Isocrates' "Against the Sophists"

Isocrates. "Against the Sophists." The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd ed. Trans. George Norlin. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001. 72-75. Print.


In "Against the Sophists," Isocrates expresses dismay toward the Sophist teachers of oratory who claim they can create future happiness for their students, as no one could ensure or empower future happiness in others (72).  In addition to highlighting these false promises, Isocrates also suggests the Sophists are hypocritical: that "they say that they do not want money" but "hold their hands out for a trifling gain" (72).  He next notes that these teachers do not trust their students, and implies that this indicates they are dishonorable (73).

Isocrates shifts the discussion from Sophists alone to include a wider category of "those who profess to teach political discourse" (73).  He states that these teachers are not as wise as they say they are; they do not give their students credit where credit is due; and they fail to acknowledge the "practical experience or . . . the native ability of the student" (73).

Isocrates notes that it would be nice if what the other teachers taught were as powerful as they said it would be,  but it's not, so they should stop saying it is (73).  Rather, they are only teaching a prescriptive formula that does not account for the art required, or for the ways an oration must change to account for different circumstances or contexts (73).

Isocrates believes that great speech writing can be achieved through practice and experiencebut not without students' natural ability and determination to practice as needed (74).  In areas such as art and virtue, which Isocrates notes cannot be taught directly, the teacher should model the behaviors and lead by example (74-75).



I notice that Isocrates is impassioned in his claims that other teachers are dishonest, and that virtue cannot truly be taught (72-75).  The emphasis on virtue especially stood out to me when Isocrates noted that the teachers don't seem to trust their students (73).  In studies of leadership and human relations, a key tenet is that trust is a critical component to interpersonal effectiveness.   

Beyond the question of trust, I was interested in the relating this reading to leadership in terms of the "fitness for the occasion"--termed situational in leadership studies and kairotic in rhetorical studies (73).  Approaching rhetoric with the occasion and context in mind means being more open to relevant information, and thus creating a more appropriate speech.  Emphasizing kairos ultimately makes for a more original speech too, Isocrates notes, as it means the prescriptive tactics may be put aside (73). 

I agree with Isocrates perspective that context-based speeches wilk allow students' natural abilities to shine brighter. I disagree when Isocrates says that morality cannot be taught; while not everyone can become virtuous, certainly those who are not can change--especially young students who may still be learning from youthful mistakes.  Isocrates seems to value believing in his students; I'm not sure why he wouldn't believe in them when it comes to moral development as well.

RhetoricKatie Ancheta