Antidosis

Posted: June 18, 2009 in Uncategorized
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The next item on my reading list is Isocrates’ very long Antidosis. I’ve heard this piece described as an angry slash fiction, which makes a lot of sense to me. The peice was written as a defense for a trial that Isocrates had already lost. He was accused of being very wealthy, and that he should have to pay to build a new trireme for the Athenian navy, rather than someone else. He was never much of a public speaker, and probably far worse in his eighties (when the trial occured) than he had been earlier in his life. So he lost the case. Then he wrote this, as the defense that he should have given, that would have won the trial for him.

So there’s some bitterness there. But even still, it’s very interesting, particularly in what it shows about Isocrates and his philosophies.

Isocrates makes claims of authorship, which is interesting because others have claimed that there was no authorship until the Romantic Author. But what is most interesting at the beginning of this piece is that we see Isocrates always as a teacher, demonstrating audience awareness. He says that speakers “must not attempt to go through it all the first time but only as much as will not tire the audience” (12). Though he doesn’t follow his own advice, it’s interesting to note that he does give it. Maybe he sees this speech as being delivered over a period of time, rather than all at once.

There are two main things I want to talk about in regards to this work. The first of those is that he suggests that he be judged partially on the basis of his students. That is, if the students who learned from him are good and moral people, then clearly he has taught them to be such (104-106). This is interesting for two major reasons. First, because it is directly opposed to Gorgias, who says that it is not up to him how people use his teachings. That it isn’t the fault of the teacher if the student does evil. But aside from contradicting Gorgias, Isocrates here contradicts himself. Much later in the work, Isocrates talks about how we would not punish the teacher of boxing if his students began attacking people. Instead, we would praise the teacher for being a good teacher but condemn the student (252). This suggests that we should NOT hold the teacher responsible.

But I think that maybe this isn’t a contradiction. Maybe what Isocrates is saying is that oratory (and hence rhetoric) isn’t something that teaches people to be good, but rather that teaches them to be good speakers. So if a student of his were to speak very well about an unjust topic, or use his speaking abilities to evil ends, then we would condemn that student, but still praise Isocrates for teaching the student to speak well. He might be saying that he teaches people to be better speakers, not to be better people, and he should be judged by what he teaches, not by the actions his students take. This makes sense to me. If I teach someone to write, I want to be judged a good teacher if they write well and a bad teacher if they write poorly. I don’t want to be judged a bad teacher because they rob a bank. Maybe if they first wrote out their plan and wrote the plan badly; but again, that would be judging the writing, not the action.

The other interesting thing about Antidosis for me is that Isocrates hedges his bets as far as teaching is concerned. While sophists claim they can make anyone a great speaker, Isocrates only says that he can make people better speakers than they currently are.  He writes that “those who are going to excel in oratory, or public affairs, or any other profession must first have a natural talent for what they have chosen to do; then, they must be educated and gain knowledge of that particular subject; and third, they must practice and become familliar with its use and its implementation” (187). Just teaching alone isn’t enough.

This is interesting because it answers Plato’s objection about the naturally talented. Plato (in Gorgias) argues that the teaching of sophists can’t be good because there exists people who have not had that training who are better speakers than those who have. Isocrates would respond to this saying that clearly these people have more natural talent and more practice than the students. What matters is that the students are better than they would have been otherwise.

It seems like something obvious, but I think this is where it started. It’s hard giving it credence, it being such a prima facie truth the way it seems to be. But if we remember that Isocrates is probably one of the first to say this, and it wasn’t cliche or widely accepted at the time, it becomes far more impressive.

Overall, the work is good, but overly long. There are many interesting parts of it, but Isocrates could have followed his own advice and been a bit more concise, since “If they say the same things as their predescessors, they will appear to be shameless babblers,” though maybe we can forgive him, because he does seem to be babbling at parts, “but those who seek novel topics will have great difficulty finding something to say” (83).

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