- The Age of Grace: “Charis” in Early Greek Poetry
Bonnie MacLachlan has two concerns in this book. First, she sees early charis, conventionally and inadequately translated as “grace,” as the result of feeling, concrete action, and sometimes concrete objects, fused in such a way that early Greeks did not clearly distinguish these as separate aspects. Second, she focuses on the experience of beauty or pleasure as a crucial part of reciprocity in charis, and argues that many of the now-fashionable models from the social sciences, such as those dealing with reciprocal exchange of goods and favors, are insufficient to account for this particular dynamic of allurement. What later ages sensed, and what we sense, as two or more different kinds of charis “may not have been sensed as such by the archaic Greek mind.” Rather, the early Greeks possessed an integrated sense of these fragments as part of a single experience. “A charis-event, provoked by moral or aesthetic beauty, was disarming; it broke down the barriers of the self, and it demanded that the beneficiary reach out to another.” This study combines extremely able discussions of different sides of this crucial concept with a large vision of their integration into a coherent whole: “[Charis] was the moral glue of their society, linking such other central moral ideas as timê [“honor,” “prerogative,” “price”], dikê [“due portion,” “justice”], themis [“unwritten law”], xenia [“requital of gifts and hospitality”], and aidôs [“reverence,” “awe”].”
How well does MacLachlan demonstrate this twofold idea? She deserves high praise for setting forth the essential passages of her authors clearly and succinctly, for giving numerous insights into them, for adducing much pertinent scholarship, and certainly for furthering the development of her important thesis. Her discussion of the earliest conception of charis (chap. 2, “The Charis of Achilles”), focused mainly on Homer, with material from the Homeric Hymns and Hesiod, gives a sensitive and persuasive account of relations among charis, timê, and dikê. She makes excellent points about specific perceptions of beauty, especially visual, although one comes away a bit uncertain as to how these aspects all cohere, and also as to whether there are differences in charis between the Iliad and the Odyssey. Her discussion of the cult dimensions of charis (chap. 3, “The Charites”), while fascinating in itself, contains little direction for using this information so as to understand the thesis. She gives careful readings of her examples of erotic and social charis (chaps. 4 and 5, “Erotic Charis” and “Social Charis”), clearly identifying types that contrast with the earlier prototypical experience, although sometimes her criticism of these is more implicit than stated. A more forceful definition of the “problem” of erotic charis, for example, would have helped unify this discussion with that of erotic charis in Aeschylus. Her discussion of Pindar and Bacchylides (6, “Epinician Charis”), perhaps the high point of the book, shows the richest ties to the multi-dimensional Homeric charis; here we return clearly to the topic of [End Page 172] beauty, see the pertinence of some of the cult information, and sense the transformational dynamics of charis as profoundly important for this genre of poems. She leaves somewhat open, however, the question of whether charis is a single thing in Pindar. The chapter on Aeschylus (7, “Charis in the Oresteia”) presents a powerful reading of different kinds of charis in conflict, private versus public, resulting in a unified view of the trilogy as a whole. Once more we note different senses of charis, but in a way that highlights their collision: the duality of charis is further brought into relation with other dualities, such as that of dikê. This chapter connects well with other parts of the book; erotic and false charis become important issues.
If there is a criticism to make of this book, it is that MacLachlan does not do quite enough to work out the relations between her provocative thesis and her discussions of particular poems. Some sections are too dissertation-like in presenting evidence, and more thought about the...