[Or. XI.]—The Busiris
and the Encomium on Helen
[Or. X.] are slight essays by Isokrates in a province which was not his own. Declamations on subjects taken from epos or from the myths had always a prominent place among the ‘displays’ of ordinary Sophists. Such, for instance, are the Encomium on Helen
and the Defence of Palamedes
ascribed to Gorgias; the speech of Odysseus Against Palamedes
ascribed to Alkidamas; the speeches of Ajax and Odysseus, in the contest for the arms, ascribed to Antisthenes1
. The bent of Isokrates, as
Purpose of the ‘Busiris’ —merely illustrative.
he himself tells us2
, was not towards this kind of composition. He was not, indeed, hostile to it, any more than he was hostile to criticism of the poets and other branches of literary work which employed the Sophists3
. The encomia which he depreciates in Or. X. § 12 are encomia on bumble-bees and salt; on the other hand he expressly commends the choice of such a subject as Helen (§ 14); and if he speaks of
Busiris as a poor theme (Or. XI. § 22) he clearly means only that it is one which baffles the panegyrist. Yet it is important to note that he comes upon this field of ‘display’ not as a candidate for distinction but merely as a critic. The Busiris
and the Encomium on Helen
are alike criticisms, in which he first reviews the work of others, and then shows, for the sake of vindicating his right to criticise, how he would have done the work himself.
is addressed to Polykrates, who has
lately been driven by need to become a professed rhetorician. Isokrates has never seen him; but, sympathising with his misfortunes, wishes to help him with advice. Pausanias says that Jason of Pherae preferred Gorgias to Polykrates, although the school of Polykrates had then gained no small repute at Athens4
. Gorgias died about 380 B.C. At some time, then, before 380 Polykrates had made a name at Athens. But the Busiris
speaks of him as a beginner; and it is known from Diogenes Laertius that the ‘Accusation of Sokrates’
His ‘Accusation of Sokrates.’
mentioned in § 4 contained an allusion to the rebuilding of the Long Walls by Konon,—i.e. was written later than 393 B. C.5
All the conditions will be satisfied if we suppose that Polykrates published his ‘Accusation of Sokrates’ in 393 or 392, and
the ‘Defence of Busiris’ soon after; that he had become a teacher of repute at Athens about 388 B. C.; and that Isokrates wrote the Busiris
soon after the appearance of the ‘Defence’ which it criticises,—perhaps in 391 or 390. At this time,
Polykrates was teaching at Cyprus6
; he and Isokrates —as the essay tells us—had never met.
Polykrates evidently held a respectable rank among the rhetoricians of his time. He is mentioned by Dionysios in company with Antiphon, Thrasymachos of Chalkedon, Kritias, Theodoros of Byzantium, Anaximenes, Zoilos and Isaeos7
. He was, however, no favourite of Dionysios, who describes him as ‘empty in practical oratory, frigid and vulgar in the rhetoric of display, and devoid of grace in the subjects which demand it8
.’ He wrote for the law-courts; and the ‘Accusation of Sokrates’ itself was supposed by some to have been actually spoken at the trial9
. But ‘display’ was probably his chosen
branch. His ingenuity appears from the circumstance that he composed an encomium upon mice10
, and his versatility from the fact that he praised both Agamemnon11
No weight can be given to the suggestion made
Fancied motive of the piece.
by the author of the Argument that the real meaning of Isokrates was to attack Polykrates for the ‘Accusation of Sokrates’, and that, deterred by the temper of Athens from doing this openly, he did it under pretext of a criticism upon the ‘Defence of Busiris.’ There is no trace in the piece of any such covert intention; the vindication of Sokrates, so far as it goes, is perfectly frank; and this very frankness defines its place as a secondary topic.
‘Your worth, Polykrates, and the change in your way of
life are known to me by report. I have read some of your writings, and would gladly discuss freely with you the whole theory of those studies to which you have given yourself. General precepts, however, shall be reserved until we know each other. In the meantime I send you some special criticisms. Wishing you well, I do not shrink from the risk of giving offence.
‘You put trust in your Defence of Busiris
and your Accusation of Sokrates.
As to Busiris, you have made his case worse than ever; others accuse him of having immolated strangers; you, of having eaten them. As to Sokrates, your ‘Accusation’ glorifies him; you make him the teacher of Alkibiades,—who is not known to have been his disciple, but who certainly was a remarkable man. Could the dead hear
you, you would have the thanks of the philosopher and the hatred of the king. Such, too, is your disregard of consistency that you have described Busiris as emulating the fame of Aeolos and Orpheus, who lived long after him; and who, moreover, were utterly unlike him. I will try to show you briefly how the subject ought to have been handled (§§ 1—9).
‘The father of Busiris was Poseidon; his mother, Libya, daughter of Epaphos the son of Zeus, and earliest queen of the land which bears her name. Not content with his mother's realm, Busiris, after wide conquests, founded a monarchy in Egypt. He saw that that country had the best climate in the world, was the most fertile, and had in the Nile a perpetual barrier against invasion. For other lands, the steward of rains and droughts is Zeus; for Egypt, the Nile. That river is at once their protector and their nourisher, giving them the wealth of a continent with the security of an island (§§ 10—14).
‘Having got a good country, Busiris next sought to give
it a good government. He divided the population into priests,—craftsmen of various sorts,—and soldiers. In his theory of a really good economy, each kind of work ought to have its permanent workmen. Sparta has taken one hint from this system. She has made her citizens a military caste. But her defect is that she is purely military. Egypt provides at the same time for the protection, and for the prosecution, of industry (§§ 15—20).
‘Nor was mental culture neglected. The priests, having wealth and leisure, developed a science of medicine,—to which it is due that the Egyptians have the best health and the longest lives. Other sciences were cultivated also; and while the elder men were busied with great affairs, the younger studied astrology, logic, geometry.
‘But it is for their reverent worship of the gods that the Egyptians are most admirable. Exaggeration is harmful in most things; but it is good for human life that men should have an even exaggerated idea of the gods' power to reward or punish. To the Egyptian mind this power is so awful that oaths taken in Egyptian temples have a greater
sanctity than elsewhere. The Egyptians believe that retribution will follow sin, not bye-and-bye, but instantly. Their priests enjoin upon them a multitude of observances, meant both to strengthen the habit of obedience and to test, by visible proof, their reverence for things unseen.
‘The philosophy of Egypt, and the spirit of its scrupulous ritual, were first brought into Hellas by Pythagoras; who felt sure that, if not requited by the gods, he would at least be esteemed by men. And to this day the silence of his disciples is more admired than the eloquence of others (§§ 21—29).
‘You will perhaps say that I have praised the laws, the piety, the thought of Egypt without proving that these are due to Busiris. It would ill become you to reproach me as illogical; you have yourself said that it was Busiris who distributed the Nile by its seven channels through the land, and who, at the same time, slew strangers on his altars; thus ascribing to him at once the fury of a beast and the faculty of a god. But my account is not merely as reasonable as yours; it has intrinsic probability. The benefits which it imputes to Busiris have not been shown to be due to any one else; and who is more likely to have wrought them than the son of Poseidon and of Libya,—the most powerful man of his time? The falseness of the charges laid against him is seen in this, that they represent him as having been slain by Herakles. Herakles lived four generations13
Chronology of the Heroes.
Perseus. Busiris lived two centuries before Perseus (§§ 30—37).
‘But you have had no care for truth—you have followed the blasphemies of the poets, who love to represent the gods as more vicious than men. These blasphemers have often suffered, though less than they deserved; some have become wandering beggars, some blind, some exiles, some foes, of their own kindred: Orpheus, the worst of them, was torn to pieces. Now it is my faith that not the gods only, but their children, are without spot of vice. If the gods have not the wish to make their own sons good, they are
worse disposed than men; if they have not the power, they are less able than sophists (§§ 38—43).
‘Much more might be said; but my object is to give hints, not to make a display. You have defended Busiris from the charges against him by admitting them, but arguing that they might be brought against others. How would you yourself like to be defended in this fashion? Or if any of your own friends had acted like Busiris, would you praise him? You will say, perhaps, that you wished merely to set an example of defending difficult causes. But a defence of this kind is futile, and tends also to bring philosophy into disrepute. In future you must choose better subjects, or treat those which you do choose more judiciously. Do not resent the advice of a stranger who has not even the privilege of age; it is not age or intimacy, it is knowledge and goodwill which give the right to advise in such matters' (§§ 44—50).
The subject of the Busiris
—so well-worn by
and poets—is treated by Isokrates in a very simple manner. He praises the customs, religious and political, of Egypt; and then remarks that Busiris is as likely as another to have been the founder of these. The crimes imputed to the inhospitable king he rejects as blasphemies. But if, as an encomium, the piece has not even the merit of ingenuity, it has a real interest of another kind. It illustrates very strikingly the attitude of Isokrates towards the myths generally. He complains that Busiris has been represented as contemporary with Aeolos and Orpheus; whereas the fathers of
the two latter were not born in the time of the former (§ 8). How, he asks, can Busiris have been slain by Herakles, who lived four generations after Perseus, while Busiris lived more than 200 years before Perseus? (§ 37.) He rejects the current legends about Busiris because they shock his religious instinct: not only the gods but the children of the gods must be deemed sinless (§ 41). Thus, like Herodotos, Isokrates accepts the myths as a whole15
,— distinguishing in history a human and a superhuman race, and regarding the latter as not less real than the former; on the other hand, he applies to the myths not, like Herodotos, a strict historical criticism, but only certain general notions of the becoming.