BMCR 2001.09.15

Response: Worthington on Wooten on Worthington

Response to 2001.08.28

Response by

In his review of the above book in BMCR 2001.08.28, Professor Cecil Wooten made a number of positive and critical comments. It is about some of the latter that I write this response. Ordinarily, I would not respond to a review of any of my work (sole-authored or edited) unless I felt that the reviewer had missed the point or thrust of the book, and in so doing has leveled unjust criticism against it. Professor Wooten, I feel, has done precisely that.

Wooten in particular criticizes the “incoherency” within the book, especially within the first few chapters (by Badian, Ryder, Worthington, and Buckler), which deal with Demosthenes’ motives in the earlier part of his career (Badian), during the reign of Philip (Ryder), and in the reign of Alexander (Worthington). Wooten says: “the assessment of [Demosthenes’] basic motivation is the most incoherent aspect of the various views of the orator presented in these chapters, particularly the early ones”. To Badian, Demosthenes was ambitious, seeking a cause to further a fledgling political career but with no policy as his own; to Ryder (whose chapter follows Badian’s), Demosthenes saw Philip II as a threat to Greek autonomy to be resisted at all costs and directed his oratory to this end; to Worthington (whose chapter follows Ryder’s), Demosthenes, while not as much in the political limelight during the reign of Alexander, was still an influential and politically astute politician who realised the need to keep Athens on a neutral course with Macedon. These “abrupt” breaks in Demosthenes’ career, according to Wooten, are one reason why the book is incoherent.

The first few chapters present Demosthenes in a series of guises, motivated by different reasons to do the same thing or adopt the same policy, someone to be praised, and someone to be condemned. It is no wonder that Wooten uses a term like “incoherent”, and he would be right to do so if the book were a biography or had one thesis, and written by one author. However, here is the missed point: this book is not meant to give us one, uniform Demosthenes because there is so such thing. In studying Demosthenes (and the period) there is no consistency of opinion, and scholars have very different ideas. This is clearly spelled out in the book’s introduction (which Wooten has read, for elsewhere he refers to p. 3 of it). After some justification of the existence of overlap in the book, given its subject, I say on p. 6: “While the complexities of the Sacred War, for example, need to be described, as Buckler properly insists, so that we can understand what Demosthenes and Aeschines were arguing about, both Buckler and Ryder have different views on several key points. So do Badian and Ryder to some extent on Demosthenes’ first Philippic. As such, their discussions ably illustrate an important point: in any study of Demosthenes and his time, there is no single approach and no consensus of opinion. Nor, given the complexity of Athenian political life and the ‘wild card’ in Athenian politics of personal animosity on top of ideological opposition, can there ever be.” The scholars who contributed to this book have often very different opinions about Demosthenes, and thus make us think critically rather than accept one line. Thus, Buckler, for example, who probably knows more about the Third Sacred War than the Phocians themselves, writes on that period the way he does based on his view of Demosthenes and Aeschines: his opinion of these two orators is low, and this affects his evaluation of the events. Thus, Wooten’s criticism that Buckler’s view of Demosthenes “is almost a caricature of the shady politician” is unfair.

Wooten makes the point that the variety in Demosthenes’ development is interesting but can only be appreciated by “a mature scholar; however, to a young student exploring Demosthenes for the first time it must be very perplexing. And I assume that students are the primary audience of this book.” The book is aimed at scholars as well as students, but as far as the “young student” is concerned he/she will have the very real benefit of seeing from the outset that nothing is cut and dried with Demosthenes and the period, as with ancient history in general. There is no incoherency or incongruency in the book; what I wanted, and what I think was achieved, was a number of authors giving us the many sides of Demosthenes and making us think. A book that is a series of chapters promoting one line about Demosthenes would have little value.

This leads me into another of Wooten’s criticisms, the opinions of some contributors on the same things, such as Demosthenes’ first Philippic. Here, Badian’s opinion of the speech is markedly different from that of Milns (“at odds with ideas presented earlier in the book”, says Wooten). Again, nothing is at odds, for we are dealing here individual scholars’ assessment of the speech based on their Demosthenes. Their treatment shows that, as with Demosthenes’ political career, the rhetorical impacts of a speech, as with its content, can be valued very differently by different people.

Finally, Professor Wooten’s criticism of the tone of the book: “Similar to the incongruity of the various views of Demosthenes that emerge from this work, there are also great differences in tone among the various chapters.” He singles out Ryder’s chapter as “serious, almost somber” and that of one of the leading ancient social historians today, Golden (“the strangest chapter in the book”), as like “an after-dinner address, replete with slightly off-color comments.” However, surely content, not style, is what matters? Moreover, once again, is the advantage of variety offered to students and scholars by different modes of scholarly discourse.

At the end of all this, where are we? I am not suffering from sour grapes or out to “get” Professor Wooten, for whom I have a great respect (as he knows from previous years when we corresponded quite a bit). However, as the editor of the volume (and acting also for some of the contributors who reacted similarly) I felt an obligation to respond to his review because I believe that his major criticisms of the book are unfair, and so do it a disservice. What he therefore says about all its chapters needs to be read with a pinch of salt.