Birth of the Symbol

Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts

Peter T. Struck
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 312
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7rk2m
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  • Book Info
    Birth of the Symbol
    Book Description:

    Nearly all of us have studied poetry and been taught to look for the symbolic as well as literal meaning of the text. Is this the way the ancients saw poetry? InBirth of the Symbol, Peter Struck explores the ancient Greek literary critics and theorists who invented the idea of the poetic "symbol."

    The book notes that Aristotle and his followers did not discuss the use of poetic symbolism. Rather, a different group of Greek thinkers--the allegorists--were the first to develop the notion. Struck extensively revisits the work of the great allegorists, which has been underappreciated. He links their interest in symbolism to the importance of divination and magic in ancient times, and he demonstrates how important symbolism became when they thought about religion and philosophy. "They see the whole of great poetic language as deeply figurative," he writes, "with the potential always, even in the most mundane details, to be freighted with hidden messages."

    Birth of the Symboloffers a new understanding of the role of poetry in the life of ideas in ancient Greece. Moreover, it demonstrates a connection between the way we understand poetry and the way it was understood by important thinkers in ancient times.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2609-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. INTRODUCTION THE GENEALOGY OF THE SYMBOLIC
    (pp. 1-20)

    This study examines the ancient history of an idea, or perhaps it is better called a hope or desire. What do we expect from poetry? Is it an entertaining diversion? An edifying tale? A craft whose masters delight and move us with their elegance and fine workmanship? Yes, perhaps. But a few bold souls, ancient as well as modern, have it in mind that poetry will do something more for us. They suspect that the poets’ stories might say more than they appear to say, and that their language might be more than just words. Though these readers are likely...

  5. 1 SYMBOLS AND RIDDLES: ALLEGORICAL READING AND THE BOUNDARIES OF THE TEXT
    (pp. 21-76)

    In book 5 of theIliad, Homer relates a scene that drew the interest of ancient commentators.¹ Homer has Diomedes stab the goddess Aphrodite on the battlefield, an incident troublesome enough in itself. But when Aphrodite retreats, Dione consoles her by telling an even stranger tale (Il. 5.381–90). She reminds the goddess that she is not alone in her sufferings at the hands of mortals. Once, the giants Ephialtes and Otos overpowered Ares, chained him up, and locked him in a bronze cauldron for three months. Ares could have died [ϰαί νύ ϰεν ἕνθʹάπόλοιτο Ἂρης]...

  6. 2 BEGINNINGS TO 300 B.C.E.: MEANING FROM THE VOID OF CHANCE AND THE SILENCE OF THE SECRET
    (pp. 77-110)

    When porphyry refers (repeatedly) to Homer’s cave of the nymphs as a σύμβολου of certain hidden meanings, he is using the term in a sense that appears only in the postclassical period in ancient Greece. The early Greek term meant something quite different—so different, in fact, that we will be forced to wonder just how it developed a literary sense at all. These earliest manifestations of the Greek symbol provide insights into the trajectories the notion later follows. Of course, they do not and cannot be asked to provide some authentic glimpse of the “true” or “real” symbol, as...

  7. 3 FROM THE HEAD OF ZEUS: THE BIRTH OF THE LITERARY SYMBOL
    (pp. 111-141)

    In the centuries between the death of Aristotle and the birth of the Roman Empire, the Stoic vision of the world came to dominate the Mediterranean. When one of the major Stoic thinkers of the school’s middle period, Panaetius, befriended Scipio the younger at Rome, the ideas of the Stoics, especially their ethics, started to be tailored to meet the needs of statesmen and soldiers and so assumed an important place in the minds of the emerging elite of what was to become the largest empire yet seen. Given the diffusion and endurance of their ideas, it is a curious...

  8. 4 SWALLOWED CHILDREN AND BOUND GODS: THE DIFFUSION OF THE LITERARY SYMBOL
    (pp. 142-161)

    In the first and second centuries c.e. we have abundant evidence of a broad diffusion of an allegorical approach to reading the poets. Writers as diverse as Pausanias, Maximus of Tyre, and Dio Chrysostom show that an allegorical understanding of the ancient tales was simply ready at hand during this period,¹ and several contemporary allegorical tracts survive as well. Cornutus, Heraclitus the Allegorist, and Pseudo-Plutarch (theLife of Homerauthor) show that different fields of inquiry were putting allegorical tools to use. They also all attest that the literary symbol, of which Chrysippus gives us our first direct testimony, has...

  9. 5 300 B.C.E.–200 C.E.: THE SYMBOL AS ONTOLOGICAL SIGNIFIER
    (pp. 162-203)

    As we saw earlier, beginning in the third century b.c.e., about the time of Philochorus’sOn Symbolsand sometime before Chrysippus forwards his reading of the swallowing of Metis, the term “symbol” takes on a new life. It expands from being a narrow term for a contract marker, with specialized senses in Pythagoreanism, the mysteries, and divination, to being an important category of literary commentary. As we have seen, the Stoics and their allegorical followers present the first definitive evidence of this shift, though it was likely in place before them. During the Hellenistic and Roman periods the “symbol” appears...

  10. 6 IAMBLICHUS AND THE DEFENSE OF RITUAL: TALISMANIC SYMBOLS
    (pp. 204-226)

    The followers of Pythagoras introduced us to a sacramental dimension of the ancient concept of the symbol. The secretive tradition that grew up around the Presocratic philosopher’s legend employed his “symbols,” the short epigrammatic sayings attributed to him, as tokens of true identity and as a kind of catechism in a ritualized ascent to knowledge. They also made comparisons between Pythagoras’s symbols and the efficacious speech used in magical practices. But after the third century c.e., the idea that symbols have the power todothings and not justsaythem reaches a new and determining prominence with the Neoplatonists....

  11. 7 MOONSTONES AND MEN THAT GLOW: PROCLUS AND THE TALISMANIC SIGNIFIER
    (pp. 227-253)

    Proclus was born in Constantinople, where his family was located temporarily on business, on February 8, in 410 or 412 c.e., two years after Alaric sacked Rome.¹ We know the day and month of his birth with relative precision because of his interests in the astrological arts. He received a thorough classical training in Lycia, Alexandria, and Constantinople before assuming the mantle of “successor” to the Platonic Academy in Athens.² He took his place in a two-centuries-old tradition of Neoplatonic thinkers, including Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Syrianus, and others, who styled themselves as Plato’s true heirs.

    In his copious writings on...

  12. EPILOGUE SYMBOL TRACES: POST-PROCLEAN THEORIES
    (pp. 254-278)

    In recent times Proclus has not generated the interest that he once did. Though, perhaps even more than the other Neoplatonists, he has consistently received lavish attention from enthusiasts of the occult sciences, his fortunes in the classicists’ canon have waxed and waned. But his relative obscurity today should not lead us to gloss over the importance he has had for pivotal thinkers in a number of periods. Those who specialize in Proclus have long been familiar with the breadth of his influence on the cosmologies of premodern Europe, East and West, but his legacy can be tracked in literary...

  13. APPENDIX CHRYSIPPUS’S READING AND AUTHORIAL INTENTION: THE CASE OF THE MURAL AT SAMOS
    (pp. 279-282)
  14. BIBLIOGRAPHY OF ANCIENT AUTHORS
    (pp. 283-284)
  15. BIBLIOGRAPHY OF MODERN AUTHORS
    (pp. 285-296)
  16. INDEX LOCORUM
    (pp. 297-310)
  17. GENERAL INDEX
    (pp. 311-316)