Isocrates was a philosopher, educator, and speech writer. He began his professional career as a writer of courtroom speeches (for other speakers) and after a decade of working in this capacity he set up his own school of rhetoric. His first school was on Chios, a Greek island in the Agean sea. He then moved his school to Athens (c. 388 BC) where, though he only enrolled six students at a time, it evolved into a very popular and lucrative program, attracting aristocratic male students who wanted training in oratory from all over Greece. His school was in direct competition with that of Plato, and the two were rivals within their communities (Benoit, 1991).
In 390 BC Isocrates wrote a treatise, called Against the sophists, arguing against other teachers of rhetoric (sophists) because of their limited scope of education. He held that in order to be a good orator one needs a broad education involving ethics and politics. His curriculum also emphasized how to use language to solve practical problems.
He had his students practice creating and delivering speeches on various topics. His emphasis was on the appropriateness and naturalness of the speech rather than on whether it conformed to a priori principles of rhetoric. He taught his students how to portray their thoughts clearly rather than impressing his audience through flowery language.
Isocrates was the first educator to utilize imitation and models as educational tools. The Panegyricus (c. 380 B.C.) and the Plataeicus (c. 373 B.C.) were written as model speeches for his pupils
Isocrates saw speech/oratory as being key to being human. He felt that education should emphasize speech, especially its use to attain political power. He believed that education should not just teach us to think, it should also make us well-rounded citizens who can succeed in society.
Isocrates lived to be 98 years old. Some say he committed suicide by starving himself to death.
Benoit, William (1991). Isocrates and Plato on rhetoric and rhetorical education. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 21, 1, 60-71.
Poulakis, Takis (1997). Speaking for the polis. Isocrates’ rhetorical education. University of South Carolina Press.
Sullivan, Robert G. (2001) Eidos, Idea in Isocrates. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 34, 79-92.
Sullivan, Robert G. (2005) Pre-Aristotelian Theories of Argument: Isocratean Vocabulary and Practice. In David Hitchcock (Ed.). The uses of argument. Hamilton, ON: OSSA.
Sullivan, Robert G. (2006). Book review of Isocrates and civic education. Takis Poulakis and David Depew (Eds.). Philosophy and Rhetoric 39, 174-178.
Sullivan, Robert G. (2007). Classical epistolary theory and the letters of Isocrates. In Carol Poster and Linda Mitchell Letter writing manuals from antiquity to the present. University of South Carolina Press.