More on Isocrates from Perseus Project

Born, 436 BC; died (suicide by starvation) 338 BC (upset over Philip's victory) Isocrates was educated by Gorgias, Tisias, and Socrates, among others! He began his career as a logographer, writing speeches for others to deliver in the law courts. He later regreted having done that to such a great degree that he denied ever having done so. We have, however, fragments of the cases. In 404 he opened a school (?) in Chios; in 392 in Athens. He publicized his new profession with Against the Sophists.

Isocrates had political ambitions, but did not have the requisite ability at public speaking. his voice was weak (could not "carry" the venue) and he suffered from communication apprehension. So, by noting how crucial to success were his limitations and believing in his intellectual strengths as important--if they could be set to work--he started a school to train citizens. Isocrates was an influential teacher, perhaps the most so in the ancient history of rhetoric. His students included many notable citizen statesmen and decorated leaders. Isocrates' school had entrance requirements (few others did in those days--other than the requisite tuition). He also charged a regular tuition fee--which was unique in that it was fixed/ standardized.

A hallmark of his approach was that he regularized the Athenian call for five aspects of educational intelligence: natural ability, educated training, extensive practice, instruction by the teacher, and modeling via teacher performance. Isocrates' curriculum required/assumed basic competencies in science and math, then taught writing, debate, classical prose and poetry (literature), philosophy, math, and history.

Isocrates was the father of liberal education as we know it. For Isocrates, and this is another crucial contribution, effective speech making was taken as a sign of good training, not as the goal itself. Notice how this, at the same time, upholds a noble intellectual and social tradition, yet further grates against Plato's call for idealism. At its best, speaking does not stand as a goal--the show is not the issue--yet, it merely represents something else (learning) so is not in itself the real thing. Isocrates educated the practical man toward graceful style, influential leadership, issue oriented analysis--preparation of the citizen, not Socratic/Platonic idealism. Education in the "wisdom of choice," rather than "in the wisdom of knowing."

Isocrates stressed the use of models in education. He promoted both the progymnasium (analysis, practice, and delivery of set speeches drawn from history and/or the master) and declamatio (debate). He sent his students to the courts and the legislature to observe the best speakers. He also counseled learning from the mistakes of negative models.

Isocrates' attack on the sophistic abuses of his day, in Against the Sophists, pre-figured Plato's later criticisms in the Gorgias. Further, Plato specifically mentions his respect for Isocrates' educational practices, esp. in that they promoted the study of philosophy (at the end of the Phaedrus).

Isocrates' Conception of rhetorical education ability, practice and training

Personalize instruction (five or six at once--perhaps a 100 or so in his career). Check the one, encourage the other. Combine theories, models, practice, teacher instruction and demonstrations. Isocrates strongly criticizes the teachers of disputation (eristic) for their attempts to deceive with lies rather than seek truth and for claiming to teach more than they deliver -he chides them for charging so little--when in fact, they claim to provide so much that the cost should be great, thereby themselves proving that what they have to offer is not of much worth. Further, these teachers so distrust their students that they ask payment in advance--if they so distrust them, why are those students worthy of instruction? -he accuses them of failing to teach the art, rather, of stressing mechanical commonplaces. -finally (in the fragment we have--which is only the start of the larger lost work) he chides those (like his teacher, Tisias/Corax) who focus exclusively on forensic/judicial--noting that other forms are just as rhetorical and important. Here, he recants his former life (implicitly). -At other places, he rails against those sophists who cared only for personal gain, who wrangled in public, and who discoursed on trivial topics requiring little skill.


Isocrates first laments the sophists who teach by rote memorization only. He says that they make extravagant claims so as to draw large crowds of undifferentiated students. The sophist then writes speeches (of little distinction) and has students memorize and deliver them. This is sham learning. Not all words mean the same thing, nor are all speeches equally valued or equally of value in different situations: "For what has been said by one speaker is not equally useful for the speaker who comes after him; on the contrary, he is accounted most skilled in this art who speaks in a manner worthy of his subject and yet is able to discover in it topics which are nowise the same as those of others . . . oratory is good only if it has the qualities of fitness for the occasion, propriety of style, and originality of treatment." Skill requires natural ability, practical experience, and formal training. (note that this is not exactly theories, models, and practice, as the practice is practical experience--I assume that to mean the real-life stuff.) Calls the teacher to teach by positive example as well. Finally, he laments the abject relativism of Corax in that it was without real political savvy--Corax was too interested in taking up both sides of the issue to see that which is the case--that which is just. Further, Corax was interested in training speakers only while Isocrates is interested in training citizens who can lead. Isocrates' rhetorical conception What is rhetoric: the worker or science of persuasion which is a branch of philosophy able to alter our perception of things as we dispute with others and seek knowledge. Unlike Plato, he argues that men cannot know the absolutes, so must deal with the probabilities. Men have imperfect knowledge (esp. as to the future), so must employ that which we have to work out the best course. The power of discourse is the primary vehicle for that struggle. Rhetoric is useful in everyday affairs and those of state. It teaches, persuades, and leads toward knowledge. Oratory is good if it fits the occasion, has propriety of style, and originality of treatment. We see in his foundational ideas, modern traces in ancient sands: -speech separates man from the animals (Kenneth Burke's "man as the symbol using animal") -speech as it underlies most of our important institutions (Perelman's value ideal of justice and his use of the juridical model) -the extensive use of speech to debate public policy (modern campaigns and modern public address scholarship) -use of speech to solve problems in our own minds (the propositions underlying the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that we think in language; also the continued move in artificial intelligence toward linguistic rather than mathematical models for synthesized speech).


253-257: the passages already taken up in Golden et al, bears reading here. Perhaps the most direct and full treatment of why discourse is important. (p. 47-48) Isocrates always begins from a base which is endowed with positive beginnings. A man must approach the art of discourse with the love of wisdom and the love of honour. Further, the speaker wishing to influence will live an ever-more honourable life so as to uphold credibility. The audience is exposed to questions about the speaker's good will throughout the presentation. Those who misuse these arts for false gain are not "advantaged" and will be punished by the future. He who utilizes the good things in life takes proper advantage. There is praise for hardworking souls who would improve themselves than for the sycophants, talented though they may be, who waste their treasures. Those who study to enhance their eloquence are much better off than those who "by chance" are governed in what they say Here Isocrates points to that which Jaeger makes clear, and that which makes us proud: that what set Athens apart was the fact that "you have been educated as have been no other people in wisdom and in speech . . . Athens is looked upon as having become a school for the education of all able orators and teachers of oratory." THE PAIDEIA--the true cultural ideal--was based on the wedding of wisdom with eloquence (Plato not withstanding).

back to lecture note index