“The Rhetoric of Isocrates and the Cultural Ideal” Werner Jaeger

Long Summary:


In attempt to develop a deeper understanding of paideia, Jaeger utilizes a rhetoric of war to explore the intellectual battle between Isocrates and Plato over the definition/status of rhetoric and philosophy—a battle which in itself reflects Greek culture.  Jaeger explains that Isocrates “reversed” meaning of philosophy in rhetoric when he defines rhetoric as being a practical art concerned with everyday matters and sophists/Socrates as being purely theoretical.  The practical art of speech, which attempted to persuade one to the best course of action for the common good, is what Isocrates called “philosophy.”  This rivalry over the precise nature of philosophy itself symbolizes the rivalry between rhetoric and science over the leadership of culture and education (123). 

Isocrates, a native Athenian, modernized, perhaps, sophistic rhetoric in the sense that he professed it to be a practical art capable of addressing the political and ethical dilemmas of Greek society unlike Plato’s philosophy or older forms of sophistry which merely dealt with the theoretical.  Isocrates, according to Jaeger, believed in the need for equality among Greek states, a common national purpose, which could only be brought about by statesman trained in a new rhetoric working toward the common good.  Unlike Plato thought, national unity would not be achieved by making each man more moral, but rather by a strong rhetorical education, which could merge moral and political action.

            This new practical, grounded rhetoric was exemplified and taught in Isocrate’s schools, which was developed alongside Plato’s academy and thus represented a cultural war over Greek education.  According to Jaeger, Isocrates embraced common sense and accused the Socratics as being mere disputers utilizing methods of dialectic and eristic– argument for argument’s sake—and thought unhighly of the awkward question and answer methodology, their elitist stance of philosophers depositing knowledge on the ignorant common man, and their belief that philosophers are the highest ideal of man because they possess the cure to all evils–intelligence.  Isocrates also thought ill of rhetorical educators and forensic orators who only taught technique.  Thus, Isocrates attempted to find balance between theory and technique and found that balance in what Jaeger identifies as the artistically, discipline Form or imaginative literary creation.  (Isocrates bought into a rhetorical system of ideas but knew that kairos necessitated a more fluid, spontaneous, and imaginative system than a fixed, universal system).  Isocrates thus equated rhetoric or oratory with poetry, which with talent, study, and practice, could be learned. 

            In terms of rhetorical education, Isocrates, like Plato, did believe in the role of education to shape the entire man; yet whereas Plato thought knowledge of Ideas as absolute norms could shape man, Isocrates thought knowledge coupled with aesthetics and practicality would shape the man.  Imitation thus became a major feature of Isocrates’ rhetorical education.  To be true in Isocrates’ eyes meant to seek to find practical solutions to current dilemmas, not mastery of knowledge over nature of things, irrelevant to everyday political matters. 





In order to reveal Isocrates’ paideia in “The Rhetoric of Isocrates and the Cultural Ideal,” Jaeger compares and contrasts Isocrates and Plato’s philosophy of rhetoric and rhetorical education in the broader political, cultural, and social contexts of Greek society.  Just as Isocrates understood the value of kairos in oratory, Jaeger understands how imperative attending to kairos is in historiography.   Describing the exigencies and constraints of place, time, culture, and audience that affected the philosophy of both Plato and Isocrates not only helps Jaeger’s readers better understand the driving forces behind Plato and Isocrates’ own philosophical and pedagogical positions, but also the broader implications for their work concerning the ideological  battles over education and culture.  What became clear to me in reading this article is the possibly problematic nature of performing close reading without attending to kairos.  If close reading is performed without analysis of the rhetorical situation, can we truly uncover the meaning and significance of a historical text?  If not, should close readings always be accompanied by kairos?  Should karios be attended to in every historiography?

I also appreciate Jaeger’s use of comparison/contrast and realize how rhetorically effective comparison/contrast is in driving our own scholarship deeper, which in turn helps our readers better understand the complexities at play in any given text.  Comparison/contrast of two figures, events, texts, etc. is effective for pushing a scholar deeper into both their research and their analysis.  It is obvious here that Jaeger was also able to develop deeper insights and draw more astute conclusions from the act of comparing and contrasting.  For instance, through his comparison/contrast of Isocrates and Plato’s notions of how to best shape a whole man or form the human character, Jaeger arrives at a deeper understanding of the role imitation plays in Isocrates’ rhetorical education.  Also, although Jaeger’s objective is to help his reader better understand Isocrates’ paideia, we also come to better understand Plato’s paideia through the comparison/contrast of their work in its socio, cultural, political contexts.  And through a deeper understanding of both their paideia, as Jaeger notes, we develop a deeper understanding of “true” Greek paideia in and of itself.

The problem here, however, is that conclusions we draw about the true nature of something are based on limited perspectives, which exclude a multitude of others.  I am left wondering:  Can the ‘true’ Greek paideia really be identified through the comparison/contrast of the perspectives of Plato and Isocrates?  What other intellectual forces were at play?  What is left out when we choose to employ comparison/contrast as a rhetorical device? If comparison/contrast always involves privileging of specific voices and exclusion of others, does the use of comparison/contrast necessitate the explicit acknowledgment of a limited study or a self-reflective positioning?  Jaeger plunges forward with his analysis full steam ahead throughout his entire article without hinting at possible limitations to the scope of his work.  Can we say then that in writing in an objective tone and neglecting to take a self-reflective position contribute to the preservation of existing power structures just like the class concluded in reading Schiappa’s article? 

            Lastly, Jaeger’s articles reads like a narrative telling the tale of two generals at battle in a huge cultural war.  I am interested in the metaphor war/battle that extends throughout his article.  I wonder about his rationale for utilizing this metaphor and wonder if at time, his argument is compromised by his commitment to the metaphor.  It seems obvious that pitting Isocrates and Plato against each other is an effective rhetorical device.  Like fiction, historical narratives employ plots, climaxes, and drama to both engage and inform and Jaeger makes use of these literary devices to his advantage.  Consider the sentence: “Perhaps the savage scorn with which Plato attacks and  persecutes it may be partly explained by the victor’s feelings that he is at war with an enemy who is, as long as he remains within his own frontiers, unconquerable.”  A dramatic sense is obviously evident here, which drives Jaeger’s plot forward, but when reading, I couldn’t help but begin to wonder if hyperbole is another rhetorical device Jaeger utilizes for his own rhetorical effect.  This conversation, of course, brings the discussion of what role imagination plays in historiography back into light.  Questions arise such as:  What do we gain/lose from imagining Isocrates and Plato at war with each other over the role of philosophy/rhetoric in education?  Can hyperbole be employed as an effective literacy device without distorting the reality historiographers are attempting to attend to?  





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