a1 St Edmund Hall, Oxford and Johannes Gutenberg-Universität, Mainz
Bruno Snell has made familiar a certain thesis about the Homeric poems, to the effect that these poems depict a primitive form of mindedness. The area of mindedness concerned is agency, and the content of the thesis is that Homeric agents are not agents in the fullest sense: they do not make choices in clear self-awareness of what they are doing; choices are made for them rather than by them; in some cases the instigators of action are gods, in other cases they are forces acting internally on the agent and over which he has no control. Homeric heroes act in the way Descartes thought an animal acts: agitur, non agit. Such agents ‘handeln nicht eigentlich (d.h. mil vollem Bewuβtsein eigenen Handelns), sondern sie reagieren’. The model of the agent which we nowadays have is roughly of a self which determines, rather than is determined to, action; the self arrives at this determination by considering available reasons for action in the light of its overall purposes, and it moves to action in full self-consciousness of what it is doing, and why. This model of action, Snell claims, is not met in Greek literature before the tragedians. I think anyone ought to concede that there is some difference between the way Homer portrays decision-making and the way it is portrayed in tragedy (with further differences among the tragedians themselves); but has Snell located the difference in the right place? I shall argue in this paper that he has not.
* I am grateful to Professors Walter Nicolai and Arbogast Schmitt for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. The paper was written during a spell as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the University of Mainz. I am most grateful to the Stiftung for making this Stay possible, and for their generous assistance during the tenure of the Fellowship.