Historical Rhetorics/A Little Aristotle and the Other Socrates/Isocrates' ''Against the Sophists''

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Isocrates. Vol. II. Trans. George Norlin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000. 159-179.[edit | edit source]

Why Does Isocrates Mistrust the Sophists[edit | edit source]

First, they claim more than they should. Be wary of anyone who claims the ability to teach everyone (168).

I marvel when I observe these men setting themselves up as instructors of youth who cannot see that they are applying the analogy of an art with hard and fast rules to a creative process. For, excepting these teachers, who does not know that the art of using letters remains fixed and unchanged, so that we continually and invariably use the same letters for the same purposes, while exactly the reverse is true of the art of discourse? For what has been said by one speaker is not equally useful for the speaker who comes after him; on the contrary, he is accounted most skilled in this art who speaks in a manner worthy of his subject and yet is able to discover in it topics which are nowise the same as those used by others. But the greatest proof of the difference between these two arts is that oratory is good only if it has the qualities of fitness for the occasion, propriety of style, and the originality of treatment, while in the case of letters there is no such need whatsoever. (171)


Formal training makes such men more skilful (sic) and more resourceful in discovering the possibilities of a subject; for it teaches them to take from a readier source the topics which they otherwise hit upon in haphazard fashion. But it cannot fully fashion men who are without natural aptitude into good debaters or writers, although it is capable of leading them on to self-improvement and to a greater degree of intelligence on many subjects. (173)

Second, they claim to do it for way too cheap.

Third, the claim to predict the future. Note that Isocrates is wary of anyone who claims to offer "exact knowledge," prefering instead those who operate from judgments (167); he dismisses this "art" as "stuff and nonsense" (167).

Fourth, there's the problem with those who teach the rather useless art of disputation (see 177).