Scholars of literature suggest that one can find instances of literary criticism as far back as we can find poems such as epic poetry of Homer and Hesiod, and the lyric poetry of Alcaeu and Sappho in ancient Greece. Homer began his epics with an invocation to the muse, thereby acknowledging that they were written with the help of “divine inspiration”—an idea which will play a considerable role in subsequent history of poetics. Instances of literary criticism can also be identified in critical remarks of Greek dramatists and rhetoricians such as Simonides, Solon and Pindar (that poetry is instructive, that it comes natural to a genius, that it has to be learned by art, that it consists of clever use of words), or in the dramatic festivals of Athens (500 B.C.), which were organized as contests requiring an official judgment about the best drama.
The Athens of 500 B.C. is also the period of great dramatists Euripedes, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Aristophanes, and the philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the schools of rhetoric, and the rise of Athenian democracy and power. In one contest, Aeschylus’ drama is pronounced victorious as it “embodied a peculiar kind of intelligence required for the art of tragedy,” which is deliberately contrasted with the “idle talk” and “fine-drawn quibbles” of the philosopher Socrates. The quarrel between poetry and philosophy is as old as classical Greece, which also means that the considerations of truth and beauty, emotionality and practicality are issues of much contention in matters literary. Pascal was right: “The heart has its reasons, which reason knows not.”
Thought, motive and emotion, indeed are fused in complex (conscious and unconscious) ways in literary creation and criticism. The creative act itself, argues Habib, is a critical act, not only involving inspiration but some kind of self-assessment, reflection, judgment and social pragmatics. In composing his poetry, a poet would have made certain judgments about the themes and techniques to be used in his verse, and what reaction they might evoke in a particular audience.
The Greeks, however, were not entirely focused on the purely technical dimensions of a given text. They wanted to know why a text was written, for whom it was written, and what religious, moral or political purposes motivated it. They also considered historical and cultural circumstances implicit in the text, in addition to issues of its style, language, structure, and the deployment of rhetorical and literary techniques. Literature for them was an important element in the educational process and its ramifications extended over morality, religion, and the entire sphere of civic and political processes. Moreover, in the Greek democratic process, only the adult male citizens were eligible to participate in the decision-making process while women, resident aliens, and a vast number of slaves were permanently excluded. The "creatively conflicting" literary theories of Plato and Aristotle were shaped in the context of these specific epistemological, ethical, political and economic struggles in ancient Greece. The legacy of the two great philosophers still endures in one form or another, which made Samuel Taylor Coleridge say that "one is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian."