Isocrates (436-338 BC) considered himself a philosopher, not an orator or rhetorician. Although he was a poor speaker himself, he began his career as a logographer, writing speeches for others. He ceased this practice in about 390 and turned to writing and teaching. In several long essays he set forth his political views, which favored accommodation with Philip and a panhellenic unity, and his theory of education based on a broad concept of rhetoric. His school attracted pupils from the entire Greek world and became the main rival of Plato's celebrated Academy. Although Plato is better known and more highly regarded today, Isocrates had a much greater influence than his rival during the Hellenistic and Roman periods and down into modern times, for until the eighteenth century education in most European schools was based on his principles.
life and WorksIsocrates came from a wealthy Athenian family. His interest in philosophical issues led him to study with the sophists Prodicus and Gorgias, and also to associate with Socrates. In Plato's Phaedrus (Plat. Phaedrus 279a) Socrates prophecies (perhaps ironically) a bright future for him. During the Peloponnesian War his father lost most of his property, and so after the democracy was restored, Isocrates turned to logography from financial need. Six speeches for a variety of private cases survive from this period, and Isocrates probably wrote many more. Later he scorned the profession of logographer and sought to disavow this period of his past. After a decade or so as a logographer, Isocrates abandoned that career and founded a school, first in Chios and then in Athens (in c. 388 BC), to train young men in the true practice of rhetoric. The earliest work proclaiming this new educational undertaking is probably the fragmentary Against the Sophists (c. 390), in which he attacks other teachers of rhetoric and seeks to distance himself from them on the grounds that they teach only rhetoric. His education, on the other hand, combines teaching of rhetoric with ethics and politics, thereby preparing his pupils more fully for their future lives. The school was very successful. Although only six students were enrolled at any one time, they included young men from some of the best known families all over the Greek world, and they were willing to pay a high fee for tuition. Among the students were political leaders, historians and other writers, foreign nobility, and orators, including Isaeus, Lycurgus and Hyperides. (Demosthenes, it is said, could not afford the tuition fee.) The fame of Isocrates and of his school was spread especially by the publication of several long essays expounding his views on political, philosophical and educational issues. To mention just a few of these: Panegyricus (c. 380), which he spent about ten years composing, is Isocrates’ earliest call for Hellenic unity under the spiritual and political leadership of Athens; in Areopagiticus and On the Peace (both c. 355 BC), he advocates a policy of peace abroad and political reform at home; and in Panathenaicus (339), completed as he lay ill and near death, and especially in his longest essay Antidosis (354), Isocrates sets forth his views on broad philosophical and educational issues, as well as on political matter, all within the context of defending himself and his career and attacking the views and practices of his opponents. In his ninety-eighth year (338) he starved himself to death.
Educational PhilosophyIsocrates considered himself a teacher of philosophia but his concept of “philosophy” differed considerably from Plato's and resembled rather what we call “practical” or “applied philosophy” (as when philosophy professors today teach courses in “business ethics” or “contemporary moral issues”- usually abortion and the like). Philosophy, for Isocrates, helped people understand political and ethical issues more clearly, while rhetoric helped them express their views clearly and persuasively to others. Isocrates was not interested in the abstract metaphysics and his moral views were less rigorously absolute than Plato's; moreover, a degree of relativism underlies his belief that rhetoric should concern itself with what is appropriate (prepon) and comes at the right time (kairos). But like Plato Isocrates attacks “sophists” (whom he sees as rivals) for having no moral values, and he affirms his own belief in rather traditional moral values, arguing that it is the job of rhetoric to express these. Novelty is important in the expression of one's views but not in the views themselves.
StyleIsocrates is also known for a characteristic style involving long complex periodic sentences full of balanced, often antithetical subordinate clauses, reinforced by Gorgianic types of assonance. The effect of individual sentences is striking, and their underlying structures can profitably be analyzed, and indeed have been analyzed by generations of students of Greek prose style. The effect of this style over dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of pages is considerably less pleasing. Unlike Demosthenes, he does not have the ability to mix different styles and he is thus best read in small doses.
SignificanceAs noted above, Isocrates’ significance lies primarily in his influence on later generations, who for centuries were guided by his model of education grounded in rhetoric. Since this model has little influence today, Isocrates is little read, but for the historian of rhetoric or especially of education, he cannot be ignored.
Blass, Friedrich, Die attische Beredsamkeit, 3nd ed. vol. 2. Leipzig 1892.
Jebb, R. C. The Attic Orators from Antiphon to Isaeus, vol. 2. London 1893.
Kennedy, George, The Art of Persuasion in Greece. Princeton 1963.
Kennedy, George, “Oratory” in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature I: Greek Literature. Ed. by P. E. Easterling and B. M. W. Knox (Cambridge 1985), pp. 498-526.
Marrou, H. I. A History of Education in Antiquity. London 1956.
Usher, S. Greek Orators III: Isocrates. Warminster 1990.
Usher, S. “The Style of Isocrates,” BICS 20 (1973) 39-67.