Distinctive merits of Isokrates as a popular educator
The art which he and the ordinary sophists alike professed was thoroughly established as the essence of a practical Athenian education. In the speech On the Antidosis
that place is vindicated for it, against those who denied its existence as an art, by an appeal to its proved and normal efficiency; it produces the results at which it aims, and produces them with as much regularity as any other art1
. It was the educational merit of Isokrates that he strove honestly and in a great measure successfully to give
to this established art a larger intellectual field and a higher tone. Let us forget that by a perversity, which at the worst is but verbal, he chose to call this art, in phrase sanctioned by his day, ‘philosophy;’ let us forget what is sometimes ludicrous in his egotism, in the literary self-complacency which believed itself statesmanlike; and let us see what there is in his conception and practice of his art which is really distinctive and really deserving of respect.
The first characteristic of Isokrates, as compared
with the ordinary practical educator, is largeness of view. In the discourse Against the Sophists
he remarks that the vision of these teachers is generally limited to the narrowest circle of an Athenian citizen's interests; their object is to prepare victory in the Athenian lawcourts, victory in the Athenian ekklesia2
. His own aim, on the contrary, is to enlarge the mental horizon of his pupils by exercising them on subjects wider and nobler than the concerns of any single city; he describes these subjects of his choice as Hellenic3
. The Panegyrikos
deals with such a subject. And even when his immediate subject concerns a particular city, the treatment is still in his own phrase, Hellenic; his point of view is not local but national. The Archidamos,
are instances. Now at the time when Isokrates was writing, this breadth was useful in two ways, intellectually and politically. Intellectually; for the divorce of society from the State brought with it a sharper separation between the few thinkers, who lived more and more apart, and
the mass of the citizens, whose social life had lost the higher spiritual elements almost as completely as it could do so without ceasing to be Greek. It was a great thing that a young citizen, who perhaps would never have been drawn into the sphere of the philosophers, should have set before his mind some interests wider and higher than those suggested by the routine of business or pleasure in his own city. Besides this intellectual gain, it was especially a political gain when he was reminded that, over and above the duties of local citizenship, he owed a loyalty to the higher unity of Greece. Most men found it hard to remember this in a time when the selfishness of the individual State, or citizen, was everywhere breaking the strongest and most sacred ties of the old common life. To keep constantly the idea of Greece before the minds of men who would afterwards have power at various points of Greece—and the pupils of Isokrates came from all cities—was a good service in itself, apart from the worth of any given doctrines, and independently of the mental enlargement which it implies.
The second distinctive mark of Isokrates is
2. Elevation of moral tone.
general nobleness of moral tone. He did not attempt to find a philosophical basis for morals: rather he naively makes it his merit that, while theoretical moralists set before men a conception of virtue ‘which no one else can recognise and about which they themselves dispute,’ the virtue which he teaches is ‘that which all men allow4
.’ But if he was not a philosophical moralist, he had a genuine respect and love for the best and highest things that he knew,
a genuine contempt and hatred for what he felt to be mean and bad. He lived in times of which the deadly disease in public and social life was a narrow, dishonest and impudent selfishness; the spirit which animates his writings was in itself wholesome as a protest against this corrupt and abject cynicism. Isokrates has not passion; but in his eloquence ‘one breathes a large and pure air:’ the fineness of his spirit has its kindred weaknesses; but, when it is truest to itself, ‘it is marked by respect and love for all worthy sentiments; by the habit of moderation, by a just dislike for dishonest agitations; by antipathy alike for the brutal force of despots and for the brutal passions of mobs; by distance from superstition; by faithful attachment to what he called ‘philosophy’—including under that name the double benefit of the thought whichillumines and of the speech which charms and touches —lastly, by the faculty of admiration,—the finest gift of his genius,—and by that lively feeling for the great aspects of his country in which we can still rejoice with him. And, however far Demosthenes may outstrip him, yet Demosthenes may have heard not without respect—perhaps not without envy— that serene eloquence, free from all precipitation and all rashness, which selects its thoughts as well as its words, which has never to lend itself to offensive sentiments, which never degrades itself or those who listen to it, which is nourished only on generous ideas, and which thus reflects the human spirit always on its nobler side5
Thirdly, Isokrates is distinguished by his method
3 Thoroughness of Method.
of teaching. Aristotle notices the system followed by the ordinary sophists. It consisted in making their pupils commit to memory, first speeches, then dialogues. This method, Aristotle observes, was quick, but inartistic and barren of results; and was very much as if a shoemaker, instead of making his apprentices acquainted with the processes of the art, should content himself with showing them several pairs of shoes6
. Granting that this account of their procedure may be partly unfair to average sophists, it still seems clear that Isokrates stood alone in the stress which he laid, and the critical pains which he bestowed, on work done by his pupils themselves. First came technical expositions; then the learner was required to apply abstract rules in actual composition, and his essay was carefully revised by the master7
. Isokrates recognised fully the use of example; but while for most other teachers the setting of finished patterns before their school was almost everything, Isokrates seems to have regarded these patterns chiefly as counsels of perfection for advanced and gifted pupils8
; the real essence of his method consisted in developing the learner's own faculty through the learner's own efforts9
. He lays great
stress upon industry; he seems to have regarded a feeling for the pleasures of hard work as one criterion of a noble spirit10
; and in his ninety-seventh year, when he was suffering from illness, he prides himself on being still able to work hard11
. His course of teaching, besides being so much more thorough, seems to have been of longer duration than the ordinary; his pupils stayed with him from three to four years12
It results from his whole conception of his art,
4 Desire of Permanent Result.
and it is implied in his method of teaching, that Isokrates aimed at the production of work which should have a lasting value. This is a fourth characteristic which distinguishes him strongly from the mass of his profession, and, in a certain degree, even from its better members. Since the end of the fifth century B. C. a literature of political pamphlets had been coming into existence; writing was now recognised as a mode of influencing public opinion on the affairs of the day. Thrasymachos pleaded for the Larisaeans, as Isokrates for the Plataeans, in a rhetorical pamphlet; in the same way Isokrates attacked, and Alkidamas defended, the new Messene13
. Now to Isokrates belongs the credit of trying to raise the dignity and worth of this intermittent journalism. He aimed at making his essays on contemporary events something more than telling
pamphlets; he wished them to have a lasting value both literary and political, answering to the conscientious labour and thought which had been spent upon them. The ambition which he set steadily before his school is not simply that of rising above the forensic eloquence which triumphs for a day; it is that of producing work which shall be respected—he says it boldly—‘in all companies and for all time14
.’ To be thorough; to aim at solid results—this rule, meant first for writers, was not less needed in that age for the future men of action; and in literature it had this special result, that literary skill, seeking some enduring form in which it might embody itself, was now applied with a new zeal to history. Three pupils of Isokrates are especially representative of this impulse. Androtion, in his Atthis
, treated the local traditions and antiquities of Attica, and carried the history of Athens at least to 394 B.C. Ephoros wrote a History of Greece, in thirty books, from the Return of the Herakleidae to the siege of Perinthos by Philip in 341 B. C. Theopompos was the author of a supplement to Thucydides—relating, in twelve books, the events from the battle of Kynossema to the battle of Knidos (411—394 B. C.); and, in his Philippica
, a work in no less than fifty-eight books, made Philip of Macedon the central figure of what seems to have been in fact a History of Civilization, arranged as a great picture of the contemporary world15
was a benefit to an age intellectually poor in all but speculative interests to have turned literary energy towards something more substantial than the study of form. This was done by the historical school of which Isokrates became the indirect founder, and which shows, in one special manifestation, a general bent of his teaching.
These, then, are four chief things by which
Isokrates is distinguished from contemporary teachers of political rhetoric;—breadth of view; nobleness of moral tone; practical thoroughness of method; encouragement of solid work.