University of Tasmania
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Metaphysics, morality and malevolence : an investigation into the philosophical outlook inherent in the treatment of the myths in Ovid's Metamorphoses

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posted on 2023-05-27, 10:41 authored by Hyland, CJ
For two millennia, the mythological tales contained in the Metamorphoses of Publius Ovidius Naso have been among the most widely read and influential of all classical works, but very little is known of the author himself: his character, his views, or his philosophical convictions. Moreover, most of the information which has been transmitted to us comes from explicit autobiographical references in his own works. Beyond the few biographical details of which there is no cause to doubt ‚Äö- such as Ovid's date of birth, the age difference between him and his brother, or the number of his grandchildren ‚Äö- most of the references, as Holzberg (2006) astutely pointed out, are more than a little dubious, given that nearly all can be shown to primarily serve significant literary purposes (particularly those found in Tristia 4.10). On the whole, this undermines the likelihood of the factual accuracy of such references and, therefore, the deductions drawn from them. As a consequence, we have really very little to go on if we are to use what we know about the author as a guide to finding out why his works are as they are. General aims In light of this, we come to the problem of how better to understand the vast array of different and seemingly often conflicting issues found within Ovid's most popular work, the Metamorphoses, when we only have the poem itself in which to look for answers. Investigation into this topic is not new, but is far from being exhausted, and has not yet yielded particularly satisfactory answers. Some decades ago, Charles Segal (1969a), in the introduction to his work on understanding the Metamorphoses through Ovid's use of landscape within the poem, alluded to one of the poem's key interpretational issues ‚Äö- that of the sense-of-life (the underlying implicit estimate of, attitude towards and feeling about existence) implied within it: ...for all its levity, the Metamorphoses has a grim and sombre side. Penetrating beneath Ovid's fluent grace of language and versification, his charm of narrative, his wit and abundance of invention, his apt turning of rhetorical topoi, one finds a poem pervaded by violence, cruelty, and arbitrary suffering. How are we to evaluate these elements and what sort of Weltanschauung‚ÄövÑvp is implied in this polarity of urbanity and violence? These questions have not received sufficient attention. (p.1) With the problem of understanding the Metamorphoses in mind, my aim in this study is to identify and explain, through an investigation into Ovid's manner of story-telling within the poem, what kind of philosophical outlook on life (view of the universe and the individual's relation to it) is inherent in the text, and consequently what kind of sense-of-life this outlook is the progenitor of and expresses. To tackle this topic I am examining the views found within the poem in relation to three of the main branches of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics ‚Äö- areas which, together, broadly encompass nearly every branch of philosophy, and allow for a holistic view of the works' implicit philosophical outlook. For the purpose of this investigation, I use the term metaphysics (which generally comes under the heading of epistemology ‚Äö- and indeed we will see presently that in this poem, characters' ideas about metaphysics are tied to what they consider to be the sources of knowledge) to apply specifically to the branch of philosophy covering the nature of existence, of reality, the world, oneself, and one's relationship to the universe (and the different forces active within it); epistemology to apply to the realm of knowledge, specifically, how it is acquired and certified ‚Äö- the status of concepts; and ethics to cover the realm of morality ‚Äö- the code of moral values by which one makes one's choices in word and action. A summary of the results of this investigation, and an explanation of the sense-of-life associated with them, is given on pp.27-8.


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