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In Good Form: Hermogenes and the Didactic Strategy of On Forms of Style

Byron MacDougall

Brown University

            Hermogenes’ treatise On Forms of Style (Περὶ ἰδεῶν λόγου), one of the most influential texts to emerge from the Second Sophistic, has become more accessible since Patillon’s critical edition and translation for the Budé series. Thanks to Patillon’s work both in this edition and in an earlier monograph, as well as Wooten’s 1987 English translation and discussions in surveys such as those by Kustas, Kennedy, and Rutherford, the outline of the treatise’s impressive history is by now familiar: by the fifth century, On Forms of Style began to be grouped with another work by Hermogenes (a treatment of stasis theory titled On Issues), a further pair of treatises falsely attributed to him, and the Progymnasmata of Aphthonios to form the “Corpus of Hermogenes.” As the Corpus came to serve as the standard sequence of textbooks in the Byzantine rhetorical curriculum, the unassailable position of On Forms of Style was secured. Its expansive, methodical treatment of seven “forms” as well as various sub-forms of style provided the most important framework for subsequent discussions of rhetorical and literary style in Byzantium.

            This paper turns from Hermogenes’ storied reception back to the text itself to uncover a basic compositional strategy behind the Forms of Style. In his accounts of the seven stylistic forms and their various subforms, Hermogenes not only describes how each one is produced by a unique combination of features including diction, figure, and rhythm; his discussions of the forms also constitute implicit demonstrations of their respective forms themselves. This is a phenomenon separate from the explicit examples of the forms that Hermogenes furnishes in the form of quotations from Classical authors such as Demosthenes and Plato. In other words, the entry for a form of style like peribolē (“abundance”) not only includes Hermogenes’ usual outline of the features proper to peribolē like its diction, figures, rhythm, and cola, as well as exemplary “abundant” passages from Demosthenes; but Hermogenes’ descriptive account also takes the form of a series of extravagant specimens of pleonasm, a figure characteristic of peribolē. Thus the discussion of the form becomes itself a demonstration of it.

            This dynamic is at work across the treatise: for example, Hermogenes organizes his explanation of gorgotēs (“rapidity”) in the form of a brisk catalogue that itself exemplifies gorgotēs; and the discussion of the form trachytēs (“asperity”), after noting that the form is strongly associated with the use of hiatus, goes on to feature three instances of marked hiatus in quick succession. Morever, by paying attention to this effect we can account for otherwise puzzling moments in the treatise: for example, the discussion of endiathetos logos (“spontaneity”), a subset of the form alētheia (“sincerity”), includes a sharply worded aside attacking unnamed commentators of Demosthenes. The jarring passage seems less out of place when we realize it demonstrates a series of the techniques Hermogenes has just described for achieving the effect of endiathetos logos.

            Finally, an interpretation of Hermogenes’ accounts that sees them as offering implicit specimens of their respective forms proves perhaps most helpful when we turn to Hermogenes’ account of the supreme form deinotēs, sometimes rendered as “force”, and which Hermogenes characterizes as the expert blend of all the forms applied at precisely the right moment. The climax of this section is a lengthy discussion on the difficulty of giving a satisfactory account of deinotēs, and ranks among the treatise’s more rhetorically impressive passages. The entire section is, in fact, a demonstration of deinotēs itself, and functions as a masterful résumé of the techniques for achieving the various forms discussed earlier in the work that go into producing the supreme form deinotēs. This paper concludes by arguing that future studies of Hermogenes and his project in On Forms of Style should approach the treatise as a series of stylistic essays, each cast in the stylistic form it is meant to analyze.

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Didactic Prose

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