Isocrates, on the importance of history and oratory

Furthermore, if it were possible to present the same issue in just one shape and absolutely no other, then one might think it superfluous to bore the listeners by speaking in the same manner that had been done in the past. But logos (discourse or oratory) has such as a nature that the same issue may be interpreted in many ways, whether making the great small or bestowing greatness (on the insignificant), and laying out the things of old in a new fashion or speaking of recent events as though they were old; no one can escape the topics that people in the past spoke about, but [we] must endeavor to speak about them better.

The past is an inheritance held in common, but to lead it forth at the appropriate time, to conclude the appropriate things about each example, and to arrange the right expression is the individual gift of the wise.

πρὸς δὲ τούτοις, εἰ μὲν μηδαμῶς ἄλλως οἷόν τ᾽ἧν δηλοῦν τὰς αὐτὰς πράξεις ἀλλ᾽ ἢ διὰ μιᾶς ἰδέας, εἶχεν ἄν τις ὑπολαβεῖν ὡς περίεργόν ἐστι τὸν αὐτὸν τρόπον ἐκείνοις λέγοντα πάλιν ἐνοχλεῖν τοῖς ἀκούουσιν: ἐπειδὴ δ᾽οἱ λόγοι τοιαύτην ἔχουσι τὴν φύσιν, ὥσθ᾽ οἷόν τ᾽ εἶναι περὶ τῶν αὐτῶν πολλαχῶς ἐξηγήεσασθαι, καὶ τά τε μεγάλα ταπεινὰ ποιῆσαι καὶ τοῖς μικροῖς μέγεθος περιθεῖναι, καὶ τά τε παλαιὰ καινῶς διελθεῖν καὶ περὶ τῶν νεωστὶ γεγενημένων ἀρχαίως εἰπεῖν, οὐκέτι φευκτέον ταῦτ᾽ ἐστὶ περὶ ὧν ἕτεροι πρότερον εἰρήκασιν, ἀλλ᾽ ἄμεινον ἐκείνων εἰπεῖν περατέον. αἱ μὲν γὰρ πράχεις αἱ προγεγενημέναι κοιναὶ πᾶσιν ἡμῖν κατελείφθησαν, τὸ δ᾽ ἐν καιρῷ ταύταις καταχρήσασθαι καὶ τὰ προσήκοντα περὶ ἑκάστης ἐνθυμηθῆναι καὶ τοῖς ὀνόμασιν εὖ διαθέσθαι τῶν φρονούντων ἴδιόν ἐστιν.

Panegyricus 4.7-10

This passage comes near the start of the oration published in 380 BCE, in a section that Isocrates gives over to justifying and explaining why he is returning to a theme that has been addressed before. The obvious explanation is a clear justification for the study of history. If history was nothing more than a timeline of events that happened in the past, then there would be little incentive to keep studying the same things and history could be taught almost exclusively by video. Isocrates does not go as far as, for instance, E.H. Carr, in arguing that history is a dialogue between the past and the present, but, then, neither is “history” his primary emphasis.

Oratory and history share a common DNA, with the distinction, perhaps, that history looks backward while oratory looks forward.

In this passage, Isocrates alludes to a common critique of sophistry that it allows the speaker to invert the proper order by making the stronger argument weak and the weaker one strong, but does so with some modification. First, he distinguishes between the mean rhetoric of the courts and that which deals with important issues. Second, and more importantly, he removes moral weight from both great and small. This feature of oratory, then, is not about the individual allowing an unjust argument to be stronger, but giving importance to issues that might not have been considered. Once again this line of reasoning is very much in step with the opinion of many modern historians.

For Isocrates, analyzing the events of the past and deploying them in the appropriate cause is the purview of a wise man, one who would not apply this skill to corrupt purposes. Obviously in this instance the wise man is Isocrates, who, he’ll have you know, is going to speak about the past in a way that is better and more prudent than those who did so in the past. A digression on the misuse of history is simply beyond the scope of this address, but it remains the natural reverse side of the coin. Great harm may follow good intentions and vise-versa, but intent matters.

Isocrates takes an optimistic stance on the use of history. He is aspirational in a way that asserts both the importance of the past and the capacity of people in the present to improve that discourse whether by elevating the importance of the underappreciated or by changing how we think about about our forebears. Isocrates is of course being self-serving in these declarations since they serve to set up the larger arguments he is going to make later on, but this alone does not invalidate what he says.

I returned to the Panegyricus recently in the course of my research and this short section jumped out at me because of the debate over public monuments that has been going on in the United States. This context made what Isocrates omits all the more glaring because both sides assert that the other is attempting to misuse history, sometimes as though public monuments are the primary vehicle for recording the past. (They aren’t, but commemoration and the construction of monuments are their own history that reflects how we think about the past…but that is a topic better suited to another post.) History is an ongoing dialogue and the onus is on all historians (broadly construed) to engage with it responsibly. A modern mind might call for history to be used in ways that are more just or accurate, but there is a simplicity to Isocrates’ dictate: do better.

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