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LaRue Van Hook

The Classical Weekly

VOL. XII NEW YORK, JANUARY 20, 1919 No. 12*

In examining the quarrel between Alcidamas and Isocrates we study an interesting chapter in the development and history of Greek rhetoric. In many respects the two men were alike. They were contemporaries; (2) both had studies rhetoric under the famous Gorgias, and Alcidamas had even succeeded to the master's School; (3) both were Sophists (although each would deny the orthodox title to the other); both claimed to be 'philosophers'; (4) both resided in Athens, (5) and there established influential Schools; (6) both belong to the Epideictic School with respect to their tendencies; both were prominent and gifted men, but almost childishly egotistic, impatient of criticism, and contemptuous of their rivals. (7)

Here, however, the similarity ends. They were bitter enemies (8) and rivals, (9) and devoted their talents to opposite aims--Isocrates to literary rhetoric, Alcidamas to practical oratory. Isocrates was a publicist, and a slow and painstaking writer: All of his Logoi (except the early six forensic) were meant to be read and not to be spoken. As Quintilian says, (10) his speech is suited to the palaestra, not the battlefield. It was Isocrates's aim in his literary compositions to achieve something that would have permanent value and be respected. His rhetorical theory and doctrines and methods of teaching are elucidated at length in his writings, particularly in the discourse Against the Sophists (391 B.C.) and in the speech On the Antidosis (353 B.C.). Isocrates held that, if a student had natural ability, then training and practice would bring success. Attention to and imitation of precepts and patterns furnished by the master were of great importance, and assiduous devotion to the writing tablets was a desideratum. Training in written composition on worthy themes was emphasized.

Alcidamas, on the other hand, contemned and belittled the written word, and, in the highest degree, lauded extemporaneous speech. Like his master Gorgias, he prided himself on his ability to answer and discuss immediately and extemporaneously any question, or subject proposed. (11) It was Alcidamas, therefore, and not Isocrates, who maintained the orthodox tradition of the School of Gorgias, namely, the cultivation of the faculty of oral and extemporary eloquence. Further, Alcidamas, unlike Isocrates, had no real rhetorical system. With him, instruction in oratory was practical and mechanical, rather thar theoretical. He was not ignorant of or altogether indifferent to the means of the art of rhetoric, (12) but these were for him altogether subordinate to the summum bonum, namely, extemporaneous eloquence; and this eloquence was based on wide knowledge and was to be employed 'in the needs of daily life'. (13)

In the year 391 B.C., at the beginning of his professional career, (14) Isocrates wrote his discourse Against the Sophists, in which he attacked the principles and methods employed by his rivals in the profession. Three classes of Sophists are censured: (1) The Eristics; (2) The teachers of rhetoric; (3) The writers of 'Arts of Rhetoric'. Alcidamas belonged primarily to the second class attacked, namely, the professors of Politikoi Logoi, i.e. Political Discourse, or Practical Rhetoric, Deliberative and Forensic. These teachers are accused of dishonesty and stupidity; it is maintained that they are dishonest in their pretensions infallibly to produce eloquent orators from any human material, whether the pupil possesses capacity or imagination, or not. Such charlatanism tends to discredit all in the profession.

A few years subsequent to the appearance of Isocrates's Kata Tôn Sophistôn Alcidamas replied, with his caustic Peri Sophistôn, also called Peri Tôn Graptous Logous Graphontôn (On the Sophists, or On the Writers of Written Discourses). In this composition, which is in its nature a katagoria of the psiogos type, Alcidamas bitterly arraigns Isocrates (not mentioned by name) and his School for the teaching and practice of written speeches. (15)

He marshals all possible points in condemnation and eulogizes the efficacy and value of extemporaneous speech. (16)

Alcidamas's discourse has no orderly or systematic development of divisions. A logical sequence of arguments is lacking in this composition, which is loosely strung together, although there is a formal prooemium and a striking epilogue. The greatest blemish is due to the frequent repetitions which, in a measure, mar the effectiveness of the presentation. In spite of all this, the discourse, epideictic in character, is of great interest and produces a favorable impression, I think, by vivacity of style, smoothness of flow, and the validity of many of its arguments. The composition is enlivened by many figures of speech. As these figures are not over-bold nor too numerous, as is the case in the Helen of Gorgias, (17) we do not get at all the impression of bad taste and frigidity (psuchrotês (18)) which Aristotle, in the Rhetoric, so severely condemns as being a characteristic vice in the writings of the rhetor.

What may be said as to the merits of this controversy? In the first place, we may say that professional jealousy and the intolerance born of conceit in both men resulted in an utter lack of sympathy and complete mutual misunderstanding. These two Sophists were really champions of very different causes with different aims. It will be observed that throughout his discourse Alcidamas refers constantly to the courtroom, to lawsuits and the Assembly, in short, to questions of daily life and of temporary interest. Now to the participant in all such cases the ability to speak extemporaneously (the result of training and practice in extempore speech) is obviously of the greatest value. Alcidamas always has an audience in mind, usually the audience in the courtroom. (19)

Consequently, with views so narrow and so practical, Alkidamas naturally failed to comprehend Isocrates's ideals and misunderstood his real aims. His accusation, therefore, is somewhat unjust and often beside the mark. Isocrates did not believe in the practice of writing and memorizing set speeches which subsequently should be delivered from memory; this practice was taught by the Sophists of the 'common herd' (20) whom he condemns. It was his aim in written discourse, which was to be read, to produce work of lasting value, to be thorough, and to be honest; not merely to educate youths as speakers and litigants, but to prepare them for actual life and as leaders of public opinion. The truth is, that Isocrates aimed at results immeasurably higher than were dreamed of in Alcidamas's 'philosophy'; for the ideal of the latter was to win success in lawsuits and to gain fame in that extemporaneous forensic eloquence which tickles the ears of the groundlings and wins réclame for the day.

In the speech On the Antidosis (353 B.C., 35 years after the discourse Against the Sophists), Isocrates defends himself against his detractors and answers in detail these current charges and misconceptions. He says that he has long known that some of the Sophists slandered his pursuits and represented him as a writer of speeches for the lawcourts, with as much justice as if they should call Phidias a dollmaker, or Zeuxis and Parrhasius signpainters. He affirms, however, that his subjects are not petty private disputes, (21) but the greatest and highest questions; his interest lies not in forensic rhetoric, but in Panhellenic Politics. (22)

Alcidamas had asserted (23) that the clever speaker (speaking being a difficult accomplishment) could write well, but that the clever writer (writing being easy) could not speak well. Isocrates answers this by affirming (24) that the master of philosophic discourses of universal interest (compositions of far greater import than lawcourt speeches) could easily succeed in a lawcourt, but not vice versa. Another charge brought by Alcidamas is that Isocrates's discourses, which have been laboriously worked out with elaborate diction, are more akin to poetry than to prose; in fact, such writers may more justly be called poets than Sophists. (25) This charge is admitted by Isocrates, who prides himself that this is the case and affirms that listeners take pleasure in his discourses as in poems. (26)

But it is of interest to note that both Sophists admit qualifications and reservations. Isocrates in the Philip says: (27)

'I have not forgotten the great advantage which spoken discourses have over written for purposes of persuasion, nor the very general belief that the former are delivered in reference to serious and pressing matters, the latter composed merely for display or gain'. And Alcidamas admits that, after all, he does not altogether contemn the ability to write. (28)

Finally, it may be said that Alcidamas was fighting a losing cause. The style of Isocrates soon became the standard, and the fashion of writing discourses rapidly grew. Aristotle gave the weight of his great influence to Isocrates and scathingly condemned Alcidamas for frigidity. (29) Alcidamas is merely mentioned by Demetrius, (30) and is condemned by Dionysius. (31) It may be said with fairness, I think, that ancient criticism deservedly praised Isocrates, but treated Alcidamas unjustly. If we estimate the latter by his extant composition, we see that he has been far too harshly judged.

As there is no translation in English, so far as I know, of Alcidamas's discourse, and, since it is decidedly deserving of translation, I have made the following version. (32)

Click this link for LaRue Van Van Hook's translation of Alcidamas' Against the Sophists

1. This paper was read at the Twelfth Annual Meeting of The Classical Association of the Atlantic States, held at the Drexel Institute, Philadelphia, on May 3, 1918.

2. Tzetzes, Chiliad 11.746.

3. So Suidas.

4. Isocrates's 'philosophy' is his theory of culture, his hê tôn logôn paideia, Suidas designates Alcidamas as philosophos; compare Teichmüller, Literarische Fehden, Chapter 4, for Alcidamas's kinship with Plato.

5. Isocrates was a native of Attica, Alcidamas of Aeolis in Asia.

6. Isocrates's numerous famous pupils (e.g. Theopompus and Ephorus) are well known. Aeschines is thought to have been a pupil of Alcidamas, and Demosthenes is said to have studied the Artes Rhetoricae of Alcidamas and Isocrates (Plutarch, Demosthenes 5). That Alcidamas was a Sophist of prominence is clear from Aristotle's numerous references and quotations. Compare Cicero, Tusc. 1.116 Alcidamas, rhetor antiquus in primis nobilis.

7. Compare Isocrates IV.188; XII.16, 21, 263; XV.2, 4 ff., 62;

Alcidamas 6.30.

8. So Tzetzes, Chiliad 11.670.

9. The Messêniakos of Alcidamas was composed in rivalry of Isocrates's Archidamas (compare Blass, Attische Beredsamkeit, 2.346).

10. [Institutes of Oratory] 10.1.79.

11. Plato, Gorgias 447 C.

12. 33.

13. 34.

14. See Isocrates XV. 193.

15. That the speech On the Sophists of Alcidamas is genuine, that it is a direct reply to the discourse Against the Sophists of Isocrates, and for the date, see Spengel, Synagôgê Technôn, 173 ff.; Vahlen, Der Rhetor Alkidamas, in Sitzungsberichte der Wissenschaften in Wien, 43 (1863), a valuable and thorough study; Reinhardt, De Isocratis Aemulis (Bonn, Diss.); Blass, Attische Beredsamkeit, Volume 2; Teichmüller, Literarische Fehden.

Isocrates's speech Against the Sophists was written about 391 B.C. In the Panegyricus (380) Isocrates replies to Alcidamas (see Reinhardt), whose Oration on the Sophists was, therefore, written somewhere between 391 and 380. The date of Isocrates's Antidosis is 353 B.C.; in this speech there is further comment in answer to Alcidamas.

16. In a recent University of Chicago dissertation (Hazel L. Brown, Extemporary Speech in Antiquity, 27), which I had not seen when this paper and translation were written, the chief arguments of Alcidamas are presented with some notes and discussion.

17. See THE CLASSICAL WEEKLY 6.122-123.

18. See Classical Philology 12.68-76.

19. Compare 3, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 18, 22, 23, 24, 25, 34.

20. XII, 18.

21. XV. 42.

22. XV.30-44.

23. 6.

24. XV. 49.

25. 12 and 2.

26. XV. 46-47.

27. Dionysius, De Thucydide 23, says that Herodotus was the first to show that prose could rival poetry.

28. 30.

29. Rhet. 3.3.

30. De Elocutione 12.

31. De Isaeo 19.

32. I have a reference to a German translation, by Dilthey (Allgemeine Schulzeitung, 4.2 [1827]),but I have not seen the translation. The text used is that of Blass. printed with the text of Antiphon, pages 193-205 (Teubner Series). Professor Lane Cooper, of Cornell University, and Professor E. D. Perry, of Columbia University, kindly read the translation in manuscript, and have made some helpful suggestions.

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