Havelock’s ‘Professional Technique of the Sophists’, 1940

Havelock lectured at the annual meeting of the American Philological Association in 1940.  His lecture revisited the essay he had published in the Ontario College of Education monthly magazine, The School (Secondary Edition) in May and June 1938, ‘The Significance of the Greek Sophist’.

His abstract of the lecture appeared in the Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, vol. 71 (1940), p xli:

The Professional Technique of the Sophists, by E. A. Havelock, Victoria College.

Aside from apprentice systems in the crafts and trades, fifth century Athens afforded neither a curriculum nor any institutions designed for the specific purpose of giving instruction to the adolescent youth after leaving school. The state undertook some responsibilities in this connection in the fourth century, but it is incorrect to read these back into earlier times. Hence adult character (arete) was conceived as relying on “native endowment” plus “experience” (Pindar, Theognis). However, arete did in fact rely for its communication between the generations on an arrangement which could be described as “family group association” (synousia), which brought the adolescents under regular influence if not discipline.

The sophists sought to offer both a curriculum and some organized educational discipline, i.e. lectures by professionals. But initially they also strove to preserve continuity with the past. Hence (a) they constructed formulas to reconcile “native endowment” with “instruction” (Protagoras, Democritus, Anonymus Iamblichi) and (b) they continued to describe their organized teaching in non-professional terms (epidemia, synousia, diatribe, etc.). However, their activities gradually professionalized these terms, as a comparison with fourth century usage shows. These activities were bound to precipitate a collision within the city state, both of theory and of practice. This is reflected acutely in Athenian comedy, from Cratinus onwards. The challenge to the “family group system” was dramatized as a conflict between two generations over the rights of parents. Eventually the sophists, possibly in self-defense, rationalized their claims in the form of an avowed profession with its proper technique, content and standing (Discoi, Logoi, etc.).

This fifth-century background affords a perspective by which to interpret the positions taken up by Plato and Aristotle in these educational controversies. Both philosophers were committed to positions more ambiguous than they cared to admit. On the other hand, Epicurean contubernium1 marked an attempt to return to pre-professional condition.

Of particular note is Havelock’s observation that “arete did in fact rely for its communication between the generations on an arrangement which could be described as ‘family group association’ (synousia)”.  Havelock was well aware that such inter-generational communication was necessarily oral in the centuries before the invention of the alphabet and even after its invention during the extended time of its gradual adoption throughout Greek society. What would happen in the following decade is that he would reverse his thinking between what was ground and what was figure here.  Where the oral/literate contrast was formerly seen as figured on education (and on educators like Socrates and the Sophists) as its background, now changes in education and other functions of society would be seen to figure against the background of communication modes and their associated techniques of information storage.2

So it was that by 1947 Havelock could write of 

that enormous weight of tribal baggage, of lore, precept, genealogy, custom, which the [oral] poet has to drag along in his epic. (…) Homer the encyclopaedist, the didactic recorder of oral tradition, freighted with catalogues and memories… 3

And in that same year I. A. Richards could report from Harvard:

Professor Havelock has suggested that we may see in Plato’s rejections of Homer the revolt of the writing mind’s mode of apprehension against the pre-literate mind’s other, less abstract and intellectual, ways of ordering itself. 4

And Ernest Sirluck could report:

At this period [middle 1940s] there was much discussion among [UT] classicists concerning the use of epic poetry as a technique for inter-generational communication of the ‘cultural baggage’ of a non-literate people. 5


  1. The epicurean contubernium was treated in an article of this name by Havelock’s colleague, Norman W. DeWitt, in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 67 (1936), pp.55-63. See here
  2. Six years before his death Havelock would title his 1982 collection of essays, representing a summation of his life’s work, The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences.
  3. Havelock’s review of E.T. Owen, The Story of the IliadUTQ, Jan 1948, 17:2, 209-211, here 211.
  4. BBC Third Programme radio broadcast on October 5, 1947, ‘The Spoken and the Written Word’ (recorded on September 17, 1947). A transcript was published in The Listener, xxxviii:977, October 16, 1947, 669-670; a slightly revised version appeared thirty years later as ‘Literature, Oral-Aural and Optical’ in Complementarities, (ed) Russo, 1976, 201-208.
  5. A. John Watson, Marginal Man, 297. For discussion, see here.

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