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T. K. Seung LITERARY FUNCTION AND HISTORICAL CONTEXT Our conception of poetry and literature is chiefly aesthetic. We take it for granted that the central function of poetic and literary works is to produce aesthetic value and provide aesthetic delight. This aesthetic view of poetry and literature is so firmly ingrained in our sensibility that we tend to take it as a transhistorical and transcultural truth. But this aesthetic view is culture-bound: even in the West it begins only with the Renaissance. In this article, I will try to illustrate how the nature and function of poetry and literature have been shaped and reshaped by the changing cultural contexts. In ancient Greece, the central function of poetry was to aid the perpetuation of its tradition or cultural heritage. The Homeric epics especially served the same sacred function for ancient Greeks that the Old Testament did for the Jews and the Bible for the Christians. They were sacred texts that passed on from generation to generation the wisdom of their sages and the annals of their heroes, which constituted the chief instrument in molding their civic virtues, temperaments, and sentiments. For this reason, the bards were their sages, prophets, and teachers until the emergence of Greek sophists and philosophers, who for the first time challenged the bards' immense authority. Homer had been revered as the universal fountain of all knowledge; his authority had been as awesome as that ofApollo and his Delphian oracles. Although the pre-Socratic philosophers were already trying to replace the poets as the agents of discovering and dispensing truth and knowledge, some of them wrote even in poetic styles because they still regarded the language of poetry as the only worthy medium for the exposition of truth and knowledge, the noblest gifts from immortals to mortals. In The Frogs, Aristophanes stages a debate between Aeschylus and Euripides on the social function of poets. In this debate, Aeschylus asks Euripides, "What's the poet's duty, and why is the poet respected?" Euripides replies to Aeschylus, "Because he can write, and because 33 34Philosophy and Literature he can think, but mostly because he's injected/ some virtue into the body politic." Their discussion of poets' social function is finally summed up by Aeschylus: There, there is work for poets who also are MEN. From the earliest times incitement to virtue and useful knowledge have come from the makers of rhymes. There was Orpheus first. He preached against murder, and showed us the heavenly way. Musaeus taught divination and medicine; Hesiod, the day-after-day cultivation of fields, the seasons, and plowings. Then Homer, divinely inspired, is a source of indoctrination to virtue. Why else is he justly admired than for teaching how heroes armed them for battle? 2 When Plato examines, in his Republic, the role of poetry in the education of youth and especially in the molding of character, he is not introducing a new approach toward poetry. Instead, he is examining its traditional role. Even his criticism of poets is not new; the Greek sophists had already challenged the authority and capacity of the poets to perform the awesome social functions which had been long assigned to them. Plato continues the sophists' challenge to the poets' authority by claiming that poets are not true knowers, although they can sometimes say marvelous things through divine inspiration. In most cases, however, Plato is convinced that poets are ignorant persons who say many scandalous things about mortals and immortals alike. Consequently, he banishes the poets from his ideal state, and thereby divests them of their traditional social roles. Although Plato's banishment of poets from his ideal state was a radical measure, his debunking of their authority as the true source of knowledge and wisdom was more or less an announcement of the fait accompli in Plato's Athens, where the bards' traditional role as the ultimate source of knowledge and wisdom had been taken over by the sophists and philosophers. This fait accompli indicates the immense transformation ofGreek culture from the Homeric to the Platonic epoch. The knowledge and wisdom which had been a matter of traditional heritage from generation to generation were turned into an affair...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 33-46
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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