All countries should be freed from domination by other countries and should be free and independent. These countries should stop making self-destructive wars against one another and unite in common purposes. They should take available lands and settle there those who have been impoverished and displaced by the constant warfare, and they should establish for them cities and a livelihood. Here at home we should practice sound thinking and justice, both towards one another and towards other countries. The youth should be given training in the traditional virtues and in philosophy, a practical philosophy designed to create political leaders and thoughtful citizens. We should be ashamed that some of our citizens are reduced to begging, and the well-to-do among us should provide jobs and training programs for the impoverished. We should stamp out those who, just for personal gain, prosecute and make life miserable for the law-abiding. And we should by our actions work to restore the good reputation our ancestors had in the world.
Such are some of the views, abstracted from their Athenian and Greek context, of the fourth-century B.C.E. Athenian orator Isocrates. He lived for 98 years (434–338 B.C.E.), in some of the most turbulent times of ancient Greece. He was a rhetorician but did not have the voice or courage to speak before a crowd. He offered his advice on the most important Athenian and Greek issues of his time, in written discourses of various types, in extensive (and often published) essays and letters to his fellow Athenians and to leaders throughout the Greek world. And he was a philosopher, not in the model of Plato and Aristotle, but, for his time, sui generis, attempting to mix theory with experience, always towards practical personal, social, and political ends. And, importantly, Isocrates was a teacher. He taught rhetoric, the art of language, to enable his students to make and judge arguments and speeches on international and domestic political matters. Among his dozens of students were some of the most influential Athenians, kings, and princes of the Greek world.
Isocrates is the most self-reflective of the Greeks of the Classical Period, and throughout his voluminous writings we are offered an unparalleled look into the thought, work, and life of one Athenian. We can see him reacting to the major political, social, and personal events of his long life. We can actually come to know one Athenian, or at least how one Athenian presents himself, always remembering that he was not, in his class, in his education, in his occupation, in his influence, and even in many of his views, an "average" Athenian. But "average" Athenians, even "outstanding" Athenians of the time, have left little in their own words by which we can know them. For Isocrates, we have a lot.
Isocrates also offers us another way, personal and subjective, to look at the political, military, and social history of his and previous times. We are, of course, all enormously indebted to the ancient and modern historians who have attempted to sort out the "facts" of this history and explain them. What Isocrates offers is what one man, an educated, worldly, and thoughtful man, "believed" about the events and trends of his own time and those of the near and far distant past. The large majority of people, ancient and modern, act primarily on their beliefs, not on a careful, reasoned examination of the facts, and that has perhaps not been sufficiently integrated into modern historiography. In Isocrates we see expressed many of these beliefs of the middle forty years of the fourth century B.C.E. Isocrates also put events of his and earlier times into personal, moral, national, and international contexts and adds, as it were, some flesh and blood to the skeleton of historical facts we find in history books. Isocrates may not always get his facts right, but he knew what he, his fellow Athenians, and his fellow Greeks believed and was trying to affect those beliefs, and so is a valuable source for his times. He is surely our single richest informant for the views, thoughts, and aspirations of Athenians and of many other Greeks in the mid-fourth century B.C.E, the end of the Classical Period.
The Tomb of Isocrates, Athenian Orator [Tombeau d’Isocrates orateur athenien] by Jean-Jacques Lequeu, 1789. Ink and wash, 18 7/16 by 16 1/8 inches (sheet). All objects illustrated are in the Bibliothèque nationale de France; photographs via the Bibliothèque nationale de France, dépt. des Estampes et de la photographie.
By very modern standards and prejudices, readers will find fault with Isocrates. He no doubt had slaves. He scarcely mentions women except Helen of Troy. He is strongly nationalistic, both in terms of Athens and Greece. He invokes and promotes stereotypes of Persians and other non-Greeks. He consorted with kings and princes and seemingly favors a good monarchy over democracy. He is conservative, nostalgic for the Athenian government, society, and morals of a time long past. He prefers a practical philosophy to the abstract, theoretical study that attracts modern philosophers to the Greeks. He is not perfectly consistent, as we seem to expect our ancient authors to be, in his views and statements over a sixty-five year career as a writer. He reshapes his arguments and rhetoric to suit different audiences and different times. He uses history for rhetorical purposes and is sometimes mistaken, careless, or manipulative with the facts. Such faults are, of course, not unique to Isocrates or his times. They are commonly featured in our newspapers and television stories today. Isocrates can be a rich source from antiquity for those trying to understand, not just condemn, such faults. They are part of the complex personality of one quite remarkable and influential man and the products of his life, thought, and time in fourth-century B.C.E. Athens.
From 380 B.C.E. to his last days in 338 B.C.E., often alone, Isocrates promoted a united expedition of Greeks to liberate the Greeks of Asia Minor from Persian domination, an expedition that was not to be realized until 334 B.C.E. with the great expedition of Alexander the Great. But his most lasting influence, still felt today, was in education. His views of education, of practical rhetorical and philosophical training leading to good leaders and thoughtful citizens, were taken up by the Romans, especially Cicero and Quintilian, and through them became the standard in the medieval period, the Renaissance, and long afterwards. Even today he appears in theoretical arguments about the curricula of modern education and is named by some "the father of the liberal arts."