an ancient Greek
Ancient Greek is the stage of the Greek language in the periods spanning the times c. 9th–6th centuries BC, , c. 5th–4th centuries BC , and the c. 3rd century BC – 6th century AD of ancient Greece and the ancient world; being predated in the 2nd millennium BC by Mycenaean Greek...
Rhetoric is the art of discourse, an art that aims to improve the facility of speakers or writers who attempt to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations. As a subject of formal study and a productive civic practice, rhetoric has played a central role in the Western...
ian, was one of the ten Attic orators
The ten Attic orators were considered the greatest orators and logographers of the classical era . They are included in the "Alexandrian Canon" compiled by Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristarchus of Samothrace.-The Alexandrian "Canon of Ten":* Aeschines* Andocides* Antiphon* Demosthenes*...
. In his time, he was probably the most influential rhetorician in Greece and made many contributions to rhetoric and education through his teaching and written works.
Greek rhetoric is commonly traced to Corax of Syracuse
Corax or Korax , along with Tisias, was one of the founders of ancient Greek rhetoric. It has sometimes been asserted that they are merely legendary personages. Other scholars contend that Corax and Tisias were the same person, described in one fragment as "Tisias, the Crow"...
, who first formulated a set of rhetorical rules in the fifth century BC. His pupil, Tisias
Tisias , along with Corax of Syracuse, was one of the founders of ancient Greek rhetoric, or sophism. Tisias was reputed to have been the pupil of the lawyer Corax, who agreed to teach Tisias under the condition that he would give him payment for schooling if he won his first case...
, was influential in the development of the rhetoric of the courtroom, and by some accounts was the teacher of Isocrates. Within two generations, rhetoric had become an important art, its growth driven by the social and political changes, such as democracy and the courts of law.
Unlike most rhetoric schools of the times which were taught by itinerant sophists, Isocrates defined himself with his treatise Against the Sophists
Against the Sophists is among the few Isocratic speeches that have survived from Ancient Greece. This polemical text was Isocrates attempt to define Isocrates’ educational doctrine and to separate himself from the multitudes of other teachers of rhetoric. Isocrates was a sophist, an identity which...
. This polemic was written to explain and advertise the reasoning and educational principles behind his newly opened school. He promoted his broad-based education by speaking against two types of teachers: the Eristics who disputed about theoretical and ethical matters and the Sophists, who taught political debate techniques.
Isocrates was born to a wealthy family in Athens and received a fine education. He was greatly influenced by his sophist teachers, Prodicus and Gorgias, and was also closely acquainted with Socrates.After the Peloponnesian War
The Peloponnesian War, 431 to 404 BC, was an ancient Greek war fought by Athens and its empire against the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. Historians have traditionally divided the war into three phases...
, Isocrates' family lost its wealth, and Isocrates was forced to earn a living.
Isocrates' professional career is said to have begun as a logographer
The title of logographer was applied to professional authors of judicial discourse in Ancient Greece...
, or a hired courtroom speech writer. Athenian citizens would not hire lawyers because legal procedure required self-representation. Instead they would speak for themselves and hire people like Isocrates to write speeches for them in exchange for a fee. Isocrates had a great talent for this since he lacked confidence in public speaking. His weak voice motivated him to publish pamphlets and although he played no direct part in state affairs, his written speech influenced the public and provided significant insight on large political issues of the fourth century.Around 392 BC he set up his own school of rhetoric, because at the time Athens had no set curriculum for higher education (sophist teachers often travelled), and proved to be not only an influential teacher, but a shrewd businessman. His fees were unusually high, and he accepted no more than nine pupils at a time. Many of them went on to be philosophers, legislators and historians. As a consequence, he amassed a considerable fortune. According to Pliny the Elder
Gaius Plinius Secundus , better known as Pliny the Elder, was a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, as well as naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, and personal friend of the emperor Vespasian...
VII.30) he could sell a single oration for twenty talents
The Attic talent , also known as the Athenian talent or Greek talent, is an ancient unit of mass equal to 26 kg, as well as a unit of value equal to this amount of pure silver. A talent was originally intended to be the mass of water required to fill an amphora . At the 2009 price of $414/kg, a...
Isocrates' program of rhetorical education stressed the ability to use language to address practical problems, and he referred to his teachings as more of a philosophy as opposed to rhetoric. He emphasized that students needed three things to learn: a natural aptitude which was inborn, knowledge training granted by teachers and textbooks and applied practices designed by educators. He also stressed civic education, training students to serve the state. Students would practice composing and delivering speeches on various subjects. He considered natural ability and practice to be more important than rules or principles of rhetoric. Rather than delineating static rules, Isocrates stressed "fitness for the occasion," or kairos
Kairos is an ancient Greek word meaning the right or opportune moment . The ancient Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. While the former refers to chronological or sequential time, the latter signifies a time in between, a moment of indeterminate time in which something special...
(the rhetor's ability to adapt to changing circumstances and situations). His school lasted for over fifty years and taught the basis of liberal arts education as we know it today, including oratory, composition, history, citizenship, culture and morality.
Because of Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...
's attacks on the sophists, Isocrates' school of rhetoric and philosophy came to be viewed as unethical and deceitful. Yet many of Plato's criticisms are hard to discern in the work of Isocrates, and at the end of his Phaedrus
Plato even has Socrates praising Isocrates, though some scholars take this to be sarcastic. Isocrates saw the ideal orator as someone who must not only possess rhetorical gifts, but possess also a wide knowledge of philosophy, science, and the arts. The orator should also represent Greek ideals of freedom, self-control, and virtue. In this, he influenced several Roman rhetoricians, such as Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero , was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and Roman constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the equestrian order, and is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.He introduced the Romans to the chief...
Marcus Fabius Quintilianus was a Roman rhetorician from Hispania, widely referred to in medieval schools of rhetoric and in Renaissance writing...
, and also had in influence on the idea of liberal education.
On the art of rhetoric, he was also an innovator. He paid closer attention to expression and rhythm far more than any other Greek writer, but because his sentences were so complex and artistic, he often sacrificed clarity to demonstrate his messages.
Of the 60 orations in his name available in Roman times, 21 were transmitted by ancient and medieval scribes. Another three orations were found in a single codex
A codex is a book in the format used for modern books, with multiple quires or gatherings typically bound together and given a cover.Developed by the Romans from wooden writing tablets, its gradual replacement...
during a 1988 excavation at Kellis
Ancient Kellis, now known as Ismant el-Kharab , was a village in Upper Egypt during the Roman Period. It was located about east-southeast of present day Ismant in the Dakhleh Oasis, and about northeast of Mut , which is the capital of the oasis...
, a site in the Dakhla Oasis of Egypt
Egypt , officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, Arabic: , is a country mainly in North Africa, with the Sinai Peninsula forming a land bridge in Southwest Asia. Egypt is thus a transcontinental country, and a major power in Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East and the Muslim world...
. We have nine letters in his name, but the authenticity of four has been questioned. He is said to have compiled a treatise, the Art of Rhetoric,
but it has not survived. In addition to the orations, other works include his autobiographical Antidosis
Antidosis , is the title of a speech treatise by the ancient Greek rhetorician, Isocrates. The Antidosis can be viewed as a defense, an autobiography, or rhetorical treatise. However, since Isocrates wrote it when he was 82 years old, it is generally seen by some people as an autobiography...
and educational texts, such as Against the Sophists.
Panathenaicus and Famous Quotation
Isocrates argues with a student about the literacy of the Spartans. In section 250, the student claims that the most intelligent of the Spartans owned copies of and admired some of Isocrates' speeches. The implication is that some Spartans had books, were able to read them and were eager to do so. The Spartans, however, needed an interpreter to clear up any misunderstandings of double meanings which might lie concealed beneath the surface of complicated words. This text indicates that some Spartans were not illiterate. If this speech is taken literally, it would suggest that Spartans could conduct political affairs and that they collected and made use of written works such as speeches. This text is important to scholars' understanding of literacy in Sparta because it indicates that Spartans were able to read and that they often put written documents to use in their public affairs.
"Ἰσοκράτης τῆς παιδείας τὴν ῥίζαν πικρὰν ἔφη, γλυκεῖς δὲ τοὺς καρπούς."
"Isocrates said that the root of education is bitter, but the fruits are sweet."
Progymnasmata are rhetorical exercises gradually leading the student to familiarity with the elements of rhetoric, in preparation for their own practice speeches and ultimately their own orations.Both Hermogenes of Tarsus and Aelius Festus Aphthonius wrote treatises containing progymnasmata...
Aphthonius of Antioch , Greek sophist and rhetorician, flourished in the second half of the 4th century, or even later. Nothing is known of his life, except that he was a friend of Libanius and of a certain Eutropius, perhaps the author of the epitome of Roman history...
. A similar sentence is found in the Progymnasmata of Libanios
Libanius was a Greek-speaking teacher of rhetoric of the Sophist school. During the rise of Christian hegemony in the later Roman Empire, he remained unconverted and regarded himself as a Hellene in religious matters.-Life:...
Panegyricus 50 and the True Hellene debate
In Greece there has been, due to the rise of immigration, debate between nationalists and anti-nationalists on what the passage in Panegyricus 50 actually entails. The proposition by antinationalists is that Isocrates said that "A Greek is he who shares our common culture" (meaning Greek culture) and understand from that that he was an early proponent of multiculturalism
Multiculturalism is the appreciation, acceptance or promotion of multiple cultures, applied to the demographic make-up of a specific place, usually at the organizational level, e.g...
who wanted barbarians as well as Greeks becoming a part of the Greek ethnic group. On the other hand nationalists refute that with some of them claiming that he in fact meant that "It is a shame that a Greek is considered by some one who shares our culture rather than our common kinship" and paint him as a proto-racist.
In fact they are both wrong and Isocrates was merely making an appeal to unite all Hellenes under the hegemony of Athens (whose culture is implied under the words "our common culture") in a crusade against the Persians rather than their customary fighting against each other. That is Isocrates was referring to Athenian not Greek culture when he said that. In all cases Isocrates was not extending the appellation Hellene to non-Greeks.
However he was also not an early proponent of racism either since he did specifically, in Panegyricus, make an appeal to define the Hellenes as a people sharing a common culture, albeit the Athenian one. This was done in order to boost Athens whose present military weakness meant that its only claim to leadership of the Greeks was its cultural ascendancy.
Nonetheless Isocrates misinterpretation is not wholly new. Second Sophistic Greeks, living in a multi-cultural environment had a fresh impetus to re-interpret him and apply his words, if not spirit, to their time.
 τοσοῦτον δ' ἀπολέλοιπεν ἡ πόλις ἡμῶν περὶ τὸ φρονεῖν καὶ λέγειν τοὺς ἄλλους ἀνθρώπους, ὥσθ' οἱ ταύτης μαθηταὶ τῶν ἄλλων διδάσκαλοι γεγόνασι, καὶ τὸ τῶν Ἑλλήνων ὄνομα πεποίηκε μηκέτι τοῦ γένους ἀλλὰ τῆς διανοίας δοκεῖν εἶναι, καὶ μᾶλλον Ἕλληνας καλεῖσθαι τοὺς τῆς παιδεύσεως τῆς ἡμετέρας ἢ τοὺς τῆς κοινῆς φύσεως μετέχοντας.
"Our city of Athens has so far surpassed other men in its wisdom and its power of expression that its pupils have become the teachers of the world. It has caused the name of Hellene to be regarded as no longer a mark of racial origin but of intelligence, so that men are called Hellenes because they have shared our common education rather than that they share in our common ethnic origin."
- Robin Waterfield's Notes to his translation of Plato's 'Phaedrus', Oxford University Press, 2002.