The Theory and Practice of Life: Isocrates and the Philosophers

  Wareh, Tarik. 2013. The Theory and Practice of Life: Isocrates and the Philosophers. Hellenic Studies Series 54. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.


αἱ δὲ βίον σοφίῃσιν ἐκόσμεον.

And some gave life the ornament of their wise arts.

Orphic Catabasis, P. Bon. 4, fol. 3r, line 7

This book is a study of the professional, literary, political, and theoretical links between the school of Isocrates and the schools and careers of recognized philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. It argues that the positions of the Isocrateans—their “rhetorical” mode of training, of performing, and of constructing social value, and the account they gave of it—were not just a challenging provocation to the “philosophical” project but also a creative inspiration, directly digested and reworked in such major works of practical philosophy as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Plato’s Phaedrus. These surprisingly close theoretical interconnections between rhetoric and philosophy, discoverable through careful readings of the texts, are further supported by a new history of the school movement of the fourth century, bringing together for the first time the range of evidence needed to tell the story of major and minor philosophical and rhetorical students’ ambitions, concerns, and audiences—their interactions (polemical and otherwise) and their “politics” (in relation both to each other and to the field of power).

The extent and significance of these phenomena have not been properly appreciated because of two obstacles the book seeks to overcome. First, although both Isocrates and the recognized philosophers grappled with the difficulties facing the student of the practical sphere of human life (the unknowable, the need to act, human nature), nonetheless, due to a prejudice against rhetoric, the recognition of these difficulties in works such as the Nicomachean Ethics and the Phaedrus is taken as a sign of philosophical sophistication and even daring, while in the pages of Isocrates this has seemed an all-too-expected “low” and “productive” concern. This study helps us see how tenuous these differentiating labels can often be, and how they derive from a shared struggle for ownership over mutually developed ideas. In fact, the attempt to theorize a way of working with practical uncertainties is not narrowly rhetorical or philosophical but comes from a distinguished tradition of argument over the theory of practice, also recoverable in medical treatises such as On Ancient Medicine. [1]

The second barrier to rendering the scene of fourth-century scholastic competition from this new perspective is simply that its participants, and the historical traditions that provide evidence for their careers, have never been completely assembled in a single scholarly account. By illuminating the significance and committed lives of such fragmentarily known figures as Theodectes, Theopompus, Cephisodorus, and Isocrates of Apollonia, we are able to recover several neglected strands that belong to this history of philosophy. These include examples both of recognized philosophers doing the “unphilosophical” (Aristotle’s competitive engagement with Isocrates, or Speusippus’ Letter to King Philip) and of “outsiders” doing what has to be called “philosophy” (Theopompus critiquing the Theory of Forms in a manner deemed worth citing by Simplicius in his commentary on Aristotle’s Categories).

The book, then, is divided into two parts. The first concentrates on reading the texts of Isocrates, Plato, and Aristotle to bring out the theoretical affinities between them. The second more fully constructs the perspective from which we may understand these links, through a study of the historical evidence, not only for the careers of Isocrates and his major contemporaries, but extending into the generation of Isocrates’ students. Among its other contributions, this story of a wider and previously unexamined scholastic milieu sheds light on the “lost years,” so poorly attested in many genres of literature, that connect the literary and intellectual culture of Classical Athens to the period of Hellenistic authors and schools.

The Lost Years: Literary Competition, Philosophy, and Politics in the Generation after Plato and Isocrates

The present book helps fill this gap through a historical and textual study of the politics and the educational character of the philosophical schools founded by Plato and his contemporary Isocrates. My work aims to clarify the complexities of the period, in which conventional generic oppositions (philosopher, orator) are not always adequate. I thus describe a “politics” of intellectuals without reducing it to conventional political factions and give due emphasis to the (not always successful) efforts of philosophers to create politically meaningful work that would be evaluated by the specific standards and values of scholastic circles.

Aristotle, Isocrates, and Plato

The opening section of the book, entitled “Isocrates and Aristotle: An Entanglement,” is a challenge to the assumption that the essential ideas of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics can be fully understood without reference to the system of rhetorical education which we can know through Isocrates’ surviving works. This argument is supported by an important similarity between the two teachers’ theoretical accounts, which has not been adequately studied: Aristotle and Isocrates both express a theory of how an actor (the virtuous man for Aristotle, the politically active orator for Isocrates), through rigorous training or habituation, achieves a state of readiness to act “just the right way” in a crucial moment’s unscripted performance. I adduce terminological and structural echoes between the two accounts to argue that this resemblance cannot be coincidental, but most likely reflects direct influence (and at the least a shared reliance on the topics and terminology of the political-rhetorical mode of education). While I do not debate the consensus of modern philosophers that Isocrates was not one of them, I present the evidence to conclude that Aristotle’s well-known “less precise” framework for ethics should be studied alongside the Isocratean approach, to which it is conceptually akin. Our increasing understanding of Aristotle’s Protrepticus (and Isocrates’ important role in it) provides an exciting laboratory in which to test ideas about the connections between the two thinkers’ public commitments to the exalted claims and practical value of “philosophy.”

Existing studies, when they have considered Aristotle and Isocrates together, have proceeded along entirely different lines [3] and have not yet led to a revision of the standard view that Isocrates (for all his use of the word philosophia) lived and died without any remarkable effect on the history of philosophy. My argument for the relationship between the Nicomachean Ethics and Isocratean theory aims to provide a dramatic justification for the attention the book goes on to pay to the more historical evidence (rarely granted much consequence) of the contact between Isocrates and Aristotle’s careers and schools. If a work as familiar as Aristotle’s Ethics can be rendered newly meaningful through its connection to the disfavored Isocratean milieu, then it is imperative to review what can be understood about that milieu as part of the wider terrain that includes Plato and Aristotle. And if the theoretical elements Aristotle borrowed from political life and the rhetorical tradition have been ascribed serious philosophical value with almost universal agreement (with the telling exception of some ancient polemics from sources who recognized and protested these overtures to rhetoric), then surely we owe it to ourselves to renew questions about the full extent of the audience to which Aristotle and other philosophers of his period spoke—to redraw the lines that define the field of intellectuals mutually interested in each other’s doctrines and prestige (while, at their best, approaching a stance of theoretical disinterestedness). [4]

Sometimes the topicality of rhetorical thinkers such as Isocrates for Plato and Aristotle has been granted, without any follow-up interpretative claims, so that we are not asked to read any differently the commitments and considerations we see Aristotle and Plato taking up in their texts. I therefore begin immediately with such claims. In particular, the two chapters immediately following this introduction establish Isocrates’ teachings as an important theoretical and technical background to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Protrepticus and Plato’s Phaedrus. Once we are persuaded that such texts come into better focus from this point of view—that a sympathetic engagement with Isocrates’ project makes us better observers of how Aristotle and Plato work out and position their philosophical arguments and ideas—we then have both the motivation to take up a more historical study of Isocrates’ school and its entanglements with the philosophers, and a workable criterion of internal plausibility with which to judge and interpret the difficult evidence for the wider context of the fourth-century scholastic field.

A focus on Isocrates’ special role reveals his participation in a shared framework of protreptic and inquiry. This (and not an awkward and confused effort to ape the terminology of another discipline) is the proper explanation for his deploying concepts such as phronēsis (“intelligence”), ideai (“forms”), philosophia (“love of wisdom”), and discourses of virtue and the good life (self-cultivation and care of the soul, the place of external goods in our value scheme, etc.). If we consider there to have been an open conversation, the result is not that we will confuse or identify Isocratean and Aristotelian accounts of deliberation, individual nature, and other topics. Rather, the result is a more complete picture of a complex space and arena within which Isocrates and Aristotle were among those intervening to contest and refine such notions. When we approach a less familiar and more obviously hybrid text such as Aristotle’s Protrepticus, we will be better able to appreciate how and why, before a wider audience that certainly would have included Isocrateans, the key philosophical values are at the same time exalted to the heavens and given deep practical-life resonance.

It is a testament to Plato’s intellectual courage that he builds such a shaky bridge in the Phaedrus from rhetoric to philosophy, with a construct of “Hippocratic” medicine serving to support the span. If Plato had more strictly denied these connections instead of exploring them, it would be much more difficult work to place him in our story. As it is, by admitting a prestigious practical-arts model (medicine) into a discussion of genuinely philosophical practice, he takes up a position in the methodological debates of the practical arts more broadly. If we reanimate this debate with the evidence of the rationalist and empiricist voices of the Hippocratic Corpus, then we quickly find how inevitably every position in this arena admits and grapples with the same core problem that entangled Isocrates and Aristotle with one another—the ultimate impossibility of a practical art that is completely rationally formulable. No extreme of “rationalistic” practical art escapes this problem, and we are forced to concede that when “empiricist” critics (physicians, Isocrates, Aristotle, and even Plato at times) abandon rationalism’s totalizing claims, they do so not out of a distaste for reason or an ignorant faith in some counterfeit form of truth-authority, but precisely because they hope to save the wider scientific project of producing some methodology responsive to the uncertainties and imprecisions of life as experienced and dealt with by human beings. Reason, knowledge, and truth retain great importance under such an approach. Indeed, Aristotle took up the balanced empiricist approach against Plato’s rationalism precisely because he believed it was a more philosophically sophisticated method for ethics and politics. The Phaedrus, while it suppresses any fair defense of the empiricist position, shows us that this discussion, with its attendant philosophical possibilities, was already seriously underway in Plato’s Academy.

Moreover, the fundamental disagreements between Phaedrus’s Socrates and Isocrates should not blind us to their important agreement on some questions of rhetoric. For example, both have taken up positions as staunch defenders of flexible logos against any tekhnē (art) that claims to offer written prescriptions adequate to the demands of action. They also share some strikingly similar rhetorical conceptions, such as how “forms of speech” are to be applied according to kairos (the opportune moment).

Thus, the complex marriage Isocrates effects in his theory between doxa (appearance or belief) and epistēmē (knowledge) is not an evasion of the demands of reason. Rather, this synthesis tells us, in a nutshell, of an ongoing methodological struggle, with an interesting philosophical past, present, and future. Physicians, sophists, and practical philosophers alike faced the problem of how to combine an aspiration to effective mastery with the admitted fact that the world of their experience is full of unknowns and imprecisions. Arguably the more sophisticated responses to this problem are those that honestly and seriously take up both sides of the tension. Isocrates, like Plato and Aristotle, was led by these reflections to reject any approach whose “rationalized” appeal was so shallow and uncritical as to aim at a complete and ordered rulebook (tetagmenē tekhnē) that would obviate the need for a living and breathing intelligent faculty. The disagreements and opposing stances between Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle proceed from this basic shared problematic. Under the sway of Plato, it can be easy to forget how exceptional his radical solution was, tending more often than not to exalt abstract truth and deductive reason, while diminishing the practical arts’ claim to arrive at the good through reflection on experience. Time spent with Aristotle’s practical philosophy, however, is always enough to remind us of the powerful stream of empiricist thinking against which Plato often fought.

Justified and guided by the demonstrated place of Isocrates in the philosophical conversation about the practice of life, we must try to make something of the historical evidence for Aristotle’s engagement in his career with the political and rhetorical slogans, theories, and audience-effects of Isocrates’ teaching (as in the traditions about Aristotle’s rhetorical teaching, considered in chapter 3). The difficulty, and often unreliability, of our sources make this difficult. Still, it is possible to draw suggestive and plausible conclusions, and it is better to sift for bits worthy of consideration than to allow ourselves the false purism and blind-flying of an approach that abandons this effort of contextualization.

School Creatures: Literary Competition, Philosophy, and Politics

What we can begin to recover through such evidence is the “politics” of scholastic activity in the fourth century. This is the task of the book’s second part. The term “politics” helps us to see the individuals we are studying as interconnected, interested, and interdependent actors in a social space defined by their community, competition, and mutual effects on each other’s self-fashioning and careers, rather than as vehicles of pure intellectual effort. This is an attractively complicated undertaking, in part because the very interest (capital, social currency) at stake in this space (a Bourdieusian “field”) is the disinterested commitment to the loftiest version of the projects that defined their schools. These people can and should be taken seriously as intellectuals, because they did struggle to realize achievements meaningful in purely intellectual terms, not only in appearance, but in reality; that does not mean, however, that such achievements were valued exclusively for their internal characteristics and theoretical effects.

While due attention must be paid to the destructive and political aspects of intellectual controversies, their intellectual substance cannot be dismissed. Misclassifying the field’s participants either as pure littérateurs or as purely political animals only causes us to mistake their proper connections. For example, neither a focus on literary style nor an analysis of pro- and anti-Macedonian political sympathies reveals how the “historians” Theopompus and Ephorus can be meaningfully understood as Isocrateans, but attention to the full range of their intellectual interests and interventions makes the Isocratean label fit—unmistakably, in Theopompus’ case. Likewise, to understand how and why the origin of prose encomia for deceased powerful individuals took place within Isocrates’ school, we must keep in mind not only the pressures and enticements of the Hellenic and Macedonian political situation but also the opportunities afforded by this genre and its occasions to promote philosophical protreptic by exploring its topics, staking out positions of interscholastic import (e.g. the intersection of virtue, power, and the course of human life), and establishing in a dramatically public way the speaker’s claim to didactic (“philosophical”) authority. The genre’s suitability to these purposes explains why it was quickly and widely appropriated in scholastic circles. It was topical for Xenophon and Aristotle and became the object of scholastic literary rivalry.

The evidence for Isocrates’ school brings to light a number of figures who made undoubted contact with the schools of Plato and Aristotle, whose intellectual pretensions are recoverable through references in sources ranging from the titles of Aristotle’s lost works to the surviving fragments of Middle Comic humor. Moreover, we find that a single individual’s participation in multiple scholastic milieus was not extraordinary. Not only did fourth-century intellectuals find it natural to pass between the school of Isocrates and those of Plato and Aristotle, but even texts from Academic circles can assign a nonpolemical significance to such cross-contacts. The schools thus constructed a common professional space, or field of mutual effects.

In the context of a critical study of school culture, a text such as Speusippus’ Letter to Philip (addressed by Plato’s nephew and successor to the Macedonian king in 343/2), with its poisonous attack on Isocrates and his school, has much to say about the mixed motivations and methods with which school adherents received, digested, and responded to each other’s work. This allows us to return to the Isocratean texts and more reliably assess in retrospect how Isocrates replies to such competitive confrontations with his characteristic desire to hold himself above the fray and to defend the purity of his own scholastic program’s objectives.

Looking Beyond: Fourth-Century Scholastic Politics as a Case Study

The various details and episodes of this history add up to a coherent picture of an intellectual playing field, as it existed over a difficult and fairly brief transitional time between the Classical and Hellenistic periods. This picture problematizes the boundary between rhetoric and philosophy, challenges some common views on the history of philosophy, and revises some of the terms in which Aristotle is to be interpreted. The specific insights of this account, considered from a more general perspective, also have exemplary value for literary and intellectual historians who look beyond antiquity. The basic methodological problem is not without parallels in better-documented historical periods: a group of forgotten writers who have never been constituted as a group worth studying because they are located at the intersection of what were soon to become (and eternally to be studied as) different disciplines. Also of general interest are the conflicts and crises that arise when intellectuals attempt to draw borders around the space in which their work can be pursued for “pure” and “disinterested” motivations, under the pressure of reconfigurations in the field of political power (in my study, the end of the Classical polis and the rise of Macedonian power). Indeed, much as the artists Michael Baxandall studied in The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany expressed a distinctive kind of cultural creativity and differentiation into schools or styles in response to a threat to their autonomy as craft workers, so too was there, in the relations I describe, a remarkable change in the atmosphere of scholastic competition, and in the very nature of intellectual prestige. [6]

Several elements of the thematic complex under study here figure in later problems of cultural history. For example, in Early Modern literature, an intense interest in “self-fashioning” often led to involved negotiations among virtue, interest, address to princes, and rhetorical/social performance. The story told in these pages may, I hope, help readers who study such phenomena to understand how the social concerns of their period led to a renewal of interest in Isocrates (alongside such key texts in the Isocratean reception as Cicero’s De oratore), who became more topical and popular with its authors than with those of any later time. The book’s conclusion returns to this period in order to address these issues.


[ back ] 1. Medicine remains in the background of the present study. In chap. 2, I give reasons for my confidence that the connection in Plato’s Phaedrus between rational medicine and philosophical rhetoric is not accidental at all, but shows the special preeminence of these two arts in the area of epistemological self-reflection. The counterexample of harmonic theory is meant to show how uniquely this province belonged to rhetoric/medicine. When Plato and Aristotle admit the practical arts into their thinking—the physicians of the Phaedrus and also the homely carpenters of the Nicomachean Ethics’s craft analogy—these are not mere illustrations but gestures towards the prestige and influence of a methodological problematic staked out by such disciplines as medicine and, in no small part, the Isocratean theory of education and performance. Neither medicine nor rhetoric had clear priority or an exclusive claim to the major theory-of-practice topics, and (at least in the texts under consideration here) rhetoric offers a more complete and relevant competing treatment of the same philosophical issues.

[ back ] 2. See chap. 4, n1.

[ back ] 3. See chap. 3, n1.

[ back ] 4. This notion of a “field” is loosely derived from Bourdieu: see e.g. Bourdieu 1991.

[ back ] 5. See the instructive (and very different) recent approaches of Tell (2011) and Tindale (2010). See also the thoughts of Halliwell (1997:120f.) on the limitations of the notion that Isocrates continued the Sophists’ intellectual project. This is, nonetheless, only to mention one tradition relatively close to the one this book considers; I suspect that future studies will eventually show that we are only at the beginning of following all the cultural and intellectual strands that provided material for the thinking of an Aristotle.

[ back ] 6. Baxandall 1980. Baxandall’s study is also paradigmatic in its attention to factors that explain the succession of a “great” generation by an obscure one.