Dialoguing in Late Antiquity

  Cameron, Averil. 2014. Dialoguing in Late Antiquity. Hellenic Studies Series 65. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_CameronA.Dialoguing_in_Late_Antiquity.2014.

Conclusion. The Byzantine Future

I have made a case here for Christian dialogues in late antiquity and beyond as a large and fruitful field of research, over and above comparisons with Socratic or Ciceronian dialogues, and at the same time indicated something of the richness of the available material. Many more dialogues were composed than I have had the space to consider here. Dialogue and debate were everywhere in the late antique world. Despite the efforts of emperors and others, debate did not stop. It was also often passionate, yet even then intense disagreements and rivalries were very often expressed in the literary form of dialogues.

Inevitably, Christian dialogue had a purpose; it was not dialogue for dialogue’s sake. But there were differences: if Christians engaged in or wrote about exchanges with Jews, for instance, one can fairly say that there was a foregone conclusion. Sidney Griffith has noted a difference between the harsh language used by Christians against Jews, especially (but not only) in the heightened competitive tensions of seventh-century Palestine, [1] and the more conciliatory tone of Christian-Muslim works written under Islamic rule. [2] This did not apply in the same way to later dialogues between Christians and Muslims written in Byzantium, and the attitude of Christians to Jews, which was at times defensive, but often simply aggressive, was also very different. Intra-Christian debates could be equally sharp; moreover, they took place in a context when deposition, exile or sometimes worse fates could threaten, as well, of course, as the defense of what those involved passionately held to be Christian truth. Much later, complaints about the arrogant and aggressive tone of the Latin participants in the debates about the union of churches are a constant feature in the Byzantine dialogues. Some in late antiquity, Augustine among them, were very aware of the tendency of dialogues to become eristic, and saw this as a danger (though Augustine was no mean controversialist himself). But these dialogues played an important role in forming opinion on matters that were by no means settled, while even within the wide variety of Christian dialogue material room was at times found for the characteristics of indeterminacy and the dialogic. The erotapokriseis in particular make it clear that questions were asked on a wide variety of topics, and such questioning was by no means confined to the question-and-answer literature. [3] The doctrinal content of late antique Christianity was far from fixed. Moreover, despite strong efforts on the part of emperors and church alike, councils continued to be challenged and orthodoxy remained in contention throughout the Byzantine period. [4] The idea that Platonic dialogues themselves were “democratic” is also very much open to question. But Vittorio Hösle is right when he says that in the modern and philosophical senses, genuine dialogue can only flourish if there is mutual respect, and when each side is willing to learn from the other. [5]

One of the advantages of focusing on the Greek literature of late antiquity is that it allows a connection to be made with literary production in Byzantium; this is especially useful in view of the importance of rhetoric and rhetorical training in Byzantine literature, and the extensive use made of earlier literary and linguistic models.

I have already had occasion to note that Byzantine writers continued to use the prose dialogue form. It was very frequently used for theological subjects, for instance in the Comnenian and Palaeologan periods, even when one might have thought that a straightforward treatise would have been equally appropriate. Dialogues are also a prominent part of the large body of anti-Latin writing, dealing with the Filioque and other issues, and contrary to common assumptions, they vary considerably in literary features as well as argument. Some of them claim to be the records of the many actual debates between Byzantines and Latins or Byzantines and Armenians, but as with the late antique examples, this is not always the case, nor are these claims always to be trusted. Moreover, Byzantine writers also wrote prose dialogues on quite different topics and with varying degrees of Platonizing scene-setting. When for example in the late eleventh century the ecclesiastic and philosopher Eustratius of Nicaea was drawn into a quarrel about the religious status of church treasures, he chose to express his arguments in dialogue form, with a narrative introduction and speakers whose names mean “Lover of truth” and “Lover of custom.” Theophylact of Ohrid chose the dialogue form when he wrote on eunuchs, around 1100; the works of Theodore Prodromus in the twelfth century included a philosophical dialogue, the Xenedemos, with reference to Porphyry’s Eisagoge, or introduction to Aristotle’s Categories; and the intense and competitive literary world of the Palaeologan period produced still more variety in topics, including a prose dialogue between the rich and the poor indicative of contemporary social and economic conditions.

Prose dialogues such as these, and many others, are part not only of the history of Byzantine literature but also of Byzantine philosophy, a topic that is receiving renewed attention. [7] In particular, the history of Platonic reception in Byzantium is complex. Some Byzantines, at certain periods, were very well versed in Plato, and some dialogue writers were sufficiently aware of a limited range of Platonic models to use them in the narrative settings of their own works. A well-known and large group of Byzantine Greek manuscripts testifies to the copying in the late ninth century and later of an extensive group of Neoplatonic and Aristotelian texts, together with some Christian authors who include Maximus Confessor and John of Damascus. [8] However, except in their number and variety, Plato’s dialogues themselves occupy a minor place in comparison with works deriving from Alexandrian Neoplatonism or late Aristotelianism, [9] although a small number of key manuscripts deriving from this period have guaranteed their preservation. [10] The number of manuscripts of Aristotle is overwhelming by comparison. The name of Plato also came to be used, especially in the eleventh century and later, as shorthand for dangerous “Hellenic” (that is, pagan) doctrines, and the suspicion of enthusiasm for the content of his work, as opposed to its value for instruction, could be extremely dangerous. Plato enjoyed something of a return in the late Byzantine period, especially in the work of George Gemistus Plethon, [11] although this was (probably not surprisingly) accompanied by a return of interest in debating the rival merits of Plato and Aristotle. Most important from our present point of view is the fact that unlike the logical works of Aristotle, Plato’s dialogues were not a regular part of the standard Byzantine educational system, which remained weighted towards rhetoric, and in which Aristotle’s logical works were one of the main platforms. This situation, we may add, leaves wide open many questions about the literary analysis of Greek dialogues from all parts of the Byzantine period, and surely also explains the very limited range of Platonic dialogues whose influence is perceptible. If anything, it makes it all the more mysterious that “Platonic” dialogue continued at all, in however attenuated a literary form.

If in this book I have taken a generous definition of dialogue—some might say too generous—that is because I believe this to be necessary if we are to grasp either the amount or the variety of material that would be involved in a full study. One of the questions that will need to be addressed in the future concerns the apparent difference between the more literary dialogues and those that seem more utilitarian, or more like disputations, with long speeches rather than interchanges. I believe it is premature, however, to apply such a distinction at this stage in the inquiry, and we are certainly not helped by the multitude of terms in use in the sources and in manuscripts, or by the tendency of modern scholars to adopt such titles uncritically, or, as is common practice, to apply Latin titles to Greek works.

We ourselves live in an age when “dialogue” means something quite different from what it meant to the authors discussed in here. We are exhorted to talk and reach common solutions, as in a recent article in the New York Review of Books headed “Why we must talk” (that is, talk rather than fight). The ideal of consensus based on mutual agreement through controlled discussion is deeply rooted in contemporary political life, and the word “dialogue” appears constantly in general usage. We are taught to value discussion, mediation and consensus, and many organizations exist to promote dialogue and to train people in its techniques, as well as journals devoted to dialogue studies. Inter-faith agendas are apparent in modern studies of Christian-Jewish and Christian-Muslim dialogues, and they also promote dialogue in contemporary life: a “Dialogue Society,” with branches in Oxford and elsewhere, [17] exists, as its publicity states, to further social cohesion by facilitating dialogue, especially between Muslims and Christians. It advertises training and help in dialogue skills—cultivating empathy and effective listening—with ten-week placements for masters’ students. Goldhill is right when he says that “modern Christians” (and others) find the repressive tone of many late antique Christian dialogues unattractive. But we must be careful about applying our own criteria of what does and does not count as “real” dialogue. In fact late antiquity was an age of dialogue and debate par excellence. As a tool for the student of religion, of the concept of orthodoxy and of the intellectual culture of late antiquity and Byzantium, the importance of the dialogues composed by Christian writers in late antiquity, and of the actual debates that took place, is truly fundamental.


[ back ] 1. On which, see Averil Cameron 2002a.

[ back ] 2. Griffith 1992 (2011):272–273.

[ back ] 3. The extent of such questioning in the late sixth century in relation to the powers of the saints is highlighted by Dal Santo 2012, and see Sarris et al. 2011.

[ back ] 4. The variety and dynamism of Byzantine and medieval Christianity (or “Christianities”) is a main theme in Noble and Smith 2008.

[ back ] 5. Compare his concluding remarks at Hösle 2012:462–463.

[ back ] 6. Goldhill 2009:6–7.

[ back ] 7. Ierodiakonou 2002; Bydén and Ierodiakonou 2012.

[ back ] 8. See Ronconi 2012 for the very complex issues surrounding this manuscript tradition; a survey of the troubled reception of Plato in Byzantium can be found in Tambrun-Krasker 2012.

[ back ] 9. Ronconi 2012:156.

[ back ] 10. See Tambrun-Krasker 2012:7–8 for the interesting later history of Par. gr. 1807 and Clarkianus 39.

[ back ] 11. Tambrun-Krasker 2006; Siniossoglou 2008.

[ back ] 12. Averil Cameron, forthcoming b.

[ back ] 13. Even the otherwise excellent article by Tannous takes as a starting point the assumption of “the withering away of certain traditional genres of Greek literature … seen as one of the most notable characteristics of the so-called Byzantine ‘Dark Ages’ ”: Tannous 2013:83.

[ back ] 14. Averil Cameron, forthcoming b: chap. 1.

[ back ] 15. Johnson, forthcoming, offers a welcome counter-balance, but his remit does not allow him to include the literary history of Constantinople and the Byzantine empire as such.

[ back ] 16. Odorico 2012 is a very good example of some of the approaches now being taken among scholars of Byzantine literature; in particular, Bianconi 2012 marks a distinct advance in considering the audiences and contexts of controversy literature in late Byzantium, even if not of dialogues as such, while Messis 2012 offers a highly contextual reading of Theophylact of Ohrid’s so-called Apology for Eunuchs.

[ back ] 17. Founded in 1999 in London along the principles of the Turkish Gülen movement.