One of the ten Attic (from the Greek Attikos, meaning Athenian) Orators, Isocrates made significant contributions to the development of rhetorical theory, philosophy, and education in Ancient Greece. Isocrate"s model of education grounded in rhetoric guided educators for centuries to follow.

Early Life

Isocrates was born during the Archonship of Lysimachus in 436 B.C.. His father, Theodorus was a wealthy flute-maker. His father's wealth afforded Isocrates the finest education of the day. He studied under such luminaries as Protagoras, Prodicus, Gorgias, Theramenes, Tisias, and joined the circle of Socrates. In Phaedrus (c.360 B.C ) Plato described Isocrates as a youth of great promise.

Isocrates desperately wanted to play an important role in Athenian politics. A powerful case of stage fright coupled with a weak voice precluded his participation in the public-oratory driven Athenian Assembly.

In 404 B.C., during the reign of the AThirty Tyrants, Isocrates fled to the island of Chios where he operated a small school of rhetoric. As a result of the Peloponnesian War, Isocrate's father, Theodorus lost most of his property and wealth. So, in 403 B.C. Isocrates returned to Athens where, as a result of financial need, he became a forensic locographer, writing speeches for others to deliver in the courts. After only six speeches, Isocrates discovered that he lacked the practical gifts for winning cases and abandoned the profession. Isocrates would later disavow his career as a locographer scorning the profession.

In 392 B.C.,at the age of forty-four, Isocrates set himself up as a teacher of rhetoric. His academy, located near the Lyceum in Athens, became the first permanent institution of liberal arts education; preceding Plato 's Academy by five years. Isocrates announced the school and his new profession while attacking his sophistic competition with his essay Against the Sophists (c. 390 B.C.).

Life's Work

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

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

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

In light of Isocrates ' patriotism, it is unremarkable that the primary focus of Isocrates ' educational plan was the development of citizen-orators. Isocrates considered political science and rhetoric nearly one and the same. Greek society was driven by oratory and Isocrates taught that those who are the best users of speech are the men of greatest wisdom. Isocrates held that all of the great works of man are the result of rhetoric. As he wrote in Antidosis (c. 354 B.C.) "there is no institution devised by man which the power of speech has not helped to establish." Isocrates taught that proper speaking was a sign of proper thinking and that the properly educated citizen was obvious for his eloquence.

Although Isocrates ' known works contain no definition of rhetoric he did describe the functions of rhetoric: With this faculty we both contend against others on matters which are open to dispute and seek light for ourselves on things which are unknown. For Isocrates, Rhetoric was an epistemic, or knowledge discovering, tool which guides thought, action, and demonstrates wisdom. In Against the Sophists, he taught that good oratory is speech which is appropriate for the occasion while demonstrating proper style and originality. In Panegyricus he adds timeliness as a key to good oratory.

Another function of good oratory, for Isocrates, is eloquence, and he freed Greek prose from the stiff style of earlier periods. He created and mastered a smoothly rolling style of prose and elevated oratory to a formal art. His style involved precise vocabulary, few figures of speech, and many illustrations from history and philosophy. Isocrates believed that good oratory was very polished, as demonstrated by his taking ten years to refine Panegyricus for release.

Isocrates also professes that rhetoric is philosophic in that it teaches morals and politics. By "philosophy," Isocrates was describing a theory of culture. He believed that philosophy was the study of how to be a reasonable and useful citizen. Isocrates held that one should deliberate about both one 's own affairs and the affairs of the state. He believed that a philosophic education should arouse intense patriotism as well as constructing a personal philosophy close to the stoic ideal. While Isocrates did not believe that virtue could be taught, he argued in Against the Sophists that it could be strengthened through training and practice in oratory. He argued that moral argumentation encourages right action because argumentation produces a historical narrative which uses historic events as precedents for present action. Therefore, one gains moral knowledge by studying public address both as the art of oratory and by imitating the great speakers for, as he wrote in Antidosis, the lessons made by a man 's life are stronger than lessons furnished by words. Isocrates also saw the relationship between morality and oratory as reciprocal. In the Antidosis Isocrates explains that the more one wishes to persuade one 's fellow citizens, the more important it is that the orator have a favorable reputation among those citizens. This notion served as the basis for the Roman rhetorician Quintilian 's claim that ethos, or credibility, is a good man speaking well.

The concept that rhetorical training is moral training is hinged on Isocrates ' notion that the test of all virtue or truth lies in that which wins men 's approval. For Isocrates it is through rhetoric that we can approximate truth, or at least a consensual truth. A man who is trained in rhetoric is trained in truth, and the creation of that truth through oratory. In Antidosis he writes, Athanks to speech, we educate the fools and put the wise to the test; for we consider the fact of speaking rightly as the greatest sign of correct thinking. Thus, for Isocrates, there is no absolute truth only consensual truth created by rhetoric.

Isocrates also believed that rhetoric had a role to play in the study of history. Isocrates made the study of history an art, not a science as Aristotle would have it. Isocrates began the tendency for a writer or speaker to idolize the past and use examples of the past to guide political attitudes and actions in the present. He also promoted the practice of glorifying individual figures, heroes, as catalysts of history. The outstanding historians of the fourth century. Ephorus of Cumae and Theopompus of Chios, were both pupils of Isocrates and they introduced Isocrates ' rhetorical style into the construction of history. There is also evidence that Xenophon, the greatest of fourth century historians, was intellectually influenced by Isocrates ' Evagoras (c.365 B.C.). From Isocrates forward, history has been more than an objective recounting of events, history has been patriotic.

Ironically, the man that Cicero termed the master of all rhetoricians did not himself speak in public. In To Philip (c.344 B.C.), he explains, saying "nature has placed me more at a disadvantage than any of my fellow-citizens for a public career: I was not given a strong enough voice nor sufficient assurance to deal with the mob, to take abuse, and bandy words with the men who haunt the rostrum." As a result, his writings were meant to be read and are considered to be the earliest political pamphlets known. Through these oratorical pamphlets, Isocrates espoused a brand of Hellenism that would unite all Greeks together against a common foe; more specifically, a panhellenic war of revenge. In his later years, Isocrates urged Philip II, king of Macedonia, to unite the Greeks under his leadership in a war against Persia.

Relatively late in his life, Isocrates married the daughter of Hippias, a sophist. He died in the Archonship of Chaerondas in 338 B.C. starving himself to death at the age of 98 after hearing the news of Philip 's victory over Athens in the battle of Chaerona.


Isocrates was the first of a series of great teachers who equated rhetoric and education. His method of teaching students to speak well on noble subjects, vir bonus dicendi peritus, remained the ideal of the ancient world. The creation of this ideal kept the rhetorical practices of the Greeks alive and passed that knowledge on to the Romans. Isocrates ' significance rests, then, on the influence he had on those who followed him. Isocrates ' ideas were carried on through such luminaries as Athenian general, Timotheus; ruler of Salamis in Cyprus, Nicocles; Roman rhetoricians Cicero and Quintilian; and, historians Ephorus, Theopompus, and Xenophon. Against the Sophists served as the prototype for Plato 's Gorgias (c.380) and Isocrates ' name is mentioned more than any other rhetorician in Aristotle 's Rhetoric (c.350).

In truth, the tradition of Isocrates runs silently through intellectual history, in that the art of the rhetorician is manifest in all human practices that are dependent upon effective communication. The tradition of vir bonus dicendi peritus continues in all scholarship in the attempt to create consensual truth.

Finally, Isocrates 's refinement of the Greek ideal of education, educating the individual for an active life in the service of the state widened the bounds of education. Cicero reported Isocrates ' style of teaching oratory through his writings, and it became the standard of excellence for rhetorical education in Europe until the Renaissance. Components of this broad-based (liberal arts) education remains with us to this day.


B. Keith Murphy

Fort Valley State University


This article is copyright Salem Press, 1998. It is reprinted from the forthcoming Dictionary of World Biography: The Ancient World.


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