Against the Sophists.
1. Against the Sophists
[Or. XIII.]—As Isokrates himself tells us, this discourse was written at the beginning of his professional life1
; and it may probably be assigned to the year 391 or 390 B. C.2
The speech would thus have the character of a manifesto in which, at the outset of his career, the
teacher protests against the system adopted by other members of his profession, and declares the principles by which he himself intends to be guided. In its extant form the discourse is plainly imperfect. It breaks off at the point where Isokrates is passing— as he passes in the introductions to the Busiris
and the Encomium on Helen
—from destructive criticism to positive illustration3
‘If those who undertake to instruct others would only
tell the truth, instead of promising more than they can perform, they would not have been in such ill-repute with the non-professional world. As it is, their reckless boasting has brought discredit upon literary studies generally.
‘First, the professors of Eristic Discussion are to blame.
They assert that their pupils will know how to act under all circumstances, and will, through this knowledge, be happy; thus claiming a prescience which Homer, wisest of poets, denies to the gods,—for he represents them debating. And this precious secret of happiness is sold by its proprietors for three or four minae. Most absurd of all, they do not appear to believe that the persons whom their course of teaching is to inspire with virtue and moderation will be ordinarily honest at the end of it. They take securities from their pupils for the payment of fees. Is it not natural that plain men should look upon such teaching as an imposture? (§§ 1—8.)
‘Next, the teachers of Forensic and Deliberative speaking4
are to blame. They say that the art of speaking well on all occasions can be taught as certainly as the alphabet. Would
that it were so! As it is not so, such idle talk ought to be stopped. All literary men suffer by the prejudice which it excites. It is surprising that teachers can succeed who assume an analogy between an art depending on fixed rules and the exercise of a creative faculty. The letters of the alphabet are the same for every one. The conditions of a good speech are not precisely the same for any two persons. A speech, to be good, must be wortny of the subject, suitable to the occasion and to the speaker, and in some measure original. All would allow that the art of speaking has often been mastered, both in theory and practice, without professional aid. Talent and experience are the two requisites for success. Instruction can polish, but cannot make, oratorical power. It is not difficult to learn the elements (ἰδεῶν
out of which all speeches must be composed. But to combine and temper these elements rightly, and to give to the resulting whole a proper colouring, requires a vigour, an imaginative force, which cannot be communicated; although, where these exist, they will be developed under a teacher who himself possesses them. (§§ 9—18).
‘The pretentious school of sophists which has lately sprung up, however flourishing now, will, I feel sure, be at last reduced to admitting this. As for the sophists before our time who wrote the so-called Arts of Rhetoric, they, too, had their faults. They undertook to teach the mode of conducting law-suits—thus confining their subject to its most
odious branch, and falling below the Eristics, who at least professed to aim at virtue, whereas these avowed themselves teachers of rapacity. Now the study of practical rhetoric, though insufficient to form a good speaker, might at least have been used to inculcate fairness in argument. Justice cannot be taught; but a spirit of justice may be encouraged and developed by lessons in Deliberative speaking.
‘That I may not seem to be complaining of what others undertake to do, and myself, at the same time, undertaking what is impossible, I will give the reasons which
have led me to this view’...... (§§ 19—22: Conclusion wanting).
Isokrates was, and called himself, a sophist6
, that is, a professional teacher of philosophy and rhetoric; though he distinguished himself from the ἀγελαῖοι σοφισταί
, the common herd of the profession. Who, then, are those sophists whom in this
Definition of the censures.
speech he condemns; and what was the extent of his disagreement from them?
Three classes of teachers are censured. (1) The
Eristics,—οἱ περὶ τὰς ἐρίδας διατρίβοντες
(§ 2). Their chief characteristic, as described by Isokrates, is that they profess to impart, for a small fee, absolute knowledge (ἐπιστήμη
, § 3), which will enable its
possessor to act rightly under all circumstances; virtue being included in the knowledge so taught (§ 6). In this description, the sarcasm upon knowledge, and the preference given to intelligent opinion (§ 8), would seem to reflect upon the Sokratics; just as elsewhere Isokrates speaks of ‘Eristic dialogues’ with apparent reference to the Platonic dialogues7
—ignoring that distinction between Dialectic and Eristic on which Plato insists in the Philebos
and the Euthydemos8
. It may be questioned whether here Isokrates means Plato, as he certainly does in a later work, the Encomium on Helen;
but at least there must be a reference to the minor Sokratics, and especially to Eukleides9
(2) The second class of teachers blamed by
(2) The Teachers of Rhetoric.
Isokrates are the professors of ‘Political Discourse’, that is, of Practical Rhetoric, Deliberative and Forensic10
. Now it was the professed aim of Isokrates,
no less than of Protagoras11
, to impart a practical training for the active duties of a citizen. The clue to the meaning of the censure pronounced here is to be found in that passage of the Antidosis
where Isokrates defines the scope of his ‘philosophy’12
. He there says that three things go to form a first-rate public speaker—nature, discipline, experience. Of these, natural aptitude is by far the most important; experience ranks next; instruction, παιδεία
, is of least moment; for without one, at least, of the other qualifications it can do little. At the same time all persons, whatever their capacity, who have been properly taught, will bear the stamp of a uniform scientific method13
. What, then, he means to censure in the professors of whom he speaks here is not their pretension to a scientific method of teaching Practical Rhetoric; it is the unlimited efficacy which they claimed for instruction, independently of nature or experience. They promised unconditionally to make anyone a good speaker: this promise Isokrates denounces as imposture (ἀλαζονεία
(3) Besides these two classes—the Eristics and
the teachers of Political Discourse, who are described as of recent growth—a third class of sophists is condemned by Isokrates. This consists of ‘those who lived before our time and wrote the so-called Arts of Rhetoric.’ Here, again, the limits of the censure must be noted. Isokrates himself probably
wrote an ‘Art;’ at any rate, some of his extant precepts on rhetorical composition might certainly have had a place in such a treatise. It is not the attempt to reduce the theory of Rhetoric to a system which he is condemning here. He is complaining that the earlier writers of Arts devoted themselves entirely to the least noble branch, the Forensic. They professed to teach men ‘political discourse’; but really ‘they undertook to be teachers of meddlesomeness and greed’ (§ 20), whereas the Eristics at any rate aim at imparting virtue. The writers on Rhetoric primarily meant are, no doubt, Korax and Tisias—perhaps also Antiphon. Such treatises as those of Gorgias, Thrasymachos of Chalkedon, and Polos, however unsatisfactory in other respects they might seem to Isokrates, were probably less liable to the particular censure passed here. It may be presumed that they dealt, not with Forensic Rhetoric exclusively, but with Rhetoric in all its branches, especially the Epideictic. The complaint of Isokrates is in one aspect perfectly just. It is repeated by Aristotle; who remarks that the earlier writers of Arts almost confined themselves to Forensic Rhetoric just because they had not a really scientific method, and therefore preferred that field in which chicanery (τὸ κακοῦργον
) had the freeest scope14
The Speech Against the Sophists
ought to be
Relation of this Discourse with the ‘Antidosis’.
read along with the Speech On the Antidosis
, written some thirty-five years later, when his career was drawing to a close. Taken together, they express
his whole educational and literary creed. There is a thorough harmony between the principles of the two essays; but there is likewise a difference between their points of view. In the earlier discourse, Isokrates is concerned solely in distinguishing himself from false brethren. In the later, he is not only defending himself, but vindicating the entire profession to which he belonged, from the criticism of laymen.