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Usage of the term ‘philosophy’ in the time of Isokrates.

IN a passage of the Phaedros1 just before that quoted at the beginning of the last chapter, Sokrates asks what a man is to be called, who, whatever may be his particular line of work—whether for instance he is a Homer, a Lysias, or a Solon—works in the light of true knowledge, using no terms which he cannot define, making no statements which he is not prepared to defend. It might be presumptuous, Sokrates says, to call such a man, or any man, ‘wise;’ but he may fairly be called ‘a lover of wisdom,’ a ‘philosopher.’ It is probable that the term ‘philosophy’—said to have been invented by Pythagoras—did not come into general use at Athens much before the time of Sokrates; and that, for nearly a century at least, ‘philosopher’ continued to be the laudatory name for the man of intellectual or literary pursuits generally,—as ‘sophist,’ used with the same large meaning, came by degrees to have more and more of a disparaging sense. The paramount intellectual eminence of Plato and Aristotle, as well as the lessened importance of Rhetoric after the extinction of the old political life, led to the name ‘philosopher’ being gradually appropriated, from about the end of the 4th century B.C., to the speculative seeker for truth2. Aristeides, writing in the latter half of the second century A. D., objects to this restriction of the term, saying that in the best times ‘philosophy’ meant simply ‘literary study and refinement;—being used, not in its present sense, but for discipline or culture (παιδεία) generally3.’ Now it is in this general sense that Isokrates applies the term ‘philosophy’ to his art, ‘the discipline of discourse,’ τῶν λόγων παιδεία, as he more precisely terms it. In the speech On the Antidosis he expressly marks this general sense:— ‘Now you have heard all the truth about my faculty, or philosophy, or study—whichever you like to call it4.’

This use of the term ‘philosophy’ though

Modern prejudice against him caused by his use of it.
warranted by the ordinary usage of his day, has in modern times proved a serious misfortune for Isokrates. ‘Philosophy’ has for us only its later and restricted meaning: its original and larger meaning has been forgotten. Isokrates and Plato were strictly contemporaries—one, the great speculative thinker, the other, the great popular educator, of his century. The tendency to contrast them is natural. On the one side stands the true philosopher; on the other, the graceless anti-Plato who is continually insisting that his political rhetoric is philosophy. Now, to be just, we ought to remember that the point of the supposed contrast depends partly on an altered verbal usage. When Isokrates speaks of his Philosophy, he means his Theory of Culture. It may be worth while to inquire what this theory was, and to see how far that which Isokrates professed to do was done well by him.

1 p. 278 B.

2 On the history of the term φιλοσοφία, see Dr Thompson's note to Phaedr. p. 278 D.

3 Aristeid. II. 407, Dind. (quoted in the note just referred to): φιλοσοφία meant φιλοκαλία τις καὶ διατριβὴ περὶ λόγους, καὶ οὐχ νῦν τρόπος οὗτος ἀλλὰ παιδεία κοινῶς.I would add that in Aristotle there is at least one clear example of the older and larger use of the word,—Rhet. II. 20, where he is saying that, if we have no illustrations at hand from real life or history, we must taken them from fiction—τοῦτο δὲ ρ́ᾴδιον ἐκ φιλοσοφίας, i.e. ‘literary knowledge will make this easy.’ In Rhet. II. 23, the verb φιλοσοφεῖν has a corresponding sense; but I do not press this, because there may be, as Spengel thinks, a reference to Isokr. Antid. § 173; and in that case the use of the word might be ironical.In the letter (purporting to be Aristotle's) which some later hand has prefixed to the ῥητορικὴ πρὸς Ἀλέξανδρον (Speng. Rh. Gr. I. 173), Rhetoric is called τῶν λόγων φιλοσοφία.

4 Antid. § 50, περὶ μὲν οὖν τῆς ἐμῆς εἴτε βούλεσθε καλεῖν δυνάμεως εἵτε φιλοσοφίας εἴτε διατριβῆς, ἀκηκόατε πᾶσαν τὴν ἀλήθειαν.

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hide References (3 total)
  • Cross-references to this page (3):
    • Sir Richard C. Jebb, Selections from the Attic Orators, 13.1
    • Sir Richard C. Jebb, Selections from the Attic Orators, §§ 270 — 302.
    • Sir Richard C. Jebb, Selections from the Attic Orators, §§ 10 — 14.
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