22 Mar 2006 - 24 Mar 2006All dayCRASSH

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CRASSH, 17 Mill Lane, Cambridge, CB2 1RX

Convenor: Simon Goldhill

The simple question which motivates this meeting is: why don't Christians do dialogue?

The historical case first: the dialogue as a literary form is integrally related to its genesis in the fifth-century BCE culture of democratic Athens. Exchange as a form of discourse is privileged in any version of democratic theory: the Assembly as the key political institution of the state is predicated on the assumption that different views must be laid open to public scrutiny if the best decision about action is to be reached. This is matched by the Law court – and equality before the law is a principle of democracy – where opposed positions are articulated before a jury of citizens. The theatre, another invention of democracy, stages dialogue as a form of civic practical reasoning. Finally, Plato and others in response to this democratic love of conversation, debate and the agon, write philosophy in dialogue form.

The connection between dialogue and democracy is at the forefront of the most exciting contemporary work on Athenian culture. Geoffrey Lloyd famously made democratic dialogue one of the conditions of possibility for the Greek enlightenment in his Revolutions of Wisdom. The role of Platonic dialogue form divides scholars between those who see the potential for a Bakhtinian subversion of the Platonic project, and those who see it as part of philosophy's normative rhetoric. Drama's politics of divisiveness remains an area of fascinating critical debate.

Yet the history of the dialogue does not stop here. Hellenistic culture continued to develop the dialogue form, but, most importantly, Roman culture, adopted and adapted the form especially after it had conquered Greece itself. Roman Comedy closely translates and adapts Greek models (particularly Menander); Cicero rewrites Greek philosophy in a Roman form in his dialogues. What we see in Roman dialogue then is a doubled vision: dialogue is also a way of negotiating a space between cultures and traditions, a way of expressing Roman intellectual life in and against Greek models.

Early Christianity, however, quashes dialogue. It is simply not a form for normative Christian writing: Even Augustine, with his love of Cicero, barely attempted dialogues, and it is a form we only very rarely see from the fathers of the Church. Nor, in general, is there Christian drama, until at least much, much later. The exceptions to this general case tend to support it rather than to construct a countercase. The second-century Syrian Christian, Methodius writes a Symposium, where a group of virgins “discuss” the benefits of virginity: it is clearly modelled on Plato and aims to replace the Platonic image of desire with a Christian repression of desire. But in the piece, each virgin gives a set speech, and they end singing hymns together: it is a dialogue without conversation. Many a saint's life ends with a martyrdom, where the saint gets to deliver a brilliant rejoinder to his/her torturer. This looks back to the long tradition of philosophical chreiai (the bon mots of the wise): it is a conversation in that the saint delivers a put down to a pagan. But there is never space for an extended dialogue. There are also one or two examples of debates between monks (Mark the Hermit eg). But despite the emphasis on conversion as a model, the dialogue loses its force almost entirely. Although Socrates provides one model for Christian asceticism and commitment to belief, the Trappist monk (say) is as far from Socrates on the street as you can get.

It is significant that the rediscovery of Classical literature in the Renaissance both heralded the religious wars of the Reformation and the Counter-reformation, and also re-invented the dialogue as a form of powerful literature. The humanists who spearheaded the changes in religion also spearheaded the change in literary modelling.

The question here is, of course, not merely one of literary history, but of how such literary history relates to structures of authority, power, and institutionalised religion and politics. No-one to my knowledge has explored this long history of dialogue, and looked in particular at its absence in Christianity. What is it about the expression of conversation in the form of dialogue that makes it integral to democracy and anathema to early Christianity? It is hoped that his project could provide a historical and theoretical base for other projects on the theme of conversation.
Speakers:

    * Andrew Ford (Professor of Greek, Princeton)
    * Richard Lim (Professor of Ancient History, Smith College, Massachusetts)
    * Daniel Boyarin (Professor of Rhetoric, Berkeley)
    * Seth Schwartz (Professor, Jewish Theological Seminary, New York)
    * Alex Long (Junior Research Fellow, St Catherine's College, Cambridge)
    * Jason Konig (Lecturer in Greek, St Andrew's)
    * Gillian Clark (Professor of Greek, Bristol)

Respondents:

    * Emily Greenwood (Lecturer in Classics, St Andrews)
    * Malcolm Schofield (Professor of Greek Philosophy, Cambridge)
    * Chris Kelly (Lecturer in Ancient History, Cambridge)
    * James Carleton-Paget (Lecturer in Theology, Cambridge)
    * Kate Cooper (Lecturer in Religion, Manchester)
    * Simon Goldhill (Professor of Greek, Cambridge)
    * Richard Miles (Fellow, Trinity Hall, Cambridge)

Participants include:

    * Robin Osborne (Professor of Ancient History, Cambridge)
    * William Horbury (Professor of Divinity, Cambridge)
    * M.J. dal Santo (Graduate, Jesus College, Cambridge)
    * William Fitzgerald (Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge)
    * John Henderson (King's College, Cambridge)
 

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