Friday, March 8, 2013

The Great Tradition: Isocrates, Part I

I'v decided to try and make this a once or twice a week post, since it takes up a good amount of time. I am reading from the book every day, however, and am now going through Aristotle's Politics.

As I stated in an earlier post, I'm intending to break up the Isocrates into at least two parts, as I greatly enjoyed his selections, and have quite a bit to say.

This post will be on the selection from the Panathenaicus, which deals with the proper things to study for 1) young men, and 2) older men. He discusses different things - geometry, astronomy, eristic dialogues (debating for the sake of argument), and other arts (such as painting or music), why it is proper that young men should study those things, and how much they should study them.

It seems like these things were disparaged in this time, as inferior to dialogue. Isocrates says that these things are good to study for a time, if for no other reason than to keep the young people from other things (idle hands, and all that). He says "...that even if this learning can accomplish no other good, at any rate it keeps the young out of many other things which are harmful." Socrates says much the same thing in the selection from Xenophon, though he commended study of astronomy for the useful end of being able to find your position by heavenly bodies, and geometry for the useful end of being able to measure out a plot of property. So it seems that utility is to be reserved for the lesser arts, whereas dialogue should be pursued for its own end.

But back to Isocrates. He goes on to say that it is improper for study of these arts and sciences to continue past a certain point, for the reason that those who attain a mastery in those subjects do so to the detriment of their ability to speak, reason, and behave well.

This brings to my mind a quote from Edward Newhouse's short story "Debut Recital," in which the piano teacher is describing the performer's temperament, and what it takes to be a great performer. She says "Most performing musicians are not nice at all. They are, if you like, brats." I'm sure we have all known the type: a virtuoso from childhood, who not only is able to perform difficult pieces, but to compose them as well, and yet, take them away from their instrument, and you can't be sure they know how to tie their own shoes. They have been so absorbed in music (or whatever it is they are geniuses at) that they have forgotten - or were never taught - the basic skills in life. I can certainly see the appeal in desiring your child to be one of the "great ones" in something, but if it harms them intellectually and socially, is it worth it? I suppose every parent must answer that for themselves.

In opposition to this extremity (or eccentricity), Isocrates gives a brilliant four point description of the truly educated (or well rounded, if you like) man.

Whom, then, do I call educated, since I exclude the arts and sciences and specialties? First, those who manage well the circumstances which they encounter day by day, and who possess a judgement which is accurate in meeting occasions as they arise and rarely misses the expedient course of action; next, those who are decent and honorable in their intercourse with all with whom they associate, tolerating easily and good-naturedly what is unpleasant or offensive in others and being themselves as agreeable and reasonable to their associates as it is possible to be; furthermore, those who hold their pleasures always under control and are not unduly overcome by their misfortunes, bearing up under them bravely and in a manner worthy of our common nature; finally, and most important of all, those who are not spoiled by successes and do not desert their true selves and become arrogant, but hold their ground steadfastly as intelligent men, not rejoicing in the good things which have come to them through chance rather than in those which through their own nature and intelligence are theirs from their birth. Those who have a character which is in accord, not with one of these things, but with all of them—these, I contend, are wise and complete men, possessed of all the virtues.
Brilliant and impossible, as I'm sure you can see. I was reading through this passage while giving my daughter a bath one weekday evening, and could remember a thousand ways I had transgressed against these points. And this is only the law of a man!

I summed these points up as such in the margin:

1. Do the right thing at the right time.
2. Be good natured to all, and bear one another (their burdens and their annoying tendencies)
3. Experience your emotions, but in a controlled manner.
4. Do not be over proud of things that God as given to you as a good gift, as it did not originate in yourself.

Strict rule for anyone, especially a middle and high school teacher, and especially the second point.

Next up is the selection from the Antidosis, which was awesome.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Very good--a high standard for us to reach. This is a good example of the type of ancient wisdom that Jason Jewell wrote about.