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.

More political wisdom from Ancient Greece

In a speech alleging to defend his educational program, Isocrates offers the following political advice, to his errant pupil, Timotheus, in the form of a fictional dialogue. Timotheus’ tragic flaw, Isocrates suggests, was his trust that the people of Athens would recognize the services he performed, while others went about flattering them.

I (and others) frequently advise that for those who wish to engage in public life and want to be looked upon favorably it is necessary for them to do the things that are of the greatest good and to speak the truest and most just words, but neither can that person neglect consideration as to how everything they say may demonstrate their graciousness and philanthropy, since those who esteem these things little are considered by their fellow citizens burdensome and overbearing.

You see the nature of the masses, how disposed they are to sweet words, and better love those who indulge them than those who do well by them and (prefer) those who cheat them with joy and amiability than those who succor them with honor and solemnity. You have given these words no regard, but believe that if you attend to matters affairs abroad, then the people at home will look upon you favorably.

This is not so, and the opposite often comes to pass. If you please those people, they will not judge you by the truth of the matter, whatever you do, but will support you, overlooking mistakes and praising the things you do to the high heavens. For good will disposes all men this way.

καί τοι πολλάκις καὶ παρ᾽ ἐμοῦ τοιούτους λόγους ἤκουσεν, ὡς χρὴ τοὺς πολιτευομένους καὶ βουλομένους ἀρέσκειν προαιρεῖσθαι μὲν τῶν τε πράξεων τὰς ὡφελιμωτάτας καὶ βελτίστας καὶ τῶν λόγων τοὺς ἀληθεστάτους καὶ δικαιοτάτους, οὐ μὴν ἀλλὰ κάκεῖνο παρατηρεῖν καὶ σκοπεῖν, ὄπως ἀπιχαρίτως καὶ φιλανθρώπως ἄπαντα φανήσονται καὶ λέγοντες καὶ πράττοντες, ὡς οἱ το´των ὀλιγωροῦντες ἐπαχθέστεροι καὶ βαρύτεροι δοκοῦσιν εἶναι τοῖς συμπολιτευομένοις.

ὁρᾷς δὲ τὴν φύσιν τὴν τῶν πολλῶν ὡς διάκειται πρὸς τὰς ἡδονὰς, καὶ διότι μᾶλλον φιλοῦσι τοὺς πρὸς χάριν ὁμιλοῦντας ἤ τοὺς εὖ ποιοῦντας, καὶ τοὺς μετὰ φαιδρότητος καὶ φιλανθρωπίας φενακίζοντας ἤ τοὺς μετ᾽ ὄγκου καὶ σεμνότητος ὠφελοῦντας. ὦν οὐδέν σοι μεμέληκεν ἀλλ᾽ ἤν
ἐπιεικῶς τῶν ἔξω πραγμάτων ἐπιμεληθῇς, οἴει σοι καὶ τοὺς ἐνθάδε πολιτευομένους.

τὸ δ᾽ οὐχ οὕτως ἀλλὰ τοὐναντίον φιλεῖ συμβαίνειν. ἢν γὰρ τούτοις ἀρέσκῃς, ἅπαν ὅ τι ἂν πράξῃς οὐ πρὸς τὴν ἀλήθειαν κρινοῦσιν ἀλλὰ πρὸς τὸ σοὶ συμφέρον ὑπολήψονται, καὶ τὰ μὲν ἁμαρτανόμενα παρόψονται, τὸ δὲ κατορθωθὲν οὐρανόμηκες ποιήσουσιν, ἡ γὰρ εὔνοια πάντας οὕτω διατίθησιν.

(Isocrates, Antidosis 132-4)

Timotheus was put on trial, found guilty, and given a staggering fine. Isocrates is a difficult writer and not always the most charitable to the virtues of democracy, often considering true democracy not that differently from how the founding fathers did—that is, fickle and dangerous—but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s wrong.

The fate of oratory

There was much hand-wringing over Donald Trump and the fate of oratory during the 2016 campaign, leading to the ever-present and ever-painful game “which ancient person does modern politician X best resemble?” There were a lot of Roman names being tossed about, but the debate usually wandered its way over into the Athenian Assembly. This makes sense. The Assembly was the stage for some of the greatest speech writers of all time and Athens a place where the study of rhetoric began. The orators who took that floor, men like Demosthenes, Aeschines and Hyperides, have been canonized for their skill, and we have only second-hand reports about the speeches of their predecessors such as Pericles and Alcibiades who dominated the Athenian body politic for decades, for better and for worse.

Modern commentators tend not to put Trump on such a pedestal, instead often making the comparison with Cleon, the up-jumped son of a leather tanner who Thucydides calls the bloodiest man in Athens. Cleon is mocked by Thucydides and others, including the comic poet Aristophanes, for his vulgarity, his brutality, and his authoritarian leanings. Cleon:Trump starts to sound like an apt parallel, but I hasten to add that it comes with several caveats: a) we know about Cleon almost exclusively from hostile sources; b) the built in assumption for the comparison is that Cleon was dramatically inferior to Pericles; and c) even for the orators whose speeches survive we don’t know what was said in the Assembly, how it was presented, or what people said in response.

Taken into the modern world, labelling Trump Cleon was part and parcel with lamenting the deplorable state of modern oratory, particularly during the last presidential election cycle. Like many, I was appalled by much of what was said and none of the speeches is going to go down as an example for the ages, let alone coin a term the way that Demosthenes’ Philippics (speeches against Philip) did. And yet, oratory, in the words of Sam Seaborn, should raise your heart rate, oratory should knock the doors off the place. By all accounts, Trump did this whatever you think of the actual message. The election demonstrated some of the worst features of demagoguery, and there were plenty of opinion pieces that dealt with that topic and other legacies of classical antiquity.

Along with perpetual side-eye and exclamations of disbelief (he said WHAT??) and the the explosive growth of fact-checking services, one of the developments in the past year or so has been a cottage industry dedicated to combing through speeches and social media to find a person saying the exact opposite of whatever it is they just said. Trump was obviously the main target of this practice, but it has also extended to other politicians and his political appointees, including, most recently, Anthony Scaramucci’s tweets. In turn, this has led some to scrub their social media profiles to eliminate contradictory, embarrassing, or politically disadvantageous comments, which brings me back to Ancient Greece.

The public speeches are one part of the presentation for Donald Trump (or anyone else), the social media persona is a second. Leaving aside that people are allowed to change their mind, it is absolutely reasonable to plumb both categories and hold politicians to account for inconsistencies and other problematic statements. At the same time, when reading the speeches of the Attic orators, the lack of internal consistency from speech to speech is striking. These are historical records in the modern sense, but rather works of persuasion that provide some insight into their contemporary times. One might still be tempted to denounce the speaker, berating him with a series of facts, and that may well have happened, but the speeches also serve as a microcosm of a broader ancient Greek relationship with truth, past of present.

This was particularly true in terms of foreign policy in ancient Greece. Launching a rhetorical assault on another city, praising the same city as a reliable ally, and inventing a mythological genealogy that links the two are not mutually exclusive depending on what context is needed for a given speech. The sheer amount of data that exists in the modern world dwarfs that of the ancient, making these blurred lines much clearer and allowing one to trace the lineage of a given statement, but the relationship to facts bears remarkable similarity.

Rhetoric, anyway, is alive and well.