Homo ludens in the world of ancient Greek verbal art

2015.10.15 | By Gregory Nagy

Roman mosaic, 2nd century CE, showing theatrical masks of comedy and tragedy, from the Baths of Decius on the Aventine Hill, Rome. [image by antmoose, CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Mosaic showing theatrical masks of comedy and tragedy, from the Baths of Decius on the Aventine Hill, Rome, 2nd century CE. [image by antmoose, CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This essay is dedicated to my friend Philippe Rousseau.


§1. The traditions of ancient Greek verbal art, as consolidated in the so-called classical era of the fifth century BCE and extending into the era of Aristotle in the fourth century, were shaped by the capacity of ancient Greek poetry to imitate, in a playful way, language in all its forms, both artful and artless. That is the essence of my argument. The term playful as I use it here evokes the title of a book by Johan Huizinga, Homo ludens (1938),[1] who begins at page one by playfully contrasting his concept of Homo ludens with what we recognize as the <<scientific>> Latin name Homo sapiens assigned to humans as animals—a naming inspired in part by Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859).[2] As the naming Homo ludens implies, the capacity for playfulness is inborn in human nature, just as the capacity to think is inborn. I accept this idea, but I pursue it here with reference to the theorizing of Aristotle, not Huizinga. I intend to highlight Aristotle’s thinking about the inborn human capacity for imitation, which he links with the playfulness of children. In terms of his thinking, the inborn human capacity for imitation is one of the two causalities of poetry. Building on Aristotle’s formulation, I argue that this same inborn capacity to imitate is a causality for the creation of all verbal arts, including the art of prose.

§2. This argument applies to a wide variety of verbal art, ranging from the poetry of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey all the way to the prose of fables attributed to Aesop. In my study here, however, my argumentation concentrates on poetry, since I will be examining primarily what Aristotle has to say about poetry in the treatise known today as the Poetics. From the standpoint of this treatise, prose is a medium that is not included in the category of poetry.

§3. Even though Aristotle expresses no need to account for prose in his Poetics, I must nevertheless make a point already now about his understanding of imitation as one of the two causalities of poetry: this understanding applies to prose as well as poetry. When I come to the end of this study, I will return to the point I just made here. For now, however, I begin by focusing on the testimony of Aristotle’s Poetics.

Aristotle on mīmēsis as imitation and representation

§4. In an extended passage that I am about to quote, we will read Aristotle’s formulation about two causalities of poetry. One of these two is mīmēsis, which he understands as imitation and, on a deeper level, as representation. For Aristotle, the act of representing is achieved by way of visual arts, especially painting and sculpture, and by way of verbal art, especially poetry. As we will see later, there is also a third and even deeper level of mīmēsis, which is re-enactment. For now, however, I start by contemplating the first two levels, imitation and representation.

§5. From Aristotle’s point of view, the human capacity for imitation is inborn, and humans start imitating as soon as they are born. Since humans imitate from childhood onward, and since children are playful when they imitate, it follows that human adults are in some way reverting to this atavistic playfulness when they too imitate. Here is how Aristotle says it in the Poetics, using the noun mīmēsis in the primary sense of imitation and the verb mīmeîsthai in the primary sense of imitate:

Ἐοίκασι δὲ γεννῆσαι μὲν ὅλως τὴν ποιητικὴν αἰτίαι δύο τινὲς καὶ αὗται φυσικαί. τό τε γὰρ μιμεῖσθαι σύμφυτον τοῖς ἀνθρώποις ἐκ παίδων ἐστὶ καὶ τούτῳ διαφέρουσι τῶν ἄλλων ζῴων ὅτι μιμητικώτατόν ἐστι καὶ τὰς μαθήσεις ποιεῖται διὰ μιμήσεως τὰς πρώτας, καὶ τὸ χαίρειν τοῖς μιμήμασι πάντας. σημεῖον δὲ τούτου τὸ συμβαῖνον ἐπὶ τῶν ἔργων· ἃ γὰρ αὐτὰ λυπηρῶς ὁρῶμεν, τούτων τὰς εἰκόνας τὰς μάλιστα ἠκριβωμένας χαίρομεν θεωροῦντες, οἷον θηρίων τε μορφὰς τῶν ἀτιμοτάτων καὶ νεκρῶν. αἴτιον δὲ καὶ τούτου, ὅτι μανθάνειν οὐ μόνον τοῖς φιλοσόφοις ἥδιστον ἀλλὰ καὶ τοῖς ἄλλοις ὁμοίως, ἀλλ’ ἐπὶ βραχὺ κοινωνοῦσιν αὐτοῦ. διὰ γὰρ τοῦτο χαίρουσι τὰς εἰκόνας ὁρῶντες, ὅτι συμβαίνει θεωροῦντας μανθάνειν καὶ συλλογίζεσθαι τί ἕκαστον, οἷον ὅτι οὗτος ἐκεῖνος· ἐπεὶ ἐὰν μὴ τύχῃ προεωρακώς, οὐχ ᾗ μίμημα ποιήσει τὴν ἡδονὴν ἀλλὰ διὰ τὴν ἀπεργασίαν ἢ τὴν χροιὰν ἢ διὰ τοιαύτην τινὰ ἄλλην αἰτίαν. κατὰ φύσιν δὲ ὄντος ἡμῖν τοῦ μιμεῖσθαι καὶ τῆς ἁρμονίας καὶ τοῦ ῥυθμοῦ (τὰ γὰρ μέτρα ὅτι μόρια τῶν ῥυθμῶν ἐστι φανερὸν) ἐξ ἀρχῆς οἱ πεφυκότες πρὸς αὐτὰ μάλιστα κατὰ μικρὸν προάγοντες ἐγέννησαν τὴν ποίησιν ἐκ τῶν αὐτοσχεδιασμάτων.

It seems that there are two causes [aitiai] that generated [gennēsai] the poetic craft [poiētikē (tekhnē)] as a whole, and these two [causes] are inborn in [human] nature. Here is what I mean. It is a naturally inborn thing in humans to imitate [mīmeîsthai], from childhood onward, and a human is different in nature from the other animals in this way, that this one [= the human as an animal] is most-capable-of-imitation [mīmētikōtaton] and achieves its first learning-experiences [mathēseis] by way of imitation [mīmēsis]. Also [it is naturally inborn in humans] to get pleasure [khairein] from imitations [mīmēmata]. Evidence for this comes from what happens in [our own] experiences [epi tōn ergōn]. Here is what I mean. With regard to things that are unpleasant to see, of and by themselves, when we consider visual-representations [eikōn plural] of these things—representations that are executed with the greatest accuracy—then we get pleasure from contemplating [theōreîn] them, as for example [when we see] the forms of the most repulsive animals, or of corpses. And the cause [aition] for this too [= for the pleasure we get from seeing a mīmēsis] is the fact that the experience of learning [manthanein] is the most pleasurable thing, not only for philosophers but for all other humans—though they [= humans other than philosophers] have a more limited share [in this experience]. You see, this is why humans get pleasure from seeing visual-representations [eikōn plural]. It is because, as they are contemplating [theōreîn] what each thing is, they undergo the experience of learning [manthanein] and inferring [sullogizesthai]—inferring, for example, that ‘this one [houtos] is that one [ekeinos]’. Here is what I mean. Even if someone happens not to have already seen something [that is being imitated], the imitation [mīmēma] [of that original something] will cause pleasure not as an imitation but because of the technique, or the coloring, or some other such cause [aitiā]. Since imitating [mīmeîsthai] is natural to us, just as melody [harmoniā] and rhythm [rhuthmos] [are natural to us] (in the case of meters [metron plural], it is clear that they are subdivisions of rhythms), [it follows that,] from the very beginning, those who were naturally most inclined towards such things could evolve little by little in the generating [gennēsai] of poetry [poiēsis], starting from improvisations [autoskhediasmata].

Aristotle Poetics 1448b4–24

§6. So, according to Aristotle, the two aitiai or ‘causes’ that will lead gradually to the evolution of poetry are:

{1} the inborn human capacity for {1a} mīmēsis ‘imitation’ and for {1b} the pleasure that we get from the kind of mathēsis ‘learning’ we experience by way of thinking about mīmēsis


{2} the inborn human capacity for {2a} melody [that is, harmoniā in the sense of ‘tuning’] and for {2b} rhythm.[3]

§7. Here I bypass the second of these two causes as I have interpreted it, concentrating instead on Aristotle’s first cause, to which he refers as mīmēsis in the primary sense of imitation. What is inborn in humans, Aristotle is saying, is not only the capacity for imitation itself but also the capacity for getting pleasure from experiencing an imitation. Further, he says that imitation is a most basic form of learning, from infancy onward. Even further, he links the pleasure we get from seeing an imitation with the pleasure we get from learning. I repeat my translation of the relevant wording:

And the cause [aition] for this too [= for the pleasure we get from seeing a mīmēsis] is the fact that the experience of learning [manthanein] is the most pleasurable thing [. . .] for all [. . .] humans.

from Aristotle Poetics 1448b12–15 (repeated)

§8. Just as the verb mīmeîsthai and the nouns mīmēsis and mīmēma express the inborn human capacity of imitating, which is playfully experimental and stems from our very first learning experiences already from childhood onward, as Aristotle notes clearly, so also the verb manthanein and the noun mathēsis express the inborn capacity of learning by inference. Aristotle uses here the verb sullogizesthai to express the mental process of inferring, and to learn by inference is to think. So, Aristotle’s formulation merges the human capacity to imitate experimentally—and playfully—with the human capacity to think. In terms of my argumentation, then, Aristotle’s formulation merges Homo ludens with Homo sapiens in the world of poetry. And this formulation, again in terms of my overall argumentation, applies also to the world of verbal art in general, including the art of prose.

§9. I now highlight a striking detail in what we have read so far in the Poetics of Aristotle. It concerns what he describes as an inference, indicated by the verb sullogizesthai, in reaction to actually seeing an imitation. This inference is expressed by way of an equation, houtos ekeinos, which I translated as ‘this one is that one’. The example that Aristotle is using here involves primarily the visual arts, as when a painter or a sculptor is visually representing some original by way of copying and thus imitating that original in the visual media of painting or sculpting. But Aristotle also has in mind not only seeing but also hearing. He is contemplating not only the visual arts of painting and sculpting but also the verbal art of poetry, as we are about to see in a parallel statement of this same inferential equation in Aristotle’s Rhetoric (1.1371b9). Here the inference is indicated by the noun sullogismos, and, once again, the inference is happening in reaction to an imitation. This time, the inference is expressed by way of the equation touto ekeino ‘this thing is that thing’:

ἐπεὶ δὲ τὸ μανθάνειν τε ἡδὺ καὶ τὸ θαυμάζειν, καὶ τὰ τοιάδε ἀνάγκη ἡδέα εἶναι, οἷον τό τε μιμούμενον, ὥσπερ γραφικὴ καὶ ἀνδριαντοποιία καὶ ποιητική, καὶ πᾶν ὃ ἂν εὖ μεμιμημένον ᾖ, κἂν ᾖ μὴ ἡδὺ αὐτὸ τὸ μεμιμημένον· οὐ γὰρ ἐπὶ τούτῳ χαίρει, ἀλλὰ συλλογισμὸς ἔστιν ὅτι τοῦτο ἐκεῖνο, ὥστε μανθάνειν τι συμβαίνει.

And since the experiences of learning [manthanein] and feeling a sense of wonder [thaumazesthai] are pleasurable, it follows that things connected with them must also be pleasurable. Take for example an act of imitation [mīmeîsthai] —such as painting, sculpture, and poetry [poiēsis]—or for that matter anything at all that has been well imitated [mīmeîsthai], even if the thing that has been imitated [mīmeîsthai] is not pleasurable. You see, one gets pleasure not because of this [= the imitation itself], but, instead, there is an inference [sullogismos] that ‘this thing [touto] is that thing [ekeino]’, and what happens as a result is the learning [manthanein] of something.

Aristotle Rhetoric 1.1371b4–10

§10. When we humans react instinctively to an imitation of something original, as when an original something is represented by way of painting or sculpture or poetry, we are inferring that, yes, ‘this’ representation ‘is’ indeed ‘that’ original, houtos ekeinos ‘this one is that one’, or touto ekeino ‘this thing is that thing’. I deliberately describe this inference as an affirmation, a mental ‘yes’, in view of the fact that the Vulgar Latin combination hoc illud, meaning literally ‘this is that’, becomes, in French, the word for ‘yes’, oui. Or, in the region of France known by the name Languedoc, which of course means ‘the language of oc’, the original hoc illud becomes that region’s own word for ‘yes’, oc.[4]

§11. In these inferential formulas houtos ekeinos ‘this one is that one’ and touto ekeino ‘this thing is that thing’, we see the essence of mīmēsis as an act of imitating by way of representing an original. The ‘is’ of the formulas ‘this one is that one’ and ‘this thing is that thing’ is in one sense playful, because it is playing make-believe. The ‘is’ of these formulas is making believe that the copy really is the original.

Going deeper: mīmēsis as re-enactment

§12. In the poetics of drama as it comes to life in Athenian State Theater, however, the ‘is’ of mīmēsis in the formulas ‘this one is that one’ and ‘this thing is that thing’ is not only playful: it is also quite serious, in the sense that the actor who is ‘this one’ in a given drama is not only imitating and representing but also re-enacting, in the ritual of drama, the hero or god who is ‘that one’ in myth. Here we come to the deeper meaning of mīmēsis as re-enactment.

§13. In another project, I studied in detail the poetics of mīmēsis as re-enactment, concentrating on the medium of the khoros—meaning ‘chorus’ in the sense of a grouping of singers-dancers—as this grouping evolved in the historical context of Athenian State Theater.[5] I quote here the basic argument:

When I use the word mīmēsis, I understand the primary meaning of the original Greek word to be ‘reenactment’, as in a chorus. What I mean by a reenactment is a reliving through ritual. And I understand the secondary meaning of mīmēsis to be ‘imitation’. I say secondary because I understand imitation to be a built-in aspect of reenactment. All reenactment is imitation, but not all imitation is reenactment. I say that all reenactment is imitation because the one who relives something through ritual can imitate predecessors who have already relived that something through ritual. And I say that not all imitation is reenactment because you can imitate someone or something without having to relive anything through ritual. Gradually, starting in the fifth century BCE, the primary meaning of mīmēsis as ‘reenactment’ became destabilized, and the new primary meaning became simply ‘imitation’. This destabilization, caused by a gradual weakening of ritual practices in general, led to a new secondary meaning of mīmēsis, which can best be translated as ‘representation’. Unlike reenactment as I have defined it, representation can be devoid of ritual.[6]

§14. For Aristotle, the ritual dimension of mīmēsis as re-enactment was in fact already destabilized in Athenian State Theater, and that is why he understands mīmēsis in his analysis as imitate and represent, not re-enact.[7] But the formula that he uses for expressing the mental process of mīmēsis, ‘this one is that one’ or ‘this thing is that thing’, still retains the ritual dimension of drama. We can see here the mental process of identifying the representing ‘this’, as in the ritual of acting the drama, with the represented ‘that’, as in the myth that is being acted out by the drama.[8] In an earlier project, I offered this formulation:

So long as the represented ‘that’ remains absolute—that is, absolutized by the myth—the representing ‘this’ remains a re-enacting ‘this’. So long as ‘this’ imitates an absolute ‘that’, it re-enacts as it imitates; the re-enactment remains primary, and the imitation remains secondary. Once you start imitating something that is no longer absolute, however, you can no longer re-enact the absolute: then you can only make a copy, and your model may be also just a copy. [. . .]

[B]oth re-enactment and imitation are genuine aspects of the older conceptual world of mīmēsis. If you re-enact an archetypal action in ritual, it only stands to reason that you have to imitate those who re-enacted before you and who served as your immediate models. But the ultimate model is still the archetypal action or figure that you are re-enacting in ritual, which is coextensive with the whole line of imitators who re-enact the way in which their ultimate model acted, each imitating each one’s predecessor.[9]

Aristotle’s model of a split between seriousness and non-seriousness in the evolution of poetry

§15. Given that Aristotle understood mīmēsis primarily as representation, not re-enactment, we can better understand why he attempted to reconstruct a prototypical split between seriousness and non-seriousness in the evolution of poetry. Picking up where I left off in quoting from the Poetics, I continue the quotation at exactly the point where Aristotle has just finished speaking about the two causalities of poetry—the first of which is mīmēsis—and where he has just started to reconstruct the evolution of poetry in a prehistoric phase of this medium when ‘those who were naturally most inclined’ towards the generating of poetry ‘could evolve little by little [. . .], starting from improvisations [autoskhediasmata]’ (1448b22–24). During this prototypical phase, when proto-poets are still improvising proto-forms of poetry, something most decisive happens in the evolving process of making such prototypical poetry:

διεσπάσθη δὲ κατὰ τὰ οἰκεῖα ἤθη ἡ ποίησις· οἱ μὲν γὰρ σεμνότεροι τὰς καλὰς ἐμιμοῦντο πράξεις καὶ τὰς τῶν τοιούτων, οἱ δὲ εὐτελέστεροι τὰς τῶν φαύλων, πρῶτον ψόγους ποιοῦντες, ὥσπερ ἕτεροι ὕμνους καὶ ἐγκώμια. τῶν μὲν οὖν πρὸ Ὁμήρου οὐδενὸς ἔχομεν εἰπεῖν τοιοῦτον ποίημα, εἰκὸς δὲ εἶναι πολλούς, ἀπὸ δὲ Ὁμήρου ἀρξαμένοις ἔστιν, οἷον ἐκείνου ὁ Μαργίτης καὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα. ἐν οἷς κατὰ τὸ ἁρμόττον καὶ τὸ ἰαμβεῖον ἦλθε μέτρον – διὸ καὶ ἰαμβεῖον καλεῖται νῦν, ὅτι ἐν τῷ μέτρῳ τούτῳ ἰάμβιζον ἀλλήλους. καὶ ἐγένοντο τῶν παλαιῶν οἱ μὲν ἡρωικῶν οἱ δὲ ἰάμβων ποιηταί.

Poetic composition [poiēsis] split apart, heading in two different directions, corresponding to the inherent characteristics [ēthos plural] [of their improvising makers]. Those who were more stately [semnoteroi] [by comparison with the non-serious] represented [mīmeîsthai] noble actions [kalai praxeis]—actions of characters who were correspondingly that kind of people [= the noble ones]— whereas those who were less worthy [eutelesteroi] [represented] the actions of base [phauloi] people, at first making [poieîn] invectives [psogos plural], whereas the others [= the noble ones] made hymns [humnoi] and encomia [enkōmia]. When it comes to those [poets] who lived before the time of Homer, we do not have anyone to tell about who made a composition [poiēma] of this kind [= invective poetry], although it is likely that there were many [who composed invective poetry already then]. But, starting with those who lived in the time of Homer, there is such a composition: it is his own [composition called] Margites, and there are other such things dating from his time. Among such compositions, there came about the appropriate meter, the iambic [iambeion]. That is why this meter is even now called the iambic [iambeion], since it is in in this meter that people used to make-invectives [iambizein] against one another. And that is how, among the ancient ones, some became the poetic-makers [poiētai] of [poetic] things heroic [hērōika], while others [became makers] of iambic invectives [iamboi].

Aristotle Poetics 1448b24–34

§16. In this remarkable formulation, we see Aristotle explaining the media of tragedy and comedy as they existed in his own era by building an evolutionary model. Or, to say it in linguistic terms, he builds a diachronic model.[10] That is, Aristotle traces diachronically the forms of these media of tragedy and comedy back to a prototypical phase when poetry was split into praise for and by those who are noble, which must be taken seriously, and into invective for and by those who are base, which must not be taken seriously. Then, tracing this prototypical phase forward in time, Aristotle posits an intermediate phase where praise evolves into the poetry of epic, as exemplified by the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, while invective evolves into the poetry of playful ridicule, as exemplified by a comic poem called the Margites, attributed to Homer. In what immediately follows this formulation, Aristotle argues that the poetry of epic evolved further into tragedy while the poetry of playful ridicule evolved further into comedy (Poetics 1448b34–1449a6).

§17. Aristotle’s modeling of a split between the seriousness of noble poetry in representing what is noble and the non-seriousness of base poetry in representing what is base would have been unnecessary, I argue, if he had thought of mīmēsis primarily as re-enactment, which is a matter of ritual, instead of representation, which can be devoid of ritual. In terms of my argument, mīmēsis as re-enactment in drama is serious in the sense that the act of acting in drama is by origin a matter of ritual—and ritual is a sacred activity that connects humans with superhuman sacred forces like heroes and gods—but such re-enactment in drama is at the same time also playful in the sense that ritual itself is simultaneously playful as well as serious in its sacredness. And, because ritual is playful, it can include laughter. We can see this inclusion in the form of drama as it survived into the classical era of Athenian State Theater, dated to the fifth century BCE and beyond, where we find that the seriousness of this drama as ritual can include the laughter of comedy even if it excludes laughter in tragedy. Heroes and gods can be laughable in the dramas of comedy in the classical era of the fifth century BCE and beyond, as are the hero Herakles and the god Dionysus in the Frogs of Aristophanes, even while these same heroes and gods are not to be laughed at in the corresponding dramas of tragedy, as the hero Herakles and the god Dionysus are represented respectively in the Herakles and the Bacchic Women of Euripides.

On the iambic trimeter as a frame for prototypical poetry

§18. Having argued that the basic function of mīmēsis in drama, seen as ritual action, is by origin both serious and playful, I now argue further that the basic form of such mīmēsis is likewise both serious and playful. And this form, in both tragedy and comedy as we see them still at work in the era of Aristotle, is framed in a meter known as the iambic trimeter.

§19. What I just said is at odds with the formulation of Aristotle as I quoted it a minute ago. For him the term iambic indicates that iambic trimeter originated from the poetry of invective. But Aristotle is faced with a problem here. He has already argued that there had been a split, from the very beginning, between the serious poetry of praise and the non-serious poetry of invective. So, how is he to account for the fact that iambic trimeter survives down to his own time as the basic meter used for the speaking parts of tragedy, not only of comedy? This fact does not square with his implied assumption that iambic trimeter had once functioned exclusively as a medium of invective.

§20. Aristotle tries to solve the problem by arguing that the poetry of iambic trimeter must have evolved from non-seriousness to seriousness in order to become the medium of tragedy:

ἐκ μικρῶν μύθων καὶ λέξεως γελοίας διὰ τὸ ἐκ σατυρικοῦ μεταβαλεῖν ὀψὲ ἀπεσεμνύνθη

[Tragedy,] developing out of slight plots and out of laughable diction on account of its derivation from a form having to do with satyrs, became, in the fullness of time, stately [aposemnunesthai = become semnē].

Aristotle Poetics 1449a19–21[11]

§21. Earlier in the Poetics (1448b25–27), as we have already seen, Aristotle uses parallel terminology in reconstructing a prototypical split between poets who are semnoteroi or ‘more stately’ and poets who are by comparison eutelesteroi, that is, ‘less worthy’. According to this construct, as we have also seen, poets who are semnoteroi or ‘more stately’ are engaged in the mīmēsis or ‘representation’ of actions that are kala ‘noble’, performed by those who are kaloi ‘noble’, while poets who are eutelesteroi or ‘less worthy’ represent actions that are phaula ‘base’, performed by those who are phauloi ‘base’.

§22. This reconstruction of a split between the prototypes of tragic and comic poetry is what forces Aristotle to argue that iambic trimeter evolved out of comic poetry, which was already differentiated from tragic poetry.

On the iambic trimeter as a mīmēsis of speech

§23. I argue that Aristotle’s scenario for deriving the form of poetry framed by iambic trimeter in tragedy from an earlier form of comic poetry is contradicted by the fact that one single meter, the iambic trimeter, served as a framework for the one single form of poetry that made a mīmēsis or ‘representation’ of speech as opposed to song in both tragedy and comedy. In terms of my argument, then, the original function of iambic trimeter was not restricted to the poetry of invective.

§24. When I say that iambic trimeter served to represent speech, I mean literally words spoken as opposed to words sung and danced. Further, in the dramatic conventions of Aristotle’s time, speech was performed by actors, as opposed to song and dance, which was performed by the chorus.

§25. The evolution of one single meter, the iambic trimeter, as the medium for representing speech was made possible by the fact that this aspect of drama became dissociated from the choral aspects that remained organically linked with singing and dancing; the only other meter that came even close to representing speech in drama was the trochaic tetrameter catalectic, but even this meter was eventually eliminated as a rival of iambic trimeter in representing speech as opposed to choral singing.[12] As Aristotle himself observes, even the troachaic tetrameter catalectic was too close to danceable rhythms by comparison with iambic trimeter, which was the most realistic representation of lexis or ‘speech’ as opposed to choral song (Poetics 1449a22–24, Rhetoric 3.1404a31–33). And the fact remains that, by the time of Aristotle, the meter known as the iambic trimeter was differentiated from all other meters as the premier medium for representing the speaking parts of drama.

§26. Here I bypass Aristotle’s idea of a prototypical split between serious and non-serious forms of poetry and adopt instead an alternative idea—that the original function of the iambic trimeter was undifferentiated, and that the form of this meter had always been a medium that was suitable for composing serious as well as playful poetry.

§27. Likewise, as we see from the surviving fragments of the Homeric Margites, the form of the dactylic hexameter had always been a medium that was suitable for composing playful as well as serious poetry. Yes, the serious epic of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey is composed in dactylic hexameters, but the fact remains that the comic poetry of the Margites likewise uses dactylic hexameters—which alternate effortlessly with iambic trimeters. Let us consider, for example, the three verses at the start of the poem:

ἦλθέ τις ἐς Κολοφῶνα γέρων καὶ θεῖος ἀοιδός,
Μουσάων θεράπων καὶ ἑκηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος,
φίλῃς ἔχων ἐν χερσὶν εὔφθογγον λύρην

There came to Colophon a man, an old man he was, a godlike singer [aoidos],
surrogate [therapōn] of the Muses and of Apollo who shoots from afar,
and in his hands, those hands of his, he held a lyre that made a beautiful sound.

<<Homer>> Margites F.1.1–3 ed. West

§28. The first two verses here are dactylic hexameters, to be contrasted with the third verse, which is an iambic trimeter. Later on in this fragmentary poem, we see other such iambic trimeters, the most shining example of which is this verse:

πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα.

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

<<Homer>> Margites F 201.1 ed. West F 4b.1

§29. The same verse is attested in a fable, <<The Fox and the Hedgehog>>, which is embedded in invective poetry attributed to Archilochus,

πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα.

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

Archilochus F 201.1 ed. West

On prose as a mīmēsis of speech

§30. Such fables are also attested in prose, as in the case of another tale about the fox and the hedgehog, Fable 427 (ed. Perry), attributed to Aesop by Aristotle (Rhetoric 2.1393b22–1394a1): this variation on the multiple theme of <<The Fox and the Hedgehog>> was reportedly narrated by Aesop to the people of Samos on the occasion of their impending execution of a ‘demagogue’. Here I come back, full-circle, to the beginning of this essay, where I made a point about Aristotle’s understanding of mīmēsis as a causality of poetry: this understanding, I said, applies to prose as well as poetry. And now I am ready to say that the prose used for narrating Aesopic fables like <<The Fox and the Hedgehog>> is a prime example. In another study, which complements this one, I examine in detail the prosaic as well as the poetic forms that were used for narrating fables, and I cite there as one of my examples the fable that we are considering now, <<The Fox and the Hedgehog>>.[13] This fable, and the context in which it is quoted, shows that prosaic versions of fables are simply variants of poetic versions, and that the form of prose serves the function of making-believe that the lowly Aesop is saying something that is non-poetic—even though the content is intrinsically poetic.[14] In this way, poetry that is noble can imitate speech that is ordinary, and this imitation takes the form of what we call prose.


§31. I have argued, then, that poetry as mediated by iambic trimeter and as spoken by actors in drama was a mīmēsis of speech as opposed to song, which was in turn mediated by all the <<meters>> (more accurately, rhythms) of singing and dancing as performed by the chorus in drama. Similarly, as I have argued briefly in this study and at length in the complementary study I mentioned, the prose that we see in Aesop’s fables was a mīmēsis of speech as opposed to poetry. So, prose was as old as poetry, ready to be activated in any system of verbal art where poetry could playfully pretend not to be poetry. When I say pretend here, I am using this word not in the sense of claiming—which of course would be more Franglais than English—but in the idiomatic sense of playing make-believe.

§32. I should add that my argument here is at odds with an alternative argument: that ancient Greek prose, as exemplified by Aesopic fables, was an <<invention>>, to be traced back to a given time and place in history.[15]


[1] J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens: Proeve eener bepaling van het spel-element der cultuur (Groningen 1938).

[2] C. Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (London 1859). In later editions, the title is more simple: The Origin of Species.

[3] Some interpret the two aitiai or ‘causes’ not in terms of numbers 1 and 2, as here, but in terms of sub-numbers a and b of number 1 here. But I am persuaded that the two aitiai correspond to numbers 1 and 2, as coordinated by the symmetrical use of gennēsai at 1448b4 and at 1448b23 respectively.

[4] See p. 55 of G. Nagy, Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond (Cambridge 1996). French version: La poésie en acte: Homère et autres chants, translated by J. Bouffartigue (Paris 2000). Correction: in Poetry as Performance p. 55, the attestation of τοῦτο ἐκεῖνο in Aristotle’s Rhetoric is at 1.1371b9 not at 1.1371a21.

[5] G. Nagy, <<The Delian Maidens and their relevance to choral mimesis in classical drama>>, Choral Mediations in Greek Tragedy, ed. R. Gagné, and M. G. Hopman (Cambridge 2013) 227–256.

[6] G. Nagy, <<Delian Maidens>> p. 228.

[7] G. Nagy, Poetry as Performance p. 54.

[8] G. Nagy, Poetry as Performance p. 54–55.

[9] G. Nagy, Poetry as Performance p. 55–56.

[10] When linguists use the word synchronic, they are thinking of a given structure as it exists in a given time and space; when they use diachronic, they are thinking of that structure as it evolves through time. See F. de Saussure, Cours de linguistique générale (Paris 1916; critical ed. 1972 by T. de Mauro) 117.

[11] For an analysis of this passage, with a diachronic sketch connecting the traditions of dithyramb, tragedy, satyr drama, and comedy, see G. Nagy, Homer the Classic (Washington DC and Cambridge MA 2009) 2§§55, 60–70.

[12] G. Nagy, Homer the Classic 2§69.

[13] G. Nagy, <<Diachrony and the Case of Aesop>>, Classics@. Issue 9: Defense Mechanisms in Interdisciplinary Approaches to Classical Studies and Beyond. Available online at http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:Nagy.Diachrony_and_the_Case_of_Aesop.2011.

[14] G. Nagy, <<Diachrony and the Case of Aesop>>, §97a.

[15] For such an alternative argument, see L. Kurke, Aesopic Conversations: Popular Traditions, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose (Princeton 2011).