- Exemplary Ethics in Ancient Rome by Rebecca Langlands
How does exemplarity work? It is easy enough to recognize an exemplum when we see one referred to in Latin literature (e.g., the story of Mucius Scaevola burning off his hand, which is the exemplary exemplum in this book), but what and how are we to learn from it? Rebecca Langlands develops answers to these deceptively simple questions in this ambitious and creative book. She flatly rejects the idea that exempla were inert moralizing of the prescriptive and dogmatic sort, and she pursues the thinking of the audience that received and responded to exempla more than that of the orators or authors who deployed them. The setting of her argument is the Roman world from approximately 50 b.c.e. to 100 c.e., but the audience for it feels modern. Her project is philosophical as much as historical and literary, for the argument functions as a hypothesis about the capacity of exempla to foster a nuanced ethics that can guide and shape communities of learners.
Langlands offers an impressively comprehensive rethinking of Roman exemplarity. The argument is lucidly written and well structured: it develops organically, reaches a theoretical climax a little over halfway through, then works its way into and through practical applications. The Introduction is vital, providing an overview of the book's thirteen chapters as it articulates the unity of the whole. The first chapter defines an exemplum as a concise episode with a hero, a story, and a moral. The next two chapters, working with comparanda from other cultures (e.g., Buddhist stories, Maoist propaganda, Aristotelian ethics) in order to postulate the experience of the exemplary learner, argue for exempla as a form of wisdom literature that inspires its audience to apply the ethical thinking within it. Chapter 4 posits a process of learning from exempla in six steps: admiration, comparison, rivalry, modeling, cognition, discernment. Chapter 5 describes how clusters of exempla condition learners to develop situational sensitivity in interpretation as well as a sense of creative imitation that allows learners to apply the ethical thinking to their own lives. The next two chapters work together to identify both a working consensus about what an exemplum signifies and a host of variable elements around that core consensus, creating an indeterminacy around a defined center that Langlands fruitfully compares to declamatory practice. Since reference to an exemplum assumes the prior awareness of it by the audience, chapter 8 theorizes the site of exemplarity, i.e., a space in cultural memory that forms the backdrop to any individual reference. A site contains within itself all the versions of an exemplum, its core, and its indeterminate edges, yet it experiences shifts in its field of reference over time and so is constantly subject to revision as well as rupture, as is demonstrated through case studies in the following two chapters. Chapter 11 offers a diachronic survey of the exemplary terrain, emphasizing the constancy of indeterminacy and ambiguity and downplaying the political and cultural influences of the shift from republic to empire. The final two chapters explore particular sites of exemplarity in detail (e.g., Mucius, Manlius Torquatus, Regulus, Fabius Maximus) in order to demonstrate how their shifting indeterminacy encourages the controversial thinking that can lead to ethical reflection.
The internal coherence of the book is perhaps the greatest of its strengths, for Langlands signposts her goals clearly and connects her readings tightly to those goals. Hence I found myself admiring the clarity of the argument even as [End Page 381] I had some concerns about the ramifications of the assumptions inherent to it. I worry, for example, about historical differences between her ethical ideals and those of, e.g., Cicero or Seneca or Silius. This is one aspect of a larger tension in the book between the development of its philosophical argument and its interpretations of literary texts that verge on the historical. No ancient writer speaks of the ethical power of exempla in the way that Langlands does, but ancient writers are...