March 1, 2018
Episode 26: The Birth of the Symbol: Peter Struck on Ancient Greek Esoteric Hermeneutics
This episode exceeds the half-hour or so slot we generally aim for by a wide margin, but the material covered is absolutely priceless. Its relevance extends well beyond the Platonist tradition and is applicable to esoteric currents of thought more generally – definitely not one to miss!
We are joined by Professor Peter Struck, Chair of the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, for a fascinating discussion of ancient esoteric hermeneutics. Particularly concentrating on Platonism, we explore some of the hermeneutic strategies by which ancient readers interrogated their texts for deeper meanings than those available on the surface. While this episode is by no means solely devoted to Plato, it is a perfect complement to episode 25 with its introduction to the esoteric reception of that thinker.
In a wide-ranging discussion, Professor Struck covers such topics as:
- The key hermeneutic terms ainigma and symbolon,
- The contexts in which the ainigma was used – Homer, esoteric philosophy, and divination –
- Plato’s critiques of poetry in the Republic, and some of the ways in which later Platonists dealt with these critiques so as to embrace poetry as a valid source of esoteric philosophy,
- The evolution from the skeptical Academy to the movements known as Middle and Late (or Neo-) Platonism, and the Platonists’ adaptation of modes of esoteric reading traditionally applied to Homer to the interpretation of Plato’s dialogues,
- The construction of eclectic traditions of perennial truth by authors such as Iamblichus, Proclus, and Olympiodorus by means of esoteric reading which harmonised diverse sources such as Plato’s dialogues, the Orphic poems, and the Chaldaean Oracles,
- The origins of the term symbolon, and its subsequent development into a term of esoteric interpretation, and finally, through the Romantic movement, into the modern term ‘symbolism’, centrally important to modern esoteric modes of thought,
- Proclus’ theory of the symbolon as an ontological link between divine and cosmic powers through occult sympathy, and
- The question of the ‘intentional fallacy’ among ancient interpreters.
Works Discussed in this Episode
- Struck, P. T., 2004. Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of their Texts. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
- Boys-Stones, G. (Ed.), 2003. Metaphor, Allegory, and the Classical Tradition : Ancient Thought and Modern Revisions. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Derrida, J. (1987). ‘Comment ne pas parler: dénégations’. In: Psyché: invention de l’autre, Galilée.
- Dillon, J. (1976). ‘Image, Symbol, and Analogy: Three Basic Concept of Neoplatonic Allegorical Exegesis’. In: Harris, R. (Ed.), The Significance of Neoplatonism, International Society for Neoplatonic Studies.
- Froidefond, C. (1988). ‘Introduction’. In: (Ed.), Plutarque. Oeuvres Morales Vol. V Part 2: Isis et Osiris, Les Belles Lettres, Paris.
- Hölk, C. (1894). De acusmaticis sive symbolis pythagoricis, University of Kiel.
- Lamberton, R. (1995). ‘The “Aporrhetos Theoria” and the Roles of Secrecy in the History of Platonism’. In: Stroumsa, G. G. & Kippenberg, H. G. (Ed.), Secrecy and Concealment: Studies in the History of Mediterranean and Near-Eastern Religions, Brill, Leiden.
- Lamberton, R., 1989. Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
- Pépin, J., (1987). La tradition de l’allégorie de Philon d’Alexandrie à Dante. Etudes Augustiniennes, Paris.
- Stroumsa, G. (1996). ‘Myth as Enigma: Cultural Hermeneutics in Late Antiquity’. In: Hasan-Rokem, G. & Shulman, D. (Ed.), Untying the Knot: On Riddles and Other Enigmatic Modes, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Chaldæan Oracles, Esoteric Hermeneutics, Interview, Late Platonism, Orphic Tradition, Philosophy, Plato, Proclus, Pythagoreanism, Theurgy
September 23, 2019
Enigmatic indeed! But leaving me hankering after some sketch, some illustration. Sure, I guessed I knew what you were talking about: all those hermeneutic acrobatics, all those hidden symbols hanging from the surface narrative by a slender thread, all that obscure narrative *intent* boldly declared, yes, all that marvelous stuff in Platonists from Philo onwards. In the background out of site was all that invention that would be sooo important later, if only with the early Church fathers and before the deadening onslaught of dogma and the literalists. But I did wonder whether you were showing something else, namely, just how hard it is to *say* what is enigmatic about ainigma. Your attempts to pin it down only served to hold it within the general realm of, well….art, especially the literary arts of plays and poetry.
Literature always invites a surplus of meaning beyond its direct representations. Sophocles? Is the suggestion that Sophocles’ regular audiences never appreciated the plays beyond their direct representation? Were passages from Homer not used metaphorically in daily life, just as when I say that I am going to take up the ‘challenge’ or ‘attack’ this problem? (Try saying that in Japan.) Surely Homer gave Greeks layers and layers of meaning at every recitation, at every recall in every speech, in every debate in every way, just as Shakespeare does for us. But that’s not enigma. So what is it? When you started on with the over-theorising, that is when I knew you were losing it. Did you think that was going to save you?
Not likely. If Derrida’s contribution is that ‘texts produce more meaning than can be pinned down at any point’, then isn’t that a rather *ordinary* thing to say about, say, Lucian, about his reception, old and new? A True History. Well indeed. Surely satyr and irony impresses variously and ambiguously. Some laugh. Some get pissed. And then some shout: if the cap fits wear it! Aristophanes? Rather cloudy wouldn’t you say? A piece of art is what it is. But to then go and suggest all this is ‘post-modern’, well that only renders ‘post-modern’ immediately worthless. It might be post-modern, so defined. But then not only is it not post-modern but it is also not enigma. As for ‘intentional fallacy’, doesn’t that take on a whole new dimension in the transition from Homer to Plato’s Ion? And in the Apology too. What is knowledge but enthusiasm? The intent of the ‘god-within’ is not always clear. Maddeningly unclear one might say. Much like the oracle. Much like…enigma.
May 31, 2020
I think this may be the best place to ask this question…? I don’t think the book, Birth of the Symbol, investigates this? But, I was wondering about the Greek term κρύπτω rendered in English as cryptic / crypto- ? As in Heraclitus and the secrets Of nature, but I am interested in the word on through to the Hellenistic period? Any resources or insight would be greatly appreciated?
May 31, 2020
Or, perhaps through till late antiquity?
May 31, 2020
Kenneth. your best bet is to start out by checking Liddell and Scott’s lexicon, s.v. κρύπτω, which will have tons of usages down the ages, and then check out any that look tasty.
I don’t know of any specific studies off the top of my head. Anyone else?
May 31, 2020
It is certainly helpful to know the preferred lexicon for these studies…
May 31, 2020
Liddell and Scott (and Jones) or LSJ is the best ancient Greek lexicon ever written, or so I am told. Also, fun fact, Liddell of Liddell and Scott was the father of Alice Pleasance Liddell, who inspired the character Alice of Wonderland and Looking Glass fame.