“Enough About Plato”: Dionysius on Prose Style

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Letter to Gnaeus Pompeius 2

“And you yourself, bestie Geminus, were clear in holding the same opinion about the man in your letter in which you write verbatim: “in other types of composition it is easy to fall somewhere between praise and blame—but in ornament, what does not succeed, fails completely. For this reason, it seems right to me not to interrogate these men for their few failures but for the greater number of their successes.”

And later after this you say these things an addition: “Even though I am able to mount a defense for all of these passages or most of them, I do not dare to speak against you. But I do take this one point hard—that  it is not possible to succeed impressively in every way unless you take these kind of risks and enter those situations in which it is necessary to stumble”.

We don’t diverge from one another—for you agree that it is necessary that one who has great aims sometimes stumbles while I say that Plato in reaching for sublime, magnificent, and surprising phrases did not succeed all the time, but that his mistakes occupy only a small portion of his total attempts. I also add that this is one way in which Plato is less than Demosthenes—for his heightened style at times slips into emptiness and unpleasantry; for Demosthenes this happens never or rarely at all. That’s enough about Plato.”

καὶ σύ γε αὐτός, ὦ βέλτιστε Γεμῖνε, ὁμοίαν ἐμοὶ γνώμην περὶ τἀνδρὸς ἔχων φαίνῃ δι᾿ αὐτῆς γέ τοι τῆς ἐπιστολῆς, ἐν οἷς κατὰ λέξιν οὕτω γράφεις· ῾ἐν μὲν γὰρ τοῖς ἑτέροις σχήμασι ῥᾴδιον πεσεῖν μέσον τι ἐπαίνου καὶ μέμψεως· ἐν δὲ τῇ κατασκευῇ τὸ μὴ ἐπιτευχθὲν πάντῃ ἀποτυγχάνεται. διό μοι δοκεῖ τούτους τοὺς ἄνδρας οὐκ ἐκ τῶν ἐπικινδυνοτέρων οὐδὲ ἐλασσόνων, ἀλλ᾿ ἐκ τῶν πλείστων καὶ εὐτυχηθέντων ἐξετάζειν᾿. καὶ μετ᾿ ὀλίγα πάλιν ἐπιλέγεις ταυτί· ῾ἐγὼ δὲ καίπερ ἔχων ἀπολογήσασθαι ὑπὲρ ἁπάντων ἢ τῶν γε πλείστων οὐ τολμῶ σοι ἐναντία λέγειν· ἓν δὲ τοῦτο διισχυρίζομαι, ὅτι οὐκ ἔστι μεγάλως ἐπιτυχεῖν ἐν οὐδενὶ τρόπῳ μὴ τοιαῦτα τολμῶντα καὶ παραβαλλόμενον, ἐν οἷς καὶ σφάλλεσθαι ἐστὶν ἀναγκαῖον.᾿ οὐδὲν διαφερόμεθα πρὸς ἀλλήλους· σύ τε γὰρ ὁμολογεῖς ἀναγκαῖον εἶναι τὸν ἐπιβαλλόμενον μεγάλοις καὶ σφάλλεσθαί ποτε, ἐγώ τέ φημι τῆς ὑψηλῆς καὶ μεγαλοπρεποῦς καὶ παρακεκινδυνευμένης φράσεως ἐφιέμενον Πλάτωνα μὴ περὶ πάντα τὰ μέρη κατορθοῦν, πολλοστὴν μέντοι μοῖραν ἔχειν τῶν κατορθουμένων τὰ διαμαρτανόμενα ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ. καὶ καθ᾿ ἓν τοῦτο Πλάτωνά φημι λείπεσθαι Δημοσθένους, ὅτι παρ᾿ ᾧ μὲν ἐκπίπτει ποτὲ τὸ ὕψος τῆς λέξεως [τῶν λόγων] εἰς τὸ κενὸν καὶ ἀηδές, παρ᾿ ᾧ δὲ οὐδέποτε ἢ σπανίως γε κομιδῇ. καὶ περὶ μὲν Πλάτωνος τοσαῦτα.

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