BMCR 1996.02.01

Rhetoric of Identity in Isocrates

, The rhetoric of identity in Isocrates : text, power, pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. xiii, 274 pages. ISBN 1107720087. $59.95.

Students of ancient rhetoric will be very glad that there is now a monograph on Isocrates in English. Too’s bibliography indicates that her book is the first answering this description to be published. The author also hopes that others also will find the book useful—she mentions (9) those working in literary criticism, history and political theory. Too’s work is challenging—sometimes in a rather self-conscious way—and presents us with a deconstructionist Isocrates, one who ‘does as much, if not more, to undermine as to reinforce the status of rhetoric as a language of community’ (6) and ‘enables us to engage with the contemporary Derridean problem of writing as a self-undermining discourse’ (228). Some may think that Isocrates does not walk that way: indeed Too gives as an underlying assumption behind Allan Bloom’s (yes, that Allan Bloom’s) unpublished 1954 Chicago thesis the belief that Isocrates is ‘supposedly resistant to contemporary strategies of interpretation’ (226 f.). But boy, did he get a wrong number!

Too’s book shows that Isocrates certainly can be read with the latest of contemporary strategies. But some will certainly remain unconvinced, and feel that this fact probably says more about the particular strategy employed than the texts under consideration. They will find the book interesting and suggestive, but I suspect many will find the historical (in the full sense) placement of its subject inadequate for a satisfactory understanding of the issues Too raises. Others may regard this as an ideological prejudice, but I am not sure that such a difference is quite as arbitrary as this label would suggest.

On the first page we are told that the book is about ‘the complex rhetoric of self produced by the author and intellectual Isocrates’ and on the next that it has as an object the restoration of authority to Isocrates. Already in the introduction one notices a preference for modern theory over ancient testimony in constructing the background against which we are to read him. An example: basing her view on a modern scholar’s interpretation of the ‘democratic ethos’, she opines (4) that ‘democracy is a society that supports and encourages rhetorical discourse’. But why not refer in this context to the view of Aristotle (ap. Cic. Brut. 46) that it was in the new democracies of Sicily that the formal study of rhetoric first arose? The claimed connection in a Greek context becomes more plausible for most of us when supported by no less an authority than the Stagirite, whose advantages over modern theorists are pretty clear. In this example the modern ideas Too espouses are at least supported by ancient ones, but that is not always the case.

The first chapter (‘Isocrates and Logos Politikos‘ 10-35) starts with valid points about the difficuties of ancient attempts to define which speeches were actually by Isocrates and of modern categorisation of his works: her conclusion that ‘finding the “proper place” for an author’s works often entails the employment of anachronistic notions of genre’ (18) is convincing. In this part of the chapter deconstructive strategies are shown to good effect, but we find out about Isocrates’ reception rather than the man and his work. Too then moves on to the way Isocrates identified his own work. While agreeing that he offers no ‘systematic taxonomy of genre’ (21), readers may be less happy with the main positive claim of the chapter—that Isocrates chooses to apply exclusively to his own works (with the exception of the forensic speeches) the title of λόγος πολιτικός (the claim is repeated 231). Too bases her argument on Antidosis 45-6, Panathenaicus 1-2 and a few other places. But the phrase does not even occur in the second of these passages, and elsewhere it is used of the speeches which Isocrates’ opponents claim to teach ( Soph. 9 and 20: Too 159 says that in the latter passage these opponents ‘misrepresent’ their work as λόγος πολιτικός, but that is not what Isocrates says). Later in the book (168) Too admits that the phrase λόγοι πολιτικοί is a synonym for ‘rhetorical language’ so they are clearly not the exclusive possession of Isocrates—in fact the most important passage where he lays claim to them explicitly says that a group of people possessed them (εἰσι γάρ τινες Ant. 46), and it is clear from other material cited by Too that several contemporaries also use the term in a very general sense. Finally, Too suggests that two of the basic dichotomies Isocrates presents in his speeches—in the claims that they deal with matters of use rather than produce pleasure, and that they are distinguished as prose from poetry—ultimately break down. Again, the first point is well made, but the consistency of Isocrates’ rejection of poetry as model for his work is overlooked. Only in Antidosis 46-7 does he liken his work to poetry, but it is a very limited claim: his style is ‘more poetic’ than that used in law courts, but the context shows that he is only talking about the former’s preference for poetic rhythm. Only in this respect can we talk about his image of his craft as being ‘poetic’. (In the other passage to which Too refers [ Soph. 12], ποιητικόν more naturally means ‘creative’ than ‘poetic’.)

This last point would have emerged more clearly had Too spent more time looking at Isocrates’ style and the way it presents itself in its contemporary context. The orator’s identity seems to me so closely tied to his image of his own style (and Too’s fourth chapter is largely about the way Isocrates identifies himself with his writings) that a study of the former needs to pay more attention to the latter than this one does; it is surprising, for instance, to see in the bibliography no reference to Wersdörfer’s Die φιλοσοφία des Isokrates im Spiegel ihrer Terminologie (Leipzig 1940). Here too more attention to Alcidamas would have been helpful. I speak not just as one who has laboured in that particular vineyard, but because Isocrates’ programmatic statements about prose need to be seen in the context of his rivalry with Alcidamas (compare Evagoras 9 f. with Aristotle’s criticism of Alcidamas in Rhetoric 3.3). The way in which both Alcidamas ( Soph. 2, 12, 34) and Plato ( Phdr. 234e etc.) use ‘poetic’ as a derogatory description of prose should make us wary of thinking that their contemporary claimed this description for his own work.

The second chapter (‘The unities of discourse’ 36-73) discusses the way in which Isocrates seeks to create a sense of unity in his speeches. Useful comparisons are made with the demands of Plato’s Phaedrus (but again Alcidamas deserves more than a footnote reference), and Too goes on to argue that Isocrates’ mentions of his age and of earlier works are designed to project a sense of a ‘corpus’ of his work. It is true Isocrates does not think that literary unity need be a linear one, but the attempt to show that the use of κεφαλαῖον of the part of a speech near the end indicates some ‘abandonment or replacement of linear progression’ (52) seems misguided, for κεφαλή just implies an extreme, not necessarily a beginning when used metaphorically (cf. LSJ s.v. II): Greeks go from foot to head as well as vice versa (Ar. Pl. 650). So the use of κεφαλή to refer to the end of a literary piece hardly suggests subverting the usual order.

Too finds further unity in Isocrates’ repetition, which she links to Greek respect for tradition. She even goes so far as to see the lack of originality of the disputed To Demonicus as evidence of its authenticity (58 n.53). But Sophists were not the only Greeks to prize novelty (as Too concedes 54 n.47), and this section seems to underplay Isocrates’ pride in his own novelty ( Ant. 1, 47, Soph. 13). The final part of the chapter is the boldest: in it Too maintains that the inconsistencies in viewpoint found in the speeches are to be explained by Isocrates adopting different personae in them, and in a strong reading of the Panathenaicus she shows us that the Spartan’s commentary on the speech (235-63) suggests that Isocrates is casting doubt on the possibility of any one reading of it.

The third chapter (‘The politics of the small voice’ 74-112) has as its aim ‘to illuminate the political identity that the rhetorician’s rejection of a public, speaking voice produces for him’ (75). It begins with justified scepticism towards what the ancient biographical tradition has to say about Isocrates; as Too shows, just about all of this is either based directly on what Isocrates himself tells us, or else on general assumptions about the public delivery of the texts. But Too is equally dismissive of ancient and modern views of Isocrates’ style, which have been subject to ‘prejudice’ by inappropriate assumptions (82). The competence of the ancients in stylistic matters, however, is a different matter from their biographical skills, and no modern reader is really in a position to dispute such judgements (cf. Russell Criticism in Antiquity 131), least of all in the dismissive way Too does. Too goes on to demonstrate convincingly the connection between political activity and public speaking in the Athenian tradition, and the observation that Isocrates thus marginalises himself from this sort of activity is appealing, even if claimed parallels with Renaissance authors leave too many questions unanswered.

The heart of the chapter follows on from this. Too examines Isocrates’ claimed weakness of voice, and argues that in the post-Periclean period, the ‘new politicians’ who had done the state so much harm were characterised by their loud voices. ‘Public oratory has become public ranting’ (92). Isocrates’ μικροφωνία is thus a presentation of himself as opposed to such politicians. The problem here is that loud-voiced aggression is not something that began after Pericles (some comic witnesses indeed suggest that Pericles himself practised it, and compare the portrayal of Aeschylus as a shouter in Frogs 823 and 859), nor are the most active ‘new politicians’ necessarily shouters. Too does not distinguish, as contemporary accounts do, between chattering (λαλιά) and shouting: the two are never linked in ancient sources and memorably contrasted in, for instance Acharnians 703-12, where shouting is associated with a now old man’s vigour in his youth, and contrasted with the behaviour of a post-Periclean ‘new politician’, explicitly described as λάλος. So Too may be right to the extent that Isocrates is rejecting one sort of political behaviour, but is wrong in identifying this political behaviour as the only one around in Isocrates’ day. In some ways he can even be seen as practising a refined, exact sort of speech in common with the sort of ‘new politician’ described in Knights 1375 ff. Too’s belief (92) that Cleon, 34 years in his grave, is a major target of Aristophanes’Wealth, is symptomatic of her failure to distinguish the variety of political activity after Pericles. The chapter ends with observations on Isocrates’ advocacy of the traditional virtue of σωφροσύνη, and his linking of ἀπραγμοσύνη with the performance of liturgies: but it would seem that it is not so much that Isocrates treats the two as if they were ‘virtually synonymous’ (107), as that they were separate but desirable qualities for any public speaker to claim (cf. Dover Greek Popular Morality 175-8 and 188-9).

The fourth chapter (‘Isocrates in his own write’ [geddit?] 113-50) seeks ‘to explore the way in which Isocrates extends the “small voice” to his construction of the written word in an attempt to valorise this as the privileged medium of political activity’ (113). Too outlines the distrust with which the written word was regarded, particularly through its association with the professional speech writers in Athens; she seems to regard the suspicion it aroused as due to its ‘newness’, but cites as evidence for this fifth- and fourth-century texts which actually place the invention of writing in distant mythical times—it is curious that the system of writing used by these Greeks was much newer than they realised, and they did not regard it as a recent innovation. Isocrates, however, goes so far as to identify himself with the ‘voiceless’ text he produces.

convincing in arguing that Isocrates’ pan-Hellenism is but a thin mask for his Athenian biases. First Too argues that several passages which apparently hold up pan-Hellenic heroes for emulation actually support Athenian ideology; indeed following Norlin, Too even claims that we are supposed to see a parallel between Agamemnon and Isocrates himself, although the latter uses language to define Greek identity rather than military expeditions. (The background to this definition—e.g. Herodotus 8.144.2—is not explored.) A digression on the Panathenaia claims that in it there was a tension between its supposedly pan-Hellenic aspect and its purely Athenian one—a tension presumably visible also in Isocrates’Panathenaicus. But what is the evidence that the Panathenaia was a pan-Hellenic event? Too speculates unpersuasively on the unknown origins of the festival and asserts without documentation that during it ‘Greeks lay aside their differences to celebrate a shared cultural inheritance’ (140). Competitors certainly came from all over Greece for some of the events, but the festival never achieved the status throughout the Greek world of the four great ones. Which is not surprising—culminating in the great procession to the Acropolis, its focus was too narrrowly on Athens and its tribal system, and the only non-Athenians mentioned by Too as taking part are Athenian colonists or subjects. As Parke ( Festivals of the Athenians 45) says, at this time the festival was ‘not only for all Athenians, but for all Greeks who were under an obligation to Athens‘. I italicise the qualification because it really does cast doubt on the assumption behind a large section of this chapter. Returning to her subject, Too speculates further on Isocrates’ views of Greek identity mediated through language. ‘As an Athenian citizen, he assumes for himself the prerogative to declare the otherness, the alterity, of even the language spoken by other Greeks’ (147). The claim is an interesting one—how exactly did fourth-century Athenians regard other dialects?—but is trivialised by the only ‘evidence’ produced for it being Isocrates’ mention of Spartan ὁμολογίαι with the Persians ( Panath. 107), which ‘suggests that the Spartans “speak together with” the barbarians’ (147). So their language was not Greek? This sort of ahistorical etymologising, ignoring as it does the way words were actually used by Greeks themselves, does not help anybody. The book would be better without this chapter.

The fifth chapter (‘The pedagogical contract’ 151-99), in focusing on Against the Sophists, questions the apparently universal view that Isocrates was a teacher, especially of rhetoric. Too argues for the difficulty of establishing the absolute date of the speech, but leaves the relative date (at the beginning of his public speeches) secure, for the onus of proof that the order of composition was different from the one Isocrates himself tells us in Antidosis is not discharged by claiming that the latter speech is concerned with presenting an internal chronology of the corpus. But Too’s main focus is on the fact that Against the Sophists breaks off at 22, at just the point where Isocrates seems about to expound his own doctrine rather than attack that of others. The absence is usually attributed to a lacuna in the MSS, but other possibilities are canvassed. Could it have broken off at this point as an invitation to the reader to explore Isocrates’ teaching as expounded elsewhere, perhaps in the much-discussed τέκνη sometimes attributed to him? Too makes two points already well established: that the evidence for such a τέκνη is not very good, and that doctrines attributed to it in later antiquity are often just paraphrases of ‘programmatic statements on speaking and writing in the works we now have’ (167). (Too actually says ‘distortions’, but this is going too far: see the thorough investigation—not cited here—of M. Sheehan De fide artis rhetoricae Isocrati tributae [Diss. Bonn 1901].) The second point seems to me inconsistent with her new idea of attributing the invention of such a manual to later scholars who felt that Isocrates had to be part of the same theoretical tradition of the study of rhetoric which Plato and Aristotle practised. But the fact that the later scholars could find support for their assumption in Isocrates’ own words means that there must be some level of implicit or explicit theorising already present in Isocrates’ works: whether or not a separate work was published, the statements which Isocrates undoubtedly made about language in his works mean that we need not regard a theoretical perspective on oratory as something that was foisted upon him at a later date.

The chapter fares better when it examines and dismisses the possibility that Isocrates had some ‘unwritten philosophy’ which he did not make public in his speech, and Too collects some interesting material on ancient appreciation of silence. Furthermore, Too sees this silence as consistent with Isocrates’ rejection of the precise knowledge the other sophists claimed to teach and his preference for δόξα and καιρός (the latter she assumes to have a simply temporal meaning and evidently does not know Vallozza QUCC 50 [1985] 119-23). This rejection of precision leads to a discussion of mimesis in Isocrates, but as often the discourse is curiously unhistorical, with no discussion of the word’s meanings before Isocrates: Too (185 n.104) even repeats at second-hand the claim that that μιμέομαι does not occur before the fourth century: a glance at LSJ will show that this is wrong. (Compare the undocumented claim on 173 ‘The phrase ek diadoches originally referrred to the succession of priests’.) To finish the chapter Too finds that, like Against the Sophists, Epistles 1, 6 and 9 end abruptly not because of gaps in transmission, or because Isocrates did not get around to finishing them, but because ‘Silence is a calculated strategy which both announces and enacts a teacher’s attempt to avoid prescribing a singular, inflexible paradigm or discourse’ (199). The digression on ancient letters is not successful: Bentley’s great work is given the wrong title as well as the date of its second edition rather than its first, and (with no documentation at all) blamed for leading to the view that even ‘if ancient letters are authentic, they deserve only a marginal position in the author’s corpus and thought’. As proof of the high regard Antiquity had for the letter, the treatise On Style is referred to (199 n.143), and the dates of its author given as c. 354-283 B.C. In other words, Too believes that it was actually written by Demetrius of Phalerum, a view that (to say the least) has needed some defending for many decades now (see most recently Paffenroth CQ 44 [1994] 280-1). And the dating is important for the point Too wants to make: the fact that there is virtually no trace of discussion of letters as a literary form in the literature of the fifth and fourth centuries is some indication of the marginal position they had in Greek culture at this time. The whole chapter really depends on Too’s argument that the Against the Sophists deliberately breaks off after promising something not delivered; the failure to investigate any parallel with this in other ancient authors is typical of the book.

The sixth chapter (‘The politics of discipleship’ 200-32) examines, through a study of Concerning the Chariot-team, the way in which ‘the language of pedagogy provides Isocrates with another means of expressing the hegemonic authority which is so central to the civic ideology expressed in his corpus’ (200). Too begins by examining the portrayal of the Alcmeonids, by both their supporters and their enemies, as ‘teachers’. Against a modern theorist who separates educational from political authority, Too has no trouble showing from fourth-century texts that, on the contrary, the purpose of education at that time was commonly expressed as the creation of good citizens. This paves the way for a discussion of the education and character of Alcibiades as differently presented in Concerning the Chariot-team and other texts, and then for a comparison of Isocrates with E. D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom. This closing section of the book glaringly underlines its greatest fault: its lack of historical perspective. Too clearly dislikes the political views of both modern authors, talking about the ‘implicit chauvinism’ (225) of the former and the desire of the latter for something ‘that affirms the privileged position of someone like himself’ (227), and claims that they are like Isocrates in the link they postulate between education and citizenship, but unlike him ‘in insisting upon the need for conformity’ (222).

It seems to me that the greatest differences between Isocrates and these two figures are historical and cannot be reduced, as Too seems to believe, to personal political preference. Central to the views of Hirsch and Bloom as Too reports them is the idea of a ‘canon’—an agreed list of superior literary texts from the past. This idea was unknown to Isocrates, and such lists emerge, at the very earliest, with the scholars of Alexandria. (Even this is highly debatable, as indeed is the very existence of supposedly ‘canonical’ lists in pagan antiquity—see my forthcoming chapter in W. Dominik [ed.] Roman Persuasion.) We are dealing with a quite different intellectual landscape, something which any comparison between individual figures must take into account, and the failure to see this is what the reader has come to expect of Too’s study.

The book concludes with two Appendices. The first builds on the work of Schenkeveld to argue that the reports that Isocrates ‘heard’ Gorgias need mean only that he read him, not that he was his pupil. The case is strong, but whether the two ever met is of only biographical importance: what is clear, and still emerges from Too’s new interpretation of the evidence, is that Isocrates was strongly influenced by Gorgias. The second Appendix argues that the apparently ‘incomplete’ state of Concerning the Chariot-team cannot be explained by a lacuna in transmission (too much of a coincidence with Against Lochites), or by Isocrates wishing to present his pupils with an example of a particular part of a speech. This is rejected because Too thinks she has proved that Isocrates did not believe in prescriptive paradigms. Rather, the speech is complete and just as Isocrates meant it to be, in the same way that Against the Sophists is also complete. The claim seems even less believable than in the other case: how can a complete speech begin by telling people that they have just heard another part of it?

Let me here voice the Isocratean fear that I may have overshot the καιρός by going on too long in this review. To sum up: the book has many ingenious and original ideas, but the reader will have gathered by now that I do not find many of them convincing. Too’s Isocrates is a voice crying—or rather a text being constructed—in the wilderness, whose strangely modern echoes are caught and correctly understood for the first time many centuries later. Others will find more plausible the writer whose works were formed by, and must be understood in the context of, the literary and historical environment of his time. We are still waiting for a book in English that attempts to do this.