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Isocrates was the first teacher of writing of which we have record. Records approximate his birth in Greece in 436 BCE, and his approximate death, in 338. What is clearly known of Isocrates is that he opened a rhetoric school in Athens in around 393. His school predates Plato’s. Once Plato had established his school, Isocrates’ came under intense attack first by Plato, then Aristotle.
Unlike most rhetoric schools of the times which were taught by itinerant sophists, Isocrates defined himself against the sophists. His first work is titled Against the Sophists and he later treats the subject again in Antidosis and the Helen. He wanted rhetoric and speech reserved for moral purpose, much like Aristotle. However, Aristotle would accept only those who exhibited talent, and Isocrates felt that even those of less talent could be taught the fundamentals of good writing.
Isocrates may have emphasized writing above speaking because he was notably a very poor speaker with a weak voice. He was also reportedly shy. Unlike the sophists, his school advertisements were not public demonstrations of his oratory powers, but rather, tracts advertising his methods and philosophies.
Plato and others were suspicious of writing for several reasons that Isocrates did not share, though he may have actually studied with Socrates. Oral tradition was the primary means of transmission of culture in Ancient Greece, thus writing was suspect. Additionally, Plato believed that books could easily fall into the wrong hands and be misinterpreted, thus to write down knowledge was a dangerous practice.
Isocrates conversely believed that writing was an important act by itself that should be taught. Much of Isocrates’ later writing is in the form of letters sent to rulers imploring them to promote the idea of a united Greece and end wars between city-states. His commitment to pan-Hellenism served as a model for students learning to write. Writing was not just an exercise to improve speaking, but it was also important as an activity of the everyday citizen.
Isocrates, in his concept of writing with purpose, is much imitated in current schools of thought on writing. Young students are often encouraged to write letters to editors of newspapers, or complaint or praise letters to companies. Teaching writing with a purpose, instead of the usual “theme-based” essays of the past is thought to help emphasize that real writing can have real results, and is not exclusively the province of those who wish to write for a living.
As a teacher, Isocrates was deeply concerned with not only teaching practical writing, but also helping young men actively contribute to the society once they became citizens. His school became the model for the later rhetorical schools of the Romans. He did emphasize his own political agenda, that of constantly working toward a unified Greece, however his school is remarkable as being truly the first of its kind.
Unlike the sophists, Isocrates wanted writing to be practical, and neither be the kinds of oratory display of the sophists, nor the dialectic form taught by Plato and then Aristotle. He saw a need for clear writing of both political tracts and letters. His work is extensive and has been much preserved, representing primarily short topics and letters. Unfortunately, there is no direct record of his teaching methods, merely that which can be inferred from his writings.
Isocrates is often ignored when people examine the schools of Ancient Greece. He tends to represent the middle ground between the sophists and the schools of Plato and Aristotle. Recent scholarship has redirected interest in Isocrates, as he can properly be called the father of modern composition.