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Who is Isocrates?

Isocrates was a towering figure in ancient Greek rhetoric, shaping the art of persuasion and education. His influence extended beyond oratory, impacting philosophical thought and political theory. His legacy endures, offering timeless insights into effective communication. How might his teachings enhance your own articulation and argumentation skills? Join us as we explore his enduring wisdom.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Isocrates was the first teacher of writing of which we have record. Records approximate his birth in Greece in 436 BCE, and his approximate death, in 338. What is clearly known of Isocrates is that he opened a rhetoric school in Athens in around 393. His school predates Plato’s. Once Plato had established his school, Isocrates’ came under intense attack first by Plato, then Aristotle.

Unlike most rhetoric schools of the times which were taught by itinerant sophists, Isocrates defined himself against the sophists. His first work is titled Against the Sophists and he later treats the subject again in Antidosis and the Helen. He wanted rhetoric and speech reserved for moral purpose, much like Aristotle. However, Aristotle would accept only those who exhibited talent, and Isocrates felt that even those of less talent could be taught the fundamentals of good writing.

Isocrates taught rhetoric in ancient Athens.
Isocrates taught rhetoric in ancient Athens.

Isocrates may have emphasized writing above speaking because he was notably a very poor speaker with a weak voice. He was also reportedly shy. Unlike the sophists, his school advertisements were not public demonstrations of his oratory powers, but rather, tracts advertising his methods and philosophies.

Plato and others were suspicious of writing for several reasons that Isocrates did not share, though he may have actually studied with Socrates. Oral tradition was the primary means of transmission of culture in Ancient Greece, thus writing was suspect. Additionally, Plato believed that books could easily fall into the wrong hands and be misinterpreted, thus to write down knowledge was a dangerous practice.

Plato disagreed with Isocrates' work.
Plato disagreed with Isocrates' work.

Isocrates conversely believed that writing was an important act by itself that should be taught. Much of Isocrates’ later writing is in the form of letters sent to rulers imploring them to promote the idea of a united Greece and end wars between city-states. His commitment to pan-Hellenism served as a model for students learning to write. Writing was not just an exercise to improve speaking, but it was also important as an activity of the everyday citizen.

Aristotle taught rhetoric, but cautioned his students to use it morally.
Aristotle taught rhetoric, but cautioned his students to use it morally.

Isocrates, in his concept of writing with purpose, is much imitated in current schools of thought on writing. Young students are often encouraged to write letters to editors of newspapers, or complaint or praise letters to companies. Teaching writing with a purpose, instead of the usual “theme-based” essays of the past is thought to help emphasize that real writing can have real results, and is not exclusively the province of those who wish to write for a living.

As a teacher, Isocrates was deeply concerned with not only teaching practical writing, but also helping young men actively contribute to the society once they became citizens. His school became the model for the later rhetorical schools of the Romans. He did emphasize his own political agenda, that of constantly working toward a unified Greece, however his school is remarkable as being truly the first of its kind.

Unlike the sophists, Isocrates wanted writing to be practical, and neither be the kinds of oratory display of the sophists, nor the dialectic form taught by Plato and then Aristotle. He saw a need for clear writing of both political tracts and letters. His work is extensive and has been much preserved, representing primarily short topics and letters. Unfortunately, there is no direct record of his teaching methods, merely that which can be inferred from his writings.

Isocrates is often ignored when people examine the schools of Ancient Greece. He tends to represent the middle ground between the sophists and the schools of Plato and Aristotle. Recent scholarship has redirected interest in Isocrates, as he can properly be called the father of modern composition.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Isocrates and what is his significance in history?

Isocrates was a prominent Athenian rhetorician and educator who lived from 436 to 338 BCE. He established a school in Athens that contributed significantly to the educational and cultural development of Greece. Unlike his contemporaries, Plato and Aristotle, Isocrates did not write philosophical dialogues but focused on practical rhetoric for public life. His teachings emphasized the use of persuasive speech for political and judicial purposes, which influenced the rhetorical education of later generations, including statesmen and scholars.

What are some of the key ideas and contributions of Isocrates to rhetoric?

Isocrates' key contributions to rhetoric include the development of a rhetorical education curriculum that combined philosophy, politics, and ethics to prepare citizens for public life. He believed in the power of persuasive speech to unite people and solve political problems. Isocrates also introduced the concept of "pan-Hellenism," advocating for unity among Greek city-states against common enemies. His works, such as "Panegyricus" and "Areopagiticus," are considered seminal texts in the study of classical rhetoric.

How did Isocrates' approach to education differ from that of his contemporaries?

Isocrates' approach to education was distinct from that of his contemporaries in that he emphasized practical training over theoretical knowledge. While philosophers like Plato focused on abstract ideas and dialectic methods, Isocrates believed in preparing students for real-world challenges through the art of rhetoric. His curriculum was designed to create well-rounded individuals capable of contributing to society through effective communication and leadership, rather than just imparting philosophical wisdom.

Can you describe the influence of Isocrates on later cultures or thinkers?

The influence of Isocrates extended beyond his lifetime, shaping the educational systems of later cultures, particularly during the Roman Empire. His ideas on rhetorical education were adopted by Roman educators, which in turn influenced the liberal arts tradition in Western education. Notable thinkers such as Cicero and Quintilian were impacted by Isocratic thought, and his emphasis on civic participation and eloquence resonated through the Renaissance and into modern education.

What are some of the surviving works of Isocrates and their importance?

Among the surviving works of Isocrates are "Panegyricus," "Philippus," and "Panathenaicus," which are important for understanding the evolution of Greek prose style and rhetoric. These works showcase his mastery of language and his commitment to using rhetoric as a tool for political and social improvement. They also provide insight into the political and cultural milieu of 4th-century BCE Greece, making them valuable historical documents as well as literary masterpieces.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent PublicPeople contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent PublicPeople contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...

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    • Isocrates taught rhetoric in ancient Athens.
      By: Dimitris Karkanis
      Isocrates taught rhetoric in ancient Athens.
    • Plato disagreed with Isocrates' work.
      By: Dimitrios
      Plato disagreed with Isocrates' work.
    • Aristotle taught rhetoric, but cautioned his students to use it morally.
      By: Panos
      Aristotle taught rhetoric, but cautioned his students to use it morally.