When Wisdom Calls: Philosophical Protreptic in Antiquity
Philosophy has never been an obvious life choice, especially in the absence of apparent practical usefulness. The intellectual effort and moral discipline it exacts appeared uninviting “from the outside.” However, the philosophical ideals of theoretical precision and living virtuously are what has shaped the cultural landscape of the West since Antiquity. This paradox arose because the ancients never confined their philosophy to the systematic exposition of doctrine. Orations, treatises, dialogues and letters aimed at persuading people to become lovers of wisdom, not metaphorically, but truly and passionately. Rhetorical feats, logical intricacies, or mystical experience served to recruit adherents, to promote and defend philosophy, to support adherents and guide them towards their goal. Protreptic (from the Greek, “to exhort,” “to convert”) was the literary form that served all these functions. Content and mode of expression varied considerably when targeting classical Greek aristocracy, Hellenistic schoolrooms or members of the early Church where the tradition of protreptic was soon appropriated. This volume seeks to illuminate both the diversity and the continuity of protreptic in the work of a wide range of authors, from Parmenides to Augustine. The persistence of the literary form bears witness to a continued fascination with the call of wisdom.
This chapter attempts to outline the disciplinary tradition of protreptic and to highlight certain methodological difficulties connected to it. The lamentations concerning “the scandalous state of genre theory” (Jordan 1986:328) in general and the protreptic genre in particular have themselves become a generic convention in studies dealing with this topic, and not without reason. To begin with, the genre received in antiquity no rhetorical treatment as a distinctive form of oratory, whereas references to the protreptic χαρακτήρ in philosophers are scarce and contradictory. Our capacity to proceed by means of description is also limited, for many writings entitled “protreptic” have only survived in fragments (and reconstructions often proceed from the postulation of a “generic pattern”, which itself needs justification). Another complicating factor is that the historical and philological instrumentarium has been supplemented, with varying success, with approaches like motif analysis, theories of intertextuality or narratology, or various communication approaches. Consequently, the term ‘protreptic’ has come to be used in a loose and imprecise manner depending on the position adopted by the author. The next vexing problem encountered by those who wish to understand protreptic concerns demarcation. Protreptic frequently appears in combination with other literary types, (auto)-biography, paraenesis, or epistolography, for example. How do different types cohabit within one piece of writing? Various, sometimes mutually exclusive, solutions have been suggested by scholars which we will discuss in what follows. Lastly, problems are aggravated by the fact that historians of philosophy on the one hand, and biblical scholars and specialists in Jewish and Christian literature on the other, have approached the term “protreptic” and its cognates in very different ways. Although the interdisciplinary gap seems to be diminishing the question still remains open as to how the classical forms of protreptic were adapted in the prophetic religions like Judaism and Christianity.
In what follows, we shall try to reconstruct the making of the protreptic genre, relying mainly on the Corpus Platonicum (CP), considered as a collection of texts produced by Plato and his disciples. The focus will be, first, on the premises which led to the creation of the specific text labelled as ‘protreptic’ in the Euthydemus; second, we shall trace subsequent recognition of protreptic as a genre, documented in the spurious Clitophon.