BMCR 2010.02.25

The End of Dialogue in Antiquity

, The End of Dialogue in Antiquity. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. viii, 266. ISBN 9780521887748. $99.00.

This collection seeks to explain why dialogue—a written genre—apparently lost popularity during the Christian era. Nearly all the papers are really interesting. The book’s scope—from Thucydides and Plato, to Cicero and late sympotic literature, to the rabbinic tales and the Church Fathers—is wondrous. Contrary to the claims of its précis and introduction, though, as revisions from a 2006 University of Cambridge conference, it is hardly a “general and systematic study”; it has instead the vices, and the virtues, of a broad-ranging conversation.

I read this work of history as being concerned with two questions: (1) What reasons do we have for bringing together certain literary works as instances, either central or marginal, of “dialogue form”? and (2) What motivated authors to write the works of this genre, and what social trends—especially openness to political or religious dialogue—enabled such writing? The strength of this collection is in bringing together lots of discussion of works we might or might not want to call instances of “dialogue form” and lots of authors whose motivation to write dialogues is worth serious attention. The weakness is that it rarely presents the questions sharply or consistently enough for the reader to assemble some form of answer.

Simon Goldhill’s “Introduction: Why don’t Christians do dialogue” announces the terms of ensuing discussion—authority and power, democracy and openness, hierarchy and truth; and identifies its theme—exploring the relationship between an art-form and a mode of social interaction. But the Introduction does not coordinate clearly enough the kinds of writing and talking with which the contributors will be concerning themselves. First, the Introduction speaks too little about conversation, not even mentioning that the representation of conversation may be the most characteristic property of literary dialogue. Second, “dialogue” and “dialoguing,” as social events, are inadequately distinguished from, say, chatting, arguing, debating, engaging, or interacting. It would’ve been helpful to observe that dialogue is, generally speaking, an intentional discussion between two parties who have distinct beliefs, do not mean to abandon their differences or seek the truth, but want to work together on some particular project. Thus we think of “inter-religious dialogue” meant not to discover the right theology but to find common ground for some concerted action. Or we might say, “the US must open dialogue with the Iranians again”; here it is a form of diplomacy, not just of deliberative exchange.

Emily Greenwood’s “Fictions of dialogue in Thucydides” begins with broad remarks about the difficulties of studying “dialogue”: the hodge-podge of English meanings, the specter of Plato’s work, and Bakhtinian theorizing about the “dialogic.” It then discusses how the Melian dialogue shows “the Athenians [to] confuse force with the force of their arguments.” Greenwood gives special attention to ambivalence in the terms hupakouein (“to listen or submit”), peithein (“to persuade”), hupolambanô (“to take a turn”), and antilegô (“to contradict”). In the final paragraph she speculates that while the “ideal of dialogue presented in the Melian Dialogue fails, … its failure points to a withdrawal into the written word.”

Andrew Ford’s “The beginnings of dialogue: Socratic discourses and fourth-century prose” is the most successful of this book’s three chapters on the origins of the dialogue form, and should be widely read. Ford argues that the dialogue form began in the hundreds of Sôkratikoi Logoi (“Socratic texts”) of the late fourth century, not in the “verbal dueling and antithetical argument” common to then contemporary Athens. Why these texts developed in response to Socrates occupies the chapter’s first part. Ford elaborates and then dismisses the claim that such writings were intended mainly “to preserve the teaching of the master” (they are too obviously fictional), that they were “the best expression of his particular philosophy” (there are too many authors other than Plato), and that they were “bound to surface” (they arrived too late and suddenly). The core of the chapter shows why we should conceive of these works as depicting “conversation.” More than depicting question-and-answer, which many no doubt did, dialogues provided “models for negotiating debate and sustaining conversation … as a liberal pursuit, an unpressured discussion among men at leisure who were, if not precise social equals, equally free to pass their time this way.” They required subtle êthopoiia (“characterization”), since these were representations of how people—Socrates above all—might really talk. All the while, Ford argues, the authors of Sôkratikoi Logoi aimed to distinguish their works from the eristic, captious texts proffered by sophists and rhetoricians.

Alex Long’s “Plato’s dialogues and a common rationale for dialogue form” argues that since we can’t find a single reason Plato would’ve had to write all his dialogues, we won’t be able to find a rationale common to all writers of dialogues. Unfortunately, while this chapter is laudably systematic, it’s too hasty in most of its conclusions and thus not ultimately persuasive. For example, the first real position Long considers—”Plato resorted to dialogue form when reflecting on Socrates’ life, method and convictions”—he dismisses on the grounds that Socrates is “dethroned” in the Sophist and Statesman, and absent in the Laws. But each of these three dialogues could very well be meditations on Socratic activity, in part by depicting blatantly non-Socratic conversation. The first two, notably, show Socrates scheduling the questions and listening carefully. Long’s dismissal of the idea that Plato wrote to depict characters, on the grounds that he also had a general concern for theory, is also too quick: Plato depicts Socrates saying he cares only to examine himself and others, with the aim of getting people to care for virtue and the perfection of their soul; it is rash to claim that Plato’s interest in theory was necessarily distinct from his interest in character. The rest of Long’s discussion—attempting to undermine the claim that “Plato wrote dialogues because he saw dialogue with others as the only appropriate medium for philosophy”—ignores Greenwood and Ford’s advice about taking dialogue as not just any form of back-and-forth talking. Malcolm Schofield’s “Ciceronian dialogue” tries to redeem those texts of Cicero’s with multiple personae from their low esteem as dramatic dialogues. First, Schofield argues that the fact Cicero doesn’t hide or recuse himself from his dialogues, as Hume or Plato does, contributes to their interest: “Philosophical dialogue is converted into exploration of what it is for a Roman statesman forced from the political arena to grapple with disjunctions between politics and philosophy, and to try to bridge the gulf between public and private, acting and writing, concealment and disclosure.” Second, Schofield argues that Cicero’s dialogues are purposefully (and original in being) like treatises, able to exposit systems, fully develop counter-views, and avoid foreclosing further reflection. In contrast to the short responses to which Socrates restricts his interlocutors in the Platonic works, “someone who speaks at length is in a better position to express his meaning with all the precision and due qualification.” In other words, these works excel at displaying opposing views for the readers’ philosophical engagement. This point is made convincingly, and so we can see how one could prefer the Ciceronian style to either the Platonic drama or the Aristotelian lecture. But it’s less clear to me that this point helps us see the usefulness of Ciceronian dialogue. While stating that Cicero “can convey the flavour of witty and combative philosophical conversation when he wants to,” Schofield doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge that the airing of multiple views seems not to require characterization (which I take he thinks dialogue form involves). Perhaps because of its tight focus on vindicating “oratory’s expansiveness” against “sequences of question and answer,” much of this chapter leaves uncertain what precise effect attributing speeches to people has, in contrast to a non-representational document.

Jason König’s “Sympotic dialogue in the first to fifth centuries CE” surveys a fascinating range of symposium depictions, looking especially at Athenaeus, Clement, Methodius, and Macrobius. As an effort to relate literary and social phenomena, it is up to this point the most successful chapter; this success is of course helped by the relative ease with which we see symposia as discrete social practices, and their depiction as a discrete literary sub-genre. König begins by observing that in comparison with other encyclopedic works, sympotic dialogues could depict “a venue for socially empowering performance of knowledge … and Greekness.” They dramatized inventiveness and innovation, sometimes in the pursuit of truth and sometimes for imaginative interest. Why the dialogue form? “The recurring emphasis on the requirement for young men to learn from their fellow symposiasts [in these dialogues] offers … a model for the reader’s engagement with the text”; they exemplified “equal dialogue, where each contributor has an equal right to speak, where no single answer to a question is ever validated as the correct and only response,” and where active listening, and a consequent readiness to contribute, was demonstrated and encouraged. And abundant, even manic, quotation could both vivify the past in the present and create labyrinthine hierarchies of embedded speech, drawing attention to the very practice of allusion and identification. (König here analyzes Bakhtin’s insight and limitations with great even-handedness). The larger part of the chapter suggests that the sympotic works of Clement, Methodius, and Macrobius should not be seen as falling short of dialogicality. König shows how these authors self-consciously modified the resources of sympotic dialogue for their own purposes. They often manifestly recognized the symposium’s history of antagonism and open-endedness while allowing their symposiasts to resolve their disagreements and settle confusions. This chapter is an edifying discussion about the range of ways in which a dialogue may depict “unity in diversity” and shows that a successful dialogue need not be overtly adversative to be properly judged “dialogical.”

Gillian Clark’s “Can we talk? Augustine and the possibility of dialogue” aims to explain Augustine’s gradual abandonment of dialogue both as a way of writing and as a way of social engagement, what Clark calls “the move from sermo to sermon.” She has in mind writing that brings a sympathetic understanding to opposed positions, or that follows the argument wherever it may lead, or that ends inconclusively. Among social engagements she has in mind “public dialogue, [e.g.] with Manichaeans or Donatists.” Her appealing argument suggests that it was neither his Christianity per se, nor the sacredness of scripture, that caused Augustine to favor treatises, commentary, or otherwise monological, doctrinal forms. It was instead his position as Bishop, and thus as widely influential teacher, that constrained his scope. Believing that his opponents’ views were not just wrong but, if believed, potentially mortally corrupting, he could hardly give them the generous elaboration an effective dialogue would require. After all, his mixed, often distracted, uneducated, and close-minded audiences were at risk of accepting what he merely meant to entertain, or of remaining in equipoise about that which he meant to decide absolutely one way or the other. Further, his audience expected sermons in a forensic mode—persuasion and assertion, not the puzzlement and distinctions philosophers could luxuriate in.

Richard Miles’ “‘Let’s (not) talk about it’: Augustine and the control of epistolary dialogue” takes a line on Augustine’s letters consistent with Clark’s on his impersonal works, though putting the emphasis not on teaching but on Augustine’s creation of his own authority over the orthodox Christian view. Letters, for example to Jerome, circulated broadly, and thus could be neither free-wheeling nor fully honest about the writer’s doubts. But not only would Augustine write his letters with considerable caution, he would also take caution as to what responses his inquiries might prompt. Such caution would bring him to respond, as it were, for his recipients, preemptively. He “sent letters to key members of the Christian elite whom he suspected of Pelagian sympathies that contained an internalized dialogue that mapped out both questions and answers. … In contrast to his public dialogues with the Donatist bishops, the object was not to vanquish and humiliate but to present the illusion of total agreement between close friends. By clearly setting out how he imagined that the recipients would respond to his letter, [however,] Augustine took total control of the epistolary process.” Because these letters would be widely read, it would take considerable willfulness to respond in any way that differed from the way Augustine himself had suggested.

Richard Lim’s “Christians, dialogues and patterns of sociability in late antiquity” decouples a society’s production of written dialogues from its attitudes toward intellectual conformity. The dialogue form should be seen not as the sole or principal venue for the free play of ideas, but as “a boutique literary form,” one with considerable prestige and thus longevity to be sure, but also an elite mode ill-suited for everybody’s consumption (as Clark’s Augustine thought). Lim highlights a range of productive conversational exchanges distinct from those idealized in sympotic, gymnastic, or Ciceronian garden-debate dialogues. And echoing previous chapters, he appreciates the literary and pedagogical shifts demanded by, for example, the pressures of Christianization (catechesis), partially illiterate audiences (the sermo humilis), and geographically-dispersed elite (epistolary exchange). Despite a confusingly unspecified use of the term “dialoguing,” Lim’s chapter helps make sense of the way written dialogue depicts a kind of conversation distinct, though importantly related to, any of the many untold other modes of conversation.

Kate Cooper and Matthew Dal Santo’s “Boethius, Gregory the Great and the Christian ‘afterlife’ of classical dialogue” shows that an intellectually substantive genre of dialogues did not disappear completely in the middle of the first millennium. The focus is on the Consolation and the Dialogues on the Miracles of the Italian Fathers : the former, they show, deploys irony and a subtle layering of levels of discourse; the latter depicts some serious challenges to its author’s eschatological orthodoxy. These dialogical works, among others, give evidence, according to the authors, that “[i]n many ways, the early Byzantine Mediterranean and its hinterland during the sixth and seventh centuries probably witnessed the most protracted, detailed and fiercely contested debate on personhood and anthropology in human history … as Christian, Jewish, and ultimately Muslim monotheisms fought to define the various ‘orthodox’ versions of their beliefs about God, man and the universe.”

Seth Schwartz’s “No dialogue at the symposium? Conviviality in Ben Sira and the Palestinian Talmud” describes the ethical and social substance of Jewish sympotic literature and the way it adapted its Greco-Roman models. Ben Sira’s symposium, rather than celebrating an excellent way of creative cultural exchange, “simply replicates the inequality of general social life in concentrated form, with the same potentially crushing results [and is] [s]horn of its aspirational elements.” This leads this cynic to advocate reticence among symposiasts rather than to laud “wisdom, cultivation, amity or fellowship,” the ideals of his literary influences. The Palestinian Talmud, somewhat similarly (though Schwartz draws out the distinctions), depicts banquets “as occasions when social unease is particularly heightened.” A high point of this excellent chapter is its reading of two rabbinic tales, mimetic works coyly illustrating—perhaps like Herodotus’ royal tales or some elaborations of the Aesopic tradition—the failure of its characters’ self-conceptions, and by that means staging a criticism of certain systems of honor and dominance.

Daniel Boyarin’s “Dialectic and divination in the Talmud” starts with the observation that the Babylonian Talmud, redacted several centuries later than the Palestinian Talmud, seems much more open-ended, or at least uncertain in its conclusions, than its predecessor. Boyarin traces the delegitimizing of dialectic as a method for arriving at truth despite the endurance of what looks like vigorous argument. His primary thesis is that “for the Babylonian Rabbis, debate without end was equally a vocal ideology to effectively monovocalise the dialogue”: “such internal disputing and questioning in which there was little at stake in the conflict, arguing distinctions that made virtually no difference, is a practice that effectively eliminates the kind of genuine debate that might be threatening to debate.” This “highly controlled dissensus,” a sort of paradoxical ” homonoia,” presaged or reflected a new, more mystical or spiritual, attitude toward textual exegesis.

One surprise I had when reading this collection was about the absence, except on two occasions, of reference to the depictions of talk in the New Testament Gospels. It seems to me that a chapter on the stories of Jesus’ parable-telling or other ways of talking would’ve been a helpful way of linking Sôkratikoi Logoi to the Christian era: both were depictions of charismatic men talking, where the social context of argument and conversation may have been more important than the juxtaposition of opposing positions.