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Hypercriticism, or the spectre of Momus

by Arnoud Visser, Professor of Textual Culture in the Renaissance in the Department of Languages, Literature and Communication of Utrecht University

In the history of knowledge the gadfly, at first sight a rather wretched animal, plays a remarkably intriguing, symbolic role. Known as an insect with the annoying habit of biting cattle and humans alike (in order to drink their victims’ blood), producing painful stings, the animal was also famously used by Socrates as an example of the philosopher’s role in society. In his defence speech at the trial that would end with the death sentence, Socrates argued that his activities might be perceived as annoying, but actually served a useful purpose for the community. “I was attached to this city by the god,” he explained, “as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly.”[1] Socrates’ perspective still resonates with many modern views about the intellectual’s task, even if often voiced in a less ironic style. Edward Said, for instance, vividly described such an ideal of the intellectual as “a crusty, eloquent, fantastically courageous and angry individual” who showed an activist engagement “to speak truth to power.”[2] From an educational perspective, the ideal echoes the importance of critical skills that have defined academic schooling for centuries, as reflected for instance in the techniques of disputation and dialectic in academic life.

Modern academics are right, of course, to cultivate a critical mind. Defined in its most general sense as the art of exercising judgment, it is an indispensable skill for any researcher. Whether the subject matter is tangible and measurable or purely conceptual, even metaphysical, a competent researcher cannot do without a critical awareness of approach and analytical judgment. Also in the scholarly ecosystem at large, moreover, criticism plays an important, constructive role as a catalyst for progress by testing the soundness of results and eliminating errors. For all these good reasons, then, academic training spends much attention to honing the critical skills of their students.

And yet, I would argue, not all forms of criticism are virtuous. The art of exercising judgment requires a balanced mind, openness to alternative perspectives, and – often forgotten – a healthy dose of self-doubt. Unrestrained, relentless criticism indicates an overly judgmental attitude. It produces a poisonous effect, just like gadfly’s bite may not just wake up a sleepy animal, but also transmit disease. As a vice it can actually stifle curiosity, creativity and intellectual openness. This more critical perspective on criticism seems less prominent in modern discourses about intellectual virtues and vices. Yet it does have a historical pedigree, leading us back to classical antiquity, more precisely, to the realm of mythography.

The mythical figure of Momus, one of the lesser gods in the Greek pantheon, had no profession or expertise of his own, but occupied himself entirely with criticizing others. In the literary imagination he became a byword for hypercritical judgment and fault-finding. One story reports how he watched the dazzlingly beautiful Aphrodite dance, hesitated for a moment, but then noticed something disturbing after all: her sandals made a creaking sound. Another anecdote, reported to us by Aesop, relates how he spotted flaws in the works of Athena, Poseidon, and even Zeus himself. His criticism caused so much irritation that he was evicted from Mount Olympus.[3] Momus’ literary fortune offers an entertaining window on premodern perceptions of criticism. Momus featured as a protagonist in the satirical dialogues of Lucian of Samosata (second century CE) and survived in Renaissance Europe through help of humanist authors such as Leon Battista Alberti and Erasmus of Rotterdam.

The reception of Momus shows how criticism could clash with social norms about correct conduct, or even good citizenship. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel used the anecdote about Momus criticising Aphrodite to teach civic virtues in his moralising emblem book Gulden Winckel der konstlievende Nederlanders. Published in 1613, at a time when religious and political tensions in the Republic flared up to the point of a civil war, his work presented the hypercritical Momus as an example to warn against those who “always clever and alert / tidies another’s courtyard, and leaves his own field / to overgrow with weeds”.[4] Focusing more specifically on the academic world, Jacob van Zevecote, Vondel’s contemporary, used Momus to attack the presumptuous scholar, labeling him the “perfect rude-mouth, ” who “passes the time / with fighting or arguing / of with recreating in wine.”[5] In Zevecote’s poem Momus represents the nagging, jealous academic who thinks himself wise because he studied at the universities “of Louvain or Dôle”, but who lacks the creative spirit to write or even acknowledge real poetry.

The character of Momus has become largely forgotten in more recent times, but his spirit is still very much alive, it seems, in academe at large and within the humanities in particular. Perhaps a new Lucian could stand up to offer some comic relief to such hypercritical tendencies, not by biting like a gadfly, but by holding a mirror.

Momos Reproaches the Works of the Gods, painting by Maarten van Heemskerk, 1561. Source: Wikimedia Commons

[1] Plato, Apology, 30e, translated by G. M. A. Grube in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 28.

[2] Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures (London: Vintage, 1994), 7. The description relates to the image of the intellectual in Julien Benda’s La trahison des clercs (Paris: Grasset, 1927).

[3] Laura Gibbs (ed. and trans.), Aesop’s Fables (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), Fable 518; Perry 100.

[4] De werken van Vondel, ed. J.F.M. Sterck (a.o.),vol 1 (Amsterdam: Maatschappij voor goede en goedkoope lectuur, 1927), 302-303.

[5] Jacob van Zevecote, Gedichten, ed. P. Blommaert (Gent: Hebbelynck and Rotterdam: Messchert, 1840), 45-49, at 45.