Week 1 — Classical Rhetoric, Greek and Roman.


Born in 436 BCE, Isocrates was one of the most influential rhetors of his time, and actually studied with Gorgias and possibly Plato as well.  He was concerned with concrete rhetorical problems in which one had to reach a negotiated solution, rather than in abstract questions that might have an absolute answer.  This practical approach is also seen in his focus on kairos, or “appropriateness” which means rhetors will adapt their methods to circumstances.  (This is not far off the Buddhist notion of “skillful means” we’ll see in the next few weeks.)


The sections we will read include Isocrates’ discussion of how rhetoric ought to fit into a pedagogical system, and then his defense of rhetoric against those who discredit it as amoral.  The links below lead to an online version with a great deal of additional material, but some find it difficult to read.  You can certainly find a hard copy in the library, or very inexpensively through bookstores.



Against the Sophists

In this unfinished speech, Isocrates cricitizes the Sophists, however, we must distinguish between the quacks he refers to here and the respectable practioners and teachers of whom he was one himself.


Born about 327 BCE, Plato not only founded the Western rhetorical tradition, but our sytem of higher education as well.  He started the Academy in Athens from which all univesities and colleges in the West descend. He was a student of Socrates, and often features his former teacher in his writing.  His earlier works are largely indirect teachings in which he never explicitly offers a conclusion, while in his middle and later work we find the doctrines for which he is best know– the Platonic forms, doctrines of truth and beauty, and so forth.  Gorgias comes fairly early, just as he was starting to put forth definite ideas.


This short dialogue between Socrates and Gorgias, among others, serves to illustrate a fundemental debate about rhetoric.  At this time philosophers claimed their was the superior art, while the Sophists (who essentially represent rhetors) argue that they in fact have greater powers of persuasion, particularly among the ignorant.  Another issue raised is the relation ship between rhetoric and morality, if any.

Gorgias himself was one of the first generation of Greek Sophists, born around 487 BCE.  He and Plato reportedly disliked one another, thus Gorgias is given the unflattering title role in this dialogue.


Presented as a treatise on love, the Phaedrus actually concerns itself with much more: the practice of rhetoric and it’s relations to morality, the soul and love, and even the practice of writing.  It is one of the earliest commentaries on writing and after discussing what characterizes good or bad writing, deprecates it.  Writing is considered a lesser art because the writer does not have direct interaction with readers and so cannot tailor the writing to them in the way a rhetor can tailor a speech.  Further, writers could not employ many of the techniques considered essential in the oral culture of classical Greece.

3 comments for “Week 1 — Classical Rhetoric, Greek and Roman.

  1. Mariana
    February 26, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    Snacks week 4

  2. Mariana
    February 26, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    Mariana wants to lead discussion week 10 with Rachel please

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