Teaching Students About Isocrates

Isocrates was one of the most famous and influential figures in ancient Greece. He was a teacher, a philosopher, and an orator who left behind an extensive body of work that has deeply influenced political theory, rhetoric, and education. It is important for students to learn about Isocrates and his contributions to Greek philosophy and culture, as well as what we can learn from him today.

Origins and Early Life

Isocrates was born in Athens, Greece, in 436 BCE, the same year that Pericles delivered his famous funeral oration. He came from a wealthy family, but his father died when he was still young, leaving him in the care of his mother and older brother. As a child, Isocrates was schooled in music, poetry, and gymnastics, as was typical for an Athenian boy of his rank, but he also showed an early interest in philosophy.

Isocrates’ Education and Style

To this end, Isocrates studied with some of the leading philosophers of his day, including Prodicus, Gorgias, and Socrates. However, he ultimately decided not to pursue philosophy as a career, instead turning his attention to teaching and writing. Isocrates saw himself not as a philosopher but as a teacher of practical wisdom, someone who could prepare young men for the demands of public life by teaching them how to speak persuasively and act virtuously.

One of the distinctive features of Isocrates’ teaching was his emphasis on what he called “decorum”, which meant using language and style appropriate to the occasion. Isocrates believed that different types of speeches required different tones and styles, and that a speaker should always be mindful of his audience and adapt his rhetoric accordingly. He also stressed the importance of moral character and public service in his teaching, arguing that these were essential qualities for a good citizen.

Contributions to Politics and Education

Isocrates was deeply involved in Athenian politics throughout his life, but he was also critical of the political system of his time. He believed that Athens had lost its way and that a return to the traditional values of the past was necessary. In particular, he saw education as the key to restoring order and harmony in Athens, and he wrote extensively on the subject.

One of Isocrates’ most famous works is the Panegyricus, a speech in which he praises Athens and argues for Athenian leadership in Greece. The speech is notable for its patriotic tone and its call for unity among Greek city-states. Isocrates also wrote several treatises on education, including Against the Sophists, in which he attacks the superficiality and greed of many teachers of rhetoric, and The Schoolmaster, in which he lays out his own vision for a more practical and morally grounded education.

Lessons for Today

The teachings of Isocrates remain relevant today for several reasons. First, his emphasis on moral character and public service is still relevant as we strive to develop the next generation of engaged citizens. Second, his idea of adapting rhetoric to different situations applies not just to public speaking, but to all forms of communication. Finally, his belief in education as a means of improving society is particularly relevant in our current moment of rapid change and uncertainty.

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