Isokrates: Theory of Culture
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
.’ Now it is in this general sense that Isokrates applies the term ‘philosophy’ to his art, ‘the discipline of discourse,’ ἡ 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 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.
His Theory of Culture described
The two important documents for the ‘philosophy’ of Isokrates are the discourse Against the Sophists
(Or. XIII. 391 B. C.), and the speech On the Antidosis
(Or. XV. 353 B.C.), the alpha and the omega of his professional life. In the first of these he declares what his ‘philosophy’ is not;
in the second he explains what it is.
It is distinguished, then,—first, from all theoretic
inquiries, as from those of the Ionic physicists, and from the ethical and political speculations of the Sokratic schools. Secondly, from Eristic, or the art of disputing for disputation's sake. Thirdly, from mathematical science. Fourthly, from all literary
activity which has no direct bearing on the higher political life: as (i) mythological research, ‘genealogies of the heroes,’ and the like; (ii) history, considered as the compiling of annals, apart from political essay-writing; (iii) philology and criticism of the poets; (iv) rhetoric applied to low or trivial subjects, whether forensic, or of the sportive epideiktic kind5
It forms the last and highest department of the
citizen's education. Boys at school learn grammar and read the poets. Older youths may profitably study astronomy or geometry up to a certain point, for the purpose of sharpening their faculties; a profound study of these subjects is useful only for professional specialists6
. Eristic may be used for practice in the same way; but the student must take care that his nature is not ‘dried up by it,’ and that he is not ‘stranded’ in such barren subtleties as (for instance) those of Empedokles and Parmenides7
. Then, when the faculties have been thus prepared and trained, ‘philosophy’ comes in. What Gymnastic is for the body, Philosophy is for the mind. The teacher of Gymnastic practises his pupils in all the artificial exercises (σχήματα
) which have been devised as preparatives for real contests. The teacher of Philosophy trains his pupils in all the artificial resources8
which prose-composition can employ. Then
he tries them in real work, in putting together (συνείρειν
) the particular things which they have learned, so that they may grasp them more firmly, and may be able to use them readily in any combination which any given occasion may require. It is impossible to foresee exactly all these occasions; there can be no science
of them. There can only be opinion
, conjecture about them; and he is the wisest man who—exact foresight being out of the question —can best conjecture
what any given crisis will demand of him9
. ‘Philosophy’ cannot of itself engage to produce a man able to speak and to act. Three things go to make such a man—natural capacity, training, and practical experience. The second has no power comparable to that of the first and third. All that training can infallibly do is to make the man better10
. And what is of supreme importance is the class of subjects to which the oratorical and literary faculty, as it grows, is turned. These must be (1) practical; (2) concerned with the largest public interests;—not with such private interests as employ forensic rhetoric, nor even with the exclusive interests of a single city11
. Isokrates cites from his own works two examples of such
‘nationally political,’ Hellenic subjects: one is the thesis—‘Athens has a better right than Lacedaemon to the hegemony12
’; another is—‘What measures are needed to reform the foreign and home policy of Athens13
Relation of Isokrates to his professional brethren.
The ‘Philosophy’ of Isokrates is, then, the Art of
speaking and of writing on large political subjects, considered as a preparation for advising or acting in political affairs.
But something more than such a definition is needed for the accurate appreciation of his work. It is necessary to determine his relation to other teachers who professed to be doing nearly the same thing. Isokrates conceives himself as belonging to a numerous and honourable profession, but as distinguished from most of his brethren by certain characteristics which give him a higher moral and intellectual dignity. The members of this profession he calls generically Sophists14
; when he wishes to disparage he speaks of vulgar
. Under this general name of ‘Sophist’ he includes two
What he means by ‘Sophist.’
distinct classes of teachers;—(1) those whom we should call philosophers,—as the Sokratics, in three of their principal sects,—Plato and the Academy, Antisthenes and the Cynics, Eukleides and the Megarics16
;— (2) those whom we ordinarily mean when we speak of ‘sophists,’—teachers of political (that is, forensic
or deliberative) discourse; who professed to give a training, based on Rhetoric, for practical life17
The power of speaking, coherently and effectively,
Analogy of Sophistic to Journalism.
in a law-court, in a public assembly or at a public festival, held a place in old Greek life roughly analogous to that which the journalistic faculty holds in modern Europe. The citizen of a Greek republic might be called upon at any moment to influence public opinion in behalf of certain interests or ideas by a neat, pointed, comprehensive address, which must be more or less extemporary. ‘Sophists’ in the ordinary sense were men who undertook to teach methodically the art of saying, under all possible circumstances, something which should pass muster at the time; and, in controversy, of rebutting arguments, whatever their intrinsic worth, by counterarguments which should at least serve the turn. In most hands such a discipline was probably either keen but immoral, or superficial and non-moral: Isokrates wanted to make it thorough and moral.
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 art18
. 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 ekklesia19
. 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 Hellenic20
. 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 allow21
.’ 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 side22
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 shoes23
. 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 master24
. 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 pupils25
; the real essence of his method consisted in developing the learner's own faculty through the learner's own efforts26
. 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 spirit27
; and in his ninety-seventh year, when he was suffering from illness, he prides himself on being still able to work hard28
. 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 years29
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 Messene30
. 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 time31
.’ 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 world32
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.
Isokrates and the Sokratics.
The relation of Isokrates to the Sokratics is in fact rather a biographical question than one which concerns the examination of his art. His so-called ‘philosophy’ had no point of true contact with the Sokratic schools except his personal obligation to Sokrates. But, in so far as there was a real or an apparent antagonism between them, some attempt to estimate this may help to make the exact position of Isokrates clearer.
Sokrates held that it is of the essence of true philosophy to have a direct bearing on civic life.
His relation to Sokrates.
When Isokrates turns away from physical speculation and from all abstract study, considered as an end, he is so far Sokratic33
. But his master is the Xenophontic, not the Platonic Sokrates. He has taken the doctrine in too literal and too narrow a sense; he has not seen that the theoretic is the way to the best practical life. On the other hand he is versed in the maxims of just such a homely moral
philosophy as Xenophon ascribes to Sokrates. Many parallelisms might be pointed out between the Memorabilia
and (for instance) the Letter to Demonikos34
. Though the ideal tendency of Isokrates distinguishes him from Xenophon almost as decidedly as his unscientific habit distinguishes him from Plato, yet, in all that they owe to their common teacher, Xenophon and Isokrates are strongly alike.
At whatever time the Phaedros
Supposed references of Plato to Isokrates.
whether when Isokrates was really a young man, or, as Cicero thinks (Or. § 41
), when he was of maturer age, there can hardly be a question that it is no sarcastic prophecy after the event35
. When Plato wrote, he really hoped that Isokrates might choose what was in his opinion the noblest career. In the Gorgias
there is a parody which need not be treated as passing the bounds of a friendly irony; Isokrates had said in his speech Against the Sophists
that to be a good speaker requires ‘a manly and imaginative spirit;’ Sokrates is made to say in the Gorgias
that rhetoric is the affair of ‘a manful and conjectural spirit36
.’ A passage in the Euthydemos
is stronger and more significant. Kriton reports to Sokrates the remarks made upon Sokrates and the philosophers by a critic who is not named, but who is described. The chief traits of this critic are, (1) that he
identifies Dialectic with Eristic; (2) that he has a rhythmical and antithetical style, of which Kriton gives a specimen; (3) that he lives a life withdrawn from action; and (4) that he dwells ‘on the borderland between Philosophy and Statesmanship.’ Sokrates is not harsh to this critic; we ought not to be irritated, he says, by claims of this kind; rather ‘we ought to esteem every man who says anything holding of practical wisdom, and goes with manly perseverance through his work37
In the discourse Against the Sophists
Supposed references of Isokrates to Plato.
doubtful whether there is any special reference to Plato, who at that time,—about 391 B.C.,—was perhaps not yet conspicuous; but the teachers of absolute knowledge (ἐπιστήμη
) for pay must at any rate be some of the minor Sokratics38
. In the Helenae Encomium
, however (370 B.C.), the allusion to Plato is distinct. He is brought in between Antisthenes and Eukleides,—being indicated as teaching that Valour, Wisdom and Justice form the subjectmatter of one science39
. In the Panathenaikos
(§ 118) there is what seems a controversial reference to Plato's maxim in the Gorgias
and the Republic
, that it is better to be wronged than to wrong. ‘The Laws and Polities written by the Sophists’ which are slightly mentioned in the Philippos
(§ 2) may possibly be meant for Plato's works; though
this seems less certain. Lastly, in several passages
Isokratic preference of Opinion to Knowledge—its relation to the Platonic antithesis.
of Isokrates the attainment of judicious ‘opinion,’ as distinguished from ‘knowledge,’ is declared to be the end of education. It is worth while to inquire how far these remarks strictly apply to the Platonic antithesis. In the discourse Against the Sophists
(§ 16) Isokrates says:—‘When people see that those who merely opine
agree better and succeed oftener than those who profess to know
, they naturally despise them.’ In the Helenae Encomium
§ 5:— ‘It is much better to form probable opinions
about useful things than to have an exact knowledge of useless things.’ The Speech On the Antidosis
§ 271: —‘Since it is impossible for human nature to acquire any science
by which we should know
what to do or say, in the next resort I deem those wise who, as a rule, can hit what is best by their opinions
; and I call those men philosophers who give themselves to studies by which they will soonest acquire practical wisdom.’
In no one of these passages, nor elsewhere, does Isokrates deny a possible science of absolute truth; rather he implicitly recognises it. His contention is that this knowledge, supposing it attained, is worth less than judicious, though inexact, opinion on the affairs of practical life. That ‘knowledge’ or ‘science’ of which he does
deny the possibility is a science of the contingencies which may arise in practical life. These cannot certainly be foreknown; the words or deeds which a future crisis may demand can never be more than matter of guesswork.
The supposed allusions of Plato to Isokrates
prove nothing more than his regret—sometimes
Summary— probable relations between Plato and Isokrates.
expressed with sarcasm—that ability and industry should have been lost to the search for knowledge. The references of Isokrates to Plato show vanity and petulance; but no more than those on the other side do they justify the hypothesis of a serious feud. An inner friendship or harmony was impossible between the two men. But Plato seems to have regarded Isokrates with a sometimes pitying good will; and Isokrates, when not temporarily out of humour with Plato, was probably willing to visit him in the country, and to talk—as an impartial Peripatetic is said to have described—‘concerning poets40