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  • The Philosophical Stage. Drama and Dialectic in Classical Athens by Joshua Billings
  • Anna Novokhatko
Joshua Billings. The Philosophical Stage. Drama and Dialectic in Classical Athens. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021. Pp. xiv, 272. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-69-120518-2.

Billings' study of the revival of the close and multifaceted relationship between philosophical and dramatic thought makes a challenging contribution to the fruitful discussions about the late Athenian polis, which witnessed a productive and competitive interaction of poetic and philosophical thought and writing. The book argues convincingly that Greek drama not only integrates developments in philosophical thought, but that dramatic texts are themselves developments in philosophical thought and should be recognised as part of the early Greek philosophical canon.

The book consists of an introduction, three chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction explains in detail both general methodological issues and the main argument that Greek tragedy (and sometimes comedy) is most philosophical not when it reflects existing philosophical doctrines, but when it takes philosophical questions as its own.

Chapter 1 considers the phenomenon of lists and catalogues in drama, particularly listing of inventions, gifts, achievements, or capacities that provides an image of human culture and reflects on the sources of authority and power in human existence. Palamedes and Prometheus were both associated with Aeschylean tragedy and allegorized the utopian image of the catalogue listing the capacities that raise humans above animals (frs. 181a, 182 and PV 447–506). Also, Theseus' speech of thanksgiving (Eur. Suppl. 163–249), Billings argues, represents the closest parallel to Prometheus' catalogue. The guiding idea of the speech is gratitude for the beneficial constituents of a teleologically ordered universe. The so-called Ode to Man from Sophocles' Antigone as well as the much-discussed Sisyphus Fragment (Euripides or Critias) are also brought into the philosophical context of major preoccupations of 5th century BCE intellectual culture on the central achievements of human culture and the role of the gods in human existence.

Chapter 2 turns to another philosophical issue: the connection between deception and ontology, a significant question of the sophistic movement. Billings argues that dramas stage ontological questions as problems of ethical action and political community that concern language, truth, and being. Billings analyses the similarities of the four prologue scenes of Sophocles' Electra and Philoctetes, Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae, and Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis. All four establish questions of reality, truth, and language that pervade the works as a whole and have a substantial presence in contemporary philosophical discourse. The "intrigue prologue" constitutes a form for probing the role of trust and truth within a community, where the problems of deception are raised in political terms, crystallizing questions of truth and knowledge within a democratic [End Page 93] collective. These texts constitute a reflection parallel to those of Parmenides or Gorgias on the relations among reality, perception, and persuasion. The plays problematize deception as a state between truth and falsehood, being and nonbeing, from which no one can fully emerge, least of all the audience. In forging a link between questions of reality and truth, on one hand, and political life, on the other, the "intrigue prologues" are argued to have made a distinctive contribution to fifth century philosophical thought.

Chapter 3 deals with the questions of debate, intellectual authority, and novelty among three groups—politicians, poets, and craftsmen. The much-discussed idea of sophia closely linked to new forms of traditional socio-cultural authority as well as to novel intellectual trends is analysed in the agones sophias ("intellectual contests") in Euripides' Antiope and Palamedes, Aristophanes' Frogs, and Euripides' Bacchae. In Euripides' Antiope the two brothers Amphion and Zethus in debate contrast their active and contemplative lives while the agon represents a metadiscourse on musical and philosophical innovation in drama; in Euripides' Palamedes the confrontations over the meaning of sophia ("wisdom") are staged as well as questions surrounding the role of the poet in society and tragedy's role as a traditional source of wisdom. The agon in Aristophanes' Frogs puts into play various ideas of sophia as a conception connected to divinity and practice in a community and as human inquiry and individual pursuit. The play's thoroughgoing contrast between old and...


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