Wareh, Tarik. 2013. The Theory and Practice of Life: Isocrates and the Philosophers. Hellenic Studies Series 54. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_WarehT.The_Theory_and_Practice_of_Life.2012.
Chapter 4. Philosophical Politics, Tooth and Nail
An Introduction to Philosophical Polemics
When we study the generation of Plato and Isocrates’ students, and their often polemical intercourse, across lines of genre and scholastic affiliation, we are presented with an unfamiliar picture of a space for debate and competition. Within this space are writers who have been variously remembered as philosophers, historians, orators, sophists, and poets. This raises multiple questions. What place did “philosophy” take for itself in the intellectual and political life of the later fourth century? Was the state of intellectual life at this period in some sense a legacy of the careers of the older generation, of Plato, Xenophon, and Isocrates? Will a close look at the activities of the students reflect light back upon the political and social import of the teachers’ lives?
Here the attack is mainly personal, using the stock charge of plagiarism (the intellectual equivalent to common thievery, as above). Even akhreious kai pseudeis need not be taken as a negative assessment of what Plato has achieved philosophically in his writings. This is possible, but the sense could also be that Plato has put out books that are “useless and counterfeit” because unoriginal.
The reference to Theopompus as a rhētōr, and the fact that he is lumped in with hoi polloi, may show some skepticism about Theopompus’ credentials for making this criticism. But the protestation regarding the danger that the forest will be lost for quibbling over the trees, although somewhat commonsensical, is not invalid and can certainly be paralleled in the interlocutors of Socrates in Plato’s dialogues (e.g. Protagoras). More to the point, what Theopompus says here is certainly not the smear of a polemicist in a hurry to say whatever will most hurt Plato’s image in the eyes of those outside the specialized scholastic universe. Rather, if it has any bite at all, it is only for the audience of those who know what Plato says in his books and care whether it is right or wrong (out of a love for knowledge or from jealous rivalry—and the two motives need not be segregated from each other).