A Brief Summary of the Antidosis of Isocrates

In this fictional defense speech, Isocrates pattern what he says after Socrates’ own defense speech when he, Socrates, was accused of corrupting the youth.
The following notes will, unfortunately, read more like a bulleted list than a discussion of Isocrates’ ideas. Nevertheless, the ideas are cool, and the list is, I think, worth reading.

Though I think I prefer Norlin’s translation in the Loeb edition the quotations found below come from the text found in Isocrates I on pages 205-264 of Mirhady and Too’s translation.

I think that’s Isocrates’ main argument is this: a rhetorical education—an education about words and using them well—will bind communities together, help people reason effectively, and give people the faculty to judge intelligently because what comes out of a person is evidence of what is inside him or her.

Here are a few specific points Isocrates makes (and here comes the bulleted list):

  • Speech is an image of a person’s thought (207).
  • Speech is synecdoche for character (216). It reflects who we are on the inside. Isocrates quotes his own previous speeches so people can read them and see for themselves what kind of a person he has been in the past. By reading those speeches, people can get an idea of his character.
  • We’re similar to those with whom we associate (223). They influence us and we influence them.
  • Philosophy is supposed to be a good thing, though it’s been “unjustly slandered” (237). We should seek the truth, but also judge nothing without discussion (238) because we need one another to discover truth.
  • Since older generations hand down practices to younger generations, the education of youth is of prime importance. Philosophy is for the soul what exercise is for the body (239). We need both, and the two disciplines are not totally separated, since the body influences the mind and the mind the body.
  • A speaker doesn’t need full knowledge (episteme), but doxa (240). [Is full knowledge for mortals even possible, I wonder?]
  • Students must obey teachers (241) because teachers are trying to help students to learn.
  • Nature and innate ability are both important, and so is practice. Nature can be and is improved by practice.
  • We need an education of what it means to be human (244).
  • We do what we desire. Often, we desire pleasure, profit, or honor (245).
  • The best speakers are responsible for most good. The best leaders pay more attention to logoi than other things (248). So, the power of speech doesn’t make people into criminals (249). (Only the misuse of the powers of speech does.) We teach our students the same things that we do and are. (This me of James Berlin’s “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class” in College English 50(5):477-494.)
  • The power to speak is the power to judge. Speaking well involves judging well. Speech is responsible for all our inventions (251). Speaking well is a clear sign of a good mind. True speech is the image (eidolon) of “a good and faithful soul” (252 this is also on 207, but the Greek says eikon instead of eidolon).
  • We use the same arguments on others that we use on ourselves.
  • Speech “is the leader of all thoughts and actions” (252).
  • What some people call philosophy isn’t philosophy (254). Those who are wise (sophoi) “are those who have the ability to reach the best opinions (doxai) most of the time” while philosophers are those who gain that wisdom as quickly as possible.
  • Speaking well is thinking intelligently (255). The more a person wants to persuade the more that person will strive for virtue: since the capacity to be a good person involves the capacity to do the right thing at the right time, and since speech is a subset of action, a good person who can speak well will say the right thing at the right time.

Isocrates, Against the Sophists: A Brief Summary

Isocrates is, needless to say, against the sophists—those learned men in ancient Athens who told people that they were so skillful with words that they could teach how to make the weaker argument the stronger and the stronger the weaker—a skill they argued was essential for a person in democratic society to gain power, prestige, and influence. 
Isocrates argues that these sophists, however, make promises that are impossible to fulfill, saying that they can all but make gods out of men. They pretend to be searchers of the truth in order to appeal to people, but they don’t actually focus on it. In reality, they’re liars, he says. Additionally, they also say they don’t want money, even though their actions contradict their words. The sophists have their students pay tuition to a third party, who watches the money before tuition is due. Hence, the sophists don’t really trust their students. And contradictions in deeds are bad just as contradictions in words are bad. People shouldn’t say one thing and do another, or do one thing and say another. If contradictions are bad, then consistency is good. Indeed, Isocrates believes that people should be consistent and their judgment reasoned. He wants people to speak well and judge well, and to do one is to be equally skilled in the other.

Another problem with the sophists is they try to teach art as if it could be taught like the alphabet. But art is not learned by rote rules because art is about discovery and creativity. On the contrary, good oratory is suited to the occasion. And those who try to teach contrary to this principle (the sophists) should pay instead of be paid, since they are the ones in need of instruction.

Ability to speak comes from being endowed by nature and then from practice. Training improves discovery, and we must learn knowledge from those who have knowledge, and not from those who simply make great or grand promises. Teachers should set the example so that students can imitated them.

“And yet those who desire to follow the true precepts of this discipline may, if they will, be helped more speedily towards honesty of character than towards facility in oratory” (74-75). Mirhady and Too’s translation of the same passage reads, “Nevertheless, those who wish to follow the prescriptions of my philosophy may be helped more quickly to fair-mindedness than to speechmaking” (66). In other words, Isocrates believes that his manner of education makes good people in addition to influential speakers.

Then, at the very end, he adds, “Nevertheless, I do think that the study of political discourse can help more than any other thing to stimulate and form such qualities of character” (75). In short, the study of oratory makes people better.

“Isocrates pushkin” by user:shakko – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Isocrates_pushkin.jpg#/media/File:Isocrates_pushkin.jpg