Friday, November 25, 2011

Reasoning/Spirited: Gone Philosophizing

This weekend I'm working on a paper I am supposed to give on Tuesday. Although I outlined it over a week ago, I am still far behind the gun. It is on Plato's views on emotion in the context of the Athenian courtroom. While I was reading, I happened upon this (long) quotation in an essay by Josiah Ober and Barry Strauss [1] and it opened up a whole slew of thoughts unrelated to present topic:
"Demosthenes sets about proving this by point out that in the course of his speech Aiskhines quoted from Euripides' Phoinix, which he had never performed onstage himself. Yet Aiskhines never quoted from Sophocles' Antigone which he had acted many times. So, 'Oh Aiskhines, are you not a sophist...are you not a logographer...since you hunted up [zētēsas] a verse which you never spoke onstage to use to trick the citizens' (19.250)
The argument that underlies Demosthenes' comment says a good deal about Athenian attitudes toward elite useof literary culture. According to Demosthenes, Aiskhines is a sophist because he "hunts up" quotes for a play with which he had no reason to be familiar in order to strengthen his argument. Clearly the average Athenain would not be in a position to search out quotes when he wanted them; if the ordintary citizen ever wanted toquote poetry, he would rely on verses that he had memorized, and his opportunity to memorize tragic poetry was limited" (Ober & Strauss 251).
Although this seems obvious, it had never occurred to me that access to tragic texts might have been limited for much of the Athenian populace. In Book III of the Republic, Plato discusses a number of different passages of poetry. All of them come from the Iliad or the Odyssey and not a single one from tragedy, although the critique here extends explicitly to tragic drama. The choice of those specific passages from the Iliad and the Odyssey is an interesting topic, and one I explore thoroughly in my thesis. However, it had always baffled me  that not a single line of the tragic poets appeared in the text. The quotation above illuminates this question.

It also makes the character of Socrates more believable. Although it seems likely that Plato would have had the ability to seek out (ζητεῖν) quotation from tragedy, Socrates [2] was engaging in conversation and would have to rely on his memory in order to quote. Furthermore, Plato's Socrates is not particularly wealthy (although he has countless wealthy friends and associates) and spends most of his time walking or in conversation, not reading, writing, or researching. As such, he might not even have access to texts of plays and would have to rely on quotations from common knowledge. Thus, the omission of tragic quotation makes the character more believable, even as it renders the critique of tragedy a bit lopsided.

  1. Ober, Josiah and Barry Strauss. "Drama, Political Rhetoric, and the Discourse of Athenian Democracy," Nothing to do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context ed. John J. Winkler & Froma I. Zeitlin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990. pp. 237-270.
  2. Whenever I say Socrates, I mean Plato's character and not the historical Socrates.


  1. That's an interesting point; but where do other genres of poetry fit in? For instance, Plato seems very fond of quatoing lyrics (Simonides, Pindar, etc.); is the idea that Socrates would have had had access to the (probably symposiac) context in which such quotations would have circulated? If that context is in fact symposiac, is it then unusual for your analysis that the /Symposium/ itself presents takes place at a tragic victory celebration, thereby presenting Socrates as having a privileged access at least to the tragic poets if not to their poetry?

    Sorry -- found this very interesting, and these were the questions it brought to mind. Otherwise -- that quotation reminds me a lot of a (later) Richard Graff article I read for my qual. (And by which my qual ended up being profoundly influenced.) Might be relevant:

  2. It's true, he is fond of quoting lyric. However, most of the quotations from Pindar and Simonodes seem to be widely quoted sayings. For example, the Pindar poem, quotations from which appear in the Gorgias, Protagoras and the Laws also appear in Herodotus and Plutarch among many others (Pindar Fragment 169a). It seems to me, this would have been widely recited among the elite. However, not being a reception person, I have no idea how commonly lyric in general might be known.

    To be sure, Socrates (keeping in mind I am still making no claims about the historical Socrates) emphasizes his access to highly privileged, wealthy, and elite friends in many of the dialogues. The portrayal shows him as spending his time in the top literary circles of the day. And, you are certainly correct that although most Athenians would have access to tragedies, they would not have been invited to the after party. What I drew from the quotation, on the other hand, was that the idea of research was a mark of elite status. The implication drawn by Ober and Strauss is that if Aiskhines had quoted Antigone instead, no one would have batted an eye, because he had first hand experience of the play. Instead, he found a quotation suited to his purpose that was not something he might have had reason to memorize.

    I am not sure if I entirely agree with Ober and Strauss' point yet. I just found it so intriguing. I'm glad you enjoyed it as well! I will take a look at the article you linked.