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Isocrates – the “Good Sophist”

I read Isocrates as part of an epistemic constellation that includes Plato, Aristotle, and the commentaries and admonitions of all of those “bad Sophists” referred to by all three parties. Despite how much scholars want to recover the Sophists (Jarratt, Neel, etc.) it also seems worth noting that there must be some veracity to the criticism leveled at them by so many parties. In an analogy to the argument Gorgias (supposedly) makes in Plato’s work named for him, it is not necessarily the fault of the rhetorical school (as it was not the fault of the teacher) when these practices are abused, but it seems likely that some Sophists did actually abuse their positions, skills, and claims about what knowledge they could impart. This brings up (again… and again….) the question of ethics as it pertains to rhetoric, a debate that is not easily resolvable, it seems, in any time or place.

In “Against the Sophists,” Isocrates says, “If all who are engaged in the profession of education were willing to state the facts instead of making greater promises than they can possibly fulfill, they would not be in such bad repute with the lay-public” (72). I wonder who these people are and what was said? At whom is this leveled? Clearly, at “the Sophists,” but who or what did they encompass at this time? Was it a category of teachers with clear boundaries? Or was it already a term used to denote a derogatory sentiment toward someone regardless of a particular affiliation? Similarly, Isocrates says he sees “these men setting themselves up as instructors of youth who cannot see that they are applying the analogy of an art with hard and fast rules to a creative process” (73). Both of these criticisms could be likewise leveled at Plato and Aristotle, respectively, as one (Plato) promises to impart divine knowledge to students and Aristotle applies rules and taxonomies to a process that Isocrates sees as innately creative. I’m not making a claim for this context, but rather noting the types of criticisms that seemed to be bandied about between pedagogs and rhetoricians at this time, each one putting his brand of rhetoric and pedagogy above the others – are these writings more or less long-winded commercials for their particular schools? It makes me wonder….

At any rate, Isocrates seems to put forth a practical system of teaching and rhetoric where he advocates the teaching of rhetoric without exaggerating its abilities. He seems especially reluctant to say that the study of any subject is guaranteed to instill “just living” in anyone for such a thing may not be possible to teach. However, he does think that “the study of political discourse can help more than any other thing to stimulate and form such qualities of character,” thus learning these methods may “stimulate” these characters within students (75). I find this careful qualification of a claim very interesting – it says something about the character of Isocrates himself that I can’t quite articulate. After reading Plato and Aristotle, it is refreshing to hear someone speak with reasonable authority rather than claiming either divine knowledge or making authoritative statements (e.g. “Everyone who affects persuasion through proof does in fact use enthymemes or examples: there is no other way” (182)) without clarification or evidence. For the person who studies rhetoric, character will be of importance as Isocrates believes that “the man who wishes to persuade people will not be negligent as to the matter of character; no, on the contrary, he will apply himself above all to establish a most honorable name among his fellow citizens” (77). For Isocrates, ethos and character seem to be established not wholly from within the text of a speech (as Aristotle would have it) or as a speaker for stable, divinely inspired knowledge (as Plato would have it) but as a matter of course through learning about political and public rhetorical practices. Ethos, in this case, is something that is established as a way of living, rather than as a rhetorical device to be “delivered” along with other appeals.

I also noted that Isocrates includes internal dialog as rhetorical, where one may debate oneself in order to arrive at wisdom. This burring of not only the public and private world (as Plato did somewhat) but also a blurring between the public and internal or deeply private, is very interesting to me. This shows a connection between psychology, cognition, and consciousness with larger social institutions as being related and operating in conjunction with one another, rather than being divided into neat, discrete categories, ala Aristotle.

In reading Isocrates and comparing his perspectives to those of two of his more well-known contemporaries, it makes me wonder Why Plato and Aristotle                and not Isocrates?  Why does everyone study Plato and Aristotle, but Isocrates is barely known at all? Is it possibly because his notion of philosophia differs from Plato’s in that it “involved the development of active judgment to enable one to interact within a culture,” whereas Plato’s revolved around a more stable, non-contingent, “ultimate” reality that was then more in line with dominant ideologies, whether of their time or time(s) between then and now? (Welch 39). The rhetoric, pedagogy, and philosophy of Isocrates seem to be more in alignment with contemporary (specifically that which is or follows “postmodern”) Western epistemologies, as does much of Sophistic thought in general. What happened in Western history and ideology that made these ideas less palatable in the meantime? Why Isocrates now instead of five hundred, or a thousand, years ago? I am so terribly interested in these questions, wondering as I do where this type of thinking “went” for centuries when clearly there were strands and beginnings of it in times past. Reading Isocrates, as well as scholarship by those who seek to rediscover Sophistic thinking in contemporary times, makes me ponder this question all the more.


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