Detienne’s The Masters of Truth in Archaic Greece

Marcel Detienne
The Masters of Truth in Archaic Greece
Area: History of Rhetoric and Memory Studies
Critical moments in the text

15-16: “In archaic Greece, three figures—the diviner, the bard, and the king of justice—share the privilege of dispensing truth purely by virtue of their characteristic qualities.  The poet, the seer, and the king also share a similar type of speech.  Through the religious power of Memory, Mnemosyne, both poet and diviner have direct access to the Beyond; they can see what is invisible and declare ‘what has been, what is, and what will be.’”
17: logos: knowing reality and social relation
24-5: “While hermeneutics may successfully explore the double register of Hesiodic speech, it refuses to understand memory and oblivion in their ethnographic and religious contexts. […]  Mnemosyne, or Memory, a divine power married to Zeus as were first Metis, then Themis, and finally Hera, dissolves into a platitude, a most ridiculous outcome.  She becomes simply ‘good memory,’ because ‘we must remember what has already been said about perceiving Aletheia.’”
35: “Truth is defined at two levels: conformity with logical principles and conformity with reality.  Accordingly, truth is inseparable from concepts of demonstration, verification, and experimentation.”
39: Poet invoking Muse whose task it is to make past events known; Muse and memory are complementary concepts.
41: “Sung speech is also inseparable from memory.  In the Hesiodic tradition, the Muses are the daughters of Mnemosyne.  In Chios they were called the ‘rembrances’ (mneiai) since they made the poet ‘remember.’  What is the meaning of memory, and how is it related to sung speech?  First, the religious status of memory, its cult in bardic circles, and its importance in poetic thought can only be understood if one remembers that Greek civilization from the twelfth to the ninth centuries B.C. was based not on written, but on oral traditions: ‘in those days men had to have a memory for many things.  […]  Memory is essential in an oral civilization, and specific mnemonic techniques must be perfected.
43: “For the poet, remembrance came through a personal vision that ensured direct access to the events his memory evoked.  His privilege was to enter into contact with the other world, and his memory granted him the power to ‘decipher the invisible.’  Thus, memory was not simply the material basis for sung speech or the psychological function on which the formulary technique depended.  It was also, and above all, a religious power that gave poetic pronouncements their status of magicoreligious speech.”
46-7: “A warrior’s worth was decided by the masters of praise, the servants of the Muses.  They granted or denied him ‘memory.’”
48: “A poet bestows through his praise a ‘memory’ on a man, who is not naturally endowed with it.”
50: “Truth is explicitly defined as a ‘nonforgetfulness’ of the poet’s precepts.”
63: “Soon after, he was taken to the oracle.  Before entering, however, he paused at two neighboring springs, called Lethe and Mnemosyne after the two religious powers that dominated the inspired poets’ system of thought.  The water from the first spring obliterated the memory of human life, while the water from the second allowed the individual to remember everything he saw and heard in the otherworld.”
73: “The speech of the diviner and of oracular powers, like a poetic pronouncement, defines a particular level of reality: when Apollo prophesies, he ‘realizes.’ Oracular speech does not reflect an event that has already occurred; it is apart of its realization.”
74: “Magicoreligious speech is pronounces in the absolute present, with no before or after, a present that, like memory, incorporates ‘that which has been, that which is, and that which will be.’  This kind of speech eludes temporality because it is at one with forces beyond human ones, forces that are completely autonomous and lay claim to an absolute power.”
83: “[Pittheus] is the inventor of ‘rhetoric,’ the art of persuasion and of using ‘lying words that resemble reality.’”
86: “Master of truth is also a master of deception.”
87: “This second power of speech is dangerous, since it may produce an illusion of reality.”
110: “By turning memory into a positive technique and considering time as the framework for secular activity, Simonides dissociated himself form the entire religious tradition, the tradition of both the inspired poets as well as the sects and philosophicoreligious circles.”
119: “For the Sophists, memory is simply a secularized function whose development is essential to the kind of intelligence at work in both sophistry and politics.”
122: “At this level of thought, memory Is not simply a gift of second sight that allows one to grasp the totality of past, present, and future; even more important, it is the terminus of the chain of reincarnations.  Memory’s powers are twofold.  As a religious power, it is the water of life, which marks the end of the cycle of ‘metensomatoses’; as an intellectual faculty, it constitutes the discipline of salvation that results in victory over time ad death and makes it possible to acquire the most complete kind of knowledge.”
128: “Memory is not simply a gift of second sight, a ‘decoding’ of the invisible that constantly interacts with the visible.  Instead, it becomes a means of transcending time and separating the soul from the body, hence a method of acceding to something radically different from the visible world.”
From Untimely Mediations Response
•    What is a sophist?
Interdisciplinary is indeed a tidy way of describing the sophists, but I not completely convinced this definition is ultimately fitting.  Certainly, we can describe their knowledge as widespread, and some might even say scattered, but I do not believe that our pedagogical approaches/education as a whole are much different.  We do not need skilled memory in order to know the “body, geometry, and epistemology.” Biological memory is no longer necessary for interdisciplinary studies, since I have a computer and a collection of books to assist me.  Detienne clarifies this distinction (albeit in a round-about way) when he states, “Memory is essential in an oral civilization, and specific mnemonic techniques must be perfected” (42).  However, contrary to Detienne, memory is non-essential for today’s digital orality, and only fluency in and knowledge of specific computer applications will allow one to study interdisciplinary-ly.  I guess, then, we can see a resurfacing of ‘sophists’ in today’s culture—sophists are, then, people who have moderately advanced knowledge about many topics because they know where /how to find and apply it.
•    What is sophistic rhetoric?
I have always thought “sophistic rhetoric” to be a redundant term.  If we are dazzling someone with our rhetoric, are we not ‘tricking’ him or her into something they did not previously believe?  In a way, we can look to last week’s New Hampshire primary and Clinton’s tears as a decent example (or her laugh, too, but the ‘teary’ results seem more immediate).  By crying, Clinton convinced voters of her humanness, her elect-ability.  By crying, Clinton displayed not Presidential qualities (presumably what one should vote on), but rather that she cries for America, too.  Sophistic rhetoric is like campaigning—we are (likely) voting for part of the candidate’s beliefs not simply because they align with ours, but because we are tricked into believing that the other issues are either great or don’t matter.
•    How are the sophists and their work related to earlier Greek traditions?
Detienne insists on choice—“Man no longer lived in an ambivalent world in which ‘contraries’ were complementary and oppositions were ambiguous.  He was now cast into a dualist world with clear-cut oppositions.  Choice became an urgent matter” (125-6).  To me, I see the sophists characterized by “distinction”—one is not x, but z. Not a, not b, but rather c.  One is distinct from something else, although not necessarily opposite from them.  All is related, but one needs to choose what something is not in order to determine its being.


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