BMCR 2010.04.14

Philosophical Presences in the Ancient Novel. Ancient Narrative. Supplementum, 10

, , Philosophical Presences in the Ancient Novel. Ancient Narrative. Supplementum, 10. Groningen: Barkhuis; Groningen University Library, 2007. xi, 282. ISBN 9789077922378

Containing eleven papers by both established and younger scholars of the Greco-Roman novel, the volume bears witness to the better aspects of academic cartelization, with a distinct regional flavour: many contributors are or not too long ago used to be members of the Classics Department at Swansea, which is a world-recognized hub for classical narrative studies. The aim of the book, as the title suggests (somewhat misleadingly because the discussion is dominated by Greek texts), is to explore the relationships between the discourse of the novels and that of ancient philosophy. The outcome is an attractively kaleidoscopic picture that will no doubt stimulate much further debate across several disciplines.

Let me start by summarizing the contents. After a brief editorial introduction Michael Trapp chalks out the parameters of philosophia as discursive identity in the imperial era, highlighting a) the philosophers’ claims to radical and comprehensive difference of both theoretical vision and lifestyle, and b) the tensions (‘counter-currents’) these claims generated in the broader sociocultural reality. Next, John R. Morgan investigates the portrayal of philosophical figures in the extant and fragmentary Greek novels. Morgan’s case studies, especially his reading of Demetrius in Book 8 of Chariton’s Callirhoe (24-32) and of Xanthus in the Aesop Romance (43-8), point towards an overarching tendency in later Greek prose to narrativize philosophers in order to invoke but also to query and lampoon ideological stances. Ian Repath shows that descriptions of emotional conflict in Chariton, Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus are influenced by the Platonic model of composite psyche. Koen De Temmerman assesses the impact of Aristotle and Theophrastus’ ethical taxonomies on the patterns of characterization (‘typification’) in the Greek novel. Meriel Jones looks into the problematics of andreia in several Greek narratives (Heliodorus gets the lion’s share of attention) vis-à-vis gendered and behavioural stereotypes. Ken Dowden’s short contribution revisits the question of gauging the philosophical intent of the ancient novels via symbolically charged episodes (the heroine’s imprisonment in the pit in Xen. Eph. 4.6, the Nilotic flamingo in Hld. 6.3). Konstantin Doulamis argues for affinities between the narrative of Xenophon of Ephesus and the Stoic ethical and stylistic programme. Daniel Ogden provides a detailed prosopography of the characters in Lucian’s Philopseudes. Fritz-Gregor Herrmann construes the topics of education and mimetic imaging in Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe as reflective of Plato’s ideas at a deep conceptual level. The finely balanced argument by Karen Ní Mheallaigh draws out the implications of the intertextual dialogue between Plato’s Phaedrus and the framing preamble of Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Cleitophon; behind the Phaedrean setting Ní Mheallaigh discerns the impetus to problematize the very notion of textuality (oral, written, quasi-oral) and the function of the reader. Last but not least, in what is probably the most theoretically intense paper of the volume Ahuvia Kahane uses a passage from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (10.33) to test fundamental hermeneutic assumptions about representation, truth, and authority by integrating Jacques Rancière’s reevaluation (which is, in turn, a response to a famous chapter in Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis) of Roman historical narrative as a mechanism of rhetorical and political control with the guarded enfranchisement of images as windows onto higher truth in the Neoplatonic thought.

The book has a lot to offer. Insightful close readings are galore — my personal pick would be Herrmann’s analysis (210-20) of eikonos graphên (sic: 211 n. 29) in Longus’ preface (although his suggestion, at 227-8, to athetize a clause from Longus 1.8.1 strikes me as awfully cavalier) and the crisp comments by Morgan (39-40) on the symbolism of Athenian philosophical sites in Heliodorus’ Book 1; Ogden’s prosopographic spadework is extremely useful in its own right. There is a great deal of constructive opacity too. Here the prize must be shared between Kahane’s provocatively abstract conclusions and the Zen-like ending of Ní Mheallaigh’s chapter (242 ‘maybe our life-story is equally a fiction, and all our experiences . . . a mere textual vestige in some author’s novel?’). It is the most closural, methodologically, discussion in the book that is also, I think, the least successful: in his attempt to uncover the Peripatetic grid of ethical ‘types’ behind the characterization in the Greek novel De Temmerman achieves no more than stating the obvious1 and admittedly does not deliver breakthrough results in terms of Quellenforschung (108).

The overall argumentative thrust of the volume appears to be threefold:

1. to credit the ancient narrators with philosophical savoir-faire that manifests itself most overtly in ethico-psychological contexts (Repath, De Temmerman, Doulamis, more loosely Jones);

2. to inscribe philosophy onto the properly ‘tectonic’ cultural (moral, aesthetic, gendered…) templates realized as well as contested by Greco-Roman prose fiction (Dowden, Herrmann, Ní Mheallaigh, Kahane, Jones again);

3. to take a fresh look at the criticism and ridicule of philosophical postures across narrative material reflecting the wider mentality of the empire’s literate public (Morgan, Ogden, Trapp at 17-21).

It can be said that the unifying agenda of the collection is thus to confront the novel and philosophy as palpably divergent strands of imperial discourse but equally to narrow the gap between them. The former, dichotomizing approach is given a clear and concise rationale by Morgan, 49:

‘By its very nature, the novel gravitates towards openness and indeterminacy, while philosophy strives for intellectual closure and fixity.’

In other words, philosophy in the Greco-Roman world is about learning and implementing a set of normative recipes of psychic and societal conduct that makes us immune to contingency. The novel, by contrast, cashes in on scenarios of emotional (mainly erotic) crisis and paradoxical chance. But the two paradigms cannot help fuelling and cross-fertilizing each other, since the ancient novelist needs an evaluative — and so willy-nilly philosophical — vocabulary to describe the passions (that may of course strain, resist, and confound the available moral rubric), whereas the philosopher must have examples of psychological and/or political drama in order to fill out and rehearse the self-imposed conceptual framework, which is often not a straightforward exercise either. Stories negotiate values, and vice versa.

This negotiation is what the papers of the volume invite us to address in earnest. The topic’s importance guarantees that this supplement within the Ancient Narrative series will be essential reading not only for the students and specialists of the Greco-Roman novel but for any scholar who takes an interest in the intellectual history of antiquity. ‘Essential’ does not mean ‘definitive’, indeed the volume does not pretend to tick all the boxes (cf. Introduction, viii-x). The coverage is necessarily uneven and selective, Apuleius’ Metamorphoses being quite underrepresented — yet the most glaring omission is a reappraisal of philosophy in Petronius. One could also wish for some snapshots of philosophers in broadly novelistic situations related by texts that are known to have a stake in the philosophical authority, e.g. Gell. NA 19.1 (the Stoic on a storm-tossed ship) or Plut. Ant. 81.5 (Areius’ chilling advice that seals the fate of the teenaged Caesarion): for it is through stories and anecdotes such as these that philosophy holds up a mirror to its own purported sovereignty over the benchmark values.

The narrative seems to carry the day then. Or does it? Perhaps the biggest interpretative challenge faced by the present volume was to celebrate the rich variety of philosophical refractions in the ancient novel and beyond without losing sight of the sustained and totalizing sectarian (Stoic, Platonic, Epicurean, Cynic) constraints to which a bona fide imperial philosophos would be liable. Greco-Roman philosophy is a seriously special intertextual zone because every major school markets itself as a holistic and consistent discursive practice. Unless this factor is thoroughly adjudged on a case by case basis, our reading of philosophical presences in the novel risks becoming detached from the ideological historicity that underwrites those very presences. Do Achilles Tatius, Heliodorus, and Plutarch in the Erotikos actually innovate upon the Platonic tripartition of the soul, as argued by Repath (75-6, 79-80, and 62-4), or just add a bit of rhetorical garnish to it — how deeply is each of them involved with Plato’s orthodoxy? More generally, what should be the criteria to rule on the interfacing of diction and doctrine? According to Doulamis the style of Xenophon’s Ephesiaca is Stoically tinted, even though the links between the novel and Stoicism are otherwise fairly tenuous.2 What are the odds that Xenophon (if only we knew about his philosophical allegiance as we know about, say, Apuleius’ or Arrian’s!) would espouse the Stoic stylistics in isolation from the main bulk of the teaching? In the ancient intellectual environment this kind of partial subscription to the Stoic macrotext3 would have been problematic if not abnormal — certainly undesirable because of the pressure to not be seen as one of the superficial ergo humbug philosophoi.

Authors of the volume impressively succeed in scouting out a new intertextual dimension of the Greco-Roman novel. There is, however, strategic shortfall (excepting Trapp and, to some degree, Dowden) in appreciation of the discursive pitch and strictures of philosophia itself. The two-pronged issue of function and intention of philosophical intertextuality is rightly raised by the co-editors 4 yet largely eschewed by the volume as a whole. Maybe the question should have been put altogether differently, for at the end of the day it is not about how serious the allusion is (can we ever be sure?) but about the fact that the allusion is being made to texts that want to be recognized as momentously serious and committed. Pace Seneca, the transformation of philosophy into philology (and narratology) is welcome on the condition that philosophy’s self-referential idiolect remains audible; there is nothing intrinsically wrong about the tail wagging the dog — as long as the noble dog does not perish in the process.


1. E.g. at 107: ‘When employed in a military context (as in Achilles and Heliodorus), deilia echoes three notions present in both Aristotle and Theophrastus: (1) deilia is generated by fear; 2) fleeing from battle is a typical act characterising the deilos; and (3) deilia is opposed to andreia. In other contexts too (in Heliodorus, Achilles, and Chariton), flight and fear are associated with deilia.’

2. As Doulamis acknowledges at 153 and 160. He identifies a more specific parallel between Xenophon and Epictetus (157-9) — but what if Epictetus, in his turn, falls back on the declamatory and novelistic tradition?

3. Which the Stoics themselves advertised as superbly cohesive — as Cato says in Cic. Fin 3.74, ‘everything collapses if you shift a single letter’ ( si ullam litteram moueris).

4. ‘The question . . . becomes particularly acute when the intertext is a philosophical one. How far can we press the philosophical implications of any given allusion?’ (viii) and ‘This raises the question of how those references should be interpreted: as merely literary decoration, or as signs of a serious engagement on the part of the novelist with the ideas with which they are associated?’ (back cover blurb).