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Isocrates was no less a patriot than Demosthenes, though he differed very widely in his political views from the later orator. What these views were may be gathered from a series of speeches on national subjects extending over a period of more than forty years.

The Panegyricus, the first of these, was probably composed for publication at one of the great national assemblies, perhaps the Olympic festival, about 380 B.C. This was certainly a time when the long-continued dissensions of the city-states had brought the affairs of Greece to a crisis. There seemed to Isocrates to be no solution of the difficulties, no chance of established peace or contentment, unless some enterprise could be found which should unite the sympathies of the rival cities, induce them to put their own quarrels aside, and throw them whole-heartedly into a cause which concerned Hellas as a nation.

The only motive which had ever been able to unite the Greeks, even temporarily, was hatred of the barbarians, and Isocrates works upon this feeling. He draws a vivid picture of the miserable state to which the Greek world has been reduced by civil war, and shows how the influence of Persia, besides keeping this war alive, has in other ways worked towards the ruin of Greece. Having discussed with outspoken candour the claims of Sparta and Athens to leadership, he suggests that they should agree by a compromise, and urges that they and all other States should unite in a racial war against the Persians.

This speech had no practical effect. The rise of Thebes shortly after this date changed the balance of power, and on the whole did not improve conditions. Despairing of originating any joint action within Greece itself, Isocrates looked farther for a leader, and in or about 368 B.C. we find him writing to Dionysius of Syracuse, who at the time held an empire far more powerful than that of any State of Greece proper, and suggesting that he should come forward as the champion of the Greek national spirit.1

In 356 B.C. Isocrates turned again towards Sparta, this time writing to Archidamus, who had recently succeeded his father Agesilaus in the kingship, and urging him to take steps which will ‘put an end to civil war in Greece, curb the insolence of the barbarians, and deprive them of part of their ill-gotten gains.’ Archidamus, if he could be as vigorous as his father and more unselfish, might well seem to be a suitable leader for the crusade on which Isocrates had set his heart.

At this time Philip of Macedon, though he was beginning to attain notoriety, was probably regarded by the majority of Greeks as a pauper prince, sitting insecurely on a throne which he had usurped, and from which he might at any time be removed by rebellion or assassination. But in this year he obtained possession of the gold mines of Pangaeum, and it was soon realized that Macedon was to play a leading part in Greek politics.

In 346 B.C. Isocrates addressed Philip as one capable of taking the lead, first in combining the Greek States into a union, and secondly, in leading them to conquer the barbarian.2 The ten years of desultory hostilities between Philip and Athens had now been ended by the peace of Philocrates, and Isocrates, thinking that Amphipolis, for which they had been fighting, was an undesirable possession for either party, imagined and hoped that the peace might be made permanent.

Though the Panegyric and the addresses to Dionysius and Archidamus had failed, Isocrates hoped that an appeal to Philip might be more successful.

“I decided (he writes) to broach the subject to you, not as a special compliment, though I should be glad if my words could find favour with you, but from the following motive. I saw that all other men of distinction have to obey their cities and their laws, and may do nothing beyond what they are told; and moreover none of them are capable of dealing with the matter I now intend to discuss.

You alone have had given you by fortune a full authority to send embassies to whom you will, and receive them from where you choose, and to say whatever you think expedient. Besides, you possess wealth and power beyond any other Greek—the two things which are the most potent either to persuade or to compel: and you will find persuasion useful for the Greeks and compulsion for the barbarians.

A summary of a few extracts will indicate the tenor of the speech.

‘It is your duty to try to reconcile the four great cities —Argos, Sparta, Thebes, and Athens; bring these four to their right mind, and you will have no difficulty with the rest, which all depend on them (§§ 30-31). Your ancestors are Argive by descent, and these cities should never have been at enmity with you or each other. All must make allowances, as all have been at fault (§§ 33-38). If Athens or Sparta were now, as once, predominant, nothing could be done; but all the great cities are now practically on a level. No enmities are so deep-seated that they cannot be overcome: Athens has at different times been allied with both Thebes and Sparta. Sparta, Argos, and Thebes all desire peace; Athens has come to her senses before the others, and already made peace. She will be ready to give you her active sympathy’ (§§ 39-56).

‘History provides many instances of men who, with few advantages, even with disabilities, have achieved great tasks: you, with all your resources, should find the present task easy’ (§§ 57-67).

‘Success in such a cause would be magnificent; even failure would be noble: your slanderers impute to you the design of subjugating Greece; you will convince them of their error’ (§§ 68-80).

‘So much for your duty to Greece; now turn to the conquest of Asia. Agesilaus failed because he stirred up political animosities.

‘The Greeks under Cyrus defeated the Persian army, and though left leaderless they made good their retreat. All conditions are favourable for you. The Greeks of Asia were hostile to Cyrus, but will welcome you. The present King of Persia is less of a man than his predecessor, against whom Cyrus fought; and Persia is divided against itself. Cyprus, Cilicia, and Phoenicia, which provided the king with ships, will do so no longer’ (§§ 83-104).

‘You may aim at conquering the whole Persian Empire; failing of that you might win all that is west of a line drawn from Cilicia to Sinope. Even this would be an enormous advantage. You could found cities for the hordes of mercenaries who are driven by destitution to wander and prey upon the settled inhabitants—a growing menace to Greeks and Persians alike. You would thus render these nomads a great service, and at the same time establish them as a permanent guard of your own frontiers. If this proved too much for you, at the very least you could free the Greek cities of Asia. However great or little is your success, you will at least win great renown for having led a united expedition from all Greece’ (§§ 119-126).

‘No other state or individual will undertake the task; you are free from restrictions, as all Hellas is your native land. You will fight, I know, not for power or wealth, but for glory. Your mission, then, is this:—To be the benefactor of Greece, the king of Macedon, the governor of Asia’ (§§ 127-155).

It may be said that Isocrates overrated the purity of Philip's motives. On the other hand, it may be conceived that Philip would have greatly preferred to march to Asia as the general of a Greek force willingly united. He, whom Isocrates reckons as a Greek of royal or semi-divine descent, whom Demosthenes stigmatized as a barbarian of the lowest type, had much more of the Greek than the barbarian in his nature. To Athens at least he always showed extraordinary clemency, treating her with a respect far beyond her merits, and honouring her for her ancient greatness. He did all that was possible to conciliate her, and this policy he handed on to his son. But he could not start for the East, leaving so many irreconcilable enemies behind him; and the refusal of the States to accept his hegemony made Chaeronea inevitable.

Those who read, not this short summary, but the essay as a whole, must be struck by the firm grasp which the writer has on contemporary history, and by his insight into the forces at work. He under-estimated the conservatism of the city-states, wrongly imagining that the majority could be as broad-minded as himself.

The chapters on Asia show considerable knowledge both of the conditions and the requirements. His advice about the founding of cities was followed literally by Alexander, who, immediately after his first victory, initiated this policy for securing his conquests.

In 342 B.C. Isocrates wrote again to Philip, reproaching him for his recklessness in exposing his own life in battle. He repeated some of the arguments of the first essay, and summarized his advice as follows: ‘It is far nobler to capture a city's good-will than its walls.’ After Chaeronea, in the year 338 B.C., he wrote once more, recalling his former advice, and reflecting with satisfaction that the dreams of his youth were some of them already fulfilled, and others on the point of fulfilment.

1 Ep. 1, § 87. This letter is referred to in Philippus, § 81; the text of the letter remaining to us is incomplete.

2 Philippus, 346 B.C.

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