Johns Hopkins University Press

Although best known to English-speaking readers as the general editor of the Dictionary of Untranslatables, the work of French philologist and philosopher Barbara Cassin is eclectic, encompassing literary studies, ancient philosophy, rhetoric, translation theory, psychoanalysis, politics, and more. From Presocratic philosophy to more recent reflections on Big Tech and democracy, Cassin's work is rooted in "sophistics," an approach that emphasizes the primacy of language in shaping our interactions with the world. Situating this sophistical approach vis-à-vis classical philology (Bollack) and the philosophical tradition (Heidegger, Derrida), this essay explores the contribution of "sophistical reading" to our understanding of philosophical and literary texts. Showing how Cassin uses rhetorical theory to problematize any simple opposition of the latter, the essay concludes with a critical evaluation of Cassin's reading of Helen, Euripides' most sophistical play.

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From her earliest writings on the Greek sophist Gorgias, the "father" of rhetoric as the theory and practice of persuasion, the work of philosopher and classical philologist Barbara Cassin has been rooted in the power of words to shape the world around us. In her "Discours de réception" to the Académie française (October 17, 2019)—an inaugural address which conventionally takes the form of an éloge, a speech in praise of one's predecessor—, Cassin recalled that sophists such as Gorgias were the first to recognize that the éloge was far more than a decorative tool. What the Greeks termed epideixis also had the power to transform the values shared by a given community: "an éloge worthy of the name uses values that are commonly accepted, consensual, but it does so in order to make these values evolve: the éloge's perfect orthodoxy is precisely what gives it the power to redraw the lines (faire bouger les lignes)."1 Cassin's address both describes and performs this shifting of consensus. By appropriating the Académie's longstanding rhetorical conventions, it argues that an institution founded to preserve the purity of the French language must change with the times. Cassin's own election is a recognition of this fact, since much of her work in recent decades offers a vision of languages both as constitutively impure and as structurally enriched by the almost infinite range of other languages and cultures with which they come into contact.

Best known to English-speaking readers as the general editor of the Dictionary of Untranslatables, Cassin's published corpus is eclectic, encompassing work in ancient and modern philosophy, classical philology, literary theory, rhetoric, translation theory, psychoanalysis, politics, fiction, and more.2 Beneath this diversity is a constant interest in how the legacy of ancient sophistry—or what Cassin prefers to call "sophistics"—remains a powerful resource for exploring a number of pressing issues in critical thought today. Trained in classical philology, what distinguishes Cassin from fellow classicists is her interest in sophistry not so much as a historical event but as a kind of structural effect produced by philosophy, what she calls l'effet sophistique (the sophistry/sophistic effect).3 The sophists were a group of itinerant teachers who frequented Athens and other Greek cities in the second half of the fifth century BCE. Concerned above all with the logos (speech, discourse), they developed a new method of teaching—"rhetoric," the technē of persuasion—which gave them considerable influence over political life in the polis. Plato viewed this influence as malign, and his dialogues abound with depictions of the sophists as money-loving charlatans, an existential threat to the institutional integrity of Athens. If for Plato Socrates typifies the philosopher's tireless commitment to the primacy of truth, being, and essence, the sophists' lot becomes, inevitably, one of falsity, non-being, or appearance. For Cassin, this structural dependency on a sophistic "other" can be found throughout the Western philosophical tradition, even while the "single, dominant path of ontology"4 has always failed to establish its most fundamental thesis: that being (onta) precedes discourse (logos), that speech merely represents or conveys a preexisting essence. The core tenet of sophistics, by contrast, is that being is only ever an effect produced by the logos. Against ontology's vision of sophistry as poison, Cassin's work argues that sophistics (or what she also terms "logology") can provide a powerful antidote to many contemporary ills, notably those of politics.5 [End Page 5]

The primacy of language in sophistics is why Cassin identifies both as a "philosopher" and as a "philologist."6 Her highly distinctive mode of reading, what this article calls "sophistical reading," is partly the product of her early philological training at the Lille School of Jean Bollack and Heinz Wismann. Cassin's extensive training in Greek philology distinguishes her from many French philosophers or theorists of her own or earlier generations, who tend to be competent but not always confident in their command of ancient languages. On the other hand, the depth and range of Cassin's philosophical interests—encompassing hermeneutics, phenomenology, ordinary language philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and much more besides—mark her as different from many fellow classicists in France.7 Indeed, the uniqueness of Cassin's approach perhaps lies in the intricate relationship she sees between the scrupulous deployment of philological methods and her own larger philosophical commitments. To take one example (albeit a privileged one): against the "ontological nationalism"8 of Martin Heidegger's correlation of the more "philosophical" languages of Greek and German, Cassin insists on the "tangled"9 nature of the textual legacy of the Presocratics. She does so in order to show how the irreducibly plural nature of Greek thought structurally exceeds any simple enthnico-ontological recuperation. Sophistics is critical to this aim, for if language is no longer a privileged means of conveying the primordial sacredness of being, then the sophists were among the first to grasp the indispensability of the logos to the creation of being, to the production of what Cassin calls a "world effect" (effet-monde).10 Crucially, particularly in light of her later work on the untranslatable, the logos creates not so much a single shared world as a multiplicity of worlds, a diversity of perceptions, experiences, and cultures with all the dangers and enrichments that such multiplicity entails.

Cassin's disagreement with Heidegger on the relationship between being and the word is vital, too, to understanding her relationship to literature. Far from viewing poetry as "a short path to ontological intuitions,"11 sophistical reading looks for moments of equivocity at a number of textual levels, notably those of lexis (homonymy) or syntax (amphiboly). While this interest in equivocity brings Cassin's mode of reading into the orbit of deconstruction, sophistical reading differs from the latter in several important respects, as the first part of this essay will show. In a similar vein, Cassin's engagement with the rhetorical tradition, explored in the second part, offers a strikingly new vision of rhetoric, one notably distinct from deconstruction's vision of rhetoricality as the disruptive dissemination of tropes. The third and final part of this essay will try to concretize some of these claims by offering a critical account of Cassin's early reading of Euripides' most sophistical play: Helen. Limitations of scope mean that what follows necessarily but regretfully sets aside much of Cassin's work on the untranslatable, on psychoanalysis, political theory, linguistics, and visual culture—to say nothing of her fictional output.12 This essay [End Page 6] will also focus principally on the earlier period of Cassin's career, partly because it is likely to be less familiar to readers and partly because, as we shall see, the theoretical heart of Cassin's sophistical project was already well and truly beating by the time she published her landmark synthesis of sophistics ancient and modern: L'Effet sophistique (1995).

Situating Sophistical Reading

In both its structure and content, L'Effet sophistique is rooted in Cassin's earlier doctoral thesis. This thesis was supervised by Bollack and published in 1980 under the somewhat gnomic title Si Parménide (If Parmenides)—a 646-page introduction to, translation of, and commentary on the pseudo-Aristotelean treatise De Melisso Xenophane Gorgia.13 In an acerbic review of the latter, Jonathan Barnes took aim at the "perverse" and "patently false" scholarship of Bollack's Lille School that churned out texts like Cassin's in which, he argued, "prolonged attention to a text may produce an illusion of understanding or squeeze a spurious meaning from what is merely a scribal blot."14 As we will see, Barnes is no doubt right to highlight a certain excessive quality in Cassin's mode of reading, characterized as it is by a near-miraculous ability to detect a single "organising intuition"15 underpinning a single text or texts. To arrive at this intuition, which is quite distinct from an organizing intentionality, Si Parménide deploys meticulous philological principles to decipher a manuscript that is itself highly dubious in both provenance and transmission. The manuscript's title De Melisso Xenophane Gorgia refers to its "doxographical" nature: it is a secondhand account (graphein) of the views (doxai) of three ancient authors, Melissus, Xenophanes, and Gorgias. Cassin is drawn most of all to the latter, the alleged originator of both rhetoric and sophistry, whose short treatise On Not-Being—a prototype for all later iterations of sophistics, as Cassin argues—has been transmitted to us only through doxagraphical abstracts recorded in the MXG manuscript and by the sceptical philosopher Sextus Empiricus.16

The philologically-rooted École de Lille, which gathered around Bollack and Wismann from the early 1960s onwards, is sometimes contrasted with the better known École de Paris, led by Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, and Marcel Detienne. The Paris School flourished in the rich interdisciplinary soils of structuralism and attempted to synthesize perspectives from anthropology, history, literature, and philosophy to reconstruct a picture of the overall "world" of the Greek city. Its members stressed not so much individual talent or authorial intention as the necessity of juxtaposing specific passages "with examples from other sources . . . to demonstrate the consistency of a certain general idea," concerning sacrifice or marriage, for example, which is then broadly attributed to "the Greeks."17 By contrast, the Centre de recherche philologique at Lille was nourished by a distinct German philological and hermeneutic tradition (in particular the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher); as a result it placed more emphasis on an author's individual linguistic and intellectual creativity than on social context. The singularity of an author's thought, or oeuvre, was best reconstructed [End Page 7] through scrupulous reflection on philological questions, encompassing grammar, syntax, etymology, allusion, textual variants, doxography, and more. The best metaphor for a Bollackian approach to reading is less excess (as Barnes implies) than exhaustion, since it is only when all interpretations of a particular lexeme or passage have been exhausted that the philological coherence of a text can emerge.

Methodological differences are inevitably sharpened when distilled into summarizing statements of principle, and indeed there is some evidence to suggest less methodological trench-digging between both schools than might be expected. Cassin herself would later go on to continue her studies in Paris, with her work generally evincing less fidelity to a single-minded approach (philological, structuralist or otherwise) than a richly eclectic synthesis of different methodological procedures. The intensive philological labors of L'Effet sophistique—a volume which contains translations and analyses of the most significant sophistical fragments, from ancient Greece to the Roman Empire and beyond—are a highly unusual blend of a Bollack-inspired approach to textual interpretation with concepts, principles, techniques drawn from philosophy (Heidegger, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida), political theory (Hannah Arendt), structuralist anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss), and much more besides.

To begin with philology, Cassin describes her training in Lille as a "counterappren-ticeship"18 to her formative 1969 encounter with Heidegger at Le Thor.19 Like Bollack and Wismann, Cassin is fascinated by doxographical texts, critical in the case of the Greek sophists because one is usually dealing not with primary manuscripts but with the judgements of often hostile commentators. This distorting provenance is key since, as Bollack reminds us in his manifesto "Reflections on the Practice of Philology" (1977), when reading the Presocratics we are not so much reading "Heraclitus" as rather "Diels in Heraclitus."20 The distortions scholars sometimes unwittingly impose on texts they claim to treat with impartiality leads Bollack to conclude that philologists must take account both of the interpretation of a text and of the "history of interpretations" of that text.21 Scholars have gradually incrusted more and more exteriorities onto a text's surface, such that later commentators can sometimes reject literal meaning as accidental, contradictory, or incoherent, rather than attempting to first exhaust all of a text's interpretive possibilities. This is the case even if Bollack recognizes that what we might call the tristesse of the philologist consists in an awareness that the distance separating interpreter and object will always remain "absolute."22 In a Bollackian vein, Cassin argues that "sophistry," understood pejoratively, is an "effect" produced by philosophers invested in painting their sophistic rivals as irrational, manipulative, dishonest "others." This structural distortion calls for a new approach to reading, what Cassin calls a "palaeontology of perversion,"23 since studying sophistics is akin to an archaeologist working not just with bones but with bones that have been chewed up by predators. This unusual metaphor suggests that a text's meaning, at least in its organizing coherence, always remains in principle reconstructible, like the skeleton of a woolly mammoth preserved at a natural history museum. For Cassin, even if sophistics remains fragmented and distorted in its transmission, the underlying sense or intuition of the sophistic text—what [End Page 8] Bollack would call the text's "unique"24 meaning—remains the same: the demiurgic power of the logos, or speech, to construct being.

This implicit reconstructability is why the real object of philology is the "unsaid"25 or what Bollack refers to as the text's "allegory:" what remains unspoken in a text's apparently literal meaning. The latter entails that a "sentence cannot be reduced to what it says. There is also another sentence that can be read in the work of another author or in a different part of the same work." The philologist is never content with surface-level meaning, in other words, but is always alert to hidden channels of significance that link a particular lexeme or passage to another in that author's corpus, or farther afield. Grasping this "virtual meaning" is certainly a demanding enterprise: of the philologist it requires both "extensive reading" and a certain "imaginative" flair, that is, an ingenuity for thinking beyond sedimented or commonly accepted interpretations of a text or textual fragment.26 Both traits are evident in Cassin's allegorical reading of Gorgias' elliptical treatise On Not-Being. What is most important in her interpretation of the latter, in Si Parménide and in the later L'Effet sophistique, is not what Gorgias' text literally articulates but what it leaves unsaid: namely, its ironical subversion of Parmenides' poem "On Nature." For Cassin, Gorgias' account of non-being must be read as an ingenious spoof of Parmenides' poetic search for the oneness of being in "On Nature," a complicating refutation legible at the level of lexis (Gorgias accentuates the ambiguity of certain signifiers), grammar (he plays mercilessly with the grammatical subject of being), and syntax (he condenses meaning though amphiboly, that is, ambiguity in the construction of the sentence). So powerful is Gorgias' satire of Parmenides' poem that it allows us to glimpse what is already implicit in Parmenides' poetic ontology. By taking Parmenides at his word, Cassin concludes, Gorgias shows us that ontology (the primacy of being over the logos) can only ever culminate in sophistics (the primacy of the logos over being): if Parmenides (ontology), then Gorgias (sophistics).

This focus on the unsaid or elsewhere said of a text recalls deconstructive reading, with which Cassin's philological approach shares a certain number of affinities, as Alain Badiou has noted.27 Just as the suppression of différance inevitably returns to haunt the textual legacy of philosophy, Cassin argues that the exclusion of sophistry exposes the philosophical text to a mode of double reading which calls for a new "sophistic history of philosophy."28 Sophistical reading and deconstruction part ways, however, on the question of writing. Derrida's approach to reading is always concerned with the relationship between what a writer "commands and what he does not command of the patterns of the language that he uses."29 In sophistics, discourse or the logos names—in a phrase of Gorgias' frequently cited by Cassin—a "great sovereign"30 (logos dunastēs megas estin), since it promises its user mastery not only over the opinions of others but also over reality itself. At the core of the sophist's skill in wielding the logos is a certain ingenuity for cultivating polysemy at the level of vocabulary (homonymy) and syntax (amphiboly). Unlike Cassin's philological ambition to grasp a text's underlying coherence by trying to exhaust this rich polyvalence, for Derrida a text's singular "meaning" is by definition inexhaustible: it cannot be made "present" in a moment of transparent clarity because [End Page 9] every text "hides from the first comer . . . the law of its composition and the rules of its game."31 Any claim to philological impartiality would be little more than a comforting illusion since "he who through 'methodological prudence,' 'norms of objectivity,' or 'safeguards of knowledge' would refrain from committing anything of himself, would not read at all."32 For Derrida, in other words, reading never undistorts a text perverted by a particular interpretative tradition—it is instead nothing but this structure of distortion. Cassin's philological approach to reading works, by contrast, to undistort an intuition common to all "sophistical" texts, ancient or modern: their shared belief in the power of language (logos) to transform the world. The sophist's mastery of language is sufficient to explain (away) any surface-level incoherence or contradictions within the text, which in turn justifies the hermeneutic fireworks of Cassin's supposedly "excessive" approach to reading ("a peerless interpreter responding to the appeal of a peerless author," as Marcel Detienne memorably summed up Bollack's method.33) Crucially, the sophist's mastery of polysemy is never reducible to a straightforward question of intentionality or non-intentionality, however: if the sophist's cultivation of semantic polyvalence is necessarily a calculated one, a key difference between the sophist and the philosopher is that the former knows that the meaning of a text can never entirely be controlled. Therein, indeed, lies the paradoxical power of the sophistical logos.34

The contrast between this sophistical mode of reading and deconstruction becomes starker if we look more closely at Cassin's rereading of Gorgias' On Not-Being, a text which exemplifies sophistics in its exploitation of the Greek language to satirize the pretensions of ontology. Cassin reads Gorgias' treatise as a "counter-text" (contre-texte) of the Parmenidean poem (a term which resonates with Bollack's allegorical "unsaid"), as "the calculated (réfléchie) putting to work of the resourcefulness of language." In exploiting the homonymic and amphibolic energy of the logos, Gorgias' "terrifying intelligence"35 consists not so much of destroying the ontology implicit in Parmenides' poem as in showing how "this same resource is always already exploited, albeit surreptitiously, in the founding text."36

Cassin describes her reading of Parmenides' poem through Gorgias' lens as a "counter-poison"37 to Heidegger's influential vision of "On Nature" as situated at the dawn of truth as the unveiling of being.38 For Heidegger, the Parmenidean fragments exemplify the logos as the "house" of being, its capacity to both conceal and unconceal truth as alētheia.39 In Cassin's reading, Gorgias' subversion of Parmenides in On Not-Being shows that language (logos) is never the means by which a more primordial being discloses itself; rather, the lexical, grammatical, and syntactical contortions of both Parmenides' and Gorgias' texts embody the intrinsic power of the logos to fabricate being. If ontology is necessarily predicated on logology, then sophistics is a necessary condition of (im)possibility of ontology.

In Cassin's account, far from celebrating "nonphilosophy," the strength of Gorgias' ironic reversal of Parmenides is that what he is saying is philosophically non-surpassable, incontrovertible (non-dépassable).40 As she pointed out in a 2015 dialogue with Badiou, the aim of her reading of "On Nature" is never to "appropriate Parmenides to any [End Page 10] particular philosophy," since it is only "the philosopher who tries to control adjectives."41 The goal of sophistical reading is instead to detect moments where such control breaks down, to look for logological vibrations which threaten the apparent stability of the founding texts of the ontological tradition. Surprisingly, Cassin finds such traces at work even in Heidegger's ontological vision of language, notably in his late text On the Way to Language which asserts, in a sophistical vein, that "the being of anything that is resides in the word."42 Although Heidegger's work is curiously inattentive to the sophists' reflections on the logos, preferring to see in sophistry a mere skepticism or relativism avant la lettre,43 in On the Way to Language he rejects any conception of the logos that would rest on a vision of discourse as a vessel for communicating meaning. Poetry is here a far better example of language's essential functioning than, say, a technical manual because it is in poetic language that the power of the logos to "give" (gibt) being is on fullest display. In poetry, he writes, "the word alone gives being to the thing."44 Although such moments of sophistical insight can be found throughout the philosophical tradition, from Plato to Aristotle and beyond, Cassin shows how they inevitably call for a countermanding moment of philosophical outbidding, in which the sophistic power of the logos is forcefully excluded from the discourse in question. This philosophical outbidding of sophistics is often jarringly vehement in tone, as Cassin's example of the "originary scene"45 of the Gamma book of Aristotle's Metaphysics illustrates. Having established the principle of non-contradiction, and with it the science of being as being,46 Aristotle attacks all those who reject this "firmest of all" principle, according to which it is impossible for something both to be and not to be at the same time. Such an individual—the kind of person who would write a treatise on not-being—is "similar to a vegetable" (homoios phutōi), unworthy of access to the community of humankind.47 For Cassin, the legibility of such instances of tonal excess points to the persistence of something like a repressed of philosophy, an exclusion whose ultimate aim is the efficient homeostatic functioning of the ontological machine.

Philosophy, Sophistics, Rhetoric

As we have seen from Cassin's crossing of Parmenides and Gorgias, a sophistical approach to reading begins by assuming the structural mixing of "philosophy" and "literature." To explore this mixing in more detail, it is instructive to look to Cassin's positioning of sophistics vis-à-vis a discourse which, since Plato, has occupied a porous space between philosophy and literature: rhetoric. Cassin is broadly suspicious of the term "rhetoric," for reasons not dissimilar to those advanced by Derrida in "White Mythology."48 In this essay, cited by Cassin at a key moment in her reading of Aristotle's conception of rhetoric, Derrida argues, very much contra-Plato, that rhetoric is suffused with logocentric assumptions which themselves originate in the philosophical tradition. Aristotle's concept of metaphor is a privileged example here since it provides the model for all later philosophical approaches to figurative language. By stimulating the senses, Aristotle argues, a metaphor can express an intelligible truth about an object in a way that is more [End Page 11] economical than "plain" prose. To say that old age is the evening of life (in Aristotle's canonical example) is to say something quickly and elegantly and memorably, where a less gifted writer might have expressed themselves more laboriously, more clumsily, more forgettably. Against this logocentric conception of metaphor as oriented toward the ideality of truth, Derrida argues that every metaphor necessarily involves a risk of being misinterpreted, of failing to express the essential intelligible truth toward which it teleologically tends. The irreducible possibility of such misfiring, what he calls metaphor's "bottomless overdeterminability,"49 is both the risk and fortune, the impotence and power of metaphor as pharmakon.

Far from being opposed to philosophy, as Plato claims in the Gorgias, rhetoric remains in thrall to a number of uninterrogated metaphysical assumptions about the relationship between language and truth. Cassin is similarly suspicious of the implicit philosophical commitments of "rhetoric," and she agrees with rhetoric scholar Edward Schiappa50 that the word rhētorikē was "coined" by Plato at a specific moment in the history of Greek philosophy as a way of ensnaring the sophists within a bank of anti-philosophical irrational stereotypes.51 For Schiappa, Plato's genius lies in having slipped this neologism into his dialogues as though the word were already in common circulation, as in the critical moment in the Gorgias when, in response to a question by Socrates as to which "craft" (technē) he specializes in, Gorgias responds: "It's oratory (rhētorikē), Socrates."52 Against the dialectical method of philosophy, rhētorikē conjures and condenses the worst excesses of sophistry: knowledge without learning, persuasion without truth, perfection without practice.

Despite her broad agreement with Schiappa's coinage thesis, Cassin also recognizes a certain logological ambivalence in Plato's treatment of rhetoric. In the Phaedrus, Plato indeed outlines a more positive vision of what rhetoric could be. This "philosophical rhetoric" is famously a "psychagogy," the means by which the philosopher can adapt their discourse to better "lead" the souls of their audience towards truth.53 Even in Plato, then, sophistical reading can reveal an internal division of rhetoric against itself, split as it is between rhetoric as a poison for the youth of the polis (sophistry) and rhetoric as a psychagogical antidote to this toxicity (philosophy). This aporetic structure necessitates an entirely new conception of rhetoric, what Cassin calls a "third" kind of rhetoric, one beyond the Platonic dilemma between a "good" (Phaedrus) and "bad" (Gorgias) rhetoric. This "sophistic rhetoric" is neither good nor bad in its essence but, like a handgun or an automobile, becomes good or bad only in the hands of its user. This third way of thinking about rhetoric is indistinguishable from a sophistical understanding of the capacity of the logos to (re)create worlds.

In L'Effet sophistique, this tug-of-war between the dynamic, albeit neutral rhetoric of the sophistical logos and the static idealizing laws of philosophical rhetoric is mapped onto a further distinction, this time between a "temporal" rhetoric and a "spatial" rhetoric. For Cassin, when read sophistically, Plato's Gorgias ultimately reveals rhetoric to be "the invention of ontology," one whose singular aim is "to domesticate—to spatialize—time in discourse."54 Plato's conjuring of rhētorikē effectively works to freeze the [End Page 12] demiurgic energy of the sophistical logos by spatializing it in universal laws, by treating language as something comparable to the algebraic signs of geometry in which meaning is abstracted, idealized, and supposedly put beyond the reach of the sophistical problems of homonymy and amphiboly.

There are several ways in which spatial or philosophical rhetoric attempts to arrest the dynamism of the sophistical logos. It does so first in its approach to the organization and structuring of discourse. A "well-written" speech has a clear and logical plan, an outline or framework (in French, a plan is also a geometrical plane: a vectorial two-dimensional space), with each distinct part integrated into a holistic whole.55 Philosophical rhetoric also spatializes in its recourse to topoi, to "commonplaces" or "topics" used by the speechwriter to aid the "invention" of an argument. Topoi are always generalizing rather than particularizing in their function, as Jacques Brunschwig suggests in defining a topos as "a machine for producing premises from a given conclusion."56 Topics provide useful scaffolding for speechwriters and hence are often described in spatializing terms (from "cells" in César Chesneau Dumarsais to a "grid of empty forms," "a storehouse" in Roland Barthes).57 The generalizing or idealizing function of the topics typifies the spatial rhetoric of philosophy insofar as every commonplace is an attempt to lift an argument out of its messy, ambiguous, heterogenous context and orient it towards the universal. "With topos, we have the telos and all we have to do is follow the predetermined route."58

The temporal rhetoric of sophistics, on the other hand, is characterized not by formal fixity but by mutability and flux, in the spirit of Heraclitus' river. It is not accidental that both Plato and Aristotle reserve equal scorn for the doctrines of sophistics and Heracliteanism, the latter famously taking as its motto panta rhei (everything flows). Unlike the formal abstractions of the topics, the Heraclitean becoming of the sophistical logos involves a continual complication of the universal by the particular, of the necessary by the contingent, of what is supposedly "outside" time by the demands of the here and now. If this temporal rhetoric had a technique par excellence, it would be the sophist's ability to seize the kairos, the sudden flickering up of an opportune present in an improvised action. Unlike philosophical rhetoric, temporal rhetoric does not conceive of the present as a static point in the linear unfolding of a speech, pitched between the past of what has been and the future of what will be said; instead, its present is always intrinsically dynamic, effervescent, even dangerously volatile.

The most characteristic technique of temporal or sophistic rhetoric is improvisation, speaking ex tempore. As a technique, improvisation seems to be opposed to the kind of [End Page 13] calculated organizational planning and (re)drafting that characterizes spatial rhetoric. Philostratus, an influential Greek sophist of the imperial period, wrote an important doxographical work, the Lives of the Sophists, which abounds with examples of extemporaneous sophistic speeches.59 For Cassin, it is no coincidence that the book abounds with Heraclitean imagery of rivers, fluency in discourse (fluere means "to flow"), unpredictable tidal shifts in speeches, and so on.60 Although she does not refer to this example, Philostratus' book provides a textbook instance of the sophist's ability to exploit the volatility of kairos in mid-declamatory flight. For Philostratus, a good sophist always knows how to go with the flow, a skill he illustrates in an anecdote featuring the Greek rhetorician Alexander of Seleucia. Alexander had invited another celebrated sophist, Herodes Atticus, to listen to him declaim before an Athenian audience. On the day of the speech, Herodes was late and Alexander, wary of the crowd's restiveness, stood up and uttered some words in praise of the assembled Athenians. Impressed, the crowd asked him to improvise a speech on a topic they proposed, as was common practice. Although Alexander agreed and delivered a rousing speech on the spot, he was interrupted mid-flow by the sudden delayed arrival of Herodes. Effortlessly adapting his discourse to the uncertainty of the present (kairos), Alexander started his speech again from the beginning but this time spoke "with such different words and different rhythms, that those who were hearing them for the second time could not feel that he was repeating himself."61

In this example, Alexander's genius for improvisation lies in his ability to turn the kairos to his advantage, pushing the audience's admiration for his rhetorical talent to even greater heights. Improvisation in speechmaking was pioneered by Gorgias, said to be the first to have had the courage to challenge his audiences to "Propose!" (proballete: "throw first!," a javelining metaphor).62 In Cassin's model, improvisation is the technique par excellence of temporal rhetoric, an intuitive rather than calculating attempt to seize the volatile expediency of kairos. If we look closely at the concept and usage of kairos, however, its mercurial character can be shown to complicate any simple attempt to situate it purely on the side of a sophistic or a philosophical rhetoric. In antiquity, the signifier kairos ("one of the most untranslatable of Greek words")63 already condenses a multiplicity of meanings. In Pindar, it can refer to the dangerously unpredictable, the second or so before an arrow is let loose; in Hippocrates, it designates the moment of "crisis" in a doctor's treatment of a failing patient (theatricalized ad nauseam in TV medical dramas). In both examples, kairos is very much a temporal structure, the fanning out of multiple future scenarios, which is why the skill of the sophist consists in choosing the moment most expedient to persuasion. This exploitation of kairos bears out Cassin's strong conclusion that it has nothing general or universalizing about it; it is instead "autotelic,"64 that is, it contains its own end in itself. Against the abstracting generality of the spatializing topics, for Cassin kairos is always pure contingency; in it, we find ourselves "engulfed in a particular case."

If we accept Cassin's wider argument that logology is interior to and constitutive of ontology (logos gives being), then instead of being simply opposed to philosophical (spatial) rhetoric, sophistic (temporal) rhetoric must be interior to it, as something like [End Page 14] its condition of (im)possibility. This possibility is predicated on failure since without a minimal return of the repressed, sophistical reading would not be able to reread a text in light of those elements (homonymy, amphiboly) that have escaped the abstractions of spatializing language. Cassin is not always as helpful as she could be in indicating the complexity, if not porosity, of the relationship between sophistical and philosophical rhetorics. She sometimes takes recourse, for instance, to spatialized tables which oversimplify what is in reality a complex relationship of structural dependency between the two. In the table reproduced here, kairos is ranged on the side of rhetorics of temporality, which tend to figure speech as expenditure, improvisation, or sudden dynamic reversal. Directly facing it is the "stock of topoi," central to rhetorics of space, which tend to be characterized by economization, structuring or planning, the logic of noncontradiction, and by sensuous figures such as metaphor (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. "The space of saving and the time of spending" (, 95)
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Figure 1.

"The space of saving and the time of spending" (Cassin, Sophistical Practice, 95)

If the particularity of kairos were indeed simply opposed to the generality of the topics, kairos would necessarily be emptied of any spatial or linear temporality (what Cassin's model terms the "spatialized" time of philosophy, of "past-present-future," as opposed to the volatile "temporalized time" of the "now" of sophistic performance). Formally empty yet churning with potentiality, the sophistic now would have to involve both an unpredictable rupture with the past and an indifference to any calculable future. This account of the kairetic now is anti-Heideggerian in that it subverts any conception of being as presencing: there is here "no residual presence of the present,"65 no space for spatialization or inscription of the now as presence because kairos is only ever pure "transition."66

Some aspects of the kairetic present sit less easily with such a conclusion, however. This becomes clearer if we look at an alternative analysis of kairos furnished by the Paris School. In Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant's Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society, a talent for seizing kairos—varyingly displayed by sophists, chariot-racers, and most famously by Odysseus—is a prime example of mētis, a practical intelligence for locating the most expedient poros (way) out of a situation that otherwise seems aporetic.67 This skill is exemplified in Odysseus' improvisation of a raft as a means of escaping Calypso's island,68 an invention which Cassin explicitly links to the verbal improvisations of the sophists ("Improvised discourses are the rafts upon which man embarks along the course of time").69 For Detienne and Vernant, mētis is characterized by an ability to turn the "shifting terrain" of the mutable present to one's favor.70 Where Cassin's kairos is formally empty, Detienne and Vernant argue that kairos is necessarily distended both by an "awareness of the future" and by a "richer experience accumulated from the past." In their account, the holder of mētis capitalizes on knowledge of the past, [End Page 15] present, and future by seizing kairos in a "state of vigilant premeditation." This can be seen in Nestor's warning to Antilochus in the Iliad to concentrate on the sudden emergence of the most opportune moment during his chariot race. This state of heightened awareness contrasts sharply with Philostratus' description of Gorgias' improvisation as a state in which the sophist passively gives himself up to the bon moment of kairos (ephieis tōi kairōi: "he abandoned himself to the inspiration of the moment").71 Antilochus' mētis for seizing kairos is not the capacity to give himself over to intuition; it is rather a talent for knowing "how to wait patiently for the calculated moment to arrive," for looking "beyond the immediate present [to] foresee a more or less wide slice of the future" and thereby take an opportune lead in the chariot race.72

Whether practiced in sport, politics, or speechmaking, seizing the mercurial kairos proves dependent on the calculating intelligence of mētis. The kairetic now is in this sense less a contentless form than an unstable and potent mixture of sophistic and philosophical time. As Detienne and Vernant remind us, mētis is calculating in all senses of the word (the word itself comes from a verbal root meaning "to measure"), even if it is always practiced in "ambiguous situations which do not lend themselves to precise measurement, . . . or rigorous logic."73 Given this volatile mix of calculation and incalculability, kairos is perhaps best thought of as both a temporal and a spatial phenomenon, structurally linked to duration and thus to a minimal spatial inscription, the trace of a retention of the past and a protention towards the future. (In the Iliad, the adjective kairios in fact connotes a spatial breach, a flaw in a breastplate or in the skull; and as a noun, kairos has also been linked to the language of weaving, designating the braid that assures a space between even and odd threads.74) Kairos therefore designates something like the opening of temporal (sophistic) time at the heart of spatialized (ontological or philosophical) time. To return to Philostratus' example, while it may be tempting to conclude that Alexander gives himself over to the kairetic instant of Herodes' interruption, his skillful improvisation also exhibits a mētis for weaving together the calculable and incalculable, the spatial and the temporal. As Tim Whitmarsh has noted, although the scene superficially seems to involve Alexander's self-abandonment to kairetic intuition, on closer reading much of the occasion's drama turns on "a potent mix of the pre-planned (clothing, gesture) and the unforeseen (the theme proposed, Herodes' intervention)."75

Just as kairos complicates any attempt to range it purely on the side of either a "sophistic" or "philosophical" rhetoric, a similar ambivalence characterizes a trope which Cassin takes as emblematic of spatial or philosophical rhetoric: metaphor. In L'Effet sophistique, metaphor is the philosophizing trope par excellence because it contains a series of metaphysical assumptions about the relationship between language, truth, and the world. For Aristotle, metaphor is an expression of man's capacity for mimēsis, the imitation of nature (physis). It involves the "transference" (metaphorein, "to transfer across") of a predicate (or predicates) from one noun-object to another and in doing so conveys supplemental knowledge about the essence of the object described.76 The thrust of Cassin's reading of Aristotle rests on the key sophistic notion of homonymy. If metaphor [End Page 16] only functions by means of the improper application of one noun to another ("old age" is the "evening of day"), then metaphor must be irreducibly dependent on homonymy. Aristotle's metaphor is only meaningful if the signifier "evening" can also be applied to the signified "old age." Cassin detects an important paradox, if not aporia, here, for although Aristotle is anxious to exclude the semantic misfiring of homonymy by prescribing a regime of "good" language use, the homonymy on which metaphor depends does not simply threaten truth but can also expand its empire by bringing greater clarity to the object described.77 By displacing the predicate(s) of one noun-object onto another, metaphor's homonymic energy exploits resemblances to establish a new and hitherto unsuspected relation of similitude.

For Aristotle, metaphor entails an increase in our knowledge of nature (physis), which is why it involves a yield of pleasure.78 Cassin is drawn to the ocular rhetoric of the latter's description of metaphor as the "intuitive perception (theorein: to look at, to contemplate mentally) of the similarity in dissimilars."79 In Aristotle's Rhetoric, metaphor fills an epistemic gap between "strange" or unfamiliar words which puzzle us as to their meaning, and "ordinary" words which convey nothing that we do not know already. A metaphor is an ordinary word used in a strange way to "get hold of something fresh."80 When Homer refers to old age as a "withered stalk,"81 he conveys in a single sensuous metaphor something new about ageing through the use of an unfamiliar predicate ("lost bloom") common to old age and withered stalks. What Aristotle calls "good similes" (longer, less striking metaphors) convey this novelty by giving "an effect of brilliance (phainetai: shine forth, bring to light, appear)," unveiling the essence of the object through the "clarity" they bring to style.

This reference to "good" and "bad" metaphors signals an uncomfortable reality underlying their use in philosophical discourse. With Aristotle, philosophy prescribes a "good" use of metaphor, such that "good" philosophy—doing philosophy well—comes to be near-synonymous with adopting a "proper" (kurios) style. For Cassin, Aristotle's account of the "clarity" that metaphor brings to discourse is an example of his larger "phenomenological" or "apodictic" conception of style. The word "phenomenological" should be understood in a manner congruent with Heidegger's etymological glossing of the term in Being and Time: " apophainestai ta phainomena—to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself."82 The "apodictic" quality of a style refers to how the being of the object shines forth in the clarity of the logos, an unveiling of physis in discourse which Heidegger, we saw, finds exemplarily at work in Parmenides. For Aristotle, metaphor is particularly suited to apodictic expression because it foregrounds the senses (visibility, aurality, hapticity, etc.). When Homer's description of old age as a "withered stalk" reaches our ears, we see the flower's brittle leaves, we smell the fading musty fragrance of the bloom, and so on.83 Good metaphors always place the object before us, perceptively, in its transparent essence.

A "good" metaphor is one that expresses what is most proper to the object by means of a predicate it shares with another object. Only a bad stylist (and thus a bad philosopher) would use the metaphor of a "budding bloom" to describe old age. Metaphor works on [End Page 17] behalf of apodeixis and is thus an important element of the style most "proper" to philosophy. In Cassin's account, it is precisely in this sense that metaphor is the trope par excellence of spatial rhetoric: it maps the world according to a system of static, geometry-like essences ("it is always a question of 'seeing the same,' integrating the scene of the world and producing its well-ordered graph"84). Geometry involves the mathematics of space, the calculating of universals (shape, size, dimensions, etc.), and metaphor is a figurative way of "doing panoptical geometry by establishing an analogy of proportion": it allows us to get a progressively greater hold on the universal essences of physis. Sophistical reading reveals a troubling ambivalence in this argument, however. If used improperly or excessively, metaphor can pose a risk to the recuperation of the ideality of truth. Like the pharmakon, metaphor's restorative properties can always turn out to be poisonous. If the "excellence of style is clarity," as Aristotle claims, then the sophist transgresses the apodictic demands of transparency by indulging in a style that is "too" poetic, too risky with respect to the safe transference (metaphorein) of meaning. Gorgias exploits the Greek language by inventing metaphors whose "coldness," at least according to Aristotle, stems from a fundamental lack of clarity or transparency in the essence of the object he is treating metaphorically.85 It is not for truth's sake that Gorgias wields metaphor, but for metaphor's own sake. His style is not teleological, as "good" philosophy demands, but autotelic—it goes nowhere.

As we might expect, subordinating the sophistical logos to the telos of philosophical truth leads to a return of the sophistical repressed. Aristotle's apodictic account of metaphor's clarity is predicated on a double bind that threatens the clarity of his own discourse. If clarity in style is king, a good stylist, for Aristotle, must avoid any baldness or flatness in their speech. The way to achieve color and freshness in style is to avoid "dead" or worn-out metaphors by inventing unusual or "strange" tropes. The aporia at the heart of this vision of metaphor might be formalized as follows: a good stylist cultivates clarity of expression and should thus avoid too much metaphor, since bad or excessively poetic metaphors threaten the transparency of meaning and with it the recuperation of ideal truth; but a good stylist should also avoid platitude, formulations whose brilliance has been worn away by time, by embracing metaphor, the unfamiliar use of a familiar term, to inject a sense of vivacity into their style.86 That philosophy can only banish the threat of homonymy by deploying the homonymic essence of metaphor in its most "proper" style is the kind of irony never lost on sophistical reading.

Sophistical Reading: Seeing Helen in Every Text

As the examples of kairos and metaphor show, by pushing the philosophical logic of logos and truth to its limit, sophistical reading reveals these assumptions to be possible only by excluding the dynamic equivocity of the sophistical logos. The final part of this essay explores what Cassin's sophistical mode of reading can contribute to our understanding of literary texts by looking at her early reading of Euripides' Helen. This reading is illuminating in a number of ways. It shows that sophistics is not an aesthetics, [End Page 18] for it does not aim to define fundamental characteristics of the aesthetic or literary object; instead, it questions philosophical presumptions underpinning aesthetics, from the delimitability of the work of art as an object to its supposed teleological orientation toward, say, universal truth, ethical prescriptions, etc. Nor is sophistical reading reducible to a species of literary criticism since it rejects the specificity of the literary object as well as many basic critical tenets, such as the distinction between signifier and world, fiction and reality, and so on. Sophistics does provide something like an exterior vantage point from which to explore philosophemes that shape the theory and practice of literary criticism. Indeed, part of its appeal lies in an ability to reveal the often hidden channels that link the supposedly separate genres of philosophy, criticism, rhetoric, and politics, as Cassin's recent reading of Homer and Virgil side-by-side with Arendt illustrates.87

Although Gorgias' Treatise on Not-Being can be read as a kind of sophistic manifesto, it is in Gorgias' epideictic showpiece, the Encomium for Helen, that his skill in wielding the logos is on fullest display.88 While on an embassy to Athens, Gorgias volunteered to give an epideictic speech in the agora. He chose as his theme Helen's involvement in the Trojan War. On the first day, seizing the kairos, Gorgias improvised a speech denouncing Helen's culpability. She was guilty because she abandoned everyone, her husband, her children, her country, and in doing so sacrificed the lives of thousands of Greeks. The assembled audience, for whom Helen's guilt was common opinion (doxa), greeted the speech with enthusiastic approval. Gorgias instructed his listeners to return the following day, however, to hear a very different declamation. The next day, he spoke in defense of Helen's innocence: she was the most innocent of women, she was wrongfully abducted, she was "persuaded" and "deceived" by the speech of others.89 In defending her innocence, Gorgias was effectively mounting a speech in praise of the power of speech, describing the logos as "a powerful lord, who with the finest and most invisible body achieves the most divine works."

Exemplifying the power of the logos to transform the "consensual values" of the polis (i.e. Helen's guilt), Gorgias' opposing speeches suggest that Helen's identity is not a fixed essence but a continual (re)creation of the logos.90 Helen's identity is "a sin against the present":91 it cannot be made present as a timeless, universal form since it is by nature ambivalent, mutable, protean. This an-essential quality is explored in most detail in Cassin's intermedial book, Voir Hélène en toute femme (Seeing Helen in every woman), the fruit of a collaboration with the painter Maurice Mathieu.92 As its title implies, the book's thesis is that "any woman (not just Helen) is both herself and her contraries: women are, by way of assignation and expectation, a plastic sex."93 Its title is a play on J.W. von Goethe, whose Mephistopheles tells Faust that if he drinks a love potion, "he'll see a Helen in every woman."94 This phrase is also used by Sigmund Freud as an analogy for how the desire of the unconscious harvests meaning from background noise.95 Something about the aneidetic character of Helen lends itself, fatally, to capturing free-floating projections in this way, despite her also being the definitional woman: "the eidos woman, woman as woman, exemplary femininity."96 [End Page 19]

Helen's non-identity engenders both a remarkable diversity and an underlying consistency in representations of her character in art, fiction, tragedy, painting, philosophy, and more, as Voir Hélène shows. Sophistical reading is adapted to transgressing such compartmentalized categories while uncovering a unifying thread in the rich intertextual traces compressed, for instance, in Freud's allusion to Goethe's allusion to Homer. Here "the texts, music, or words which make phrases about Helen, are palimpsests, and palimpsests of palimpsests, ironically structured by their reuse."97 For Cassin, inspired by Friedrich Schleiermacher's argument that "quotation is something that hides itself,"98 culture is indeed nothing but this process of recycling: not the imitation (mimêsis) of nature (physis), but the imitation (mimêsis) of an imitation (mimêsis), an endless structure of borrowing, intertextuality, citationality without origin.

L'Effet sophistique reads Euripides' Helen (412 BCE) as a subversive palimpsest of earlier and sometimes opposed representations of its ill-fated protagonist. The play reimagines Helen's innocence by dramatizing a claim, found in the work of poet Stesichorus and in Herodotus' Histories, that she never went to Troy. Instead, Zeus' wife Hera conjured an eidōlon or cloud image of Helen which was taken by Paris in her place, with the real Helen retreating to the house of King Proteus in Egypt where she remained faithful to her husband Menelaus.99 The play's plot draws much of its dramatic power from this conceit, from its blurring of the real Helen (Helen) and her ghostly counterpart ("Helen"), or of the person of Helen and what is said about her in her absence. These apparently "sophistical" credentials have fascinated many readers of the play, in particular given Euripides' reputation as the most philosophically minded of Greek dramatists.100 The play has also been read, however, as a passionate plea for the futility of war. If the "real" Helen is spirited away by Hermes to Egypt, this means that the Trojan War is fought over a woman who was not even there, over a mere mirage or puff of smoke (eidōlon can be translated as "image," "resemblance," "reflection," "shade"). The very fact that such an ethical (i.e. philosophical) precept against the violence of warfare is found in a play which takes much of its inspiration from sophistical themes should not surprise us. Sophistical reading is acutely attentive to the way in which every text (literary, rhetorical, philosophical, etc.) belongs both to the philosophical tradition (Euripides' Helen proposes a positive ethical principle regarding the unjustness of conflict, as in the chorus's moralizing denunciation of warfare)101 and to a sophistical tradition in which such philosophical precepts are ruthlessly tested, pushed to their limits, even dissolved.102 As elsewhere in her work, Cassin's reading of Euripides reveals the competing tensions between the play's "Platonist" and "sophistical vections."103

Following the death of Proteus, Helen becomes a prisoner of his son Theoclymenos, who is eager to take her as his wife. Against tradition, Helen vows to stay faithful to Menelaus, who duly arrives on a ship on which Helen's ghostly double (the eidōlon "Helen") is also a passenger. In Cassin's interpretation, the play is a nuanced probing of the homonymic relationship between identity (eidos) and names (logos). The play stages at least two discrete arguments concerning this relationship: one philosophical [End Page 20] (being precedes language), the other sophistical (language creates being). This ambiguity is particularly tangible in the play's "recognition" scene (anagnorisis), a conceit typical of Greek drama which usually consists in the philosophical or ontological restoration of the concordance between thing and name.104 For Cassin, Menelaus' reunion with Helen can also be read as a scene of misrecognition (or "méconnaissance" in her Lacanian translation).105 While Helen is confident that she and Menelaus will share a secret sign language that will allow them to recognize each other (as was also the case for Penelope and Odysseus—another palimpsestic layer), their signs of mutual recognition misfire, with their logoi denoting not a single clear signified but a kind of homonymic puzzle.

What sets Cassin's reading of Helen apart from other sophistical interpretations of the play is that she does not find in it a necessarily "nihilistic conclusion."106 On the contrary, her reading underscores the emancipatory effects that follow from Helen's homonymic "autonomization,"107 both from her reviled reputation ("Helen") and from her false resemblance (the eidôlon). The play repeatedly questions the relationship between original (the dutiful wife) and copy (the eidôlon abducted by Paris) by problematizing this relationship at several levels (lexical, syntactical, thematic, performative, etc.). Helen's deception of her captor Theoclymenos is described, for instance, in a way that deliberately seems to echo the deceptiveness of her eidôlon.108 Sophistical reading works to draw out such anti-Platonic moments, showing them to be fundamentally at odds with more conventional philosophical readings of Euripidean drama. In the world of Euripides' Helen, the logos (word) or onoma (name) can always be more real than the thing (pragma) it purports to represent. If this were not the case, it would not be possible for Helen to be denounced throughout the Aegean world without having committed any wrongdoing. As Helen herself puts it: "in the war with the Trojans I was set up as the prize for the spears of the Greeks—or rather not I but my name [onoma]."109 The play returns at several points to this independence of the proper name from the real person it designates, an autonomy that is indistinguishable from the homonymic energy that Cassin elsewhere shows is crucial to the functioning of metaphor. Helen repeatedly alludes to the violence of her proper name as well as to her fundamental passivity in the process of naming. In the play's opening scene, she announces: Helenē d'eklēthēn, "I was named Helen" or "I was given the name Helen,"110 rather than the eidetic or ontological certainty of "I am Helen" (Je suis Hélène), as one of the play's French translators renders it.111

As Helen puts it, the eidōlon is "a breathing phantom . . . moulded in my likeness from heavenly ether;" "not [me], but my name."112 In its structural ambiguity, the eidōlon poses a problem for philosophy, or rather a problem interior to philosophy. Although described as a false appearance, Helen's doppelganger is far more than a vaporous mirage. The play suggests that Paris actually held the eidôlon in his arms (with "warmth and verisimilitude that deceived both Greeks and Trojans," as Marshall puts it).113 This tactility is accompanied by audial evidence: the eidôlon can speak, discourse, argue, as befits its role as an autonomous agent in the play.114 While Cassin's reading stresses the [End Page 21] diaphanous qualities of the counterfeit Helen in the face of philosophy's congenital nephophobia, Euripides' description of Helen's eidôlon also emphasizes its material or tactile substance, despite its being fashioned (syntithenai) in the clouds.115 The eidôlon does not ultimately dissolve into thin air, as one might expect in a Platonist sublation of sophistics (the play read as a "search" for what is "real," for "truth," and for "knowledge," a "philosophical intrigue").116 It instead returns to the clouds where it remains a troubling presence in the heavens.

The privileged battleground of this blurring of pragma and onoma is always the logos. The confusion between the two Helens leads Menelaus to an Aristotelean discourse on the homonymic nature of language, as befits a character identified by Cassin as representative of the philosophico-ontological tradition, at least to begin with. Menelaus explains to Helen that many people and places in the world share a name in common and this fact should not be surprising or alarming.117 In Aristotle's Sophistical Refutations, homonymy is similarly presented as an inevitable consequence of language's finitude: "names are finite and so is the sum-total of accounts [i.e utterances], while things are infinite in number. Inevitably, then, the same account and a single name signify several things."118 While he does not deny the existence of homonymy, Aristotle insists that its plurivocity is always limited, discrete in number, and in principle reducible as long as one attends to the demands of "good" style. For Cassin, the sophistical vection of Euripides' Helen signals that any such reduction of homonymy can only ever be limited. Even in the paradigmatic example of the proper name, in which the onoma denotes or refers to a single and singular pragma, homonymy can never entirely be excluded because it forms part of the essence and energy of the logos itself, which cannot function unless it can be applied autonomously to multiple objects, as the drama of Helen's reviled reputation shows. While Menelaus recognizes the finitude of language, he still holds to the distinction between logos and being ("The vast weight of my sufferings at Troy convince me, not you"119), even while his verbal interaction with Helen will lead him to greater and greater doubt concerning the primacy of the latter over the former.

Helen, too, casts doubt on conventional, philosophical assumptions about the close relationship between word and thing, raising frequent questions of etymology and the suitability or unsuitability of names. In Greek, Theoclymenos is "he who listens to the gods," yet the character seems ill-named because he wishes to marry the chaste Helen and kill her deceptive double. Although Helen initially accepts the view, common to the Greeks, that there is a close link between one's person and the etymology of one's name,120 the play dramatizes her progressive realization of the arbitrariness of the signifier. As she reminds Menelaus, her name is not written on her body but can be found [End Page 22] "in many places."121 Cassin points out, moreover, that the etymology of "Helen" was already the subject of much debate amongst the eponym-obsessed Greeks, who speculated on its origins in helein, the past infinitive of haireō (I take, I remove, I capture).122 In the Agamemnon, Aeschylus plays on this etymology in casting Helen as helenas, helandros, heleptolis: taker of ships, taker of men, taker of cities.123 Despite these alleged origins, the pharmakon-like ambivalence of homonymy means that it is, crucially, also the positive source of Helen's liberation. As Cassin reminds us, in Greek the final syllable of Helen's name introduces unavoidable amphibolic uncertainty, for one cannot know whether this capture is given in the active sense (Helen as taker of lives) or in the passive sense (Helen as abductee).124 The structural homonymy of language entails simultaneous catastrophe and salvation, constraint and liberation, poison and cure.

Reading Euripides' Helen as a "mise en scène"125 of logology means reading the play as both opening the possibility of a Platonist recuperation of ideal truth and foreclosing this circular return through the homonymic errancy of meaning. Sophistical reading thereby reveals what we might call the play's alienation effect: by putting Helen's essence (eidos) on stage, in all its fictive theatricality, Euripides shows us the backstage bells and pulleys that produce the sophistic "effect" of truth as the apparently stable concordance of name (onoma) and being (eidos). The play's metatheatrical qualities have often been commented on by critics, and Cassin too speculates on how the play might be staged so as to underscore Helen's status as a "being without being," to perform ontology as a "grand illusion."126 These brief but intriguing reflections on the play's performance excepted, Cassin's reading of Euripides sets other important aspects of the text's staging aside, such as posture or proxemics, acoustic features such as music (the crucial recognition scene between Menelaus and Helen ends with a duet on which Cassin's reading is silent), as well as more general issues relating to the theatrical situation of Greek performance (distance from the stage, outdoor context, and so on). One can guess how sophistical reading might respond to each of these elements (with Helen's musical interludes linked back to her melodious, drug-like voice, for example), but the philological emphasis sophistical reading places on an author's ingenious manipulations of the logos means that such performative elements will probably always retain secondary importance. Another possible objection concerns Helen's historical background, particularly significant given the play's thematic exploration of the justness of war as well as the contemporary geopolitical context in which it was written: the routing of Athens' naval forces at Sicily.127 Cassin's epideictic conception of the sophistical logos, as the performance of values that are either shared or not-yet-established in a political community, is historically sensitive, however, in that it shows how the logos is structurally involved in the crisis of values generated by the play's contemporary political context. This crisis of values may even be responsible for the development of the play's more experimental form, as Marshall has noted.128

Are not all approaches to reading to some degree partial or selective? As sophistics itself teaches us, so much of the answer depends on one's perspective. The advantages of sophistical reading are many. In going beyond totalizing readings of Euripides as a [End Page 23] dramatist in thrall to the Platonic Idea, or as a playwright whose work bears the all-too-determining stamp of sophistic influence, Cassin's singular approach is uniquely attuned to the different and often competing tensions at stake in every text—literary, philosophical, rhetorical, or otherwise. In pursuing these tensions, sophistical reading is scrupulously attentive to questions of language, syntax, and homonymy, and to the power of the logos to construct and shape the world anew each time. It may indeed offer an overly linguistic interpretation of the work of art, something especially apparent in the multi-sensorial context of a play. By unearthing the thematic and formal centrality of logology in every text (literary or otherwise), sophistical reading may even be accused of veering dangerously close to the kinds of totalizing readings it elsewhere equates with the ontological or Platonist tradition of philosophy. Yet it never attempts to legitimize itself as the last word on meaning; instead, sophistical reading continually stresses the ambivalent and polyvocal nature of meaning as the product of our endless attempt to come to terms with the homonymic—that is, treacherous and liberating in equal measure—nature of language itself. [End Page 24]

Paul Earlie

Paul Earlie is Senior Lecturer in French Thought at the University of Bristol. He is the author of Derrida and the Legacy of Psychoanalysis (2021).


1. Cassin, "Discours de reception."

2. Since the 2014 publication of Sophistical Practice, a volume of wide-ranging essays, Fordham University Press has published a number of English translations of Cassin's oeuvre; several books co-authored with Alain Badiou have also been published by Columbia University Press.

3. Cassin's 700-page L'Effet sophistique (all translations are my own unless otherwise indicated) was published in Gallimard's prestigious "NRF Essais" series. Parts of the book have been translated as standalone essays and/or collected in Sophistical Practice, although the latter also includes several additional texts. When references to both works are provided, these should therefore not necessarily be taken as referring to parallel passages.

4. Cassin and Deutscher, "Introduction," 1.

5. A sense of Cassin's role as a public intellectual can be gleaned from her critique of performance culture during the Sarkozy years in L'Appel des appels and Derrière les grilles; her reflections on her own involvement with South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in "Enough of the Truth For . . ."; her dismantling of Google's democraticizing rhetoric in Google Me; and her general critique of global English ("globish") and hegemonic languages in her more recent work on untranslatability.

6. Cassin, Le bonheur, sa dent douce à la mort, 125–38.

7. On the mutually enriching exchanges between French thought and classics, see Loraux et al., Introduction to Antiquities; Leonard, Athens in Paris; and Miller, Postmodern Spiritual Practices.

8. Cassin and Deutscher, "Introduction," 10.

10. Cassin, "Who's Afraid of the Sophists?", 37; Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 69.

11. Cassin and Deutscher, "Introduction," 8.

12. See most notably her collection of short stories, the title of which is taken from Gorgias: Avec le plus petit et le plus inapparent des corps.

13. Cassin, Si Parménide.

14. Barnes, "De Melisso Xenophane Gorgia," 67.

15. Cassin, Si Parménide, 44.

16. Translations and commentary on both versions of On Not-Being can be found in Dillon and Gergel, The Greek Sophists.

17. Sissia, "Philology, Anthropology, Comparison," 168.

18. Cassin, "Who's Afraid of the Sophists?", 27.

19. Described in Cassin, Le Bonheur, 100–24, and Cassin and Deutscher, "Introduction," 7–9.

20. A reference to the pioneering classical philologist Hermann Alexander Diels, whose Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (1903) became a landmark scholarly reference for later commentators. In Early Greek Thinking, Heidegger contrasts his own approach to translation with Diels's more literalist renderings (14), echoing his more general criticism of Diels's presentation of early Greek thought through the distorting lens of the term "presocratic."

21. Bollack, "Reflections on the Practice of Philology," 48.

23. Cassin and Deutscher, "Introduction," 2.

24. Bollack, "Reflections on the Practice of Philology," 52.

27. Badiou and Cassin, Homme, femme, philosophie, 32.

28. Cassin and Deutscher, "Introduction," 1.

29. Derrida, Dissemination, 158.

30. Cassin, "Rhetorical Turns in Ancient Greece," 77.

31. Derrida, Dissemination, 63.

33. Detienne, The Masters of Truth in Archaic Greece, 22.

34. In a similar vein, Bollack's "Reflections on the Practice of Philology" rejects the idea that the "virtual meaning" (38) or allegory of a text has anything to do with "differentiated levels of consciousness"; instead, he proposes a model of interpretation in which textual coherence and polysemy are not opposed—as they are in deconstructive reading—but are rather closely allied: "Because the project includes and contains polysemy, it is inconceivable that this polysemy should escape." In other words, the more the philologist grapples with polysemy, the closer they will come to the text's organizing coherence.

35. Cassin and Deutscher, "Introduction," 8.

36. Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 32.

37. Badiou and Cassin, Homme, femme, philosophie, 147.

38. Badiou and Cassin, 96. This antidotal reading of Heidegger is clear from the title of Cassin's scholarly edition of Parmenides' poem: Parménide, Sur la nature ou sur l'étant. La langue de l'être?.

39. On Parmenides, see Heidegger, Early Greek Thinking, 79–101; on language as "the house of Being," see On the Way to Language, 135.

40. Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 26.

41. Badiou and Cassin, Homme, femme, philosophie, 116, 121.

42. Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 63.

43. Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 100–17.

44. Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 62.

45. Cassin, "Speak If You Are A Man," 44.

46. Aristotle, Metaphysics, Gamma 3, 1005b13–14. For Heidegger, too, "the essence of being consists in the constant absence of contradiction" (Nietzsche, 111–12).

47. Cassin, "Speak If You Are A Man," 45; Aristotle, Metaphysics, Gamma 4, 1006a11–26 (Cassin's translation).

48. Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, 207–72.

49. Derrida, 243.

50. Cassin, "Rhetorical Turns in Ancient Greece," 77; L'Effet sophistique, 411.

51. Schiappa, "Did Plato Coin Rhētorikē?"

52. Plato, Gorgias, 449a.

53. Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 413.

54. Cassin, 413; "Topos/Kairos," 87.

55. Plato, Phaedrus, 264b-c.

56. Brunschwig, Préface to Topiques by Aristotle, xxxix.

57. Barthes, "The Old Rhetoric," 65.

58. Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 468; "Topos/Kairos," 94.

59. Philostratus, The Lives of the Sophists.

60. Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 465; "Topos/Kairos," 98.

61. Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists, 197.

62. Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 465–66; "Topos/Kairos," 92.

63. Cassin, "Topos/Kairos," 93.

64. Cassin, 94.

65. Cassin, 89.

66. Cassin, 97.

67. Detienne and Vernant, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society.

69. Cassin, "Topos/Kairos," 92.

70. Detienne and Vernant, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society, 14.

71. Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists, 11; Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 466.

72. Detienne and Vernant, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society, 15.

74. White, Kairomania, 13.

75. Whitmarsh, The Second Sophistic, 28–9.

76. Aristotle, Poetics, 1457b6–9.

77. Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 498–99.

78. Aristotle, Poetics, 1448b5–9.

79. Aristotle, 1459a8.

80. Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1410b10–20.

81. Homer, Odyssey, XIV 213.

82. Heidegger, Being and Time, 58 (Greek transliterated).

83. Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 497.

84. Cassin, "Topos/Kairos," 91.

85. Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 501.

86. Cassin, 498.

87. Cassin, Nostalgia.

88. Cassin, "Seeing Helen in Every Woman," 66–8.

89. Dillon and Gergel, The Greek Sophists, 79.

90. Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 74.

91. Cassin, 79.

92. Cassin, Voir Hélène en toute femme; see also "Seeing Helen in Every Woman."

93. Deutscher, "'Mais s'il y en a': Helen, and Helen Again," 94.

94. Cassin, "Seeing Helen in Every Woman," 57.

95. Cassin, 58.

96. Cassin, 321, n.4. For a reading of Helen as "an object who tells us a lot about the [psychoanalytic] object," see Cassin, Jacques the Sophist, 116–19.

97. Cassin, "Seeing Helen in Every Woman," 58.

98. Badiou and Cassin, Homme, femme, philosophie, 86–7, 139.

99. Euripides, Helen. All subsequent references are to line numbers.

100. On Euripides as a "mouthpiece of philosophical doctrines, both ethical and 'physical,'" see Dillon, "Euripides and the Philosophy of His Time," 48.

101. Euripides, Helen, 1151–57. On the play's ethical status as a contemporary political critique of the endlessness of war, see Marshall, The Structure and Performance of Euripides' Helen, 17–9.

102. Existing studies of the play have tried to unpick this aporia in several ways. Some scholars, such as John Dillon, see no distinction between philosophy and sophistry. Others adopt a more dialectical approach, reading the play's conclusion as a Platonist overcoming of sophistry's confusion of reality and resemblance. In Euripides' Escape-Tragedies, Matthew Wright dismisses the "French school," which he associates with Vernant, for the emphasis it places on "ambiguity, unanswered questions and lack of resolution" (227); for him, the play's unity is ultimately found in Euripides' "philosophical" conclusions regarding the close relationship between sense perception, words, and reality. The entire virtue of Cassin's sophistical reading of the play lies, by contrast, in its ability to maintain the play's productive tensions between sophistics' and philosophy's contrasting views of the relationship between eidos and logos.

103. Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 82.

104. Aristotle: "discovery [anagnôrisis] is, as the very word implies, a change from ignorance to knowledge, and thus to either love or hate, in the personages marked for good or evil fortune" (Poetics, 1452a31–31).

105. Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 93; "Seeing Helen in Every Woman," 65.

106. Wright, Euripides' Escape-Tragedies, 337.

107. Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 87.

108. Wright, 289.

109. Euripides, Helen, 42–4; Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 84.

111. Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 83.

112. Euripides, Helen, 31–44.

113. Marshall, Euripides' Helen, 59.

114. Euripides, Helen, 610.

116. Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 83–4.

117. Euripides, Helen, 498–500.

118. Aristotle, Sophistical Refutations, 165a12–4.

119. Euripides, Helen, 594–95.

120. Euripides, 1–16.

121. Euripides, 589; Cassin, "Seeing Helen in Every Woman," 66.

123. Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 87; "Seeing Helen in Every Woman," 61.

124. Cassin, "Seeing Helen in Every Woman," 60.

125. Cassin, L'Effet sophistique, 80.

126. Cassin, 82–3.

127. Marshall, Euripides' Helen, 17.

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