BMCR 2005.03.08

Isocrates and Civic Education

, , Isocrates and civic education. 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.. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. 1 online resource (ix, 277 pages). ISBN 0292797486 $50.00.

The essays that make up this volume have had a long gestation period, being originally conceived at the 1998 Obermann Humanities Symposium, Civic Education in Classical Athens and Humanities Education Today. A lot of effort has been made to weave them into a single fabric. Endnotes accompany each essay and works cited are collected in a single bibliography at the end of the volume. Michael Leff provides a critical overview of the papers which, together with the editors’ Introduction, tends to impart to the volume an unusual discursive feel appropriate to the proceedings of a symposium. The same discursive quality is occasionally evident within individual papers, one author replying to the criticism of another within the volume, as does Kathryn Morgan in response to a criticism of Michael Leff (pp.144-5). The editors take pains to emphasise the interdisciplinary nature of the book, there being scholars of rhetoric, classics and ancient philosophy represented.

The present volume aims to sum up the state of Isocratean studies as practiced by the relatively new discipline of modern American rhetoric/communications studies. The re-publication from elsewhere of large sections of the first three papers is best justified in terms of this aim. The approach taken by the scholars represented in the book is driven by the desire to see Isocrates taken seriously as a philosopher of politics and education on a par with his other great contemporaries Plato and Aristotle. The division of the book into parts comparing Isocrates’ paideia with that of Plato and Aristotle as well as with the sophists emphasises this approach. The outcome of the comparison is largely favourable to Isocrates, who is shown to have more to contribute than his rivals to social, educational and humanistic debate in the context of contemporary democratic discourse. This outcome should not surprise, for if one is looking for an intellectual from the ancient world, all of whom were elitist, to lend authority to the modern rhetorical discipline Isocrates at least claimed to be a supporter of a kind of democracy. Although it is not always clear in the individual papers, Isocrates is not pursued as a figure for imitation but in the words of Depew ‘as a whetstone for our own reflections on contemporary humanistic education and its relation to the theme of civic virtue’ (p.2). The book is thus as much about the state of civic education in the United States as it is about Isocrates.

This collection of essays provides many valuable insights into various aspects of Isocrates’ ideas on civic education but strangely omits focused discussion of what Plato in the Phaedo called ‘the public and civic virtues of sophrosyne and dikaiosyne‘,1 the moral basis of Isocratean paideia. Cf. Antidosis 84 and Isocrates’ description of Pericles at 111 in the same discourse and Panathenaicus 138. These virtues promoted harmony within the state and counteracted the hubristic forces threatening polis life.

The Antidosis is a defence of Isocrates’ paideia and for this reason it is fitting that a book on Isocrates and civic education should open with Josiah Ober’s essay, ‘I, Socrates… The performative audacity of Isocrates’ Antidosis‘. Ober’s interpretation of the discourse is based on the premise that by the middle of the fourth century the Academy was threatening to monopolize intellectual critical debate in Athens. The very term philosophia had become associated with the Academy at the expense of Isocrates’ paideia. The Antidosis was intended to address this situation by silencing Isocrates’ critics and establishing his reputation with future generations.

Isocrates’ choice of a dicastic speech in defence was crucial to his purpose. Most importantly, it made possible the epideictic element in this hybrid discourse, namely his praise of himself and his paideia, which would otherwise have appeared unacceptably self-congratulatory. By emphasizing the fictitious nature of the discourse, Isocrates claimed the right to digress in confronting his elite, intellectual critics.

Ober interprets the form of the discourse as an instance of ‘verbal misperformance’ or ‘alternative iteration’, a rhetorical concept he borrows from the analysis of modern legal discourse. Thus, the Antidosis becomes an act of appropriation, a subversive alternative citation of Plato’s Apology, by means of which Isocrates becomes (like Socrates) a man of high ideals who, misunderstood by his fellow citizens, faces death at the hands of the democracy rather than acquiesce in the suppression of his critical voice. Ober asks why Isocrates chose to imitate the Platonic Apology when an imitation could only be valued less than its original. He replies that Isocrates overcame this limitation by outdoing Plato both in the monumental size of the Antidosis and its highly polished style thereby showing ‘himself and his logos to be more than worthy of his models: the man Socrates and the text of Plato’s Apology‘ (38).

The second paper by Takis Poulakos looks at the question of doxa, in the sense of ‘opinion’ or ‘judgement’, as an important concept in Isocrates’ educational programme, a programme concerned with applying rhetorical principles to practical political situations rather than the mastery of argument and public speaking. Isocrates was an educator who prepared his students to succeed in political life by giving them the ability to make sound judgements. Isocrates did of course teach the techniques of persuasion, but Poulakos gives no prominence to this aspect of his teaching. Rather, he places Isocrates firmly within the philosophical tradition, comparing his ideas on the question of knowledge to those of Parmenides, Protagoras and Gorgias. In broadly accepting the relativity these sophists assigned to knowledge, Isocrates adopted the notion of ‘correct’ or ‘true’ doxa, a concept that Poulakos relates to the theme of stochazesthai which we find in Isocrates’ writing. That is to say, as a teacher Isocrates provided his students with the ability to give efficacious advice in most circumstances, just as the archer or doctor honed his skills through experience and study. The element of luck was thus minimized.2 The study of the past, especially the actions of successful Athenian political leaders, provided Isocrates’ students with the practical wisdom ( phronesis) to inform their judgements. Phronesis was thus the product of philosophy, a way of thinking and ‘a source of inspiration’ (60) that provided the insights of the statesman. Isocrates’ voice obtained its authority from the paradigms of his own community and the success of his doxai are rewarded by the reputation ( doxa) bestowed by the community.

The following two essays examine Isocrates’ relationship to the Sophists. In the first of these John Poulakos depicts with a broad brush a major difference between the Sophists and Isocrates in the emphasis the one gave to rhetoric as a powerful tool for persuasion involving deceit and distortion and the other (based on Nicocles 5-9) to leadership or hegemony with the aim of creating unity and facilitating policy. Isocrates is depicted as confronting the pluralization that resulted from the democratization of Athenian society and the challenges of the sophistic movement. Unlike the itinerant Sophists, Isocrates established a school to educate future political leaders. His curriculum provided a civic education aimed at benefiting the community, both local communities and Greece generally through his panhellenic focus. The hegemonic nature of Isocrates’ art of written discourse was well suited to the changing political and educational trends in the fourth century, which saw the growth of the written word.

Ekaterina Haskins covers some of the same ground as John Poulakos and echoes much that is stated in Takis Poulakos’ Speaking for the polis. Isocrates leads a reaction in particular to Gorgias who depicted rhetoric as a powerful lord, opposing this with his depiction of himself as a ‘leader’ in public discourse. Isocrates emphasizes the centripetal nature of his logos politikos, which aimed to consolidate the polis, as opposed to the centrifugal aims of selfish sophistic rhetoric. Haskins does not accept that Isocrates is elitist and exonerates him from the charge of cultural chauvinism by placing him in an historical context in which Greekness was more ideological than ethnic or racial.

The two papers in Part Three purport to treat aspects of the relationship of Isocrates’ ideas to those of Plato, but one will not find here any satisfying comparison of the two writers. It is Isocrates’ ideas that are primarily discussed. David Konstan in a paper entitled ‘Isocrates’ “Republic”‘ distinguishes what he calls a fifth-century (Athenian) model of constitutions which he characterises as giving preference to democracy as the best government for free men to the total exclusion of other constitutions. Following the Peloponnesian War the threat of oligarchy receded and the Athenian democracy felt less threatened. As a result there was a greater acceptance of non-democratic constitutions, and the Athenian state allied itself at various times with its old enemies Sparta and Persia. As a result, intellectual opponents of democracy such as Isocrates and Plato took the opportunity to introduce a novel assessment of constitutions based not on whether they were monarchies, oligarchies or democracies but on whether they were successful in benefiting their constituents. Konstan acknowledges that this ‘is at best a likely story’ (p.114), and wisely so given the broad brush strokes with which he depicts his model. Konstan then looks for the ‘principles of good government’ (p.114) that might sustain the distinction between good and bad constitutions. These principles in the case of Isocrates are ‘the moral character of the government’ (p.116), but Konstan steers clear of discussing what exactly these moral principles are, and when on pp.117-118 he comes to cite the principles of justice and moderation from To Nicocles he comments ‘None of this is so profound as to make one wish passionately that one had been a classmate of Nicocles …. But the insistence on controlling the appetites and serving the interests of the governed is not un-Platonic’. This is an astonishing statement given the crucial importance of these principles of civic virtue in Plato and Isocrates, the importance of which were reinforced by the defeat of Athens in 404 and the social reconciliation following the overthrow of the Thirty.

The following paper by Kathryn Morgan, it seems to me, does not take us very far. Morgan is undoubtedly right to recognize Isocrates’ insistence on the consistency of his moral/educational principles both in the individual and in the state in its internal and external political policies. However in attributing to Isocrates a ‘principle of consistency’ (136), she seems to me to elevate to the status of a principle what is really only a rhetorical topos. Morgan argues that Isocrates is himself inconsistent and opportunistic in the positions he advocates in his discourses, thereby convicting him of the inconsistency he imputes to others. Morgan’s subsequent analysis of this ‘inconsistency’ seems to me far too simplistic.

The following two papers compare the ideas of Isocrates and Aristotle on civic education. In the first of these papers David Depew, who largely limits his discussion to the Antidosis and to the Nicomachean Ethics, points to the agreement of Aristotle with Isocrates’ notion of phronesis as the practical wisdom displayed in political deliberation. However, they differ, in that whereas Isocrates denies absolute knowledge, Aristotle regards phronesis as having only instrumental value in the political context and acknowledges the possibility of theoretical knowledge or episteme. For Isocrates phronesis is sophia, but Aristotle reserves the term sophia for the most exact form of scientific knowledge. A couple of criticisms: I doubt whether Isocrates or Aristotle would have called phronesis‘common sense’ (169). The political wisdom of Pericles was anything but common. Also, I feel Depew overstates his case in implying that Isocrates’ notion of phronesis made no distinction between the cleverness and guesswork of the just man and of the unjust man (173). The paper does not sufficiently examine what Isocrates means by phronesis and its relationship to justice. Doxa for Isocrates was not mere guesswork.

Eugene Garver provides the second paper in this section which concentrates primarily on Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Garver shows that the essential difference between Aristotle’s concept of rhetoric and that of Isocrates is that the former insists on separating speaking well and acting well, preserving the autonomy and legitimacy of each, whereas the ‘philosophy’ of the latter depends on the identity of the two. For Aristotle civic education is identical to the moral education which a good constitution will provide and this is all that is required to reform democracy.

The concluding two papers comment on the relevance of Isocrates for the promotion of humanistic civic education today. Robert Hariman, while he does not believe that Isocrates can provide a successful model for civic education in the modern world, does discern aspects of Isocrates’ thought that might prove worth imitating. In particular, Hariman points to Isocrates’ insistence on morality in public life and his disdain for rhetoric when divorced from morality. In this context he compares Isocrates’ use of the print medium and the use of modern communications to tame democratic opinion. The non-authoritarian nature of Isocratean political education which fosters creative problem solving may be useful as an antidote for the doctrinaire. Isocrates’ insistence on aligning his paideia with Athenian cultural history is attractive as a way of preserving the best from society’s past. Hariman suggests that Isocrates’ emphasis on panhellenism might provide a model for international political co-operation in areas of ecological, cultural and political sustainability.

Michael Leff provides a critical overview including most of the papers in the book. He is largely supportive of the contributors’ attempts to ‘refurbish’ [p.247] Isocrates as an authority figure for modern rhetoric studies, but acknowledges that the project requires more than a simple, straightforward reading of the texts as well as an amount of ‘good will’.3


1. Phaedo 82ab: οἱ τὴν δημοτικὴν καὶ πολιτικὴν ἀρετὴν ἐπιτετηδευκότες ἣν δὴ καλοῦσιν σωφροσύνην τε καὶ δικαιοσύνην.

2. When Poulakos writes that ‘Isocrates provided no definitive standards that would control the ambiguity of doxa‘ (55), perhaps he underestimates the place Isocrates gave to traditional moral considerations in his educational programme, in particular to justice as a standard for judging actions, a standard that only rarely failed of success, and then due to a lack of oversight by the gods, as he stated at Panathenaicus 186-7 and elsewhere. Just as every action must conform to justice, so too must political discourse in order to be successful.

3. The book is remarkably free from oversights, but the following errors are noted. The reference on p.116 to ‘Navarro 1992’ does not appear in the Bibliography; ‘NE’ on p. 163 should read ‘EN’; p. 182 line 7 should read ‘practiced in their states’; p.238 line 6 has ‘aideia’ for ‘paideia’.