Tuesday, December 15, 2015


James Henderson Collins II, Exhortations to Philosophy: The Protreptics of Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv, 300. ISBN 9780199358595. $74.00.

Reviewed by Diego De Brasi, Philipps-Universität Marburg and Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study (debrasi@staff.uni-marburg.de/ddebrasi@nd.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


In the last decades scholarship has increasingly stressed the importance of literary aspects in Plato's dialogues.1 James Collins' inspiring book attempts to develop such literary readings by taking into consideration the educational context of the dialogues and focusing on protreptic as an emergent literary genre in 4th-century BC Athens. His argument is based on a simple and yet often underestimated characteristic of Athenian culture: at the latest since the expansion of the sophistic movement,2 philosophers and educators competed as 'sellers' in the 'marketplace of ideas' (passim) and tried to persuade students that they were the best teachers. Beginning with this assumption, Collins explores the strategies and mechanisms used by the best representatives of the protreptic genre —Plato and Isocrates—in order to undermine the claims of their rivals and argue for their own 'superiority' in educational matters. He argues especially that the techniques of Plato and Isocrates show how protreptic was still a developing genre at this time, and how both Plato and Isocrates attempted to absorb and replace other literary genres.

The book is simply and efficiently structured. After an Introduction, in which different theories of genre are examined and protreptic is defined, Collins analyzes at length Plato's Euthydemus and Protagoras as well as Isocrates' Against the Sophists, Cyprian discourses, To Demonicus, Antidosis and Panathenaicus. In the epilogue he focuses on Aristotle's Protrepticus as a more rigid example of protreptic. In the following discussion I will focus only on some aspects of his thorough analysis.

Beginning with etymology, Collins defines protreptic as conversion, since the exhortatory movement implied in the verb προτρέπω ('urge on, impel') is often—or, more radically, always—linked to the abandoning of previous opinions and ways of life (apotreptic, cf. ἀποτρέπω, 'turn away from'). However, it soon becomes clear that the author aims at a broader examination of ancient and modern genre theory in order to highlight the versatility of protreptic at its beginning. Collins sets out four characteristics of protreptic (17-18). According to him protreptic is: (a) dialogic, in the sense that it 'always contains the voices of its competition'; (b) agonistic; (c) situational; and (d) rhetorical. Furthermore, he implicitly argues via a discussion of theories of genre in Aristotle (especially the Rhetoric), Francis Cairns and Mikhail Bakhtin that, in order to interpret protreptic as genre, we must consider genre not as a strictly codified category (as Cairns does), but as a situational, always-fluctuating discourse about situations, that is capable of absorbing elements from other established genres (i.e. as Bakhtin does).3

The first part of the study is dedicated to Plato. Collins deals here with various aspects of Plato's literary technique and highlights, especially in his analysis of the Euthydemus, how, according to Plato, philosophy consists both of reasoning and emotional involvement (54 n. 2 and 59). In particular, the analysis of Plato's staging of the Euthydemus shows how two processes contribute to a more lively depiction of Socratic protreptic and apotreptic. The first is Plato's use of different, interwoven levels of action, i.e. the extradiegetic frame, in which Socrates discusses with Crito Euthydemus' and Dionysodorus' 'performance', and the intradiegetic dialogue, which this performance represents. In this context it is argued, for example, that Socrates' depiction of the intradiegetic level within the extradiegetic frame reveals that Crito (and the reader with him) participates as a spectator in a performance, but is led by Socrates' description to look at this performance from a biased point of view.4 The second is Plato's portrayal of the dialogue's characters. Thus, for example, Socrates' reference to Euthydemus' and Dionysodorus' previous athletic careers (271c-276d) should be interpreted as a hint about their incapacity to properly protrepticize (78-9). Acknowledging Socrates' 'ventriloquism', i.e. his ability to integrate the points of view of his competitors into his own protreptic discourse, leads further to an examination of the reasons why the use of apotreptic in a protreptic discourse is important. Collins detects four main motives: "(1) to differentiate the targets and methods of competitors; (2) to inform the consumers of costs; (3) to question the quality of what the competition has to offer; and (4) to influence consumers to identify its activities with a questionably appealing experience or personality" (84). Notable is also the analysis of the formal features of Socratic protreptic, which are "adaptability, an operative psychological account, the establishment of a range and hierarchy of goods, and a rhetoric of usefulness which differentiates other activities . . . from philosophy" (89). Here some intriguing intertextual comparisons of sometimes questionable plausibility are suggested. For example, it could be true that Plato lets Socrates reverse the language of the ephebic oath in the Apology (29d-e);5 but does the context in which Cleinias concurs with Socrates that the practice of philosophy is a necessary task for human beings (Euthyd. 282d) really suggest that he takes an oath comparable to the ephebic one (93-7)? On the other side, Collins is absolutely right in pointing out that in the Euthydemus Plato castigates 'something far worse' than the written word criticized in the Phaedrus, namely 'public speech that has the same deficiencies as the written word' (100), and in this implicitly condemns Alcidamas' criticism of written speeches.

The treatment of the Protagoras is considerably less thorough than that of the Euthydemus, but it presents similar strengths and weaknesses. It is quite appealing to interpret this dialogue not so much as an example of protreptic, but as a depiction of the processes in which consumers are involved after they have been successfully protrepticized. But it is not obvious—as suggestive as it might be—how Plato 'mapped' onto both Protagoras and Socrates what Collins, following Martin, calls the 'sibship function' recognizable in Hesiod's depiction of the quarrel between his own persona and that of his brother Perses in the Works and Days (163-6).

The brief remarks on the Clitophon are also a welcome analysis of Plato's literary technique. Nonetheless one would have expected at least a mention in a footnote that the authenticity of this dialogue is (still) highly debated.

The second, much shorter part of the book focuses on Isocrates. The author rightly claims that, in spite of still common 'misrepresentations' of his works, the works of Isocrates should be considered as 'perhaps the most successful example[s] of philosophical protreptic' (172), whose originality consists in his use of protreptic as an instrument propagating an idea of philosophy as 'a review . . . and a "rediscovery" of ancient learning in modern times' (176). Thus, in Collins' analysis, Against the Sophists represents the place where Isocrates distances himself from his competitors by revealing their over-confidence and greed, and by stressing his own peculiar approach to education. Isocrates' addresses to the young kings Nicocles (Nicocles, To Nicocles) and Demonicus (To Demonicus) are, instead, the best examples of his protreptic art. Indeed, these are complex texts in which Isocrates not only speaks to multiple audiences, but uses multiple literary devices. Especially persuasive is the treatment of Isocrates' engagement with epic and didactic poetry: Collins highlights how in his depiction of Evagoras' deeds Isocrates integrates elements of poetic genres in order to differentiate himself from his rivals. In other words: through his artful combination and reshaping of epic and prosaic elements in his rhetorical praise of Nicocles' father, Isocrates implicitly shows his readers that he—differently from some private persons and especially from his competitors—has understood and can teach successfully the difference between praise and reproach (197-206). Finally Antidosis and Panathenaicus are examined. These orations are Isocrates' energetic reshaping of his own protreptic method through both a scrutiny of his rhetorical discourse and educational intent (Antidosis), and a staged example of dialogical collaboration between him and his students (Panathenaicus). However, the Antidosis also shows the failure of Isocrates' educational program and its possible causes.6

The study closes with a brief examination of Aristotle's Protrepticus, based on the reconstruction of the text offered by D. S. Hutchinson and M. R. Johnson. Collins' main point here is that, although Aristotle is in some way introducing the voices of his competitors in the discussion, he never explicitly uses other genres in order to enrich the literary quality of his protreptic. In fact, Collins shares Werner Jaeger's opinion that Aristotle's dialogues are better understood to be the juxtaposition of arguments constrained in a 'scientific style of demonstration and confliction' (263). Furthermore, he offers a possible sociological explanation for the crystallization of protreptic with and after Aristotle, namely the introduction of a more or less institutionalized educational system in Athens at the end of the 4th century BC.

A bibliography, an index locorum and an index of subjects round up the book. A few typos should be noted: 'protopetics' for 'protreptics' (80); ωφέλιμον for ὠφέλιμον (88); ανατρεπτικοί for ἀνατρεπτικοί (91 n. 48); 'Lykurgos, Leokrates 1.76-78 76-77' for (presumably) 'Lykurgos, Leokrates 1.76-78'; ἡμῖν for ὑμῖν (128 quoting Euthyd. 291c); 'predominately' for 'predominantly' (172); 'Serrres' for 'Serres' (280). Some footnotes must have been misplaced, e.g. n. 18 at p. 73,7 and n. 3 at p. 172.8

Notwithstanding these qualms, Collins' book is an altogether welcome contribution to our understanding of the cultural context in which Plato's philosophy originated.


1.   Cf. for example A. W. Nightingale, Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy, Cambridge 1995; A. Michelini (ed.), Plato as Author: The Rhetoric of Philosophy, Leiden and Boston 2003; M. Erler, Platon, (Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie begründet von F. Ueberweg, Völlig neu bearbeitete Ausgabe. Die Philosophie der Antike, 2/2), Basel 2007, 60-98; A. Capra, Plato's Four Muses. The Phaedrus and the Poetics of Philosophy, Cambridge and London 2014; and, with a different approach, T. A. Szlezák, Platon lesen, Stuttgart 1993 and M. Migliori, Il disordine ordinato: la filosofia dialettica di Platone, 2 vols., Brescia 2013 (see BMCR 2014.08.40).
2.   In his introduction, however, he briefly examines Hesiod's Works and Days and the fragments of Parmenides as examples of "earlier protreptic configuration" (7-16).
3.   F. Cairns, Generic composition in Greek and Roman poetry, Edinburgh 1972; M. Bakhtin, The dialogic imagination: Four essays, Austin 1981; Id. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Minneapolis 1984; Id. Speech genres and other late essays, Austin 1986.
4.   He argues for example that Socrates' 'peristrophic' (all-embracing) prologue aims at a destabilization of "the setting and roles for performing wisdom" (75).
5.   Nevertheless Collins' interpretation seems still one-sided. Why should we not consider the more apparent intertextual relationship with defensive rhetorical strategies? Besides, Socrates speaks in the Apology as a seventy year old man accused of corrupting Athenian youth, while the ephebic oath was taken by young boys at the beginning of their civic 'career'.
6.   These are identifiable with: (1) stubbornness and ineptness on the side of the student; (2) the caprice of the uneducated crowd; (3) 'the jealousy of slanderous rivals'; (4) the influence of popular poetry on political debates; and (5) Isocrates' own shortcomings in his protreptic attempts (238).
7.   Collins refers to the analysis of erotic dialogue in S. Goldhill and S. von Reden, "Plato and the Performance of Dialogue" in Performance-Culture and Athenian Democracy, ed. by S. Goldhill and R. Osborne, Cambridge 1999, 257-89. But he describes something which is only loosely related to erotic in the Euthydemus. Besides, erotic dialogue is not the focus of Goldhill's and von Reden's argument.
8.   In the main text a passage from S. Halliwell, "Philosophical Rhetoric or Rhetorical Philosophy? The Strange Case of Isocrates" in The Rhetoric Canon, ed. by B. Schildgen, Detroit 1997, 107-25 is quoted. The reference in the note, however, is to J. Ober, "I, Socrates. . . The Performative Audacity of Isocrates' Antidosis" in Isocrates and Civic Education, ed. by T. Poulakos and D. Depew, Austin 2004, 21-43 (erroneously mentioning p. 109!).

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