PLATO VERSUS ISOCRATES: AN ANCIENT DISPUTE ON PHILOSOPHY AND RHETORIC
In ‘Plato versus Isocrates’ I shall discuss the ancient dispute on philosophy and rhetoric between Plato and Isocrates. The only dialogue in which Plato refers to Isocrates by name is the Phaedrus, the central theme of which is the relationship between philosophy and rhetoric. The starting point for this chapter is given by the ancient tradition according to which the Phaedrus was Plato’s first dialogue. However uncertain and unreliable one may consider this tradition, since it has been preserved in all three ancient biographies of Plato in our possession, it is the unavoidable task of Platonic scholarship to attempt to view Plato on its basis. This task is particularly pressing concerning my present theme, for if the Phaedrus was Plato’s first dialogue, it opens for us the possibility to investigate the relationship between Plato and Isocrates as it unfolds in their subsequent works within a time-span of more than forty years.
On the other hand, if the tradition is false, if it had been fabricated by the biographers, it may be presumed that any attempt to view Plato’s and Isocrates’ works on its basis would lead to defective reading and misperception of both Plato’s and Isocrates’ texts. Yet even if that were the case the positive effect of such a failed attempt would be inestimable, for the defective readings and misperceptions could thus be properly charted and exposed to view. In the first volume of The Lost Plato, which I put online eight months ago, (1) I view Plato’s dialogues on the basis of the ancient dating of the Phaedrus, yet, surprisingly, until now I encountered no serious attempt to find flaws in my account of Plato.(2) May I hope that with this opening chapter of the second volume of The Lost Plato the wall of silence surrounding my work will be broken? Or will R. Hackforth prevail, who in his Cambridge edition of the Phaedrus warns against investigating the chronological relationship between the Phaedrus and the works of Isocrates: ‘It should be confessed that the establishment of chronological relations between Plato’s dialogues and the works of Isocrates is periculosae plenum opus aleae’?(3)
A following incident indicates the hazardous nature of my present undertaking. In 2000 I sent an article on ‘An Ancient Dispute on Philosophy and Rhetoric’ to Ancient Philosophy. My paper was rejected, although the referee suggested its publication. The editor sent me the referee’s report from which I quote:
“The article on ‘An ancient dispute’ is very problematic. I’ve tried to read it as objectively as possible (though I think I can see who the author is [the journal has the policy of sending the offered contributions anonymously to its referees]). As such, it may give the impression of being a well-guarded whole. I find it provocatively interesting ... So: take it or leave it. If I were you, I would take it, and so take the risk of being stamped a ‘Tominist’ (however compensating this by accepting very traditionalist papers too).”
The editor gave the following reasons for his rejection of the paper:
“Much of the argument depends upon your contention that the Phaedrus is Plato’s first dialogue ... You argued earlier for this dating of the Phaedrus – [the editor refers to ‘Plato’s First Dialogue’ published by Ancient Philosophy in 1997] – but it seems too disputable foundation for this paper ... Chronological interpretation of Plato seems to be increasingly and rightly on the defensive.”
Let me remark that chronological interpretation of Plato, which is increasingly falling in disrepute, is based on the rejection of the ancient tradition on the dating of the Phaedrus. It is therefore time to ask what would Plato’s work look like if we explored it on the basis of the ancient tradition. Concerning my present task, it means exploring the possibility that Plato began his work with an outline of rhetoric based on philosophy, in the Phaedrus, and Isocrates opened his philosophic school in Athens with a corresponding outline of philosophic rhetoric, in his essay Against the Sophists. Nineteenth century scholars, who could still view Plato’s Phaedrus as the chronologically earlier of the two, may provide a starting-point. The main reference point of all their observations is the passage in the Phaedrus in which Socrates makes a prophecy concerning Isocrates (ho manteuomai kat’ autou, 278e10-11):
“Isocrates is still young, but I’d like to say what I prophesy for him. He seems to me to be on a level superior to Lysias and his speeches in terms of his natural endowment, and to have a greater nobility in the blend of his character; so that there would be no surprise, as he grows older, if in the very speeches that he works at now the difference between him and those who have so far undertaken speech-writing were greater than that between man and boys; and still more, if he were to be unsatisfied with that, and some diviner impulse led him to greater things; for there is innately a certain philosophical instinct in the man’s mind.”(4)
In 1855 a German scholar Leonhard Spengel noted that Isocrates in Against the Sophist denied that there can be any knowledge (epistêmê) of happiness, and maintained that there can be only opinions (doxai) concerning it; he argued that Plato could not praise Isocrates for his talent for philosophy after Isocrates’ thought took this turn.(5) In 1880 another German scholar of note, Hermann Usener, pointed out that Isocrates in his outline of philosophic rhetoric in Against the Sophists drew on Plato’s outline of it in the Phaedrus.(6) In 1890 Ferdinand Duemmler observed that in Against the Sophist 8 Isocrates says that those who use their opinions are more likely to succeed in life than those who advertise exact knowledge; he argued that this contention of Isocrates on its own would have opened Plato’s eyes to Isocrates’ views on philosophy and prevented him from praising Isocrates’ talent for philosophy.(7) In 1899 Otto Immisch observed that in the Phaedrus Plato says that the written word is for ever fixed like a painted image, whereas the spoken word is alive (275d-276a), presenting this metaphor as a novelty, and that Isocrates in Against the Sophists speaks of this idea as a commonplace; he argued that Plato would not have presented this idea as a novelty if it had been previously treated by Isocrates as a platitude.(8) Finally, in 1905 Edwin Gifford observed that Isocrates in the opening paragraph of Against the Sophists responded to Plato’s prophecy in the Phaedrus about himself, and that he did so again further on in paragraph 11.(9) This is a very acute observation, for Isocrates says in paragraph 11:
“I should have preferred above great riches that philosophy had as much power as these men claim; for, possibly, I should not have been the very last in the profession
Clearly, Isocrates refers here to something concerning himself, which was well known, and on which he could rely as a corroboration of his claim that he had a prominent role to play in philosophy; in order to make sure that the Phaedrus sprang to the reader’s mind at this point, he referred to prophecy in the opening paragraphs of his essay:
“If all those who are engaged in education were willing to tell the truth (alêthê legein) instead of making greater promises than they can fulfil, they would not be held in such a low esteem by laymen. But as it is, those who dare to vaunt their powers so thoughtlessly have brought it about that those who choose to be idle appear to be better advised than those who devote their time to philosophy. Who can fail hating and despising those, in the first place, who, wasting their time in disputations, pretend to search for truth, yet at the very beginning of their messages (euthus d’ en archêi tôn epangelmatôn) have recourse to lies. For it is manifest to all, I think, that foreknowledge of what is to happen in future is beyond the reach of our human nature.” (XIII. 1-2).
In disparaging the ‘fortune-telling messages’ Isocrates uses the term epangelmatôn that immediately recalls the Phaedran passage. For in the Phaedrus Socrates’ recourse to prophecy is introduced by Phaedrus’ question: ‘What is your message (ti apangeleis) to the fair Isocrates?’ 278e7), and Socrates ends his prophecy with the words: ‘This is the message (tauta exangellô) that I take from the gods here to Isocrates.’ But if Isocrates wanted his readers to recall the Phaedrus with its praise of him, why did he open his essay by disparaging prophecy?
To solve this riddle we must pay attention to Isocrates’ further specification of the ‘prophetic’ messages of his opponents. In Against the Sophists 3-5 Isocrates says that the teachers of philosophy promise students that under their guidance ‘they would acquire knowledge of what they should do in life and thus attain happiness’ (ha te prakteon estin eisontai kai dia tautês tês epistêmês eudaimones genêsontai, 3).(11) This specification takes us to the very centre of the Phaedrus, where Socrates says that men ordering their life according to philosophy would be blessed with happiness and concord (256a7-b1). This does amount to promising the students of philosophy ‘complete virtue and happiness’ (sumpasan de tên aretên kai tên eudaimonian), as Isocrates puts it in Against the Sophists 4. In the Phaedrus, in connection with this promise, Socrates prays to Eros that Lysias may follow his brother Polemarchus as an example of a man turned to philosophy. With this prayer the Palinode culminates: if Lysias does follow the example of his brother, his lover Phaedrus (ho erastês hode autou) will love him unhesitatingly (mêketi epamphoterizêi), and together they will direct their lives towards Love accompanied by philosophic discussions (257b). Polemarchus was put to death by the Thirty tyrants without trial and without being allowed a decent burial in 404, five years prior to Socrates’ death, which must have put into disrepute Plato’s Phaedran claim concerning philosophy, for in the view of the ancient Greeks, a man’s life could not be considered as happy if it ended badly.(12) Since the view that the philosophy they offered promised happiness was shared by Socrates’ disciples, the Phaedrus thus offered Isocrates an opportunity to denounce his opponents for making flagrantly false promises to begin with, and at the same time evoke the Phaedran praise of himself. His disparagement of prophecy as such did not affect negatively Socrates’ high opinion of his talent for philosophy, although in the Phaedrus it was couched in the form of a prophecy, for when he wrote Against the Sophists he viewed that high opinion of himself as fully justified: he offers himself as the only one who has the right philosophy, freed from exaggerated claims and promises, offering sound education and dependable guidance to success both in private and in political life.
When Gifford realized that Isocrates in the introductory paragraphs of his essay referred to the Phaedran prophecy, he must have seen that this confirmed the ancient dating of the Phaedrus as first dialogue. Why did he not say so? In 1899 Otto Immisch attempted to rehabilitate the ancient tradition on the dating of the Phaedrus, and this attempt had disastrous consequences for his scholarly reputation. Paul Natorp pointed out that on Immisch’s hypothesis Plato would become an accessory to the accusation of 399 against Socrates. ‘The defence in the Apology would have had to be directed against Plato’s Phaedrus instead of Aristophanes’ Clouds,’ Natorp proclaimed.(13) Consequently, Immisch’s essays on the dating of the Phaedrus were burked. To openly argue that Isocrates’ Against the Sophists corroborated the ancient dating of the Phaedrus would have amounted to academic suicide.
Natorp was right in one respect; the charge of introducing new deities, on the basis of which Socrates was indicted and condemned to death, is given substance in the Phaedrus, in which Plato brands as irrational the traditional notion of gods – ‘immortal is a term applied on no basis of reasoned argument at all, but our fancy pictures the god whom we have never seen, nor fully conceived, as an immortal living being, possessed of a soul and a body united for all time’ (246c6-d2)(14) – and in which the Forms are introduced as the primary deities, for all gods derive their deity from them (pros hoisper theos ôn theios estin, 249c6). But on the dating to which Isocrates’ Against the Sophists points, that is prior to the death of Polemarchus, had the indictment been based on the Phaedrus, Socrates would have been acquitted on the basis of the amnesty declared in 403, after the restoration of democracy.(15) This does not mean that the Phaedrus did not weigh heavily on the minds of at least some of the jurors. This is why Socrates at the beginning of his Defence proclaimed that he was not going ‘to fabricate speeches like a youngster’ (meirakion, Ap. 17c5); rhetoricians fabricating speeches for the defendants and for the prosecutors were no youngsters. The reference to a ‘youngster’ has therefore quite a special meaning, and the key to it lies in the wording of the ancient reference to the Phaedrus as Plato’s first dialogue preserved by Diogenes Laertius in his ‘Life of Plato’ iii. 38: ‘There is a story that the Phaedrus was Plato’s first dialogue, and indeed, there is something meirakiôdes about its theme’.(16)
After Natorp came von Arnim with his dating of the Phaedrus after the Republic, which has dominated Platonic scholarship ever since.(17) Consequently, scholars who date the Phaedrus late must either play down the irreconcilability of Isocrates’ and Plato’s views on philosophy, or distort the meaning of the Phaedran praise of Isocrates, discarding it as disingenuous. The latter are well represented by de Vries who insists that “what seems a warm and sincere eulogy of Isocrates” is in fact “a bitter taunt at his address,”(18) and Christopher Rowe, who maintains that “what Plato says about Isocrates is ironic.”(19) Rowe’s view will not do because Plato in the given passage maintains that Isocrates is a better speech-writer than Lysias and has a nobler character than him, which could be meant in irony directed against Isocrates only if Plato considered Lysias a far better person and a far more accomplished writer than Isocrates, and if he believed that his readers would share his view of their relative merits. But this is precluded by Plato’s devastating criticism of Lysias’ erotic piece, which is quoted in full at the beginning of the dialogue and subsequently disparaged both on formal grounds as a piece of bad rhetoric, and because of its content, as an immoral piece. Wilamowitz says tersely: ‘Truly great praise. No trace of irony.’(20) R. Hackforth observes similarly: ‘There is no trace of irony in what is said of Isocrates here.’(21) Aware of this difficulty, de Vries speaks of ‘a bitter taunt’ instead of irony, but there is no bitterness in Plato’s praise of Isocrates’ promising talent for philosophy, only a fervent hope that a diviner impulse might lead him to greater things than writing speeches for public gatherings.
Those who cannot dismiss the Phaedran praise of Isocrates as ‘irony’ play down the irreconcilability of Isocrates’ and Plato’s views on philosophy. Hackforth says:
“I should interpret the first half of the prophecy as already fulfilled when Plato wrote; Isocrates’ orations, notably the Panegyricus of 380 B.C., had already put all the previous orators in the shade; the second half, the ‘sublime impulse leading to greater things’ is as yet unfulfilled; but I do not see why Plato should not still have hoped for its fulfilment. If Plato had, as he surely had, any hope of his proposals for a philosophic rhetoric being adopted, he must win Isocrates to his cause. He may have been, probably he was, over-sanguine; but Isocrates in 370 was, though elderly, not necessarily impervious to the argument.”(22)
Pace Hackforth, Isocrates’ emphasis on a well formed opinion (doxa) as the most reliable guide to success in life negates the very basis of the Phaedran project of philosophic rhetoric, which must have been clear to Plato ever since Isocrates published his essay. And as for the Panegyricus, this speech of Isocrates is treated by Plato with biting irony in the Republic, as we shall see.
Both Plato and Isocrates viewed the attainment of happiness, eudaemonia, as the main preoccupation of philosophy, but for Plato happiness was derived from the beatific contemplation of the Forms, especially the Forms of beauty, justice, temperance, and wisdom (Phdr. 250a-d), the very existence of which Isocrates denied. For Isocrates, in contrast, eudaemonia consisted pre-eminently in living in affluence and in being highly esteemed. To attain this goal, in the Panegyricus he exhorted the Greeks, noble and good (hoi kaloi k’agathoi, Paneg. 78, 95), to unite and conquer the Persian empire:
“Try to picture to yourselves what eudaemonia we should attain if we should turn the war which now involves ourselves against the peoples of the continent, and bring the eudaemonia of Asia across to Europe.”(23)
It is this view of eudaemonia against which Plato’s Socrates directs his sharpest irony in the Republic:
“our opponent is thinking of peasants at a panegyris (en panêgurei), who are enjoying a life of revelry (hestiatoras eudaimonas), not of citizens who are doing their duty to the state (421b1-3) ... and what a charming life they lead (charientôs diatelousin) ... and the charming (charien) thing is that they deem him their worst enemy who tells them the truth” (426a1-7).(24)
Adaemantus protests that this is not what he would call charming (ou panu charien ... ouk echei charin, 426b3-4), thus emphasizing Socrates’ recourse to irony. This having been made clear, Socrates returns to lashing his opponent with the ironic reference to his charming ways (charizêtai 426c3, chariestatoi 426e4). In the Antidosis, after citing 49 paragraphs from the Panegyricus, Isocrates complains:
“Some men, who are unable to find or say anything worth saying but have exercised themselves in criticising and maligning the works of others, will say that all this is spoken ‘charmingly’ (charientôs), for they will be too grudging to say ‘well’ (eu).” (XV. 62).(25)
Wilamowitz and Hackforth were of course well aware of Plato’s views on the Panegyricus; this is why they viewed the Phaedrus as Plato’s attempt to make amends and heal the wound inflicted by the Republic.(26) But had Plato written the Phaedrus after the Republic would not Isocrates have referred to it with satisfaction in the Antidosis, which he wrote when he was eighty two years old, some ten years after Hackforth’s dating of the Phaedrus? Yet, there are Platonic scholars who would readily accept such a late dating: Isocrates wrote the Antidosis in 354-353 B.C. when Plato was in his mid seventies. Then again, had Plato written the Phaedrus after the Antidosis, Isocrates would have undoubtedly referred to it with satisfaction in his Panathenaicus, which he wrote when he was ninety four, some seven years after Plato’s death. Instead, Isocrates in the Panathenaicus bitterly complains both of his old detractors and the new ones, assembled in the Lyceum (presumably Aristotle and his associates, XII. 5-32):
“the philosophy which I have chosen to pursue has been the object of unfortunate and unscrupulous attacks.” (XII. 9). (27)
The Phaedrus provides us with other weighty reasons for rejecting its late dating. The science of rhetoric (rhêtorikê technê) is defined in the dialogue as a discipline that operates ‘not only in law-courts and other kinds of public gatherings, but in private ones too,’ which means that when Plato wrote it he regarded forensic oratory as an integral part of his project of rhetoric. The addition ‘in private ones too’ is Plato’s own addition to the commonly accepted definition of rhetoric. This addition is essential, for on its basis Plato introduces dialectic as the foundation upon which the scientific rhetoric is to be built. Plato highlights the novelty of this addition by Socrates’ asking Phaedrus whether he had heard rhetoric defined in this manner and the latter answering
“No, I must say, not absolutely that: a science of speaking and writing is perhaps especially employed in lawsuits, though also in public addresses; I have not heard of any extension beyond that.” (261b3-5).(28)
Plato echoes the Phaedran definition in the Gorgias, where Gorgias, a famous rhetorician and sophist, says that the art of rhetoric (rhêtorikê technê) is all about ‘persuasion that takes place in law-courts, and in other mobs’ (tês peithous ... tês en tois dikastêriois kai en tois allois ochlois, 454b5-6). The omission of the Phaedran addition ‘and in private gatherings’ is of no chronological relevance, but the contemptuous ‘and in other mobs’ (ochlois) is, as it stands for the Phaedran ‘and [in] other kinds of public gatherings’ (kai hosoi alloi dêmosioi sullogoi).(29) In Gorgias’ definition the term ‘mobs’ encompasses the law-courts.(30)
The relevance of the Gorgias for the dating of the Phaedrus is obvious. In the Gorgias Plato argues that forensic oratory is harmful to his soul, for vice is the disease of the soul, and forensic oratory prevents the souls of malefactors from being cured by just punishment (476a-527e). After the Gorgias there is no place for forensic oratory in Plato’s thought. In the Republic any attempt to mislead the judges is outlawed (382a-b, 389b7-9, 409a-410a, 459c8-d2), and in the Laws Plato states that a resident alien, who would want to operate as a forensic orator, must be expelled from the city, and if a citizen were to be found performing such an activity, he would be sentenced to death (937d-938c).
Plato in the Phaedrus had not yet adopted the high moral ground of the Gorgias and the later dialogues. Thus in the Phaedrus Plato introduces the claim of the ancient masters of rhetoric that obtaining truth concerning the subject-matter of their speeches was irrelevant, for in order to persuade the audience one had to resort to creating a semblance of truth, irrespective of truth.In the Phaedrus obtaining the truth concerning every aspect of rhetoric is the essential part of the proposed scientific rhetoric, but instead of rejecting the intentional creation of falsities on moral grounds, Plato in the dialogue derives one of his main arguments for the pre-eminence of scientific rhetoric from his claim that only a scientifically founded rhetoric can effectively and with certainty mislead the audience into accepting as true what in fact is false, for only if one knows the truth about the subject-matter of which one is to speak, if one knows all the forms of speeches that can be used, and if one knows the souls of the men in the audience, can one choose speeches that are needed so as to make the same thing appear to the same people now just, now unjust, now good, and now the reverse of it (Phdr. 261c10-d4, 271c10-273e4). This is no empty theorizing; in the Phaedrus Plato actually displays the powers of the philosophic rhetoric, which he embodies in Socrates’ two speeches on love, contrasting them with a non-scientific piece of rhetoric, which is represented by Lysias’ erotic paignion.
In Lysias’ piece, read by Phaedrus to Socrates at the beginning of the dialogue, a suitor persuades the boy of his desire that love is a dangerous illness: it damages the suitor himself and has truly disastrous consequences for the boy seduced by him. He offers the boy instead a mutually beneficial sexual relationship, based on prudence, promising the boy lasting gratitude, care, friendship, and most of all secrecy, which a man in love, boastful of his successful contest, would never keep. In the hands of a prudent non-lover the boy will never suffer the opprobrium to which the minions of lovers are exposed (230e6-234c5).
Phaedrus is enthralled by the piece, convinced that nobody can say anything more, or more valuable, on the subject (235b3-5). Socrates begs to differ, and Phaedrus challenges him to produce a better piece on the same theme: a boy should surrender to one who is not in love rather than to a lover. Socrates accepts the challenge, stipulating that Phaedrus must grant him his having one thing in common with Lysias’ speech: praising the wisdom of the one and censuring the folly of the other (235e). Socrates begins his appeal to the imaginary boy by advising him that ‘anyone who is to deliberate successfully must know what it is he is deliberating about, or he will inevitably miss everything’ (237c1-2). This means that they must begin by agreeing on a definition of love, the subject of their deliberation. Socrates then defines love as wantonness (hubris, 238a2), as ‘the irrational desire which has gained control over judgement which urges a man towards the right (doxês epi to orthon hormôsês), the desire for pleasure in beauty, which is forcefully reinforced by the desires related to it in its pursuit of bodily beauty’ (238b7-c2). Consequently, if the boy surrenders to a lover, he will be subjected to the tyranny of an elderly man ‘driven by a frenzied compulsion which draws him on by giving him continual pleasures, as he sees, hears, touches, experiences his loved one through all his senses’ (240c7-d2). All these constant attentions would ‘fill the boy with extreme disgust’ (240d6). When the lover would eventually sober up and abandon the boy, the boy would realize all too late that ‘he ought never to have granted favours to a man who is in love and therefore necessarily mindless, but much rather to a man who is not in love and is in possession of his mind; otherwise he is necessarily surrendering himself to someone untrustworthy, peevish, jealous, disagreeable, harmful to his property, harmful to his physical condition, but by far most harmful to the education of his soul.’ (241b7-c5).(31)
Phaedrus wants to hear the corresponding praise of the prudent non-lover, but Socrates refuses to go on, and is bent on leaving. Phaedrus entreats him to stay and discuss both speeches, but most importantly, Socrates’ divine sign has interfered and Socrates realises why; his speech befitted coarse men who never experienced the elevating power of true love. To make amends to Eros, the god of love, he recants embarking on his ode on love directed to the truth itself, anchored in the contemplation of Forms, in particular the Form of beauty, justice, temperance and wisdom (244a-257b).
It is by virtue of the subsequent analysis of the speech of Lysias contrasted with Socrates’ own two speeches that Socrates is able to demonstrate the superior persuasive power of scientific rhetoric (peithô hên an boulêi paradôsein, 270b8-9).The persuasive power of Lysias’ speech, which serves as an example of unscientific rhetoric, fades away under the impact of Socrates’ palinode: Phaedrus is afraid that Lysias might stop writing rhetoric altogether if he learnt how deficient his speech appeared in comparison (256b7-c4). On this basis Socrates then proposes to discuss the conditions which any speech –in law-courts, in public assemblies, or in private discussions – must fulfil in order to be truly persuasive. He claims that in a law-court a rhetorician who proceeds scientifically (ho technêi touto drôn), ‘will make the same thing appear to the same people at one time just, but at any other time he wishes, unjust’ (261c10-d1), ‘and in public addresses he will make the same things appear at one time good, at another the opposite’ (261d3-4).(32) Reverting to the three speeches on love as examples of scientific and non-scientific rhetoric, Socrates points out that Lysias failed to define love at the beginning of his speech and order the whole subsequent speech accordingly (262d8-264e6). He puts forward his own two speeches as a paradigm (paradeigma) ‘of how someone who knows the truth can playfully mislead his audience’ (hôs an ho eidôs to alêthes prospaizôn en logois paragoi tous akouontas, 262d1-2), for ‘they were opposites’ (enantiô êstên, 265a2), the one maintaining ‘that love is harmful to beloved and lover’, the other ‘that it is really the greatest of goods’ (263c10-12).
Having demonstrated the superior power of scientific rhetoric by virtue of these examples, Socrates classifies the inventions of the past generations of rhetoricians, who identified the different forms out of which speeches are constructed, such as preamble, exposition, testimonies, evidence, probabilities, confirmation, and supplementary confirmation (266e-267a), as being mere preliminaries to the science of rhetoric, although he views them as necessary (ta pro tês technês anankaia mathêmata, 269b8). All these he takes from rhetorical manuals (ta en tois bibliois tois peri logôn technês gegrammenois, 266d5-6), adding the more recent inventions, such as Evenus’ covert allusion, indirect praise, and indirect censure, Polus’ reduplication, maxims, and similes, Protagoras’ correctness of diction, Thrasymachus’ art of rousing anger in large audiences and soothing them down again with charming incantations, devising of calumnies and refuting them, which is crowned by the generally agreed recapitulation at the end of speeches (266d-267d). The proper scientific basis of rhetoric is then provided by dialectic, the method of synthesis and analysis that ascertains the truth concerning the different forms of speeches (logôn eidê, 271d4), the subject-matter of speeches (ho estin hekaston tôn ontôn, 262b8), and the nature of men that form the audience (tôn akousomenôn tas phuseis, 273d8-e1). Dialectic enables the rhetorician to define each thing so as to persuade the audience that it is what he wants them to believe, as Socrates did in his speeches, having achieved lucidity and consistency in consequence (265d). It is this ambitious outline of scientific rhetoric which is then crowned by the prediction that Isocrates is to become a much better rhetorician than Lysias. It therefore must have been a hard blow to Plato when in the first real contest between Lysias and Isocrates in the field of forensic rhetoric it was the former who gained victory.
In 403, after the restoration of democracy, both Lysias and Isocrates turned to forensic oratory to earn their living: Isocrates was left impoverished by the Peloponnesian War,(33) Lysias by the subsequent short-lived reign of the Thirty Tyrants.(34) They appear to have written speeches for the opposing sides in a trial concerning a deposit (PERI PARAKATATHEKES). From Lysias’ speech only the titles have been preserved, but Isocrates’ speech has come down to us.(35) That Lysias’ speech prevailed at the trial can be inferred from Isocrates’ Panegyricus, in the closing paragraphs of which he appeals to his critics and detractors that they should cease carping about the deposit (pros men tên parakatathêkên), and focus their attention on the Panegyricus instead (pros de touton ton logon poieisthai tên hamillan, IV. 188), for this he considered to be unassailable and unsurpassable. Antisthenes, one of the closest disciples of Socrates, attacked Isocrates’ speech on the deposit;(36) as a sworn enemy of Plato, he undoubtedly became interested in Isocrates’ speech only because he could view it against the background of the Phaedran prophecy. Isocrates’ speech is very cerebral and dull, it does justice to the Phaedran project of scientific rhetoric, but lacks the power to persuade the Athenian jury, to whose emotions and ‘the sense of justice’ Lysias’ speech undoubtedly skilfully appealed.(37)
In the Panegyricus Isocrates did his best to repair the damage, and to justify the Phaedran praise. In the Phaedrus Socrates prophesied that as Isocrates grows older, ‘the difference between him and those who have so far undertaken speech-writing would be greater than that between man and boys’ (pleon ê paidôn dienenkoi tôn pôpote hapsamenôn logôn, 279a 6-7); in the opening paragraphs of the Panegyricus Isocrates promises that his speech will be so different (tosouton dioisein) from other speeches that it will seem as if no word has ever been spoken by his rivals on his chosen subject (hôste tois allois mêden pôpote dokein eirêsthai peri autôn, IV. 4). In the Phaedrus Socrates predicted that Isocrates may be led by a diviner impulse to even greater things (279a8-9); Isocrates in the Panegyricus exhorted the Greeks to unite for the war against the barbarians (sumbouleusôn peri te tou polemou tou pros tous barbarous kai tês homonoias tês pros hêmas autous, IV.3), confident that this was the greatest thing.
It might seem hard to think of the war against the barbarians as a philosophic theme, but let us be fair to Isocrates. Achieving concord and harmony among the citizens was one of the primary benefits that philosophy was supposed to bestow on its followers in the Phaedrus (homonoêtikon ton enthade bion, 256b1), and in the Republic Socrates asks:
“Do you think it right that Hellenes should enslave Hellenic States, or allow others to enslave them, if they can help? Should not their custom be to spare them, considering the danger which there is that the whole race may one day fall under the yoke of the barbarians?”
Glaucon replies ‘To spare them is infinitely better’ and Socrates remarks:
“Then no Hellene should be owned by them as a slave; that is a rule which they [that is the citizens of the Republic] will observe and advise the other Hellenes to observe.”
“Certainly, they will in this way be united against the barbarians and will keep their hands from one another.”(38)
In spite of his sneering at the Panegyricus, Plato was too much of an Athenian and too much of a Greek to be immune to the allure of the ideal, which Isocrates in the Panegyricus appropriated as his own by the grandeur of his essay.
Isocrates presented the Panegyricus as a major contribution to and a major advance (megistên epidosin) in philosophic rhetoric (tên peri tous logous philosophian, 10). ‘How can we fail to view this discourse as philosophic’ (pôs ou chrê skopein kai philosophein touton ton logon, IV. 6), he asks. And it is the high opinion about his great talent for rhetoric and his flair for philosophy, expressed about him by Socrates in the Phaedrus and dramatically projected into the days when he was still very young, that gives weight to Isocrates’ promise that the Panegyricus will be so well written ‘as to be worthy of all the years which I have lived’ (axiôs tou chronou sumpantos hou bebiôka, IV. 14), that is all the years he has devoted to the pursuit of philosophic rhetoric.
In the Panegyricus, as in Against the Sophists, Isocrates is staking out his claim to the Phaedran outline of philosophic rhetoric by echoing the Phaedrus: ‘Oratory can represent the great as lowly or invest the little with grandeur (ta te megala tapeina poiêsai kai tois smikrois megethos peritheinai), to recount the things of old in a new manner (ta te palaia kainôs dielthein) or set forth events of recent day in an old fashion’(39) (kai peri tôn neôsti gegenêmenôn archaiôs eipein) says Panegyricus 7-8; rhetoricians ‘make small things appear large and large things small by the power of their speech (ta smikra megala kai ta megala smikra phainesthai poiousin dia rômên logou), and put new things in an old way and things of the opposite sort in a new way’(40) (kaina te archaiôs ta t’ enantia kainôs) says Phaedrus 267a7-8. This echo is particularly significant, for in the Panegyricus Isocrates does not intend to ‘represent the great as lowly or invest the little with grandeur’, but ‘to speak in a manner worthy of his subject’ (tou pragmatos axiôs, IV. 14). The echo is designed to evoke the Phaedrus in the mind of the reader and make him think how much more eloquent Isocrates is.(41) But Isocrates’ references to the Phaedrus go deeper than this.
Socrates in the Phaedrus insists that the man who intends to pursue the science of rhetoric must distinguish between words about which we all agree (homonoêtikôs echomen, 263a3, sumphônoumen, 263b1), such as ‘iron’ or ‘silver’, and words about which we disagree (amphisbêtoumen, 263a10, c8), such as ‘just’, ‘good’, and ‘love’ (263a-c). Rhetoricians must focus their attention on the latter, and begin their speeches by properly defining the disputed terms, their proper subject-matter, as Socrates did in his speech (hôrisamên erôta en archê tou logou, 263d2-3). Socrates’ main objection against Lysias is that he failed to define the subject-matter of his speech (263d1-e5), and that his speech was composed in a haphazard manner (chudên, 264b3): ‘he doesn’t even begin at the beginning, but from the end’ (oude ap’ archês all’ apo teleutês, 264a5). Isocrates says in the Panegyricus that those rhetoricians, who start by teaching their audiences that the Greeks should resolve their differences and turn against the barbarians ‘do speak the truth, but they do not start at the point from which they could best bring these things to pass’ (IV. 16). He insists that an effective speech on this theme should not begin by ‘giving advice on matters about which we agree (peri tôn homologoumenôn) before instructing us on the points about which we disagree’ (peri tôn amphisbêtoumenôn, IV. 19).(42) Should Athens or Sparta be entrusted with the leadership of the joint forces of the Greeks? This is the question on which there is disagreement; to its solution the Panegyricus is devoted first and foremost.
In Against the Sophists Isocrates’ only defence against the ridicule, to which his maiden forensic speech Against Euthynus exposed him in view of the Phaedran prophecy, was to disparage prophesying. What a difference the Panegyricus has made can be seen in his Antidosis: after proudly quoting forty nine paragraphs from the Panegyricus (paragraphs 51-99, see Antidosis 59-60), he quotes only five paragraphs from Against the Sophists (paragraphs 14-18), leaving out the passages in which he had denigrated prophecy (see Antidosis 193-5). The fact that it was not the predicting as such against which he objected even in Against the Sophists is underlined by his prediction in that essay that all philosophers will come round to his own philosophic position (eu oid’ hoti pantes epi tautên katenechthêsontai tên hupothesin, XIII. 19). Needless to say, the quotation from Against the Sophists in the Antidosis stops at paragraph 18, the failed prediction from his former essay being supplanted with a safer prediction:
“I consider that the kind of art (Hêgoumai de toiautên men technên) which can implant honesty and justice in deprived natures has never existed and does not now exist (oute proteron oute nun oudemian einai), and that people who profess that power (tous te tas huposcheseis poioumenous peri autôn) will grow weary and cease from their vain pretensions before such an education is ever found (prin heurethênai tina paideian toiautên, XV. 274).(43)
As for Plato, the Phaedran prophecy concerning Isocrates was so intimately linked to the project of philosophic rhetoric outlined in the dialogue that it could not survive Isocrates’ defeat in the hands of Lysias. Plato abandoned the project, philosophically justifying its abandoning in the Cratylus.(44)
In the Cratylus Socrates takes up Cratylus’ claim that names correspond to things by nature (383a4-5), expands it into an outline of scientific rhetoric (424b7-425b3), and then discards it as not only impracticable (425b5-6) but fundamentally mistaken(430a-437d).(45) He begins by suggesting that the only way to decide the question of the natural correctness of words is by applying the method of analysis and synthesis to speech on the one hand, and to things referred to in speech on the other. Speech is made up of words, words are composed of syllables, and these of single letters that must be classified according to their specific functions and forms (eidê, 424c6, c9). All things to which names are to be applied must then be similarly analysed into their constitutive forms, and then one must see whether the forms found in them correspond to those discovered in letters (ei en autois enestin eidê kata ton auton tropon hôsper en tois stoicheiois, 424d3-4). When completed, this analysis is to be followed by corresponding synthesis: the letters must be combined into syllables, the syllables into nouns and verbs, and out of these is to be composed something beautiful and whole (kalon kai holon, 425a2-3). This program clearly recalls the method of dialectic presented in the Phaedrus as the basis of scientific rhetoric (259e-262c, 265d-266b).(46)
As in the Phaedrus, Socrates in the Cratylus takes recourse to painting as a metaphor for rhetoric. In the latter he says that as the art of painting produces an image of a living being (to zôion, 425a3), so the art of making names, or rhetoric (ê rhêtorikê, 425a4), will produce the speech (ton logon, 425a4). To accomplish this task scientifically, one must know how to apply each constitutive part of speech to what it resembles in things, and see whether one ought to use one letter to denote one thing, or mix many of them, just as painters sometimes use only one colour, sometimes a mixture of many to depict their objects (424c5-425b4). Socrates avows that he is incapable of accomplishing this task (425b5-6); he nevertheless tries his hand in it, and in the process he demonstrates that it cannot be accomplished, for the elementary forms into which human speech can be analysed do not correspond to those that constitute things (430a-437d). The comparison of rhetorical activity to painting plays an important role in the closing section of the Phaedrus where Socrates draws a sharp dividing line between the art of writing, which produces words on the writing material outside the soul, words that pretend to be alive just as painted figures in paintings do (275d), and between the spoken word, which is alive, being ‘written together with knowledge in the soul of the learner’ (276a5-6). In the Cratylus the metaphor of painting underlines the hopelessness of any attempt to construe scientific rhetoric as such; in its effort to become scientific, rhetoric cannot even match the art of painting.
Isocrates in Against the Sophists 12 directs his criticism jointly against the Phaedrus and against the Cratylus. Against the latter is directed his scorn for those who subsume rhetoric under the paradigm of scientific discipline (tetagmenên technên paradeigma pherontes) concerned with letters. Against the former is directed his observation that letters are deprived of motion and remain unchanged (to men tôn grammatôn akinêtôs echei kai menei kata tauton), so that we use the same letters for the same purposes continually and invariably (hôste tois autois aei peri tôn autôn chrômenoi diateloumen).(47) He points out that the art of rhetoric is the very opposite; a skilful rhetorician composes his speeches in a manner worthy of the subjects of which he speaks (axiôs tôn pragmatôn), but invents new ways of how to speak about them. In paragraph 13 he concludes:
“The greatest proof of the difference between these two arts is that oratory is good only if it has the quality of fitness for the occasion, propriety of style, and originality of treatment, while in the case of letters there is no such need whatsoever.”(48)
In Against the Sophists 14-18 Isocrates offers his own views on the subject of philosophic rhetoric. He says that in the art of rhetoric, as in any sphere of human activity, only those are capable of powerful performance who are well endowed by nature (hai dunameis tôn ergôn en tois euphuesin engignontai, 14). Education can help talented men to become more resourceful and more accomplished, but it cannot transform men without talent into good orators or writers, although it can lead them to self-improvement and enhance their intelligence in many respects (pros polla phronimôterous, 15). The acquisition of knowledge has its place within the scope of his educational programme, but that scope is limited; his students would acquire knowledge of forms out of which all speeches are constituted(tôn men ideôn, ex hôn tous logous hapantas kai legomen kai suntithemen, labein tên epistêmên, 16). Much more important is to become able to choose, mix and properly arrange these forms to befit the given subject, and not to miss what the occasion demands (tôn kairôn mê diamartein, 16), all of which is acquired by those who are trained in practicing the art (engignontai en tois peri tas empeirias gegumnasmenois, 14). In Isocrates’ view all these aspects of rhetoric transcend the strict limitations of knowledge: ‘they are the work of a courageous mind that is capable of promptly forming the right views and opinions’ (psuchês andrikês kai doxastikês ergon einai, 17). This requires a teacher who can teach all that can be taught (mêden tôn didaktôn paralipein), and who can present himself to students as an example (hauton paradeigma paraschein), so that students capable of imitating him immediately begin to speak with greater grace and charm than others: ‘When all of these requirements are met, then those who devote themselves to philosophy (hoi philosophountes) will achieve complete success (18).’(49) As Usener pointed out, in all this Isocrates closely follows the project of philosophic rhetoric outlined in the Phaedrus.(50)
This programme of philosophic rhetoric Isocrates crowns with a statement of his firm conviction (eu oida) that ‘the sophists who have lately sprung up and very recently fell upon their boastful pretensions (neôsti prospeptôkotes tais alazoneiais), even though they flourish at the moment will all be brought down to my position’ (epi tautên katenechthêsontai tên hupothesin, 19). This statement, to which I have referred in a different context earlier on, is of great importance for the history of philosophy, for Isocrates refers here to contemporary philosophers, all of whom have one thing in common: ‘their boastful pretensions’. (That Isocrates does in this manner encapsulate all contemporary philosophers is clear from his words that immediately follow: ‘But there remain to be considered those who lived before our time and did not scruple to write the so-called arts of oratory’, 19.) These ‘boastful pretensions’ of philosophers are defined in the introductory paragraphs as ‘inconsiderately boasting’ (aperiskeptôs alazoneuesthai, 1) that their students ‘would know what to do in their lives thanks to the science’ (ha te prakteon estin eisontai dia tautês tês epistêmês, 3) that they teach, attaining ‘the entire virtue and happiness’ (sumpasan tên aretên kai tên eudaimonian, 4).
Socrates identified virtue with knowledge, and the philosophers whom Isocrates criticizes are undoubtedly his disciples.But how can this be, it may be asked, if as late as his Defence speech Socrates denied having himself such knowledge in his possession, ridiculing Evenus, a philosopher, for teaching it? How could it have happened that his disciples after his death became united in claiming knowledge and teaching virtue? This is especially remarkable, since they were by no means of one mind in other respects, as Isocrates notes with glee, remarking that men who follow their judgements (tous tais doxais chrômenous) are more of one mind (mallon homonountas) than those who profess to have knowledge (ê tous tên epistêmên echein epangellomenous, XIII. 8). I can see only one solution to this problem: we must view as a historical fact Socrates’ transcending of ignorance on his last day, and his urging his friends to follow suit:
“If you analyse the initial hypotheses adequately, you will, I believe, follow the course of the argument as far as is humanly possible, and if you get that clear, you will need no further enquiry.” (Phaedo 107b4-9).
Perhaps the most surprising feature that Plato’s Phaedrus has in common with Isocrates’ Against the Sophists is their similar use of the terms idea and eidos. Aristotle says in Metaphysics A that Plato recognized that the moral terms on which Socrates focused his mind were entirely different from anything found in the world of the senses, and that he called them ideas (ideas prosêgoreuse, 987b8), that is Forms.I have argued in ‘Plato’s First Dialogue’ and more recently in The Lost Plato that Aristotle’s account suggests that Plato conceived Forms at the beginning of his association with Socrates.(51) We might therefore expect the Forms to figure prominently in the first exposition of Plato’s philosophy, and indeed, the otherworldly nature and existence of the Forms is pronounced in the Phaedrus more strongly than in any other of his dialogues. But we might equally expect that Plato in his first dialogue would use the terms idea and eidos to designate the Forms. But in the Phaedrus Plato uses these terms as Isocrates does in Against the Sophists, insisting that one must learn all the forms of speeches (logôn tosa kai tosa estin eidê, 271d4), and that the forms of speeches that one learns (hosa an eidê mathê logôn, 272a6) must be used to purpose. Isocrates in Against the Sophists 16 insists that his students must acquire knowledge of the forms (tôn ideôn labein tên epistêmên) out of which all speeches are composed (ex hôn tous logous hapantas kai legomen kai suntithemen), and in paragraph 17 he repeats that the forms of speeches need to be learnt (chrê ta eidê ta tôn logôn mathein). When Plato says in the Phaedrus that a scientific rhetorician must be able to collect many instances of things and embrace them in one form (eis mian idean, 265d3) and then analyse them according to their constitutive forms (kath’ eidê dunasthai diatemnein, 265e1), both these terms are used without any reference to the otherworldly true beings (ta onta ontôs, 247e3) of the Phaedran Palinode. Isocrates’ Against the Sophists helps us to solve this riddle. In the Phaedrus, in his outline of the programme of philosophic rhetoric, Plato used the terms idea and eidos in the way with which Isocrates could be comfortable, eager as he was to keep Isocrates on board; Isocrates had no time for the Forms, although Plato, when he wrote the Phaedrus, appears to have hoped that he might yet find his way to them.
In the Phaedrus, after incorporating all the inventions of the rhetoricians of note into his own programme of scientific rhetoric, and after arguing that the persuasive power of rhetoric based on dialectic would far surpass the traditional rhetoric, Plato says that acquiring the knowledge of dialectic is a very arduous work, which one would not undertake for its use in the law-courts and political assemblies ‘to gratify fellow slaves’ (homodoulois charizesthai, 273e9), ‘save as a matter of secondary concern’ (parergon, 274a1). One would do it primarily for the sake of making oneself agreeable to the gods, ‘masters good and of good stock’ (despotais agathois te kai ex agathôn, 274a1-2). What speeches can make us agreeable to gods? The reference to gods as masters ‘good and of good stock’ unmistakably refers to the Phaedran palinode, in which the souls of both men and gods are imagined as ‘the combined power of a winged team of horses and their charioteers’, but only those of the gods as being all ‘good and of good stock’ (agathoi kai ex agathôn, 246a8). The Palinode is offered to the god of Love as the best and most beautiful ode that Socrates can offer him (257a3-4), it is not written to gratify the readers, but to rally them for the painful and arduous task of fully re-collecting the Forms of beauty, justice, temperance, and wisdom.
Now, if Plato in the Phaedrus so clearly indicated what his programme of philosophic rhetoric was all about, how could Isocrates in Against the Sophists proclaim with such assurance that all contemporary philosophers would accept his criticism, and come down to his position? Plato’s Cratylus with its dismissal of the Phaedran programme of scientific rhetoric gives us the answer. In response to it, Isocrates in Against the Sophists could show that it was the identification of rhetoric with exact science, which the Cratylus shared with the Phaedrus, which was wrong. Liberated from these Platonic constrictions, the Phaedran programme was his own, which Plato in fact acknowledged by the compliment he paid him at the end of the outline of rhetoric in the dialogue. Isocrates’ programme was based on the supremacy of our ability to promptly make informed judgements and opinions corresponding to real situations in life, which he incorporated in his notion of doxa as compared to exact knowledge, Plato’s epistêmê, which lacked the required responsiveness and flexibility. If Plato and his associates wanted to engage in politics, and we know from his Seventh Letter that he did aspire to a political career so that we can safely conjecture that his contemporaries were well aware of it, in Isocrates’ view he had to give up his programme of philosophic rhetoric, as indeed he had done in the Cratylus, and to accept Isocrates’ programme of it. What Isocrates did not and could not envisage was that Plato would give up on his political career and escape into the Republic, in which exact philosophic knowledge would direct and shape every aspect of life, and from within which he could dismiss Isocrates’ position with scathing irony as that of those who are concerned only with matters of human opinions (eph’ hois doxa, Rep. 480a1), being incapable of admitting the existence of that which is truly beautiful, just, and good (479e-480a), and who are therefore rightly called ‘lovers of opinion’ (philodoxoi), not ‘lovers of wisdom’ (philosophoi).(52)