Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.09.20 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.09.20

Jeroen Lauwers, Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Sophistry in the High Roman Empire: Maximus of Tyre and Twelve Other Intellectuals. Mnemosyne Supplements 385. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2015.  Pp. 340.  ISBN 9789004301528.  $163.00.  

Reviewed by Joanna Komorowska, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University, Warsaw (


That the aims of rhetoric (not to mention its evil twin, sophistry) are diverse, often even contrary, to those of philosophy is quite often a standard assumption when thinking of ancient literature: as a result, we (Classicists) are to some extent conditioned to see Isocrates as standing out for his conciliatory approach, an approach he bequeathed to a large number of his successors. The fact that the divide is far more subtle and that somebody we consider a rhetorician tout court may have considered himself as a philosopher would thus appear contrary to the common assumption. Yet, such an apparent oddity is hardly unusual, particularly in later antiquity. This state of affairs was undoubtedly facilitated by what came to be viewed as the traditional educational model, that is an education inclusive of both philosophy (particularly ethics) and rhetoric. Focused on the Second Sophistic, Lauwers’ study highlights the compatibility of these seemingly opposed disciplines in the works of several authors of the Flavian and Antonine eras, emphasizing the subjective nature of the various intellectuals’ proclaimed allegiance to philosophy, rhetoric, or sophistry, and tracing the often elusive complexities of their understanding of the terms involved in the debate—principally, the often pejorative ‘sophistry’.

The main body of the work consists of two large sections: the first (p. 15–124) discusses general assumptions concerning the alleged contradiction between the aims of philosophy, sophistry, and rhetoric. These assumptions are juxtaposed with the actual attitude to these three disciplines attested in the surviving works of twelve important intellectuals of the high Empire. The second (p. 125–289) focuses firmly on Maximus himself. As a result, the first section (intended to provide a background for later considerations) paints a panorama of the intellectual milieu of late Flavian and Antonine eras, emphasizing the omnipresence of rhetorical instruction and both the technical proficiency of authors who would consider themselves philosophers and the strong philosophical tendencies of those eager to portray themselves as successors of Demosthenes and Isocrates. The chosen twelve (discussed in a non-chronological order) are Flavius Philostratus, Dio Chrysostom, Plutarch of Chaeronea, Epictetus, Favorinus, Arrian, Aelius Aristides, Marcus Aurelius, Lucian of Samosata, Apuleius, Galen, and, finally, Sextus Empiricus (incidentally, one can expect nearly no help here from the Table of Contents, as it fails to account for the subchapter divisions within the work, which results in all the authors being grouped under a single subheading Individual Authors). This organization presents the reader with a survey of different characters, mentalities, and methodologies—all of which, however, were influenced by a similar education and cultural climate.

The second part centers on Maximus’ Discourses, a seemingly incongruous, unwieldy body of speeches dealing with varied subject matter ranging from technical, programmatic or autothematic issues, through love, to various ethical problems. Certainly Maximus’ style, his verbosity, and the repetitive, somewhat banal nature of his observations have not endeared him to modern readers or scholars. Historians of philosophy focus on the far more interesting authors like Plutarch or Apuleius; Dio, Aelius Aristides, and Philostratus draw the attention of historians of rhetoric, while Gellius’ polymathy is of particular interest to historians of culture. In contrast to his accomplished and colorful contemporaries, Maximus appears uninteresting, either because of the meager philosophical interest of his works or owing to his manifest inferiority to master orators of his era such as Aristides. Strikingly, however, it is precisely the mediocre quality of his literary (or intellectual) output that is of interest to Lauwers, who argues, quite rightly, that it is this ‘average’ author, rather than his greater contemporaries, who provides us with a glimpse of the everyday, widespread version of the Second Sophistic that would be known to an average inhabitant of the Greco-Roman world.

Divided into several subchapters, the most important of them dealing (naturally enough) with notions of rhetoric, philosophy, and sophistry, the section on Maximus relies on an attentive reading of his individual discourses as they discuss notions of knowledge, truth, pleasure, and happiness. While the debate centers on Maximus and the respective arguments are developed in close connection with the author’s actual texts, one notes that the Lauwers’ conclusions are of far wider applicability. Thus, for example, the particularly well-crafted section devoted to Maximus’ pedagogy (2.2, p. 136–65) provides the reader not only with a thorough study of relevant issues in the Discourses, but also with an imaginative portrayal of the second century philosopher and his métier. (Pace Szarmach, Lauwers insists on the importance of the philosophical dimension of Maximus’ work.)1 This section opens, innocently enough, with a discussion of the thematic and formal unity of the surviving speeches, but then turns to the far more intricate questions of original and intended audience and that audience’s possible expectations, and then to Maximus’ nuanced and multilayered presentation and self-presentation strategies, as well as his careful maneuvering between the conflicting claims of accessibility and authority. As a result, while Lauwers clearly focuses on Maximus and his attempts to establish his own philosophical and rhetorical authority, the reader gains valuable insight into the inside dynamics of a second century mentality, an insight of immense value to anyone working on this period.

Hence, the work is useful in providing its reader with a glimpse of the complexities involved in researching the intellectual world of the High Empire. In highlighting a certain elasticity of terms and concepts, it manages to stress a corresponding indefiniteness and fluctuation—precisely the dynamic quality of intellectual debate that tends to be lost in many scholarly discussions, which are hampered by a need to provide a definitive (or at the very least comprehensive) portrayal of a given cultural phenomenon. In a way, the overcrowded, verbose, and shifting quality of the discussion reflects the actual nature of the phenomenon being discussed: in dealing with a world that devotes such attention to words, their arrangement, their melody, one tends to emulate the very works one studies. Thus the experience of reading Lauwers may well be likened to the actual experience of reading Maximus: while seemingly flooded by many innocuous, apparently banal, self-explanatory or simplistic observations, one is actually guided to a revised understanding of Maximus’ work as rooted in the cultural milieu of his times. The read is not the easiest task, perhaps—but it is a rewarding one. ​


1.   M. Szarmach Maximos von Tyros. Eine literarische Monographie, Toruń 1985.

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