David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Bruno Snell on the Epic

The style of writing characteristic of the epic, the exposition of life as a chain-like series of events, is not a mechanism artfully designed; Homer did not, from among several methods of portraying the existence of man, purposely choose this particular one because it seemed most appropriate to the epic. Lessing is mistaken when he credits Homer with aesthetic discrimination for avoiding the description of static scenes and translating everything into the language of dynamic events. Actually this feature of Homer’s style is a necessary function of the perspective in which he discerns man, his life and his world. According to this view–and there could be no other for him–a man’s action or perception is determined by the divine forces operative in the world; it is a reaction of his physical organs to a stimulus, and this stimulus is itself grasped as a personal act. Any situation is likely to be the result of stimuli, and the source of new stimuli in turn.

Bruno Snell, “The Rise of the Individual in Early Greek Lyric”

I like this because it suggests that the mechanistic worldview is not some post-Englightenment Leibnizian creation portraying the world as a clockwork device, but something that goes back before the conception of the individual. So as science isolates all the various factors in making us who we are and removes more and more from the vagaries of freedom and individuality, we aren’t stepping into the inhuman unknown, but just reincorporating a mindset from the past.

I also like that this argues for a transcendence of psychologism and psychologically-inflected description, which has long been one of the tyrannies of the novel.


  1. I’m not normally one for conjectures about antiquity, due to my very great ignorance about most things Greek and Roman, but I do think you hit a nail on the head re: mechanism not being new. I remember being blown away reading the Stoics and seeing just how much of the Christian mind-set regarding monotheism, universalistic morals, Providence etc is a distillation of ideas that were generally “in the air” at the time; I know Nietzsche famously branded Christianity “Platonism for the masses”, but that formula doesn’t quite seem to cover either the specificity of Christian borrowings or their breadth of interplay with the institutions of the ancient world. I think the story about atomism/naturalism and ancient mindsets must be substantially the same. (I would also argue that “intelligent design” was, in its time, a genuine scientific thought which improved theory construction quite a bit, so this might not be 100% approved by the Council for Science Cheerleading, but I think the actual history is unsubtle enough for such points to not be too contrarian.)

  2. Have you read Julian Jaynes on bicamerality? Or Mikhail Bakhtin on epic v novel, or chronotope (Dialogic Imagination)?

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