Isocrates was born in 436 B.C., and lived to the remarkable age of ninety-seven in full possession of his faculties. His childhood and youth were passed amid the horrors of the Peloponnesian War; he was already of age when the failure of the Sicilian expedition turned the scale against Athens. In mature manhood he saw the ruin of his city by the capitulation to Lysander. He lived through the Spartan supremacy, saw the foundation of the new Athenian League in 378 B.C., and the rise and fall of the power of Thebes. At the time when Philip obtained the throne of Macedon he was already, by ordinary reckoning, an old man, but the laws of mortality were suspended in the case of this Athenian Nestor. Some of his most important works were composed after his eightieth year; the Philippus,
which he wrote at the age of ninety, shows no diminution of his powers; he produced one of his longest works, the Panathenaicus,
in his ninety-seventh year, and lived to congratulate Philip on his victory at Chaeronea in 338 B.C.
In a life of such extent and such remarkable variety of experience we should expect to find many changes of outlook and modifications, from time to time, of earlier views. But Isocrates was a man of singularly
fixed ideas. With regard to education, he formulated in the discourse against the Sophists (391 B.C.) views which are practically identical with what he expressed nearly forty years later in the Antidosis,
views which he maintains in his last work of all, the Panathenaicus
(339 B.C.). With regard to Greek politics, he held till the close of his life the opinions propounded in the Panegyricus
of 380 B.C. His aims were unchanged, though of necessity he modified the means by which he hoped to carry them out.
We have little information about the orator's early life. He tells us himself that his patrimony was dissipated by the Peloponnesian War (Antid., § 161
), so that he was forced to adopt a profession to make a living.
The story contained in the ‘Life,’ that he endeavoured to save Theramenes when condemned by the Thirty, has no other authority but the Pseudo-Plutarch. It appears from Plato's Phaedrus
) that he was intimate with Socrates, that Socrates had a high opinion of him, and considered that the young man might distinguish himself either in oratory or in philosophy. Tradition names the Sophists Prodicus, Protagoras, and Gorgias among his early teachers. He is believed to have visited Gorgias in Thessaly.
Plutarch asserts that Isocrates at one time opened a school of rhetoric, with nine pupils, in Chios; and that while there he interfered in politics and helped to institute a democracy.1
The story may be accepted with reservations. Isocrates himself never refers to
it, and in Ep. vi. § 2
(to the children of Jason) excuses himself from visiting Thessaly on the ground that people would comment unfavourably on a man who had ‘kept quiet’ all his life if he began travelling in his old age.2
Jebb assumes a short stay in Chios in 404-403 B.C.
Between 403 and 393 B.C. Isocrates composed a certain number of speeches for the law-courts, in which, however, he never appeared as a pleader, for natural disabilities—lack of voice and nervousness, to which he refers with regret—made him unfitted for such work.
About 392 B.C. he opened a school at Athens, and in 391 B.C. published, in the discourse Against the Sophists,
his views on education. His pupils were mostly Athenians, many of them afterwards being men of distinction (Antid., §§ 159 sqq.
It was probably between 378 and 376 B.C. that Isocrates went on several voyages with Conon's son, Timotheus, who was engaged in organizing the new maritime league. From this time down to 351 B.C. he had many distinguished pupils from far countries— Sicily and Pontus as well as all parts of Greece—and amassed, as he tells us, a reasonable competence, though not a large fortune.
In the year 351 B.C., when a great contest of eloquence was held by Artemisia, widow of Mausolus of Caria, in honour of her husband, it is reported that all the competitors were pupils of Isocrates.
In the last period of his life, 351-338 B.C., Isocrates
still continued to teach, and was also busily occupied in writing. He published the Philippus,
which is one of his most important works, and one of the greatest in historical interest, in 346 B.C.; in 342 B.C. he began the lengthy Panathenaicus,
which he had half finished when he was attacked by an illness, which made the work drag on for three years. It was finished in 339 B.C. In the following year, a few days after the battle of Chaeronea, he died. A report was current in antiquity that he committed suicide, by starving himself, in consequence of the news of this downfall of Greek liberty; the story is quite incredible when we consider that the result of the battle gave a possibility of the fulfilment of the hopes which Isocrates had been cherishing for half his life, the end to which he had been labouring for over forty years—the concentration of all power into the hands of one man, who might redeem Greece by giving her union and leading her to conquest in the East.
His last letter, in fact, written after the battle of Chaeronea, congratulates Philip on his victory; and even if this letter is spurious, the probability, to judge from the tone of his earlier works, is that he would have hailed the Macedonian success as a victory for his imperial ideas.