“And so far has our city distanced the rest of mankind in thought and in speech that her pupils have become the teachers of the rest of the world; and she has brought it about that the name Hellenes [Greeks] suggests no longer a race but an intelligence, and that the title Hellenes is applied rather to those who share our culture than to those who share a common blood.”
Isocrates, Panegyricus, section 50
Isocrates (436-338 BC) was an Attic orator and is believed to have been a student of Socrates. He opened his school of rhetoric in 393 (before Plato opened his Academy) and immediately distanced himself from the Sophists considering them to be inferior thinkers. He thought they ridiculed their profession of training people in philosophy/rhetoric, and that they offered their services at very low prices while he had gathered a great fortune teaching argumentation both in written form and in oratory. He said they were grandiose in their speeches but incoherent in their actions, that they claimed knowledge of the future but they couldn’t even demonstrate any worthwhile insight of the present, and that they pretended they taught political disputation while they did not appear to have any interest in the truth. These opinions were presented in Against The Sophists, his first work.
Plato objected to Isocrates’ teaching, and later so did Aristotle who might have studied under his guidance. Plato and others did not approve of writing down one’s thoughts as, in this way, they might fall into the wrong hands and be misunderstood (Plato of course dismissed such contentions concerning his own ideas, as he wrote a number of books). Isocrates, perhaps due to his timidity and slender voice, insisted on writing down his speeches and is the first teacher of the written word that we know of. He wanted rhetoric to serve a higher purpose, like Aristotle did, but the latter accepted as students only those who had a great rhetorical talent to show for, while Isocrates believed that even someone with a minimum of abilities could be taught the basic principles of good writing.
But he used the written form not only for abstract argumentation, but also to influence the public opinion on contemporaneous affairs (one could say he was a political analyst of his time). The last years of his life were dedicated to the writing of letters and orations trying to promote the idea of Pan-Hellenism, the union of the Greek (Hellenic) city-states, so that warfare among them –essentially civil war- would be over once and for all. He attempted to convince the Macedonian King Phillip II (father of Alexander) to unite the Greeks under his leadership and attack their common enemy, the Persians. He tried the same with the Spartan King Archidamus. In his speech Encomium to Helen he praised Helen of Troy who united the Greeks with her beauty for a common struggle against the Persian barbarians.
In his school he didn’t only teach writing but wanted to help his students to become active and useful citizens in their society. He believed that to speak correctly meant to think correctly, and said that there is no institution that was devised by men without the help of speech for its development. In Antidosis he wrote that thanks to speech the fools are educated and the wise ones are tested, and in Against the Sophists that, even though virtue is not teachable, speech can very well empower people through education and a practical training in rhetoric. Isocrates described the educated man as him who manages to handle his daily circumstances with right judgement, who is not overwhelmed by life’s misfortunes but holds on bravely, and him who is decent and honorable towards anyone he meets; not spoiled by his successes so as to become arrogant.
So, antithetical to the methodology of both the Sophists and the dialectics of Plato and Aristotle, he constituted a compromise between the two sides, proposing a clear style of writing in the form of oration, courtroom rhetoric (though later in his life he rejected writing courtroom speeches as a profession), epistle and letter writing, or the political diatribe. Cicero claims that his school was the place where the Greeks’ eloquence was perfected and that his school’s graduates made the greatest politicians, writers and rhetoricians of that time. Even though today Plato and Aristotle are far more well-known, Isocrates had a far greater influence in his time and during the Hellenistic period, as well as the roman. An influence that continued in the modern era; since up to the 19th century the teaching methods used in most European schools were derived from his work. Today most consider him the father of the modern form of text synthesis and recognize his contribution in the development of the written and spoken word, as well as historiography, ethical discourse and political conscience.
When he saw that a reconciliation between Macedonians and Athenians was impossible, and that his dream of a Pan-Hellenic union proved futile after the Athenians’ defeat by Phillip II in Chaeronea, whether disappointed from all this or defeated by an illness that was afflicting him for years, he chose to die by denying to feed himself, at the age of 98.
Choice of his works:
On the Peace
In this oration, Isocrates addresses the Athenians in a period when the city was in danger by city-states that were either under Athens’ rule or her allies, and attempts to convince them to sign a peace treaty (an unusual subject compared to his often warmongering rhetoric). His arguments are of a pragmatist nature -development of commerce, tax reductions, increase of security etc- and he uses the luster of the olden days as well as the democratic ideal to accuse those who seek a conflict.
Where Isocrates attempts to inspire the Athenians in favor of the democratic ideal, reminding them again of the glories of the past, which he worries will be lost forever. The oration was probably written a short time after the War of the Allies (357-355 BC) with the hope of countering the decline of Athens.
Here, the rhetorician speaks again about the grandeur of Athens, its polity, its heroes, its conquests. The oration (probably named after the Panathenaic Games) was written under the threat of the Macedonian’s descent toward the city, and one can read in it the whisper of the end of an entire era, as Isocrates knows that the days of Athenian premiership in the Hellenic space belong in the past. He turns again to Phillip II to affect him towards the Pan-Hellenic idea.
P.S.: It bears mentioning that the quotation from Areopagiticus (section 20) that can be found above is often deceitfully mistranslated as such: “Our democracy self-destructs as it embezzles the right of freedom and equality, because it taught its citizens to consider lawlessness as liberty, impudence of speech as equality, and anarchy as happiness”. The word “self-destructs” is nowhere to be found in the original text and was inserted arbitrarily to suggest that democracy has some kind of an intrinsic flaw that necessarily leads it to destruction; that it is a defective polity. Isocrates didn’t think so, but demonstrated the weaknesses of his contemporaneous society and said that mistakes needed to be corrected in order for true democracy to flourish again, as in the days of Solon and Cleisthenes. Those who use the distorted translation are the ones who desperately look for some ancient Greek anti-democrat to justify their own totalitarian eccentricities (and it’s no accident that many Golden Dawn members have done so). But Isocrates would never say “what we need is a junta”.