BMCR 2004.09.37

A Commentary on Isocrates’ Busiris. Mnemosyne Supplement 223

, A commentary on Isocrates' Busiris. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2001. 1 online resource (xi, 225 pages).. ISBN 9004121439 €86.00.

For the extreme lateness of this review I offer my sincere apologies to Dr. Livingstone (L.) and BMCR’s readers and editors.

After recently translating Busiris, I have worked through this rich introduction and commentary with more than an average reader’s interest and enjoyment.1 Despite Busiris’ unassuming length (12 pages), its offbeat object of praise (a legendary Egyptian king who was popularly believed to have sacrificed and eaten Greeks before falling victim to a Heraclean parergon 2), and Isocrates’ own reference to it as not serious, L. makes a strong case for its importance in understanding Isocrates’ pedagogy and his relationship to Plato. In Isocrates’ account, Busiris becomes founder of Egyptian civilization, the author of a model constitution in the manner of Plato’s Republic, and an exemplum of the sort of semi-divine figure that is to be embraced in a morally beneficial mythology.

Isocrates writes Busiris as a corrective letter to Polycrates, who has written a Defense of Busiris. L. briefly overstates when he says that Polycrates is “used here to represent all that Isocrates opposes in contemporary sophistic teaching of rhetoric” (1). After all, Isocrates also wrote Against the Sophists, which does not represent sophistic teaching in quite the same way. But L. provides a very thorough and thoughtful discussion of the biographical evidence for Polycrates, who is perhaps better known for a Prosecution of Socrates, and offers his own corrective to some of the more ambitious claims in recent scholarship.

L. sees Isocrates sketching a direct parody of Plato’s state in the Republic, providing a model for the corrective to Lysias in Plato’s Phaedrus, and supplying background for the discussions of model constitutions in Timaeus and Critias. One can, however, choose not to follow the chronological framework on which L. builds these theses and still benefit enormously from his insights into the textual and conceptual parallels among these works. For many years there must have been almost daily oral communications between the Isocratean and Platonic camps in Athens which will frustrate any modern attempts, even sensible and cautious ones like L.’s, to reconstruct a chronology for the development and exchange of their written ideas. Nevertheless, topics such as Egypt as a source of wisdom, utopian constitutions, rule by philosophers/priests, and critiques and ironic correctives and palinodes of paradoxical speeches were the stuff of philosophical discussion between these schools.

L. sees a four-part structure, including not only an epistolary Prologue (sec. 1-9) and Epilogue (44-50), but also both a Narrative Encomium (10-29) and a Defense (30-43), which simultaneously acts as Proof. He sets this division within an extremely interesting discussion of genres and styles, but the actual label “Defense” is misleading here if by it one expects to see an apologia in the Greek sense. The passage is certainly a Proof, a defense of the encomium’s thesis, but one aspect of what L. helpfully labels Isocrates’ “pure encomium” is obviation of apologia. An apologia would normally seek to free a defendant from the aitia of some wrong (as Isocrates in fact does in sec. 36-7), but in 30 Isocrates proclaims that he must show that Busiris was aitios for Egypt’s good qualities. As an exemplum of Athenian attitudes towards Egypt, L. explores many possibilities in Busiris, but not Hypereides, Athen. 3, which gives the impression of Egyptians as dishonest.

In the Commentary, L. sees Isocrates posing himself as the expert in the prologue, which seems overstated. Isocrates in fact states his position not “ex cathedra” (91; cf. 195) but only from a relative position of greater experience (sec. 1, 50). And despite L.’s enormous capacity for identifying different levels of Isocratean irony, I wonder whether he doesn’t sell Isocrates’ self-effacement a little short as he, with disingenuous naiveté, offers “good willed” yet unsolicited advice. But, more importantly, initially I could not see how Isocrates could mean to have Polycrates’ character, as L. says, “on trial” (91). The emphasis seemed to be rather that Isocrates accepted Polycrates’ epieikeia and so thought him worthy of instruction (cf. Isoc. 13.21) but incompetent as a philosopher. L. acknowledges the tension between Polykrates’ “(reported) good character” (93) and a moral critique of his writings, but he has won me over with his view that “the Busiris progressively exposes the fact that Polycrates’ technical failures are also his moral faults” (97). L. does well to explain that in Isocrates’ philosophia, only those who are themselves successful should make a claim to be able to teach others (cf. Isoc. 1.35). Polycrates’ career reversal makes him ineligible to teach.

In sec. 1, L. sees the present participle πυνθανόμενος οἶδα as hinting that Isocrates makes continuing “inquiries” (93) into Polycrates. I don’t see him wanting to admit such an active interest. He has gained knowledge based on more than a simple report. L. shows his insight in recognizing that whereas most speakers complain about being “forced” to speak, Isocrates lays emphasis on Polycrates’ being forced to earn a living as a teacher (94). L. points out that while two other paraenetic speeches of Isocrates identify themselves as “gifts” (96; cf. Isoc. 1.2, 2.2), this one is called an “eranos”, a loan. But he might have fleshed out the difference; gifts need no recompense, but what does Isocrates expect back from the eranos?

Isocrates builds to a paradoxical climax in section 3 with his claim that his good will must overcome Polycrates’ hostility to advice. L. reads this section surprisingly straightforwardly. It has seemed to me to reveal extraordinary chutzpah on Isocrates’ part, as his unsolicited advice is about to move into polemic. Without denigrating the many points and connections L. makes to this section, I would point out one he passes over: with Anaximenes’ attempt to highlight a rhetorical species of exetasis ( RhAl 5), Aristotle’s relegation of it to dialectic ( Rhet. 1354a5-6), and the centrality of the procedure to Socrates’ method (cf. Plato, Ap. 38a), the Anaximenean usage in ἐξετάζῃ τὰς ἁμαρτίας merits note.

Section 4 dwells on Polycrates’ boasting ( μεγαλαυχούμενον) over his Defense of Busiris and Prosecution of Socrates. L. points out the unique connotations of this word as “excessive and hybristic” (103). Isocrates disingenuously has Polycrates hoist on his own petard inasmuch as Polycrates’ boasting was integral to the force of his own rhetorical paradoxes. As L. says, “Isocrates affects not to realize that this outrageous paradox is a deliberate tour-de-force on Polycrates’ part” (1). Isocrates’ own morality might be brought into question when he notes that those eulogizing people must demonstrate that more good qualities attach to them than they really have. L. does well to point out, however, that there is a significant ambiguity, that the meaning may only be “more good attributes than have so far been recognized” (106).

Regarding section 9, L. defends the phrase μηδὲν ἐνδεικνὺς τῶν ἐμαυτοῦ against modern editors, who have seen it as an insertion based on Helen 15. L. argues that “without it, the formula is incomplete in sense” and that “Isocrates does not characteristically choose elliptical expressions” (113). This reasoning seems perfectly sound to me, and I must have thought along similar lines when I did my translation, “without presenting anything of my own,” without remarking on the textual uncertainty in a footnote.

L. interrupts his almost word-by-word commentary to devote several pages to the organization of the encomium of Busiris proper, comparing the work to views on epideictic arrangement found in the Rhetoric to Alexander, Aristotle, and Menander Rhetor and to examples such as Isocrates’ own Helen and Evagoras, Xenophon’s Agesilaus, and Agathon’s praise of Love in Plato’s Symposium. The basic issue is the extent to which the arrangement follows specific virtues, aretai, or some other scheme. Deciding on any one is difficult because Isocrates shifts so easily from Busiris to Egypt in general. But L. is particularly insightful in speculating on why some topics, such as justice, are avoided.

L. finds it ironic that Busiris is said to have wanted to leave behind Egypt as a memorial of his own arete even though “he has not hitherto been ‘known’ as its founder” (123 ad sec. 10). But I wonder whether arete must be “known” in this model in order for one to take pride in it. Arete is not the same as doxa, in the sense of “reputation”, so I wonder whether L. is too quick to make the slide from the honoree’s ambitions to the writer’s.

In my translation of sec. 12 I managed to pass over the words τοῦ σύμπαντος ( σύμπαντος κόσμου in some mss.), and L. likewise passes them over for comment, though he devotes a paragraph of commentary to the earlier part of the sentence. I translated as follows: “he saw that the other places were neither conveniently nor happily situated by nature.” I might more faithfully have translated “in regard to the nature of their entirety (or, entire arrangement).” Here we need a commentator to sort things out, and L., most unusually, lets us down. τοῦ κόσμου appears later in the section, “in the most beautiful area of the world”, and it would be convenient if we could claim that the whole phrase τοῦ σύμπαντος κόσμου belongs there and only there, but I suspect we cannot do this. In sec. 13 I translated εὐάγωγος as “easily navigable”; here L. provides a decided correction, pointing out how the next sentence develops the idea of managing the Nile as a water supply (129). In sec. 15-16 Isocrates attributes to Busiris the division of Egyptians into three classes, priests, workers, and soldiers, and the requirement for the same people always to practise the same professions. In his excellent discussion of this passage (133-35), which includes references to Plato, Diodorus Siculus, and Strabo, L. notes that Aristotle and his pupil Dicaearchus also touched on these issues. Since I have recently devoted a great deal of time to producing a new edition of Dicaearchus,3 I beg indulgence to point out two small corrections. First, one ms. of the scholion in question (58 Mirhady) does refer to the Egyptian king as Sesostris, as Aristotle, Pol. 1329a40-b5, does; second, pace Wehrli, pleonexia, which Dicaearchus says results from people changing professions, does not per se cause a progressive loss of Golden Age simplicity; the loss resulted rather from accumulations of superfluous abundance (cf. 56A Mirhady).

Isocrates criticizes the Spartans in sec. 19-20 for making bad use of Egyptian practices, for being lazy and greedy. L. properly sets this criticism within the framework of the competing viewpoints regarding Sparta that are set out in Panthenaicus. But this passage also seems to offer two possibilities which L. does not explore. First, it contrasts with the positive image of Sparta offered in the Encomium of Helen, and, second, it contradicts somewhat the notion of “pure encomium,” which should involve only positive exempla.

Space does not allow more comment on the many insights offered in the commentary. There is one last concern: although L.’s discussion is in general admirably clear and accessible, at various places he presents extended passages of untranslated Greek, which throws up unnecessary hurdles for novice learners.

L. has done an excellent job in what will be the definitive commentary on this work, but that is not to say that individual points of interpretation will not receive further discussion.


1. David C. Mirhady and Yun Lee Too (trans.), Isocrates I. The Oratory of Classical Greece, vol.4 (Austin 2000), pp. 49-60. Reviewed at BMCR 2002.03.28. See now Terry L. Papillon (trans.), Isocrates II. The Oratory of Classical Greece, vol.7 (Austin 2004).

2. For a recent discussion of Busiris with particular emphasis on the myth’s imagery, see Terry L. Papillon, “Rhetoric, Art and Myth: Isocrates and Busiris,” in C. Wooten (ed.), The Orator in Action and Theory in Greece and Rome (Leiden 2001) pp. 73-96.

3. David C. Mirhady, “Dicaearchus of Messana: The Sources, Texts and Translations,” in William W. Fortenbaugh and Eckart Schütrumpf (eds.), Dicaearchus of Messana: Text, Translation, and Discussion (Rutgers University Studies in Classical Humanities, 10) (New Brunswick, NJ, 2001), pp. 1-132.