BMCR 2022.06.13

Creating the ancient rhetorical tradition

, Creating the ancient rhetorical tradition. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. 320. ISBN 9781108812580 $40.00.

Open Access

Managing the plentiful materials of rhetoric—from technai and their many terms and taxonomies; to speeches and their multiple parts; to laws, poems, and histories besides—posed for its ancient organizers challenges of inclusion and emphasis. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates, his voice rising above that of the cicadas, jokes that Nestor and Odysseus wrote rhetorical technai, a particularly proliferating form, on the shores of Troy between battles (261b-c). It is an agreeable irony, then, that Laura Viidebaum credits to that dialogue the establishing conditions of the ancient rhetorical tradition. When Plato began the work by mocking the lexis and taxis of Lysias and concluded it by indicating the philosophical promise of Isocrates, he set the limits within which subsequent theorists of rhetoric would operate. And, in the Rome-written work of the first-century BCE Greek rhetorical critic Dionysius of Halicarnassus, we can gauge the full measure of Plato’s influence. Viidebaum’s Creating the Ancient Rhetorical Tradition, then, begins with Lysias and ends with Dionysius.

Viidebaum introduces her creation of this ancient rhetorical tradition by distancing her approach from those that prioritize all those aforementioned technai and terminologies. She asserts that the ancient rhetorical tradition was held together less by rhetorical concepts than by rhetorical characters, namely, Lysias and Isocrates, by means of the authority of Plato. They became the poles—the one stylistic and speech-centric, the other philosophical and pedagogical—that would give the tradition fixed points of orientation. Curating and evaluating the evidence of how they came to be so, which Viidebaum largely divides into material from fourth-century BCE Athens and from first-century BCE Rome, is the work of the subsequent chapters.

Lysias and Isocrates make for a study in contrasts in many ways, one of which is how unequally their works were transmitted and received within and outside the ancient Mediterranean world. Accordingly, Viidebaum begins by focusing less on the historical person of Lysias, about whom we know little, than the personae present in the speeches we possess—about ten percent of what was attributed to him. (Lysias’s reputed excellence at characterization necessitates the plural personae.) She then moves to “Reflections on Lysias and Lysianic Rhetoric in the Fourth Century BCE.” Her two crucial sources are Plato and Aristotle. Plato names Lysias in Republic and Cleitophon (whose attribution to Plato is challenged), but Plato’s (ab)use of Lysias in Phaedrus is his most extensive and memorable engagement. Lysias comes off as little more than a clever stylist of shameless claims. For his part, Aristotle mentions Lysias not at all in the Rhetoric, whereas he names Isocrates more than any other contemporary. As a likely result, Lysias has almost no reception to speak of in subsequent Peripatetic rhetoric. Ultimately, “Plato’s early reception of Lysias left an immense mark on Lysias’s future reception, simply through there being no other surviving external evidence” (60).

Paralleling the structure of the Lysias chapters, the segment of the book centering on Isocrates begins with Isocrates’s work and then moves out to its reception by his contemporaries. Working his tropos this way and that in his lengthy and bespoke (and not spoken) logoi, Isocrates has survived in much fuller form than Lysias. It is easier, therefore, to get a sense of who Isocrates thinks he is. One intriguing fact, of course, is that Isocrates never refers to what he does or teaches as rhētorikē but as philosophia. Nevertheless, he was not pulled into the subsequent philosophical tradition but into the rhetorical one. Why? Viidebaum demonstrates how Isocrates both describes and caricatures sophists, rhetors, and philosophers to distinguish himself and his distinctive model of education for the polis. For Isocrates, “a true philosopher is someone who, having understood the limits of [the] human mind, will turn his energies to studying good practice and widespread opinions that have been verified over the course of human (Greek) history” (83–4). Isocrates’s brand of philosophia gets lost in the shuffle of philosophical school-formation, with most of the schools tracing their origins to Socrates, a lineage Isocrates does not claim.

Because of Socrates’s outsized influence on the development of philosophical schools and on the image of the intellectual during Isocrates’s time and after, Isocrates’s relationship to Socrates receives its own chapter-length treatment. Though Isocrates names Socrates only once (in Busiris), Isocrates seems to contend with Socrates’s legacy throughout his long career. His most “explicit confrontation” (95) comes in Antidosis, where Isocrates defends views – of Athens, its citizens, and the sort of education that best befits them – that vary considerably from those attributed to Socrates. Viidebaum isolates key differences in the way the two motivated students. In particular: “Isocrates acknowledges the relevance of pleasure, gain and honor in the existing political and economic system and is determined to highlight the potential of higher education as a direct path to achieving those goals,” whereas Socrates did nothing of the sort (99). As we shall see, Isocrates’s model of philosophy for action rather than for contemplation recommends it to those putting order on fourth-century Greek speakers and writers for elite, young Roman men.

The next chapter considers “Contemporary Reflections on Isocrates and His Role in Rhetoric and Philosophy,” treating Alcidamas (who, in his written polemic against sophists who write, never invokes but perhaps evokes Isocrates), Plato, and Aristotle.[1] Plato’s explicit mention of Isocrates at the conclusion of Phaedrus is most decisive for Viidebaum, since it places Isocrates in dynamic tension with Lysias by granting that Isocrates, at least, has “some philosophy in his mind” (279a). Plato may hint at Isocrates in other works, as well; for instance, though Isocrates is not named in the Gorgias, Viidebaum boldly suggests that Callicles is Plato’s take on a student of Isocrates. Relatedly, it is not certain whether Isocrates was one of the interlocutors in Aristotle’s Protrepticus, but it is certain the Protrepticus emerges from the din of voices claiming philosophy and trying to turn students toward their version of it. In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, quotations from Isocrates occur more frequently than those from any other contemporary, with many other hints at him besides. Taken as a whole, then, Aristotle’s engagement with Isocrates implies little interest in Isocrates as a philosopher but abundant interest in Isocrates as a model of rhetorical logos and lexis. In sum, these early reflections on Isocrates set the scene for his reception in Rome as altogether more rhetorical than philosophical—but in a culture where being “philosophical” had taken on several centuries of accumulated meaning.

With Chapter 6, “From Athens to Rome: Lysias, Isocrates, and the Transmission of Greek Rhetoric and Philosophy,” we move chronologically and spatially as Viidebaum surveys first the appearance of her two key characters in the Hellenistic period and then their increasingly extensive operations in pseudo-Demetrius, Philodemus, and Cicero. Whereas Lysias all but disappears between the late fourth century and the first, snatches of Isocrates abound in the papyrus record, suggesting his work was copied and studied. Viidebaum examines further evidence of potential Isocratean impact in the areas of theatre, historiography, and political philosophy, but deems most of it ambiguous. In his Peri Hermeneias, pseudo-Demetrius mentions Lysias three times, in the context of “wit and simplicity” (153), and Isocrates four, in the context of stylistic tendencies that characterize his writing and those who imitate him, but neither figure commands much attention. For his part, Philodemus views Lysias and Isocrates from his own perspective as an Epicurean. Lysias is not of much interest. Isocrates seems to be of interest mostly because his odd approach to philosophy (by the standards of the first century BCE) gives Philodemus material with which to attack Aristotle. By contrast, Cicero’s philosophical allegiance to Academic skepticism limits Isocrates’s exemplarity: he is a pedagogical model rather than a practical or philosophical one, Viidebaum argues. With the rise of the so-called new Atticists, Cicero engages Isocrates again and Lysias, too, insisting on not one but many Attic styles; furthermore, if to be Attic is to style oneself after only one Attic orator, then one would be silly to choose Lysias (as certain young orators seemed keen to do) over Demosthenes.

The final two chapters situate us in On the Ancient Orators, where Dionysius of Halicarnassus forges what Viidebaum calls the “double axis of literary-critical analysis” (182) toward which she has been driving. She focuses on Dionysius’s treatments of Lysias and Isocrates, which bear agonistically animated traces of Plato’s Phaedrus. Through Lysias, the first rhētōr in his line-up, Dionysius “sketches out the terminology of style that he adopts for all following essays and introduces his critical method to rhetoric” (210). Lysias acts as a template. The key quality Dionysius attributes to Lysias’s speech is charis (charm), and it seems designed to appeal to the sensibilities of Roman readers. Viidebaum dares another bold suggestion when she considers whether Dionysius was drawn to Lysias because he sees parallels in their shared status as outsiders in the respective power-centers of their days.

The study concludes with Dionysius’s essay on Isocrates, wherein Dionysius names Isocrates a practitioner of “true philosophy” while calling him a rhētōr throughout. On the one hand, his both-and quality was conferred upon Isocrates in Phaedrus; on the other hand, the modifier “true” seems to have attitude. Writing in Rome for Romans, Dionysius presents an Isocrates whose philosophy produced logoi and students oriented toward public matters of shared concern. What Isocrates’s logoi lack in Lysian charm they make up for in substance (including the fact that they made Isocrates very rich), displaying a philosophical mode more ancient than those represented in the then-current philosophical schools. That Dionysius mentions Lysias throughout his essay on Isocrates warrants Viidebaum’s overall contention that the two are complements in Dionysius’s estimation. They are the “crucial pillar[s]” of the rhetorical tradition Dionysius establishes (214).

Thanks to a joint initiative between Cambridge University Press and the Cambridge Faculty of Classics, Creating the Ancient Rhetorical Tradition is open access. This book is a must-read for anyone wrestling with Plato’s relationship with rhetoric (a perennial vexation), anyone intrigued by Lysias’s unlikely tenacity (a minor feeling, perhaps), anyone longing for Isocrates to be taken seriously (a periodic desire), or anyone who has decided they can no longer put off reading more about Dionysius of Halicarnassus (an increasingly popular judgment). Scholars curious about what relationships obtain among “tradition,” “reception,” “transmission,” and “canon” will find all four terms throughout the book, but their interactions and mutual reliance are not a focus—an invitation rather than a disappointment. The most insistent question that emerged for this reader was: what would it mean, for my teaching and scholarship about the history of rhetoric, if a simple Platonic synkrisis that endured over centuries yielded the ancient rhetorical tradition? It is a question I have enjoyed thinking about, and I trust others will, too.


[1] Viidebaum closely engages with Andrea Nightingale’s work, but not that of Christopher Moore, whose more recent book, Calling Philosophers Names (BMCR 2020.09.55), features a chapter on Isocrates (Chapter 7) that reads well with Viidebaum’s arguments. It could well be that the book emerged too late for Viidebaum to incorporate it.