Thursday, January 5, 2012


Casper C. de Jonge, Between Grammar and Rhetoric: Dionysius of Halicarnassus on Language, Linguistics and Literature. Mnemosyne, Supplements 301. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2008. Pp. xiii, 456. ISBN 9789004166776. $192.00.

Reviewed by Nancy Worman, Barnard College, Columbia University (

Version at BMCR home site


Casper de Jonge makes two important methodological distinctions in the introduction to his monograph on Dionysius. The first one follows on some choice quotations from German scholars, who dismiss Dionysius as a "small soul," "poor journeyman," and one of the "ignorant parlor readers" (4). De Jonge suggests that, rather than assuming his failure as a literary critic from his criticisms of such distinctive ancient stylists as Thucydides and Plato, we assess Dionysius' work in a manner more in keeping with his own conventions and theories. This approach attempts to reconstruct ancient intellectual contexts, as opposed to assuming that the individual theorist should be judged on his ability to answer modern questions. Those not very familiar with this particular ancient theorist might find this a rather obvious move. But, as de Jonge points out, scholarship on Dionysius has been until recently almost uniformly dismissive; and he has been valued when at all primarily for his preservation of fragments of texts otherwise lost to us. De Jonge's study of Dionysius' linguistic and literary theories does much to address this wrong. De Jonge's second methodological clarification dovetails nicely with this approach, since it looks to situate Dionysius' discourse within the larger context of contemporary and earlier uses of the terminology he deploys. This allows him to pursue a broader set of interconnections than can be had from traditional Quellenforschung. He combines this attention to discourse with some careful historical contextualization, so that the reader is made aware of Dionysius' intellectual context and the individual players in it.

Although the book is framed as a study of language and literature, de Jonge spends more space and effort on the linguistics questions than on the strictly literary ones. Thus Chapter 2 takes up Dionysius' ideas on the nature of language, while Chapters 3 and 4 assess his handling of grammatical theory. Chapter 5 addresses a broader set of connections among philosophy, grammar, and rhetoric, but includes a detailed analysis of word order in Thucydides. Chapter 6 considers the question of how prose and poetry differ stylistically, which leads further outward to interconnections among poetic, musical, and rhetorical theories. Chapter 7 returns to a rather technical question, that of how Dionysius makes use of the theoretical technique of metathesis to illustrate his literary critical analyses. A brief general conclusion follows.

De Jonge first addresses a general question (ch. 2), which is what language itself means to Dionysius (e.g., his views on the parts of language and on how words relate to things). As he cautions, most statements that scholars have taken to speak to a philosophy of language are embedded in Dionysius' rhetorical discussions, and thus may not generalize well or be easily combined to outline an overall theory. One of the great benefits of de Jonge's approach to Dionysius is that it heightens awareness of the extent of Dionysius' scholarly exposure and the adept ways in which he handles his source materials. His emphasis on understanding Dionysius' statements both within the larger intellectual context and within the context of the particular passage facilitates a better understanding of his approach to the relationship between words and things. Rather than assuming, as many readers of passages in On Composition have, that Dionysius is not sufficiently aware of the complexities of his source text—that he is just discussing a topic piecemeal, patching together parts of arguments from elsewhere—de Jonge carefully sorts out the different ways in which Dionysius uses terms, arguing that they are usually specific to his given topic but with ramifications for his broader project. Most importantly, Dionysius does not emerge as a theorist who is advancing strong claims about the natural or conventional sources of words; rather, he argues for sensitivity to verbal aesthetics, such as onomatopoetic words and those that have attractive sounds and rhythms.

In chapter 3 de Jonge outlines the eclectic influences on Dionysius' handling of the parts of speech, emphasizing not only the Stoic background but also the influence of other Alexandrian literary critics. He points out in the introduction to this chapter that Dionysius was a rhetorician rather than a grammarian, which encourages him also to look more broadly at poetic criticism and philosophy in order to understand fully the ways in which Dionysius shapes his grammatical theory. To be honest, the opening discussions in this chapter did not seem to me to be so different in approach from traditional source criticism, although de Jonge does attempt to sustain an emphasis on intellectual contexts rather than individuals. The remainder of the chapter attempts to sort out Dionysius' terminology and classification system, while arguing that as a rhetorician he is less interested in systematic exactitude than in what grammar can contribute to rhetorical theory and criticism.

Thus in chapter 4 de Jonge sets forth what Dionysius' handling of the parts of speech contributes not only to the history of linguistics but also to composition and style. As in chapter 3, de Jonge's focus on parts of speech means that much of this discussion concerns the treatise On Composition. De Jonge's treatment of how the ear functions in Dionysius' assessments of good composition is particularly useful and engaging for scholars interested in style and poetics. De Jonge points to other theorists who emphasize the ear's role in this regard, particularly the Hellenistic critics and Cicero, but also Demetrius and Theophrastus. An emphasis on the senses more generally is quite common from the Peripatetics on, but de Jonge makes a good case for thinking that the kritikoi would have been particularly influential during the period in which Dionysius was writing, since some of them held very extreme views on the importance of sensory effects (and particularly sound) over meaning. Dionysius' sensitivity to aural effects and thus to a certain musicality can be felt in many of his discussions of stylistic effects, but both here and in a later discussion of musicality (ch. 6) de Jonge does not discuss the topic in more general relationship to modes of expression and composition or in relation to Dionysius' other treatises.

In fact, de Jonge's focus in these chapters on the treatise On Composition can lead to a certain myopia, particularly in his understanding of how Dionysius handles stylistic concerns more generally. De Jonge largely avoids discussing an essay crucial for this topic, namely On Demosthenes, which shows the extent to which "styles of composition" (charaktêres suntheseôs) and "styles of expression" (charaktêres lexeôs) overlap. De Jonge claims that these are completely distinct (204), but this treatise reveals frequent confluences in the adjectives that Dionysius uses to describe styles of both composition and expression—so that, for instance, cognates indicating softness and pleasantness (e.g., malaxai / malakê; hêdunai / hêdeia) turn up in discussions of "smooth" (litê) expression and "polished" (glaphura) composition (Dem. 2 and 40). In addition, the third terms in both categories—"well-blended (eukratos) composition" and "mixed (miktê) expression"—obviously fall together conceptually; and On Demosthenes indicates that Dionysius may employ the second term (miktê) for both (compare Dem. 3 and 41). That said, this is not a central point of de Jonge's discussion, and emphasizing differences between the two tripartite systems encourages clarity on a complex topic.

De Jonge somewhat remedies his overdependence on On Composition in Chapter 5, which opens with an illuminating discussion of "natural style." Looking across a number of important treatises, including On Demosthenes, de Jonge distinguishes among the notions of natural (phusikos / -ê) that Dionysius employs in his discussions. Early on he uses the term to mean something like "plain" style, such as that of Lysias, while later the term takes on a more philosophical cast, informed by ideas about natural order. In relation to the stylistic categories, a nice paradox arises, which is that the phusikê style is a product of art (technê). In addition, characteristics such as "plain and simple" and "following natural order" can quite obviously intersect; as de Jonge rightly points out, Dionysius identifies Lysias with both, and sometimes even indicates how a style that comes across as just a direct expression of thought without elaboration might seem to follow the natural order of things.

The next chapter (6) is more expansively engaged with the intersection of rhetoric and poetic or musical theory. Still focusing primarily on On Composition, de Jonge sets Dionysius' ideas about good prose and poetry in the context of classical and Hellenistic thought on rhetoric and poetry, emphasizing his differences with Aristotle and likely agreement with the kritikoi. De Jonge thereby frames one of the most interesting stylistic puzzles in Dionysius: why do his works on the orators follow Aristotle and disparage the poeticizing style of Gorgias (e.g.), while his study of composition demonstrates how prose might be like good poetry? De Jonge thinks that the important distinction for Dionysius is the imitating of good poetry, but I am not sure that this resolves much. While de Jonge is right to emphasize Dionysius' attention to aesthetic effect, to pleasing the ear like good poetry or music, the subject matter of On Composition versus that of the studies of orators may also have influenced his apparent vacillation. That is, when addressing aspects of composition, Dionysius focuses on word placement and thereby sound and rhythm, which seem to be aspects of style that may pleasingly approximate--though not exactly replicate--poetic effects (e.g., assonance, meter). When, on the other hand, he is addressing other aspects of style such as vocabulary and the use of figures, he takes a more Aristotelian line and condemns usage that appear too poetic. De Jonge indicates some awareness of this difference at the end of this section (360-61), when he identifies the focus on composition as what leads Dionysius to embrace poetic effects.

De Jonge's final chapter discusses the method of metathesis, the rearrangement of words to demonstrate how composition affects stylistic impact. This picks up on the discussion of natural style in chapter 5, but here he sets this "language experiment" in the larger context of earlier theorists who deploy it in order to investigate the effect of poetric versus prose usage and/or different styles. De Jonge argues that Dionysius' approach shares features with those of Hellenistic critics such as Philodemus but also goes well beyond these, demonstrating this claim by means of some useful examples. He also points out that, except in the highly didactic On Composition, Dionysius tends to deploy metathesis in order to highlight stylistic faults rather than virtues. This difference is important, according to de Jonge, as it draws a line between an instructional treatise like On Composition and the critical studies of the orators.

The book has a brief conclusion summarizing the arguments made in each chapter. The labored quality of de Jonge's presentation of his material is very apparent here, as it is at transitions between chapters and sections, where he often prepares the reader for what is to come and then reiterates this at the outset of the new discussion. This is likely a result of the study's origin as a dissertation. In any event, such careful articulations certainly contribute to the book's clarity--which is, after all, what Aristotle identifies as the primary stylistic virtue. More importantly, de Jonge's framing and demonstrations of Dionysius' analytic techniques have much to recommend them, since they correct and elucidate many difficult aspects of this under-appreciated theorist. Dionysius emerges not only as an energetic reader of earlier theorists but also as an adept synthesizer of linguistic, literary critical, and philosophical ideas, and thus as someone who forged his own distinctive approach to language and literary effects. While de Jonge is not alone in recent years in reframing Dionysius this way, his book presents many new ways of understanding individual aspects of Dionysius' literary and especially linguistic theory. It should do much to invigorate and advance study of this rich body of work.

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