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Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose

Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose

Paperback Martin Classical Lectures

By (author) Leslie Kurke

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  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Format: Paperback | 504 pages
  • Dimensions: 156mm x 228mm x 32mm | 771g
  • Publication date: 14 November 2010
  • Publication City/Country: New Jersey
  • ISBN 10: 0691144583
  • ISBN 13: 9780691144580
  • Sales rank: 411,571

Product description

Examining the figure of Aesop and the traditions surrounding him, "Aesopic Conversations" offers a portrait of what Greek popular culture might have looked like in the ancient world. What has survived from the literary record of antiquity is almost entirely the product of an elite of birth, wealth, and education, limiting our access to a fuller range of voices from the ancient past. This book, however, explores the anonymous Life of Aesop and offers a different set of perspectives. Leslie Kurke argues that the traditions surrounding this strange text, when read with and against the works of Greek high culture, allow us to reconstruct an ongoing conversation of 'great' and 'little' traditions spanning centuries. Evidence going back to the fifth century BCE suggests that Aesop participated in the practices of nonphilosophical wisdom (sophia) while challenging it from below, and Kurke traces Aesop's double relation to this wisdom tradition. She also looks at the hidden influence of Aesop in early Greek mimetic or narrative prose writings, focusing particularly on the Socratic dialogues of Plato and the Histories of Herodotus. Challenging conventional accounts of the invention of Greek prose and recognizing the problematic sociopolitics of humble prose fable, Kurke provides a new approach to the beginnings of prose narrative and what would ultimately become the novel. Delving into Aesop, his adventures, and his crafting of fables, Aesopic Conversations shows how this low, noncanonical figure was - unexpectedly - central to the construction of ancient Greek literature.

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Author information

Leslie Kurke is professor of classics and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Her books include "Coins, Bodies, Games, and Gold" (Princeton).

Review quote

Winner of the 2012 Charles J. Goodwin Award of Merit, American Philological Association Shortlisted for the 2012 Runciman Award, Anglo-Hellenic League "Kurke's learned and humane book aims to excavate the vibrant popular tradition assumed by Aesop's fables but now largely buried, and restore it to its place in cultural history... Aesopic Conversations is a brilliant and original book, which will transform the way we read early Greek literature."--Tim Whitmarsh, London Review of Books "There are large ideas in this book. Critical faculties will be honed by reading it."--Vivienne Gray, Bryn Mawr Classical Review "With her keen eye for symbolic expressions of ideological conflict, Kurke has thrust Aesop into the center of major political, philosophical and literary developments of the fifth and fourth centuries. Precisely because of its ambitions, many of the claims this book makes want weighing. But let it be said that if Kurke sometimes pushes the evidence, she never forces it, and she always gives space to alternative views in substantial footnotes."--Andrew Ford, International Journal of the Classical Tradition "[Kurke] consistently succeeds in keeping the main lines of her argument clearly in view. Cumulatively her discussion is both rich and persuasive and often quite witty. The Aesop who emerges is altogether a much more complex, influential, and interesting figure than the homespun rustic narrator of 'Aesop's fables.'"--Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, New England Classical Journal "[A] thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion, here and throughout the book: Kurke makes us look anew at familiar texts, and that is what literary criticism is for."--John Taylor, Anglo-Hellenic Review "Kurke's ... approach to the text(s) of the Life of Aesop [is] groundbreaking and sophisticated. While there have been a number of valuable studies of the Life of Aesop in recent decades, few have attempted to grapple in earnest with the specific challenges posed by its anonymity, textual multiplicity, and popular character."--Jeremy B. Lefkowitz, Phoenix "Kurke's is a very distinctive voice. Her scholarship is always trenchant, thoughtful, and articulate. Her argument is clear, even when intricate and extended, and it has no Aesopic aggressions or sleights of hand... There is much to admire and enjoy here."--Simon Goldhill, Classical World

Back cover copy

"Leslie Kurke is one of the sharpest and most original scholars of ancient Greek literary culture writing today. Informed, intellectually precise, and always engaged, her work has long been a pleasure and an education. Here she brings all of her considerable theoretical experience to the life and work of that least refined of ancient authors: Aesop. A hick, a foreigner, a slave, Aesop speaks with no kind of authority and yet by all accounts he is wise. Kurke takes this central conundrum as the starting point for a wide-ranging exploration of what it means in ancient Greek culture to be highbrow or lowbrow, gold or dross. Along the way there are some surprising diversions, numerous clever insights, and quite a lot of sophisticated and not so sophisticated fun."--James Davidson, University of Warwick"Aesopic Conversations" is a masterpiece. Breathtakingly original, the book illuminates the dynamics of the Aesopic tradition and the intellectual history of Greece. It succeeds in showing that the seemingly marginal figure of Aesop, a fable-telling alleged criminal and itinerant slave, had a central role in the invention of a fundamental medium for all of Western history--serious nonfictional prose."--Richard P. Martin, Stanford University"This brilliant and exciting book revises major parts of ancient Greek cultural and literary history by revealing the important influence of the Aesopic tradition. Kurke tackles big issues and treats topics with thoroughness and nuance."--William Hansen, professor emeritus, Indiana University

Table of contents

List of Illustrations xi Acknowledgments xiii Abbreviations xvii INTRODUCTION I. An Elusive Quarry: In Search of Ancient Greek Popular Culture 2 II. Explaining the Joke: A Road Map for Classicists 16 III. Synopsis of Method and Structure of Argument 46 PART I: Competitive Wisdom and Popular Culture 51 CHAPTER 1: Aesop and the Contestation of Delphic Authority 53 I. Ideological Tensions at Delphi 54 II. Th e Aesopic Critique 59 III. Neoptolemus and Aesop: Sacrifi ce, Hero Cult, and Competitive Scapegoating 75 CHAPTER 2: Sophia before/beyond Philosophy 95 I. Th e Tradition of Sophia 95 II. Sophists and (as) Sages 102 III. Aristotle and the Transformation of Sophia 115 CHAPTER 3: Aesop as Sage: Political Counsel and Discursive Practice 125 I. Aesop among the Sages 125 II. Political Animals: Fable and the Scene of Advising 142 CHAPTER 4: Reading the Life: Th e Progress of a Sage and the Anthropology of Sophia 159 I. An Aesopic Anthropology of Wisdom 160 II. Aesop and Ahiqar 176 III. Delphic Th e?ria and the Death of a Sage 185 IV. Th e Bricoleur as Culture Hero, or the Art of Extorting Self-Incrimination 191 CHAPTER 5: Th e Aesopic Parody of High Wisdom 202 I. Demystifying Sophia: Hesiod, Th eognis, and the Seven Sages 204 II. Aesopic Parody in the Visual Tradition? 224 PART II: Aesop and the Invention of Greek Prose 239 CHAPTER 6: Aesop at the Invention of Philosophy 241 Prelude to Part II: Th e Problematic Sociopolitics of Mimetic Prose 241 I. Mim?sis and the Invention of Philosophy 244 II. Th e Generic Affi liations of S?kratikoi logoi 251 CHAPTER 7: Th e Battle over Prose: Fable in Sophistic Education and Xenophon's Memorabilia 265 I. Sophistic Fables 268 II. Traditional Fable Narration in Xenophon's Memorabilia 288 CHAPTER 8: Sophistic Fable in Plato: Parody, Appropriation, and Transcendence 301 I. Plato's Protagoras: Debunking Sophistic Fable 301 II. Plato's Symposium: Ringing the Changes on Fable 308 CHAPTER 9: Aesop in Plato's S?kratikoi Logoi: Analogy, Elenchos, and Disavowal 325 I. Sophia into Philosophy: Socrates between the Sages and Aesop 326 II. Th e Aesopic Bricoleur and the "Old Socratic Tool-Box" 330 III. Sympotic Wisdom, Comedy, and Aesopic Competition in Hippias Major 344 CHAPTER 10: Histori? and Logopoiia: Two Sides of Herodotean Prose 361 I. History before Prose, Prose before History 362 II. Aesop Ho Logopoios 370 III. Plutarch Reading Herodotus: Aesop, Ruptures of Decorum, and the Non-Greek 382 CHAPTER 11: Herodotus and Aesop: Some Soundings 398 I. Cyrus Tells a Fable 400 II. Greece and (as) Fable, or Resignifying the Hierarchy of Genre 404 III. Fable as History 412 IV. Th e Aesopic Contract of the Histories: Herodotus Teaches His Readers 426 Bibliography 433 Index Locorum 463 General Index 478