Scholarly communities ancient and modern

This term, while getting our own research project started, the Oxford-based members of the Anachronism and Antiquity team have participated in the Corpus Christi Classics Seminar on ‘Shared Knowledge and Scholarly Communities’. We have looked at communities past and present, local and global, real and imaginary, and the way in which they have been constructed and transmitted, from before the establishment of the philosophical schools of ancient Greece to the professionalisation of Classics as an academic discipline over the last 200 years.

A good seminar creates a scholarly community in itself, and in some respects the academic practice of antiquity remains the same for humanities scholars of today; reading and discussing texts with colleagues is a productive way to work. Xenophon has his Socrates describe his great pleasure in studying with friends:

Others have a fancy for a good horse or dog or bird: my fancy, stronger even than theirs, is for good friends. And I teach them all the good I can, and recommend them to others from whom I think they will get some moral benefit. And the treasures that the wise men of old have left us in their writings I unroll with my friends. If we come on any good thing, we excerpt it, and we set much store on being useful to one another. (Memorabilia 1.6.14)

Christopher Stray’s introductory session explored the development of Classics as an academic discipline in the UK through the stories of different groups and communities, based in particular universities, working together on journals. In discussion, the continuing importance of reading together became clear. Scholarly communities may develop from formal reading groups, such as the Cambridge ancient philosophy seminar that has met on Thursdays for over 30 years, or from informal groups. The latter often play an important role in transmitting new scholarship from one community to another. For example, Oliver Taplin described an Oxford reading group that helped to introduce the work of the Paris School to Oxford classicists (and the faculty still has an annual Journée Vernant). But the publications, archives and oral testimony that provide evidence for recent scholarly communities are not the same as the literary evidence we have for ancient ones, and the anachronistic practice of treating ancient literary evidence as if it were documentary evidence has led to distorted views of ancient scholarship.

For example, as I showed in my paper, Plato’s concern to establish intellectual genealogies often outweighs the depiction of Socratic community. We rarely see Socrates in conversation with his own community, but observing and interacting with others. Memorable scenes, such as the opening of his Protagoras, show him as an outsider exploring the teaching and rhetoric of others. Nonetheless, the vivid scene at Callias’ house (Protagoras 314d-316a), in which Protagoras and Hippias hold forth to their spellbound customers, has long been treated as a depiction of scholarly community, albeit one whose credentials Plato is querying. Socrates observes them:

Of those who were following behind, listening to what was being said, the majority were evidently foreigners. Protagoras collects them from all the cities he passes through; he puts a spell on them with his voice, like Orpheus, and they follow the voice, spellbound. But there were some Athenians in the chorus as well. This chorus I found a delight to watch, such care did they take never to be in front of Protagoras and get in his way. When he and his group turned, then this retinue parted on either side, this way and that, in a nice orderly fashion, came round in a circle, and each time took up station again to the rear. Perfect. (Protagoras 315ab, translation Griffith)

This scene returned again and again throughout the seminar series; for example, Dawn LaValle showed how early Christian writer Methodius of Olympus, building his own scholarly community in 3rd-century CE Lycia invoked the authority of Plato by imitating this setting in his own dialogues.

The tension between sophists and philosophers constructed by Plato has dominated intellectual histories. Joshua Billings, posing the question ‘What is a sophist?’, explored the way in which ‘the sophists’ as a group were a product of Plato’s critical presentation, and of later responses to it, rather than a genuine scholarly community. Colin King looked at how shared knowledge is implied by Aristotelian endoxa and the doxai he attributes to named and unnamed philosophers. In both cases classical scholars have built on, rather than deconstructing, these presentations of rival scholars or predecessors, maintaining artificial orders and typologies.

Raphael’s fresco ‘The School of Athens’ collapses time in its depiction of the community of Greek philosophers

The retrospective construction of scholarly communities has a long history. The temporal manipulation of Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ extends the practice of ancient philosophical dialogue, manipulating time and space to get ideas and their proponents into a position where face-to-face debate can take place. Plato’s own complex dialogues create networks and genealogies in this way, an aspect of his writing that I’ll be exploring as part of this project. For example, the Parmenides presents Socrates in dialogue with the older philosophers Parmenides and Zeno, when they visit Athens for the Panathenaea. Plato frames the dialogue so that we see both the community of scholars gathered to hear the reading of Zeno’s book, that provides the occasion for Socrates’ encounter, and also the community of visiting scholars who have come to Athens to hear an account of the earlier conversation. Through the structure of the dialogue, two different schools of philosophy come into contact, Socrates is positioned within their genealogies, and knowledge is shared between them. As Tom Phillips showed, philosophical dialogue is not the only genre to employ such devices to represent and to create community. One way that Hellenistic poets invoked the idea of community was through the representation of and allusion to collective performance, with Theocritus 18, an epithalamion for the marriage of Helen and Menelaus performed by a chorus of girls, providing a complex example in which the reader is immersed in the mimetic experience of an imaginary community. Such representations might collapse the temporal and generic distinctions between Hellenistic epic and archaic lyric, between written text and oral performance, and between mythical and historical time.

While Plato’s depiction of the sophists might suggest an Athenian disdain for visiting intellectuals, the connections forged within his dialogues, especially the links between Socrates and Italian philosophers, suggest that international cooperation was integral to the idea of scholarly community from the outset. While Christopher Stray pointed to 19th century ideas of national identity as a factor in the professionalisation of the discipline, building international networks of scholars has been vital, and particularly evident in specialist sub-disciplines. Amin Benaissa charted the development of the international community of papyrologists, and changing attitudes to the collection, distribution and authentication of fragments. Ilse Hilbold explored the fascinating history of that essential bibliographic tool for classicists, the Année Philologique, and showed the difficulties Juliette Ernst, its chief bibliographer and driving force, had in building an international network to support this very large-scale endeavour. International cooperation in the creation of scholarly community has been central to the success of these continuing projects, just as they were to Plato’s Academy and other ancient schools that brought together researchers from across the world to build on their shared knowledge.

  • With many thanks to Constanze Guthenke for organising the seminar programme, and to Corpus Christi for its hospitality to this scholarly community.

Author: Carol Atack

Researcher in ancient Greek political thought and history, and its contemporary reception. Post-doctoral researcher on Anachronism and Antiquity project, Faculty of Classics, University of Oxford.

2 thoughts on “Scholarly communities ancient and modern”

  1. As usual, your blog leaves me wanting to read something else you’ve written! I should read your paper first, but–not being steeped in Protagoras scholarship lately–I always took the opening scene at Callias’ house to be comedic–almost scornful. Does the potentially comedic element (and by comedic–I mean laughing at people who are less good than ourselves) enter in your interpretation of the opening scene?


    1. I didn’t focus on the Protagoras passage in my own paper, but it was interesting that it appeared so often during the seminar, both in papers and in discussion, as a shorthand for Plato’s invocation of scholarly community – as you rightly note, there is a scornful side to Socrates’ description, and to me the imagery and language of formation and wheeling about is as much military as theatrical. So I think that the comedic presentation has a rather menacing undertone that links it to other Platonic images in which mass enthusiasm for incorrect teaching and ideology, such as the Republic‘s beast or even the cave.


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