Historical Rhetorics/A Little Aristotle and the Other Socrates/Isocrates' "Busiris"

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A Commentary on the Busiris by Niall Livingstone[edit]

The Busiris is an odd piece, according to the commentator Niall Livingstone, because even though it was written by Isocrates, it ought not to have been written by him. As a result, it is not as broadly known as his other works such as the Panegyricus, Panathenaicus, Antidosis, and Against the Sophists. Livingston proposes several reasons for this. It is not an ecomium but contains an ecomium. It is styled as a letter but much too long to be one. It was supposed to be a "private" letter to Polycrates but, instead, was published and widely distributed. As such, because scholars could not easily classify it, they could not understand what the Busiris was supposed to be and so it faded. According to Livingtone, the Busiris "is a sophisticated advertisement for Isocrates' educational program" and is a "key text" in establishing Isocrates' role as both a writer and an educator. Stylistically it is polemical, ironic, sarcastic, discursive, insinuating, and epideictic. In other words, it is unusual and owes its genesis to that golden age of Athens when the mightiest thinkers of the age engaged in nothing less than a marketing war for students.

Publishing Background[edit]

Livingstone writes that the date of the Busiris is unknown but scholars estimate that it is one of Isocrates' earlier works, published close to the Pangyricus. It is written partly as a response to a work by Polycrates on Busiris, the murderous and fictionally canabilistic King of Egypt. The piece by Polycrates, the type of Sophist denounced by Isocrates, is supposed to be clever in that by "praising" paradoxically the villainous monarch, he manages to show off his rhetorical skills. Isocrates, in his Busiris, sets out to gently remonstrate his fellow rhetorician by co-opting his subject and writing his own "encomium" of the king. The Busiris is everything but a formal praise of the historical figure. Instead, it is an ironic and sarcastic criticism of Polycrates and a parody of Plato's Republic and possibly the Phaedrus.

Analysis[edit]

Busiris is a letter addressed to someone unknown to Isocrates but it is someone whom he wishes to correspond with "in private." Livingstone comments that he wishes to help this person out of good will and a sincere desire to aid the other writer (we are to suspect that it is Polycrates). Much is written about how this letter is "a second-best alternative to oral communication." At first, while this may seem incidental, this discussion does have an important basis in the continual rhetorical debate developing at this time. A major feature in this discourse was the written word. Plato and other contemporaries criticized writing because it could not explain or defend itself (7). Isocrates, on the other hand, "apologizes" for writing but then makes a strong argument that sending a letter was the quickest and most reliable way to send a message if one could not meet in person. Thus, once again, we see the pragmatist Isocrates engaging his critics on their intractable position, this time on the usefulness of writing.

The Busiris, like many of the other works by Isocrates, is difficult to place in a traditional Aristotelian genre. The reason for this, according to Livingstone, is simple: Isocrates' didn't fit neatly into any of them with the Busiris a clear example. This work is many things. It is both and encomium and defense of Busiris the king, "it is apotrpetic (urging the writer to abandon his present course) and protreptic (urging him to adopt a new one)" (10). However, this piece is more than this. It is more complicated. Weaved throughout is Isocrates' "education" of Polycrates and here, specifically, is where genre comes into play for while it is not as important to him, it is important enough that he point out when someone does it wrong. In this case, it's Polycrates' conflation of praise and defense. For Isocrates, the genres must be pure (12).

In the final analysis, however, this seems trivial. Isocrates' criticism smacks of being pedantic.Again, though, it is important to understand the context of this work as a part of the larger "marketing war" that was going on in and around Athens. By pointing this error out, Isocrates is illustrating the "consequence of the paradoxical theme" (13). He shows that due to the nature of the subject, and the overwhelming negative history Polycrates had to overcome, the "rhetorical tour-de-force" was nothing of the kind. Instead, Polycrates produced an inferior, defective, and structurally inconsistent work that was, instead of being clever, turned out being a product of ignorance.