BMCR 2023.02.19

Promoting a new kind of education: Greek and Roman philosophical protreptic

, Promoting a new kind of education: Greek and Roman philosophical protreptic. International studies in the history of rhetoric, 16. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021. Pp. xvi, 328. ISBN 9789004467231

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Daniel Markovich’s book, Promoting a New Kind of Education, summarizes the major instances of the “exhortation to philosophy” genre from ancient Greek (and Latin) literature (pp. 26–237), and it discusses some of the features shared most prominently among them (pp. 1–25, 238–55). It thereby provides a handy conspectus of extant and fragmentary or recorded protreptic literature from the Socratics and Aristotle through Iamblichus, Themistius, and Boethius, especially their arguments. And it emphasizes the heritage shared by all post-classical authors of the literary protreptics of the fourth century, principally Aristotle’s Protrepticus and several Platonic dialogues, though also Xenophon’s Memorabilia.

As the page-ranges above show, Markovich devotes more than four-fifths of his book to paraphrasing and then glossing or explaining the individual protreptic works themselves. This is the definite core of the project; its goal is certainly not to resolve scholarly conundrums about protreptic literature, or to give close readings of philosophically or textually challenging passages, or to query the works’ efficacy, or to raise other interpretative difficulties. The putative readership of this book might be novices to protreptic literature, who could benefit from the series of overviews; or it might be experts, for whom the copious evidence for shared content across protreptic addresses serves as compelling evidence (with an interesting list at pp. 238–39).

The textual paraphrases receive a special formatting that sets them off from the rest of the work. They include considerable detail, though only footnotes indicate the spans of the original text on which each paragraph or sequence of sentences of paraphrase relies. For a sense of the way this component of the book provides accounts of its reading experience, and for reference, here is a list of summarized texts (note that a page is about 30 lines of main text):

Aeschines, Alcibiades—32 lines
Plato, Apology—43 lines
Plato, Gorgias—39 lines
Plato, Euthydemus—40 lines
[Plato], Alcibiades I—58 lines
[Plato], Clitophon—59 lines
Xenophon, Memorabilia 4.2—41 lines
Aristotle, Protrepticus—more than 5 pages
Epicurus, Menoeceus (excerpts)—16 lines
Philo in Stob. 2.7.2—48 lines (tr., not pph.)
Eudorus in Stob. 2.7—59 lines (tr., not pph.)
Lucretius, DRN 2 and 3 (excerpts)—31 lines
Cicero, Hortensius—67 lines
Cicero, Dream of Scipio—44 lines
Seneca, Letters 14–17, 37, 53—53 lines
Musonius, Discourse 8—46 lines
Epictetus, Discourses 3.22.26–49—15 lines
Dio of Prusa, Oration 13—53 lines
Lucian, Nigrinus—60 lines
Galen, Protreptic to Medicine—65 lines
Clement, Protrepticus—2 pages (tr.) and 5 pages (pph.)
Iamblichus, Protreptic—12 pages
Themistius, Oration 24—30 lines
Boethius, Consolation—5 pages

While accompanying these summaries Markovich often gives biographical or structural detail, he usually does not give distinctive insight into these works, or resolve scholarly or philosophical problems. Given the capacious temporal scale of the project, one might not be able to expect it; nevertheless, this absence does undercut the work’s value to someone who might otherwise be inspired to do a little philosophy or intellectual history on or with these works. This neglect of the hard questions is especially evident in the classical material (pp. 26–90), which provides the framework for the remaining work. I shall focus on several examples of the way the book does so.

It goes unnoted in Promoting a New Kind of Education that three of the Socratic works Markovich discusses as signal protreptics to philosophy—Aeschines’ Alcibiades and the Platonic Alcibiades and Clitophon—do not actually mention the word “philosophy” (contra p. 50) and take justice instead as their primary concern. Recognizing that these are protreptics to justice links them up with the much longer tradition of exhortations to virtue. To be sure, the historical Socrates may have had a cataclysmic effect on sapiential literature (cf. p. 26) through his attention to philosophia and the generic innovations of his associates; yet one might oversell his influence if one ignores contemporary non-Socratic trends in edifying (virtue- or sophia-oriented) literature. (One can see Plato’s Republic as informative in this light: it is the biggest protreptic to justice we know, but it also takes a digression into the importance of philosophy.)

The discussion of Aeschines’ Alcibiades is in another way a missed opportunity (pp. 27–30). Markovich cites no scholarly literature on the dialogue, and the paraphrase is a bit opaque (both are unfortunate since this is the first text to receive Markovich’s analysis). He also does not cite the sources for its fragments and testimonia beyond the SSR fragment numbers. Had he done so, the reader could realize how expansive the influence of this now-neglected dialogue may have been, since it was well known by Aelius Aristides, and probably familiar to Cicero, Athenaeus, Maximus of Tyre, and others. The work is especially interesting for its possibly contrasting sensibility with the works of other Socratics.

Another missed opportunity is the discussion of the Platonic Clitophon (pp. 46–50). At many points later in the volume Markovich acknowledges its enduring importance (pp. 180, 199, 234); yet these pages amount almost exclusively to summary. That’s bizarre, because, as Markovich notes, “the central problem posed by the dialogue is the observation that Socrates fails to take his followers to the very goal that he so effectively exhorts them to reach” (p. 48). (“The lack of paraenetic and didactic content in Socrates’s exhortations is thus one of the typical themes in Socratic writings.”) His attention to that problem takes form in only four sentences, at section’s end (p. 50):

… the short dialogue provides a good starting point for further discussion. As long as it accomplishes that goal, there is no need to join [S.R.] Slings [in his 1999 book on Clitophon] in taking it as a sign of Plato’s aversion to protreptic literature. Is Socrates to be blamed, or is it Clitophon, because he overlooked the hints that Socrates provided in order to help him find answers to his questions for himself? Is it possible for any education to succeed without a substantial component of autodidacticism?

Reasonable questions, but much more must be said here, given the claimed importance of the dialogue. Markovich does not acknowledge the standard scholarly puzzle, that the dialogue does not present Socrates’ response, or reaction, to Clitophon’s charges against him. (Indeed, Markovich really mentions no interpretative scholarship at all except Slings’ book, and there is much recent scholarship that could have helped.) He does not consider the contexts in which Socrates is meant to be giving these “most protreptical and most useful speeches” (Clit. 408c); the importance of the conversational practice and continuous association alluded to in the dialogue; or (thus) the possibility that Socrates is not recommending “autodidacticism” but rather ongoing, open-minded, epistemically humble participation in dialectical inquiry.

Nor does Markovich mention the central dramatic conceit of the dialogue: Clitophon threatens to go study with Thrasymachus, who evidently promises to teach him justice (Clit. 406a, 410d)! This is an astonishing absence. That is for reasons connected to a major absence in this book. Markovich does not elaborate the choice-scenario of prospective students listening (or being imagined to be listening) to protreptic address. Are they being supposed to be choosing philosophy (or justice) rather than some non-philosophical (or non-aretaic) mode of life? Or are they, rather, choosing one approach to philosophy (or justice) rather than another? That is parallel to a novice in medicine choosing between various medical schools, rather than between medicine and (e.g.) navigation. Clitophon presents himself as listening to a number of competing speeches about justice (Clit. 410d). (This is what Glaucon and Adeimantus say for themselves in Republic 2.358a–c.) Clitophon’s speech to Socrates makes sense to the extent that his choice-scenario is the availability of two appealing teachers: Socrates and Thrasymachus.

That classical-era protreptic literature generally depicts contests of protreptic address is the thesis of James Collins’ on-point Exhortations to Philosophy: The Protreptics of Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle (Oxford 2015) (BMCR 2015.12.16, CJ review); and it is hard to see how one could now write about protreptics, seven years later, without confronting that claim. (It would have been helpful had Markovich not ignored Phaedrus and Symposium, two of Plato’s most striking protreptics to philosophy and excellent evidence in further support of Collins’ thesis.) Markovich seems to dismiss Collins’ book in his Introduction by reducing it to the claim that there was a “marketplace” and “advertisements” for philosophy, and stating that “all our sources agree that Socratic recruitment was emphatically different from that of the sophists precisely in that Socrates did not ‘sell his wares,’ as they did” (p. 24). But Collins’ thesis does not depend on a financialized protreptic, and so this criticism is moot.

The failure to countenance the important role intra-philosophical (or intra-pedagogic) competition in protreptic literature thus impoverishes Markovich’s interpretation of the very influential Clitophon; more importantly, it may impoverish his interpretation of the even more influential Protrepticus of Aristotle, the fundamental text—according to Markovich (p. 89)—for the ensuing centuries of protreptic literature. Markovich gives a chapter to this work (pp. 64–90), which it deserves, given the complexity of its content and the challenges to its reconstruction. And yet this discussion is oddly incomplete, in the same way.

The most important reconstruction of the Protrepticus is found in the ongoing work of Doug Hutchinson and Monte Johnson ( Among much else, Hutchinson and Johnson argue that the Protrepticus, known to us from fragments silently incorporated by Iamblichus into his own Protrepticus and other books, was a dialogue between Aristotle, Heraclides of Pontus, and Isocrates. Markovich acknowledges this (p. 67). But he never mentions the signal import of this argument. The import, as Hutchinson and Johnson make amply clear, is that the text depicts three competing views of philosophy, one of which, Aristotle’s, is presented as superior to the others. (Indeed, one of the many pieces of evidence Hutchinson and Johnson appeal to in support of their reconstruction is that fragments of the dialogue give disjointed arguments for philosophy, some of which are not especially Aristotelian in spirit, as we know from his other, esoteric, works; but those un-Aristotelian arguments have fine parallels in Isocrates’ Antidosis and in Heraclides’ Pythagoreanism.) This view is consistent with Collins’ interpretation of Plato’s and Isocrates’ works (he was already influenced by Hutchinson and Johnson in his chapter on Aristotle).

Indeed, not only does Markovich not mention the significance of the argument to the history of protreptic literature; he wants to forgo any confidence that Aristotle’s work was a dialogue or (relatedly) that it unfolds in the order Hutchinson and Johnson have shown it does. Yet his arguments on this point are anemic: that earlier scholars assigned fragments of Aristotle known from Iamblichus to other dialogues; that earlier scholars believed Iamblichus scrambled the order of the fragments; that Iamblichus sometimes changes Plato’s language; and that Iamblichus did not excerpt the entirety of the Protrepticus (p. 67). These arguments are basically irrelevant: Hutchinson and Johnson are taking a more rigorous approach to the reconstruction than earlier scholars have, and slight differences between Iamblichus’ and Aristotle’s texts need not undermine their overall case. That it was a dialogue with three speakers Markovich avers “remains hypothetical” (p. 68)—“no extant reference to Aristotle’s Protrepticus from antiquity describes the work as a dialogue, refers to its characters, or provides any other details that could confirm this hypothesis”; and yet he does not cast doubt on any of the specific evidence Hutchinson and Johnson adduce (p. 77). On this point, I should note that, in his discussion of Iamblichus’ Protrepticus (pp. 207–223), a work that is a “cento […] comprised of excerpts culled from various sources,” Markovich—quite amazingly—not once mentions that Iamblichus converts all of his Platonic excerpts from dialogues to monologue. Of course the fact that Iamblichus de-dialogues Plato does not necessitate that he does the same for Aristotle, though it certainly allows it; what is important is that Markovich’s failure to mention that he does so casts some doubt on his attentiveness to the role of dialogue and agôn in protreptic literature.

There are many other questions about the history of protreptic literature and its role in education that worth discussing, besides the importance of conversation and competition. What type of philosophy does any particular line of protreptic encourage? How philosophical can a line of protreptic be? (Put aside Aristotle’s provocative equivocation in saying that any decision whether to do philosophy requires philosophy, cited approvingly on p. 240; this is more a rhetorical move than a serious claim.) How effective has some protreptic ever really proven to be? How temporally restricted is the tradition of protreptic literature? In general, how ought we to historicize the instances of the genre of protreptic that Markovich has so helpfully accumulated? Promoting a New Kind of Education has rallied some material for us to ask these questions more precisely and with better awareness of the stakes in doing so.