1.7. Minor Classical Schools






1.7.1. The Stoics: Semiotics and literature

1.7.2. Epicurean aesthetics

1.7.3. Hellenistic scholarship






1.7.1. The Stoics: Semiotics and Literature (Zeno, Diogenes of Babylon, Panetius)



Stoicism is known above all because of its peculiar ethics, centered on the elevation of the soul towards apathía. This ethics is all one with the rest of Stoic theories. Apathy is a reasonable end, and it is reached through the exercise of reason.


The Stoic metaphysics has pantheistic overtones. It sees the physical universe pervaded with what they call spirit (pneuma ) or reason (logos ). This general conception of reality has a close counterpart in their theory of language. The same equivalence existing between matter and spirit is found in the process which governs meaning between the signifier (semaínon ) and the signified (semainómenon ). We see, then that it is a theory of meaning with theological implications : the world is pervaded with God, and this can be seen in all aspects of reality. The study of rhetoric is for the Stoics a part of Logic, and is closely linked to Dialectic, the other part of Logic, which is the science of thought. Words have for the Stoics a close relationship to thought and reality. This does not mean, however, that there is a univocal and rigid relationship between words and objects. The Stoics believe that such a relationship did exist in the origins of mankind. Men spoke then a natural language, one in which words expressed the true nature of things. But like many other Greeks, the Stoics feel that they are living in a very late period of the history of mankind. Words have lost that property, and many other words have been formed from that natural language by means of composition, opposition or analogy. There are two important principles here: the first, that language is not fixed forever, that it changes. The second, that language is becoming more and more complicated and has lost its primitive purity. So, now we do not find a one-to-one relationship between words and objects. The Stoics posit that there is something in between: concepts. The signified, then, is not an object. It derives from the object, but it is a concept. So, the Stoic theory of meaning has a look similar to Ogden and Richards' triangle:



(signified, semainómenon )




Word Object

(signifier, semainon ) (Referent, tygkhánon )


Zeno, the main Stoic philosopher, viewed rhetoric as a philosophical discipline. Having a high ideal of the nature of meaning, he asserted that rhetoric ought to be at the service of truth. To speak well, according to the rules of rhetoric, is first of all to think well, that is, to speak well is to speak the truth. We may notice that this is a different concept of rhetoric fom the one we found in the sophists or Aristotle. There rhetoric was an art of its own; it is not a part of philosophy, and is not concerned with truth, only with persuasion by any available means. That is, rhetoric is not a true science, but rather a discipline, an instrument (organon ). For Aristotle, truth in rhetoric is only a strong means of persuasion. But now the Stoics have linked words to truth, and they will tend to identify good style with correct thought --which is closer to the Platonic position than to the Aristotelian one. Cicero will charge Stoic rhetoricians with being too much concerned with thought at the expense of beauty. He praises their dialectics or technique of debate, but complains that they do not pay enough attention to style. Stoic rhetoric, indeed, is wholly against strange figures and obscure constructions. Its main concern is with truth and clarity; they strive to maintain expression close to the original thought. Accordingly, they insist that rhetoric is not a simple instrument, but a true science. If a thing can be known, then it can be said, because language is linked to thought. And saying is the province of rhetoric: its role is to express and systematize the knowledge we have acquired. But it is only concerned with the knowledge of the relationships between words and concepts: it is not concerned with actual objects. That is why literature can express knowledge.


In spite of the Platonic strain in their rhetoric, the Stoics develop this idea into a notion of beauty which is close to the Aristotelian idea of structural unity. We have seen that they neglect the punctual beauties of particular words and insist rather on the rightness of thought. Beauty is then linked to truth. And it is seen to consist not in a sum of things which are beautiful in themselves, but rather in the whole. Beauty is not dependent on the nature of the parts of the object: it is dependent on the disposition of the parts.


The Stoics try to fix technical terminology, and they give a moral emphasis to the analysis of literature. We find again in Stoic theories some familiar concepts: poetry as imitation, having instruction and delight as a double aim, the importance of metaphor and the definition of rhythm as repetition. But they add some new ideas. We have already mentioned the fact that they were among the first theorists to make allegorical interpretations of literary works, through their allegorical interpretations of the Homeric poems (cf. the section on classical hermeneutics). They also set the study of literature in a wider context : they see that poetry is only one possible use of words. It is to be studied as a part of the general science of meaning, which is Logic. The work of the Stoics on linguistics and literature has some analogies with the development of semiotics in our own century. Unfortunately, only scattered fragments remain of Stoic works on the subject.














1.7.2. Epicurean Aesthetics


(Philodemus of Gadara)


Traditionally, the Epicureans have been regarded as less serious and stringent than the Stoics. This we may see to some extent in their aesthetic theories. If the key idea in Stoicism is "reason, to help us bear the miseries of the world", the Epicureans favour another use for reason : " Reason, to guide our pleasures and help us lead a happy life".


The Epicureans hold that poetic value is not dependent on didacticism or moral teaching. Also, it is not to be found merely in pure form, in technical achievement. It does not result from the presence in a poem of both didacticism and beautiful forms, either. Rather, it comes from the unity of form and content.


Another Epicurean idea on aesthetics is their view of the emotive effects of music. Plato and Aristotle had stated that different kinds of music expressed or induced different emotions. Philodemus, on the contrary, believes that music alone, apart from words, is incapable of producing any emotions or ethical effects on the hearer.





1.7.3. Hellenistic Scholarship



No first-rate literature seems to have been produced during the Hellenistic centuries in the Greek-speaking world, or at least none has survived. Both poets and critics follow the tradition of the great classics of the fourth and fifth centuries BC, though these developments give rise to new genres and original forms. The taste is for complicated, allusive poetry, preciosity and romantic themes. The age abounds in cyclic poems and Byzantine romances.

Strabo (63 BC? - AD 24) was a geographer, but his Geography in seventeen volumes treats of a wide variety of subjects, among them poetry. He distinguishes poetic language, that is, the language used by poets, from the ordinary language used by other men. The difference is both historical and substantial. According to Strabo, poetry was formerly a kind of primitive philosophy, before men were ready for more difficult philosophy. This theory is echoed by Robortello and Sidney in the Renaissance, and will be very popular among Romantic thinkers. It is at the root of the conceptions of Vico and Hegel, and has never been really abandoned. Strabo believes, similarly, that the first writings were poetical in nature, and that prose derives from poetry. He also says that although there is a difference between poetic and ordinary language, this difference is not complete. We may assume them to have common elements, which is logical enough if we believe that they are historically linked.

Alexandria was an important center of scholarship during the Hellenistic and Roman ages. The Alexandrian library, with 700.000 volumes, became the largest of Antiquity. We hear of a work by Callimachus which was used as a catalogue for the library, the Lists of Illustrious Writers and Their Works, in 120 volumes (Callimachus, by the way, had criticised a cyclic poet for the publication of an epic romance in four volumes). This was an age in which criticism flourished. However, it was not devoted not to literature itself, but rather to illustrious writers and their works: some kinds of biographical criticism can also be traced back to Greece and Rome. Now we find for the first time critical editions of the classics, Homer above all, by Zenodotus, Erathostenes and Aristarchus. Aristarchus was the one who opposed the allegorical interpretations of the Stoics; he sees Homer as the spokesman of the childhood of the Greek race, and he makes an effort to set the interpretation of the poems in their own time.

Most of the works once held in the Alexandrian library are lost. The library was burned in 640 by Omar, the second Caliph. Apparently, the Arabs used the books to heat their baths for six months.