Homer on Knowledge and Reality

The Homeric epics are the most complete record of the way of thinking of the people it refers to, that is Greeks from the Bronze Age into the Archaic Age (that just preceding the Classical Age of Plato, Sophocles, Pericles, Herodotus, and so on) and is therefore the most complete record of their way of thinking about knowledge and reality, if more at the level of basic assumptions of thought rather than very articulate abstract reflection on these matters. We are talking about five centuries of accretions to what poems form the kernel of the Homeric tradition, which might itself refer to memories of times before the late Bronze Age, or seems to me somewhat in the tradition of Vico, who saw in Homer references to the simplest earliest forms of Greek civilisation and all stages of it up to the time of the appearance of the poems as we know them.

So there is no clear record of Greek thought, philosophy, pre-philosophy, pre-literate speculation at any one stage in Homer. Nevertheless the poems as we know them helped shaped the philosophical and scientific traditions of ancient Greece, though in this context we also mention the Greek mythology recorded in Hesiod’s poetry.

What kind of emergent metaphysics and epistemology can we discern in Homer? On the side of metaphysics the apparent involvement on gods and divine forces in physical reality seems the most obvious point. The gods belong to another sphere of reality from humans though they interact with humans and often seem like versions of humans at their most extreme moments of self-centred passion. The reality of the gods is shape-shifting, they can assume many forms. They can also travel through the air at speeds well beyond human capacity though it is also clear their capacities are finite in this regard and in terms of all other powers. If Poseidon or Zeus are accepting sacrifices from the Ethiopians, they are completely out of range of the action in the eastern Mediterranean world. They themselves are evidently subordinate to some kind of supreme reality and law of the universe, which has moral and physical supremacy. What this comprises is not clear, but gods have to stay within their limits, even Zeus, as we see when Poseidon refers to his supremacy in the seas, Zeus’ supremacy in the skies, and Hades’ supremacy in the underworld, generally known by his name. This leaves the surface of the earth and seas as neutral territory, or maybe contested territory in which humans are present.

The human world is then between the skies, the seas, and the world of the dead somewhere under the surface of the earth. Humans are referred to as dominated by luck which may lead to the fall in bad fortune of the happiest and greatest of individuals. The universe itself therefore seems to mix indeterminacy and structure, though it might also be the case that luck depends on some obscured system of divine judgements. Given the conflicts between gods, and the differences between different kinds of divine forces, it does seem overall that there is such a thing as irreducible luck or chance emerging from the unpredictable results of conflict.

The reality of the Homeric world includes the interventions of gods in the human world which in particular include intervention in battles and the sending of signals through dreams or through birds of prey, and sometimes gods appearing in disguise or very occasionally in full divine form to guide human affairs. The gods it seems can sometimes influence what is in a human mind so that individual’s actions are modified. The agency of human individuals is therefore heavily constrained even with regard to inner consciousness. Since the gods are tied to general passions and temperaments though, it seems possible we can at least partly understand them as personifications and as more or less deliberate metaphors for human urges. It would be difficult to understand the Homeric gods purely as poetic metaphors though, since they are quite vivid characters who themselves are influenced by various forces.

If the structure of reality, the metaphysics of the world is one that includes divinities and divine forces, human capacity for knowledge is very linked to the divine. Gods illuminate or obscure the minds of Homeric characters. Knowledge means interpreting events in the natural world as signals of divine plans, encouragement, and warnings. However, knowledge is not just guided by the gods. Some humans are more guided by thought and understanding of reality and everyone has that capacity to some degree. Odysseus exemplifies that capacity and his importance is to some degree a way of giving importance to knowledge. Odysseus’ knowledge is only directed at very particular circumstances though, and is largely expressed through capacities to plan, to foresee consequences, and to deceive. The capacity to deceive seems to be the deepest part of his knowledge, particularly when he thinks of telling Polyphemus that his name is ’No-Man’. There is an appreciation of the oddity of being able to talk about what does not not exist, so using the name of what does not exist can stimulate confusion about the use of names leading Polyphemus to refer to Odysseus as ‘No-man’ when he needs help. Revealing his name is what opens Odysseus to the revenge of Poseidon. Having a name which is not  a name for nothingness, a form of negation, is necessary to identity and therefore to becoming a target of revenge. The danger posed by the real name is non-existence, that the name will be a means to killing its bearer.

Knowledge and reality in Homer is deeply embedded in divine forces all the time, and for the most reflective individuals at their most reflective moments, they are embedded in concepts or words, which can also conceal reality. So reality includes deception, knowledge is fallible because it is constrained by the gods, and rational action is constrained by the unavoidable force or chance. The world of human action, reality, and knowledge is between areas which are to amorphous to be given a structured existence, that is the areas of transparent sky, dark seas, and the limits of existence existence of the dead in the underworld. knowledge and contact with reality are tied up with a struggle to avoid what those areas do to undermine structured, contoured, resistant but not completely, characteristic of a world which is a world not a chaos.

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