Isocrates? Who is he?
A great man destined to live in the shadow of Plato; then and now.
As Marrou puts it, “On the whole it was Isocrates not Plato who educated fourth century Greece and subsequently the Hellenistic and Roman worlds; it was from Isocrates that ‘as from a Trojan horse’ there emerged all those teachers and men of culture, noble idealists, simple moralists, lovers of fine phrases, all those fluent, voluble speakers, to who classical antiquity owed both the qualities and defects of its main cultural tradition.
And not only antiquity… but in so far as the three renaissances returned to the classical heritage, in so far as this tradition has been perpetuated in our own teaching methods, it is to Isocrates more than any other person that the honor and responsibility of having inspired in our Western traditional education a predominantly literary tone.”
Isocrates was an Athenian teacher of oratory from ~ 393-338 B.C. Originally a writer of law court speeches he transitioned to a career as a “political publicist” and later built a school near what would later become the Lyceum.
Starting with the Sophist’s advertisements of oratorical skill (one of their primary marketing tools), he created political set speeches designed to put forward his positions and arouse political action. The written versions of these public lectures would later become the basis for Hellenistic and then Western literature. Ironically, Isocrates had to use the written form because a weak voice and stage fright prevented him from becoming the orator he would have preferred to have been.
His school was designed to teach practical knowledge rather than the idealism of Plato. Isocrates remarked, “I either produce teachers like me or great debaters,” and he did both in volume. These were not the sons of aristocrats necessarily; they were also the average young men of Athens.
The goal of Isocrates’ educational model was to produce men who could speak well as the Sophists had advocated, but also allow them to acquire the practical education necessary for a career in politics. He trained scores of Athenian politicians and achieved what Plato had dreamed of doing. Plato’s model was to expose the student to such rigorous study that the effort would weed out those who were intellectually unworthy, leaving those that remained to acquire perfect knowledge. Isocrates, on the other hand, wanted his students to become cultivated men; to create an inquisitiveness that would allow them to “hit upon” the real knowledge they needed to succeed.
Like the Sophists, Isocrates charged a hefty tuition, acquiring enough money to rank him as one of the richest men in Athens.
The school emphasized rhetoric, gymnastics, and mathematics. Isocrates position was that rhetoric needs to be taught as a tool to be utilized by the educated man rather than merely a set of techniques. His teaching method was practical, encouraging the students to do develop creativity within themselves. Sensitive to the criticisms of the Sophists, accusing them of being shallow, Isocrates loaded up his art with content.
Philosophically, Isocrates was forced to fight on two fronts: one against Plato who he considered overly idealistic and the other against the second generation Sophists who had merely carried on their predecessor’s commercialism. That effort paid off to make Isocrates method into the synthesis of the Sophists and Plato. He added depth and meaning to what the Sophists preached while keeping his teaching at a practical level to avoid the idealism of Plato.
Along the way Isocrates became a humanist; espousing the Greeks as men of the same culture, not just the same race or blood. He argued that Hellas was defined by the community and its political behavior, meaning it would be destroyed if that behavior was altered by a tyrant.
Isocrates separated himself once and for all from the Sophists by placing the responsibility for content on the orator, because a great speech depends on the correct language being put around a subject that matters to people. These new ideas led to organization of thought around the most important topics; the universals which gauge our understanding of the world. Literature, as the art of speech, is the recommended tool for sharpening judgment.