E.R. Dodds

THE GREEKS AND THE IRRATIONAL


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2000).

What was the mentality of the ancient Greeks like? How did it differ from ours? Have we received a distorted idea of the Greeks from generations of modern classical scholars? And what is the significance of these questions for our own society? These are the topics that Dodds addresses in this book, published half a century ago but still possessing relevance for us today.

The book begins at the deepest, most archaic layer of the Greek mind that we have access to, the Iliad. Here we find Agamemnon offering an apology for compensating himself for the loss of his mistress by stealing the mistress of Achilles. He says that he was not himself the cause of this act but it was due to divine intervention by Erinys, a goddess, who took away his understanding. There are numerous other passages in Homer in which unwise and unaccountable conduct is similarly attributed to supernatural agencies of one kind or another. Dodd is convinced that these explanations are not instances of poetic licence but are real psychological phenomena. In other words, the Greeks in archaic times had a different kind of mentality from modern humans. This is an important perception which has influenced, among others, Julian Jaynes in his ground-breaking study The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and more recently Antonio Damasio in The Feeling of What Happens, two later authors who cite Dodds extensively.

Dodds believes that a transition occurred from 'shame culture', which characterized the world of the Iliad, to 'guilt culture', which emerges in later Greek civilization. This is an important idea for which Dodds makes out a persuasive case, although his account suffers somewhat from being rather strongly influenced by Freudian psychoanalytic theory, which appeared more securely founded in science in the mid-twentieth century than it does today. Following the same theme, Dodds considers the question of how the Greeks thought about dreams, but luckily he avoids becoming enmeshed in Freudian speculation here. He makes the important point that evaluation of dreams in antiquity was different in significant ways from modern ideas, being considered as an important route by which the gods could communicate with mortals. Dodds does not mention C.G. Jung but the resemblance to his ideas is clear.

Perhaps the boldest and most far-reaching idea in the book is Dodds's hypothesis concerning the influence of shamanism on the Greeks. He believes that the opening of the Black Sea to Greek trade in the seventh century introduced the Greeks to an Asiatic culture based on shamanism, and that this had an influence on new ideas about the relation between body and soul that appeared at the end of the Archaic Age. This may be the source of the belief in rebirth that appears at this time. Pythagoras is cited as an example of a major Greek shaman, who was said to have wisdom gathered in ten or twenty human lives. Orpheus, likewise, may be a shamanic figure, although Dodds thinks we know rather little about Orphism.

In the later Classical period of the fifth century we find the great flowering of Greek rationality, in which the beliefs of earlier times were called into question and examined. But this rationality did not endure; it was succeeded in the Hellenistic period by an outbreak of enthusiasm for astrology, magical medicine, and alchemy. The parallel with our present situation is obvious, and this is the main reason why Dodds's book continues to be so relevant today. Dodds's discussion of the reasons for this flight from reason are fascinating. While accepting, with reservations, some of the causes that have been proposed, he offers one of his own: a fear of freedom. He points to evidence for dread of inconvenient criticism and, at a more popular level, the demand for a prophet or a scripture, while in late Roman or mediaeval times there was an excessive reverence for the written word.

This is a profound book that should be read by anyone who is concerned about the growth of irrationality in modern society. Although a work of scholarship, amply furnished with notes and references, it is very readable.


%T The Greeks and the Irrational
%A Dodds, E.R.
%I University of California Press; Cambridge University Press
%C Berkeley and Los Angeles; London, England
%D 1951
%P 327 pp

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