Isocrates Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek philosopher{$I[g]Greece;Isocrates} One of the ten Attic Orators, Isocrates made significant contributions to the development of rhetorical theory, philosophy, and education in ancient Greece. Isocrates’ model of education, grounded in rhetoric, guided educators for centuries to follow.

Early Life

Isocrates (i-SAWK-ruh-teez) was born during the archonship of Lysimachus in 436 b.c.e. His father, Theodorus, was a wealthy flute maker. His father’s wealth afforded Isocrates the finest education of the day. He studied under such luminaries as Protagoras, Prodicus, Gorgias, Theramenes, and Tisias and joined the circle of Socrates. In Phaedros (388-368 b.c.e.; Phaedrus, 1792), Plato described Isocrates as a “youth of great promise.”

Isocrates desperately wanted to play an important role in Athenian politics. A powerful case of stage fright coupled with a weak voice precluded his participation in the public-oratory-driven Athenian Assembly. In 404, during the reign of the “Thirty Tyrants,” Isocrates fled to the island of Chios, where he operated a small school of rhetoric. As a result of the Peloponnesian War, Isocrates’ father, Theodorus, lost most of his property and wealth. Thus, in 403 Isocrates returned to Athens, where, as a result of financial need, he became a “forensic locographer,” writing speeches for others to deliver in the courts. After only six speeches, Isocrates discovered that he lacked the practical gifts for winning cases and abandoned the profession. Isocrates would later disavow his career as a locographer, scorning the profession.

In 392, at the age of forty-four, Isocrates set himself up as a teacher of rhetoric. His academy, located near the Lyceum in Athens, became the first permanent institution of liberal arts education, preceding Plato’s Academy by five years. Isocrates announced the school and his new profession while attacking his sophistic competition with his essay Kata tōn sophistfū (c. 394 b.c.e.; Against the Sophists, 1929)

Life’s Work

Isocrates’ main legacy is the impact of his teachings on future generations of oratory and education. Isocrates’ Academy was the most successful of all the Grecian schools of rhetoric. Cicero holds that this was the school in which all the eloquence of Greece was perfected, and alumni of Isocrates’ academy are among the greatest statesmen, historians, writers, and orators of their time. There is evidence that even Aristotle may have been a pupil of Isocrates. Cicero and Demosthenes used Isocrates’ work as a model, and through their work, Isocrates shaped generations of rhetorical thought and practice. Isocrates’ style was incorporated into the works of orators, writers, and historians and was passed down for more than nine centuries.

Isocrates would admit only those students who had mastered grammar and could demonstrate previous knowledge in mathematics and the sciences. He believed that this knowledge was necessary grounding for the mental gymnastics of rhetoric, philosophy, and civics. Isocrates also demanded that potential students must demonstrate promise in voice control, intellect, and confidence. He believed that there were three essential qualities necessary for learning: natural ability, training, and experience. The training included studies in composition, debate, literature, philosophy, math, and history. Isocrates was also the first educator to utilize imitation and models as educational tools. The Panegyricus (c. 380 b.c.e.; English translation, 1928) and the Plataicus (c. 373 b.c.e.; English translation, 1945) were written as model speeches for his pupils.

Isocrates’ students were always expected to write and speak about cultural issues, with particular attention to the keeping of a panhellenic Greece above all nations. While style and diction were important, for the first time content was stressed in an academic setting. This content served to train the student in Isocrates’ Hellenic ideology. The model orations that his students studied were propagandistic in that they professed Isocrates’ political beliefs. Isocrates taught, and wrote in Panegyricus, that “Greek” denoted a man’s education, not his race. Isocrates was sorely troubled by the petty squabbles that kept the various city-states at odds. He longed for a Greece that could stand united, and he planted this desire in his students.

In the light of Isocrates’ patriotism, it is unremarkable that the primary focus of his educational plan was the development of citizen-orators. He considered political science and rhetoric nearly one and the same. Greek society was driven by oratory, and Isocrates taught that those who are the best users of speech are those of greatest wisdom. He held that all the great works of humankind are the result of rhetoric. As he wrote in Antidosis (c. 354 b.c.e.; English translation, 1929), “There is no institution devised by man which the power of speech has not helped to establish.” Isocrates taught that proper speaking was a sign of proper...

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