Greek Oratory: Tradition and Originality

By Stephen A. Usher | Go to book overview
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The first pupils at Isocrates' Athenian school1 probably began their four-year courses in 388 or a little later. In his tract Against the Sophists, he inveighs against his pedagogical rivals, criticizing the narrowness and impracticality of their teaching, with its concentration on dialectic ('eristic'),2 and the excessive claims they made for it. It is a bid for pupils in a small market; but the text breaks off abruptly before revealing his own educational programme. We find elsewhere3 that it is directed towards contemporary political studies, including issues of domestic, inter-state, and international importance. His stance gives rise to a number of contradictions: here is a man who sold practical knowledge, thereby meeting the definition of 'sophist', but who rafted against that class; who wrote disparagingly about forensic oratory after himself earning his living, however briefly, by writing it; and whose chosen medium was, in its popular and published form, one of mass communication, yet he himself was forced, because of vocal weakness and a nervous temperament, to ply his trade behind the closed doors of his exclusive school.4

Most of his extant work stems from that school, and therefore reflects its teaching methods and the subject-matter taught. Again,

Vit. X Or.837b preserves a tradition that his first school was in Chios, where he had nine pupils. If this sojourn was for a few years after his latest forensic speeches (it could not have been before the first of them if he was in Athens at the time of the death of Theramenes: Vit. X Or.837a), his Athenian school could not have opened earlier than c.388. His Chian sojourn is discounted by the many scholars who propose 393 or 392 for the beginning of his Athenian school.
Isocrates' opponents are usually identified as the sophists Polycrates, Antisthenes, and Eucleides. But if the traditional date for the opening of Plato's Academy (387) is correct, it is at least possible that Isocrates is attacking his aims and methods.
15 Antid.46-50, 270-7; 12 Panath. 2, 136.
Cicero ( De Or. 2. 22. 94) likened it to the Trojan Horse, because only leaders (meri principes) came out of it. They had paid fees to match their status. On Isocrates' vocal weakness, see 12 Panath.9-11; 5 Phil.81; and on its social and political implications, see Yun Lee Too , The Rhetoric of Identity in Isocrates ( Cambridge, 1995), 74-112.


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Greek Oratory: Tradition and Originality


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