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Isocrates and Civic Education

Isocrates and Civic Education

Ten leading scholars of Classics, rhetoric, and philosophy offer a pathfinding interdisciplinary study of Isocrates as a civic educator.

Series: Classics and the Ancient World Endowment

July 2004
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287 pages | 6 x 9 |

Civic virtue and the type of education that produces publicly minded citizens became a topic of debate in American political discourse of the 1980s, as it once was among the intelligentsia of Classical Athens. Conservatives such as former National Endowment for the Humanities chairman William Bennett and his successor Lynn Cheney held up the Greek philosopher Aristotle as the model of a public-spirited, virtue-centered civic educator. But according to the contributors in this volume, a truer model, both in his own time and for ours, is Isocrates, one of the preeminent intellectual figures in Greece during the fourth century B.C.

In this volume, ten leading scholars of Classics, rhetoric, and philosophy offer a pathfinding interdisciplinary study of Isocrates as a civic educator. Their essays are grouped into sections that investigate Isocrates' program in civic education in general (J. Ober, T. Poulakos) and in comparison to the Sophists (J. Poulakos, E. Haskins), Plato (D. Konstan, K. Morgan), Aristotle (D. Depew, E. Garver), and contemporary views about civic education (R. Hariman, M. Leff). The contributors show that Isocrates' rhetorical innovations carved out a deliberative process that attached moral choices to political questions and addressed ethical concerns as they could be realized concretely. His notions of civic education thus created perspectives that, unlike the elitism of Aristotle, could be used to strengthen democracy.


AAUP Book, Jacket and Journal ShowJackets

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • David Depew and Takis Poulakos
  • Part One: Isocrates and Classical Civic Education
    • 1. I, Socrates . . . The Performative Audacity of Isocrates' Antidosis (Josiah Ober)
    • 2. Isocrates' Civic Education and the Question of Doxa (Takis Poulakos)
  • Part Two: Isocrates and the Sophists
    • 3. Rhetoric and Civic Education: From the Sophists to Isocrates (John Poulakos)
    • 4. Logos and Power in Sophistical and Isocratean Rhetoric (Ekaterina Haskins)
  • Part Three: Isocrates and Plato
    • 5. Isocrates' "Republic" (David Konstan)
    • 6. The Education of Athens: Politics and Rhetoric in Isocrates and Plato (Kathryn Morgan)
  • Part Four: Isocrates and Aristotle
    • 7. The Inscription of Isocrates into Aristotle's Practical Philosophy (David Depew)
    • 8. Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Civic Education in Aristotle and Isocrates (Eugene Garver)
  • Part Five: Isocrates Then and Now
    • 9. Civic Education, Classical Imitation, and Democratic Polity (Robert Hariman)
    • 10. Isocrates, Tradition, and the Rhetorical Version of Civic Education (Michael Leff)
  • Works Cited
  • Contributors
  • Index

Takis Poulakos is Associate Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Iowa.

David Depew is Professor of Communication Studies and Rhetoric of Inquiry at the University of Iowa.


Isocrates as Civic Educator


Civic virtue, and the sort of public education that was supposed to inculcate it, became something of a theme in American political discourse during the nineteen eighties. In this context, appeals were often made to the ancient Greeks as having had a deep commitment to educate their citizens with a view to virtues of character and devotion to public life. Among Greeks who wrote on political matters, it is Aristotle who seems to have received the lion's share of the attention. That is partly because philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre have singled out Aristotle's Politics and Ethics as a compendium of good talk about civic virtue and civic education (MacIntyre 1981; Garver 1995).


Prominent rhetorical scholars too have cast Aristotle in the role of civic educator (Kennedy 1963; Farrell 1993). From the perspective of measurable influence on public debates rather than mere scholarly reflection, the current prominence of Aristotle can be traced to the efforts of William Bennett, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and later author of a best-selling Book of Virtues (Bennett 1993). Bennett promoted Aristotle as a model of public-spirited, virtue-centered civic education.


Partly in consequence of these efforts, the theme of civic education became something of the possession of conservatives. Such preaching may have had a point as a counter to purely procedural liberalism, which declares all values and most behaviors to be private matters and thinks of our public life as devoted simply to providing economic, legal, and political machinery calculated to get everyone the best possible deal. They may also be of some use in blunting the nativism of the Christian right. But virtue talk, especially when it is so closely tied to the elitist Aristotle, has elicited considerable resistance from rhetors who have been arguing for a more diverse, less sexist, less "republican" vision of democratic life. The discourse of dead white European males in the radically sexist, militarist, and imperialist culture of ancient Athens has seemed in this context to be worse than irrelevant. Its reinvocation can be perceived as constituting a coded attack on the values that progressives, liberals, and democratic radicals have been trying to instill in our democratic life for a long time. It seems as important as ever to defend today.


This said, we must report that the contributors to the present volume are in agreement with at least one assumption of today's "virtuecrats." They are willing to consider the possibility that those who value democratic pluralism need not entirely dismiss our old, and perhaps still useful, habit of thinking about ourselves by thinking about the ancient Greeks. We need not tell ourselves that ancient Greek males were a whit less miserable on questions about women, foreigners, and the fate of the lower classes than they have been shown to be. But many of our authors suspect that the theme of civic education in a democratic culture, and especially its relation to humanistic educational practices, might be advanced more surely if we take not Aristotle, but Isocrates, as a focal figure—not for imitation, as he was an elitist too, but as a whetstone for our own reflections on contemporary humanistic education and its relation to the theme of civic virtue.


For one thing, this is a matter simply of setting the historical record straight. In his own time, and well into later classical antiquity, Isocrates was a more central figure in discussions of civic education, and especially the role of rhetorical training in civic education, than Aristotle ever was. Isocrates, too, arguably makes a more plausible foil for Plato than Aristotle. Like Plato, his near contemporary, Isocrates founded a school in Athens. (Isocrates was born in 436, Plato in 429.) Unlike Plato's, though, Isocrates' school did not elevate the status of philosophy by disparaging rhetoric as an educational medium for civic education. A hallmark of Isocratean civic education is that it recast philosophy as rhetoric precisely in order to introduce an element of reflective, aesthetic deliberation into the discussion of rhetorical training and practice. Isocrates undercut his rival's identification of rhetoric with the ignoble ghostwriting and ambulance chasing that he too disdained. He did so without repudiating, as Plato certainly did, a principle that was to be taken up repeatedly by humanistic educators in centuries to come—that good speaking (eu legein) and good, prudential action (eu prattein) are closely allied. In consequence, Isocrates stands somewhere between the flashy Sophists of an earlier day, whose giddy sense of human autonomy seems to a number of writers to resonate with postmodern themes (Too 1995), and Plato and Aristotle, who, as Harvey Yunis (1996) puts it, hoped to "tame" democracy, if they could not eliminate it.


By positioning Isocrates first in relation to the Sophists, then Plato, and finally Aristotle, the contributors to this volume attempt to demarcate the place he occupies between sophistical rhetoric and Platonic philosophies, as well as between sophistical and Aristotelian rhetorics. They articulate this place as a space of critique. Such a space issues a number of challenges against the normative claim that civic virtue in classical Athens must be thought of and talked about in monolithic terms, that discourse on civic education can lend itself unproblematically to a stable, non-agonistic perspective, and that the contestation of civic norms—when unavoidable—can ensue productively only from a certain angle. Some of these challenges become apparent as contributors track Isocrates' fidelity to sophistic principles of relativism. Others run in the other direction: toward his clear commitment to a unitary vision of the common good for the community. Others still delimit Isocrates' dual participation in discourses that uphold both elitist and democratic values. On the one hand, Isocrates portrays a leader he would create through his educational program both as a sovereign ruler and a selfless servant of the people, while on the other hand he shows a strong commitment both to stable principles of collective deliberation and to an open-ended notion of individual doxa (reputation).


As some contributors to this volume point out, this constant shuttling back and forth between conflicting discourses about civic values, this ongoing vacillation between disparate ends for civic education, registers as an inherent paradox in Isocrates' thinking, even an internal contradiction in his civic educational program. But it also registers, as other contributors insist, as a sign of the diverse stances and plural positions available to an intellectual in the fourth century B.C. A focus on Isocrates that acknowledges his contradictory commitments and paradoxical positions can act as a powerful reminder that the discourse on virtue, along with the type of education designed to inculcate the appropriate civic values, was not the exclusive property of the consistency-obsessed Plato and Aristotle. In his efforts to revise, redirect, and recast sophistical rhetoric and to confirm and uphold some of its principles while distancing himself from others, Isocrates manages to create doubts about his rival Plato's portrayal of sophistical discourse as a thing of the past, no longer creating any conflict for or substantive opposition to the dominant philosophical discourse on civic virtue.


The variety of individual perspectives taken up by the contributors will no doubt encourage readers of this volume to reach their own conclusions about whether Isocrates made a substantive or only a tangential contribution to fourth-century notions about civic education—and whether our own discussions about the humanities today are best served by examining his program in rhetorical education from a dominantly critical or dominantly endorsing lens. Readers of the volume are invited to adopt a lens of their choosing. But the overall structure of this volume asks that one reach conclusions about Isocrates on the basis of multiple comparisons to other intellectuals of the times. For the strands traversing his work are diverse and contradictory. To pursue one in isolation of the others and in disregard of the larger intellectual context is certain to lead to one-sided conclusions.


Two relatively recent works are a case in point for cultivating historical accuracy as an antidote for one-sided anachronism. We refer to Victor Vitanza's Negation, Subjectivity, and the History of Rhetoric (1997) and Kathleen Welch's Electric Rhetoric (1999). To Vitanza, the strand in Isocrates' writing of political unification by rhetoric, along with his advocacy of a panhellenic expedition against the Persians, is taken as the paradigmatic gesture of all imperialistic impulses. Isocrates is shown to advance a politics that becomes actualized in Nazi Germany. At the other extreme, the strand in Isocrates' writings of earnestly directing education toward the needs of the polis is taken by Welch as a paradigmatic critique of formalistic education and an anticipatory gesture toward post-Marxist notions of critical pedagogy. These vastly different uses of Isocratean rhetoric in today's classroom demonstrate the ambiguous and indeterminate place that Isocrates still occupies in our intellectual tradition. While this volume does not set out to assign him to his "proper" place in the history of rhetoric, it does aim to convey complexities and subtleties that only the study of Isocrates situated among his rivals and supplanters can reveal.


Isocrates' Literary Rhetoric and Literary Genres


Isocrates' medium for advancing his conception of rhetoric as deliberative philosophy was the beautifully written speech circulated for reading. It is the topic of aesthetic polish and its relation to deliberative excellence that forms the strongest link between Isocrates and the emergence of humanistic education in the Italian Renaissance, in particular in the republican city-state of Florence. There are many mediating figures involved in this reception—Cicero, but also Quintilian, whose complete works were only discovered in the fifteenth century, as well as Longinus. Ever since early modernity, the tie between civic education, virtue talk, and republican principles has scarcely been conceivable outside a framework of humanistic education. Under the imperative for pluralistic democracy, the structure and aims of humanistic education are as deeply contested today as ever. So we have one more reason for training our reflections on Isocrates, who of all the ancient Greek writers is closest to the textualist, aestheticist, and ethical impulses of the humanist tradition.


Isocrates regarded the beautifully written speech, disseminated by the powerful technology of writing, as having immense potential to transform all aspects of the existing landscape of civic education and political life. Speaking generally, his tactic was to transform already developed genres of praise and blame into instruments of reflective deliberation by circulating published speeches. Conscious of his own efforts to tap into this potential through experimentation, he tested out in the Evagoras the possibility of entering into the poet's privileged terrain of encomiastic praise (T. Poulakos 1987). Later, in the Philip, he deployed this same form of encomium in conjunction with explicitly political ends, trying out the extent to which an orator might use this newly created form to exert maximum influence on a leader. Isocrates also experimented with the epainos of Athens, seeking to lift the laudatory praise of the city's excellence out of the rigid structures to which it had been confined in the epitaphios, or funeral oration, and to liberate it from the formulaic treatment it had continued to receive in the burial speeches of orators (which Plato either satirized or imitated in the Menexenus).


Resituated in the more spacious texture of the Panegyricus, the epainos was brought into contact with political action. As a result of that contact, it acquired new vitality and took on a new purpose. The older function of the epainos was to display Athenian excellence for the enjoyment and education of spectators. In Isocrates' hands, it was given a deliberative turn. The form of the epainos assumed the new mission of articulating the city's past commitments in such a way as to make the proposal for concrete action seem historically justifiable and ethically desirable. These self-conscious experimentations with formal combinations and generic mixtures, whose deployment created new venues for rhetoric, can be traced back to the Helen. Here Isocrates first tried his hand at investing clever showpieces of self-display with a serious undercurrent of political sentiments that were familiar to his contemporaries.


Throughout these experimentations, the beautifully written speech carried on the sophistical tradition in rhetoric by sustaining its familiar claim to aesthetic appeal and its recognizable display of an orator's eloquence and dexterity. But Isocrates also broke away from that tradition by setting it on a search for ethical and political content. Joined with the important ethical and political questions of the day, the aesthetic impulse of eloquent discourse thus presented itself as a new, explicitly, and self-consciously literary site for civic education. Here a variety of possibilities for participation in public affairs could be explored. The citizenly conduct Protagoras had once connected with Athenian practices of deliberation in the assembly appeared now to be too restricted. It was opposed by another aspect of citizenly conduct that written and circulated speech was now making possible.


The participation of citizens in the affairs of the polis no longer needed to be thought of as exclusively speaking before an inflamed or an indifferent crowd gathered to address the contingent demands of a particular situation. Political deliberation could also be committed to writing, circulated to the reading public, and so disseminated to a wider audience. But if it were possible to participate in the affairs of the polis by taking a step back and by distancing oneself from the assembly, then we must also see that distance and that step as the creation of a new space that transformed political deliberation proper—and, as a result, put in place alternative notions of civic education. Had Isocrates used the analogy of a flute-playing city to address civic education in Athens, as Aristotle did, he would have not merely parceled out that city into expert and novice players, but would have included a third category: composers of musical scores for the flute.


We see that the various combinations of oratorical forms that Isocrates experimented with can be understood only as part and parcel of a larger effort to transform the existing landscape of civic education, to give it wider scope, and to connect rhetoric with every aspect of that enlarged discursive sphere. Isocrates used the open form of educational contest and debate in Against the Sophists, as in the introduction to Helen, to disarticulate his perceived association with sophistical civic education, to contest the relevance of current eristic practices to the affairs of the city, and to claim for his own rhetorical practices, against the Academics, the title of "true" philosophy.


In the Antidosis, he employed the form of apologia to promote his own educational activities as a necessary prerequisite for training orators who would be willing to devote their skills to the service of the polis. And he took up various combinations of epideictic and political oratory to work out an interdependence between the domains of values and action, which he considered to be the basis of deliberation proper. By blending forms of oratory, he carved out a deliberative practice that attached moral choices to political questions and addressed ethical concerns as they could be realized concretely, in contingent action. A deliberative process that implicated political questions with ethical concerns and moral values with concrete action required orators-to-be to discern, at one and the same time, the politically possible and the morally desirable, and to serve their polis by proposing courses of action in line with the city's historical commitments.


Isocrates himself admittedly did not realize the radical possibilities of his own innovations with forms of oratory and notions of civic education. On the contrary, he poured the content of his own conservative politics into the novel forms of oratory he himself had charged with reformist potential. The promise made by the blending of celebratory and political oratory in the Panegyricus—to produce a revisionary history of Athens that might influence the future treatment of other city-states—was drowned out by the conservative voice of the moralist assumed in the Areopagiticus and On the Peace. Similarly, whatever potential had been conveyed through the artistic innovations of the Evagoras was left unrealized in the Nicocles and the To Nicocles. The effort to influence the physis of the king through education was abandoned in the face of the more lucrative pursuit of advising the king how to control the way he was perceived and, in the process, how to produce the most obedient subjects.


Isocrates and His Democratic Polis


The gap between the innovations of an artist and the politics of a particular person goes some way toward explaining the diversity of assessments of Isocrates rendered by the contributors to this volume. Above all, Isocrates' notions about civic education are marked by the contradiction of wishing to tame democracy by creating perspectives that might very well be used to strengthen it.


Josiah Ober deals with this issue in his theme-setting analysis of Isocrates' apologia pro vita sua, the Antidosis. Ober (1989) builds on themes that he set out in his pathbreaking Mass and Elite in Ancient Athens. After the terrible but transient crisis at the end of the fifth century, Athens recovered and even strengthened its participatory democracy. So strong was the demos that it could tolerate and sometimes even learn from the elite dissidents it sheltered in its midst (Ober 1994). In the very act of allowing its critics free speech, the demos found a way to exhibit its power, confidence, solidarity, and legitimacy. At the same time, its critics showed themselves to be free-speech democrats in spite of themselves. For like it or not, they were forced to occupy a subject position of critic that had been graciously left open to them by the many (Euben 1994).


Isocrates' Antidosis circulates in this paradoxical space—and, according to Ober, makes better use of it than Plato. Isocrates takes upon himself the mantle of the martyred Socrates and, like him, makes a speech of self-defense. According to Ober, Isocrates explicitly misperforms the Platonic defense of Socrates with the purpose of wresting the mantle of philosophia from the monopoly of Academics and other sectarian post-Socratics. The Socrates of Plato's Apology assumes that he cannot and will not persuade the demos, and his demand to be thanked by them is ironic to the point of insult. (For a contrary, and contrarian, view, see Brickhouse and Smith 1989.) The speech delegitimates those to whom it is ostensibly addressed in order to validate the antidemocratic pretensions of its primary audience and its actual author, Plato.


Isocrates, by contrast, compliments his judges. He misperforms the Platonic Apology by portraying himself not as a martyr to a tyrannical mob, whom he intentionally offends, but as a citizen seeking justice from his peers and assuming he can actually get it. Isocrates presumes that he can persuade his fellow citizens of the justice of his cause and solicits their genuine gratitude for the way in which he teaches arts that actually sustain the regime. Conservative though he may be, Isocrates is at heart an Athenian, and hence a democrat.


Takis Poulakos supplements Ober's portrait of a democratic Isocrates by concentrating on the notion of doxa, which Plato had famously reduced to "mere opinion," as opposed to epistemically secure knowledge. By contrast, Isocrates deploys doxa to sustain and perhaps recover the more rooted meaning of one's glowing reputation, one's kleos or fame. This conception of one's doxa (unlike contemporary notions of one's "image") harks back to the heroic conception of virtuous deeds and words that forms the backbone of Greek poetic-performative education in all of its settings—lyric, epic, and tragic. Like Protagoras, Isocrates refers the concept not to the glory of would-be epic heroes but to the reputation of civic subjects, subjects who are willing to enter into agon on behalf both of their own self-worth and their contribution to the commonweal. Acting with an eye to one's doxa is for Isocrates, as it is for the entire republican tradition thereafter, a noble, not a vain, preoccupation. For one cannot be practically wise without cultivating the ability to say the right thing at the right or the opportune moment; and one simply cannot achieve this skill—the skill that Isocrates wants to teach—without positioning oneself as one who appears before and is accountable to one's fellow citizens. If the democratic polis leaves a space for its elite critics, Isocrates avails himself of that opening in an effective way.


Isocrates and the Sophists


These considerations of Isocrates' project can but raise subtle questions about his relationship to the sophistic tradition. Like the Sophists, and unlike Plato, Isocrates is an antifoundationalist. But, as John Poulakos (1995) shows, this does not mean that Isocrates has as straightforward a connection with the sophistic movement as one might assume. Poulakos argues that it is difficult (for anyone but a Platonist) to paint Isocrates as an inheritor of this tradition at all. Using his well-known ideal-typical portrait of the Sophists as a beginning point, Poulakos takes them to be nomadic, cosmopolitan, hit-and-run, agonistic, somewhat individualistic, and prone to Gorgias' implicitly materialistic conception of language as a powerful force that bears down on an audience and causes them to behave in certain ways.


Measured by this criterion, however, Isocrates is anything but a Sophist. He demands reflection and deliberative choice, not unthinking response. He is far from a nomadic intellectual. He is a sedentary, somewhat conservative citizen of democratic Athens. His conceptual scheme does not revolve around what is powerful (dunastes), as did that of the Sophists whose experience was formed by the rise of tyrants. It revolves instead around the concept of "hegemony," a term whose contemporary resonance owes much to Isocrates. He uses it to shore up Greek cultural identity by urging the various powerful poleis to unite against the barbarians under the presumably sweet sway of Athenian leadership. (The idea had a certain doomed ring in view of the distinctly non-Athenocentric version of panhellenism that was soon to be pursued by Philip.)


Ekaterina Haskins' portrait of Isocrates is somewhat more open than John Poulakos' to aligning Isocrates with the sophistic tradition. Haskins is keenly aware that our own contemporary demands for a racially, culturally, and sexually pluralist democracy involve a performative element that potentially subverts the hegemonic order of traditional republicanism, with its fetishization of representation in both the political and the textual spheres. She notes that, for all his differences from the Sophists, Isocrates does concur with them in attempting to appropriate the mythopoetic, performative tradition of Greek paideia by transposing it into a new, textualized key. The point is important because it is just this performative tradition that Plato and Aristotle, in different ways and to different degrees, refuse to accept.


In developing this theme, Haskins views Isocrates through the lens of the illuminating work on orality-literacy issues that continues to be worked by classical and rhetorical scholars. The paradigmatic Sophist Gorgias, Haskins says, was positioned on the cusp between an oral and a literate world. It was in the context of orality, and not just of tyranny, that his conception of rhetoric as force (bia) achieved its resonance. With Isocrates we are fully, indeed constitutively, in the world of the literary. Building on the work of Yun Lee Too (1995), Haskins shows how Isocrates, using the topical excuse of having been born with a weak voice, fashions his own civic identity, and hence a general conception of civic identity itself, by means of prose textualization. Isocrates, it seems, is unwilling to concede the public sphere and public education to the fractious world of oral discourse and to disappear, like Plato, behind a set of dialogical masks. On the contrary, Isocrates meets Plato's demand for a stable self as a condition of good deliberation by constructing in his polished speeches an indexical, if still performative, "I." This "I" (Ober comments extensively on it) remains stable precisely because it can rely on the continuous reiteration of textuality itself. This "I" is deployed to bring forth hearers who are induced to inhabit a similarly reflective and consistent identity, from which good deliberation is presumed by Isocrates to follow.


Isocrates and the Academics


The mention of Isocrates' demand for stable, reflective selves as a condition of legitimate and effective political participation reminds us that we can scarcely consider Isocrates apart from his relationship with Plato. They were wary competitors, conceding important points to each other precisely in order to distinguish themselves and their pedagogical wares from the other. For his part, Isocrates concedes that the contemporary logographers, or speech writers, among whom he once made his own living, are as contemptible as Plato makes them out to be. Similarly, Plato confesses to a certain grudging respect for Isocrates. When, in a famous scene in Phaedrus, Plato has the discourse-addicted Phaedrus reveal to a dubious Socrates the purloined text of Lysias' latest speech, we are probably meant to read Isocrates (and his circulating texts) for Lysias. At the end of the dialogue Socrates steps out of the frame to prophesy a great future for Isocrates—with irony to be sure, but also with respect (Asmis 1986; Coventry 1990). Plato and Isocrates are joined at the hip, it seems. They both have visions of civic education, puritanical and antidemocratic in the one case, seductively aestheticist and at least controversially democratic in the other.


In their contributions to the volume, David Konstan and Kathryn Morgan address a series of puzzles that arise from the fact that Plato and Isocrates set forth rival but comparable programs for civic education. With his stark distinction between the inner landscape of the soul and its outer appearance in social doxa, Plato is well positioned to predicate the stable identity of the self. He demands this as a condition of wise action in his thoroughgoing rejection of democratic life. Democratic man, Plato says in the Republic, the charter document of the Academy, is too protean, too underdefined, and at the mercy of conflicting desires and images to be capable of any coherent action or conviction at all. Accordingly, Plato transfers the scene of public education to an imagined state that repudiates democratic self-government altogether. This is the state outlined in the Republic and later qualified in the less high-flying Laws.


Isocrates is also wary of the demos. He too projects the state of the soul onto the social structure in order to find a reflective point for criticizing that structure and demanding self-possession from the soul. Still, as Morgan points out, Isocrates does not divide the soul into parts, as Plato does, any more than the consubstantial demos to which he addresses himself is divided. Nor is Isocrates any more above currying favor with monarchs than Plato was in his doomed mission to Syracuse. That is exactly what he does with the Nicocles, in fact, instigating thereby the long-lived genre of the "mirror for princes." Still, Isocrates feels free to present himself as a loyal Athenian and in consequence as a loyal democrat. Wrapped in precisely this constructed and projected identity, he steps forward to give advice about the shared interests and common good of his fellow citizens. But that is just the problem. Can someone as full of mental reservations as Isocrates—and as wistfully fond of the old Areopagite constitution about which conservative Greeks had fantasized ever since the middle of the fifth century—actually share the values and commitments of his auditors? Is not Isocrates' problem somewhat like that of contemporary communitarians, virtuecrats, and small "r" republicans, who like to reassure themselves that not so long ago in the history of the democratic United States lesser folk gladly deferred to their betters?


Konstan's proposed solution to this troublesome issue begins by drawing a contrast between fifth-century discussions of competing sorts of regimes—democracy, oligarchy, monarchy—and fourth-century treatments of the same theme. In the fifth century, he claims, a regime had to be either one or the other. In the fourth century, the criterion becomes whether a regime is good or bad, not whether it is formally democratic, oligarchic, or monarchical. An indication that this shift was widely shared lies in the fact that, as Konstan points out, fourth-century Athenians increasingly predicated the most heavily value-laden aspects of their civic identity on their autochthony, or descent from time immemorial from other Athenians, and not on their democratic constitution as such. Such a shift might explain why Plato says that democracy is a combination of all regimes.


However that may be, Konstan claims that this dissociation of democracy from the very idea of a good polis gives a desirable explanation of why Isocrates can consistently and sincerely portray himself at one and the same time as a democrat, a critic of democracy, and a client of overbearing monarchs and princelings. As Konstan puts it, in the fourth century it was "entirely possible to be in favor of an individual king or aristocratic regime, or any mixture of the basic types, and at the same time to represent oneself as a supporter of the democracy that is one's birthright." A regime, if it is to be a good one, must exhibit certain virtues no matter what. A reflective democrat, even one who reiteratively proclaims and performs his identity as a citizen of Athens, could also admire an aristocracy or a monarchy. It is just constitutional pluralism and tolerance of this sort that Isocrates needs, Konstan argues, if he is to get anywhere with his version of panhellenism. In this project Athens is to exercise leadership in a great national crusade including poleis that are quite variously governed and far from uniformly democratic.


Morgan addresses the same problem from a dissenting perspective. She concedes that Isocrates aims at consistency in thought and behavior as much as Plato. Unlike Konstan, however, she doubts whether Isocrates achieves it, or could in principle even hope to achieve it. This is because, in contrast to Plato, he cleaves too deeply to his presentation of himself as an Athenian democrat. In the fourth century no less than in the fifth, to be an Athenian was to be educated by and self-defined in terms of the consubstantial polis itself, not by dissenting elite philosophers. Polis education, so construed, is as pervasive and tyrannical as Plato took it to be.


This meant that a democratic citizen—any democratic citizen—must necessarily expose himself to complicity in whatever contradictory, wavering, and ill-fated policies the city happened to become embroiled. Given the overwhelming fact that democratic Athens demanded full commitment to its assumptions, values, loves, hatreds, and decisions—a fate we moderns hope to evade by regarding our private life as constitutive of our identities, putting off our citizenly roles as lightly as we put them on—Morgan asks whether it is plausible that Isocrates' "charismatic presence and elevated style, his balanced clauses and lack of hiatus, [are] going to solve the political problems of Athens." The implied answer is No. To address the crowd in the way he does is to compromise the very political and psychological consistency Isocrates prizes. Thus, he falls afoul of the many; it is no accident that Isocrates, in defending himself in the Antidosis, is forced to wrap himself in the mantle of Socrates'—that is, Plato's Socrates—Apology. Unlike Ober's misperforming Isocrates, Morgan's Isocrates is implicated in a conservative principle that is at odds with democratic opportunism and "polis education."


Isocrates and Aristotle


Whether or not in the heyday of Plato and Isocrates the criteria of good government had already been distinguished from straightforward competition among monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, as Konstan suggests—and increasingly open to the idea of good monarchies—by the time of Aristotle, Isocrates' junior by a full thirty-two years, the notion of good government was in full feather. Aristotle's famous taxonomy of constitutions begins with the idea of good constitutions and their matching deviant or malformed counterparts. Within this framework, Aristotle makes it a matter of contingent circumstance whether this or that political situation or civic tradition calls for a monarchy, an aristocracy, or a "polity" (politeia), that is, a law-governed semipopular regime. Which constitution is best under a given set of circumstances is a matter of judgment: of practical wisdom (phronesis) in its incarnation as political wisdom (politike). All that Aristotle asks is that monarchies not degenerate into tyrannies, that aristocracies not decline into money-grubbing oligarchies, and that polities strive, in their law-governed compromise between the interests of rich and poor, to remain distinct from purely populist democracies.


This studied effort to remain more or less true to Plato's antidemocratic legacy, while at the same time acknowledging that some elements of democratic thinking might well go into the making of a good, modern constitutional regime, is typical of Aristotle's habits of mind. He tends to take his opposition in and turn their views into something else. This habit of mind is especially important when we come to Aristotle's views about the art of rhetoric and his relationship to the legacy of Isocrates.


David Depew argues that Aristotle pays Isocrates the compliment of agreeing with him about one key point in the philosophy of rhetoric in order to dissent more persuasively from him on a deeper level. He suggests that Aristotle's conception of practical wisdom (phronesis), as distinct from theoretical knowledge (episteme) and from craftsmanly expertise (techne), pays explicit homage to Isocrates' use of this term. In the Antidosis, Isocrates says, "They are wise (sophos) who are able out of their opinions to chance upon what is generally the best course of action or speech . . . those who are able to grasp such things have practical wisdom (phronesis)." Aristotle's formulation in Nicomachean Ethics 6.5 is very close to this. Both Aristotle and Isocrates are asserting that political and ethical affairs—constitutional issues as well as decisions about the proper roles and influence of the various arts, including rhetoric, in society—should not be governed by the same standard of certainty and truth that applies to scientific knowledge. Where they differ, Depew claims, is that Isocrates believes that practical wisdom is all we humans have, while Aristotle, true once again to the spirit of his master, believes that some human beings can ascend to real theoretical science (episteme), even about human affairs. In consequence, Aristotle, unlike Isocrates, is unwilling to identify wisdom (sophia) simply with practical wisdom (Nicomachean Ethics 6.12).


Depew goes on to claim that Aristotle would subordinate even the most universal of the arts (technai), such as rhetoric and medicine, to practical wisdom in the same way in which practical wisdom, if it is to be truly practical rather than merely clever, must pay homage to higher, purely contemplative objects and inquiries. In practice, this means that in good states practitioners of the art of rhetoric must be distinguished from (and in some sense subordinated to) practically wise political leaders. If so, it would seem that there cannot be nearly as close a link between good-speaking (eu legein) and good thinking (eu phronein) as Isocrates demands. Rhetorical skill does not, by itself, confer political knowledge (politike) on its possessor. Taking the argument one step further, it might seem that Aristotle's latter-day reputation as the civic educator par excellence might not be deserved. Isocrates, who proclaims the autonomy of public deliberation by linking it to a systematic form of civic education, might fill that description better.


Eugene Garver contests this interpretation of Aristotle; it does scant justice, he says, to the genuine autonomy for all sciences and arts on which Aristotle repeatedly insists. Deploying the central claim of his Aristotle's Rhetoric: An Art of Character (1995), Garver argues that the art of rhetoric is truly autonomous in this sense because it has internal standards of excellence to which its practitioners, insofar as they are arguing artfully, must necessarily abide. The aim of Aristotle's Rhetoric is to show that by conforming to its own internal standards, rhetoric ascends to the level of a practical art.


To make this argument, Garver distinguishes between the genuinely artful element of rhetoric and de facto rhetorical success. The artful element consists in observing the available means of persuasion, which for the most part consist of good arguments well and honestly proffered by speakers who project an ethical persona to audiences who are interpellated as rational judges. For Garver, this remains an adequate account of rhetorical art to this day. It is Aristotle, not Isocrates, the implication is, who should remain our guide in civic education.


The Legacy of Isocrates and Humanistic Education Today


We conclude these invitatory reflections with some remarks about Isocrates' relevance to contemporary humanistic educational norms and practices. We would like to draw attention once again to the aesthetic dimension of Isocrates' rhetorical practice. For aesthetics has been central to humanistic education since the Renaissance. Its relationship to democracy was first broached by mid-century Victorians like Matthew Arnold, John Stuart Mill, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Like many intellectuals and artists after them, Arnold, Mill, and Emerson grudgingly accepted the rising democratic order. But they argued that it could be an object of praise or even a viable political order only if it were informed and even constrained by a sustained effort to project predemocratic norms of taste as far down into the population as possible.


Humanistic educational practices in the United States have, at least until quite recently, been predicated squarely on this vision. It is commonly recognized that what marks off the so-called postmodern condition is the erosion of the hitherto sustained effort to construct, maintain, and even police a distinction between elite and mass culture. This erosion has been accompanied, and perhaps stimulated, by the pervasive deployment of electronically mediated forms of communication and by the concomitant blurring of the distinction between nature and artifice. Such blurring also attends the expansion of biotechnology, and by the erasure of the distance between the ineffable depth that was previously accorded to personal identity and the constructed identities deployed at the surface through the agency of technological interpellation.


Humanistic, aesthetics-centered educational practices can appear from this changed vantage point as inescapably complicit in constraining democracy just when it needs to expand itself universally by freeing itself from a hopefully dispensable connection to racism, colonialism, sexism, classism, and what might be called "culturism." Should it free itself from its humanistic and aestheticist legacy as well?


Seen in this connection, Isocrates can all too readily appear as an Athenian Matthew Arnold. To contest this impression, much of the most creative recent scholarship on Isocrates has concentrated on how a technology of writing (an analogue of today's electronic technologies) helped him project an identity that is invested as fully as possible in the act, as well as the art, of writing, and hence in performing a virtually constructed self rather than expressing a pre-existent "essential" one (Too 1995; Haskins this volume). That identity is projected at the surface of social presentation rather than in the coherent, consistent depths in which Plato would hide it. From this perspective, what seems to be called for and even anticipated by Isocrates is not the rejection of aesthetics, but a postmodern aesthetics that fully embraces precisely what Plato rejected about democratic culture—its mimetic prowess, its creative misperformances, its tendency to "act up." In today's circumstances, when the enlargement of democratic practice is linked increasingly to notions of performance and identity, Isocrates' creativity commends itself as a replacement for the representational culture of republicanism, old and new, which seems unable to contain the global, transcultural thrust of democratic life.


In his reflections on the contemporary resonance of the figure of Isocrates, Robert Hariman advances the view that our efforts to respond creatively to Isocratean educational initiatives must be guided by clearly identifying the kind of imitation that his educational plan projected, defended, and practiced. Against his contemporaries, who promoted (or in Plato's case rejected) the notion of imitation as a purely instrumental, merely mechanical technique for generating and responding to discourse on demand in a particular time and place, Isocrates, according to Hariman, practiced a sort of imitation that asserted the agency of speakers by exploring their identities and expanding their temporal and spatial horizons. It was a kind of imitation that drew on sources exceeding one's immediate circumstances, that aligned itself with the city's larger cultural inheritance, and that sought to support practices contributing directly to the sustainability of public culture.


Isocrates' conception of imitation enables Hariman to explain not only his commitment to a flexible, identity-sensitive model of civic virtue, but also his clear resolve to promote the themes of a single type of discourse, the discourse of panhellenism. Here the themes of an enlarged spatial realm for discourse to complement the "gift of time" for deliberation, stressed by T. Poulakos, come into view. When it comes to a contemporary analogue, Hariman names ecological discourse as functioning in something of the way that panhellenism functioned for Isocrates. Like Isocrates' panhellenic crusade, ecology promotes global concord as a way of solving problems that cannot be solved by individual states or on the basis of conceptions of the good life that are specific to one culture. Like Isocrates' flexible norms for civic education, the ecological movement and the discourses it generates and nourishes depend on a kind of education. It is inherently aesthetic and humanistic in its recommitment to an education aimed at revitalizing the threatened practices of grassroots democracy and resituating them in the enlarged space of a global unity.


Michael Leff finds that the rather idealistic image of Isocrates on display in Hariman's essay emerges from most, if not all, of the essays in the volume. Isocrates, in this collective view, wields a notion of good rhetoric that is neither applied superscience, as in Plato, nor relativistic manipulation; that is reflective even while it is opportune; that is addressed to all, but discriminating in what voices are to be heard and amplified in response; that is virtuous and technical at the same time; and that is rooted both in stable virtues and in the historical experience of a people. Assuming the accuracy of this image, Leff professes himself less worried than Morgan about how his deeply his apparent inconsistencies entangle Isocrates in a forced choice between Platonic demands for consistency in both personal and policy matters and submission to what the group-think of "polis education." In slipping between these poles, Isocrates can serve as a stimulus for contemporary thinking about "how we can conceive and devise a program of education that is sufficiently realistic to account for the sprawl of democratic practices and that is also sufficiently idealistic to promote civic virtue."


In closing, allow us to note explicitly that this volume is an interdisciplinary effort. It has arisen from conversations and interventions on the part of rhetorical scholars, classicists, ancient philosophers, and historians. The volume, as well as the Obermann Humanities Symposium at the University of Iowa from which it sprang, pays homage to the perception that much of the best scholarship done in our day results from a conscious effort to blur disciplinary lines. This approach helps our effort to burnish the image of Isocrates. For his genre-bending and his resolute effort to keep the lines between rhetoric, politics, and philosophy as open and flexible as possible, make him for us something of an icon of interdisciplinary scholarship. As a textualized being, Isocrates might even be considered a martyr to this openness and flexibility. For against his own explicit wishes, he has been extruded entirely from the philosophical canon, while among rhetorical scholars who have canonized him the seriousness with which he presents himself as a philosophical rhetorician has been downplayed. We wish to pay belated homage to Isocrates' attempt to speak earnestly and persuasively against what in his day, as in ours, were fast-hardening lines between the disciplines and the arts.



“These varied and probing engagements with Isocrates are a very valuable contribution to our understanding of a figure with whom it remains difficult to come to terms. Readers of Isocrates and Civic Education will find many fruitful new questions opened up before them.”


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