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Isocrates I

Isocrates I

Speeches from a classical orator who considered himself first an educator.

Series: The Oratory of Classical Greece, Volume 4, Michael Gagarin, series editor

November 2000
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311 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 |

This is the fourth volume in the Oratory of Classical Greece series. Planned for publication over several years, the series will present all of the surviving speeches from the late fifth and fourth centuries B.C. in new translations prepared by classical scholars who are at the forefront of the discipline. These translations are especially designed for the needs and interests of today's undergraduates, Greekless scholars in other disciplines, and the general public.

Classical oratory is an invaluable resource for the study of ancient Greek life and culture. The speeches offer evidence on Greek moral views, social and economic conditions, political and social ideology, and other aspects of Athenian culture that have been largely ignored: women and family life, slavery, and religion, to name just a few.

This volume contains works from the early, middle, and late career of the Athenian rhetorician Isocrates (436-338). Among the translated works are his legal speeches, pedagogical essays, and his lengthy autobiographical defense, Antidosis. In them, he seeks to distinguish himself and his work, which he characterizes as "philosophy," from that of the sophists and other intellectuals such as Plato. Isocrates' identity as a teacher was an important mode of political activity, through which he sought to instruct his students, foreign rulers, and his fellow Athenians. He was a controversial figure who championed a role for the written word in fourth-century politics and thought.

  • The Works of Isocrates
  • Acknowledgments
  • Series Introduction
    • Oratory in Classical Athens
    • The Orators
    • The Works of the Orators
    • Government and Law in Classical Athens
    • The Translation of Greek Oratory
    • Abbreviations
    • Note on Currency
    • Bibliography of Works Cited
  • Introduction to Isocrates
    • Life and Career
    • Philosophia, Education, and Politics
    • Style
    • A Note on Terminology
    • Text
    • The Works of Isocrates
  • Part One (David Mirhady)
    • Introduction
    • 1. To Demonicus
    • 10. Encomium of Helen
    • 11. Busiris
    • 13. Against the Sophists
    • 16. On the Team of Horses
    • 17. Trapeziticus
    • 18. Special Plea against Callimachus
    • 19. Aegineticus
    • 20. Against Lochites
    • 21. Against Euthynus, without Witnesses
  • Part Two (Yun Lee Too)
    • Introduction
    • 9. Evagoras
    • 2. To Nicocles
    • 3. Nicocles
    • 7. Areopagiticus
    • 15. Antidosis
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Isocrates' speeches are introduced and translated by David C. Mirhady, Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities at Simon Fraser University, and Yun Lee Too, Assistant Professor of Classics at Columbia University.


Isocrates devoted many of his writings to proclaiming his views (and criticizing those of his opponents) on a broad range of educational and political issues. At the core of his teaching was an aristocratic notion of arete ("virtue, excellence"), which could be attained by pursuing philosophia—not so much the dialectical study of abstract subjects like epistemology and metaphysics that Plato marked as "philosophy" as the study and practical application of ethics, politics, and public speaking. His views are most fully expounded in two works, one early in his career, the other near the end of it.

Against the Sophists (13) is a polemic against his rival professional teachers. As he characterizes them, these sophists are primarily interested in disputation ("eristic") as a tool for victory in debates, particularly debates between litigants in court. Although the text breaks off just as Isocrates announces that he will give a more comprehensive account of his teaching, this work can be read as a partial account of his pedagogical methods: his essential point is that in order to become a skilled practitioner of public speech, a student requires both the appropriate natural ability, including a capacity for hard work and a good memory, and also the guidance of a good teacher.

Antidosis (15), in which Isocrates seeks to justify his life as a professional teacher in Athens, offers a fuller account of his own pedagogical views. He stresses that his teaching (paideia) is practical and is aimed at preparing young men broadly as gentlemen. It includes more than what later ages called rhetoric—instruction in the art of public speech and persuasion—and is essentially an education in political leadership, a mechanism for the construction of authority among the traditional elite groups that comprise Isocrates' ideal pupils (15.304). He demonstrates that Athens was founded and made great through the oratorical skills of men like Solon, Themistocles, and Pericles, and he argues that because public speaking is the basis of the ideal democratic community, it should continue to be a structuring principle of Athens. However, despite the six forensic speeches that are preserved in his name, Isocrates denies having had anything to do with the lawcourts, and he repudiates any possible identification with the culture of forensic oratory (15.36). Only the sophists concern themselves with private lawsuits (15.45-46); by contrast, Isocrates asserts that he has devoted himself only to the interests of the Greek people.

Isocrates' political agenda is thus conservative, verging on oligarchy, though he is always careful to designate it democracy. As an advocate of public speaking, he promotes an earlier culture of public discourse, reminding his audience that although the contemporary culture of oratory has caused wealthy, respectable citizens like himself to be involved in trials motivated by personal grudges and jealousy, public discourse originally and ideally constitutes the basis of the community. He returns frequently to the historical role of discourse (as he sees it) in the establishment of Athenian military and cultural supremacy, which has allowed the people (the demos) to wield the power it does. Through speech (logos) men persuaded one another, associated with one another, created cities, established customs and laws (nomoi), educated others, disputed with one another, and invented the arts (3.5-9, 15.253-257). For Isocrates logos (discourse) and philosophia (the study of and training in discourse) are at the core of any orderly, civilized community and have been essential to the success of Athens, the classical democratic city par excellence. Discourse institutionalizes morality and makes possible debate, persuasion, and the instruction of others; and an individual who provides a true education in this subject demonstrates his own civic virtue (arete) and deserves the gratitude of the ciy for helping to maintain its ideals and power.

Isocrates' political views also found expression on contemporary issues, primarily in his advocacy of panhellenism—the promotion of a united Greek opposition to Persia. He sees Athens as the natural leader of Greece and urges cooperation among the leading cities in the fourth century, Athens, Sparta and Thebes, with Athens assuming a leading role. These views are first set forth in Panegyricus (4), composed for the panhellenic Olympic festival in 380. In this work he argues that freedom and other common values divide Greeks from non-Greeks, so that Greek cities should put aside their differences and unite against the common enemy. Isocrates returns to these themes often, but as time revealed the inabiliy of Athens and the other Greek cities to give up their long-standing independence from and distrust of one another, he increasingly saw Macedonia—on the fringe of the Greek world and ambiguously straddling Greek and "barbarian" elements—as the best hope for unifying the Greek states in common cause against Persia. To this end, in speeches such as To Philip (5) and Panathenaicus (12), in particular, he lobbied for a panhellenic military expedition against Persia led by Philip. He still hoped for a leading role for Athens, a hope that was dashed at Chaeronea, just before his death.

Another feature of Isocrates' rhetorical teaching, which may be partly responsible for both ancient and modern devaluing of him, is that he challenges the common perception of discourse as predominantly oral. Indeed, he explicitly rejects the spoken word as a political medium, claiming that a "small voice" and lack of courage prevent him from speaking in public (cf. 5.81, 15.190-191, Epistle 8.7). This account may best be understood as the product of a paradoxical self-fashioning, since in claiming to be unable to speak in public, Isocrates conveniently excuses himself from his contemporary culture of public oratory, which he characterizes as petty, litigious, and promoted by self-interested and unscrupulous sophists. By preserving his distance from contemporary oratory and its limited concerns, Isocrates could explore larger political issues, in particular those concerning Athens' leadership of the Greek states. For him, the written word was the basis of interactions with the larger Hellenic community. His works were thus a testimony to his political interactions with individuals and states outside Athens.



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