George Thomson and Ancient Greece

Richard Seaford

University of Exeter

How did drama come into being? How did abstract thought come into being? These are just two of the many topics to which George Thomson made a massive contribution. They are, it seems to me, of great interest, and of importance to the understanding of ourselves. For the answers to them the study of Ancient Greece is essential. And yet nowadays they are, along with other such basic questions, almost never even asked by professional Hellenists, who, if challenged, would mostly reply that the answers to them must be mere speculation.

That reply would be mistaken. But it would in fact not be the real reason why such questions are not asked. Anyone familiar with classical scholarship knows that speculation is what it is doing most of the time: speculation in classical scholarship is respectable enough, but only if it is empirical and contained within narrow limits. The real reasons why such questions are not asked are firstly that they are difficult - to be more precise, they require the combination of skills which Thomson had but with the advance of over-specialisation is increasingly rare -, and secondly that the questions cannot be answered other than by exploration of the socio-historical process by which abstract thought and drama were produced, and that is the kind of understanding - of the relationship between society and its cultural products - from which most Hellenists instinctively recoil, whether in Ancient Greece or in their own society.

Now the two questions I have selected are not merely historical ones. Greek philosophy and Greek drama reached a very high level surprisingly soon after their first appearance. They have certain characteristics (for example, the interplay of opposites in presocratic philosophy, or the centrality of suffering in tragedy) which have been so influential that we take them for granted. Thomson showed how these and other specific qualities of the earliest philosophy and drama cannot be understood without consideration of how philosophy and drama came into being. In both cases what he has revealed is the effect of social change on certain patterns of myth or ritual.

Now here it is sometimes objected not just that these origins are unknowable but that they are irrelevant. After all, it is said, even if it could be shown how philosophy derives from myth or drama from ritual, philosophy is not myth and drama is not ritual. This objection is, of course, a denial of dialectics, and may take the form of an oddly self-limiting pride in an exclusively synchronic perspective. Of course tragedy is not ritual; it is ritual transformed into something else, just as presocratic philosophy is not mythical thought but mythical thought transformed into something else. Thomson is never reductionist. But the something else is not entirely other than what it is transformed from; and its specific nature cannot be understood in ignorance of its origin.

After this rather abstract opening, let us look at a concrete example of Thomson at work, not on the origins of tragedy (a question too complex even to summarise here), but on the role of the Furies in Aeschylus' Oresteia. The Oresteia dramatises the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Klytaimnestra in league with her paramour Aigisthos and the consequent revenge murder of Klytaimnestra and Aigisthos by Agamemnon's son Orestes. For this matricide Orestes is persecuted by the Furies. He fails to shake them off by purifying himself at the Delphic shrine of his protector Apollo, and so he goes to Athens, where Athena, asked to arbitrate the conflict between Orestes and the Furies, sets up a court of law, the Areopagus, which after hearing the case narrowly acquits Orestes. The anger of the Furies at this verdict seems to threaten the well-being of Athens. But they are persuaded by Athena to accept a place of honour in the city, and the drama ends with the Furies singing blessings on Athens and with a torchlit procession reminiscent of the great Athenian festival of the Panathenaia.

What is the significance of this trial scene and of its result? According to Professor Page, 'the trial-scene itself is, and surely seemed to its audience, rather weak; but its faults might be excused as congenital to its purely antiquarian purpose'. This comment exemplifies superbly the complete absence of historical imagination. Page cannot appreciate the drama because he cannot understand it. There is no time here to present Thomson's exposition of the social significance of the issues raised in the trial scene. Our concern is with the Furies. What do they stand for? What is the significance of their agreement to arbitration, which results in the first ever trial by a court? What is the significance of their defeat, and of the honour nevertheless accorded them? Questions such as these, which derive from within the confines of the text itself, led Thomson outwards and backwards.

The Athenians believed that their city had civilised the rest of Greece by the practice of settling homicide cases by reason, in the law court, rather than by violence; and that in general it was by the power of persuasion that men founded cities and laid down laws. Putting it somewhat differently, we can say that the development of a central judicial institution is a key factor in the development of the state. We take it for granted that murder is dealt with by the state. But we learn from ethnology that where the state is weak, or does not exist, there may be various other methods, including the vendetta, the curse (especially if the killer is from within the clan), and purification. Ethnology helped Thomson to see that the Furies are in origin curses within the kinship group of a matrilineal society. It helped him to see why they wear snakes in their hair - as embodying the dead. And it helped him to explain their close relationship with the (female) Fates, the Moirai, and so on. In fact the Furies turn out to be just one example of how Greek religion and culture can be illuminated by the study of pre-state societies. And Thomson did have knowledge of a pre-state culture from the inside, as the culture of the Blasket islands was in effect such a culture.

But what we see in archaic and classical Greek history is the development of the state, the city-state, often at the expense of kinship relations. And what we see in the Oresteia is the encapsulation of a historical transition, the creation of a central judicial institution to resolve a contradiction which could not be resolved by existing methods: vendetta, purification, the curse. This transition is, in two respects, organic. Firstly, the creation of the court emerges naturally from the situation; both sides agree to the arbitration of Athena. And secondly, the old order, represented by the Furies, is incorporated dialectically into the new: the place of honour granted to the Furies, by which they are persuaded to change their anger to good will, represents the persistence, in a less specific form, of the fear they inspired in the old order. In general, beneath the Olympian religion of the city-state, we find a network of belief and cult persisting from earlier forms of social organisation.

This example illustrates three points.

(1) Thomson acquired his theoretical understanding by working outwards from the ancient material. His starting point was not theory but rather the insolubility, within traditional methodological limits, of certain problems thrown up by the material itself.

(2) The contradictions present in the text can be understood only from a diachronic, a historical perspective. And

(3) Aeschylus himself, and so no doubt also the Athenians, were conscious of the process by which the ancient function of the Furies was not simply rejected but, with the resolution of the contradiction between themselves and Orestes, transformed into something new. Thomson was such a powerful interpreter of Aeschylus partly because he shared this dialectical element of his outlook.

Thomson was not of course the first to use anthropology in the study of Ancient Greece. This brings me to the question of his relationship to his predecessors. In various respects Thomson succeeded to the so-called Cambridge School of Hellenists, of whom the most important were Jane Harrison and F.M. Cornford. The work of Jane Harrison on Greek religion was a synthesis of the new material provided by the recent rapid development of ethnology and of archaeology with the advances in the understanding of the relationship between religion and society provided by Durkheim. 'In the present enquiry', she wrote of her book Themis, 'we shall at the outset attempt no definition of the term religious, but we shall collect the facts that admittedly are religious and see from what human activities they appear to have sprung'. This, together with the Durkheimian principle that 'religious representation arises from collective action and emotion' was a radical development in the study of the similarities between Greek religion and the religion of tribal societies. Another consequence was the privileged place now given to ritual as a source of religious representation. Ritual is social, collective activity, but also bears significations which may issue into art, literature, even philosophy. Much of Greek literature, mythology, and religious representation generally was given a source ritual, which itself derives, anthropology confirmed, from the social and material needs of society.

The extension of this method from Greek religion to early Greek philosophy was one of the achievements of F.M. Cornford. In particular, he demonstrated that the basic assumptions of the earliest Greek cosmology derive from a myth about the origins of the cosmos that we find in Hesiod's Theogony and which itself derives ultimately from a ritual, not a Greek ritual but a near-Eastern one, the Babylonian new-year ceremony.

Now it is at this point that the problem of the relationship between Greek culture and so-called 'primitive' cultures becomes acute. The tendency of the Cambridge school was to expose the roots of Greek culture in ritual and in 'primitive' culture generally, and thereby to dispel as illusory the miraculous singularity of the Greeks. And yet, of course, the Greeks were, after all, in many important respects singular. For example, in the development of the kind of abstract thinking we call philosophy, or in the creation of tragedy. For the understanding of such important developments ethnology and Durkheim are necessary, but not sufficient. The Cambridge school was unable to explain fundamental change. Robert Browning has described Jane Harrison as unhistorical. Here again, Thomson located in the subject as he found it a basic problem which could not be solved within the confines of the subject, but only by broadening its scope still further. Here again, Marxism was not simply brought to bear on the material. Rather, Thomson was brought by the material, and through his ability to ask basic questions, to Marxism. This is a complex point, which I will attempt nevertheless to illustrate briefly.

Greek philosophy developed out of myths about the origin of the world. It did so in part by a process of depersonalisation. The Earth, the Sky, the Sea, etc. cease to be gods and goddesses, and become elements: earth, air, water, etc., whose role and position in the world is explained no longer by anthropomorphic activity but by their own qualities: earth is where it is because it is heavy, and so on.

Then, with the philosopher Anaximenes we find the idea that all the elements are in fact forms of one single element, air, which acquires its different forms by being more or less compact; in its rarefied form it is fire, in its dense form it is earth, and so on. That is to say, Anaximenes explained qualitative difference by reducing it to quantitative difference: the apparently qualitative difference between, say, earth and air is in fact just a matter of different quantities of air in the same space. This tendency to reduce quality to quantity, which is also a tendency towards greater abstraction, is taken further by Pythagoras, for whom the world was actually composed of numbers, and by Herakleitos, for whom the elements were successive transformations of fire, with fire being also in some sense identical with the logos, an abstract principle controlling the whole process.

Both Pythagoras and Herakleitos represent, each in his different way, not only the reduction of quality to quantity but also the tendency to separate a privileged abstraction (number, the logos) from the concrete. These tendencies are taken still further by Parmenides, who (paradoxically) denied true reality to everything except what he called 'the one', an entity from which he tried to exclude all perceptible qualities. And this prepares the way for Plato's Theory of Forms, in which actual tables are less real than the idea of a table. We have then a progressive stripping away of qualitative differentiation from what constitutes the world, together with a progressive separation of a privileged abstraction from the perceptible world.

Thomson not only made sense of the development of Greek Philosophy in these terms. He also explained it. The period of this intellectual development is also the period of the first development of commodity production and a monetary economy. In terms of what it will fetch at the market, one commodity is no different from another. All commodities may, in so far as they have an exchange value, be reduced to abstract, numerical terms. They may all be expressed in terms of the universal equivalent, money. The tendency of production for the market is therefore to strip away, in the minds of men, all qualitative differentiation from what is produced. Moreover, money is a privileged, dominant abstraction, separate from the apparently various commodities into all of which it may be transformed. The analogies with the contemporaneous development of Greek philosophy are striking.

Thomson both pointed out the analogies and also showed, by exploring the relation of the philosophers to their changing society, that the analogies are not coincidental, that the changing conception of the world was determined by economic and social change. And he went on to analyse comparable determinations in ancient Israel and in ancient China.

But this does not mean that he regarded the development of the economy as the only factor. Take, for example, his demonstration that the famous antithetical style of Herakleitos derives from ritual, from the mysteries (since strikingly confirmed by archaeological discovery). Much of the content too of Herakleitos' philosophy, notably the idea of the fiery soul undergoing successive changes into various elements, also derives from the mysteries, from the mystic doctrine of the journey of the soul through the elements. Such discoveries are still within the perspective of Cornford. But Herakleitos' philosophy is not merely mystic doctrine, it is mystic doctrine transformed into something else, more abstract, transformed by preconceptions derived from a monetary economy and the circulation of commodities. As Herakleitos himself put it, 'all things are exchanged for fire and fire for all things as goods are exchanged for gold and gold for goods'.

In the same way, whereas Gilbert Murray, another member of the Cambridge School, had argued for the origins of tragedy in ritual, it was left to Thomson both to tighten up the argument and to explain the development as product of the democratic city-state.

The Cambridge school achieved an ambitious synthesis of traditional scholarship with recent developments in archaeology, ethnology, and sociology. Thomson transformed this synthesis by extending its scope still further; his work represents the culmination of the Cambridge school. Thereafter, despite the potential for exciting new advances and the persistence of public interest, there has, it seems to me, been an overall decline in the subject. Specialised advances have occurred without the synthesis which alone gives those advances value. Worse, even the need for synthesis is often ignored or rejected. It may seem paradoxical that whereas Thomson represents the culmination of the best tradition of Greek studies in this country, today's dominant classicist mind-set in our universities represents the rejection of this tradition, or rather, if that implies too great a degree of conscious choice, it represents the persistence of a mid-Victorian mentality, as if all the theoretical advances made since then had never occurred. Current classical scholarship is on the whole capable neither of confirming nor of refuting the work of Thomson. It is just one indication of the quaint myopia of the classical establishment in this country that the man who, quite apart from his contributions in other fields, was the greatest Hellenist of his generation was not even made a Fellow of the British Academy.

Of Thomson's contribution to Ancient Greek studies I have of course been limited to a tiny sample, chosen to illustrate firstly the dialectical development of Greek culture, secondly the reflection of this dialectic in the consciousness of the Greeks themselves, and thirdly the dialectical relationship of Thomson himself to the tradition of Greek studies.

In fact his range even within Greek studies is extraordinary: metrics, translation, linguistics, mythology, Homer, kinship, textual criticism, and so on. I will end with a word about just one of these specialisations, textual criticism, the art of restoring what an ancient author wrote by removing the corruptions affecting the text over centuries of transmission from one manuscript to another. I mention textual criticism for two reasons. The first is that, here again, the key to his success is in his development of the best that he found in the tradition, the method elaborated by a contemporary of the Cambridge School, Walter Headlam. The second is this. Greek textual criticism is a discipline with a long tradition (it was first practised in antiquity), and may seem very limited in scope, requiring nothing more than knowledge of Ancient Greek, of the author's style, and of the relationship between the various surviving manuscripts of the author. And indeed, it is practised in this narrow way even today by many of its leading practitioners. But what Headlam and Thomson showed was the necessity of also reconstructing the social and intellectual context in which Aeschylus wrote, of detecting in Aeschylus allusions to traditional ideas which might reappear in much later authors, of knowing the history of Greek throughout the period of manuscript transmission so as to understand the kinds of error likely to occur in copying, and so on. Once again, the problems themselves force us outwards beyond the limits of the traditional method. If we compare Thomson's edition of Aeschylus with those (by Fraenkel, and by Page) I was set as a student to read, we find that time and time again Thomson has the right reading and they have the wrong one. One of the many things they failed to learn from him is that you cannot succeed even in the specialisation of textual criticism if you are only a textual critic. Another is that you cannot be a great Hellenist if you are only a Hellenist.


This paper was originally delivered at the conference on the life and work of George Thomson held at the University of Birmingham, 7/1/1989. [For further information on George Thomson's Irish connections see Seán O Lúing's article, 'George Thomson' in Classics Ireland vol 3 1996, pp.141-162 - Ed.]

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