The summer begins with Isocrates

Posted: June 2, 2009 in Uncategorized
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Often times, lofty ideas for what will be done over the summer will surface and be forgotten. Last year, I told myself I was going to take a week off and then get back to work; I’d read fifty pages a day, trying to get a better grip on everything and have a leg up for starting this program. But one week became two, and then I was preparing to move, then getting used to a new area, and slowly but surely, the entire summer passed by without me getting much of anything done.

I can’t let that continue to happen. Next summer, I will have to get ready for my exams, which will occur the following fall. So I’ll have to work, and hard, over the course of the summer. And I suppose I have a choice. I could take this summer as one last summer off, and have to really kick myself in the ass next year. Or I could try to actually get a leg up.

I had an idea: take one week off, then start going through the reading lists for the exams. Do it with other people, so we can motivate each other. Well, one week did become two, but now I’ve started at least. And I started with Isocrates and Against the Sophists.(For reference: I am using the Mirhady and Too translation)

One of his earlier works, Against the Sophists does just what the title suggests. Isocrates rails against the sophists, putting them down at every opportunity and setting himself in opposition to them. Where they fail, he will succeed.

He begins his assault by discussing virtue. The sophists, he says, claim to teach virtue. But they charge money, and do not trust their students to pay them. This, says Isocrates, is ridiculous. “…they distrust those from whom they have to get this small profit–those to whom they intend to impart their sense of justice–and they deposit the fees from their students with men whom they have never taught” (62). This is ridiculous because if these teachers really could impart a sense of justice and make their students into good people, there would be no need to distrust them. The just would always pay for the service they received, and would always pay the agreed amount. And there is no reason to trust someone who has not been a student, as they do not have a sense of justice (since the sophist, supposedly, is the only one who can teach it). If anything, this situation suggests that the sophists teach their students to be less just.

Isocrates finishes this particular attack with a devestating rhetorical question: “But isn’t it irrational for men who impart virtue (arete) and soundness of mind (sophrosyne) to distrust their own students in particular?” (63). A rhetorical question in the truest sense, this question moves the reader in a specific direction, hammering another nail into the sophist coffin.

Isocrates then wonders how it is that sophists can’t understand that they are using something ordered to teach something creative (and hence chaotic). He says that “while the function of leters is unchanging and remains the same, so that we always keep using the same letters for the same sounds, the function of words is entirely opposite. What is said by one person is not useful in a similar way for the next speaker, but that man seems most artful (technikotatos) who both speaks worthily of the subject matter and can discover things to say that are completely different from what others have said” (64). So trying to teach people by rote memorization will be ineffective. It takes more than doing the same thing over and over again. And, more importantly, the skill of oration cannot be given to everyone. This comes out in the second part of the quote. The man who seems most artful is the one who not only can say the important things on the subject matter (which coud be learned by imitation), but also who says things that are completely different (a purely creative act). Isocrates believes that creativity cannot be taught.

He believes that the student needs a certain amount of natural ability. That natural ability can be trained, making any student a better speaker than they would be without the training, but this does not mean every student will be great or even as good as other students. The value of education is that it enhances that natural ability. As Isocrates writes, “Abilities in speaking and all the other faculties of public life are innate in the well-born and developed in those trained by experience. Education (paideusis) can make such people more skillful and better equipped at discovery. It teaches those who now hit upon things by chance to achieve them from a readier source” (64). So education doesn’t give talent, it gives skill. It helps refine talent, making the creativity flow more easily. But this is very different from claiming to provide talent, which Isocrates says the sophists purport to do.

Nothing can provide natural ability. Isocrates says that “there is no sort of art that can convert those who by nature lack virtue to soundness of mind and a sense of justice. But I certainly think that the study of political speeches can assist in encouraging and training these faculties” (66). So natural talent can not be taught, but using that talent most effectively can.

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