BMCR 1994.10.06

1994.10.06, Anderson, Second Sophistic

, The second sophistic : a cultural phenomenon in the Roman empire. 2nd sophistic.. New York: Routledge, 1993. xiii, 303 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780415099882.

Graham Anderson, Reader in Classics at the University of Kent at Canterbury, is known to students of Greek culture in the Roman Imperial period for stimulating articles and books on Lucian (1976), the ancient novelists (1984), and Philostratus (1986). This book refers to Philostratus’ gossipy, effusively laudatory, and anecdotal Lives of the Sophists almost on every page, and indeed might be read before the earlier volume, because its scope is more general. Overlap is inevitable since the first hundred pages of the 1986 book concern the sophists and their “biographer,” and judgments expressed there are assumed in the book under review. The present volume in twelve chapters examines the public activities, careers, and literary record of something we still (wrongly [Wilamowitz] or rightly [Bowersock]) call, with ancient precedent (Philostratus VS 481), “the second sophistic.” Anderson’s first page problematizes the name and the phenomenon. He later suggests that “there was no real break in the history of ‘Sophistic’ at all” (18) between Gorgias and Aeschines on the earlier hand and Nicetes and the appropriately named Epigonus on the other, later one, but he never squarely addresses or answers the problems that he has rightly raised.

As the blurb says, Anderson “confirms the image of sophists as vain, contentious and sometimes superficial.” (More scholars themselves now “blurb” their own books if BMCR‘s readers indulge me in a neologistic verb. Therefore it seems fair in an epoch of parsimonious publishing houses to quote the blurb.) The blurb continues: “Rather than dismissing sophistic literature as stale and irrelevant, Dr Anderson sees it as often vigorous and witty, though not without the risk of pretentiousness and sheer facility.” (Remember the litotes). The book appears in one of the many energetic and laudable Routledge series, this one entitled “Graeco-Roman History and Culture.” The volume bears the (by now) seemingly trademarked, vaguely inaccurate, campy Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) jacket illustration, this time “A Lover of Art” in Glasgow. Roland Barthes or his fecund progeny could make interesting hay of this major decision to merchandize books on antiquity with the aid of retro-Victorian sensibilities (and sometimes glossy pornography, e.g., “A Favourite Custom” of 1909, although not here). These paintings now fetch significant prices. The choice of artistic genre disturbingly suggests a distorting reflection of historical reality, more suited to deconstructionist rhetoric than Anderson’s straightforward account.

The survey is welcome, since relatively few books in English on the range of literary and intellectual activity in the period 150-300 C.E. exist. Anderson extends his study well beyond this date, in fact. Aside from the small Lucian industry and the recent inflation of work on the ancient novel, one must scour the periodicals and risk hernias with the non-periodical, non-Festschrift, non-Encyclopaedic Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt in order to explore the riches that modern scholar ship on this period has uncovered or developed. In recent decades, Louis Robert, Glen Bowersock, and C.P. Jones, inter alios, have enriched knowledge of this era’s non-literary records. Bryan Reardon’s influential Courants littéraires grecs… (1971) set a benchmark for study of the literary phenomena, raconteurs, stand-up casuists, and lecturers who lived for and in a world of glitzy eloquence and “improv” theater based on ancient books.

The introduction and first chapter place second sophistry in some historical context. The Greeks were a sensitive, conquered people (as the paternal consular Pliny noted in an epistle to a praetorian senator: Ep. 8.24) living under the Roman boot (as the candid Plutarch observed, Moral. 813e-f). The inertia of nostalgia cannot be overestimated: Xerxes transits the Hellespont innumerable times in innumerable genres (prolalia, progymnasmata, melete, encomia, syncrisis, kataskeue, anaskeue, etc.), in order to satisfy the Hellenic appetite for reliving again their own “finest hour.” The sophists, performers all, were popular because they serviced, or kept on the respirator, the faded glories of Hellenic identity and belief in Hellenic importance amidst a multi-cultural congeries of an empire that had passed the Hellenes by. They competed in public for valuable prizes (named chairs and immunities, e.g.) and students; their egos were fragile. Cutting-contests were popular with the educated masses who had nothing much better to do in the absence of TV sit-coms. On at least one occasion, Philagrus slapped a sleepy member of the sophist’s audience to wake him up (VS 578, a hilarious page on sophistic manners, p.37 here). Herodes Atticus and Libanius are more interesting characters than the casual reader might realize from this book’s hasty glances. Anderson claims to offer an “outline history of Sophistic,” but don’t look for dates an objection the author himself has raised against hapless Eunapius (p.110).

Chapters 3 through 8 examine this long era’s treatment of various genres such as rhetorical exercises, historiography, philosophy, and fiction. Anderson makes the useful point (p.81) that similes drawn from the stage are so commonly sprinkled by the sophists because “the theatre was an ancient institution with a particular cultural interest, concerned with stage performance,” their own preoccupation. Controversies over Atticism are dismissed perhaps too facilely. However unseasonable we may think them to have been, we need to learn why the name and cachet of Atticism meant so much to those who engaged in the debate. The treatment of historiography (ch.5) is suggestive. The entire book is carefully documented.

Anderson says of an average Encomium of Demosthenes that “This historical confection is by no means an artistic success, but we must ask why it should have been written at all” (p.117). The question might in turn be asked about many subsequent and current academic efforts, cui bono? Anderson describes phenomena more often and more successfully than he analyzes them, and questions like the one quoted are left twisting in the wind.

Anderson persuades the casual reader that the sophists bat about the same complacent generalities for many generations and “write convincingly … with almost no evidence whatever of expert knowledge” about Rome, Achilles, or Xerxes (the man they loved to hate, the Hitler of later ancient Greece). “Exuberant banality” and “pretentious affectation” produce “a tastelessly overblown sophistic muddle” (130-31). The topic happens to be poor Eunapius again but it could have been neurotic Aristides or uncritical Philostratus, or even Fronto or Plutarch whose inclusion in this volume on Sophistic requires further argument.

Chapter 8 deals with erotic stories in the sophists, both imitations of Platonic eroticism and situations in the novels. Anderson identifies rhetorical set-pieces in the novels as originating in the schools, then more or less revised for a fictional setting. Chapter 9 deals with humor: paradoxography such as encomia of baldness and fleas, five encomia of Thersites, the misuse and abuse of Marathon and Alexander the not-so-Great, Homer as polymath, and other trivia that make the television quiz-show “Jeopardy” look like happy Mondays in the school of Aristotle.

Chapter 10 examines sophist gods: “genuine piety or literary reflex,” he asks. (Anderson employs “reflex” throughout to mean commonplace or accepted attitudinizing.) Jewish and Christian performers such as Philo, Clement, and Basil flourish in their audiences’ faces many of their pagan enemies’ similes, allegories, paradoxes, and tropes, and consciously justify their use. Gregory of Nazianzus thundered against a contorted age when “talking nonsense has gained the reputation of culture” (p.210), but he thunders in the same kind of “pompous wordplay” and prose that he condemns, a symptomatic problem for an emerging counter-culture such as Christianity.

“Only Lucian will have a clear vision of the vanity of it all, but his is still a testimony from within” (p.233). The pregnant observation aborts before any occasional piece of Lucian’s receives the full analysis that could prove it or make it interesting. Too often the book stays too general, and Anderson’s final estimation condemns with faint praise when it does not condemn with an armory of elegant vituperation. His “self-indulgent mannerist drivel” is as good as “the ropy prattle of rheumatic brains,” when you care enough to say the very worst about sophistic sciolism and etiolated parolists. Anderson worries that “the cultural life of the empire is being insidiously written off.” He avers that the sophists’ system “did not in the end limit creativity” (p.242). But, on his own evidence, something limited it. Similarly, Anderson explicitly defends the world of the sophists as “not a curious and sterile cultural irrelevance” (244), while warning us not to remain blind to their flaws. His book has detailed those flaws mercilessly so as to make even a blind man see. Au fond Anderson seems to have wanted to like them and their produce but to have failed. The book concludes with forty pages of references, a helpful select bibliography, and a joke-free index.

Anderson’s book collects essays rather than constructs a coherent and significant thesis argued in detail. Although he acknowledges the questionable utility of the term “second sophistic,” since it is hard to discover when or if the first one ever evaporated, to judge by the literature from Alexander the Great to the Alexanders of Abonuteichos and Aphrodisias, Anderson uses it anyway. The label seems to mean something. His essays then discuss useful topics but they do not explain the social, economic, and intellectual forces that make the second sophistic whatever it uniquely was. The problem arises from the amorphous personnel and activities that comprise the subject-matter, not Anderson’s fault but still a hurdle that cannot be ignored. The result is fish and fowl.

I am not sure whether we are interested in Eunapius of Sardis. I am not sure whether we ought to be. But if we are, then the snippets that we encounter here are not enough to form a just judgment of his work, and most authors receive less attention than this “sophistic” historian. Arrian receives less than two pages despite his varied and extensive historiography. The focus on topics, not individual authors, is reasonable, but there seems to be not enough consideration of any work or author for the uninitiated browser to decide whether to alter course and to read Eunapius. On the other hand, if you are a regular reader of Eunapius and I can name two you will not learn anything you did not know already. Anderson calls his selection “arbitrary.”

We append some quibbles for persistent readers: Anderson affects litotes much too often (e.g., “scarcely less important, not infrequently, not a little wit, will not have been without its effect”). Page 228 offers four examples in twelve lines of text. Litotes is a dangerous trope because it remains ambiguous. In scholarly literature it suggests that the author is him/herself uncertain where to come down on questions. Anderson was probably infected by his affected subjects. As many as 219 endnotes are attached to chapters, mostly brief references to ancient texts that would better appear at the bottom of the page or in the text. In this dense forty-page forest, the editor or designer offers no page headers referring to pages covered or even to chapters, just the unhelpful “Notes and References.” This makes ascertaining authorities very tedious. An unfortunate misprint has an Olynthian called an Olympian in the presence of Prometheus (p.150). A misunderstanding of American toponymy attributes the recently deceased Fred Householder’s 1941 (Columbia University) New York dissertation on Lucian to a nearly non-existent Columbia, Ohio. I presume that Columbus (transformed into a literary locale of notorious note by Philip Roth) was (wrongly) intended.

The book fills a niche in a discipline that often ignores them.