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Practical Education and Rhetoric

Despite his interest in subjects such as the history of the constitutions of states and the theory and practice of rhetoric1, Aristotle remained a theoretician in the mold of Plato. This characteristic set him apart from the major educational trend of the fourth century B.C., which emphasized practical wisdom and training that had direct application to the public lives of upper-class male citizens in a swiftly changing world. The most important subject in this education was rhetoric, the skill of persuasive public speaking, which itself depended not only on oratorical techniques but also on the knowledge of the world and of human psychology that speakers required to be effective. The ideas about education and rhetoric that emerged in this period exercised tremendous influence throughout the Greek and Roman eras and long thereafter.

Influential believers in the general value of practical knowledge and rhetoric were to be found even among those who had admired Socrates, who had placed no value on such matters. Xenophon, for example, knew Socrates well enough to write extensive memoirs recreating many conversations with the great philosopher2. But he also wrote a wide range of works in history, biography, estate management, horsemanship, and the public revenues of Athens. The subjects of these treatises reveal the manifold topics that Xenophon considered essential to the proper education of young men.

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