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  • Isocrates' Use of doxa
  • Takis Poulakos

Even though Isocrates presents Antidosis as a thorough defense of his educational program, he says very little about it, choosing instead to offer lavish portraits of his own earlier writings, elaborate arguments in defense of his reputation, and painstaking attacks against his competitors. One of the few passages where he speaks directly and explicitly about his educational views concerns the type of teaching of which he approved. "[T]eachers of philosophy," he remarks in an obvious reference to his own instruction, begin their students' training by acquainting them with "all the forms of discourse in which the mind expresses itself." Past this type of training, he goes on to say,

when they have made them familiar and thoroughly conversant with these lessons, they set them at exercises, habituate them to work, and require them to combine in practice the particular things which they have learned, in order that they may grasp them more firmly and bring their theories into closer touch with the occasions for applying them —I say "theories," for no system of knowledge can possibly cover these occasions, since in all cases they elude our science. Yet those who most apply their minds to them and are able to discern the consequences which for the most part grow out of them, will most often meet these occasions in the right way. (184)

The passage is important for a number of reasons. First, it makes clear that Isocrates conceives learning not so much in terms of possessing a specialized body of knowledge as in knowing how to apply principles to specific situations. Students will be educated in the art of logos, not only when they have become familiar with "all the forms of discourse, ," but, more importantly, when they have learned how to apply principles of the art to practical situations. Second, the passage also makes clear that the proper site for applying the principles of the art of logos is the domain of politics. [End Page 61] Teachers of "philosophy" will guide students to apply their knowledge of the art of logos, not in every situation, but in those situations that deal with contingencies and that call for decisions about future courses of action, whose outcome is unknown and whose consequences are unforeseen. Along with many other sections throughout his writings, the passage above offers one more indication that Isocrates' educational program focuses principally on instruction in political or symbouleutic speaking, political discourse or logos politikos. Finally, as the passage states, the domain of situations addressed by his instruction is on the level of contingency and kairos, a domain belonging to the order of doxa, not the order of epistēmē. His teaching of political discourse relies on a method of adjusting opinions and conjectures to specific cases, on bringing doxa in closer proximity to kairos.

The passage above, then, sets the conceptual stage for the type of civic education with which Isocrates associates his teaching throughout the Antidosis: the teaching of logos politicos, not for its own sake, but for the purpose of citizenship and statesmanship, an education in speaking well for the purposes of citizenship and statesmanship. By guiding students in how to apply rhetorical principles to practical situations, how to make choices about future courses of action with an eye to potential consequences, and how to adjust choices made to the demands of changing circumstances, he is in fact preparing students to participate in their city's deliberations as citizens. Should they rise to the occasion and be prepared to address the city's problems by submitting the judgments they formulate to the principles of contingency and timeliness, they may very well become leaders of the city one day, capable statesmen or celebrated citizens of the polis .

But the passage also leaves several questions unanswered. To begin with, there is the question of the label "philosophy." Does Isocrates use the term philosophia to "denote his rhetoric" (Too 1995, 193) or to suggest an "implicit denial of rhetoric" (Cahn 1989, 134)? Is this label meant to be an act of "appropriating the term 'philosophy'" (Nehamas 1990, 5) or of positing "a contrasting definition of philosophy" (Timmerman 1998, 157)? Can the...


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