picture of that Hellenic host which should move through Asia in a pageant of sacred triumph, just as Xenophon was publishing his plain narrative of the retreat of the Ten Thousand; and, in the next generation, his literary eloquence was still demonstrating the weakness of Persia when Demosthenes was striving to make men feel the deadly peril of Greece. This long life has an element of pathos not unlike that of Greek tragedy; a power above man was compelling events in a direction which Isocrates could not see; but his own agency was the ally of that power, though in a sense which he knew not; his vision was of Greece triumphant over Asia, while he was the unconscious prophet of an age in which Asia should be transformed by the diffusion of Hellenism.
political and the literary.
With regard to the first, two questions have to be asked: (1) How far were the political views of Isocrates peculiar to himself, and different from those of the clearest minds contemporary with him? (2) How far were those views falsified by the event?
1. The whole tone of Greek thought in that age had taken a bent towards monarchy in some form. This tendency may be traced alike in the practical common sense of Xenophon and in the lofty idealism of Plato. There could be no better instance of it than a well-known passage in the Politics of Aristotle. He is speaking of the gifts which meet in the Greek race—a race warlike, like the Europeans, but more subtle—keen, like the Asiatics, but braver. Here, he says, is a race which “might rule all men, if it were brought under a single government.” It is unnecessary to suppose a special allusion to Alexander; but it is probable that Aristotle had in his mind a possible union of the Greek cities under a strong constitutional monarchy. His advice to Alexander (as reported by Plutarch) was to treat the Greeks in the spirit of a leader (ἡγεμονικῶς) and the barbarians in the spirit of a master (δεσποτικῶς). Aristotle conceived the central power as political and permanent; Isocrates conceived it as, in the first place, military, having for its immediate aim the conduct of an expedition against Asia. The general views of Isocrates as to the largest good possible for the Greek race were thus in accord with theprevailing tendency of the best Greek thought in that age.
not, indeed, fulfilled in the sense of Aristotle or of Isocrates. But the invasion of Asia by Alexander, as captain-general of Greece, became the event which actually opened new and larger destinies to the Greek race. The old political life of the Greek cities was worn out; in the new fields which were now opened, the empire of Greek civilization entered on a career of world-wide conquest, until Greece became to East and West more than all that Athens had been to Greece. Athens, Sparta, Thebes, ceased indeed to be the chief centres of Greek life; but the mission of the Greek mind could scarcely have been accomplished with such expansive and penetrating power if its influence had not radiated over the East from Pergamum, Antioch and Alexandria.
Panhellenic politics had the foremost interest for Isocrates. But in two of his works—the oration On the Peace and the Areopagiticus (both of 355 B.C.)—he deals specially with the politics of Athens. The speech On the Peace relates chiefly to foreign affairs. It is an eloquent appeal to his fellow-citizens to abandon the dream of supremacy, and to treat their allies as equals, not as subjects. The fervid orator personifies that empire, that false mistress which has lured Athens, then Sparta, then Athens once more, to the verge of destruction. “Is she not worthy of detestation?” Leadership passes into empire; empire begets insolence; insolence brings ruin. The Areopagiticus breathes a kindred spirit in regard to home policy. Athenian life had lost its old tone. Apathy to public interests, dissolute frivolity, tawdry display and real poverty—these are the features on which Isocrates dwells. With this picture he contrasts the elder democracy of Solon and Cleisthenes, and, as a first step towards reform, would restore to the Areopagus its general censorship of morals. It is here, and here alone—in his comments on Athenian affairs at home and abroad—that we can distinctly recognize the man to whom the Athens of Pericles was something more than a tradition. We are carried back to the age in which his long life began. We find it difficult to realize that the voice to which welisten is the same which we hear in the letter to Philip.
we are at once upon ground where the question of his merits will now provoke comparatively little controversy. Perhaps the most serious prejudice with which his reputation has had to contend in modern times has been due to an accident of verbal usage. He repeatedly describes that art which he professed to teach as his φιλοσοφία. His use of this word—joined to the fact that in a few passages he appears to allude slightingly to Plato or to the Socratics—has exposed him to a groundless imputation. It cannot be too distinctly understood that, when Isocrates speaks of his φιλοσοφία, he means simply his theory or method of “culture”—to use the only modern term which is really equivalent in latitude to the Greekword as then current.
because it had nothing in common, with the Socratic or Platonic philosophy. The personal influence of Socrates may, indeed, be traced in his work. He constantly desires to make his teaching bear on the practical life. His maxims of homely moral wisdom frequently recall Xenophon’s Memorabilia. But there the relation ends. Plato alludes to Isocrates in perhaps three places. The glowing prophecy in the Phaedrus has been quoted; in the Gorgias a phrase of Isocrates is wittily parodied; and in the Euthydemus Isocrates is probably meant by the person who dwells “on the borderland between philosophy and statesmanship.” The writings of Isocrates contain a few more or less distinct allusions to Plato’s doctrines or works, to the general effect that they are barren of practical result. But Isocrates nowhere assails Plato’s philosophy as such. When he declares “knowledge” (ἐπιστήμη) to be unattainable, he means an exact “knowledge” of the contingencies which may arise in practical life. “Since it is impossible for human nature to acquire any science (ἐπιστήμην) by which we should know what to do or to say, in the next resort I deem those wise who, asa rule, can hit what is best by their opinions” (δόξας).
day. In his essay Against the Sophists, and in his speech on the Antidosis, which belong respectively to the beginning and the close of his professional career, he has clearly marked the points which distinguish him from “the sophists of the herd” (ἀγελαῖοι σοφισταί). First, then, he claims, and justly, greater breadth of view. The ordinary teacher confined himself to the narrow scope of local interests—training the young citizen to plead in the Athenian law courts, or to speak on Athenian affairs in the ecclesia. Isocrates sought to enlarge the mental horizon of his disciples by accustoming them to deal with subjects which were not merely Athenian, but, in his own phrase, Hellenic. Secondly, though he did not claim to have found a philosophical basis for morals, it has been well said of him that “he reflects the human spirit always on its nobler side,” and that, in an age of corrupt and impudent selfishness, he always strove to raise the minds of his hearers into a higher and purer air. Thirdly, his method of teaching was thorough. Technical exposition came first. The learner was then required to apply the rules in actual composition, which the master revised. The ordinary teachers of rhetoric (as Aristotle says) employed their pupils in committing model pieces to memory, but neglected to train the learner’s own faculty through his own efforts. Lastly, Isocrates stands apart from most writers of that day in his steady effort to produce results of permanent value. While rhetorical skill was largely engaged in the intermittent journalism of political pamphlets, Isocrates set a higher ambition before his school. His own essays on contemporary questions received that finished form which has preserved them to this day. The impulse to solid and lasting work, communicated by the example of the master, was seen in such monuments as the Atthis of Androtion, the Hellenics of Theopompusand the Philippica of Ephorus.
the fragrant essences of Isocrates, and all the little stores of his disciples.” The phrase has a point of which the writer himself was perhaps scarcely conscious: the style of Isocrates had come to Cicero through the school of Rhodes; and the Rhodian imitators had more of Asiatic splendour than of Attic elegance. But, with this allowance made, the passage may serve to indicate the real place of Isocrates in the history of literary style. The old Greek critics consider him as representing what they call the “smooth” or “florid” mode of composition (γλαφυρά, ἀνθηρὰ ἀρμονία) as distinguished from the “harsh” (αὐστηρά) style of Antiphon and the perfect “mean” (μέση) of Demosthenes. Tried by a modern standard, the language of Isocrates is certainly not “florid.” Theonly sense in which he merits the epithet is that (especially in his
- Isocrates, a loyal and genuine Hellene, can yet conceive of Hellenic culture as shared by men not of Hellenic blood (Panegyr. 50). He is thus, as Ernst Curtius has ably shown, a forerunner of Hellenism—analogous, in the literary province, to Epameinondas and Timotheus in the political (History of Greece, v. 116, 204, tr. Ward).
- τὸ τῶν Ἑλλήνων γένος ... δυνάμενον ἄρχειν, μιᾶς τυγχάνον πολιτείας (Polit. iv. [vii.] 6, 7).
- De Alex. virt. i. 6.
- The word φιλοσοφία seems to have come into Athenian use not much before the time of Socrates; and, till long after the time of Isocrates, it was commonly used, not in the sense of “philosophy,” but in that of “literary taste and study—culture generally” (see Thompson on Phaedrus, 278 D). Aristeides, ii. 407 φιλοκαλία τις καὶ διατριβὴ περὶ λόγους, καὶ οὐχ ὁ νῦν τρόπος οὗτος, ἀλλὰ παιδεία κοινῶς. And so writers of the 4th century B.C. use φιλοσοφεῖν as simply = “to study”; as e.g. an invalid “studies” the means of relief from pain, Lys. Or. xxiv. 10; cf. Isocr. Or. iv. 6, &c.
- Plato, Gorg. p. 463; Euthyd. 304-306.
- These allusions are discussed in the Attic Orators, vol. ii. ch. 13.
- Isocr. Or. xv. 271.
- A. Cartelier, Le Discours d’Isocrate sur lui-même, p. lxii. (1862).
- Totum Isocratis μυροθήκιον atque omnes ejus discipulorum arculas (Ad Att. ii. 1).