Sunday, January 13, 2019


Gabriele Flamigni, Presi per incantamento: teoria della persuasione socratica. Philosophica, 19. Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2017. Pp. xxi, 117. ISBN 9788846750532. €14,00 (pb).

Reviewed by David J. Murphy, New York (

Version at BMCR home site

In this clear and well-written book, which had its genesis in a course on the historical Socrates taught by Maria Michela Sassi, the author delves into Plato's portrayal of Socrates as persuader and, as it were, as theorist of persuasion.1 At the center of Flamigni's analysis is the image of ἐπῳδή, "incantation" or "enchantment," as a metaphor for persuasion. Flamigni begins with Socrates' story in the Charmides of a "Thracian doctor of Zalmoxis," who recommends ἐπῳδαί, "beautiful discourses" or "arguments," λόγοι (157a4‒5), as means of healing the soul. The imagery of magic, music and seduction encapsulated in ἐπῳδή conveys the power of discourse to change our beliefs and actions. Flamigni traces this theme from poets and medical writers through so-called sophists to Plato's early and middle dialogues. In particular, he recurs to Gorgias as a foil. Plato fashions philosophical ἐπῳδή around a core of truth, explicitly pushing against Gorgias' rhetorical ἐπῳδή, which, by producing pleasure, can deceive (cf. Encomium of Helen 10). Our principal new takeaway from Flamigni's study lies in his analysis of how philosophical ἐπῳδή extends beyond the Socratic elenchus, with which interpreters of the Charmides have tended to identify it, to include other discourses that address the whole soul, moving emotions and motivating habits and actions. Overall, the book forces us to think comprehensively about persuasion as Plato characterizes it in two disciplines to which, as far as we can tell, he gave their distinct conceptual shape: "rhetoric" and the practice of "the philosopher."

Flamigni declares that he confines his "Socrates" to the character in Plato (p. 11 n. 1). Although a few references to Xenophon sprinkle the volume (though not to the second appearance of ἐπῳδή in the Memorabilia, sc. II.6.10‒14, cf. 6.31), ἐπῳδαί | ἐπᾴδειν are absent from our remains of other Socratics. Because we cannot rule it out that Xenophon is repackaging Plato (Simmias and Cebes are recipients of ἐπῳδαί in both authors), I suspect we indeed have only Plato, not the historical Socrates, to thank for ἐπῳδή as an image of philosophical discourse.

In her Preface, "Socrates: Persuasione ed emozione" (pp. vii‒xxi), Sassi draws on her years of work on the historical Socrates.2 Recalibrating a 2017 paper, she supplements Flamigni by confronting the chasm between the historical Socrates and the Platonic character. Sassi posits that eschatological myth, the emotional effects of which Flamigni traces, is Plato's invention and foreign to the discourse of the historical Socrates (pp. viii‒ix). She expounds devices in the Socratic literature that also, like the ἐπῳδή, address less cognitive aspects of ourselves: Socrates' divine sign, varied effects of his elenchos in other Socratics as well as in Plato, and fictive speeches like the Laws' speech in the Crito. All these help direct the power of philosophical discourse to elicit two ethically significant emotions: erotic love and shame.

After the Introduction and Ringraziamenti, Flamigni in Chapter One situates the ἐπῳδή within Socrates' nascent relationship with Charmides. He traces how it serves as a metaphor for Socratic discourses through which that youth, if willing, may progress toward σωφροσύνη, which Flamigni translates as "health of mind." Flamigni explains the literal sense of ἐπῳδή as a "singing over" someone or something to bind it to the singer's will. To cure Charmides' headache, Socrates prescribes a leaf and an incantation, ἐπῳδή (Chrm. 155e5‒6). Because Socrates first extols holistic medicine that evokes Hippocratic theory, and then attributes to the Thracian doctor the requirement that one be σώφρων if the leaf and incantation are to do their work, Flamigni points out that Socrates actually prescribes two ἐπῳδαί, one to generate the virtue and one to accompany the leaf (pp. 16‒17). Drawing on Pedro Laín Entralgo, Christopher Faraone, G. E. R. Lloyd, and others, Flamigni presents interesting material on similarities and differences between Hippocratic medicine and older, religio-magical traditions of healing. This is followed by a survey of appearances of ἐπῳδή in Greek before Plato.3 Although the connection of each piece of this information to rhetorical and Socratic persuasion as Plato depicts them is not always obvious, Flamigni sets the stage for showing how the magical and musical connotations latent in the Platonic metaphor reveal powers of Socratic persuasion that transcend those properly belonging to argumentation.

The focus in Chapter Two falls on ἐπῳδή as a metaphor of λόγος in Gorgias' Encomium of Helen and in Plato. Flamigni argues plausibly that, because what is attributed to rhetoric in Plato's Gorgias dovetails with much that is said in Gorgias' own work, the dialogue justly criticizes the actual Gorgias: rhetoric is no art like medicine, but a knack like cookery, and it makes practitioner and audience worse by obscuring truth. Flamigni concludes that, although rhetoric as defined in the Gorgias shares affinities with Socratic persuasion, fundamental opposition between rhetor and philosopher entails that the ἐπῳδή metaphor does not transmit the same content in each. The Phaedrus, though, seems to qualify that conclusion. If rhetoric should become corrected along lines that Socrates proposes, it would stop producing bad fruit (260c-d), so that it would deserve to be called an art and could be comparable to medicine after all, really healing souls. If rhetoric did undergo correction, however, argues Flamigni, it would become "denatured," no longer rhetoric but simply justice, just as a healthy but unpalatable diet would not be the work of cookery anymore but of medicine. Therefore, Flamigni concludes, ἐπῳδαί such as Socrates promises in the Charmides are not rhetoric, for they are true medicine, and it is not (pp. 48‒49). I am not persuaded that Socrates in the Gorgias denies that a rhetoric turned toward justice is still rhetoric, for he envisions such a rhetoric (480b‒c, 527c3‒4).

In Chapter Three, Flamigni seeks to identify the point of overlap on which Gorgianic and Socratic persuasion in the face of their fundamental differences can both be called ἐπῳδή. The overlap lies in the capacity of speech to affect our emotions and thus, to move us to actions and patterns of life. Following Franco Trabattoni and others, Flamigni makes perceptive observations about Socrates' ability in the Phaedo through myth to calm the fear of death of the "child" inside Simmias and Cebes, when arguments for the immortality of the soul pass muster but yet fail to assuage all their misgivings. Socrates tells them that after his death, it will be necessary for them to "enchant/charm," ἐπᾴδειν, that inner child until they quit the fear of death (77e‒78a). Flamigni finds in the Phaedo and Phaedrus two further capacities that give this double-barreled Socratic discourse the edge over bare disquisition in addressing our deep emotions. First, because conducted one-on-one, Socratic dialogue draws the interlocutor to participate in the argument and construct understanding actively, while Gorgianic discourse only manipulates the emotions of passive recipients, usually a crowd. Second, unlike the Gorgianic speaker, the Socratic speaker assesses the listener's character and situation, so as to tailor speech to the soul. Hence we have two senses of persuasion and two kinds of ἐπῳδή. In the rhetorical, the listener is led to believe what is said; in the Socratic or philosophical, the interlocutor is persuaded to assume an active rôle in constructing knowledge (pp. 66‒69).

In Chapter Four, from his definition of philosophical persuasion, Flamigni seeks to "decipher" the meaning of Socratic ἐπῳδή. He analyzes it under three aspects: magical spell (prestigio), seduction, and habitual way or routine (abitudine). What unites these three is Socrates' connection of ἐπῳδή to the persuasive capacity of λόγος. Under "magical spell" falls destructive Socratic elenchus, which is a "pre-incantation" because it seeks to purify the soul of a false conceit of knowledge (pp. 77‒78). By exposing the interlocutor's inconsistent beliefs, the elenchus engenders shame, salutary in those who continue with Socrates but felt as a stimulus to departure by others, like Alcibiades. Thus, to persuade the interlocutor to submit to further, positive elenctic examination, Socrates calibrates the emotive stimulants needed to "seduce," using myth, poetry, speeches—whatever will hook the interlocutor. Socrates addresses emotions for a second reason, too. Applying insights from Pierre Hadot and Laura Candiotto, Flamigni argues that teaching ethical truth cannot prescind from an appeal to both centers of motive power in the soul, reason and emotion, since rational comprehension alone is not enough to generate a virtuous life. Flamigni resists the conclusion of Auguste Diès and others, however, that such discourse amounts to a philosophical rhetoric, for Flamigni denies that rhetoric as such seeks moral ends. Instead, the philosopher uses rhetorical instruments in his pedagogical method to try to seduce the interlocutor toward views, the truth of which the philosopher is convinced but which he knows he cannot bring forth with arguments alone (p. 94‒96). Finally, the "ἐπῳδή every day" stipulation (Chrm. (176b2‒4), Phdo. 77e8‒9) points to the need for dialogue to be repeated constantly if the recipient is to develop habits of thought and action. Flamigni wants to link the musical element of traditional ἐπῳδή to Socratic persuasion by reminding us of music's educative rôle in the Republic and Laws. I find the connection tenuous, however, between actual music and earlier dialogues' metaphor of ἐπῳδή―or even, of music (Phdo. 61a3‒4)—for philosophy.

In regard to the last, I do not know on what theory Flamigni states that music is important "to Socrates' thought and, to an even greater degree, to Plato's" (p. 101), as though suddenly we confront a chasm after all between Socrates—whether historical or fictional we do not know—and the author whose literary construction constitutes the character. This statement problematizes Flamigni's pledge not to distinguish in Plato's dialogues between affirmations of Socratic stamp and those of Platonic (p. 11 n. 1). Because Flamigni often treats characters' utterances as expressions of authorial views, we need to know the assumptions on which such inferences are based.

A researcher into an ancient author need not also act as critic, but I would have appreciated evaluation of at least two aspects of Plato's representation of persuasion. First, Flamigni often takes Plato as presenting the philosopher as a teacher of truth (cf. e.g. pp. 70‒71, 79, 94). Since the philosopher only draws from what the interlocutor says and plies such arguments as are "sufficient" to persuade (p. 71), Flamigni's account leaves it unclear how the ἐπῳδή can achieve that goal. Flamigni only gestures at this problem when he says that the philosopher tries to bring the interlocutor "to opinions, the truth of which he [sc. philosopher] is profoundly convinced" (p. 95). Second, because the notion of rhetoric before us is drawn from Gorgias' writings (of which only display pieces survive) and from Plato's reconstruction of his thought, Flamigni says little about forensic oratory beyond summarizing Socrates' criticisms, and nothing about deliberative oratory. In my view, branding eikos arguments as "lies" in Phaedrus 273b‒c is unfair and myopic, especially since a crime may lack witnesses. But a critique of Plato would have made for a different book.

Occasionally, one misses explication of bold statements (e.g. "truth is an attribute of the soul and not of discourses," p. 69) or page references of quotations (e.g. pp. 89, 91). We get bibliography, index of notable concepts, and index of names, though I wished for an index of passages. I noticed only one incorrect citation (Xenophon, M. "I.11.16" should be "I.1.11", p. 65) and one typo ("Carmine should be "Carmide", p. 79). These omissions are minor in a treatment that offers rich rewards to students of fourth-century dialectic and rhetoric. We look forward to more from this promising scholar.


1.   Translations from Italian are my own. I thank Elizabeth K. Farren for suggestions about prestigio.
2.   See Sassi's Indagine su Socrate. Persona filosofo cittadino (Torino, 2015).
3.   Flamigni might have mentioned midwives' ἐπῳδαί (Tht. 149d1) and ἐπαγωγή as "enchantment, spell" (LSJ s.v. 4.b, cf. Lg. 933d7).

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