ca. 436-338 B.C.

Athenian orator and educator

Isocrates, a famous speechwriter and teacher, was one of the most complex figures of ancient Greece. Although known for his mastery of rhetoric* and oratory*, because of his poor voice and lack of confidence he never addressed a large public audience. He was passionate about Greek politics, but his unwillingness to speak in public prevented him from taking an active role in the affairs of state. Isocrates believed in a practical education, but his solutions to the political problems of Athens were more wishful than realistic.

Early Life and Teaching. Isocrates was the son of Theodorus, a wealthy Athenian businessman who owned many skilled craftsmen as slaves. His father’s wealth enabled Isocrates to obtain an expensive education from some of the best teachers in Greece. However, near the end of the Peloponnesian War in the late 400s B.C., many of Theodorus’s slaves escaped, throwing the family into poverty. Forced to earn a living, Isocrates turned to writing speeches for others—a profitable, though poorly regarded, occupation. His great success at speechwriting enabled him to enter the more respectable profession of teaching. By the late 390s B.C., he established a school in Athens. Isocrates was a gifted teacher, and his fame spread throughout the Greek world, attracting many bright and influential students.

Isocrates believed that the proper function of education was to prepare students for “general and practical matters,” by which he meant participation in the affairs of state and the activities useful to the city and its citizens. His instruction was mainly in rhetoric and oratory, and he rejected such subjects as geometry and astrology as “irrelevant to life” and of use only to those who teach them. In his speech Against the Sophists, he denounced the sophists, the leading teachers of the time, for their concern with clever arguments and “idle talk and hair-splitting.” In contrast to Plato and other philosophers*, Isocrates felt that it was more important to teach students how to think rather than what to think. Not surprisingly, there was considerable tension between these two great teachers. Although philosophers criticized his ideas, Isocrates attracted many pupils, several of whom became well-known orators, historians, and public figures.

Writings and Political Views. The 21 speeches and 9 letters of Isocrates that survive provide insight into his political and social views. He believed strongly in the need for Greek unity and a return to the glory of Athens’s past. His Areopagiticus criticized the Athenian leadership, and he called for a return to the moral leadership of the aristocracy*. He believed that Athens had grown weak under democracy, which he felt led to the domination of Greece by the Persian Empire. In his Panegyric Oration, he urged cooperation between Athens and Sparta to attack the Persians and reestablish Greek superiority. He wrote letters to various Greek rulers, trying to persuade them to lead the fight against Persia.

In 346 B.C., Isocrates wrote the Philipns, calling upon Philip II, the king of Macedonia, to unify Greece and defeat the Persians. Ironically, Isocrates, the champion of Greek values and Greek superiority, believed that the barbarian* Philip would help Greece regain her rightful place in the world. Philip conquered the Greeks instead of unifying them, defeating the Greek army at Chaeronea in 338 B.C. Shortly thereafter, disappointed and disillusioned, Isocrates starved himself to death. (See also Democracy, Greek; Education and Rhetoric, Greek; Government, Greek; Oratory.)

* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing

* oratory art of public speaking

* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science

* aristocracy rule by the nobility or privileged upper class

* barbarian referring to people from outside the cultures of Greece and Rome, who were viewed as uncivilized


Successful teachers and speechwriters were paid very well in ancient Greece. Isocrates' regular fee for teaching was 1,000 drachmas per course, at a time when the daily wage for an average Greek worker was about one drachma per day. Isocrates also earned large sums for the speeches he wrote. Nicocles, the ruler of Salamis, reportedly paid him 30 talents—180,000 drachmas—for a single speech, an amount equal to nearly 500 years' wages for the average Athenian.

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