Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.6.07


Takis Poulakis, Speaking for the Polis: Isocrates' Rhetorical Education. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1997. Pp. 141. $24.95. ISBN 1-57003-177-0.


Reviewed by Yun Lee Too, Center for Hellenic Studies and Columbia University.

In Speaking for the Polis: Isocrates' Rhetorical Education Takis Poulakos continues his work in ancient rhetoric, here offering a close reading of a select number of Isocrates' speeches in order to argue that the rhetorician proposes a 'rhetoric of unification' (p. xii). P.'s Isocrates is a writer and thinker interested in using rhetoric to negotiate political and social tensions or differences that might obstruct the creation and maintenance of community with respect to both Athens' internal and external affairs.

The volume contains an Introduction, six chapters, a conclusion, and fairly comprehensive bibliography. The Introduction laments the lack of attention and respect suffered by Isocrates, as is almost de rigeur for books on this author in light of scholars' vehement distaste for him. Beyond this, P. makes a point of distinguishing Isocrates from Plato and Gorgias to ensure that he is read on his own terms and so, with greater regard. Chapter 1, 'Rhetoric and Social Cohesion: the Hymn to Logos', deals with Isocrates' understanding of logos. Observing that the rhetorician produced no rhetorical theory (p. 9), P. proceeds to look for signs of 'theory' in the corpus, perhaps on the assumption that 'theoretical' language is authoritative discourse, and finds them above all in the encomium of logos at Nicocles 5-9 ('the hymn to logos'). P. states that here logos, rather than the more conventional moral virtues of 'modesty/ shame' (aidos) and justice (dike), is viewed as the basis for community (p. 22), although I note that it is more accurate to see Isocrates making language responsible for the formation of moral categories and judgements based upon them in this very passage: see OU(=TOS [i.e. LO/GOS] GA\R PERI\ TW=N DIKAI/WN KAI\ TW=N A)DI/KWN KAI\ TW=N AI)SXRW=N KAI\ TW=N KALW=N E)NOMOQE/THSEN ... (Nicocles 7). Accordingly, P. might have nuanced his claim that logos is 'a maker-through-unity' (p. 17) by acknowledging the (simultaneously arbitrary and fluid) constructions that underlie the rhetorical programme which -- he claims -- overall seeks social cohesion.

The next two sections of the book address the ways in which power affects the production of rhetoric, above all by seeming to mitigate political advantage. Chapter 2, 'Speaking Like a Citizen: Citizenship, Leadership, and Community in Nicocles', uses this dialogue to argue for logos as the basis for power. P. looks at a speech put in the mouth of a monarch, Nicocles, in order to argue that Nicocles downplays his position of tremendous prestige to construct himself as a civil citizen, and to conclude that Isocrates sees rhetoric as a vehicle for diminishing social differences. P. draws a distinction between two verbs for rule, archein and tyrannein, proposing that Nicocles espouses the former and rejects the latter without addressing the fact that the noun tyrannos, literally 'tyrant', but also 'monarch', 'absolute ruler' is used throughout this speech with reference to the Cypriot king and, as A. Andrewes argued, may not always have negative resonances, especially when used before the fourth century (see A. Andrewes, The Greek Tyrants (London, 1956), esp. pp. 20-30). Since Isocrates is not even implicitly critical of Nicocles, it would seem that use of the tyrannos-vocabulary is a deliberately nostalgic tactic, such as would be in keeping with the rest of the corpus. The next chapter, 'Human Agency', considers the role that rhetorical logos can have in Athens as an imperial city. It looks at the different arguments which drive war and which seek peace at the level of interstate and 'national' relations. If the first is fuelled by intoxicating promises of glory and power, the latter is conducted through moderation and sobriety for the sake of achieving goodwill (p. 61). What interests P. is the tension between these two opposing drives.

The last three chapters focus on the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy, or rather rhetoric as philosophy. In chapter 4, 'Eloquence and Reflection: Antidosis', P. begins by reviewing the commonplace texts on the rise of the 'new politics'/sophists at Athens, and proceeds to argue that Isocrates elects to call his profession 'philosophy' rather than 'rhetoric', to avoid confusion with the contemporary sophists. Yet, this argument fails to notice that one of the historical heroes of the Antidosis is Solon, to whom Isocrates applies the description 'sophist' (15.313) in an attempt to reclaim this term for himself, and indeed, I would argue that in this speech the culture of rhetoric and all that it entails -- e.g. sophists, persuasion, paideia -- are multiply valorized, rather than categorically rejected. 'Public Deliberation: Panegyricus' uses the Panegyricus as evidence for arguing that for Isocrates thought, i.e. phronein, and speech, i.e. legein, are inseparable in political orations, and that experience must inform decision-making and action (see p. 87). There is a sense in which the argument is tautologous, for logos, hardly so self-evident as P. claims (p. 90), means not just 'speech', but also 'calculation' and 'reason', thus already connoting 'reason'. In this chapter Isocrates sounds suspiciously Thucydidean, and one wonders if comparison with the historian might have sharpened, or at least, qualified its argument. The final chapter, 'Educational Program', takes at face value the rhetorician's statements on teaching and, furthermore, privileges Isocratean pedagogy merely by citing invective against the sophists. He objects that when the sophists claim the importance of knowledge, they do so in the abstract (see p. 104); yet, when P. claims that Isocratean teaching is contextualized, he does so in the absence of any frame.

My account of the individual chapters suggests difficulties with a number of the arguments made; I also have larger discomforts with Speaking the Polis. P. realizes the interest of Isocrates for a historian of rhetoric and political thought, but he does a severe disservice to his author by failing to engage with fundamental questions: e.g. who/what is Isocrates' community? how might we historicize the rhetorician's political ideology? who are the sophists against whom Isocrates protests? what does it mean to teach? to say that someone teaches? If P. speaks of the rhetorician as a unifier of communities, then he needs to qualify how community is to be understood. I counter that if we understand the rhetorician on these terms, then it is only as a maker of a very small and elite community. Isocrates was a backward looking conservative who sought to restrict participation in the political and intellectual life of the city as the means of ensuring its well-being, as 7.43-4 and 15.304, for instance, show. That P. cites Nicocles, a text ostensibly in favour of monarchy, should be problematic for speaking to a democratic audience, but then, the book does not manage to engage with intellectual contexts at any helpful level. I am not insisting that one has to do history in order to read Isocrates validly and I am not urging a return to an unproductive synkrisis which always worked to Isocrates' disadvantage (see e.g. H. I. Marrou, Histoire de l'éducation dans l'antiquité (Paris, 1956), p. 131), but one way to read the rhetorician respectfully is to do so through a comparative perspective informed by other contemporary political authors.

I wonder if the selection of texts is arbitrary. P. states that his interest in the author began with Against the Sophists and Antidosis and led to the realization that this author's rhetoric cannot be confined to these two texts (p. xi). Yet Speaking for the Polis does not range much further beyond these texts (only to Nicocles and Panegyricus with supporting citations from other texts) and when it does, it is in ways which leave these texts without the contextualization that is crucial to understanding them. Nicocles is the final work in a Cypriot trilogy, including Evagoras and To Nicocles, the didactic texts which are to be viewed as forming the voice of 'Nicocles' in the oration named for him. If anything Nicocles demonstrates the principle of socialization by which an individual learns to be ruled and to rule (cf. Aristotle Politics 1277a25-9), rather than than simply offering an anodyne articulation of 'citizenship'.

Speaking for the Polis is published in a series entitled 'Studies in Rhetoric/Communication', edited by Thomas Benson. The series seems to be one that attempts to address a wider audience than simply classicists, and the aim is admirable; however, it is precisely this intended forum which makes the presentation of the volume troubling. Language and vocabulary are key to any attempt to treat the rhetorician sensitively, especially given that Isocrates conducts his political agenda through subtle and also not so subtle shifts in language; however, in P.'s book Greek is often not signalled as such. Greekless readers encounter logos ('speech', 'word') as logos and dikaiosune ('justice') as dikaiosune and without any gloss(es) -- except that sometimes and arbitrarily Greek words and phrases are italicized (e.g. pp. 68-9, 80, 86) or printed in Greek script (e.g. pp. 76, 84, 87, 94). My concern with this is the way in which these unmarked Greek words run the risk of entering into academic discourse as technical terms immune from interrogation and invoked for their apparent authority by a Greekless audience. Certainly, P. does little to ask what terms like 'sophist' or 'philosophy' mean, let alone acknowledge that what they denote may be fluid and (re)negotiated by authors such as Isocrates. (To a large degree, this is my overall concern with a study such as the present one.) So, an early claim that 'rhetoric' is replaced by 'instruction in philosophy' in Isocrates' speeches (p. 9) misleadingly informs the reader's understanding of the Isocratean project, for 'rhetoric' is precisely 'philosophy' at the very point where the words do not inhabit separate spheres, and/ or when the validities of the activities named by these words are far from fixed. And it is just the presentation of 'rhetoric' as 'philosophy', that is public discourse concerned with political matters, that is central to this fourth-century project of 'speaking for the polis'.