Demetrius Phalereus Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Demetrius Third century B.C.

Greek critic.

Demetrius is the author of On Style, a treatise on literary style and elocution very uncertainly dated to the third century B.C. If this date is correct, On Style is the sole surviving critical text from the time of Alexander the Great up into the first century B.C. Demetrius examines four kinds of style—plain, grand, elegant, and forceful; he is also the first known writer to thoroughly discuss epistolary style. Demetrius's work not only served as a foundation for other theories on letter writing and style, but continues to be valid today.

Biographical Information

Nothing is known about Demetrius except that he was not the same person as Demetrius of Phalerum. Demetrius of Phalerum was traditionally credited with writing On Style, but studies of content and style have conclusively suggested a later date for the work than would have been possible for the man from Phalerum. Demetrius was not an uncommon name and to differentiate him from others with the same name, some critics refer to him as Demetrius the Stylist.

Major Works

Critics also refer to On Style by its Latin title, De Elocutione. On Style is generally favored because the work concerns itself with more than public speaking. It consists of 303 numbered paragraphs, divided into five sections. First is the introduction, in which Demetrius outlines his general premises, defines terms, and discusses the colon, comma, and period. This is followed by sections on four different styles or manners of writing: plain, grand, elegant, and forceful. In turn, each of these styles is further examined in terms of choice of words, arrangement of words, and subject matter. Common faults are, also briefly considered. Among the subjects covered by Demetrius are the use of such stylistic devices as the hiatus, metaphor and simile, witticism, affectation, and quoted material. Demetrius uses illustrative examples throughout. Critics have noted that he was clearly influenced by Aristotle, particularly the third book of the Rhetoric, but that he is not overly respectful; instead, Demetrius uses Aristotle to meet his own ends and does not hesitate to correct or make changes to Aristotle's words when he feels it beneficial to do so. Scholars have also pointed out that Demetrius was influenced by the Greek philosopher and scientist Theophrastus.

Critical Reception

On Style has generally been praised by critics. Scholar G. M. A. Grube has credited Demetrius with the gift of the striking phrase, a discerning eye, dry humor, and independence of mind. He is sometimes criticized for not being systematic enough and for digressing too much, although these charges have been easily refuted. Much scholarly focus has been aimed at trying to determine the composition date of On Style, particularly through studies of diction and internal references. Grube has argued for a date of approximately 270 B.C. The acceptance of an origin in the second century B.C. has also been advocated, and other critics have speculated that the date could be as much as three hundred years later. Datable references in the text are frustratingly ambiguous and there will be no complete agreement among scholars concerning the time of composition unless conclusive new evidence presents itself.