Though Isocrates composed, in his youth, a few forensic speeches, it is not by such compositions that he must be judged; indeed he himself, far from claiming credit for his activity in that direction, in later life adopted an apologetic tone when speaking of his earlier work. As a teacher of rhetoric he won great
renown, numbering, as he boasts, even kings among his pupils; and he had a complete mastery of all the technique of the rhetorical art.
He was also a master of style, having theories of composition which he exemplified in practice with such skill that he must occupy a prominent place in any treatise on the development of Greek prose.
But his highest claim to consideration is as a political thinker. His bold and startling theories of Greek politics were expressed indeed in finished prose, and in rhetorical shape; but the artistic form is only an added ornament; if Isocrates had written in the baldest style he must have made a name by his treatises on political science, and by the fact that he took a broader and more liberal view of Hellenism than any Athenian before or after. Thus he, who perhaps never delivered a public speech, is of more importance than any of the other orators; and though no politician in the narrow sense, he exerted a wider influence than any, not excepting Demosthenes, who devoted their lives to political activity, for he originated and promulgated ideas which completely changed the course of Greek civilization. It was probably he who was the first to instigate Philip to attempt the conquest of Asia, as he had before urged Dionysius and others to make the attempt—all for the sake of the union of Greek States and the spread of Hellenism; certainly he encouraged the Macedonian in his project, and perhaps it may be said to be due to him that on Philip's death Alexander found the way prepared.
Isocrates could not fully foresee the results of Alexander's conquests; Alexander himself modified and expanded his ambitions as he advanced; but
undoubtedly Isocrates urged the general desirability of the undertaking and saw clearly, up to a certain point, the lines on which it ought to be carried out. The petty law-suits which occupied Lysias and Andocides seem trivial and unimportant, even the patriotic utterances of Demosthenes seem of secondary weight, compared with these literary harangues of Isocrates, in cases where civilization and barbarism, unity and discord, are the litigants, and the court is the world.
Isocrates is named by Dionysius as an example of the smooth (or florid) style of composition, which resembles closely woven stuffs, or pictures in which the lights melt insensibly into the shadows (de Comp. Verb.,
It is clear that to aim consciously at producing such effects as these is to exalt mere expression to supreme heights, and to risk the loss of clearness and emphasis. We may gather the opinions of Isocrates on the structure of prose partly from his own statements, partly from the criticisms of Dionysius, and partly from a study of his compositions. The subject has been very fully and carefully dealt with by Blass, and in the present work only a summary of the chief results can be attempted.
The most noticeable feature of the style is the care taken to avoid hiatus. This is particularly remarked by Dionysius, who, after quoting from the Areopagiticus
a long passage which he particularly admires, notes, ‘You cannot find any dissonance of vowels, at any rate in the passage which I have quoted, nor any, I think, in the whole speech, unless some instance has escaped my observation.’1
We should expect to find that, to produce this effect, it was necessary to depart frequently from natural forms of expression, either by changing the usual order, or by inserting unnecessary words. It is probable that Isocrates resorted to both these devices; but such is the skill with which he handles his materials that careful reading is necessary to detect the distortions.2
Dionysius further notes that dissonance or clashing of consonants is rare, and herein Isocrates seems to have been at pains to follow the rules of euphony laid down in his own Τέχνη.
In a fragment preserved by Hermogenes he tells his readers to avoid the repetition of the same syllable in consecutive words—as ἡλικὰ καλά, ἔνθα Θαλῆς.
(Maxim. Planud. ad Hermog.,
v. 469). The ingenuity of Blass has discovered passages in which the natural form of a phrase has been altered to avoid such juxtaposition of similar syllables.3
Certain combinations of consonants, too, are hard to pronounce, and must therefore be avoided. There is, in truth, much justice in the remark of Dionysius that in reading Isocrates it is not the separate words but the sentence as a whole that we must take into account.
The third characteristic of Isocrates' style is his attention to rhythm.
The extravagance of Gorgias had hindered the development of the language by introducing into prose the rhythms and language of poetry; Thrasymachus,
as we know from Aristotle's Rhetoric,
had studied the effect of the foot ‘paeonius’ (-uuu or uuu-) at the beginning and end of periods (Rhet., Book iii. 8. 4
). Isocrates, while deprecating the use of poetical metres in any strict sense, asserted that oratorical prose should have rhythms of its own, and favoured combinations of the trochee and the iambus. In this he differed from Aristotle, who disapproved of the iambic rhythm as being too similar to the natural course of ordinary speech, and of the trochaic, as being too light and tripping—in contrast to the hexameter, which he classed as too solemn for spoken language.
The periods of Isocrates are remarkable for their elaboration. The analyses of Blass show us a complication of structure in some of the longer sentences which may almost be compared to that of a Pindaric ode. Never, perhaps, has there been a writer who attained such luxuriant complexity in his composition of sentences. But Isocrates is too much the slave of his own virtues; his periods are so long, so complete, so uniformly artistic, that their everlasting procession is monotonous. Lysias, less perfect in form, has in consequence more variety; Demosthenes, who could compose long periods, did not confine himself to them, but enlivened his style by contrast.
The structure of the period lends itself naturally to antithetical forms of expression. We observed in Antiphon the frequency of verbal antitheses of various kinds—the λόγῳ
, the μὲν
, and others. Isocrates, having before him the examples of his predecessors and the precepts of rhetoricians, and having theories of his own on sentence-construction,
developed very fully a scheme of parallelism in word, sense, and sound.
Thus a period will consist, as we have seen, of a succession of κῶλα
or limbs, each one corresponding to another in size, and pairs of corresponding κῶλα
will contain pairs of words parallel in sense, form or sound. So the whole period is bound closely together.
His vocabulary avoids excess; he is, in the judgment of Dionysius, the purest of Atticists, with the exception of Lysias. But if we compare the two we find much more tendency to fine writing in Isocrates. Using ordinary words he can produce notable effects, and he is always consciously striving after a certain pomposity of diction. This is most noticeable in the exhibition-writings, such as the Helen
where grandiloquent compound words are not infrequent, and metaphors are commoner and more striking than in the speeches on real subjects.
One of his affectations, copied by nearly all subsequent orators, is the unnecessary piling up of words almost synonymous to express one idea.4
On the other hand we sometimes find synonyms apparently contrasted in different parts of the sentence; such contrast is only verbal, and is made for the purpose of rounding the period; in either case we must note that the writer departs from simplicity in order to improve the sound of his words, but does not add much to the sense.5
Another characteristic is the use of the plural of abstract nouns, in much the same sense as the singular.6
All these details—the partiality for compounds, for the accumulation of synonyms and for the use of the plural instead of the singular, may be classed together under the head of exaggerations of expression, and recorded as characteristics of the epideictic style.
In general, the tone is heightened, and Isocrates tends to appear florid when compared with Lysias; if, on the other hand, we take Gorgias as a standard, we see how far Isocrates, who undoubtedly imitated the Sicilian style, has surpassed his model in the direction of refinement.