By Ben Potter
In many ways Isocrates is the forgotten man of Classical Greece.
As a product of Athens’ Golden Age, he was a contemporary of Plato, Euripides, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Aristotle, et al,… just without their fame or everlasting glory.
And it’s not that he didn’t deserve it.
Born into great wealth and privilege in 436 BC during the Thirty Years Peace (effectively a cold war between Athens and Sparta), Isocrates had both the world at his feet and a silver spoon in his mouth.
However, Athens’ capitulation in the Peloponnesian War, and the social upheaval that ensued, cost Isocrates his residence on easy street.
Newly impoverished and in danger of his life, he left (probably fled) Athens during the oligarchic tyranny of 404 BC.
However, despite his new digs on desolation row, Isocrates had been rich enough and bright enough for long enough to receive a first rate education at the hands of Socrates, Prodicus, Gorgias and Teisias.
This quadrumvirate of educators is made particularly peculiar by the presence of Socrates.
Those familiar with the trial of Socrates in Plato’s Apology will recall the old man defending himself by claiming not to be one of those who ‘make the weaker argument defeat the stronger’. Prodicus, Gorgias and Teisias were just such men.
These sophists, who were both apparently despised and yet in demand, trained rich Greeks in the rhetoric of politics and in arguing well rather than arguing justly.
It was in their tradition that Isocrates’ professional development occurred, even though the man himself would have recoiled at being referred to as in the same breath as such characters.
Indeed, his first published work was entitled Against the Sophists.
‘Against those Sophists’ may have been a more accurate title, as the thesis of the essay points out why and how his educational methods were different, and superior, to those of his reviled rivals. None of whom, he claimed, possessed the knowledge, moral fibre or pedagogical acumen to properly instruct.
Indeed, the argument propounded by Socrates/Plato in the Meno suggests that we all, innately, have the full knowledge of the universe stored within us and we just need help ‘recollecting’ it. Socrates, you may recall, evidences this by getting an unlettered slave to solve a math problem without giving him any information (though by asking him a succession of extremely leading questions).
Isocrates, on the other hand, believed that a student needed to be naturally intelligent in order to embark on a career of learning. From here he should be become well-read, carefully tutored and be ceaselessly vigilant in practising his art.
The key difference here between him and the aforementioned sophists is that they were quite happy to tutor those who had no aptitude for learning, as long as they had an aptitude for paying their bills.
Not that Isocrates’ was a charitable cause… Indeed, there are suggestions he charged inordinately high fees for those wishing to enter his school of rhetoric (est. 392 BC, five years before Plato’s academy).
However, the fact that he would accept no more than nine students at a time suggests that not only was the school exclusive, but the study intense.
Indeed, despite shaping the minds of men of no little future import like Timotheus, Speusippus, Theopompus, Hypereides, Ephorus, Lycurgus, Isaeus, and Hypereides, it was his career as an orator for which he became best remembered.
‘Orator’ is perhaps a little bit misleading. If he were around today, we’d call him a speech-writer and essayist.
Due to a poor voice, innate physical weakness and, therefore, a lack of confidence, he was never a public speaker of any renown. Consequently, he could never have had a political career to call his own.
As such, after honing his skills as a speechwriter for those defending themselves in the law courts (there were no lawyers in ancient Athens), he began to write to various kings, princes and ruling bodies, including to the Athenian assembly itself.
Of the sixty speeches that survived into Roman times (and heavily, heavily influenced Cicero) twenty-one are extant today.
While his style has been described as pompous and verbose, it clearly shows him a master of the craft. Dionysius of Halicarnassus described it as ‘closely woven material’ and ‘a picture in which the lights melt imperceptibly into shadows’.
Likewise was Isocrates’ content inspired. As a child of the Peloponnesian War it was perhaps no surprise that he became increasingly preoccupied with a wider Greek peace.
His Panegyricus of 380 BC is a plea for Athens and Sparta to bring about a united Greece; a drastic and radical proposition for the time.
This theme is reinforced in his Philippus. This entreaty calls on King Philip II of Macedonia, as a gentleman and a Hellene, to unite Greece against the common enemy, Persia.
While many other works take a similar tack, others still defend his educational methods, criticize his peers, pay special attention to the kings of Salamis, call on Athens to support her allies, rail against falling standards in the city, and call to end the willful bankruptcy of the polis through seemingly endless wars.
His educational innovations were, in many ways, a precursor to the liberal arts instruction still in existence today.
Meanwhile, his speeches brought into focus the idea that Greek states could no longer be either unduly aggressive militarily or stubbornly isolationist.
Tragically, Isocrates was not around to see him dream fulfilled.
In 338 BC, two years shy of Alexander’s coronation and his own 100th birthday, Isocrates starved himself to death after yet another appeal to Philip fell on deaf ears.