Friday, August 15, 2014


Averil Cameron, Dialoguing in Late Antiquity. Hellenic studies, 65. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2014. Pp. xi, 85. ISBN 9780674428355. $19.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Catherine Conybeare, Bryn Mawr College (

Version at BMCR home site

Towards the end of this brisk essay, Averil Cameron writes, "we tend to forget how enormous and varied was the output of Christian writers in the late antique period" (44). But the "we" is a courtesy to her readers. Cameron herself refuses to forget; and this work—apparently composed as a prolegomenon to a more extensive study—is the latest product of that refusal.

Cameron is taking issue with the notion that dialogue—both as a genre and as a true exchange of ideas—petered out in late antiquity, in the face of the dogmatic certainties and resistance to aporia of Christianity. (Simon Goldhill's introduction to The End of Dialogue in Antiquity is, somewhat unjustly, the whipping boy here.) She argues on the contrary that, in the Greek tradition at any rate, dialogue remains dynamic and ubiquitous well on into the Byzantine period; that if anything, the mirage of orthodoxy made the pursuit of dialogue more urgent; and further, that this ubiquitous literary form has been lamentably neglected.

Her first chapter looks at the continuation of dialogue form from a range of different angles, and poses some of the questions associated with it. How does it relate to other literary forms? To "real" debates? To controversialist strategies? To issues of performativity and intersubjectivity? Is literary/rhetorical analysis appropriate? (Her answer to the last is yes: it grounds the rest of her study.) Her second chapter looks at the relationship between dialogue as a literary form and the "debating culture" (23) of Late Antiquity, though it concludes that interrogating dialogue's relation to "real" debate in any given instance is misguided (37). Her third and final chapter illustrates a little of the vast range covered by dialogues with specific discussion of three: Methodius' Symposium (early fourth century); Theodoret's Eranistes (mid fifth century); and an anonymous dialogue from the Gregentius dossier (probably tenth century, but the dramatic date is pre-Islamic).

As this latter selection of texts will suggest, the focus of this study is—bar the occasional glimpse of Augustine—almost entirely Greek. Even a quote from Tertullian provokes an observation about "the birth of Christian literary dialogues in Greek" (16). I think that the case for the persistence of dialogue in Latin, too, can be made more forcefully than Cameron allows herself to do—Boethius, Anselm, even Abelard don't come out of nowhere—but of course, she is right that no one has yet made it.1

Cameron's work gestures towards a wealth of questions, which will presumably be essayed in the fuller realization of her work on dialogue. What do we mean when we talk about dialogue in late antiquity? She takes here, as she says herself, "a generous definition of dialogue" (59); and surely it is right, not least for polemical purposes, to cast the net as widely as possible. But a more extensive study would need to take on what is meant by the term in specific authors and periods: how, for example, is it to be distinguished from dialectic? (Basil of Caesarea clearly thinks the latter is more combative [quote on p. 3].) If an author claims to be following—or, like Theodoret, eschewing—the style of a Platonic dialogue, what do they seem to consider its salient features? What is the relation between dialogue and pedagogy (glancingly treated as mutually exclusive on p. 36)? What is the relation between a dialogue and, say, the records of a church council?

This last points to another aspect of dialogue. Cameron makes passing reference to the technologies of reading and dissemination developed for church councils and synods, and their possible interrelationship with more literary dialogue production. Dialogue is par excellence the genre on the border lines between the documentary and the literary—a notion Augustine plays with to superb effect in the Cassiciacum dialogues—and a practical, as well as theoretical, explanation of what this means over time would be fascinating. The question does not only arise with respect to the initial recording (actual or fictive) of dialogues: the complexity of the manuscript tradition for Theodoret's Eranistes seems to suggest that dialogues invite dialogue, in written as well as oral form.

A question that runs throughout the book is "whether actual dialogue was possible" (27), when the goal was not to have an open-ended discussion but simply to win: to impose a certain version of Christian truth. The tension between dialogic and authoritarian impulses is never resolved. But one should, I think, take into account how much harder it is to write a dialogue than a simple monologic treatise. The exposition takes far longer; and the effort of thinking oneself into one's opponent's point of view, of imagining objections and queries, is an extraordinary intellectual discipline, even if one fully intends to "win" in the end. The composition of dialogues, or their actual staging—and such events were enormously popular—may grow out of rhetorical training and its contests as much as the philosophical tradition; but they bespeak an effort to recognize an opponent, and to meet his arguments, and the resulting expansion of discursive parameters has been underestimated.

One small complaint. If we are going to pay more attention to dialogues—and of course Cameron is right that we should—may we avoid using "dialogue" as a verb? Or is this the pedantry of a Latinist confronted with Hellenic flexibility?

Overall, and beyond dialogue, Cameron is right that "we still lack an analysis of late antique Christian writing that would do justice to its social dynamism and intellectual and literary force" (5). Literary scholars of late antique texts have not yet picked up the gauntlet of her Sather lectures, published more than 20 years ago as Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire; and now she is throwing down another challenge. We had better bestir ourselves.


1.   The closest—in anglophone scholarship, at any rate—might still be Seth Lerer's Boethius and Dialogue (1985). The recent work of Brian Stock focuses specifically on inner dialogue, but gestures towards the long tradition of Latin dialogue: Cameron cites Augustine's Inner Dialogue (2010), and Stock's essay in the recent tribute to Goulven Madec, Augustin philosophe et pr├ędicateur (2012), is richly suggestive as well.

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