BMCR 2020.09.36

Pierre Chiron. Rhétorique, philologie, herméneutique

, , , Pierre Chiron. Rhétorique, philologie, herméneutique. Textes et traditions . Paris: Vrin Editions, 2019. 368 p.. ISBN 9782711628414 €32,00 (pb).

[The table of contents is presented at the end of the review.]

Pierre Chiron is well known to students of Greek literature, especially those who study Greek rhetoric, as the author of two indispensable scholarly editions, both published in the Belles Lettres (“Budé”) series: Demetrius, On Style (1993); Pseudo-Aristotle, Rhetoric to Alexander (2002). These editions constitute just a small part of Chiron’s highly impressive scholarly production, which consists of over one hundred publications, the great bulk of which concern issues in the tradition of Greek rhetoric, broadly conceived, from its earliest documents in the fifth century bce (with excursions back to Homer) well into the Byzantine period 1500 years later. The bibliography of Chiron’s work in the front matter of the volume makes for interesting reading in itself. The editors, former students of Chiron and leading scholars of ancient rhetoric themselves, have selected for this “hommage” to their teacher seventeen previously published articles that, in the editors’ view, represent his body and style of work and are among his most influential publications. Readers who may have missed the original publications will be intrigued by fresh perspectives on familiar material and instructive accounts of obscure sources.

The chapters of the book, unnumbered, are grouped into discrete, titled sections by virtue of common themes. Section one, “Structures rhétoriques,” presents four papers that concern rhetorical theory of the seminal fourth century bce, which in Chiron’s account is dominated by three sources in particular: Isocrates, the Rhetoric to Alexander of unknown authorship, and Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric. Plato receives little attention. Cleverly, Chiron does not attempt to force the problematic details of the rhetorical theory of this period into a smooth, seamless exposition, which would amount to a trap that many before him have fallen into. Rather, Chiron focuses on key notions that arise in response to specific rhetorical, political, and cultural influences. For instance, in a paper devoted to considering the nature of Aristotle’s treatise, “Aristote rhéteur?” (2015), which to my knowledge is distinctive within the large literature on the subject, Chiron considers to what extent the disparate features of the treatise, with regard to both basic problems of the text and puzzling elements of the theory, reflect an attempt on Aristotle’s part to enhance rhetorical theory by reflecting on rhetorical practice. Chiron introduces here the notion of epieikeia,[1] including an excursus on that term as used in Iliad 23, in order to show that rhetoric depends less on a rational system of persuasion and more on managing the kind of intersubjectivity that is unavoidable in the actual workings of a complex society, that is, when real decisions have to be made by real groups of people. (This idea is common in modern, especially twentieth-century rhetorical theory, but Chiron presents it here purely on the basis of the ancient sources.) The patchwork qualities of Aristotle’s treatise as well as diverse elements of the emerging rhetorical tradition are thereby clarified and placed in fruitful conversation, an approach that relies on and expands the traditional mutuality of practice and theory.

Beyond his salutary emphasis on the Rhetoric to Alexander as an important fourth-century source for the long tradition of rhetorical theory, over the course of several papers Chiron makes evident the centrality of Aristotle’s treatise throughout the tradition. He does so not by examining historical references to the treatise, which are scarce, but by considering the rhetorical tradition itself as a kind of terrain, as it were, that was first mapped by the fourth-century-bce theorists. In a later chapter devoted to “Remarques sur le semeion rhétorique, d’Antiphon à Aristote” (2005) Chiron acknowledges the philosophical qualities of Aristotle’s doctrine of proof while rejecting the strictly philosophical basis of rhetorical theory that has been advanced in recent decades.[2] As Chiron demonstrates, Aristotle’s largely adapted his rhetorical terminology  from rhetorical practice and sophistic sources. From the beginning and consistently over time, rhetoric was both concerned with persuasion, however that could be effected, and devoted to a rational understanding of the project, however strained that might appear.

Several papers are fascinating because they reveal the inner logic, so to speak, of various corners of the rhetorical tradition to which the scant sources allow us only limited access. For instance, the paper entitled “La doctrine critique du rhéteur Tibérios” (2003) seeks to evaluate De figuris demosthenicis, an undated but certainly late-ish document (3rd-4th c. ce?) to which the name Tiberius is attached as author. Chiron offers compelling reasons to take the document seriously, even though, as he demonstrates with keen wit, it is brief, derivative, unimaginative, and sometimes confused, and consists of little more than a list of mostly traditional citations from Demosthenes. Exemplary spade-work on Chiron’s part allows him to place this document into a context defined by the earlier, clearly accomplished rhetoricians, Caecilius and Apsines. Chiron reveals the clarity and economy of Tiberius’ work, his (silent) use of Hermogenes’ doctrine of ideai, and his attempt at representing a doctrine of figured discourse. Thus Chiron succeeds in demonstrating what few would ever have expected, namely that, while Tiberius may seem to be a (mere) compiler, he carries out his task with intelligence and in a manner that must have served students of the art. In Chiron’s hands this document emerges as a window into a remote but thought-provoking corner of the sprawling rhetorical world of late antiquity.

The nature and function of kola in rhetorical theory and actual oratory have always constituted a difficult topic. The term itself, common to poetics, syntax, and rhetoric, is obscure because it has no equivalent in modern European languages; and even though Aristotle introduces the term as a crucial part of his account of the period (Rhetoric 3.9), he never defines it. Chiron tackles these and related problems in the chapter entitled “Les côla en rhétorique : respiration, sens, esthétique” (2010), which is the best treatment I know of this subject matter. Working mostly on the basis of the accounts in Aristotle and Demetrius but then proceeding into rhetorical theory of late antiquity, Chiron examines kola as a mechanism for understanding how poetic effects are introduced into prose. As Chiron shows, a kolon is a unit not of syntax or meaning, but rather of the confluence of sense and sound. Kola help determine the sense of an utterance by means of antithetical movements within a period. And they are crucial for realizing the sound of an utterance because they help determine breathing and create the patterns of rhythm and rhyming and assonantal sounds that we associate with Gorgianic figures. The discussion has an impressive conclusion that consists of comments on both K. J. Dover’s book The Evolution of Greek Prose Style (1997) and the elaborate prose artistry of late antiquity, in which both writers and readers were highly educated in the arts of complex, pleasing composition.

This book is a fitting testament to the scholarly career of Pierre Chiron. Readers will find Chiron’s manner of argument, the range and use of the sources he brings to bear, and his straightforward style of exposition both rewarding and informative. To complement the mundane but essential scholarly virtues just enumerated, Chiron also demonstrates a power of imagination that offers unexpected insight. The book is an important, useful addition to the literature on Greek rhetoric in its historical aspect.

Table des matières

Introduction [Guérin et Woerther]

Bibliographie des travaux de Pierre Chiron

1. Structures rhétoriques
Les Arts rhétoriques gréco-latins : structure et fonctions
La Rhétorique d’Aristote est-elle un traité de rhétorique ?
Aristote rhéteur ?
La Rhétorique d’Aristote et la littérature
2. Tradition, innovation
La tradition chez les rhéteurs : emprunt ou empreinte ?
L’originalité comme valeur chez quelques rhéteurs anciens
La doctrine critique du rhéteur Tibérios
Les rapports entre la Rhétorique à Alexandre et la Rhétorique d’Aristote : le « test » de la brièveté
3. La preuve
L’argumentation, la persuasion, la manipulation et leurs thématisations rhétoriques : le cas de la Rhétorique à Alexandre
À propos d’une série de pisteis dans la Rhétorique à Alexandre (Pseudo-Aristote, Rh. Al., chap. 7-14)
Remarques sur le sèméion rhétorique, d’Antiphon à Aristote
4. Le Style
La simplicité dans la rhétorique grecque, d’Aristote à Hermogène : terminologie, valeurs, doctrines
Les côla en rhétorique : respiration, sens, esthétique
Archéologie de l’oxymore
Le logos eskhèmatisménos ou discours figuré
5. Aux frontières de la rhétorique
Quelques observations sur un intraduisible célèbre (épieikès, épieikeia)
Le silence rhétorique, d’après quelques traités grecs
Bibliographie générale


[1] Chiron leaves the term untranslated in accord with the penultimate paper in the collection, “Quelques observations sur un intraduisible célèbre (épieikès, épieikeia)” (2009), where it takes center stage as a key rhetorical notion.

[2] Chiron cites E. Schiappa, “Did Plato coin rhetorike?,” American Journal of Philology 111 (1990): 457-70; T. Cole, The Origins of Rhetoric in Ancient Greece, Baltimore, 1991.