Critical Moments in Classical Literature: Studies in the Ancient View of
Literature and its Uses. By RICHARD HUNTER. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2009. Pp. 217. Cloth, $95.00. ISBN: 978–0–521–51985–4.
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Richard Hunter (hereafter H.) begins his new book by telling us what it is
not. It is not “the much-needed study of the mutual interchange between
poetic imagery and ideas and the language of ancient criticism” (p. 8).
Nor is it a history or a survey of literary criticism in antiquity. Rather,
it is an endeavor to stitch together some surviving threads of the critical
discussion of literature in antiquity. Because that discussion was recorded
in snatches over centuries, and because only a small portion of that
discussion is extant, the task of probing ancient critical views of
literature makes the argument from silence attractive. Although H.’s
essays verge on that fallacy at times, he never pushes the evidence so hard
that it plunges off a precipice. Instead, his creative approach to
problematic evidence offers refreshing insights into the ancient view of
H.’s secondary aim is “to pay particular attention … to antiquity’s
concern with what literature was for, what its ‘uses’ were” (p. 8).
Indeed, he goes further and expresses his hope of making clear why a
utilitarian view of literature and its criticism made sense in antiquity
“and why it still should” (p. 8). This statement might cause some
scholars to mutter accusations of philistinism, especially in times when
the only acceptable defense of the study of literature seems to be an
appeal to its intrinsic value. But H. wishes to show that the point of the
discussion in antiquity was that “classical literature actually mattered;
it was worth the continuing struggle to understand and exploit, even as
intellectual and cultural contexts shifted” (p. 9). The essays that
follow this bold statement demonstrate that the same is true today, and for
the same reasons.
The first chapter, “Aristophanes Frogs and the critical tradition,”
sets the stage, as it were, for the rest of the book, since Frogs surfaces
as a point of reference in many of the following chapters. H. places
Aristophanes’ comedy at the center of the tradition of criticism in
antiquity by showing how the contest between Aeschylus and Euripides
influenced and informed discussions about tradition and innovation for
centuries. In particular, critics picked up the juxtaposition of
Aeschylus’ archaic style and Euripides’ more contemporary approach, and
they then began to extend the contrast beyond verse to modes of living. As
H. puts it, “Frogs bequeathed to the critical tradition not just a way of
talking about poetic style, but also a critical language which uses
sociopolitical distinctions to describe levels of style” (p. 19).
Aristophanes was hardly the first person, of course, to engage in
comparative literature; but H. gives prominence to Frogs because it
crystallizes the tension between old and new, correct and transgressive,
traditional and innovative. With examples from Plato to Dio Chrysostom, H.
argues persuasively for the enduring importance of the play for literary
criticism. To buttress that point and impart some unity to his collection
of essays, he grants Frogs at least a cameo appearance in almost every
chapter of his book.
In the next chapter, “Readings of Homer: Euripides’ Cyclops,” H.
examines the only complete surviving satyr play as “a very striking
instance of how later writers appropriate, and often … literally
‘re-write’ their predecessors by bringing out the ‘modern’
structures which can be found there” (p. 55). For example, when Silenos
leads Odysseus to the highest point of Sicily (v.114), and Odysseus then
asks him, “Where are the walls and the towers of a/the city?” the
suggestion is that Odysseus knows Sicily not as Homer depicted it but as
Euripides’ contemporaries knew it, as a populated and civilized island
(p. 63). Through many other examples, H. shows how Euripides’
appropriation of a seminal episode from the Odyssey represents a critical
reading of his predecessors and is thus an important witness to the ancient
discussion of literature.
H. next turns his attention to the fragmentary “Comparison of
Aristophanes and Menander,” a work that survives as part of Plutarch’s
Moralia (853a–4d). In a chapter entitled “Comic moments,” H. examines
the work’s views of the contrast between Old and New comedy. When
Aristophanes pitted Aeschylus against Euripides, the elder playwright
prevailed for many reasons, but mostly because he was not Euripides. That
is, Euripides’ innovations and taste for realism offended the
sensibilities of his audience, which was feeling conservative as it pined
away for the “good old days” before the war. When it is Aristophanes’
turn to represent the Old (comedy, that is), the tables are turned, for
Menander’s elevated and more respectable style carries the day. The
judgment is harsh: Menander’s plays offer useful instruction, whereas
“Aristophanes satisfies neither the many nor the intelligent. His poetry
is like a retired prostitute who pretends to be a married woman” (p. 78).
[] In the rest of the chapter, H. pursues this line of criticism as it
pertains to Roman comedy, noting especially the problem of Plautus, who was
either a national treasure or a smudge on Rome’s literary heritage,
depending on the point of view. The chapter concludes with an intriguing
discussion of satire as a blend of Old Comic attack and New Comic
Chapter 4, “The ugly peasant and the naked virgins: Dionysius of
Halicarnassus, On Imitation,” is the least successful in the book, for H.
stretches too far in his attempt to reconstruct Dionysius of
Halicarnassus’ fragmentary and corrupt work. His aim is “to trace,
however faintly, the classical inheritance of Dionysius’ classicising
theory” (p. 109). “Faintly” is a good word to use, since H. spins off
his discussion in a number of different directions to cover the massive
subject of mimesis in ancient literary criticism, all the while trying to
reconstruct Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ contribution to the discussion.
Some praise is due the creative attempts to tie all this together, but the
chapter’s only success comes from demonstrating the frustrations and
temptations that await anyone who works on a fragmentary text.
No book on ancient literary criticism would be complete without a section
on “Longinus’” On the Sublime. Or is that really so? H. includes a
lengthy discussion of the work in his fifth chapter, but it is not as
challenging or illuminating as the other chapters. H. opens with a
manufactured link to the Frogs that is obviously an attempt to stitch this
essay into the collection. From there, he covers subjects already discussed
in sufficient detail by “Longinus” himself, and he does little to
promote On the Sublime as a critical moment in the history of literary
Much more interesting is the final chapter, “Reading for life: Plutarch,
‘How the young man should study poetry.’” H. again begins with a
manufactured link to the Frogs, but he quickly moves on to discuss
Plutarch’s essay as an important work in its own right. Here H.
accomplishes his goal of showing us why a utilitarian view of literature
mattered in antiquity, and why it still should. Plutarch’s essay
anticipates the argument most often used today in defense of education in
the humanities, i.e., that reading allows students to practice critical
thinking and judgment. However true that may be, too often those who use
the argument are hard-pressed to provide examples to support their case, or
even to demonstrate critical thinking to their students. Hunter, however,
shows how Plutarch engages with previous criticism, particularly that of
Plato, and how he arrives at a practical way of using literature to
instruct the young: rather than being censored, poetry should be subject to
guided, critical evaluation. In this way, students learn by observation how
to think critically about anything that they will encounter in public life.
That is, after all, the important point: the purpose of reading poetry,
according to Plutarch, is not to prepare students to become scholars, but
to equip them with the skills they will need to act intelligently in their
public careers. Engagement with literary criticism will help them become
critical thinkers in their own right.
H. appears to have taken a page from Plutarch’s essay, since he ends his
book abruptly, with no conclusion or closing remarks. This is a surprise,
given his attempts to create a sense of unity in the volume. However
tenuous and artificial the connections between the individual chapters may
be, they create the expectation that H. will sum up his observations
somehow. Instead, he leaves us to reach our own conclusions. Plutarch would
be proud, but H.’s readers may be disappointed.
SAMUEL J. HUSKEY
University of Oklahoma
[] Hunter’s adaptation of D.A. Russell’s translation of Plutarch,
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