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Agonism and Arete

From: Philosophy and Rhetoric
Volume 35, Number 3, 2002
pp. 185-207 | 10.1353/par.2003.0004

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Philosophy and Rhetoric 35.3 (2002) 185-207



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Agonism and Aretê

Debra Hawhee


Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance. Those Greeks were superficial—out of profundity.

—Friedrich Nietzsche

The profound superficiality about which Nietzsche marvels describes ancient Greek culture as a culture of contact, a culture replete with spectacular gatherings, groping eyes, bending flesh, constantly redoubling so that the superficial became embedded, enfolded into bodies, tones, words. One condition of such enfolding was the agôn, the contest, the encounter that produces struggle and change. As scholars such as Walter Ong, John Poulakos, and Jeffrey Walker have pointed out, agonism provided an important context for the emergence of rhetoric in antiquity. 1 As I will suggest, athletics made available an agonistic model for early rhetors to follow as they developed their art. But the force or quality of this brand of agonism is nonetheless at times surprising, and this unusual character of the agôn was central to the particular development of rhetoric as an art of response.

It must be noted from the outset that the agôn is more than the one-on-one sparring that is emphasized in most treatments of the topic. That is, agonism is not merely a synonym for competition, which usually has victory as its goal. For outcome-driven competition, the Greeks used the term athlios, from the verb athleuein, meaning to contend for a prize. The agôn, by contrast, is not necessarily as focused on the outcome as it is on athlios, the more explicit struggle for a prize. Rather, the root meaning of agôn is "gathering" or "assembly." The Olympic Games, for example, depended on the gathering of athletes, judges, and spectators alike. Put simply, whereas athlios emphasizes the prize and hence the victor, agôn emphasizes the [End Page 185] event of the gathering itself—the encounter rather than the division between the opposing sides. To be sure, the "gathering" force of agôn to some extent entails—and is enabled by—the victory. One aim of this exploration, though, is less to consider agonism's teleological, or victory-driven side, and more to foreground the agonistic encounter itself. I will suggest that this encounter constitutes the more pervasive agonal dynamic, a dynamic that also figures prominently in the development of rhetoric as an agonistic force.

John Poulakos's important book on the sophists points out the agonistic connection between rhetoric and athletics (32-39), arguing that the sophists effectively "turned rhetoric into a competitive enterprise" (35) and that athletics provided a "rich vocabulary" for the rhetorical art. Poulakos's account, however, focuses on the athlios side of agonism, the "victory at all cost" mentality. Yet the "gathering" force of the agôn inheres as well, most notably in the very structure of rhetorical situations and their dependence on an assembly, but also in the training and production of a rhetorical subject. The realm of training, interestingly, shows most clearly the close relation between athlios and agôn, as a drive for the prize depends on the gathering force of agonistic logic from the very beginning. Agôn is also connected to the verb agein, which is generally translated "to lead," but in some instances is linked to training and can be translated "to bring up, train, educate" (e.g., Plato's Laws 782d). So the word agôn suggests movement through struggle, a productive training practice wherein subjective production takes place through the encounter itself. As Nietzsche suggests, the Greeks produced themselves through active struggle; their pedagogy depended on agonism (1974, 58; see also Poulakos, 33).

Taking seriously rhetoric's emergence in the context of the agôn requires a reconfiguration of rhetoric as an agonistic encounter. That is, for the sophists at least, agonism produces rhetoric as a gathering of forces—cultural, bodily, and discursive, thus problematizing the easy portrayal of rhetoric as telos-driven persuasion or as a...