Comments on the 2011 Eta Sigma Phi APA Panel

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By lkoelle on January 3, 2012. No Comments

Respondent: David Konstan

Let me begin by thanking Tom Sienkewicz,
the Executive Secretary of Eta Sigma Phi,
for inviting me to comment on this set of
excellent papers by undergraduate scholars,
and to my young colleagues on the
panel for their contributions. These days,
initiation into the mysteries of the profession
occurs at an earlier age than it used
to, with graduate students delivering talks,
publishing articles, and organizing conferences,
and undergraduates too are now
entering the lists. This form of apprenticeship
is all to the good, and I am honored to
have the opportunity to comment on the
talks we have just heard.
Mara Kutter’s review of the end of the
Pisistradid tyranny comes to grips with
the fundamental questions concerning
our sources. The earliest information we
have concerning the events that led to the
overthrow of Hippias is several generations
after the fact, composed at a time
when Athens was firmly committed to its
particular brand of democracy and already
at ideological odds with Sparta — credited
with helping to dislodge Hippias — and
states such as Corinth and Thebes. What
is more, in the intervening period there
occurred the Persian invasion, with Hippias
serving as guide to Marathon: this was
an event that profoundly colored Greek
perceptions of their identity, not least in
Athens itself. Add to this that memories
of the tyranny were handed down among
families, such as the Alcmeonids and the
Pisistratids themselves, who continued to
flourish in Athens after the democracy was
established. Given these multiple filters
through which the overthrow of the tyranny
was viewed, not to mention the general
predilection of Athenians for a good story
and the expectations of the times, how are
we to determine whether the tyranny was
harsh or benign, and whether the attack
on Hippias and his brother (or brothers)
was motivated by the desire for freedom
(however that notion was understood
then) or a more personal resentment,
involving an erotic triangle? The answer is:
Very carefully. In particular, we must not
submit uncritically to the daunting authority
of Thucydides, who constructed for all
posterity an image of himself as the model
of an objective historian, concerned above
all with the facts: and yet it is he who has
bequeathed to us the love story. Can this
dour investigator have made such a thing
up? Would he even have admitted such
a tale, assuming it was current, into his
sober narrative, were there not excellent
reasons to believe it true? We ought not to
assume that the Athenians were smarting
under the tyranny, eager to rise up
and affirm popular sovereignty: this is to
project a later democratic vision onto the
sixth-century polis, all the easier because it
conforms to modern sensibilities concerning
democracy and dictatorship that have
an entirely different basis. But Thucydides
himself had no deep sympathy for the
democracy of his day: his ideal constitution
was that of the five thousand, installed in
the year 411, and which led directly to the
rule of the four hundred. Was he going
a step too far in dismissing larger political
motives behind the overthrow of the
Pisistratid regime? Like Mara Kutter, I am
inclined to look at the evidence in context,
the more so when I reflect that the chief
magistrate of our own government today
is characterized in some quarters as a
communist and a fascist, and who knows
what stories of tyranny and its overthrow
are taking shape right this moment, to
be analyzed and weighed by historians in
future generations?
Caleb Scholle’s investigation of the
Cynic Diogenes’ view of Plato presents us
with methodological questions that in some
ways resemble those involved in analyzing
later democratic perceptions of the Pisistratid
tyranny. In both cases, we are dealing
with late sources, on the basis of which we
must reconstruct the attitudes and postures
of an earlier time; in both, a particular
figure — Hippias, Plato — stands out as a
target, both of them vulnerable to charges
of tyranny and opposition to democracy
though in Plato’s case only as an intellectual
schemer. Mr. Scholle shows that there
was a lively tradition of abusing Plato for
his ostensible luxury and vanity, and that it
continued down into the era of the Roman
Empire. In part, the motive for these attacks
was to dissociate Plato from Socrates.
Plato’s authority as the mouthpiece for Socrates
was secured by the brilliant dialogues
he composed, in which Socrates figured as
the major spokesman and cross-examiner.
But many other schools laid claim to
Socrates’ influence, including not just the
Cynics but also the Megarians, Stoics, and
others (the Epicureans seem to have been
the major exception). Criticizing Plato for
his un-Socratic conduct was a good way
of driving a wedge between him and his
idealized master, the more so insofar as the
simple way of life that Socrates exhibited
in Plato’s own dialogues conformed to the
Cynic ideal. The motive for lambasting
Plato’s self-indulgence was thus there. But
was it Diogenes’ own motive, or did it arise
at some later time in the evolution of the
Cynic school, then to be retrojected onto
the founder? The question is a tricky one,
since Diogenes Laertius was compiling his
anecdotal lives of the philosophers long afterwards,
when an emphasis on the rivalry
between philosophical schools was more
fashionable; if so, then what better opponent
for Diogenes the Cynic than Plato,
the only major figure in the philosophical
firmament to whom Diogenes could have
responded personally (the Stoics, the Epicureans,
and even Aristotle were too late to
be Diogenes’ predecessors). It is a question,
then, of which way to look through
the telescope: forward from Diogenes, or
backward from Diogenes Laertius. Bringing
Antisthenes into the story is a good move,
since it provides some support to the idea
that Plato was already an object of denigration
among the direct disciples of Socrates.
If we can be sure that Antisthenes directed
his rhetoric against Plato’s personal lifestyle
rather than his philosophical positions,
we might imagine a contemporary atmosphere
of carping into which Diogenes’
criticisms would fit neatly. One possible
route to recovering something of the spirit
of the time is via early Socratics who did
not necessarily address their disapproval
to Plato’s elitist comportment but sought
rather to show that Socrates was not such
an austere figure as Plato’s dialogues — not
to mention Diogenes’ possible claim to his
mantle — might suggest. Xenophon, for
example, gives us a quite different picture
of Socrates in his Symposium, where he is
charming, witty, and above all a peacemaker
among the rather rambunctious
and potentially antagonistic celebrants. If
Xenophon was already constructing an image
of a Socrates more like himself, and less
like Plato’s representation of him, perhaps
Diogenes too was inclined to rescue his
own version of Socrates, and in the process
put down Plato’s — and Plato himself, into
the bargain. However this may be, we once
again see how carefully we must evaluate
traditional accounts of ideological struggles,
whether political or philosophical.
When we turn, with Lauren Gribble’s
talk, to issues of literary interpretation, it
may seem that we are moving into a wholly
different arena from the historical reconstruction
of how a tyranny was overthrown
or what the real Diogenes’ attitude toward
Socrates might have been: Thais is a figure
in a comedy, not a real life person, and
what she may actually have been like — a
good woman or a bad — is beside the point.
In fact, however, this paper raises questions
of a very similar nature to the two preceding
ones. For the business of assessing
the way an audience would have viewed
a stock figure of the comic stage poses
much the same kind of problem as that of
evaluating contemporary attitudes toward
Plato and Socrates or Athenian views of
tyranny in the period preceding the full
flourishing of the Athenian democracy.
Direct sources are lacking, and we must
compensate for the loss by a careful sifting
of later materials — in this case, legal texts
that may shed light on how Terence meant
Thais’ character to be seen. Miss Gribble
focuses in particular on the role of gifts,
a good choice since gifts are the principal
source of the courtesan’s income and
are the subject of a variety of laws. Now,
we might be inclined to wonder why the
receipt of goods in exchange for services
between a courtesan and her client should
be subsumed under the category of giftgiving:
the competition between Phaedria
and the soldier for Thais’ favors could as
easily be described as bidding, and the
goods rendered over to her as payment. If
remuneration is treated rather as a present,
it is in part because the courtesan keeps
her lovers attached to her by masking the
purely economic exchange as a love affair,
in which she in some degree reciprocates
the passion she arouses in her customers.
But this fiction exposes the meretrix to the
charge of hypocrisy: it is thus important
that Terence provides us with a soliloquy
by Thais in order to make manifest
her sincere affection for Phaedria, or at
any rate an other than purely mercenary
interest in him. This allows us to see her
motives as decent; even if donations to her
are regarded by Ulpian as inhonestae, they
are nevertheless not prohibited, since they
are bestowed for the sake of affection. But
she is also deeply aware of her dependency
on such prestations, as well as her need for
reliable patrons; this gives her the air of a
manipulative woman. The two sides to her
personality, as bona and mala meretrix, are
built into her role, and Roman law helps us
to see how the society at large attempted to
deal with this contradictory situation.
Hannah Rich too explores attitudes
toward a social institution that has analogies
in the modern world — we still have
dinner parties, after all, and they are even
the subject of literary satire, just as prostitution
continues to exist today — but which
played a different role in Classical Greece
and Rome, in the form of the symposium
and convivium. Correspondingly, such
dinners evoked reactions specific to the
times. Miss Rich compares two descriptions
of such an affair at Rome, and argues
convincingly that the notorious dinner at
the home of Trimalchio bears a significant
resemblance to Horace’s description of the
far more modest affair at Nasidienus’ house.
In both cases, the host is shown to behave
in a vulgar fashion, making a display of
his wealth but lacking in good taste and a
sense of decorum. For parties of this sort
have implicit rules of comportment, and
one of the ways that the elite and educated
class maintains its own sense of superiority
is by putting down and making fun of
such brash behavior. Such discrimination
does not rest on objective or universal
criteria; every society creates its own forms
of distinction. Horace’s man plays host to
Maecenas himself, who is much his superior
in status; he must therefore be deferential,
and is mortified by the early departure of
his guests. There are no such powerful
figures to inhibit Trimalchio’s extravaganza:
indeed, differences of social degree seem
flattened out under his auspices, and there
is a strong insistence that the status of the
freedman is in no way inferior to that of
anyone else, and very specifically that of
the down and out snobs who have crashed
his party. Thus, it is true that Trimalchio’s
guests have less control over their situation
than do those entertained by Nasidienus,
and no doubt there is a sense here that
decent folk are at the mercy of upstarts
and that society has gone to the dogs. I
would add only that we have to consider
also the position of the internal narrators
in both texts, Fundanius and Encolpius.
I am inclined to think that Horace and
Petronius alike are to some extent mocking
their condescending story-tellers, revealing
in them a lack of sympathy with their hosts,
who have gone to great trouble to provide
a fine entertainment, even if they fall short
of the high-class demands of their picky
invitees. If anything, there is something
more democratic about the environment
over which Trimalchio presides, and the
snootiness of Encolpius and his friends is
more off-putting. So this may be another
case in which we have to look to the quality
of our sources, as it were: the speakers
have their own ax to grind, or their own
status to affirm, and represent as coarse
and pretentious what could, from another
perspective that is in fact implicit in the
text, be seen as generous and egalitarian. It
is a delicate matter, here as in the previous
presentations, to sort out social attitudes.
The last talk this morning, by Rhiannon Knol and Eric Struble, is different
from the others, in that the authors propose
not a new reading of Classical texts
but rather a new reader, designed to help
students learn Latin at the intermediate
level. This is a welcome contribution, the
more so in that it is the work of students,
who are in an excellent position to know
both the kind of help with vocabulary and
grammar that is needed by their peers, and
the subject matter that is likely to interest
them most. Some years ago, I myself,
in collaboration with Michael Roberts of
Wesleyan University, prepared an edition
of the anonymous novel, Historia Apollonii
Regis Tyri, that was intended to introduce
students who had just completed elementary
Latin to a work of literature that was exciting
and relatively easy, and we equipped
it with abundant notes. I am naturally
looking forward to seeing Other People’s
Mail, and trying it out in the classroom. I
wish here to consider the decision to use
letters, a genre that has recently come into
its own, as the speakers point out, and
which permits us to “eavesdrop” on the
personal conversations of ancient people,
both famous and obscure. Of course, since
letters are typically short, they allow the
editors to present a broad selection of
complete prose texts, representing different
styles and periods. But they are appealing
because we want to know what people
thought and how they felt, day to day: they
are the ideal medium for the e-mail generation.
They are the kind of source material
that we would wish to have in order to
see what people thought of tyranny, of
Socrates and Plato, of courtesans in real
life or on the stage, of the lavish dinner
parties of the well to do. In other words,
the choice of this genre is of a piece, after
all, with the themes of the other talks we
heard today. Classics is not just a record
of the glory and the grandeur, but a way
of entering into the minds of people who
were like us in some ways and different in
others, so that we can learn to see with
new eyes. Thanks to such perspectives,
Classical Studies are flourishing today, and
the papers presented here are a precious
testimony to their vitality.

About the Respondent
David Konstan is Professor of Classics at
New York University. Professor Konstan’s
research focuses on ancient Greek and
Latin literature, especially comedy and the
novel, and Classical philosophy. In recent
years, he has investigated the emotions
and value concepts of Classical Greece and
Rome, and has written books on friendship,
pity, the emotions, and forgiveness.
He has also worked on ancient physics and
atomic theory, and on literary theory.