BMCR 2005.08.38

Bodily Arts; The Rhetoric of Manhood

, Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2005. 256 pages. ISBN 9780292797277
, The Rhetoric of Manhood: Masculinity in the Attic Orators. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 283 pages. ISBN 9780520241923

Two books published the same year, ostensibly on much the same subject, in fact so different they could be made into a sort of scholarly “Rashomon.” We all know that a boy born into the Athenian elite would be expected to train his body for warfare and sports and to make at least a respectable show if he mounted the bêma to speak; that suggests there would be much material in common between the two books. But the authors come from different academic milieux, focus on different aspects of Athenian society; the overlaps in ancient evidence adduced and scholarship cited are very few; and their working methods could hardly be more different. Both refer to a few of the usual suspects, like George Kennedy and (among theoreticians) Pierre Bourdieu, but Hawhee cites few of the venerable or contemporary names familiar to BMCR readers (e.g., Blass and Tom Cole), whereas Roisman cites virtually everybody I could think of, but not a number of scholars influential on Hawhee, scholars whose names I did not previously know, including John Poulakos, Susan Jarratt, and Kathleen Welch. It is unsettling that scholarship in this field, even within the United States, is divided into two camps with very little in common, one situated in classical studies, the other in departments of English or Communication. I think Edward Schiappa is the only scholar widely known to both groups. A reader of this review is entitled to suspect that my ignorance of contemporary rhetorical studies based outside Classics makes me far less competent to judge Hawhee’s book.

Debra Hawhee opens and closes with plastic art. The “Introduction” displays the Antikythera youth, a statue some scholars identify as Hermes the “guardian of the gymnasium,” others as Hermes Logios, “the god of words, or a mortal rhetor standing on a bema speaking to an assembly (alii alios). The “Conclusion” shows Raphael’s “The School of Athens.” The author sees the two representations as showing how the “somato-centric culture of Greece,” for which the Antikythera youth is emblematic, was submerged as “cerebral activity” took over the gymnasia (p. 190). And more broadly, Hawhee sees her book “as a response to the ‘Myth of the Mind’ found in Raphael’s painting, particularly the ways in which histories of rhetoric have been erected upon and hence perpetuated that myth.” She continues: “This study instead has tried to historically produce the agôn of rhetoric as not just a ‘meeting of the minds,’ but rather as a full-on, whole body encounter between rhetor or teacher and student, an art concerned with a deeply habituated, [the word is used à la Bourdieu’s “habitus”], embodied, situated intelligence and sense of timing.” There is an elegance in this transition from one image to another, but I was not persuaded by many of her specific arguments en route.

Given my own unease with her mode of argument, it will be only fair to quote a couple of the author’s own summaries before I go on in what will be a mostly skeptical vein. Early in the book (p. 6), she states: “Whereas these days athletics might function as a metaphor for politics, education, or, in the most clichéd way, for life, I am suggesting that for the ancients, athletics were, at times, all these things together.” And on the second to last page:

[T]he body’s centrality in learning and performance is something the ancients knew so well as to almost take for granted. Ancient rhetoricians and orators gleaned this lesson from athletic training and performance, after which they fashioned their art. This curious syncretism had important effects on rhetoric’s development, as the nascent art came to share taxonomies, agonistic flair, conceptions of intelligence and time, pedagogical strategies, and cultural value with the already established and well-regarded athletic enterprise (p. 195).

In the first chapter , “Contesting Virtuosity,” we meet some examples of the interpretive moves Hawhee uses throughout the book. She claims (p. 16) that agôn is “connected” with agein (by etymology? by frequent collocation?), and, reasonably enough, that the latter can sometimes be translated “train.” This connection, which I would call nothing more than an unremarkable close approach of unrelated words in the linguistic soup, is then adduced to support an improbable claim (if I understand her) that athletics and rhetoric are not basically oriented to goals (victory and persuasion), but are better understood as ongoing processes, to “questing” rather than achieving. Pindar’s phrase at Ol. 10.63, ἐν δόξαι θέμενος, is supposed to establish her point.1 This bumps against some memorable lines suggesting that the telos is in fact all: Ol. 1.97-99 and Ol. 8.67-69. At p. 27 the argument is based on what we might call a shared stage. Gorgias is said to have performed at the Olympia dressed in purple. “Executing the logic of dazzling display, his robe and eloquence created an equivalence between his art and that of the famed Olympic wrestlers….” That is a use of “equivalence” needing to be made more precise if it is to become useful. Then there are arguments resting on athletic metaphors, particularly from wrestling, applied to rhetoric. Hawhee wants to insist that athletics and rhetoric were so closely bound that what we might regard as metaphors striking because the vehicles (in I.A. Richard’s terminology) are different, are not metaphors at all. In defense of her readings, she adduces a remark of Ruth Padel on metaphorical language that is “not a vehicle for explanation. It is the explanation” (p. 35). This too is slippery, and I miss Padel’s own warning, which comes very soon after the passage Hawhee quotes: “It is always hard to know if we rightly distinguish literal from metaphorical in another culture’s use of words” ( In and Out of the Mind Princeton, 1992: 36). Now, one means to help discriminate the meaning of an apparent metaphor is to look for the author’s general intent. Consider a passage to which Hawhee draws attention, Isocrates Antidosis 180-185. Isocrates is here hard at work explaining what he does for a (very comfortable) living and attempting to refute the prejudice that supposedly led to his defeat in the legal action for which the speech is named. True, the orator’s use of schemata connects the rhetorical and the athletic, but that seems to me an opportunistic device to make his readers believe what the jury did not believe, viz., that his craft deserves the prestige granted athletics.2

More plausible is Hawhee’s description of the shared vocabulary as “taxonomical crossover” (p. 37); and her remarks on the preference for wrestling terminology over those taken from other sports make some good, not at all obvious, points. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the Clouds (at p. 41 she bowdlerizes Aristophanes by translating pugen mikran as “small-armed” — or is that a typo?). The penultimate sentence claims that “the agôn, especially during the time of the sophists, produced a style of rhetorical training based on movement, for the logic of the agôn depends on a singular encounter, a necessary response” (pp. 42f.). I am not convinced her demonstration has successfully shown that a body lurks in what Gorgias famously describes as a δυνάστης μέγας, ὃς σμικροτάτωι θειότατα ἔργα ἀποτελεῖ (Helen 51). Later in the book Hawhee anticipates this objection: she argues (pp. 184ff.) that Gorgias really means that “speech has a body, albeit small and not immediately apparent.” But I was unconvinced by her argument, which tries to uncover a somatic element by quoting a phrase from Derrida and an entirely unpersuasive translation of Gorgias’ use of δείξω.

The remaining chapters are entitled “Sophistic Mêtis : An Intelligence of the Body,” “Kairotic Bodies (a discussion of rhetorical timing),” ” Phusiopoiesis : The Arts of Training,” “Gymnasium I: The Space of Training,” : “Gymnasium II: The Bodily Rhythms of Habit, and The Visible Spoken: Rhetoric, Athletics, and the Circulation of Honor.” I admire her adroit — I might even say “sophistic” — use of evidence, some of which exploits material I have never seen brought into this very old topic. But many of her arguments are exaggerated. I doubt her optimistic opinion that undressing rooms were “apparently a common [emphasis added] spot for sophistic exchanges” (p. 124). Some are overly credulous of ancient authors; for instance, on p. 81 she trusts Diodorus Siculus to a degree that suggests she does not know John Finley’s work on Thucydidean language. Her discussion (p. 170) of the Menexenus shows no sign that she appreciates the irony of the conceit that explains how its epitaphios was composed. Many arguments are constructed by forcing Greek words to signal nuances, attested elsewhere, in passages where they are clearly not present. A notable example at p. 77, where Hawhee maintains that with the words fere metastô Gorgias Helen 8 announces a self-transformation. Grammatically, that just cannot be right.3 Sometimes there seems an inadequate command of various realia, e.g., the Pnyx was rarely the site for legal deliberations, if “legal” means forensic [p. 154]). Isocrates’ own weak voice and fragile emotions in the face of a crowd’s hurly-burly are a prima facie inconvenience to her approach that she does not adequately confront. Finally, Hawhee misses some material that could be usefully cited in support of her argument, e.g., Alcidamas on the properly-trained speaker’s exploitation of kairos.

Rhetoric and athletics did co-exist on some festival programs — though epideictic occasions of that type constituted a very small part of oratory. There certainly were physical aspects to speechmaking. Both activities involved conflict, adept use of rhythm, stance, and gesture, strategic timing, and both offered a chance for an apparently weaker contestant to defeat the apparently stronger. Both were done better by the better trained. Hawhee has presented the resemblances in an interesting way, but I remain unconvinced by her attempt to assimilate one to another.

In The Rhetoric of Manhood, Joseph Roisman follows a methodology with which I am vastly more comfortable. Working almost entirely from the speeches, he lays out with great thoroughness and subtlety the Athenians’ notions of how a man was supposed to behave in his various roles in private and public life as he came to maturity and advanced into middle and old age. Several chapters are devoted to the various age groups (the sans teeth set gets its time on stage in the “Conclusion”), to issues of shame, social standing, military service and rhetoric (a section on “The Double Standard” put me in mind of the contemporary “chickenhawk”), interactions between the demos and the rhetores, and two chapters near the end that approach the psychological to pretty much the extent possible while hewing closely to texts meant for public performance (“Men, Desire, and Self-Control” and “What Men Fear”).

Especially to be commended is his refusal, announced on p. 2, to fall into the trap of any abstract formulation of the object of his study:

Manhood … is viewed here as a cultural construct that embraces roles, practices, and beliefs that put man at its center. I find this inclusive perspective useful for two main reasons. In the first place, manhood, which I use as a synonym for masculinity, was an all-encompassing perception that the Athenians were happy to leave ill defined. Second, sociologists, anthropologists, and even gender scholars have been unable to produce an authoritative definition of masculinity that satisfies the theoretical expectations of students of manhood. The concept is too complex and full of contradictions, most likely because the “practitioners of masculinity” — the investigator’s human subjects — often fail to agree about what it entails, or what makes a manly man.

A fine manifesto, but as Roisman himself later observes (p. 194), the trap is not just a modern construction: “Offering a middle ground, or suggesting less dramatic consequences, ran counter to the Greek propensity for antithetical thinking and seemed rhetorically counterproductive.”

The reader soon finds that Roisman’s book is rich in specific examples of how a general attitude can be complicated or even trumped by particular circumstances. It is not news that speakers could switch sides on any issue, but his demonstration is valuable for its fine detail. All of the many of us who teach Lysias 1, that gift of later-twentieth-century sexual candor to elementary Greek pedagogy, should take a minute to tell students that the same logographos could also treat an adulterer as more a joke than a threat to the inheritance rights of legitimate children (p. 35: the corrupted woman’s toothlessness will make the point memorable). Another example from the domestic sphere: though “the Athenian kurios regarded it as one of his primary duties to protect the oikos from the dangers of the outside world, . . . it appears that men, in their roles as family members or kinsmen, not only paid tribute to familial and kinship solidarity, but also violated, manipulated, or ignored it” (p.51). An obvious point, perhaps, but worth insisting on as a control on the strong tendency to reach for stark formulae and overly rigid schemata. Much work on social norms embedded in literary works would be more credible if it followed Roisman’s scrupulous approach. Scholars who concentrate on drama, to take one of many instances, should keep in mind his remarks (p. 33) on the differences between women in the Athenian home as they are normally portrayed in oratory and the dangers luridly enacted in drama and sometimes carelessly exaggerated by modern critics. I cite one further example of his alertness for nuance in a speech: Roisman remarks on some distinctions Aeschines thought necessary to draw in his prosecution of Timarchus: “Aeschines may have sensed that the jurors found it difficult to apply such broad categories [of homosexual relations] to real-life situations and to judge conduct on a continuum between the poles of overtly passionate, disgraceful and patently restrained, socially approved love” (p. 184). Throughout his book, then, Roisman remembers that he is working on documents that originated in real, which is to say messy, life.

Among many fine aperçus I will mention three.

Writing of [Dem.] 50 (p. 58): “Apollodorus dramatizes the conflict between oikos and polis, I argue, because the Athenians looked for such conflict when they tested the civic credentials of a man, especially a rich man. Evidence of personal loss was proof of good citizenship and patriotism, and as such, it was supposed to help Apollodorus to gain a favorable verdict in his suit.” This suggests, I think credibly, that jurymen did not stupidly fall for every slogan they heard litigants hide behind. Cf. p. 197, where Roisman remarks on the jury’s resistance to speakers’ hyperbolic scenarios.

Countering Gabriel Herman’s view that “the dominant code of behavior in Athens … held personal honor in low regard and emphasized civil conduct and nonretaliatory response,” Roisman (p. 76) points to Demosthenes’ strenuous efforts in Against Meidias to rationalize going to law, rather than striking back physically, as evidence that “the ideology of self-restraint and the rule of law, and the ideology of physical, and preferably immediate, defense of one’s honor, seems to have coexisted for Athenian men.”

In one matter Roisman may have gone too far. He writes at several points of the speakers’ as challenging not only the dicasts’ or ecclesiasts’ judgment, but even their manhood (pp. 160-161; cf. p. 140). Although insulting the audience is a rhetorical turn that goes back to Homer and is especially prominent in Thucydides’ version of Cleon in the Mytilene Debate and in several speeches of Demosthenes, I think that the insulation of the individual audience member makes it hard to believe that one can speak of a contest between speaker and audience in Roisman’s terms.

Roisman has written a meticulous and sophisticated book on a topic of great interest.


1. P. 24. I cannot understand how Hawhee concludes that the participle θέμενος (she calls it a gerundive) bears the precise force she believes Pindar intends.

2. Cf. the sophistai whom Lysias disparages at 33.3 and Isocrates’ complaint at Panegyricus 1-2.

3. Greek words and syntax are sporadically wrong or the meaning is carelessly expressed, e.g., ephaineto — literally [sic] “that which was brought to light (p. 174), exangelia indicates indirect discourse (p. 185), panta is missing its final iota. In other small matters there are editorial missteps, for instance: M.A. Wright (p. 58) is a woman, there is no reason, on the other hand, to refer to R.B. Onians with both his given names (p. 66), references to LSJ (p. 147) should be sub voce, not by page number.