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Wednesday, May 01, 2002

Book Reviews

Greek Influence on German Thought


D. J. Schmidt professes philosophy at Villanova University. He has written a book called The Ubiquity of the Finite. He is at home in German. He often convincingly corrects Walter Kaufmann’s standard English translation of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. He uses “the Loeb editions of Greek texts” (xvii). He has for better or worse read widely in Hegel, Heidegger, and Nietzsche. There is no evidence, however, that he has read Wilamowitz or Lesky.

Schmidt studied under the late Hans-Georg Gadamer. He believes that the purpose of Greek tragedy was to teach its audience how to lead an ethical life. To believe that and to believe that Sophocles believed it, too, however, are two different matters. The first may be asserted; the second must be proven. I think rather that Sophocles wrote, first, to win a prize and, along the way, to adorn a tale. I doubt that the ethics of his fellow citizens concerned him much once they left the theater. Schmidt further holds that certain influential German thinkers used the Greek tragedies read in school as catalysts for often rather muddled ethical enigmas. Rather than summarize the book, I shall take two test cases, one Greek and one German: Sophocles’ Antigone and Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy.

Before I proceed, however, let me note that there is a chapter on Plato (in which logos is regularly translated as conversation), as well as chapters on Aristotle, Hegel, Holderlin, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, with excursions on Kant and Schelling. Nevertheless, there is no attempt to discuss the long German affair with the ancient Greeks. We know now that it began some 500 years ago (see Walther Ludwig, Hellas in Deutschland: Darstellungen der Grazistik im deutschsprachigen Raum aus dem 16. und 17. Jahrhundert. I should note especially: Franciscus Irenicus, Martin Crusius, and Johann Caspar Loscher). The bizarre culmination of this tradition was Ernst Buschor’s hailing of the Nazi invasion of Greece as the return of Greece to the true Greeks! Schmidt should have included something of this historical background.

Regarding Antigone, Schmidt never states in one place and unambiguously what he believes Sophocles is saying. I should think that if someone discusses modern perversions of Sophocles’ intent, he should have an idea of what the ancient’s intent was, and thus document its modern distortions. It is nonsense to assume that every reader will come to this book with the same, and correct, view of the play’s historical context. Rather, Antigone is discussed in some 20 places. Can one construct a consistent interpretation of the play from these 20 discussions? What are we told? Antigone (14) is not as idiosyncratic as Hamlet. She lacks “psychodynamics.” This is dangerously close to A. J. A. Waldock’s “documentary fallacy,” the assumption that a character in fiction may be treated as a historical figure (Waldock, Sophocles the Dramatist Cambridge 1951 11-24). We learn (15) that to deinon (sic) in “the celebrated choral ode in Sophocles’ Antigone” means “alterity.” Does this help? The precise reference (Antigone, 332) is suppressed. Just as well, for when we hunt it out, we find that Sophocles writes ta deina and not to deinon at all.

For the translation ungeheuer (monstrous, horrible) lauded by Schmidt, we deserve a reference to Paul Friedländer, Studien zur Antiken Literatur und Kunst. Not a word that Hegel’s view of Antigone neglects the fact that Athenian law forbade burial of traitors in Attic soil (99). Creon was enforcing a law familiar to Sophocles’ Athenian audience. Schmidt (101) mistranslates Antigone 926, “Because we suffer we recognize that we have erred.” The action of the participle precedes that of the finite verb; thus, the verse means, “When we have suffered, we might know that we have erred.” What evidence exists that Antigone was “set in a time of ‘national revolution’” (153)? The ostracism of Thucydides, son of Melesias, in 443 was a domestic quarrel.

Schmidt discusses at length (pp. 245-254) Heidegger’s translation of what he calls “the celebrated first chorus from Sophocles’ Antigone.” It is in fact the second chorus (Antigone, 332-383). He translates Heidegger’s and Hölderlin’s German translations of the ode into English, while suppressing the German originals, to the relief of the monoglots (267-270). But he ought certainly to have provided an accurate, indeed literal, translation of the Greek original. One could thus detect the deviations from what Sophocles wrote – deviations that reveal the translators’ innovations. Schmidt uses bizarre neologisms such as “unhomeliness” (247) to translate unheimlich. But heimlich is homey, not homely, and so the word can only confuse a reader ignorant of German. Schmidt says nothing about Heidegger’s mistranslations, and so the result of the discussion is more confusing than informative.

The chapter ends (266) with “one final haunting question”: Why did Heidegger flirt with the Nazis? Is this surprising? Classicists did. Compare Dirlmeier, Jaeger, the SS man Poschl, and Schadewaldt. The exiled Jews, Felix Jacoby and Paul Maas, rooted for the Nazis from their Oxford asylum. Schmidt must see Heidegger in context. I find it quite wrong (272) to hold that Antigone “dies on behalf of a corpse.” She dies out of loyalty to her brother. Schmidt (ibid.) quite misinterprets Antigone’s preference (Antigone, 904-920) for a brother over a child or a husband. Sophocles incorporates a sophism that also amused his friend Herodotus. It was a joke meant to amuse the audience. Revealingly, the poet Goethe wanted a good philologist to excise the verses (K. Lehrs obliged him), whereas the historian Wilamowitz, as Boeckh did earlier, albeit regretfully, wanted them retained. In sum, we have only scattered remarks, often inaccurate and regularly incompetently documented.

If any single work of Nietzsche has won the attention of Hellenists, it is The Birth of Tragedy (1872). Not least because the youthful Wilamowitz wrote a successful polemic against his schoolmate that exposed his errors and ultimately decided him “to give up [his] university post and scholarship and become prophet for an irreligious religion and an unphilosophical philosophy” (Erinnerungen, 129). I have sought to put the famous quarrel into historical context in Nietzsche-Studien (12, 1983, pp. 214-254). Schmidt simply does not have mastery of his subject. We are told (p. 192; p. 310, n. 2) of the influence of Jacob Burckhardt’s Griechische Kulturgeschichte (History of Greek Culture) on The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche’s book was published in 1872, however, while Kulturgeschichte appeared in 1898-1902. Nietzsche died in 1900, and was mad for years before that. The men surely met, and presumably chatted and exchanged ideas. There was nothing more than that, however. It reminds me of an unfortunate public lecture by a philosopher attributing Nietzsche’s view of Apollo to the Apollo of the Zeus Temple at Olympia, which Curtius had not yet excavated.

Schmidt praises Nietzsche’s profound familiarity with Greek tragedy. The fact is that the only Euripidean tragedy that Nietzsche had read by 1872 was Bacchae. Again and again, his opinions are lifted from A. W. Schlegel (see the fundamental study by Albert Henrichs, “The Last of the Detractors: Friedrich Nietzsche’s Condemnation of Euripides,” GRBS 27 [1986], 369-397). His view of Euripides was derivative rather than profound. He did not hesitate to teach texts he had never read. This is absolutely clear from his Basel lectures on the Attic Orators, derived from Blass (see Anton Bierl and William M. Calder III, Nietzsche-Studien 21 [1992], 363-389). Schmidt is ignorant of the fundamental study of The Birth of Tragedy, Barbara von Reibnitz’s Ein Kommentar zu Friedrich Nietzsche “Die Geburt der Tragodie aus dem Geiste der Musik.” Any study of The Birth of Tragedy must begin with this book. Schmidt tells us (193) that Nietzsche “was trained as a classicist” – but he never wrote a dissertation or earned a doctorate. As for postulating “a homoerotic relation” (199) between the Apollonian and the Dionysian (“two male gods”), I find this sheerest nonsense. Even Wilamowitz did not uncover that when trashing Nietzsche’s book. Nietzsche’s description of Euripides as the murderer of Greek tragedy is presented (207-209) to readers without warning that Nietzsche had read Bacchae only, or that, in later antiquity, Euripides was the most popular tragedian, the most frequently revived, translated, and cited. He wrote for stars, and hence the age of actors preferred him, as one could perform his scripts with choruses omitted – which is why the straw-hat circuit preferred him.

In conclusion, I urge students to read, repeatedly, Sophocles’ Antigone and, once at least in German or English, The Birth of Tragedy, rather than this book. I have been unable to find that Schmidt improves my understanding of either Sophocles or Nietzsche. And I fear that the layman will be misled. I find two decisions annoying, perhaps imposed on the author by his publisher. First of all, he cites Greek in transliteration; this only penalizes those who know Greek and must transliterate it back into the Greek alphabet. Transliterated Japanese, for example, is of no help at all to me. Second, notes are condemned to the back of the book (285-321). This penalizes only those who read notes. Those who do not will skip them, whether at the bottom of the page or at the end of the volume. Two more minor points: Diels-Kranz is consistently spelled Diehls-Kranz throughout; also, I do not understand why the Parian stele in New York, depicting a girl with two pigeons, adorns the front cover. It has exerted no influence on German thought. Why not one of the treasures of the Munich or Berlin collections, such as the Barberini Faun?

William M. Calder III is William Abbott Oldfather Professor of the Classics and Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign.
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