Impeding Argument – Commentary

In this address, Isocrates has several main agendas. He aims to describe the human body, particularly the mind, and how practice and training can condition it. He also implicitly lays out the steps for success under his instruction, stresses the importance of consistency in claims, and attempts to refute any charges of his corrupting the youth. As he broaches this last subject, however, it becomes clear that in spite of his “fate” resting in his audience’s hands, his remarks and the tone in which he speaks them begin to take on an almost antagonistic air.

When addressing the “two charges” brought against him, Sophistry as a sham and Sophistry as demoralizing, Isocrates clams, “Men of intelligence ought not to form contrary judgments about similar things” (203). Here, he is claiming that something can not be fake while simultaneously be held accountable as some form of amoral practice, yet it seems Isocrates could have made his point without seemingly implying his audience’s lack of intelligence. He doesn’t stop there, however, and states, “everyone may well be astonished at the ignorance in men who venture so blindly to condemn philosophy” (209). Again, he is not wrong. Certainly for an entire class of well-educated men to condemn a science because of hearsay and rumor is decidedly “blind” and perhaps even borderline “ignorance,” but that doesn’t negate the fact that Isocrates is standing in the way of his own argument, and is, at times, the only real impediment to his successfully orating his own defense.

Isocrates lays out four different examples of contradictory thinking that occurs among men in regard to philosophy and sophistry. In each of these examples he uses the pronoun “they” but is careful to stick to the facts: they believe effort/training lead to proficiency in arts but not possible with intellect, believe physical weakness can be improved by exercise but not possible with the mind, and believe mental powers are the means by which a “creature is improved” but deny the possibility that people can help each other to cultivate this improvement (209-212). In his fourth example, however, Isocrates chooses a specific example. He claims that these men see Lions tamed, by trainers, to be gentle and warm, yet they still choose to deny the “power” that education and practice can have. He states that he isn’t sure which should “astonish” us more, “the gentleness which is implanted in the fiercest breasts or the brutishness which resides in the souls of such men” (214). The problem being, of course, that these are those brutish men; these are the men deciding his fate, the men whose very arguments he is fighting against, and instead of simply arguing against the ludicrous and erroneous arguments and beliefs these men hold, Isocrates chooses to name-call and insult. It is not only his fate that lies in the hands of these men, but that of his colleagues, and that of his entire profession. It seems, then, that Isocrates would avoid allowing his emotions to interfere with what is otherwise a very sound and logical defense.

2 comments for “Impeding Argument – Commentary

  1. Kim
    March 2, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    Rachel, I’m interested in your critique of Isocrates’ argument. You seem to be saying that though the critics he cites have attacked his moral character, he should not criticize theirs.

    Perhaps it depends on whom the argument is aimed, and what sort of considerations weigh with them. Isocrates was not really on trial in this case; what circumstances can you imagine that would make his approach the right one?

    Because he was a skilled orator, it’s probable he is doing it deliberately.

    What might he achieve by taking an aggressive one?

  2. Rachel
    March 5, 2009 at 3:58 am

    I think his not really being on trial makes a world of difference in how I interpret the piece. Because he was not actually fighting for his life, the aggressive approach probably made him come across as self-assured, educated, and possessing a willingness to be held morally accountable for his teachings and practices. I am still not convinced, however, that all of his jabs were completely necessary. It seems that had he stuck to making rational and educated statements, without the critique on the audience’s moral or social shortcomings, his already strong position might have been even more compelling.

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