In reading both of these excerpts from Isocrates, I kept finding myself thinking how apt his words were for contemporary composition specialists. Any of us could use so much of what he said in a “philosophy of teaching writing” statement, in any attempts to defend compositions classes – or any humanities classes – from administrators trying to cut corners, or in response to those students who complain that they don’t think they should have to take writing or humanities courses because, as they say, “I don’t need them in my job,” or simply in answer someone who complains, “A philosophy degree? An English degree? What good is that?!”
But I also appreciate how balanced Isocrates’ view of a liberal education is. He values the study of those disciplines which help us “exercise” and “sharpen” our ability to learn, but he also wants to avoid “barren subtleties” and “vain speculations” such as Empedocles et al’s attempts to pinpoint the nature of matter (76). Isocrates doesn’t think any absolute knowledge is attainable. And, in fact, he emphasizes practical knowledge so much (whatever will help the state, our ability “to live with one another” 75) that I wonder if even if he did think some absolute knowledge was possible he would advocate that we spend any time searching for it. It seems as if absolute or transcendent knowledge is just not something of value to him. He’s far more fascinated by the simple fact that we human beings, unlike animals, possess the “power to persuade each other and to make clear to each other what we desire” (75).
I also found it interesting that his model blends what in a university or college we would call “philosophy” with “composition.” When he talks about the value of intelligence and wisdom (i.e., clear thinking), he doesn’t fail to talk also about “the power to speak well,” and vice versa (75 and 77). Today we often (usually?) split these two into two courses, two departments: philosophy and English. Some writing courses will get into clarity of thought, fallacies, etc. But many don’t. And those skills are often taught under “logic” (formal and informal) courses in the philosophy department. Would that the English department could get intelligence and wisdom as well as “the power to speak well” all under its roof!
Finally, I found Isocrates discussion of what education can and cannot accomplish interesting. We can’t teach virtue, he says, but we can teach people to “become better and worthier if they conceive an ambition to speak well, if they become possessed of the desire to be able to persuade their hearers…” (77). I can hear a choir of composition instructors answering, “Amen! Amen!” And I thought Isocrates’ support for that point exciting. I had never thought before about how one’s desire for honor will lead to one’s aiming for honorable discourse (and vice versa) and how that desire will lead to valuing character. And I agree partly. I think that dynamic probably works in politics (and hopefully in religion) in which voters are paying attention to the candidates’ words and actions and in which voters (usually!) want someone whom they can trust. But I’m wondering if that dynamic works in popular culture or popular media. A student who decides he wants to learn how to persuade his audience, say, in the realm of filmmaking may not decide he wants to attain honor and praise, but profit. He may decide he wants to thrill his audience more than he wants to edify them. Most movie-goers don’t think much about the character of the director or screenwriter. Maybe it’s an example of how technology has created a distance between “rhetor” and “audience.”