Sunday, August 22, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Christophe Lyle Johnstone, Listening to the Logos: Speech and the Coming of Wisdom in Ancient Greece. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 300. ISBN 9781570038549. $59.95.
Reviewed by Ruth Scodel, The University of Michigan

Table of Contents

This is a study of the interaction of how Greek concepts of wisdom interact with the understanding of speech. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it makes Aristotle its telos, and so considers Greek intellectual history as it leads to Aristotle: after a discussion of Homer, it goes through the Presocratics, the sophists and Socrates, Plato and Isocrates.

It is a good idea for classicists, every once in a while, to read treatments of their texts by smart people who are not classicists, usually colleagues in related fields. They can profit in two very different, indeed opposite, ways: first, sometimes the comparative outsider, with a fresh perspective, can offer insights, solutions to problems, or methods or approach that the community of specialists has missed because it can be very hard to go beyond the questions that have already been defined and endlessly discussed. Second, such books can reveal how the field looks to its neighbors. There is almost always a time lag between disciplines, and even between subfields. The people who work on an area go to conferences with each other and send emails to each other; then they read each other's articles. The rest of us often find out that something important has changed only after a major book appears and has been reviewed, or perhaps when we read job applications. So we sometimes find out that our scholarly neighbors are out of touch with developments in classics, and maybe are encouraged to inform them better. There is always a danger, though, that we can turn ourselves into scholarly police, patrolling our boundaries and looking for mistakes on which to pounce.

All this explains why I thought it would be potentially valuable and fun to read a book about wisdom in Greece by a scholar of rhetoric, but also a little nervous. I am interested particularly in Greek conceptions of practical wisdom, since I aspire to it (sophia I have never hoped for, but I like to think that a certain measure of phronesis has come with middle age). This did not turn out to be the book I expected. Its narrative is basically the old "from mythos to logos" account, which is a disappointment, although I am worried that I have missed something very important. It could be interesting and useful to look single-mindedly for the antecedents of Aristotle's thinking about sophia, phronesis, and speech. Lyric poetry, history, and tragedy could all contribute to an understanding of wisdom and logos. A study of wisdom and speech that does not discuss Solon's poetry and does not mention Herodotus has missed too much. But the book has defined the antecedents of Aristotle largely in the terms of Aristotle's own history of philosophy. So the basic problem seems to be that the book is either too Aristotelian or not Aristotelian enough; it is not clearly directed towards Aristotle as telos, but it allows Aristotle too much implicit control.

The first three chapters, "The Greek Stones Speak: toward an Archaeology of Consciousness" and "Singing the Muses' Song: Myth, Wisdom, and Speech," are the weakest (unless they seem so to me because my own work is closest to the book's concerns here). Johnstone identifies wisdom in early Greek as prescience; it comes directly from the gods. The scholarship on which he relies is scholarship on myth, and he quotes Snell: "Homer's man does yet regard himself as the source of his own decisions."1 He even cites Jaynes as authoritative.2 More recent work from a variety of approaches--for example, Hayden Pelliccia, Arbogast Schmitt, or Christopher Gill--is not cited.3 More important than the mere neglect of recent scholarship, the book missed a real opportunity. There is an abundance of material in Homer for the study of political wisdom, and it is remarkable that it is almost completely inseparable from speech: Homer sometimes represents the failure of wise persuasion, but he does not imagine any practical wisdom that does not manifest itself as persuasive speech.

"Physis, Kosmos, Logos: Presocratics and the Emergence of Nature-Consciousness" looks to this not-very-knowledgeable reader like a fairly routine account of the Presocratics. Things become more interesting with the two chapters on the fifth and fourth centuries. First, Johnstone has one chapter on Socrates and the sophists, another for Plato and Isocrates. In each section, he regards both sides with equal respect. He compares as much as he contrasts. While the sophists have been treated with far more sympathy in recent years than they once were, most accounts still stress the differences between Socrates and the sophists more than the similarities. So these readings are much fresher than those of earlier authors. It also surely helps that these authors belong to the rhetorical tradition, or at least to its prehistory. If the earlier parts of the book rely too much on outdated interpretations, here Johnstone is more at ease, and the scholarship he cites is more up-to-date. I would, especially, recommend the discussion of Isocrates and Plato to students who have trouble understanding why Isocrates is important, and the chapter on Aristotle as an introduction to the relationship between the theoretical and practical.

An epilogue reveals the author's engagement with the project, and perhaps why this reviewer, who has no spiritual side whatever, was not able entirely to share it. Johnstone is evidently deeply in sympathy with Presocratic attempts to locate human reasoning and argument in relation to nature and to ultimate reality. The book is as much as speculative as about practical wisdom, not just because Aristotle has shaped it, because the author cares about it. The book gives a badly distorted account of Homer, but it might be truly inspirational for a reader willing to be inspired by the story of the Greek search for a wisdom that requires the logos.


1.   B. Snell, The Discovery of the Mind, trans. T. G. Rosenmeyer, New York 1982, 20.
2.   J. Jaynes,The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Boston 1976.
3.   H. Pelliccia, Mind, Body, and Speech in Homer and Pindar, Göttingen, 1995 (Hypomenmata 107); C. Gill, Personality in Greek epic, tragedy, and philosophy: the self in dialogue, Oxford 1996; A. Schmitt, Selbtständigket und Abhängigkeit menschlichen Handelns bei Homer: Hermeneutische Untersuchungen zur Psychologie Homers, Mainz 1990.

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