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Minor Rhetoricians

The contemporaries of Isocrates are overshadowed by his genius; nevertheless there were in his time other speakers and teachers of ability. The only one of them who deserves serious consideration is Alcidamas, a pupil of Gorgias or of his school, who, though a rival of Isocrates, had come under the influence of the latter's style. We possess under his name a sophistical exercise, the Accusation of Palamedes by Odysseus, which is of no importance, and may be spurious, and a declamation On the Sophists, which is probably genuine; at least we may say that it is the work of an able critic and a graceful writer. His other works included two rhetorical exercises, the Praise of Death and the Praise of Nais, and a Messenian Oration, which was apparently a counterblast to the Archidamus of Isocrates.

The Sophists is really an attack on the methods of Isocrates, and is directed against the practice of laboriously composing written speeches, which are no real help to a man who wishes to be an orator, whether in the assembly or the law-courts. Certain so-called Sophists, he contends, who, while quite incapable of speaking, have practised writing, pride themselves on this accomplishment, and though they can call only one small department of rhetoric their own, claim to be masters of the complete science. He would not disparage the art of writing, but he considers it of secondary importance, while other accomplishments deserve far more attention. Any man of ability, given the time, can learn to write moderately well; but in order to speak well you must apply a careful training to the development of certain special gifts. To be able to speak extemporaneously is a very important gift; a man who possesses it can adapt himself to the mood of his audience, while one who relies on prepared orations must often miss a great opportunity, for it is beyond human powers to learn by heart enough speeches to be ready at a moment's notice to speak on any subject and to any kind of audience. A man accustomed to the use of written speeches, when forced to speak ex tempore, will not maintain his proper level of performance.1 Many arguments, of more or less value, are adduced; in all of them there is a certain cleverness.

Dionysius thought the style of Alcidamas coarse and trivial; 2 Aristotle says that he used his epithets ‘not as seasoning but as meat.’ (Rhet., iii. 3. 3). These strictures do not apply to the one surviving work. He seems to have been raised above the dead level of rhetoricians by possessing ideas; in the speech advocating the freedom of the Messenians occurred the sentence, ‘God has made all men free; nature has made no man a slave’; and his description of the Odyssey as ‘a noble mirror of human life,’ is a fine expression in itself, though Aristotle objects that such ornaments detract from the value of a speech, as giving the impression of over-preparation (Arist., Rhet., iii. 3. 4).

Polycrates, a rhetorician of the same period, is known to have composed a fictitious Accusation of Socrates, to which Isocrates refers.3 His Encomium of Busiris, the cannibal king of Egypt, stirred Isocrates to write his own Busiris, in order to show how such a theme ought to be treated. Dionysius found his style inane, frigid, and vulgar (de Isaeo, ch. xx). Lycophron, an imitator of Gorgias, is quoted several times by Aristotle; and Cephisodorus, the best known rhetorician of the school of Isocrates, wrote an admirable defence of his master against the attacks of Aristotle.4

These minor teachers, who are mentioned only as offshoots from the prominent schools, had no permanent influence on the growth either of rhetoric or of oratory.

1 The truth of this maxim is illustrated by our records of the impromptu performances of Demosthenes; see below, p. 190.

2 de Isaeo, ch. xix.,παχύτερον ὄντα τὴν λέξιν καὶ κοινότερον”.

3 Busiris, §§ 5-6. He endeavoured to make Socrates responsible for the misdeeds of Alcibiades.

4 Dion., de Isocrate, ch. xviii.: “τὴν ἀπολογίαν τὴν πάνυ θαυμαστὴν ἐν ταῖς πρὸς Ἀριστοτέλη ἀντιγραφαῖς ἐποιήσατο”.

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hide References (3 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (2):
    • Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1406a
    • Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1406b
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (1):
    • Isocrates, Busiris, 5
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