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.


This book is about a particular form of writing by Christians in late antiquity, sometimes referred to as “the philosophical dialogue”—although by no means all the dialogues in question can be regarded as philosophical. The subject is central to the much wider question of the development of a specifically Christian rhetoric, especially in Perelman’s sense in which “the realm of rhetoric” constitutes “the entire universe of argumentative discourse,” [1] for Christian writers did indeed use the dialogue form as part of their argumentative endeavor.

Despite some promising signs of interest, these prose dialogues—literary discussions between two or more speakers on a specific question or group of related questions [2] —are still neglected as a significant component of late antique Christian literature. This is still more the case for Byzantium, even though dialogues continued to be written in Greek for many centuries and were particularly favored by Byzantine intellectuals in some periods. A very preliminary investigation conducted at an early stage in this research identified well over two hundred examples (taking a broad view of “dialogue”) from the second century AD to the end of Byzantium. Some from the later period remain unpublished and many are still without modern critical editions or literary or rhetorical discussion. The actual total is likely to be much larger. Such dialogues have attracted scholars as a general phenomenon, especially in relation to the Renaissance, but such discussions rarely if ever include consideration of Greek dialogues from late antiquity, and still less those from the Byzantine period. [3] No doubt there are disciplinary and linguistic explanations for this omission, but as so often, it acts to prevent an overall and more complete analysis of what is in fact one of the most enduring and fundamental of literary forms. I must mention here the comprehensive study by Vittorio Hösle, which deals with dialogues from Plato to the modern period. Hösle frequently mentions Methodius’s Symposium, Gregory of Nyssa’s De Anima and Augustine’s Cassiciacum dialogues, and to a lesser extent Cicero and the Octavius of Minucius Felix, but his sketch of the history of dialogues [4] has little to say on late antiquity and nothing on Byzantium. Hösle’s book is full of suggestive observations that can be usefully applied to the wider range of Greek Christian dialogues. But he writes as a philosopher concerned with philosophical argument and methodology, and furthermore, as an “objective idealist” concerned to reassert the importance of Platonism and Hegelianism. As he admits, his real subject is the history of western philosophy and its development since Descartes, in which he sees Christian dialogues, as inter-religious dialogues, as no more than a “sub-genre.” Hösle’s book is important in its own terms, but the quantity and variety of the material to which I draw attention here suggests the need for a different evaluation.

The written dialogues with which I am concerned purport to be, and sometimes are, accounts of conversations. [5] They may contain narrative elements, but they may also present themselves like dramatic scripts, as if they have been or will be performed. This is a subject which needs further treatment elsewhere. They easily fall into the three types thought since antiquity to be characteristic of Platonic dialogues: the dramatic, that is, the conversation itself; the narrative, reporting a conversation; and the mixed, where an initial direct dialogue then reports a previous conversation. [6] We know rather little about how they were heard and received in late antiquity, in comparison with the social performance of rhetoric in late Byzantium, [7] but they were certainly intended to persuade. Some, at least, seem closer to orality than many other sorts of late antique literature, and others claim to be verbatim records of actual debates. [8] Chapter two will consider evidence of such actual debates from late antiquity, and it is not surprising to find the question of whether or not the debate in question “really” took place occupying a prominent place in the existing literature, though it is not always the most appropriate question to ask. It is also a difficult one, in the absence of independent evidence, especially as many Christian dialogues adopt a fiction of orality, by introducing elements of verisimilitude designed to persuade the reader that he or she is indeed reading about a real discussion. Sometimes these elements derive from Platonic models, especially the Republic and the Symposium, in an exercise of imitation, or rather of intertextuality. [9] In general, though with some exceptions, the Platonizing elements are literary/rhetorical rather than philosophical. [10] Indeed a further question that emerges from considering Christian dialogues as a group is the increasing resort to Aristotelian logic, which was later to become more and more important both in Greek and Syriac Christian-Muslim debates and in Byzantium. The influence of Aristotle is strongly felt in many later Byzantine theological dialogues, some of which, despite many protestations against syllogistic and against the dependence on Aristotle, were accompanied by long lists of syllogisms; [11] but it was also already apparent in late antiquity. [12]

A letter by Basil of Caesarea lets us see the extent to which Plato was valued for his literary genius. Writing to Diodorus, then a presbyter in Antioch but later bishop of Tarsus, he describes two works sent to him by the latter, both of which seem to have been in dialogue form (neither has survived). [13] He prefers the second for its “simple and natural style,” whereas the first “is much more elaborately adorned with rich diction, [and] many features and niceties of dialogue,” which “require considerable time to read, and much mental labor both to gather its meaning and retain it in the memory.” He also disapproves of the “abuse of our opponents and the support of our own side, which are thrown in, although they may seem to add some charms of dialectic to the treatise,” and which “break the continuity of the thought and weaken the strength of the argument by causing interruption and delay.” Basil continues in an interesting way:

I know that your intelligence is perfectly well aware that the heathen philosophers who wrote dialogues, Aristotle and Theophrastus, went straight to the point, because they were aware of not being gifted with the graces of Plato. Plato on the other hand, with his great power of writing, at the same time attacks opinions and incidentally makes fun of his characters, assailing now the rashness and recklessness of a Thrasymachus, the levity and frivolity of a Hippias, and the arrogance and pomposity of a Protagoras. When, however, he introduces unmarked characters into his dialogues, he uses the interlocutors for making the point clear, but does not admit anything more belonging to the characters into the argument. An instance of this is in the Laws.

Translation NPNF VIII, 200–201

Over and above their theological content Christian dialogues raise questions of literarity and intertextuality. Yet while no one can now question the centrality of rhetoric in late antique education and culture, the works of the rhetorical writers do not lay down rules for dialogue. No rhetorical treatise focuses directly on dialogue, or on oral debate for that matter, and the Socratic background to later dialogues included a traditional opposition between rhetoric and the Socratic discourse. [
14] A few hints from the second century onwards suggest that dialogue was thought of as being different from rhetoric, as being less formal and more conversational. [15] In Lucian’s dialogue known as the “Twice-accused” or “Double Indictment” (Bis accusatus), Rhetoric complains that he has deserted her for dialogue:

Loeb translation

The defense put forward by the “Syrian,” i.e. Lucian, is that rhetoric had become corrupted with over-embellishment, and that he had therefore decided to retire from the hurly-burly of the law-courts “to the walks of the Academy or the Lyceum, there to enjoy, in the delightful society of Dialogue, that tranquil discourse which aims not at noisy acclamations.” [


[ back ] 1. Perelman 1982:x; cf. also Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969.

[ back ] 2. Cf. Hösle 2012:39, citing Isidore of Seville Etymologies 6.8.2, “a discussion between two or more persons which the Latins would call sermo”; 40, a “literary genre that primarily represents a conversation”; 45 (of philosophical dialogues), “a literary genre that represents a discussion of philosophical questions,” going on to say that these will almost certainly be in prose, though verse is not absolutely excluded.

[ back ] 3. The article “Dialogue” in Cancik and Schneider 2002:352–356 (K. H. Hölkeskamp) states that the dialogue form was more developed in the west than in Byzantium, and cites no Byzantine examples.

[ back ] 4. Hösle 2012:71–119.

[ back ] 5. See Hösle 2012:19–47 “Conversation and Dialogue.”

[ back ] 6. Diogenes Laertius, 3.50; see Döring 2011:25.

[ back ] 7. See Grünbart 2007; Mullett 1984 (2001).

[ back ] 8. Below, chapter 2. The question of orality features in scholarship on the Platonic dialogues, but like so much else remains to be studied in relation to the dialogues I am dealing with.

[ back ] 9. For the heuristic value (or lack thereof) of these terms, see the papers in Rhoby and Schiffer 2010, especially Mullett 2010 and Nilsson 2010.

[ back ] 10. “Stylistic” might be a better term. I cannot deal here with the contention that the use made of Plato by the Christian apologists, including Theodoret, was rhetorical rather than philosophical (Siniossoglou 2008:21–27; see chapter 3 below).

[ back ] 11. Below, chapter 3.

[ back ] 12. I hope to treat these issues and the Byzantine dialogues elsewhere.

[ back ] 13. Letter 135, Courtonne 1961:49–51; see also Letter 348, a reference I owe to Alberto J. Quiroga Puertas.

[ back ] 14. The opposition can however be deceptive, as argued by L. Rossetti: see chapter 1 below.

[ back ] 15. See Pernot 1993a:421–434; the rendez-vous that Pernot claims failed to take place is that between dialogue and rhetoric.

[ back ] 16. Lucian Double Indictment, 28.

[ back ] 17. Lucian Double Indictment, 32.

[ back ] 18. Lucian Double Indictment, 33.

[ back ] 19. Heath 2004, especially chapter 7. Hermogenes’s treatise set out model arguments in “quasi-dialogue form” (Heath 2004: chap. 9). Katos 2011 offers an interpretation of Palladius’s Dialogue on the Life of John Chrysostom in this light, and see Katos 2007, with Gronewald 1991 (I owe the last reference to Scott Johnson); date and circumstances: Van Nuffelen 2013.

[ back ] 20. Schamp 2006, who begins his discussion of the birth of Christian rhetoric with Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, on which see below, chapter 1. For the idea of a Third Sophistic, Pernot 1993b:1.14n9, though the term is proving controversial and the range of authors included varies considerably: Averil Cameron, forthcoming a, and see Penella 2013.

[ back ] 21. An accessible overview of rhetorical training in late antiquity and Byzantium can be found in Mary Whitby 2010. A recent collection dealing with aspects of rhetoric in late antiquity is Quiroga Puertas 2013.

[ back ] 22. An exception is Moreschini and Norelli 2005:2.15–16, 579, and see also Weber 2000.

[ back ] 23. Van Hoof 2010, and see also Formisano 2007.