Aesthetics and Pathos: The Role of the Emotions in Dionysius of Halicarnassus' Critical Strategies

Grant A. Nelsestuen

University of Texas, Austin

Modern scholarship on ancient literary criticism has generally preferred to evaluate the critic's judgments to the detriment of the evaluative process itself.  This holds especially true for discussions of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, perhaps because of his often provocative estimations of such stylistic luminaries as Plato, Thucydides, and Demosthenes.  In this paper, I let pass Dionysius' judgments and, instead, attempt to redress the lack of attention to process by investigating his theory of evaluation as presented in the first half of his De Compositione Verborum (CV).

Only two previous studies have directed their attention to this end: Schenkeveld (MPhL 1975) and Damon (MH 1991).  Schenkeveld selects a wide smattering of Dionysius' statements pertinent to the critic's evaluative strategies and concludes that Dionysius' theoretical stance is "inconsistent" or, at the very least, "incoherent."  Yet, Schenkeveld's lack of adherence to the widely accepted chronology of Dionysius' corpus, as Damon rightfully points out, fatally flaws his analysis.  Redressing the issue of chronology, Damon's approach, on the other hand, concludes that Dionysius' system is only "incomplete."

The present paper does not take issue with Damon's overall point, but rather, it will argue that her division of Dionysius's perceived effects of language into three distinct categories – aesthetic, moral, and emotional – is too rigid a system and fails to consider adequately the role of the emotions in generating in an aesthetic response.  For Dionysius, the emotions are intrinsically connected with aesthetics, therefore rendering problematic any firm division between the two.

In CV, Dionysius claims that his work, a product of paideia and his own psuchê, provides the necessary epistêmê for those interested in properly availing the power of synthesis to attain the ultimate ends of composition, namely, the "noble" (to kalon) and the "delightful" (hê hêdonê).  To this end, the critic examines, among other things, rhythm, meter, variation, and appropriateness (to prepon), all of which modern scholarship has commonly understood as solely "aesthetic" categories.  While the first three categories are undoubtedly concerned with aesthetics, the substance of Dionysius' discussion consistently undermines any distinction between aesthetics and emotions; the effects attendant to the specific deployment of rhythm, meter, and variation affect one's ear (hê akoê) in different ways and, as Dionysius claims, one's pathos. 

This epistêmê, moreover, can only go so far, as the critic-composer must also have an understanding of pathos, which can only arise out of the "experience" (peiria) of one's own and the "sharing in" (sumphora) of others' emotions.  The last category, to prepon, is, for Dionysius, the most crucial one, for, as I argue, it is the final guideline for arranging one's discourse in a manner that accords with the pathetic state of the actors required for the given situation. 

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