Against the Sophists


If all who are engaged in the profession of education were willing to state the facts instead of making greater promises than they can possibly fulfill, they would not be in such bad repute with the lay-public. As it is, however, the teachers who do not scruple to vaunt their powers with utter disregard of the truth have created the impression that those who choose a life of careless indolence are better advised than those who devote themselves to serious study.

Indeed, who can fail to abhor, yes to contemn, those teachers, in the first place, who devote themselves to disputation,(2) since they pretend to search for truth, but straightway at the beginning of their professions attempt to deceive us with lies?(3) For I think it is manifest to all that foreknowledge of future events is not vouchsafed to our human nature, but that we are so far removed from this prescience(4) that Homer, who has been conceded the highest reputation for wisdom, has pictured even the gods as at times debating among themselves about the future(5) --not that he knew their minds but that he desired to show us that for mankind this power lies in the realms of the impossible.

But these professors have gone so far in their lack of scruple that they attempt to persuade our young men that if they will only study under them they will know what to do in life and through this knowledge will become happy and prosperous. More than that, although they set themselves up as masters and dispensers of goods so precious, they are not ashamed of asking for them a price of three or four minae!(6) "Why, if they were to sell any other commodity for so trifling a fraction of its worth they would not deny their folly; nevertheless, although they set so insignificant a price on the whole stock of virtue and happiness, they pretend to wisdom and assume the right to instruct the rest of the world. Furthermore, although they say that they do not want money and speak contemptuously of wealth as filthy lucre, they hold their hands out for a trifling gain and promise to make their disciples all but immortal!(7) But what is most ridiculous of all is that they distrust those from whom they are to get this money--they distrust, that is to say, the very men to whom they are about to deliver the science of just dealing--and they require that the fees advanced by their students be entrusted for safe keeping(8) to those who have never been under their instruction, being well advised as to their security, but doing the opposite of what they preach. For it is permissible to those who give any other instruction to be exacting in matters open to dispute, since nothing prevents those who have been made adept in other lines of training from being dishonorable in the matter of contracts. But men who inculcate virtue and sobriety--is it not absurd if they do not trust in their own students before all others?(9) For it is not to be supposed that men who are honorable and just-dealing with others will be dishonest with the very preceptors who have made them what they are.

When, therefore, the layman puts all these things together and observes that the teachers of wisdom and dispensers of happiness are themselves in great want but exact only a small fee from their students, that they are on the watch for contradictions in words(10) but are blind to inconsistencies in deeds, and that, further , they pretend to have knowledge of the future" but are incapable either of saying anything pertinent or of giving any counsel regarding the present, and when he observes that those who follow their judgements are more consistent and more successful4 than those who profess to have exact knowledge, then he has, I think, good reason to contemn such studies and regard them as stuff and nonsense, and not as a true discipline of the soul.

But it is not these sophists alone who are open to criticism, but also those who profess to teach political discourse.(11) For the latter have no interest whatever in the truth,(12) but consider that they are masters of an art if they can attract great numbers of students by the smallness of their charges and the magnitude of their professions and get something out of them. For they are themselves so stupid and conceive others to be so dull that, although the speeches which they compose are worse than those which some laymen improvise, nevertheless they promise to make their students such clever orators that they will not overlook any of the possibilities which a subject affords. More than that, they do not attribute any of this power either to the practical experience or to the native ability of the student, but undertake to transmit the science of discourse as simply as they would teach the letters of the alphabet, not having taken trouble to examine into the nature of each kind of knowledge, but thinking that because of the extravagance of their promises they themselves will command admiration and the teaching of discourse will be held in higher esteem--oblivious of the fact that the arts are made great, not by those who are without scruple in boasting about them, but by those who are able to discover all of the resources which each art affords.

For myself, I should have preferred above great riches that philosophy had as much power as these men claim; for, possibly, I should not have been the very last in the profession nor had the least share in its profits. But since it has no such power, I could wish that this prating might cease. For I note that the bad repute which results therefrom does not affect the offenders only, but that all the rest of us who are in the same profession share in the opprobium.(13)

But I marvel when I observe these men setting themselves up as instructors of youth who cannot see that they are applying the analogy of an art with hard and fast rules to a creative process. For, excepting these teachers, who does not know that the art of using letters remains fixed and unchanged, so that we continually and invariably use the same letters for the same purposes, while exactly the reverse is true of the art of discourse?(14) For what has been said by one speaker is not equally useful for the speaker who comes after him; on the contrary, he is accounted most skilled in this art who speaks in a manner worthy of his subject and yet is able to discover in it topics which are nowise the same as those used by others. But the greatest proof of the difference between these two arts is that oratory is good only if it has the qualities of fitness for the occasion,(15) propriety of style, and originality of treatment, while in the case of letters there is no such need whatsoever. So that those who make use of such analogies ought more justly to pay out than to accept fees, since they attempt to teach others when they are themselves in great need of instruction.

However, if it is my duty not only to rebuke others, but also to set forth my own views, I think all intelligent people will agree with me that while many of those who have pursued philosophy have remained in private life,(16) others, on the other hand, who have never taken lessons from any one of the sophists have become able orators and statesmen. For ability, whether in speech or in any other activity, is found in those who are well endowed by nature and have been schooled by practical experience.(17) Formal training makes such men more skilfull and more resourceful in discovering the possibilities of a subject; for it teaches them to take from a readier source the topics which they otherwise hit upon in haphazard fashion. But it cannot fully fashion men who are without natural aptitude into good debaters or writers, although it is capable of leading them on to self-improvement and to a greater degree of intelligence on many subjects.

But I desire, now that I have gone this far, to speak more clearly on these matters. For I hold that to obtain a knowledge of the elements out of which we make and compose all discourses is not so very difficult if anyone entrusts himself, not to those who make rash promises, but to those who have some knowledge of these things. But to choose from these elements those which should be employed for each subject, to join them together, to arrange them properly, and also, not to miss what the occasion demands but appropriately to adorn the whole speech with striking thoughts and to clothe it in flowing and melodious phrase(18) -- these things, I hold, require much study and are the task of a vigorous and imaginative mind:(19) for this, the student must not only have the requisite aptitude but he must learn the different kinds of discourse and practice himself in their use; and the teacher, for his part, must so expound the principles of the art with the utmost possible exactness as to leave out nothing that can be taught, and, for the rest, he must in himself set such an example of oratorythat the students who have taken form under his instruction and are able to pattern after him will, from the outset, show in their speaking a degree of grace and charm which is not found in others. When all of these requisites are found together, then the devotees of philosophy will achieve complete success; but according as any one of the things which I have mentioned is lacking, to this extent must their disciples of necessity fall below the mark.

Now as for the sophists who have lately sprung up and have very recently embraced these pretensions,(20) even though they flourish at the moment, they will all, I am sure, come round to this position. But there remain to be considered those who lived before our time and did not scruple to write the so-called arts of oratory.(21) These must not be dismissed without rebuke, since they professed to teach how to conduct law-suits, picking out the most discredited of terms,(22 which the enemies, not the champions, of this discipline might have been expected to employ--and that too although this facility, in so far as it can be taught, is of no greater aid to forensic than to all other discourse. But they were much worse than those who dabble in disputation; for although the latter expounded such captious theories that were anyone to cleave to them in practice he would at once be in all manner of trouble, they did, at any rate, make professions of virtue and sobriety in their teaching, whereas the former, although exhorting others to study political discourse, neglected all the good things which this study affords, and became nothing more than professors of meddlesomeness and greed.(23)

And yet those who desire to follow the true precepts of this discipline may, if they will, be helped more speedily towards honesty of character(24) than towards facility in oratory. And let no one suppose that I claim that just living can be taught;(25) for, in a word, I hold that there does not exist an art of the kind which can implant sobriety and justice in depraved natures. Nevertheless, I do think that the study of political discourse can help more than any other thing to stimulate and form such qualities of character.

But in order that I may not appear to be breaking down the pretensions of others while myself making greater claims than are within my powers, I believe that the very arguments by which I myself was convinced will make it clear to others also that these things are true.

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(1) Isocrates regards himself as one of the sophists, but sets himself apart from the "common herd."

(2)Captious argumentation in the field of ethics. He is not thinking of Socrates, who did not teach for pay, nor of Plato's dialectic, which was not yet famous, but of the minor Socratics, especially Antisthenes and Eucleides, who taught for money while affecting contempt for it. In general he is thinking of such quibblers as are later shown up in Plato's Euthydemus.

(3)Theirs is a cloud morality, not truth to live by on earth.

(4)There is, according to Isocrates, no "science" which can teach us to do under all circumstances the things which will insure our happiness and success. Life is too complicated for that, and no man can foresee exactly the consequences of his acts--the future is a thing unseen. All that education can do is to develop a sound judgement (as opposed to knowledge ) which will meet the contingencies of life with resourcefulness and, in most cases, with success. This is a fundamental doctrine of his philosophy which he emphasizes and echoes again and again in opposition to the professors of a science of virtue and happiness.

(5) Homer's epic poem, the Illiad, describes the Greek conquest of Troy, a war in which the gods are depicted as taking sides.

(6)Socrates speaks with the same sarcasm of a sophist named Evenus, who professed to teach all the virtues necessary to a good man and a good citizen for five minae.

(7)That is, to make them all but gods.

(8)For their security, they required that the fees charged to their students be deposited with third parties until the end of the discourse.

(9)Cf. the same ridicule in Plato. Gorg. 519c, Plato. Gorg. 460e.

(10)The aim of "heristic" ( heris means contention ) is to show up the contradictions in the accepted morality.

(11)The whole field of "deliberative" oratory, but the most "useful" branch of it in "litigious Athens" was the forensic.

(12)Their interest was not in the triumph of justice but in making the "worse reason appear the better."

(13)Cf. Antid. 168.

(14) That is, mechanical formulas are not sufficient. There must be inventiveness, resourcefulness, in a word, creative imagination.

(15)A fundamental requisite.

(16)Isocrates himself.

(17)Isocrates insists that the requisites of a good orator are first natural ability, second practical experience, and third formal training. See Antid. 186-188

(18) Prose should have the same finish and charm as poetry.

(19)Unmistakably this phrase is parodied in Plato. Gorg. 463a: dokei toinun moi, Gorgia, einai ti epitodeuma technikon men ou, psuchos de stochastikus kai andreias kai phusei deinos prosomilein tois anthropois

(20) The sophist before mentioned. The teaching of the older sophists is discussed in the Antidosis.

(21)Especially the first to write such treatises, Corax and Tisias of Syracuse. techn, like ars in Latin, was the accepted term for a treatise on rhetoric.

(22)Again and again Isocrates expresses his repugnance to this kind of oratory, and in general it was in bad odor. The precepts of Corax (Crow), for example, were called "the bad eggs of the bad Corax."

(23)The same complaint is made by Aristototle. Rhet. 1.10.

(24)For the kind of political discourse which Isocrates extols, and its ethical influence see Antid. 275

(25)See Antid. 274 ff.