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Plato’s Hesiods

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter surveys Hesiodic reception in fourth-century bce prose, with emphasis on Plato and especially the Laws. Passages of the Laws are read in context and used to illuminate the status of Hesiodic poetry in the fourth century. Topics discussed include rhapsodic performance, Hesiod’s relationship to Homer, study of Hesiodic poetry in schools, the fourth-century manuscript tradition, citation of Hesiod’s poems in conversation and Athenian courtrooms, and the politics of Hesiodic quotation. Whether understood as part of the rhapsode’s canon, a gnomic poet, a proto-sophist or proto-philosopher, or an allegorist, Hesiod remained a dynamic site for the production of the philosophical, literary, and political debates that animated fourth-century prose.

Keywords: Plato, Plato’s Laws, reception, fourth century bce, rhapsodic performance, Hesiod and Homer, orators, sophists, philosophers, schools

The reception of Hesiod in the fourth century bce is so variegated in nature that it is difficult to synthesize within a single essay. As they did in the fifth century bce, rhapsodes in the fourth performed Theogony (hereafter Th) and Works and Days (hereafter WD) throughout the Greek-speaking Mediterranean (Plato, Ion 531a–d; Athenaeus 14.620), and dramatists turned to Hesiodic myth for the settings and themes of their comedic and tragic works (Olson 2007: 125, 318–20). Just as English speakers quote Shakespeare—sometimes unknowingly—adapting what at the time of composition were idiosyncratic poetic coinages within the texture of everyday conversation, Hesiodic language and imagery resurface in the ways fourth-century Athenians spoke and wrote. Orators occasionally cite Hesiod in support of their legal cases (Aeschines 1.129, 2.144–45; Demosthenes 19.243), as do philosophers, relying directly and indirectly on WD and Th when developing ethical and cosmological theories. Schools appear to have played a crucial role in determining Hesiod’s position in fourth-century culture; although Hesiodic poetry had long been part of elite education, by the fourth century aphoristic expressions appear to have been excerpted especially from WD and circulated in textbooks, providing educated ancient readers a shared canon of ethical commonplaces to quote and adapt within an array of contexts (Isocrates 2.42–44; Plato, Protagoras 325e–326a, discussed below). Reception of a different variety is on display in the cult of the Muses on Mt. Helicon, in which Hesiod occupied an honorific position and which remained vibrant into the third century bce (Certamen 13.210–23; Pausanias 9.30.3).

Any attempt to treat so vast and heterogeneous a field of reception necessarily involves a degree of eclecticism and simplification. Rather than survey contexts in which Hesiod reappears in the years 399–300 bce, this essay approaches Hesiodic reception through the lens of one author and text: Plato’s Laws. The selection of author needs little explanation; Plato’s sustained and often critical engagement with the poetic tradition will be familiar to most readers. His dependence on Hesiod in particular is evident in many of the dialogues.1 Hesiod formed part of an authoritative intellectual tradition, literary canon, and cultural system, which Plato and his contemporaries inherited; language and imagery from Th and WD therefore often lurk not far beneath the surface of Plato’s own language and (p. 312) imagery. Solmsen (1962: 179) describes Hesiod and Plato as two of the “great organizers of the realities of the Greek world.” Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Plato was a reorganizer of a reality whose contours Hesiodic poetry had shaped; for Plato Hesiod was both a source and a rival. Precisely in the areas of human experience, literature, and knowledge in which Hesiod was regarded as an authority, Plato presented philosophy as a more coherent, aesthetically compelling, and rigorously argued alternative. Plato’s encounter with Hesiod is thus one of the most nuanced chapters in the history of Hesiodic reception, and there is no better author on whom to ground a study of the fourth-century bce afterlife of Hesiodic poetry.

The choice of text requires more extensive justification. Plato’s last and longest work, the Laws, is also the only Platonic dialogue in which Socrates makes no appearance. Instead, it records the conversation of three elderly interlocutors—the Spartan Megillos, the Cretan Kleinias, and an unnamed Athenian Stranger—who undertake a journey through the hinterlands of Crete. Although it was once conventional to disparage Plato’s final dialogue for its perceived paucity of artistic embellishments and dialectical argumentation, the Laws is now regarded as an ambitious work of literature and philosophy; it contains elevated passages both sweeping in vision and poetic in style, and it presents a novel philosophical approach to the soul and cosmology. Much of the dialogue consists of detailed analysis of the political institutions and law code (whence its title) for an ideal city named Magnesia. The result is one of the most extensive and detailed surviving explorations of the civic and social institutions that structured life in the ancient Greek city-state. In no small part because of its literary aspirations and wide-ranging discussion of ancient institutions, the Laws provides a uniquely comprehensive overview of Plato’s Hesiodic entanglements. Like many of Plato’s earlier works, the Laws draws on language, ideas, and styles of thought that originate in Hesiod’s poetry. Plato alludes to Hesiod in the Laws more so than he does in any work except the Republic and Timaeus.2 Unlike the Republic, moreover, which seeks to banish mimetic poetry from the ideal city, the performance and reading of epic are regular—and carefully regulated—occurrences in the city envisaged in the Laws. What the Laws gives is a window into the ways in which Hesiod was thought to operate and did operate in the fourth century bce, and it is therefore an ideal starting point for a discussion of fourth-century Hesiodic reception. Although the Laws has garnered much scholarly attention of late, its indebtedness to Hesiod is often overlooked.3 This essay thus provides a general survey of fourth-century Hesiodic reception and by doing so addresses the need for an assessment of Plato’s dialogue with Hesiod in his final work.

Each of the following sections begins from a single episode or passage in the Laws, illustrating a particular dimension of Plato’s engagement with Hesiod’s poetry. Using these episodes to explore the broader historical scene in which the Hesiodic poems circulated, this essay shows that Hesiod continued to supply a significant conceptual framework within which ancient audiences, readers, and authors made sense of their reality. Prose writers treat Hesiod as a contemporary, with whom to engage and from whom to draw inspiration, and in the particular context of the Laws, Hesiod informs the fundamental philosophical and political projects of Plato’s final work. At the same (p. 313) time, each of Hesiod’s poems was read, quoted, and adapted within distinct literary, social, and political environments. Hence the title of this essay—Plato’s Hesiods—which stresses the multiplicity of avenues of transmission and reception along which the Hesiodic poems entered the fourth century bce.

Performance, Education, Text

The first reference to Hesiod in the Laws appears in a discussion in which the Athenian Stranger invites his interlocutors to imagine a Panhellenic competition in which the victory prize is awarded to the contestant who provides the greatest amount of pleasure to the audience (Laws 2.658d–e). Performers of all varieties would enter, but the Athenian Stranger insists that the outcome would be predictable: young children would vote in favor of the contestant who offers puppet shows; older boys would choose the comedian; and among educated women, young men, and the majority of the population, tragedy would take first prize. If the elderly were to choose, however, the performer of epic poetry would be victorious:

The rhapsode, who gave a beautiful recital of the Iliad or the Odyssey or something from the Hesiodic poems (τι τῶν Ἡσιοδείων), would probably please us old men listeners most and be proclaimed the winner by far. (2.658d5–7)4

Rhapsodic performance remained the principal scenario in which ancient audiences encountered Hesiod’s poetry, and thus the type of festival here envisaged would have been familiar to Plato’s readers (Perlman 1965: 154; Graziosi 2010: 111–12). At the same time, this passage forces us to confront numerous intractable difficulties in mapping fourth-century bce Hesiodic reception, the first of which is that evidence for Hesiod is often entangled with and inferred from evidence for Homer (Koning 2010a: 25–51). As a result, boundaries between what each poet may have been thought to communicate are not always carefully delineated.

A second difficulty is the possibility of a hierarchy in the relationship between the two poets. Some scholars have taken 2.658d5–7 as evidence that Hesiod may have been overshadowed by Homer (Graziosi 2010: 112–13; Yamagata 2010: 71–72). It is perhaps telling in this respect that Plato mentions Homer’s works by title in contrast to the generic τι τῶν Ἡσιοδείων, and that elsewhere in the Laws (2.358b8) Homer is treated as emblematic of the genre of epic as a whole.5 If 2.658d5–7 points to an implicit prioritization of Homer over Hesiod, Plato’s usage would appear to reflect ancient practice. For on those occasions in which it is possible to differentiate performance venues for each poet, Homer consistently is given pride of place; the Great Panathenaea, for instance, which remained the premier musical and poetical venue in fourth-century bce Athens, effectively prohibited performance of Hesiod (Lycurgus 1.102). The law limiting rhapsodic performance at the Great Panathenaea to Homer is perhaps an exceptio probat (p. 314) regulam; rhapsody of poets in addition to Homer was likely the rule at other festivals (West 2010: 3–7). Yet as Plato’s Ion (531a) reveals, some rhapsodes restricted their repertory to the Iliad and Odyssey—all of which suggests that however closely associated the two poets may have been, Hesiod might have played, as Yamagata (2010: 72) argues, “second fiddle to Homer.”

Whatever we make of Hesiod’s relationship to Homer, Laws 2.658d5–7 also sheds light on the perception of Hesiodic performances in Plato’s day. More precisely, Laws 2.658d suggests that rhapsodic performance was regarded as out of vogue (West 2010: 5). Rhapsody remained central in Athenian cultural mythology, so much so that Athenians attributed the establishment of rhapsodic contests to legendary, foundational figures, such as Solon and the Pisistratids ([Plato] Hipparchus; Lycurgus 1.102; Diogenes Laertius 1.57). But epic had ceased to be the epicenter of poetic innovation in the fourth century bce. That (in Plato’s mind, dubious) distinction belongs to choral genres such as comedy, dithyramb, and tragedy, performed in accompaniment with the aulos and associated with the “New Music” that was all the rage in Plato’s day. Hesiod and Homer, by contrast, had become classics, members of canon. As I observe in subsequent sections, the aura of canonicity defines the way that Plato and his contemporaries read and deployed Hesiod in conversation and literature.

Rhapsodic performance is only one context in which ancient audiences encountered Hesiodic poetry in the fourth century. What distinguishes the fourth-century reception of Hesiod from its sixth- and fifth-century bce antecedents is the degree to which Hesiodic poetry found its way into the textual record. Of the poems attributed to Hesiod in antiquity, WD is by far the most frequently and directly cited in the Laws and the Platonic corpus. This much is consistent with the relative popularity of the poems and the institutions in which they circulated in the fourth century; WD was by far the more read of the two poems in the fifth and fourth centuries, and, importantly, it appears to have been a seminal text in elite education (Koning 2010a: 21). Rhapsodes, who often moonlighted as tutors for the children of aristocratic families, may have owned complete copies of Homer (Xenophon, Memorabilia 4.2.10), and we may speculate that the same might have held true of Hesiod. Less speculative is evidence that excerpts of the Hesiodic poems were published together with Theognis and Phocylides in anthologies, which were read and memorized in schools—to the students’ great dismay, if Isocrates is to be believed (Isocrates 2.42–44; cf. Plato, Protagoras 325e–326a). The contents of such compendia of moral precepts are difficult to discern with precision, but Hesiod’s gnomic expressions, principally drawn from WD, appear especially to have been susceptible to excerpting and memorization (Ford 2010: 146–48). How significant Hesiodic education was felt to be in the fourth century bce is evident in a remarkable passage in the Laws (7.811c–d), in which the Athenian Stranger argues that education in the ideal city ought to be modeled on education in Hesiod and other gnomic poets.6

Although many spurious works passed under Hesiod’s name in the fourth century, Plato refers to no Hesiodic poems other than Th and WD, suggesting that Hesiod’s oeuvre as he understood it consisted entirely of these two works (Most 2010: 57–62). Some scholars have taken this as a sign of Plato’s acute poetic sensibility; Most (2010: 62), (p. 315) for instance, concludes that “Plato had developed so fine a sensitivity to the specific individual nature of Hesiod’s poetry that he was able … to identify as Hesiod’s his own poems and to separate them out from the others bearing Hesiod’s name that circulated in his culture.” There is a more pedestrian explanation for Plato’s circumscribed knowledge of the Hesiodic corpus: the existence of a manuscript containing only Th, WD, and possibly the spurious Catalogue of Women—such as the Alexandrian and Pergamese scholars are known to have possessed by the third century bce (West 1966: 50).7

Quoting Hesiod

In part because Hesiodic poetry was an integral element within the educational curriculum, the ability to quote Hesiod in everyday conversation was a source of pride and a sign of elite distinction—so much so that Plato’s interlocutors are shown repeatedly to cite Hesiod (esp. WD) in support of their claims.8 Here we focus on two such instances. The first—the longest direct quotation of Hesiod in the Laws—appears in a passage from Book 4, in which the interlocutors discuss a theory of law. According to the Athenian Stranger, laws must consist of two parts: an injunction that describes the crime and penalty for infraction, and a preamble (or “prelude,” prooimion), which appears before the injunction and is designed to educate the citizens in virtue. Hesiod (WD 289–92), the Athenian Stranger insists, tells us why we must preface every law with a prelude:

Now it seems to me that the things that were just said [i.e., the prelude to the laws], if they took hold a soul that was not entirely savage, would contribute something to making the hearer listen in a more tame and agreeable mood to the advice. So even if these words [i.e., the prelude] have no great effect, but only a small one, still, insofar as they make the one who listens to what was said more agreeable and a better learner, that is in every way desirable. For there is no great plenty or abundance of persons who are eager in spirit to become as good as possible in the shortest possible time; indeed, the many (οἱ πολλοί) show that Hesiod is wise (σοφόν) when he says that the road to vice is smooth to travel and without sweat, since it is very short, but “before virtue,” he asserts,

  • “the immortal gods have put sweat,
  • And a path to it that is long and steep,
  • And rough at first. When you arrive at the top,
  • Then it is easy to endure; but the ascent is hard.” (4.718d1–719a2)

WD 289–92 is especially popular among Plato’s (near) contemporaries. Xenophon’s Memorabilia (2.1.20) cites the same lines to demonstrate that in life and athletics, excellence (aretē) requires sustained effort. In Protagoras 338c–340d Plato portrays Socrates and Prodicus debating variant interpretations of a poem by Simonides by reference to WD 289–92. The historical Prodicus appears to have based his theory of semantic distinctions on study of WD 289–92 (Wolfsdorf 2008: 3–5, 8–9). In Republic 364d, (p. 316) Glaucon gives the verses a subversive twist, suggesting that the gods have made vice easy. Socrates in Phaedrus 272c invokes the passage without any mention of virtue or vice when considering the easiest path by which to present his argument. Obviously, WD played an important role in fourth-century bce philosophical debates, but we ought not to conclude that ancient readers would have been familiar with the poem in its entirety. It is more likely that Hesiod’s discussion of the hard path to virtue appeared in one of the textbooks discussed above. What quotations of WD 289–92 show is that citing poetry in conversation served as an argumentative strategy—a form of persuasion. What is true of casual conversation appears to have been characteristic of Athenian courtrooms as well. Aristotle (Rhetoric 1.15.13) argues that poetry might be called on as a “witness,” and orators often cite poetry to make their cases and attack opponents, the assumption being that the presence—real or imagined—of an idea in a venerated ancient poet constituted a kind of proof (Perlman 1965: 155–58, 161–72).

Another style of quotation is in evidence in Laws 8.838c8–d2, the shortest quotation of Hesiod in the dialogue.9 The Athenian Stranger argues that reproductive behavior may be controlled by consistent, programmatic messaging; to support his claim, he observes that the taboo against incest, universally endorsed in tragedy and myth, has exerted a profound influence on sexual norms. Megillos replies:

You are quite correct to this extent: rumor (φήμης) has an amazing power (θαυμαστήν τινα δύναμιν), when no one ever even tries to breathe against the law in any way. (8.838c8–d2)

Compare WD 763–64:

  • Rumor (φήμη) is never entirely destroyed, whom (ἥν τινα) the many
  • people voice; for she too is in some way a god (θεός νύ τίς).

Again, Hesiodic citation caps or confirms an argument, but in contrast to the direct quotation at 4.718d1–719a2, nothing in Laws 8.838c8–d2 betrays conscious awareness of the Hesiodic subtext on the interlocutors’ (or even Plato’s) part. Indeed, we are told elsewhere that, unlike Athenian elites, who, we have observed, were familiar with Th and WD from rhapsodic performances and school textbooks, Megillos and Kleinias are ignorant of Hesiodic poetry (Laws 10.886b, discussed below). The text at 8.838c8–d2 thus suggests that one need not quote Hesiod with knowledge or precision to quote Hesiod. Instead, Hesiodic voices resonate throughout fourth-century bce language and literature, a discursive register to which speakers might switch, consciously or unconsciously, with or without attribution.

As mimetic representations of how people thought and spoke in the fourth century, Laws 4.718d1–719a2 and 8.838c8–d2 reveal the degree to which (at least in Plato’s mind) Hesiodic poetry permeated everyday language, supplying an implicit conceptual framework for making and justifying ethically complicated decisions. But there appears to have been no agreement regarding what any particular passage might or might not (p. 317) signify. Indeed, one of the most striking features of Hesiod’s poetry in the fourth century bce (and antiquity in general) is its malleability. As we observed with respect to WD 289–92, various authors—and sometimes even the same author—might discover wildly divergent meanings in the very same lines (Ford 2010: 150–51). The same is true of WD 763–64, which played an especially conspicuous role in the fourth century. Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics 7.13.5, 1153b27–28) quotes the lines to acknowledge that pleasure is in some sense “the supreme good” (τὸ ἄριστον). Aeschines (1.129) quotes the same verses to accuse his opponent, Timarchus, of having engaged in male prostitution, a rumor that was widely spread but for which there was no hard evidence. In response, Demosthenes (19.243) turns WD 763–64 against Aeschines, reading the lines as proof that Aeschines profited from an embassy to Philip II of Macedon, another widespread rumor. Aeschines (2.144–45) rejoins by reinterpreting the lines yet again, writing off Demosthenes’s reading of Hesiod not as “rumor” (φήμη) but as “slander” (συκοφαντία): the former, a goddess on whose altar Athenians offer annual sacrifices; the latter, a prosecutable crime.

That WD figures in such disparate scenarios to support unrelated and occasionally antithetical claims has led some scholars to conclude that Hesiodic poetry in the fourth century bce had become an empty signifier, conveniently rewritten with modified meanings as each new situation demanded (Solmsen 1962: 176). Yet, the points of continuity between Hesiod and passages in which he is cited are often more sustained than passing references and turns of phrase might seem to suggest. For Plato’s Hesiodic quotations underscore a principle that frequently informs the manner in which ancient authors made use of Hesiod: as Hunter (2014: 14) has argued, the general context within which a quotation or reference appears is often appreciably consonant with the general context in Hesiod from which the lines have been excerpted. Thus, the citation of Hesiod at 4.718d1–719a2 appears as part of a larger discussion in which the Athenian Stranger urges the would-be citizens of Magnesia to honor gods and parents (Laws 4.718a3–6), and that exhortation recalls Hesiod’s advice to Perses to remember the rewards of upholding Zeus’s justice at WD 274–85. It is notable in this respect, moreover, that both Plato (Laws 718a–719a) and Hesiod (WD 293–95) emphasize the value of reasoning for oneself and of being persuaded by those who speak well. The key observation here is that there is more of Hesiod being cited in Laws 4.718d1–719a2 than six lines of WD. It is as though by quoting Hesiod the Laws has assumed a Hesiodic voice and persona. The citizens of Magnesia are, as it were, so many Perseis listening to the advice of their didactic poet—the legislator.

Similar contextual consonance is on display in the allusions to WD 763–64. Despite differences of genre and argument, Plato, Aristotle, and the orators share with Hesiod an underlying anxiety over the normative role of pleasure. Hedonic anxiety in Hesiod, Plato, and the orators centers on activities that might threaten sexual purity: bathing in menstrual waters (WD 753–55), incestuous and unsanctioned sexual liaisons (Laws 8.837e–840e), and male prostitution (Aeschines 1.122–24; Demosthenes 19.240–41); in Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics 7.13.5, 1153b27–28), the concern for pleasure is self-evident. Once again, the original context in which the lines appear remains relevant to the fourth-century bce reception.

(p. 318) Hesiod: Sophist and Philosopher

All of the quotations of Hesiod in the Laws discussed thus far originate in WD. The poem’s gnomic form, we have observed, made it especially amenable to excerpting and adaptation. Th appears to have been subject to a different sort of appropriation. A lengthy passage from the cosmology of Book 10 suggests that ancient audiences viewed the poet of Th as making distinct ethical and metaphysical arguments:

Among us [in Athens] there are accounts found in writings, which are not among you [in Crete and Sparta] because of the virtue of your constitutions, as I understand. These are discussions of the gods, some with certain meters and others without meters. The most ancient (παλαιότατοι) discuss how the first nature of heaven (πρώτη φύσις οὐρανοῦ) and other things came into existence, and then, proceeding on to a point not much after the beginning (τῆς ἀρχῆς), they go through how the gods came into being (θεογονίαν) and how they mingled one with another once they had come into being. It is not easy to pass judgment, in the case of writings so ancient, as to whether they have some other sort of noble or ignoble effect (καλῶς ἢ μὴ καλῶς) on the audience, but as regards services and honors toward parents (εἰς μέντοι γονέων τε θεραπείας καὶ τιμάς), I at least would never speak of them in praise (ἐπαινῶν), either as beneficial (ὠφέλιμα) or as spoken entirely in accordance with reality (ὡς τὸ παράπαν ὄντως εἴρηται). What pertains to ancient writings should be left alone and bid good-bye (μεθείσθω καὶ χαιρέτω), and spoken of in whatever way is pleasing to the gods; but what pertains to the works of our new and wise men (τὰ δὲ τῶν νέων ἡμῖν καὶ σοφῶν) must be accused, insofar as it is responsible for bad things. Now the following is what is done by the arguments of such men: when I and you adduce evidence that the gods exist, bringing forward these very things—sun and moon and stars and earth—as being gods and divine things (ὡς θεοὺς καὶ θεῖα ὄντα), those who are convinced by these wise men (τῶν σοφῶν) would say that these things are earth and stone, and incapable of thinking anything about human affairs, however well decked-out they may somehow be, with arguments that make them plausible.

(Laws 10.886b10–e2).

The Athenian Stranger’s misgivings regarding the deleterious effects of Hesiod’s theogonic myths recall an episode from the Euthyphro (5d-6a), in which the eponymous interlocutor invokes the castration of Ouranos as justification for prosecuting his own father. It is also reminiscent of Republic 2.377d–378b, in which Socrates argues that the youth must be shielded from “the greatest lie about the things of greatest concerns” (τὸ μέγιστον καὶ περὶ τῶν μεγίστων ψεῦδος, 378e6–7): the stories Hesiod tells of Ouranos, Kronos, and Zeus. To a modern audience Plato’s concerns may seem tendentious, for there certainly is nothing in Th to suggest that Hesiod recommends that sons mimic Kronos’s behavior. Nevertheless, these passages illuminate an important dimension of ancient reading strategies, which informs virtually every context in which Hesiodic themes emerge in Plato: the tendency to view literary art through an ethicizing lens. (p. 319) Criticism of Hesiod in Plato and elsewhere often assumes that narrative, particularly when concerned with gods and heroes, establishes normative models of behavior (cf. Aeschylus, Eumenides 640–44; Aristophanes, Nubes 905; and Plato, Respublica 364c–e with Koning 2010b: 95–98).

Laws 10.886b10–e2 also underscores the propensity among Plato and his contemporaries to read Th as metaphysics, that is, as an account of the first principles of nature (πρώτη φύσις οὐρανοῦ, ἀρχῆς). In Plato’s mind Hesiod got nature wrong; in the Laws, Th represents an antiquated (παλαιότατοι) and erroneous approach to the inherent causes and structures of the cosmos. To be sure, Hesiod had not lost his identity as a poet first and foremost; his name often appears alongside Orpheus, Musaeus, and Homer as one of the archetypal inventors of poetic art (Plato, Apology 41a). It is not Hesiod, moreover, whom Plato singles out as the most dangerous metaphysician; more harmful are sophists and natural philosophers—the “new and wise men”—whose materialist philosophy was perceived in antiquity as compatible with moral relativism or, worse, immoralism. But Hesiod appears listed among sophists and materialist philosophers elsewhere in fourth-century bce literature, representing one of two competing explanations—traditional animism and newfangled atheism—for the origins and organizing principles underlying reality (cf. Plato, Symposium 178b; [Plato], Epinomis 990a with Koning 2010a: 191; Yamagata 2010: 75–76).

All of this underscores a tradition very much in the making in the fourth century bce, in which Hesiod appears as an “intellectual,” with interests in linguistics, etymology, genealogy, astronomy, theories of separation and categorization, and education (Koning 2010b: 100–110). If “intellectual” Hesiod sounds too much like a fourth-century philosopher and a sophist and too little like an epic poet, it is because his prestige was called into the service of the many schools and teachers of philosophy and rhetoric popular in fourth-century Athens. It is telling in this respect that Plato’s Protagoras claims Hesiod as one of the earliest sophists (Protagoras 316d). In Hunter’s (2014: 9) memorable expression, “ ‘Hesiod’… acted as a wind-mill against which any would-be σοφός could try his lance.” By virtue of being adapted to the historical environment of fourth-century Athens, Hesiod took the form that Plato and his contemporaries needed him to take and answered questions they needed him to address.

Allusion and Inspiration

The critical posture displayed toward Th in Laws 10.886b10–e2 is only one level on which Plato engages that poem, and it is belied by the ubiquitous role both Th and WD play as reservoirs of motifs, metaphors, and imagery throughout the Platonic corpus. Hesiod’s influence may be felt in Aristophanes’s epideictic speech on erotic desire (Symposium 188c–193d), Protagoras’s lecture on the origins of divine and political justice (Protagoras 320c–323c), the history of political and psychological constitutions in Books 8 and 9 of the Republic, the cosmological myths of the Statesman (268–74e) and Timaeus (p. 320) (40e–41a), and the story of Atlantis (Timaeus 21e–26d; Critias 108e–121c). Plato’s debt to Hesiod is discernible in his penchant for hypostasis and personification—for instance, in the distinction drawn between celestial and pandemic Aphrodites (Symposium 180c–185c; cf. Xenophon, Symposium 8.6–42) and the primordial figures who populate the cosmology of the Timaeus (29d–92c). Although such sophisticated and often structural Hesiodic resonances resist generalization, we cannot but conclude that—on the microscopic level of word choice and the macroscopic scale of conceptual organization—Plato found in Hesiod a symbolically significant vocabulary to define and expand the horizons of philosophy. Two examples illustrate the point.

The first appears in a passage from Book One, in which the Athenian Stranger compares the soul to a puppet drawn in contradictory directions by opposing strings. The analogy, intended to explain what it means for an individual to be “self-superior,” that is, in control of one’s irrational impulses, presents in visual terms what Plato regards as the inherently conflicted structure of the human psyche:

Now our argument asserts that each person would always follow one of the cords, never letting go of it and pulling with it against the others; this cord is the gold and sacred pull of calculation (τὴν τοῦ λογισμοῦ ἀγωγὴν χρυσῆν καὶ ἱεράν), and is called the common law of the city; the other cords are hard and iron (σκληρὰς καὶ σιδηρᾶς), while this one is soft, inasmuch as it is golden (μαλακὴν ἅτε χρυσῆν); the others resemble a multitude of variegated forms (παντοδαποῖς εἴδεσιν). It is necessary always to assist this most noble pull of law because calculation (λογισμοῦ), while noble, is gentle rather than violent, and its pull is in need of helpers so that within us (ἐν ἡμῖν) the race of gold might have victory over the other races (τὸ χρυσοῦν γένος νικᾷ τὰ ἄλλα γένη). Thus, the myth of virtue (ὁ μῦθος ἀρετῆς), the myth about us being puppets, would be preserved, and what was intended by the notion of being superior to oneself or inferior (τὸ κρείττω ἑαυτοῦ καὶ ἥττω εἶναι) would be somewhat clearer. Moreover, as regards a city and private individual, it will be clearer that the latter should acquire within himself a true, rational account concerning these cords and live according to it, while a city should acquire for itself a rational account (λόγον) either from one of the gods or from one who knows these things, and then set up that account as the law for itself (νόμον θεμένην) and for its relations with other cities. (1.644e4–645b8)

In this passage, conspicuously flagged as “myth” (μῦθος), Hesiodic resonances may be detected in the imagery of metals, succession, and conflict; the gold and iron cords and the language of noble and baser races, which harken back to the Hesiodic Myth of the Races; and the struggle to establish reason as law, which recalls Zeus’s ordering of the cosmos.

The second passage is a well-known account of the origins of democracy in Laws 3.700a–701c. The Athenian Stranger claims that the theater in Athens was carefully regulated and permitted the performance of a delimited number of genres, each defined in contradistinction to the other. Athenian theater culture began to evolve (or devolve) when poets mingled dirges with hymns, paeans, and dithyrambs, replicating the sounds of the aulos on the lyre and promoting a general sense of artistic confusion. Poets (p. 321) convinced spectators that music has no absolute standard of “correctness” (ὀρθότητα), and that poetry may be judged by the “pleasure” (ἡδονῇ) it affords the audience. Spectators began believing themselves competent to judge every melody and song, and there arose a “base rule of the spectator” (θεατροκρατία τις πονηρά), which replaced what had erstwhile been an “aristocracy” (ἀριστοκρατίας) in poetic art. Democracy in the theater spread to other institutions, and “political liberty” (ἐλευθερία) followed. To my knowledge, Plato’s reliance on Hesiod in 3.700a–701c has gone unnoticed in the secondary literature, but the subtext is clear in the Athenian Stranger’s pessimistic prediction:

Next after this freedom would come the sort that involves the loss of the willingness to be enslaved (δουλεύειν) to the rulers; following upon this is rejection of the enslavement to and guidance (δουλείαν καὶ νουθέτησιν) by one’s father and mother and elders; the next to the last stage involves seeking not to have to obey laws; in their final stage they are contemners of oaths, and pledges, and everything sacred and divine, and they present the spectacle of the Titanic nature of which the old stories tell (τὴν λεγομένην παλαιὰν Τιτανικὴν φύσιν ἐπιδεικνῦσι καὶ μιμουμένοις)—arriving back again at those same conditions, and introducing a harsh epoch (χαλεπὸν αἰῶνα διάγοντας) in which there is never a cessation of evils (λῆξαίποτεκακῶν). (3.701b5–c4)10

Plato’s prediction of complete dissolution of familial and social bonds as a result of Athenian democracy is a paraphrase of WD 176–201. Compare lines 176–79:

For now indeed is the race of iron; neither by day do they cease from toil and sorrow (παύονται καμάτου καὶ ὀιζύος), nor ever at night from perishing. Rather, the gods have laid grievous cares (χαλεπὰς … μερίμνας) upon them; but nevertheless even for them goods are mixed with evils (κακοῖσιν).

The verbal resonances—χαλεπὸν αἰῶνα διάγοντας, χαλεπὰς … μερίμνας; λῆξαί ποτε κακῶν, παύονται καμάτου—are unmistakable. Moreover, if, as some commentators have argued, “Titanic nature” refers to the Hesiodic motif of sons overthrowing fathers, the passage also contains an allusion to the castration of Ouranos in Th 176–82.11 We have in Laws 3.701b–c a translation of WD and Th into the idiomatic vernacular of Athenian prose.

What this suggests is that Hesiodic poetry was subject to creative compression and expansion. A single passage or phrase (e.g., Titanic nature) might direct readers to long stretches of either poem or both. Conversely, Hesiod might form a substructure spanning and unifying several books at once. Thus, the concerns of the first several books of the Laws—the nature of a just society, the origins of law and social order, the connections between forms of governance and forms of poetic art, the basic patterns of human history—all have precursors in Hesiod’s poetry. Overt Hesiodic allusions at 1.644e–645b and 3.700a–701c are, as it were, bookends to a series of arguments and inquiries that have been construed implicitly in Hesiodic terms. The astute reader of the Laws will have (p. 322) picked up that the first four books are a retelling of Hesiodic myth, presenting a historical narrative that appropriates features of, and supplants, both poems.

This brings us to what may be the most striking feature of Hesiod in the Laws: the manner in which Hesiodic poetry addresses fourth-century bce Athenian concerns. Plato’s Hesiod is no mythologist of prehistoric times; he is rather a contemporary, providing an interpretive prism through which Plato’s readers may see their souls and their city from a new—and not always flattering—perspective. We are all, as it were, susceptible to experiencing stages of decline and Titanomachy within our souls and our cities. For a fourth-century audience, Plato’s retelling of Hesiod as allegory of the soul and of Athenian constitutional history might have had decidedly political undertones. The claim that calculation ought to occupy a supervisory role over the soul’s competing passions contains implicit criticism of Athenian and Doric political values, the former excessively prioritizing pleasure, the latter celebrating militaristic asceticism and valor to the exclusion of other virtues. Political connotations are even more apparent in 3.700a–701c; the end of Athens’s aristocratic constitution, the rise of democracy, its impending anarchy, and final dissolution—all of this may be understood as a Hesiodic Myth of Races. Plato has rewritten Athens’s most celebrated cultural and political institutions—theater and democracy—as Hesiodic epochal decline. Readers who proceed to Books 4–12 will see that Magnesia, whose laws and institutions the interlocutors turn to in these later books, offers an alternative to the psychological and political decline Plato has cast in Hesiodic terms.


What are we to make of the many levels on which Plato and his contemporaries engage with Hesiodic poetry? On the one hand, we find Plato infinitely rewriting Hesiod, casting philosophy in Hesiodic vocabulary, figures, and mythology. Although (or perhaps because) Plato discovered in Hesiod an authoritative rival artist, theorist, and mythologist, whose works presented a model with which to vie and from which to borrow language and images, Platonic dialogues preserve Hesiodic poetry, reformed and remade in the image of philosophy. On the other hand, we have not identified a single, unified Hesiod or Hesiodic tradition, but many Hesiods and many ways of interacting with, inheriting, and redeploying Hesiodic poetry. Fourth-century readers—like twenty-first-century readers—encountered Hesiod, mediated through a maze of interpretations and hermeneutic strategies. They made sense of Hesiod within the categories in which others had made sense of Hesiod before them. It is useful to recall Ford’s warning not to read Plato’s dialogue with Hesiod “as a timeless conversation between Olympians but as part of the processes by which the meaning of an old corpus of poetry was shaped and circumscribed by the social institutions that preserved it” (2010: 135). Rhapsodic performance, education in schools, literature, and the literate communities in which texts were quoted, read, and contested—all are social institutions of one kind or another in (p. 323) which the Hesiodic corpus was preserved, reshaped, and circumscribed. What emerges is a spectrum of interconnected Hesiodic responses and appropriations, which depend to a large extent on who is reading (or hearing) Hesiod, in which context (or contexts), and to what end. We must speak, therefore, not of Hesiodic reception but receptions, for there often appear to be as many Hesiods in the fourth century bce as there are institutions and media in which the poems are transmitted. Regardless of the medium through which Hesiod entered the fourth century, however, Plato and writers like him treat Hesiod as a contemporary, a dynamic site for the production of the philosophical, literary, and political debates which animated that century.


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                                        (1.) The principal points of Hesiodic engagement in the Platonic corpus are surveyed below, but for illuminating discussion, see the contributions in Boys-Stones and Haubold (2010) and Scully (2015: 111–21).

                                        (2.) See Most (2010: 59); Yamagata (2010: 70). I count the following references to Hesiod in the Laws, defined capaciously as instances in which Plato mentions or attributes information to Hesiod, quotes or misquotes lines of Hesiodic poetry, emulates Hesiod’s poetic register, or refers to identifiably Hesiodic mythology: 2.658d–e, 3.677c–e, 3.690d–e, 3.700a–701c, 4.713b–714a, 4.718d–719a, 7.795c, 8.838c–d, 10.886c–e, 10.901a, 12.943d–e, 12.944d, 12.948b.

                                        (3.) For recent treatments of the Laws, see Peponi (2013); Folch (2015).

                                        (4.) Unless otherwise indicated, translations of the Laws are Pangle’s (1980) with modifications.

                                        (5.) An alternative reading renders τι τῶν Ἡσιοδείων more narrowly, as referring to selections of Th. As (Ford 2010: 136, 153) observes, the Hesiod performed by rhapsodes and most frequently paired with Homer in the fourth century bce is the poet of the Th.

                                        (6.) See Folch (2015: 299–313), whose claims pertain principally to Homer, but, mutatis mutandis, are apropos to Hesiod as well.

                                        (7.) That the pseudo-Platonic authors cite the Astronomy, Catalogue of Women, and other, unidentifiable Hesiodic works points to the possibility of at least two fourth-century bce manuscript traditions (Most 2010: 61–62).

                                        (8.) For a survey of contexts in which Hesiod is quoted, see Koning (2010b: 89–91).

                                        (9.) Laws 12.943e1–3 may in fact be a shorter reference; its poeticized language, genealogy, and hypostasis of abstract concepts as divinities are felt to have Hesiodic resonances, but commentators have struggled to identify the poem Plato appears to quote. WD 256–57 is the most likely candidate. See Solmsen (1962: 192–93); Most (2010: 59); Hunter (2014: 268n9).

                                        (10.) The translation follows closely Pangle’s (1980) and England (1921: 1:411).

                                        (11.) Other commentators suggest that “Titanic nature” refers to a tradition according to which humans were born from the blood of Titans. See Pangle (1980: 524); England (1921: 1:411).