BMCR 2021.06.19

Figurengestaltung und Gesprächsinteraktion im antiken Dialog

, Figurengestaltung und Gesprächsinteraktion im antiken Dialog. Palingenesia, Band 126. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2021. Pp. 315. ISBN 9783515129060 €60,00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This is the second collection of conference papers on the ancient dialogue edited by G. M. Müller, having been preceded by a 2013 volume co-edited with S. Föllinger.[1] A further volume on narrative in dialogue is planned (p.25). The present volume consists of thirteen papers ranging over almost 800 years from Plato’s Laws to the end of the 4th century CE. In view of space constraints, I will comment selectively.

S. Föllinger explores a fundamental question, namely why authors of dialogues so often use historical characters. She sets the problem into the wider context of fiction as conceived by the ancients and theorized by Aristotle, who observed that tragic poets use the names of real people (who, for him, include figures of saga) because this lends plausibility to the action (Poetics 9.1451b15–19). In a similar vein, Föllinger cites Cicero’s observation that Cato the Censor is a more plausible spokesman on the subject of aging than Tithonus, who was so deployed by Aristo of Ceos (Sen. 3). She tests this possibility against a case where the choice of a dialogue character seems counterintuitive, namely Socrates as a speaker on household management in Xenophon’s Oikonomikos. She calls attention to several passages in which the author incorporates features of Socrates’ popular image (his irony, his measuring of the air in Aristophanes’ Clouds, etc.) in order to achieve greater plausibility. She resists the claim that the dialogue is meant to be thoroughly ironic. Rather, the use of Socrates enables Xenophon to open the subject onto wider questions of value. If that is so, however, the example is at odds with her thesis since Socrates’ character is evidently chosen not for its plausibility but in spite of its implausibility in order to introduce a perspective at odds with the other characters’ utilitarianism. So one might add to her overall thesis the stipulation that other considerations may trump plausibility in special circumstances.

M. Lucciano offers a prehistory of the philosophical dialogue at Rome (p.72) by exploring allusions to Socrates in Latin dialogues down to Cicero, including waystations at Plautus, Pseudolus (vv. 459–471), and Lucilius (vv. 709–710 Marx). But these two passages are fairly thin gruel; they show that the name of Socrates was known in second-century Rome, but little more. More fruitful is Cicero’s engagement with Socrates, which occupies the bulk of the essay. Lucciano shows that Cicero was aware that Socrates of the tradition was a constructed figure and that he was familiar with the relevant sources; he thus had the tools that would have allowed him to create his own “Ciceronian Socrates” (p.83), but he does not, in fact, do so. Rather, he uses Socrates as an example to fit the given argument. Thus Socrates’ courtroom defense serves in De oratore as an example of inept oratory (1.227–33) but in the Tusculan Disputations to argue that higher values should guide action (1.71–75). Lucciano considers Socrates as an ironist with reference to Brutus 292 and makes the good point that there the concept of irony is “translated” into Latin stylistic categories (ironiam . . . facetam et elegantem puto), but it is surprising that in a book about dialogue the remark is discussed without reference to the speaker (Atticus) and its function in the context of the Brutus.

How did Cicero theorize the “authorial function” (Foucault’s “fonction auteur”)? J.-P. DeGiorgio seeks new insights on this from Att. 13.19, in which Cicero explains his decision to replace three optimate politicians of the previous generation with other speakers in his epistemological dialogues. There he distinguishes three different types of dialogues: (1) historical in the manner of Heraclides, without the author in a speaking role; (2) Aristotelian, in which the author is the primary speaker and converses with people already dead; (3) a third type, without a named antecedent, in which Cicero’s character converses with living interlocutors. The most interesting of these is type (1) because Cicero insists that, though mute, he is still present as author. DeGiorgio sees this as a kind of projection of the author to the scene of his characters (p.97). He also discusses the criterion Cicero uses for selecting his characters, the aptum, i.e., the matching of the dialogic position to the speaker, the point that ruled out the three optimates, unschooled in epistemology. Cicero, then, as author selects the characters and writes speeches for them. But the verisimilitude does not extend to style: they all speak Ciceronian Latin. As in the citizenship cases of Archias and Balbus, Cicero lends his voice and authority to create space at Rome for persons of foreign origin, so in this case for Greek philosophy.

At the end of October/beginning of November 54 Cicero contemplated with pleasure the idea of engaging in philosophical dialogue with Atticus and his brother Quintus (Att. 4.18[92].2). In fact, De legibus, which he probably began to write around this time, instantiated this precise cast of characters. But Cicero’s attempts to match characters with speaking roles in his dialogues were fraught with problems, as became strikingly clear when he made the wholesale change in his epistemological dialogues (see above). Such problems also extend to De legibus and Brutus, as M. Schofield shows in a stimulating paper. He highlights that Atticus’ Epicureanism is a problem that Cicero at first takes into account but then ignores as his own character develops a lengthy critique of his friend’s favorite philosophy. Schofield doubts, perhaps rightly, that Cicero ever told Atticus that he was portrayed in the dialogue (p.118).[2] The treatment of Atticus is more sensitive in Brutus, where the criticism of the character Atticus of “ironic history” is at odds with the entire project of the dialogue; in Brutus the insensitivity is in the treatment of Brutus himself, who is depicted for the most part not as an equal but as a pliant student.

J. Sedlmeyr offers a distinctive approach to Cicero’s late dialogues, taking as his starting point a passage in Augustine, Contra Academicos (3.15–16). There Augustine quotes Cicero apropos of the “Academic sage” (Academicus sapiens) and how he will conduct himself in debate with Epicureans and Stoics. Sedlmeyr compares this picture with what happens in the dialogues De finibus (books 2–4) and De natura deorum. In these dialogues the Academic speaker, Cicero in Fin., Cotta in N.D., behaves essentially as predicted in the Augustine passage, showing politeness, listening to others and abstaining from opining but instead expressing doubt. The difference is that in Cicero’s dialogues there is no bitter invective; rather, a polite tone is maintained as befitting a conversation among Roman nobiles. Sedlmeyr explains this as the consequence of Cicero’s desire to “naturalize” philosophical discourse among upper-class Romans, who would have found the polemics of the Greek philosophical schools distasteful (cf., e.g., N.D. 1.93–94). The Academic sage thus emerges in the strong position and also as a feasible model for a philosophically inclined Roman, a point that is reinforced by the critique of Cato’s Stoicism in comparison with the philosophy of the Academy at Pro Murena 60–66. Sedlmeyr is, however, careful to note that the “Academic sage” is Cicero’s construction for purposes of his own argument, not a “doctrine” of the Academy. All in all, a suggestive paper. Its insights could have been carried further, e.g., to De divinatione and to Cicero’s general preference for the middle ground in a debate, e.g., on the plebeian tribunate at De legibus 3.19–26.

In spite of the fact that these papers were presented at a conference, there is little indication that the authors reacted to one another’s works. For instance, the paper of S. Retsch on the proem to book 2 of De oratore  could be seen as a concrete example of De Giorgio’s point that Cicero is keen to give himself a presence even in the dialogues in which he is not a speaker, but neither author makes the connection.[3] In any case, Retsch examines the function of that proem both as a way of authenticating the dialogue itself by arguing that the main speakers, Crassus and Antonius, were more learned than was commonly supposed, and as a means by which Cicero can enhance his own claims to culture and an intellectual pedigree.

The final paper is by the volume editor G. M. Müller, who undertakes to redeem the Gallus of Sulpicius Severus from criticisms on the ground of bland characterization, and Christian dialogue generally from the claim that, with its fixed dogma, Christianity does not lend itself to dialogic presentation.[4] Müller shows how the dialogue form enables Severus to create an interplay of different perspectives and personalities that advances his agenda of supplementing the biography he had previously written of (St.) Martin of Tours with a comparative perspective (one of the interlocutors, Postumius, reports on a visit to the hermits in the Egyptian desert) and additional material about Martin (reported by the another interlocutor, Gallus). There is a contrast between these two, the worldly and eloquent Postumius, who is only too happy to enlarge on his travels, and the shy and diffident Gallus, who needs a good deal of coaxing before he is ready to share what he knows about Martin. Connecting the two is Severus’ own character, acting as both host and catalyst for the discussion. Müller goes on to argue that the ultimate aim is to found a community of interlocutors (“Gesprächsgemeinschaft”) centered on Severus that, with the aid of his biography, will promote the knowledge and imitation of the saint (p.288). Pointing to echoes of Cicero’s dialogic techniques, Müller argues that Severus is also imitating Cicero’s goal in his philosophical dialogues of creating an educated Roman community.

Müller succeeds in redeeming Severus’ art of characterization, which, on his showing, is subtle and effective. He approaches the larger problem of Christian dialogue by arguing that Severus follows a program analogous to Cicero’s and suggesting that both reflect a specifically Western interpenetration of practical political activity and philosophical reflection (p.294). So if Cicero makes valid use of dialogue, so, Müller argues, does Severus. It is ultimately a question of definition whether one accepts only an open-ended “dialogue of search” or also an “expository dialogue,” in which doctrines are interrogated. Müller’s contribution will not put an end to the debate, which essentially pits a normative against an empirical approach, but it does offer a perspective that should be taken into account.

Authors and titles

G. M. Müller, Einleitung
D. De Brasi, Platons Nomoi als Beispiel gelungener Dialogizität
S. Föllinger, Ethopoiie und Fiktionalität des Dialogs
M. Lucciano, Socrate comme personnage de dialogue à Rome
J.-P. De Giorgio, Cicéron, l’auteur et ses personnages
M. Schofield, Atticus in De legibus and Brutus
J. Sedlmeyr, Der Einfluss des Ideals akademischen Philosophierens auf die Figurengestaltung in den Spätdialogen Ciceros
S. Retsch, Ciceros Familienporträt im Paratext (Cic. de orat. 2,1-3)
A.-M. Favreau-Linder, Pourquoi donner un nom aux personnages de dialogues?
A. Ginesti Rosell, Der Umgang mit negativen Figuren in den Dialogen Plutarchs
P. von Möllendorff, Figurale Elaboration. Ästhetische Investition in dialogische Relevanz
A. Stoehr-Monjou, Le triple statut de Marcus Minucius Felix: narrateur, personnage et arbitre de l’Octavius
J. Sauer, Adressat, Dialogfiguren und der implizite Leser in Augustinus’ Cassiciacum-Dialogen
G. M. Müller, Gemeinschaftsbildung im Geiste Martins von Tours. Sulpicius Severus’ Gallus und die Frage, ob Christen in der Lage waren, Dialoge zu verfassen


[1] Der Dialog in der Antike. Formen und Funktionen einer literarischen Gattung zwischen Philosophie, Wissensvermittlung und dramatischer Inszenierung, Berlin-Boston.

[2] He might have compared Att. 13.19.3, where Atticus is evidently informed for the first time that he has been included as a character in the Academici libri after they were already written.

[3] The editor makes connections between some of the papers in the Introduction, but not this particular one.

[4] He attributes this position to S. Goldhill, “Introduction: Why Don’t Christians Do Dialogue,” in S. Goldhill, ed., The End of Dialogue in Antiquity, Cambridge 2008, 1-11.