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Isocrates on Rhetoric

The ideas of the famous Athenian orator Isocrates1 (436-338 B.C.) exemplified the dedication to rhetoric as a practical skill that Plato rejected as utterly wrong. Isocrates was born to a rich family and studied with sophists and thinkers including Socrates. Since he lacked the voice to address large gatherings, Isocrates composed speeches for other men to deliver and sought to influence public opinion and political leaders at Athens and abroad by publishing speeches of his own in writing. He regarded education2 as the preparation for a useful life doing good in matters of public importance. He sought to develop an educational middle ground between the theoretical study of abstract ideas and purely crass training in rhetorical techniques for influencing others to one's own personal advantage. In this way he stood between the ideals of Plato and the promises of unscrupulous sophists.

Rhetoric was the skill that Isocrates sought to develop, but that development, he insisted, could come only with natural talent and the practical experience of worldly affairs that trained orators3 to understand public issues and the psychology of the people whom they had to persuade for the common good. Isocrates saw rhetoric therefore not as a device for cynical self-aggrandizement but as a powerful tool4 of persuasion for human betterment, if it was wielded by properly gifted and trained men with developed consciences. Women were of course excluded from participation because they could not take part in politics. The Isocratean emphasis on rhetoric and its application in the real world of politics won many more adherents among men in Greek and, later, Roman culture than did the Platonic vision of the philosophical life, and it would have great influence when revived in Renaissance Europe, two thousand years later.

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