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A Brief Note on a Teaching Success: Mind your Zeus

Have you ever had that moment when something you’ve been trying to teach for years finally comes together because of one brief moment of pedagogic brilliance?  I find these moments rare.  But I just had one.  I teach ancient Greek philosophy.  One reason I like to teach this course is that it asks that students take seriously the question, why should we do philosophy rather than not?  Ancient Greek thinkers remind us that the question of whether philosophy is worth studying is as old as philosophy itself and not something invented by the neoliberal university.

The difficulty in introducing this question is figuring out where to start.  If you start with Plato, for whom this question is explicit in the Apology and the Republic and pretty much all over the corpus, you get the question pretty clearly, but you ignore the two hundred (at least) years of thinking in the Greek world that precede Plato, thinking which Plato himself explicitly references.  So students walk away thinking Platonic, or at least, Socratic, thinking is the beginning of philosophy.  So I push back and teach the pre-Socratics.  But if you start with the pre-Socratics they seem like the primitive thinkers to Plato or Socrates’ developed thinking.  So for years now, I’ve been trying to start with Hesiod’s Theogony.

I like to start with Hesiod for several reasons.  Students are forced to do a lot of interpretative work on a text right from the beginning.  It isn’t obvious what Hesiod’s Theogony means, so patterns must be drawn out, references made.  Students can then see that whatever claim they want to make about what it means needs to be supported from the text.  I like the way this text begins to build those habits for the whole course.  Students begin to see that Hesiod is not presenting a simple story of nature, but a narrative full of conflict not just between gods, but seemingly within nature itself.  Hesiod’s text is a good way to encourage students to begin to see philosophizing as the project of developing better questions because Hesiod’s text poses questions for us about what we can mean about nature if nature is in flux, if nature’s order has a history, if nature remains in some way rooted in Chaos.

But the problem with teaching Hesiod, I have found, is that students are all too eager, even after four class sessions analyzing and discussing the themes and problems raised by the text, to say that mythology is not thinking, that it is a primitive account of how people thought ‘back then.’  When asked to justify such views, they seem to think that is obvious.  This year I decided I would introduce some secondary sources of commentators who debate whether the pre-Socratics are the heirs to or the break from Greek mythology.  This move encouraged students to see the argument as less my idiosyncratic position, but a debate within scholarly literature.  I found that it produced less of an “I have to fight with the professor,” or “The professor just wants me to agree with her,” vibe and more of a “This case was convincing for these reasons, but that case also had a good point” vibe so I was pretty thrilled.  For those interested, I had students read selections from Guthrie, Burnet, Vernant (last two chapters of Myth and Thought among the Greeks) and Norm O. Brown.

As I introduced the pre-Socratics, I kept the question of whether and how they were heirs or bastard sons of Hesiod at the fore.  I asked students to join me in the project as described by Vernant in “The Formation of Positivist Thought:”

What has to be done now is not simply to recognize the ancient elements that survive in philosophy, but also to distinguish those that are truly new, in other words, what makes philosophy cease to be myth and become philosophy. 375

Vernant reminds us of Cornford’s view that “myth is rationalized in philosophy,” and many of my students latched onto that claim, but they couldn’t really explain it.  They could think of philosophy as a rationalizing project, but they had a hard time seeing how that rationalizing was drawing on myth.

Then I had a flash of creative inspiration.

I took a passage from Anaxagoras that they had read and I made a Powerpoint with that passage.

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 10.33.22 AM

I asked them to discuss the meaning of the passage and to consider how Anaxagoras is drawing on Hesiod.  Students could see that the elements remained, that there was an order to them, but that now, something called “Mind” was organizing things.  Then I posted another slide.

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 10.33.36 AM

In this slide, I had changed all references to Mind or “it” to Zeus or him.  Then I asked students how Zeus was similar and different from some principle like Mind.  Earlier in the discussion on this day, we had talked about the passage in Vernant where he connects the order of Zeus in mythology with the order of the king in the Mycenaean palace — this is the passage that follows Vernant’s claim that “myth is rationalized in philosophy:”

[M]yth is rationalized in philosophy.  But what does that mean?  It means, in the first place, that it took the form of an explicitly formulated problem.  Myths were accounts, not solutions to problems.  They told of the sequence of actions by which the king or the god imposed order, as these actions were mimed out in ritual.  The problem found its solution without ever having been posed.  However, in Greece, where the new political forms had triumphed with the development of the city, only a few traces of the ancient royal rituals remained, and even their meaning had been lost.  The memory of the king as creator of order and maker of time had disappeared.  The connection is no longer apparent between the mythical exploit of the sovereign, symbolized by his victory over the monster, and the organization of cosmic phenomena.  When the natural order and atmospheric phenomena (rains, winds, storms and thunderbolts) became independent from the functions of the king, they cease to be intelligible in the language of myth in which they had been described hitherto.  They are henceforth seen as questions open for discussion. 376

This exercise led to an extended and thoughtful conversation about how Zeus both is and is not a principle of order, and how Mind seems to reference Zeus but produce a more rational consistent principle.  Students could see explicitly how inserting Zeus appears to close off questions, but when Zeus or the king can no longer be the assumed reference, a problem is posed.  And Mind becomes an effort to solve that problem.  Comparing these passages also allowed us to interrogate whether in fact the principle of Mind overcame the problems of a figure like Zeus, a figure who maintains order by needing to be beyond the order and unrestricted by it.  We were able to talk about whether Mind was an immanent principle inside the order or necessarily transcendent and whether nature itself then could be understood by a principle internal to it or outside of it.  In this way, the solution to the problem could also be interrogated as a problem, as a solution that produces its own problems.

After this conversation, I asked students to reflect on how the pre-Socratics including Anaxagoras were in conversation with Hesiod.  Students were able to offer nuanced arguments about how myth informs their philosophical claims even though the philosophical claims seem to function differently as a claim about what is than myth did.  These several things, introducing short passages of secondary literature on the question I knew from previous semesters would have a hard time getting traction and this adaptation of the text to force students to see parallels and disjuncts between mythology and philosophy, have had the effect of raising the level of discussion to considerable nuance and involving more students.  These strategies helped more students take the question of the relation between mythology and philosophy more seriously as a question, where seeing both sides led to insight about what philosophy is rather than a defensive gesture for philosophy as progress.

Photograph is from mouth of cave at Mt. Dikteon on Crete where Zeus, legend has it, was suckled by a she-goat after being rescued by Rheia from Khronos.

Updated: An earlier version of this post said I had students read Chomsky, instead of Brown.

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