer, so there is, Naas rather baldly asserts, "no psychological subject in Homer" (9). Again, the work of Derrida and Levinas, for example, takes a strange turn when Naas attempts to relate it to earlier publications specifically within the field of Classical scholarship. Even for those who have little difficulty with the view which Naas presents here, citing Vernant's formulation -- "self and other, identity and alterity go hand in hand and reciprocally constitute each other" (14) -- Naas's reduction of this awareness of the constitutive nature of the subject to the assertion that there is "no psychological subject in Homer" is difficult to accept. This difficulty is compounded when Derrida's critique is unjustifiably assimilated to the model of Snell. But for Naas it is this approach in particular which distinguishes his work from that of all others. "If the individual in Homer is not a fully constituted subject, then the cause and effect model of persuasion (i.e., persuader > persuasive message > persuadee) needs to be rethought" (14). Hence Naas would reject, for example, Pucci's comment on peitho that "'to persuade' in Greek implies the turning away of someone from his own line of thinking" (Hesiod, 25). Naas recommends "good antidotes" to the maleficent "psychologization of the individual" which improperly applies notions that are, even in the fifth century, "still in their infancy," "still struggling against pre-urban, mythological conceptions" (23).

In Naas's argument (and there is a degree of philosophical complexity in this question), the Homeric text has "not yet been dominated by a logic of identity" (222). It knows no concept and no (psychological) subject. And yet Naas, while rejecting the metaphysical tradition which consists of concepts and subjects and the logic of identity, speaks throughout of "turning itself" (e.g., 127, 129, 150, 158, 195, 197; at page 160 the quotation marks in the phrase "turning 'itself'" signal a momentary awareness of the inherent difficulty). "Turning itself" is "just turning" -- but the implications of the phrase go much further; as expressed, it asserts and confirms the self-identity of turning itself, as such. At the same time, "just turning" (literally, but not quite) is also "Homer's use of the metaphor of turning to describe the process or activity of persuasion" (9; on this metaphorical aspect of persuasion, compare Pepe and Mourelatos. Naas invokes Derrida's critique of the literal/metaphorical distinction, to conclude, "while turning is indeed a metaphor, it can be no mere metaphor since there is no psychological subject in Homer, no interior space of intention through which one might oppose metaphorical speech to literal intention," 9). Furthermore, Naas maintains that any attempt at a profile or figuration "always suggests a certain identity and is thus always a betrayal of pure metaphoricity, a turning away from turning itself" (220). In the same sentence, then, Naas warns of the danger of identity -- as he himself attempts to preserve "turning itself," the self-identity of pure turning; from which one should not turn away if one does not wish to "betray." This fundamental tendency towards self-contradiction, even if one denies the possibility of any such thing (or indeed accepts it as a necessary condition), is brought out in the conclusion that in the development of Greek thought "ambivalent persuasion was persuaded to be other than what it is" (127). No longer "itself" (as it was primordially), persuasion is subdued by persuasion to be "other than what it is." But Naas must (and does) know from Derrida that it is precisely the "nonidentity-with-itself" that always allows the pharmakon "to be turned against itself" ("La Pharmacie," 119). Nevertheless, in Turning: From Persuasion to Philosophy, we are always straining "to catch a glimpse of the turning itself" (208).

Just as Naas speaks of the post-Homeric "birth of philosophy" (219), he seems to have a clear sense of where a certain philosophy ends: "Now that a certain circuit of philosophy has apparently run its course, perhaps it is time to return to persuasion , to the turning of persuasion before it was turned by philosophy into rhetoric" (208). He recommends the Iliad as an "exemplary text for contemporary thought," that is, "for a thought that seeks to turn or return from philosophy to persuasion" (16). (Although he cites Derrida as the exemplary exponent of "persuasion," this characterization of "contemporary thought" seems more accurately applicable to the work of Stanley Fish.) The question remains, "How, then, do we decide where persuasion ends and philosophy begins?" (208). In relation to this question, Part Five of the book, "The Birth of Rhetoric?," assumes particular significance. Here Naas wants to establish a clear line of demarcation between unreflective practice and self-conscious rhetoric (with its birth in the fifth century BC). For Naas, Kennedy's claim that "wherever persuasion is the end, rhetoric is present" (cited 134) is alarming. He opposes Kennedy's view in The Art of Persuasion in Greece that practice is always coupled to some degree with reflection and theorization upon that practice. As with conceptual thought, Homer must be kept pure of reflective practice. It is towards this end that an assertion of certain constitutive conditions is made: "Only when persuasion has been reduced to a technique, to a relation between individuals, can the art of persuasion and the abstract concept of it develop" (213).

Few perhaps will have cause to reject Naas's uncontroversial and yet greatly reductive statement that "the subject of the Iliad is the persuasion of Achilles, his turning away from and then back toward the community" (128). But many will find his attempts at a Heideggerian formulation of this subject almost vertiginous: "By not turning, by turning only toward himself, Achilles turns away from the turning of prayer" (157-58). In a discourse of subtle distinctions, it is perhaps difficult to simplify. But the author seems to take a certain delight in multiplying a giddying round of turns. It is said that at the end of the narrative, "Achilles turns not toward this or that thing or person but toward himself as a turning, as a being perpetually turned toward the turning and yet perpetually fated to turn away" (204-5). For Naas the Iliad is "a tragedy of turning" (15). At its conclusion, "Achilles and Priam both turn -- and turn resolutely -- not toward each other but toward the turning. That they cannot sustain such turning, that such turning never arrives, already indicates, perhaps, that they -- and we -- are already turning from persuasion to philosophy" (207). Ultimately a forced Heideggerian style yields a Heideggerian mysticism (and only lends force to the criticism of this tendency in Heidegger's work). In "just turning" we come "as close as one can get to pure turning" (99), without ever reaching "die Kehre," "The Turning."

A great deal of labor has gone into this book. But it must also be said that it tends to labour its main points. The irony is that even with alert and assiduous reading of A. T. Murray's Loeb Iliad, Naas's deficiencies as a philologist ("since I approach the Iliad as a philosopher and not as a classicist, I have had to rely on the philological work of others," 231) allow a huge amount of the Iliad's poetic work of turning as it unfurls a wheeling world, and its many major linguistic turns, to pass unnoticed. (For a preliminary sketch of such possibilities see Lynn-George.) Naas writes from outside the field of Classical scholarship, and his knowledge of the field, while commendable, is seriously inadequate. He relies heavily on Pepe's unpublished thesis, to the exclusion of a substantial corpus of work, on the basis that "Pepe's work is the only one of which I am aware that treats the notion of peitho from Homer to Gorgias in any detail" (230-31). The book is promoted as "one of the few works to apply features of contemporary philosophy to the interpretation of ancient Greek texts," and in his text Naas states that his work can be read as "a reworking of the 'critique of presence'" as it has been articulated by "classicists such as Detienne, Dodds, Redfield, Vernant, Vidal-Naquet, and others" (13). At the same time, the work does provide a stimulating philosophical interpretation and it would not be possible here to do full justice to the many nuanced and valuable readings that it includes. But overall, its confrontation with Derrida's thought tends not to be the strenuous and suggestive exercise one might look for; rather it tends merely to follow a routine round of a number of well-known Derridean aporiai without any acute sense of the difficulties of genuine aporia. It lacks, for example, the verve which often characterizes the writing of Naas's colleague David Farrell Krell. The shortcomings of this work prompt further questions as to why a sympathetic reader should be left so disappointed. One senses that what is missing ultimately -- and significantly -- is any element of risk. It was also in "La Pharmacie" that Derrida reminded us of the possibility of laying one's head on the line ("on y joue, si l'on veut bien lui donner ce nom, sa tete," 191). While it is reassuring that in some areas, at least, the barricades have long ago come down and one can raise one's head in safety, we should bear in mind that there always remains a certain danger in that very sense of security.

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