Isocrate. Entre jeu rhétorique et enjeux politiques. – Chr. Bouchet, P. Giovanelli-Jouanna éds. – Lyon : Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3, 2015. – 414 p. : bibliogr., index, fig. – (Collection Études et Recherches sur l’Occident Romain – CEROR, ISSN : 0298.S.500 ; 47). – ISBN : 978.2.36442.057.1.

The past four decades have witnessed a remarkable rehabilitation of Isocrates as a genuine thinker and political philosopher, as M. Vallozza states in her bilingual introduction (Italian: p. 9-11, French: p. 13-15) to this collection of papers presented at a colloquium in Lyon (2013 June 5-7). The volume covers a broad range of topics presented in two separate parts and followed by index, bibliography, abstracts, and table of contents (p. 331-407). Part one addresses the nature, function, and tradition of Isocratean literature (I – Discours d’Isocrate. Texte et fonction rhétorique, p. 19‑146), while the articles of part two analyse themes and motives of Isocrates’ political thinking (II – Philosophie politique d’Isocrate. Entre mythe et histoire, p. 147-329). With one English exception all articles are written in French or Italian, which corresponds to the origin of most authors. In this respect, the volume assembles the current state of Isocratean scholarship in these countries (plus Greece), and to a certain degree blanks out some of the dominant strands of recent Anglo-American (and other) scholarship, as will emerge from the discussion below.

It will not be possible to consider all articles to equal extent in this review nor to discuss single arguments in detail. Instead, the following remarks intend to highlight the most useful articles (in this respect the review reflects the interest of its author) as well as some exemplary strengths and weaknesses of the collection in general.

In the impressive first article of the volume, S. Martinelli Tempesta (L’«archétype» manquant. La transmission du corpus d’Isocrate et les problèmes de la constitutio textus, p. 21-31) argues for a reconstruction of the texthistorical tradition of Isocrates on the assumption that there never existed a single archetypus. Instead, the praxis of discussion and revision of texts in Isocrates’ school might have led to a very early circulation of divergent versions and collections of Isocratean discourses. In suggesting that the medieval MSS mostly trace back to two ancient strands of tradition, and that one of these was canonized by neoplatonic readings of Isocrates in the fifth century CE, this article not only presents a convincing argument, but importantly demonstrates the major relevance of textual history for not only philological, but also historical research in Ancient authors and their thought.

Outstandingly clear and focussed as well is D. Lenfant’s discussion of the reasons behind the divergence in Isocrates’ accounts of Greco‑Persian relations from the Persian Wars to the battle of Cnidus (Isocrate et la vision occidentale des rapports grécoperses, 273‑283). Lenfant demonstrates how basic points of this narrative remain constant throughout Isocrates’ work, and how its application as rhetorical paradigm influences the selectivity and focus of specific accounts. If the paper does not sufficiently answer all questions arising from such reworkings of narrative (To whom is it addressed? Why is there no sign of awareness of these divergencies on Isocrates’ part, when he shows such awareness in the case of the myth of Adrastus in Panegyricus and Panathenaicus?), it succeeds in pointing to the importance of Isocrates in the development of clichés about Persia in later antiquity.

Another important contribution is that of J.-P. Levet (D’une rhétorique pédagogique à une «certaine philosophie» : les enseignements d’Isocrate et la sagesse, p. 285-307) who compellingly discusses Isocrates’ concept of philosophia tôn logôn as a doctrine of political morality through critical analysis and discussion of the different qualities of (right and wrong) dóxa present in Isocratean literature. Approaches of this kind constitute a genuine progress in decoding the modes of practical teaching and learning that are implicitly and explicitly described by Isocrates, and in moving toward a serious assessment of Isocratean philosophy.

Of interest as well are the articles of E. Alexiou (The Rhetoric of Isocrates’ Evagoras : History, Ethics and Politics, p. 47-57) who analyses the idealization of the Salaminian tyrant along the lines of Isocrates’ concept of sound political leadership and identifies its primary audience as Athenian, and of P. Chiron (Le Panathénaïque d’Isocrate et la doctrine rhétorique du discours figuré, p. 59-69) who pursues the ‚meta-discursive‘ message of the Panathenaicus and its influence on the development of λόγος ἐσχηματισμένος/oratio figurata in rhetorical theory. C. Bouchet (Les lois chez Isocrate, p. 149-162) describes Isocrates’ position within the sophistic and philosophical debates about the sources, scope, and function of law in the polis and its relation to paideia. He underlines how Isocrates’ ideas are both dependant and distinct from the nomosphysis antithesis of his sophistic predecessors. C. Bearzot (Isocrate et les dikastes athéniens, p. 163-174) confronts Isocrates’ criticism of 4th century popular juries and their alleged opportunism with his ideal of statesmanship in the Cyprian orations. A similar approach is pursued by A. Bartzoka (Le dêmos et l’Aréopage dans la vision politique et morale d’Isocrate, p. 175-183) who deals with the contrast of Isocrates’ critique of contemporary politics and formulation of his political ideals as past Athenian realities in the Areopagiticus. An interesting argument is presented by M. Bettalli (Isocrate e gli strategi : Guerra e politica nell’Atene del IV secolo a.C., p. 193‑202) who interprets Isocrates’ discussion of the qualities by which a polis should elect its generals as conservative intellectualist reaction to the challenge that the rise of military experts in the fourth century posed to elite definitions of good military leadership. Two further articles address the depiction of the Teucrid dynasty and its founding heroes in the Cyprian orations. E. Bianco (Isocrate e Teucro : alcune riflessioni sull’uso del mito, p. 225-234) presents a thorough and up-to-date discussion of Isocrates’ appropriation of ‘myth’, a use that does not fundamentally differ from that of ‘history’. She importantly points to the fact that the myth of Teucrus became prominent primarily in Athens during the 5th century, and stresses how it is functionalised in Isocrates’ depiction of an ideal political leader. Closely related to this topic is A. Cannavò’s discussion of the amplification of the genealogy of Euagoras of Salamis (Les Teucrides de Chypre au miroir d’Isocrate, p. 235-244).

Some articles are generally useful without being convincing in every respect. V. Azoulay (Le texte et ses interprétations : la politique isocratique de la réception, p. 107‑122) discusses Isocrates’ techniques to guide his readers and arrives at many important conclusions; however, his interpretation of a supposed technique of audience-‘manipulation’ in the quotations from Nicocles in the Antidosis is based upon the less compelling assumption that an alleged monarchical outlook Nicocles would appear ‚shocking‘ to the internal audience of the Antidosis, an argument which he even bases upon a fragile testimony of the Nicocles’ supposed original title (p.110-115).[1] A. Hourcade presents an overview over Isocrates’ ideas on political counselling (Isocrate et la pratique du conseil : sumbouleuein et euboulia, p. 137-146). As useful as the enterprise might be (even though it lacks a discussion of the history of these concepts), the article bases much of its argument upon the testimony of Ad Demonicum and does not even address the fact that this treatise is not considered an authentic Isocratean text by many scholars, including, in the same volume, S. Martinelli Tempesta and C. Bouchet (p. 23, 161). H. Olivier (Isocrate, penseur engagé, intellectuel, nouveau Socrate?, p. 285‑307), addresses the important topic of Isocrates’ self-fashioning as apragmôn and emphasizes that Isocrates’ discourses should not be read as separate texts only, but also as a coherent work. However, she tends to marginalize inherent contradictions and does not at all discuss the question of authenticity in the case of Isocrates’ epistulae. Furthermore, her interpretation of the dialogue at the end of the Panathenaicus as but an attempt of the author to put his laconising tendencies in the mouth of a fictional student falls behind much of the relevant scholarship on the hermeneutical ‘openness’ of such scenes in Isocrates and the ‘authority of the reader’.[2] P. M. Pinto (L’école d’Isocrate : un bilan, p. 319-329) reconstructs a coherent narrative of the development, whereabouts, curricula, and students of Isocrates’ school that brings together the findings of quite disparate older approaches. The idea that Isocrates’ school produced mostly rhetoricians and historians (cf. Cic. de or. 2,94), however, is based upon the assumption that at least the basic informations given by (post)hellenistic biographers can be considered reliable, an assumption quite commonly held, but not altogether unquestionable.

Finally, a couple of articles are problematic in their approach and findings in a more general sense. B. Eck’s reading of On the Team of Horses (Alcibiade dans le Sur l’Attelage, 33‑46) attempts to confront Isocrates’ depiction of Alcibiades with historiographical sources on this politician. It seems clear, however, that by simply stating that Isocrates was not a historiographer, but rhetorically ‘manipulated’ supposed facts, one cannot attain to any deeper understanding of Isocratean speechwriting or narratology, but will more or less reproduce the positivist readings of older German scholarship. Indeed, while Eck treats On the Team of Horses, without discussion, as a product of logography, he wonders that Isocrates might have occasionally ‚forgotten‘ about his minor position as speechwriter when he described Alcibiades in the terms of his own political ideals (p. 40). A description of Alcibiades as hero of an ‚aristocratic‘ democracy, however, poses a problem for the assumption that this was an authentic courtroom speech, since it might possibly have been offensive towards a post-403 Athenian dikasterion. R. Nicolaï (Isocrate, Gorgias et Xénophon : réflexions sur le genre et la finction des λόγοι, p. 123-136) interprets Isocratean discourse as an attempt to adopt and transform the genres and techniques of sophistic literature, but fails to account for Isocrates’ specific arguments on epistemology or his concept of politikoi logoi, which cannot be seperated from his choices of genre. The assumption, in particular, that Isocrates ranked form higher that content in his literary approach (p. 125-128) can hardly be brought to terms with his notion of technê as mere propaedeutics, with the moralistic pretence of his teaching, or with his concept of school-debates which are presented as debates on content, not form, throughout his works. Also, the very existence of ‘stable’ genres in sophistic literature of the early 4th century has recently been put into question, a discussion that would be quite relevant to Nicolaï’s approach.[3] A. Maffi (Isocrate et le droit grec, p. 185‑191) discusses Isocrates’ dicanic speeches which are still awaiting thorough scholarly assessment, especially with regard of their relation to both the rest of Isocrates’ work and to contemporary judicial practice. In addressing the latter problem, Maffi too often gives way to unfalsifiable speculations such as the assumption that, for the Aegineticus, Isocrates might have had access to an ‘international’ network of law experts (p. 186) or that the speaker of Trapeziticus might have been one of Isocrates’ students (p. 187). Obviously wrong is the idea that the reference to Lysitheides in Apollodorus’ speech Against Callippus ([Dem.] 52,14 and 52,30) proved that Isocrates’ students engaged in logography (p. 186-187): Lysitheides is not mentioned as a litigant or logographer in this speech, but as a private arbitrator (even though the plaintiff reproaches him with partiality), a position for which few could be considered less eligible than a notorious logographer. Problematic as well is G. Cuniberti’s approach to Isocrates’ use of historical arguments (Isocrate e la storia ateniese del V secolo, p. 206-216). He argues upon the tenuous premises that (1) all Isocratean texts, regardless of the identity of their ‘fictional’ speakers, represented genuine Isocratean political thought and that (2) the application of history was dominated by a view on formal criteria instead of content. Still, with reference to Panegyricus and Panathenaicus (but disregarding, e.g., On the Peace or Philippus §145-148), Cuniberti believes that Isocrates lent an ear to popular Athenian interpretations of history and tried to exculpate 5th century Athenian politicians like Pericles or Alcibiades from supposed allegations phrased by Thucydides and Xenophon. Similarly, E. Lévy (La Sparte d’Isocrate, p. 245-271) thinks that Isocrates immediately reacted to contemporary political developments in his writing, which explained part of the changes in his presentation of Sparta. However, by discussing criticism of Athenian/Spartan imperialism, criticism of the Spartan state, and recurrent praise of (mostly) Spartan military organisation in separate paragraphs, the article does little to either qualify the precise contexts of the single quoted speeches or explain the obvious contradictions of the depiction of Sparta in between different but especially within single discourses.[4]

As a whole, therefore, the volume leaves a mixed impression. On the one hand, as a general collection, its overview over the current state of Italian, French, and Greek Isocratean scholarship is welcome, and while some of the articles constitute important contributions to the field in general, most contain many interesting readings. On the other hand, major developments of recent scholarship (on Isocrates as well as in general methodology) have been disregarded by some of the authors, concerning especially narratology-based approaches to the relation of history and rhetoric and to Isocrates’ techniques of self-fashioning. Instead, catchphrases of older scholarship are too often reproduced without being reassessed in the light of current scholarship, as e. g. in N. Birgalias’ (†) paper (L’idée de la monarchie dans la pensée d’Isocrate, p. 217-225), which rephrases Mathieu’s 1925 positivist notion of an Isocrates “à la recherche d’un chef” and thus interprets Isocratean literature in an outdated way as some form of journalism or pamphleteering.

A deficit of many articles is their scantness of references to relevant scholarship. Lévy, for example, while twice citing Tigerstedt’s book on the ‘Legend of Sparta’, does not reference other relevant (if old) literature.[5] One is also perplexed why Usener’s dissertation on forms of address in Plato and Isocrates[6] is quoted in several articles but not in P. Demont’s (La composition de l’Aréopagitique d’Isocrate, p. 71-81) or V. Azoulay’s discussions of the forms of address and reception. P. Giovanelli‑Jouanna (La question autobiographique dans l’œuvre d’Isocrate, p. 87-105) and H. Olivier, on the other hand, do quote Too’s important study of the literary persona of ‚Isocrates‘, yet they do nothing to apply or confront her findings concerning the depiction of Isocrates as a quietist intellectual, even though they address the topics of self-fashioning and apragmosynê in their papers.

Finally, the volume would have deserved stronger internal coherence. This does not imply that the articles, taken together, needed to present a consistent one-directional reading of Isocrates; instead, one would expect a certain degree of internal disagreement in a collection as broad as this. But such disagreement could have been utilized in order to present a differentiated picture. That, however, would have afforded that divergent positions within the volume (e.g. the different interpretations of the Cyprian orations: decidedly pro-monarchical in Azoulay and Birgalias vs. general treatises on leadership in Alexiou and Bearzot) explicitly confronted each other instead of simply being juxtaposed. This, in fact, is the very advantage of conference proceedings: that they proceed from the discussions at conferences instead of reproducing the papers.

As a postscript, this review has to comment on the material quality of the paperback book, the adhesive binding of which did not survive (careful) one-time reading in an outdoor situation.

Thomas Blank


[1]. Even if one assumes that a title given in a group of late antique manuscripts really stemmed from the 4th century BC, Azoulay’s argument proves unsustainable when confronted with Martinelli Tempesta’s suggestion (see above) that there never was a single authorised version of the corpus Isocrateum. If anything, it seems more compelling (and, indeed, in line with Azoulay’s argument) that ‚original‘ (sub)titles of To Nicocles (‚How to govern as a tyrant‘) and Nicocles (‚What the governed are ought to do‘) are given in Isoc. 3,11 rather than in later manuscript headings.

[2]. For a thorough discussion see P. Roth, Der Panathenaikos des Isokrates. Ein Kommentar. Munich 2003.

[3]. Cf. overview and discussion of this debate in J. H. Collins II, Exhortations to Philosophy. The Protreptics of Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle, Oxford 2015, p. 16-33.

[4]. Except for Vallozza’s introduction the articles were obviously finished before the publication of the reviewer’s own book on these problems (T. Blank, Logos und Praxis. Sparta als politisches Exemplum in den Schriften des Isokrates, Berlin 2014).

[5]. E. N. Tigerstedt, The Legend of Sparta in Classical Antiquity, Stockholm 1965-1975 ; P. Cloché, « Isocrate et la politique Lacédémonienne », REA 35, 1933, p. 129-145 ; Fr. Ollier, Le mirage Spartiate. Étude sur l’idéalisation de Sparte dans l’antiquité grecque de l’origine jusqu’aux Cyniques, Paris 1933 ; E. Rawson, The Spartan Tradition in European Thought, Oxford 1969.

[6]. S. Usener, Isokrates, Platon und ihr Publikum. Hörer und Leser vorn Literatur im 4. Jahrhundert v., Tübingen 1994.