Saturday, August 28, 2010

Scodel, Ruth. Review of Christopher Lyle Johnstone, LISTENING TO THE LOGOS. BMCR (August 2010).

Johnstone, Christophe Lyle.  Listening to the Logos: Speech and the Coming of Wisdom in Ancient Greece.   Columbia:  U of South Carolina P, 2009.

This is a study of the interaction of how Greek concepts of wisdom interact with the understanding of speech. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it makes Aristotle its telos, and so considers Greek intellectual history as it leads to Aristotle: after a discussion of Homer, it goes through the Presocratics, the sophists and Socrates, Plato and Isocrates.

It is a good idea for classicists, every once in a while, to read treatments of their texts by smart people who are not classicists, usually colleagues in related fields. They can profit in two very different, indeed opposite, ways: first, sometimes the comparative outsider, with a fresh perspective, can offer insights, solutions to problems, or methods or approach that the community of specialists has missed because it can be very hard to go beyond the questions that have already been defined and endlessly discussed. Second, such books can reveal how the field looks to its neighbors. There is almost always a time lag between disciplines, and even between subfields. The people who work on an area go to conferences with each other and send emails to each other; then they read each other’s articles. The rest of us often find out that something important has changed only after a major book appears and has been reviewed, or perhaps when we read job applications. So we sometimes find out that our scholarly neighbors are out of touch with developments in classics, and maybe are encouraged to inform them better. There is always a danger, though, that we can turn ourselves into scholarly police, patrolling our boundaries and looking for mistakes on which to pounce.

All this explains why I thought it would be potentially valuable and fun to read a book about wisdom in Greece by a scholar of rhetoric, but also a little nervous. I am interested particularly in Greek conceptions of practical wisdom, since I aspire to it (sophia I have never hoped for, but I like to think that a certain measure of phronesis has come with middle age). This did not turn out to be the book I expected. Its narrative is basically the old “from mythos to logos” account, which is a disappointment, although I am worried that I have missed something very important. It could be interesting and useful to look single-mindedly for the antecedents of Aristotle’s thinking about sophia, phronesis, and speech. Lyric poetry, history, and tragedy could all contribute to an understanding of wisdom and logos. A study of wisdom and speech that does not discuss Solon’s poetry and does not mention Herodotus has missed too much. But the book has defined the antecedents of Aristotle largely in the terms of Aristotle’s own history of philosophy. So the basic problem seems to be that the book is either too Aristotelian or not Aristotelian enough; it is not clearly directed towards Aristotle as telos, but it allows Aristotle too much implicit control. . . .

Read the rest here:

(Thanks to Ed Brandon for the suggestion.)

No comments:

Post a Comment