Representing the tradition that was only later described as rhetorical, Isocrates was a key figure in the educational rivalries of the fourth century and contributed significantly to the formation of an educational ideal. With regard to his educational views, he was a rival of Plato; with regard to his political convictions, he was a rival of Demosthenes, and a partisan of the idea of panhellenism
Son of a flute-maker, Isocrates received the education that fit a prosperous family environment (according to tradition he was a student of Gorgias). He started his career practicing the profession of the logographer, in order to cope with the economical collapse his family underwent during the Peloponnesian War. Later, around 390, he followed a different direction, and founded his school. His basic educational views as well as his divergence from his rivals in the field of education (such as Alcidamas or Antisthenes) are presented in his short text Against the Sophists.
His death reportedly occurred in the age of 98, from starvation, because of the grief from which he suffered after the battle of Chaironeia, in 338.
The School of Isocrates attracted students from the entire Hellenic world, who became distinguished orators, but also historical writers, military and political leaders. Some of the testimonies list Aristotle, in the beginning of his career, among his students. Because of the educational views he holds, but also because of its function as a competing educational institution, the School of Isocrates was considered as the main rival of Plato’s Academy.
In the political scene Isocrates was a rival of Demosthenes. Of central importance here is the concept of panhellenism, that is, of the ideal of the unification of Greek cities, both on a political and on a cultural basis. This view is crystallized in the phrase the name Hellenes suggests no longer a race but an intelligence, and ... the title Hellenes is applied rather to those who share our culture than to those who share a common blood Panegyricus 5O.
The key for the understanding of this well-known text is the interpretation of the word ‘our’, which presupposes two interrelated views of Isocrates: on the one hand, that Greek education is essentially the education that is being advanced in Athens; on the other hand that this education is furthered in a systematic way trough Isocrates’ teaching, which he himself sees as the amalgam of the cultural developments of his city and of the Greek identity.
Later tradition places Isocrates in the canon of the Ten Orators. But it is important to note that Isocrates himself does not describe his own enterprise as rhetoric, but rather as philosophy. This apparently paradoxical word choice is less surprising, once we take into account that our familiar distinction between rhetoric and philosophy, as well as the demarcation of the latter from the former, is the product of the rivalry that reaches its peak during the fourth century between Plato and Isocrates. Of course Isocrates understands both the content and the method of philosophy in very different terms than Plato.
The content of Isocrates’ philosophy.
For Isocrates, philosophy consists in the correct use of speech (logos) and in the practice of being a citizen (to legein kai to politeuesthai). Its favored aim is to cultivate the ability of deliberation (to bouleuesthai), through the systematic practice in the development of political speech. Along the lines of the tradition of Protagoras, Isocrates holds that education makes better those who are already endowed with an appropriate nature.
Starting from the basic constituents of speeches, which Isocrates describes as eide or ideai, those of his students who have the appropriate nature, will be able to judge which ones are the more appropriate, and to combine them taking into account the circumstances (kairos), without ignoring the rhythm and melodiousness of the produced speech. As a paradigm for the cultivation of the aesthetic dimension of speech, Isocrates would present his own texts, which are characterized by an elaborate style and hiatus avoidance. However, Isocrates does not endorse the tradition of the instrumental approach of speech. He suggests that speech is an image of the soul (Nicocles 7; Antid. 255) and aims not just on pleasure but also on the benefit of the audience (Paneg. 5). Of particular importance in the education he proposes is the presence of the teacher, whom the student is asked to imitate, not however on the mechanical way that Isocrates sees as a flaw in other educators (Against the Sophists 12). Isocrates stresses the creative aspect of logos, which in turn is connected to the ability for correct assessment of the circumstances.
Isocrates often treats his contemporary educators with contempt. He condemns their departure from ‘common sense’ and their commitment to the sterile cultivation of speech techniques that impress their audience with their ability to create paradoxes (Helen 1-2), and turn the student away from the desired aim, which is to blend together different views. For Isocrates the value of the dialectic of Isocrates and of the mathematics of the Academy is merely propaideutic (Panathenaicus 26-28; Antidosis 265-266). To the long study of mathematical sciences through which the Platonic philosopher discovers the road to ideas, Isocrates juxtaposes a program that is simpler and more accessible to common sense. Unlike Plato, Isocrates believes that human knowledge is confined to the realm of opinion (doxa), which, however, can be become sound through training (Antidosis 181-184).
An important mark of Isocrates’ identity is his dislike for public performance and his preference for writing. This preference marks a departure from the tradition of antilogic, which dominated the realm of sophistry but also Socratic education, to the direction of blending of opposing views and unanimity, aiming at the ideal of homonoia or concord.
Isocrates begins the tradition of Greek education and thus, indirectly, the later humanist education that is developed on the Greco-Roman model. Hisposition in Modern Greek education is a continuation of his fortune in Byzantine times. More recent research places Isocrates within a broader discussion concerning the construction of political discourse, the nature of the identity of the author and its relation to the text, as well as to the notion of authorship.
- Haskins, E. Logos and Power in Isocrates and Aristotle. South Carolina, 2004.
- Too, Y.L. The Rhetoric of Identity in Isocrates. Text, Power, and Pedagogy. Cambridge, 1995.
- Wareh, T. The Theory and Practice of Life: Isocrates and the Philosophers. Washington, 2012.
- Poulakos, T. , Depew, D. eds. Ιsocrates and Civic Education. Austin, TX, 2004.