On educationPrevented by natural disabilities from exercising his talents in public, but urged on by the necessity of earning a living, since the Peloponnesian War had dissipated his fortune, Isocrates turned to a profession for which he was well fitted, that of an educator. During many years he was, like Gorgias, a teacher of rhetoric, and like Gorgias he may be classed as a Sophist. This title is misleading. In itself it means nothing more than an educator, or teacher of wisdom, and early writers use it in a laudatory sense; Herodotus applies it to the Seven Sages. In the fourth century it was debased, partly by the comic poets, as representing the popular habit of sneering at anything which the mob cannot understand, but more honestly and systematically by Plato, who, though he admitted that some of the Sophists, such as Protagoras, were men worthy of the highest respect, took many opportunities of disparaging Sophists as a class, and Sophistry as a profession. There can be no doubt that he was quite sincere, for he takes great pains to bring out the distinction between the educators and his own master Socrates, whom Aristophanes had already marked as one of the crowd (Clouds, passim). To us it seems that the marked distinction cannot be maintained; apart from Socrates' peculiarity of refusing to take fees from his pupils, he is distinguished only by possessing a higher moral tone than the rest of the Sophists. Like them he was a sceptic as far as philosophy was concerned, and like them he was an educator. We have, however, accepted the word at the value which Plato chose to put upon it; but we must not suppose that this was the value at which it was usually current. This is clear from the fact that Isocrates can use the word without any idea of disparagement. Though he wrote a speech Against the Sophists, it is directed not against the profession as a whole, but against certain classes, whom he calls the ἀγέλαιοι σοφισταί—‘Sophists of the baser sort.’ Isocrates' earliest work on education, the speech or tract Against the Sophists (Or. xiii.), dates from the beginning of his professional career, perhaps about the year 390 B.C. We possess only part, perhaps less than half, of the speech. What remains is purely destructive criticism which, as is clear from the concluding words, was meant to lead up to an exposition of the writer's own principles and theory. The loss is to be regretted, but is not irreparable, since the speech On the Antidosis, composed thirty-five years later, supplements it by a full constructive statement. The introduction on the Sophists is sweeping in its severity:1 “If all our professional educators would be content to tell the truth and not promise more than they ever intend to perform, they would not have a bad reputation among laymen. As it is, their reckless effrontery has encouraged the opinion that a life of incurious idleness is better than one devoted to philosophy.” He proceeds to criticize various classes: “We cannot help hating and despising the professors of contentious argument (eristic), who, while claiming to seek for Truth, introduce falsehood at the very beginning of their pretensions. They profess in a way to read the future, a power which Homer denied even to the gods; for they prophesy for their pupils a full knowledge of right conduct, and promise them happiness in consequence. This invaluable commodity they offer for sale at the ridiculous price of three or four minae. They affect, indeed, to despise money—mere dross of silver or gold as they call it— yet, for the sake of this small profit they will raise their pupils almost to a level with the immortals. They profess to teach all virtue; but it is notable that pupils, before they are admitted to the course, have to give security for the payment of their fees.” The general tone of this censure recalls the attacks of the Platonic Socrates on the ‘eristic’ Sophists; but it is certain that the ‘eristics,’ whom Isocrates here attacks, are some of the lesser Socratics. This is made obvious by the reference in § 3 to the knowledge (ἐπιστήμη) which, according to these teachers, will lead to right conduct or virtue, and so to happiness. The Socratic view that knowledge is the basis of virtue, and virtue of happiness, is well known. Socrates himself did not profess to teach virtue for a fee; but the Megarians, the followers of his pupil Euclides, did, and at them the sarcasm of Isocrates seems to be directed. Elsewhere, indeed, Isocrates refers definitely to the Platonic school as belonging to the eristic class.2 The teachers of ‘Political Discourse’ fall next under ban, that is, the teachers of practical rhetoric, whether forensic or deliberative (§§ 9 sqq.). “They care nothing for truth’—whereas the eristics, at any rate, professed to seek it—‘they consider that their profession is to attract as many pupils as possible by the smallness of their fees and the greatness of their promises. They are so dull, and think others so dull, that though the speeches which they write are worse than many nonprofessionals can improvise, they undertake to make of their pupils orators equal to any emergency. They say that they can teach oratory as easily as the alphabet, which is a subject fixed by unchangeable rules, whereas the conditions for a speaker are never quite the same on two occasions. A speech, to be successful, must be appropriate to the subject, to the occasion, and to the speaker; and in some degree original. Instruction can give us technical skill; but cannot call into existence the oratorical faculty, which a good speaker must have innate in him.” No doubt Isocrates himself professed to give a practical training for public life; but he states here what he repeats with more emphasis in a later writing (Antid., §§ 187-189): ‘For distinction either in speech or in action, or in any other work, there are three requisites: natural aptitude, theoretical training, and practical experience. . . . Of these the first is indispensable, and by far the most important.’ The Sophists claimed to dispense with the first, and this is the ground of the philosopher's quarrel with them. The third section of the speech, following naturally on the second, deals with writers of technical guides to rhetoric (τέχναι).
Here again Isocrates, who himself composed an ‘Art’ of rhetoric, does not condemn all who may try to teach the subject; his complaint is that the majority of such teachers have confined themselves to the ignoble branch of the profession. This criticism is obviously a valid one, and is echoed by Aristotle, who declares that speaking before a public assembly is less knavish (κακοῦργον) than speaking in a law-court (Rhet., i. 1. 10). The speech entitled On the Antidosis is really Isocrates' defence of his life and profession. In 355 B.C. he was challenged by one Megacleides to undertake the trierarchy, or else to accept an antidosis, or exchange of properties. The matter was the subject of a trial, in consequence of which Isocrates performed the trierarchy. Some time—perhaps two years—later, he wrote this speech, which is of no historical importance, since even the name of the plaintiff, Lysimachus, is fictitious. The introduction (§§ 1-13) makes it clear that the law-suit is only introduced for the sake of local colour. The speech itself begins with a semblance of forensic form in § 14, but the pretence is very soon dropped. The cloak is resumed in the Epilogue (§§ 320-323); but the greatest part of the speech has nothing to do with any trial, real or imaginary. The treatise, as we may call it, falls into two parts: in §§ 14-166 the writer defends his own character; in §§ 167-319 he defends his system of education. The indictment against which he pleads is that he is in the habit of corrupting the younger generation by teaching them habits of litigation. He has little difficulty in showing that his chief work has lain in a far nobler field than that of forensic rhetoric. While others have been engaged in the paltry contentions of the law-courts he has composed speeches bearing upon the politics of all Greece. This he proves by reciting long extracts from his most famous works: the Panegyric (§ 59); On the Peace (§ 66); Nicocles (§ 72). The second half of the speech contains, as has been noted, a statement and defence of Isocrates' theory. ‘Philosophy,’ he says, ‘is for the soul what Gymnastic is for the body.’ This analogy he elaborates.
“They profess to teach litigation, choosing for themselves this offensive title which would be more appropriate in the mouths of their detractors. They are worse than those who wallow in the mire of “eristic,” for they at least pretend to be concerned with virtue and moderation, while those whom we are considering now undertake only to teach men to be busy-bodies from motives of base covetousness.”
These two treatises taken together, and supplemented by a few passages from other speeches, give us a fair idea of Isocrates' system. His ‘Philosophy’ is to be distinguished from all merely theoretical speculation, such as the physical theories of the Ionians, or the logic of Parmenides; from ‘eristic’—the art of arguing for argument's sake—from geometry and astronomy; from literary work which has no practical use; from the rhetoric of the law-courts. Boys at school may profitably study grammar and poetry; at a later age the applied mathematics, and even ‘eristic,’ are good mental training; but it must be recognized that they are only a preparation for the Isocratean ‘philosophy,’ which is for the soul what gymnastic is for the body. As the gymnastic-master teaches first the various thrusts and parries, so to speak, the teacher of philosophy makes his pupils learn first all the styles of prose composition ( Antid., § 11, “ἰδέαι”). He then makes them combine (συνείρειν) the things which they have learnt. The subjects for such exercises must be properly chosen—they must be practical and must deal with wide interests. Practice on these lines will prepare a man, as far as his nature allows, for speaking and acting in a public capacity; so that what Isocrates calls his ‘philosophy’ is really a science of practical politics. Isocrates seems to have been thorough in all things; himself a hard worker who took extraordinary care over his compositions, he expected his pupils to work hard. He was not content, like some Sophists, with making them learn his own ‘fair copies’ by heart; they must do the work for themselves. He scoffs at those teachers who claim to ‘finish’ their pupils in a year; his pretensions are more modest, but even so he requires a course of three or four years. He believed in individual attention rather than class-teaching, if we may regard an anecdote of the Pseudo-Plutarch, who recounts that three pupils once came to him together, but he admitted only two, telling the third to come next day. He endeavoured to impart to his students something of that broadness of view, so prominent in his own speeches, which enabled him to look beyond the trials of the law-courts, beyond the interests of party or even of individual state, and lift his eyes to a conception of national unity; and something of that loftiness of spirit which, in an age of selfish and scurrilous orators, enabled him to pursue his course towards the truth, unbiased by personal considerations, and never descending to invective or abuse.
“The gymnastic trainer teaches his pupils first to perform the separate movements, then to combine them. The educator follows the same order, and both insist on long and diligent practice; but the trainer of the body cannot always make a man an athlete, nor can the trainer of the mind make everybody an orator. There are three essentials requisite for success—natural aptitude, proper teaching, and long practice; and moreover there must be a will on the part of both teacher and pupil to persevere. The natural ability is by far the most important element. Training, however complete, may break down utterly if the speaker lacks nerve.3;Some people expect a marked improvement after a few days of study with a Sophist, and demand a complete training in a year. This is ridiculous; no class of education could produce such results; and there is no need to disparage us as a class because we cannot do more than we profess. We cannot make all men orators, but we can give them culture. Others assert that our philosophy has an immoral tendency. I shall not defend all who claim to be educators, but only those who have a right to the name. We have nothing to gain by making men immoral; on the contrary the greatest satisfaction for a Sophist is that his pupils should become wise and honourable men, respected by their fellows. Our pupils come from Sicily, from Pontus, and from other distant regions; do they come so far to be instructed in wickedness? Surely not; they could find plenty of teaching at home. They incur the trouble and expense because they think that Athens can give them the best education in the world. Again, power in debate is not in itself a demoralizing thing. The greatest statesmen of this and earlier generations studied and practised oratory—Solon, who was called one of the Seven Sophists, Themistocles, Pericles. You blame the Thebans for lacking culture; why blame us who try to impart it? Athens honours with a yearly sacrifice the Goddess Persuasion; our enemies attack us for seeking the faculty which this goddess personifies. We are even attacked by the “Eristics” (above, p. 137）: far from retorting, I am ready to admit that there is good to be got even from eristic disputation, from astronomy,4 and from geometry: they are useful as a preliminary to higher studies. My own view of philosophy is a simple one. It is impossible to attain absolute knowledge of what we ought or ought not to do; but the wise man is he who can make a successful guess as a general rule, and philosophers are those who study to attain this practical wisdom. There is not, and never has been, a science which could impart justice and virtue to those who are not by nature inclined towards these qualities; but a man who is desirous of speaking or writing well, and of persuading others, will incidentally become more just and virtuous, for it is character that tells more than anything. Thoughtful speaking leads to careful action. Your superior culture raises you above the rest of Greece, just as mankind is superior to the lower animals and Greeks to barbarians: do not, then, punish those who would give you this culture.”