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Life of Isocrates

Born 436BCE to a flute maker in Athens, Isocrates is an important figure in the history of rhetoric. According to Bizzell & Herzberg's The Rhetorical Tradition, Isocrates lost much of his familial wealth in the Peloponnesian War and earned his living as a logographer, or a person who wrote speeches for others. Isocrates "regarded this profession as rather disgraceful, for in later life he vehemently denied ever having practiced it" (67). Rumored to have gained his education under the tutelage of several noted rhetoricians such as Gorgias, Isocrates is ranked among the 10 Attic Orators, alongside rhetorical greats like Demosthenese (384-322BCE) and Lysias (445 – ca. 380BCE). Largely believed to have a weak voice and stage fright, Isocrates is perhaps more well known for being a writer of speeches and is considered to be one of the first compositionists, realizing early on the importance of literature and the study or written rhetoric. According to the Mirhady and Too translation of Isocrates I, “Isocrates differs from the other Attic Orators in that his reputation was not based on speeches that he delivered in the courts or the Assembly, or wrote for others to deliver, but rather on “Speeches” (logoi) that were intended to be circulated in writing and read by others" (1). In 393BCE, in his 40's, Isocrates opened the first school of rhetoric in Athens. Much of what we know of this prominent rhetorician are from Isocrates' own writings and from other biographies written after his life.

Isocrates and Plato 
Isocrates was a contemporary of Plato, born only a few years after Isocrates. While both of these Athenian teachers have greatly influenced Western education, Plato was a teacher of philosophy, mathematics and science, opening his academy a few years after Isocrates. Isocrates, on the other hand, was more influential on the curricular level, instructing several pupils who would become leaders of Greece. Rejecting the idea of a general principle to teach composition, Isocrates further rejects many philosophers of his time, most notably Plato, and believes in the importance of a writer’s natural ability, first and foremost. Bizzell and Herzberg assert that “Isocrates was perhaps the first to institute systematic training for older students that would fit them to lead in public life” (68). Though Plato, in time, has come to be much more influential to the study of philosophy and rhetoric than Isocrates, it is important to note the influence Isocrates had on the Western education system in his own time, which continues to resonate in Western education today.

Accomplishments and Contributions to Rhetoric
Unlike Plato, Isocrates believed that the use of rhetoric was for the movement of the people to act according to the greater good. He opened the first school of Rhetoric in 393BCE, charging a high price to teach young Greek males the art of hard work and memory. In his work Against the Sophists, Isocrates speaks out about victory in debates and teaches “that in order to become a skilled practitioner of public speech, a student requires both the appropriate natural ability” (Mirhady and Too 4), coupled with hard work, a skilled memory and a quality instructor. Nearly forty years later, Isocrates wrote another well-known work, Antidosis, in which a character is put on trial which, according to Yun Lee Too, is "involving the question of the exchange of property" (2). In this liturgy, presumably based on an actual historical trial Isocrates may have been involved with, but to a lesser degree, the character must defend "the value of the rhetorician's teaching for the city" (7). Here, Isocrates creates himself as a citizen of Athens in the context of Athens at that time: performing civic public discourse for the good of the polis. Though Isocrates never actually uses the term 'rhetoric', he is often considered "the pre-eminent rhetorician of classical Athens" (15) by later rhetoris such as Cicero and Quintillian.

Selected Works
Date BCE
1. To Demonicus
2. To Nicocles
3. Nicocles
4. Panegyricus
5. To Philip
6. Archidamus
7. Areopagiticus

ca. 357

8. On the Peace


9. Evaforas 370-365
10. Encomium of Helen 370
11. Busiris 391-385
12. Panathenaicus 342-339
13. Against the Sophists 390
14. Plataicus 373-371
15. Antidosis 354-353
16. On the Team of Horses 397-396
17. Trapeziticus 393
18. Special Plea against Callimachus 402
19. Aegineticus 391-390
20. Against Lochites 394
21. Against Euthynus, without Witnesses 403

The above comprehensive list comes from Isocrates I translated by Mirhady and Too


Isocrates Today


Literacy – Kathleen Welch, in her presentation paper, aims “to suggest ways to integrate the modern, North American, theoretical material into what we have received as classical rhetoric, so that we reactivate Isocrates’ writings with different values in mind” (4). She calls to action the use of the ancients, specifically Isocrates, in our current composition pedagogy. Because Isocrates was a writer immersed in an oratorical culture, he has been negatively exaggerated, thought to be ‘second tier’ to Plato and Aristotle. But since he privileged writing over speaking, Welcher says we can take away two main ideas: 1) that there is a relationship between discourse and thought and 2) that there is an emphasis on natural ability (8). Since almost all students are now trained in writing, Welch calls for a movement to recover the study of Isocrates and bring his teachings back into the classroom.



Public Relations – Isocrates teachings are also useful to public relations departments because of his writings on both rhetoric and Pan Hellenism. According to Charles Marsh, a professor of Communications at University of Kansas, “A study of Isocratean rhetoric offers several precepts of reflective public relations for current practitioners, including conducting scrupulous research, encouraging dissent, and distinguishing, within a counseling role, between attack and admonition” (360). Marsh labels Isocrates as the father of public relations and hails his work as “profound” (364), and invites us to follow the teachings of Isocrates in a variety of avenues related to civic life and management.



Bizzell and Herzberg, eds. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to Present, 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 2001.


March, Charles. "Precepts of Reflective Public Relations: An Isocratean Model." Journal of Public Relations Research. 22.4 (2010): 359-377.


Mirhady, David C. and Yun Lee Too. Isocrates I / Translated By David Mirhady & Yun Lee Too. Austin : University of Texas Press, 2000.


Too, Yun Lee, and Isocrates. A Commentary On Isocrates' Antidosis / Yun Lee Too. Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2008.


Welch, Kathleen E. "Isocrates, Sophistry and Writing." Speech Communication Association. (1993): 2-14.

Comments (2)

Valerie Robin said

at 4:16 pm on Nov 1, 2011

I cannot figure out how to link documents into the text. Ideally I would like the reader to be able to access a document by clicking the title of the work. If anyone can do that, please, feel free. Also, feel free to add or make any changes you all see fit.
-Valerie Robin

William Lorick said

at 5:50 pm on Nov 17, 2011

Really solid job with this entry. I know we are supposed to find something to critique about it, so I'll find something to say. The only thing I would change would be to use the same font throughout. The font type and size changes after the table. Also, maybe a little bit more analysis of the actual writing. But again, these are nit-picky things. Great job.
Cliff Lorick

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