Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Honors 10 Page Paper
An Overview of Part 5 of America the Philosophical and a defense of “Sophists and Sophistry”
Anderson, Michael T.
Honors Introduction to Philosophy
In part five of his book America the Philosophical Carlin Romano discusses Isocrates, an ancient Greek thinker whom Romano believes to be not just a philosopher, a view not shared among many contemporary intellectuals, but perhaps a philosopher with more influence on American thought than his more famous contemporaries such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. In the first subsection of part five of America the Philosophical, “Busting Isocrates”, Romano begins by highlighting the popularity of Socrates in both intellectual and non-intellectual circles and then contrasts that popularity with the relatively unknown status that Isocrates holds in the same circles. He continues to emphasize the under-appreciation of Isocrates with the example that even in Athens, the home city of Isocrates, it is impossible to locate a bust or illustration of the ancient thinker, while hundreds of depictions of other ancient Athenians abound. Romano proposes that Isocrates should be just as famous as Socrates, and that the battle between the rhetoric of Isocrates and the philosophy of Socrates during the “heyday” of ancient Athens was really just a battle between two different views of philosophy. He goes on to say that the popular view of Socrates as an “open-minded investigator of ideas”, stems from the fact that his own beliefs were never really challenged.
Romano then contrasts the views of Socrates with those of Isocrates, and emphasizes the “imprecise” discourse and deliberation, “logos politikos”, that Isocrates viewed philosophy to be. Romano proposes that this view of philosophy matches American pragmatism and philosophical practice far more than the view Socrates held. He argues that America has operated under the philosophical “sign” of Isocrates for a long time now. He then states that the influence of Isocrates on American philosophy has gone unnoticed and that the intellectual life in America has been described wrong. Romano concludes this subsection with a challenge to both American intellectual historians and foreign thinkers to correctly describe intellectual life in this country.
In the second subsection of part five of America the Philosophical, “Isocrates’s Life”, Romano begins by explaining that all reliable biographical information on Isocrates comes from his surviving works and that what little else we know about him comes from tradition, which is often considered unreliable and must be taken with caution. He goes into a brief biography of Isocrates that begins with his childhood, covers members of his family, and then highlights his studies with Tisias, who was thought to have founded the rhetorical practice with his master Corax. The biography then talks about Isocrates’s time as a logographer, which he denied in his late apologia Antidosis, and his tutelage of a young Aristotle. According to Romano six speeches survive that are attributed to Isocrates, yet contemporary scholars are still divided on whether or not he actually gave them. The text briefly mentions Isocrates’s marriage and then talks about his school in Athens, which served as the chief rival of Plato’s Academy.
After discussing Isocrates’s school, Romano moves on to what garnered Isocrates the most attention during his time, his call for ‘Panhellenism’. Isocrates believed that the Greek city-states should unite under the leadership of Athens, and under Philip of Macedonia’s leadership later during the war with the Persian ‘barbarians’. According to the text, Isocrates believed that an individual could be a Greek in a cultural and political sense rather than in a racial and ethnic sense. Romano points out that this belief is similar to the contemporary notion that anyone can become an American. He then states that Isocrates viewed becoming Greek entailed possessing intellectual and linguistic ability, sharing Greek values, and obtaining a Greek education.
Romano concludes the brief biography with Isocrates’s death, due to self-starvation, after the Athenian defeat at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. In the next paragraph he states that despite the exclusion of Isocrates from philosophical tradition by Plato and Aristotle, most scholars agree that his school was far more influential on Greek and Roman education than either the Academy or the Lyceum. The text then highlights that in ancient Athens the ability to speak in public was more valuable than the ability to express oneself through writing. It then goes on to highlight Isocrates’s accomplishment of establishing writing as a method of both political expression and activity. Romano wraps up this subsection by once again proposing that Isocrates is indeed a “philosophical founding father”; he also hints at the idea that Isocrates may be the “father of blogging”, highlights his popularity during the Renaissance, and ends with an example of his wit.
In the third subsection of part five of America the Philosophical, “Images and Clichés of Isocrates”, Romano begins with praise given to Isocrates from various classical scholars. After listing several positive quotes from these scholars, Romano reminds readers that negative views of Isocrates exist as well and gives notable examples that paint a much different picture of the ancient Athenian. He again contrasts Isocrates with Socrates, painting the latter as a universally revered hero among philosophers and the former as an often criticized favorite of a niche group. Romano goes on to suggest that the negative clichés about Isocrates have been adopted and perpetuated by those who don’t study him directly. He states that to gain an appreciation for Isocrates and understand why he matters to both Greek and American intellectual history, one must understand the difference between sophists, rhetoricians, and philosophers in ancient Greece.
In the fourth subsection of part five of America the Philosophical, “Sophists and Sophistry”, Romano begins by listing the most famous sophists of ancient Greece. He notes that Socrates and Isocrates were both considered to be sophists during their time, though both rejected the label. He describes the sophists as intellectuals who traveled and taught the art of persuasion and argument for a fee. These skills were considered invaluable in a democratic society in which political participation depended on the ability to speak in public and sway an audience’s opinion. Romano notes Plato’s view of the sophists, which was that they were “cheats and sharpies oblivious to the truth”.
He states that Plato believed the sophists were only teaching their skills in the pursuit of monetary gain and that they didn’t care about the interests of the audience. Socrates considered the sophists to be ‘prostitutes of wisdom’, because they sold their knowledge for a profit. At the time most ancient Greek philosophers shared Plato and Socrates’s views on the sophists, and that is why most of Western intellectual history takes a derogatory stance on the sophists. Thus ‘sophistry’ today is synonymous with “crafty and deceptive thinking”. Romano informs the reader that very little source material exists from the sophists themselves and that Plato, the best source we have available, is biased.
He then explores Plato’s views on the sophists in depth, and talks about how Plato identified Isocrates with the worst features sophists possessed. Romano asserts that Plato’s label of Isocrates as a sophist is a “distortion”, and then gives several examples of views that Isocrates shared with Plato and Socrates. He also points out one major problem in labeling Isocrates a sophist; Isocrates wrote a pamphlet entitled Against the Sophists circa 390 B.C. In his pamphlet, Isocrates asserted that sophist discourse was “the greatest obstacle to achieving Greek unity and Athenian hegemony”. Romano then concludes this subsection by pointing out Isocrates’s sedentary lifestyle and citizenship of Athens, a sharp contrast to the nomadic sophist lifestyle, as well as his “conceptual scheme” not revolving around what is “powerful” like that of the sophists.
He points out that Isocrates clearly distinguished himself from the sophists, and then asks if Isocrates was a rhetorician. In the fifth subsection of part five of America the Philosophical, “Rhetoricians and Rhetoric”, Romano begins by defining what rhetoric meant in ancient Greece. He highlights Gorgias, the man who made rhetoric famous in ancient Athens. He also notes how even Plato depicted Gorgias and rhetoric fairly in his dialogues, and later recognized a “higher form of dialectical rhetoric” in the Phaedrus. In the next paragraph, Romano discusses how neither Gorgias nor Isocrates used the word rhetorike to refer to what they did.
He points out that Isocrates described his practice as ‘philosophy’, and that Plato and Aristotle are the ones who used the Greek words for ‘rhetoric’ and ‘rhetorician’. In ancient Greece, a rhetor was someone who spoke often in courts or assemblies. Romano states the Plato did not trust training of such orators, because he believed it would not produce ‘proper statesmen’. Plato was actually the one who coined the word rhetorike and who spread the derogatory meaning of it, ‘duplicitous’ or ‘deceptive’ argumentation. He states that Plato coined rhetorike in order to distinguish his own discourse and thus elevate it to a “privileged status”.
Romano highlights the popular opinion among classical scholars that there are two incredibly different intellectual practices from ancient Greece, “dubious rhetoric and noble philosophy”, and that Isocrates represents the former and Socrates and Plato represent the latter. He states that classics often “bandy” about the terms philosophy and rhetoric, and concedes that differences of scholarly opinion on the subject is partly a matter of “semantic choice”. He then points out that Isocrates distanced himself from the “worst non-philosophical aspects” of rhetoric, just as he did with the “worst non-philosophical aspects” of sophistry. Romano goes on to highlight Isocrates’s position on the teaching of rhetoric and how he believed there should be no “rigid” form used. Isocrates was “amazed” when he saw teachers of rhetoric “using an ordered art as a model for a creative activity”.
Romano concludes this subsection by giving an example of a scholarly opinion on Isocrates which “corroborates the element of semantic choice in this area”, and then explains why Isocrates avoided using the term rhetoric to describe his profession. Isocrates did not want to be too closely connected to oratory teachers whom Plato had said would never be ‘regarded as philosophers’. In the sixth subsection of part five of America the Philosophical, “Isocrates, Philosopher”, Romano begins by exploring the origin of the word philosopher. He looks at Pythagoras, the first to use the term, and then observes how Plato changed the meaning of the word to ‘lover and pursuer of wisdom’. According to Romano, “Philosophy, for Plato, aimed at understanding ‘transcendent essences’ of the concepts it addressed”.
He then highlights Isocrates’s disagreement with Plato on the meaning of philosophia and discusses the “in play” nature of the word. Isocrates attempted to designate his own method as philosophia through his various works, such as: Antidosis, Helen, and Nicocles. Romano asserts that “genuine philosophy” must answer everyday problems, and that it enhances a student’s thinking and speaking abilities. He proposes that Isocrates transitioned philosophy from speech to writing and in doing so, assists us in understanding the internal origins of philosophy. Romano then highlights Isocrates’s “moral sensibility” in his work, a sensibility that the sophists or rhetoricians of the day did not possess.
Isocrates rejects the Platonic view that there exist ethical principles that can apply to all possible situations, and stresses “the contingency of such judgments”. Nonetheless, the Platonic definition of philosophia was adopted by Western intellectual history and thus is the definition that most scholars use today. However, Romano proposes that the definition of philosophy is once again being contested and that America the Philosophical, like Isocrates, doesn’t pigeonhole philosophy to one type of thinking nor proposes that ‘any’ sort of this thinking amounts to philosophy. He once again declares Isocrates to be a philosopher and asserts that he is a more “compatible” thinker with American philosophy than either Plato or Socrates.
In the seventh and final subsection of part five of America the Philosophical, “Isocrates, Greece and America”, Romano begins by once again comparing Isocrates’s Panhellenism to the modern day concept of being an American. With Panhellenism, Isocrates proposed that being Greek was a “state of mind” and that sharing a common culture was more important than sharing a common blood. Isocrates was an advocate of sophrosyne, or self-control, and valued the freedom of others. The text suggests that this makes Isocrates a ‘pronounced believer in democracy’, as long as that democracy doesn’t turn into “mob rule”.
Isocrates was unique in this respect, because during his time most philosophers were critical of rule by the people. He showed far more support for it than Plato and other influential philosophers of the day did. However, his stature in political thought suffered as much as his stature in philosophical thought due to deriders likes Aristotle. Aristotle did not share Isocrates support of democracy and often condescended to him in the political realm. Isocrates’s view of a united, Athenian led, Greece has been seen as imperialistic by many intellectuals, but the text gives several examples of scholars defending this view.
Romano then suggests that Isocrates’s resonates with contemporary America, and that he “appeals to the instincts of the man in the street”. He goes on to identify several ways in which Isocrates’s vision of Athens and greater Greece resembles America. He highlights connections between classical writers and the founding fathers, and suggests that the classics gave them a large portion of intellectual tools. Romano suggests that America’s “immense diversity” forces its citizens to philosophize and that if Americans have come to recognize that truth emerges from consensus, it can be attributed to Isocrates. He concludes the final subsection with John Rawls’s recognition of the pluralism of philosophical and political beliefs present in the United States, and Rawls’s inability to convince Americans of principles they would not accept.
In the subsection of part five of America the Philosophical entitled “Sophists and Sophistry” Carlin Romano’s main thesis is “There is no question that Isocrates distinguished himself from the Sophists.” I agree with this thesis, because in the text Romano clearly defines what a sophist is, he presents accusations of Isocrates being a sophist, and then gives sufficient evidence that shows that Isocrates did distinguish himself from the sophists. Most of what we know about sophists and sophistry comes from collected fragments that amount to less than twenty pages, and the most credible source we have on the sophists is Plato. Plato as a source is biased, because in his day he was a major detractor of sophistry and was the one who labeled Isocrates as a sophist. Plato had extra incentive to tarnish the reputation of Isocrates because his school was the chief rival of Plato’s Academy, and his overall attitude towards sophistry was a mocking and condescending one.
Isocrates actually shared views that Plato had, such as the disparagement of eristics. Isocrates even wrote a pamphlet entitled Against the Sophists in which he considers them to be greatest obstacle preventing his Panhellenism from being realized. Unlike sophists, Isocrates demanded reflection and deliberative choice, rather than unthinking response. Isocrates was also not a nomad like the sophists, and in fact led a fairly sedentary lifestyle. His shared views with Plato, open opposition of sophists, and his lifestyle convince me that Isocrates was not a sophist.
Romano, Carlin. America the Philosophical. New York: Knopf, 2012. Print.