What does it mean to be a man or woman of principle? Most would agree that it means one lives ones life after a set of beliefs which operate as an anchor to make sure that one does not simply follow that which is convenient, popular, or easy at any given time. Yet being a person of principle is not the same as being rigid or being unable to take uncertain conditions into consideration. Most of the decisions we have to take in our everyday lives involve a greater or lesser degree of uncertainty as to what the outcomes will be. How then, can we make a decision when we don't have all the data? This is where two of the great thinkers of the ancient world offered radically different approaches: Plato advocated that we search for the transcendent true principles by the method of dialectic, whereas Isocrates recommended that we conjecture to find the best course of action by the method of rhetoric.
In his Antidosis, Isocrates claims that the ability of speech is the basis of human superiority over animals: “we are inferior to many in swiftness and in strength . . . but because there has been implanted in us the power to persuade each other . . . not only have we escaped the life of the wild beasts, but we have come together and founded cities and made laws and invented arts . . . there is no institution devised by man which the power of speech has not helped us to establish” (75). Notice that he writes about the development of man through speech as a progressive history with words such as “escaped,” “come together,” “founded cities,” “made laws” and “invented arts,” showing clearly that the construct of human civilization was not a finished building, but was rather a product of laying brick by brick over many years. In the same way, Isocrates sees the development of the human mind as a work in progress facilitated by speech, “With this faculty we both contend against others on matters which are open to dispute and seek light for ourselves on things which are unknown” (75). Rather than Plato’s immortal soul which merely seeks to remember what it already knows (Phaedrus 66), we here see a universe of uncertainty, where man seeks illumination for himself through speech in the midst of the great unknown. It is in these divergent ideas of the world we must situate the writings of Plato and Isocrates if we are to understand why they espouse such different views on rhetoric and philosophy. For Plato, philosophy is a process of uncovering universal truth which is accessible in a transparent universe; for Isocrates, it is a process of conjecture and good judgment which is the best man can hope to achieve in a world when we have to act in the present without any real knowledge about the future.
Isocrates knows that his assumptions about the world are the foundations of his argument, therefore he sets out to establish these early on in Against the Sophists, “For I think it is manifest to all that foreknowledge of future events is not vouchsafed to our human nature, but that we are so far removed from this prescience that Homer . . . has pictured even the gods at times debating among themselves about the future” (72; Jaeger 129). In such an environment it seems clear that mankind cannot demand perfect knowledge or perfect definitions. Rather, mankind have to make do with what they have, gradually improving the construct from a tent, to a hut, to a house. Indeed, Isocrates even argues that our ideas about social values were not established prior to language, but rather established by language: “For this it is which has laid down laws concerning things just and unjust, and things honourable and base: and if it were not for these ordinances we should not be able to live with one another. It is by this also that we confute the bad and extol the good” (Antidosis 75). The conclusion therefore becomes obvious: Since man cannot know about the future, the man is wise “who is able by his powers of conjecture to arrive generally at the best course, and I hold that man to be a philosopher who occupies himself with the studies from which he will most quickly gain that kind of insight” (77). Bereft of truth, all man can hope for is the development of character and judgment. In consequence, this becomes the focus of Isocrates’ educational project, with rhetoric as the natural center of the practical arts. As Jaeger states, "he has made a virtue of necessity" (137). Isocrates, unlike the speechwriters, was not lacking a transcendent ideal for his philosophy. He found it in Panhellenism, which could only be brought to pass through unity and cohesion, making this the aim of his rhetoric (Jaeger 126).
With this framework, it also becomes clear why sophists and so-called philosophers are worthy of censure (Isocrates mixed the terms, but for clarity I will use Plato's nomenclature): Philosophers seek that which they cannot gain, and therefore they waste the time and talents of their students on hair-splitting, “they pretend to have knowledge of the future but are incapable either of saying anything pertinent or of giving any counsel regarding the present” (73). Sophists, on the other hand, “have no interest whatever in the truth” (73), and as such end up completely without morals or character, subjected to the moment rather than any transcendent ideal, as well as being poor teachers without rigor in their teachings.
If, on the other hand, we believe like Plato that absolute universal truths are attainable, it makes sense that we should first seek out this foundation before we start to construct our lives. Thus, just as a doctor must know how the body works before he starts an operation, so we must know the nature of virtue, beauty, and that which is good before we can know how we should live our lives. Plato sees the philosopher as someone building a house who first digs down to the solid bedrock in order to have a solid foundation, Isocrates sees him as a person on a thin raft of principles which is floating over the liquid foundation of speech, and out of driftwood and other sparse materials this man must try to construct a boat. Jaeger mentions that most unlike the alphabet are "the fluid and manifold situations of human life" (134), which is the realm of rhetoric.
Here is one example of how the complexity of human interactions and human relationships makes knowledge more fluid:
These two perspectives may be reflected in their divergent views on the good life. Plato’s Socrates observes the world with curiosity, yet with what sometimes seems like a calm detachment. Isocrates criticizes this “isolation” and claims that “men who want to do some good in the world must banish utterly from their interests all vain speculations and activities which have no bearing on our lives” (76). The philosophy of Isocrates is situated in the politics of everyday life, whereas the philosophy of Plato is situated in the eternal idea-world, where everyday life is an unpleasant and unreal intrusion on the purer things of the soul.
In the end, Plato became the father of western philosophy, whereas Isocrates became the father of western education. I believe both approaches have their place in the world we live in. We have to learn how to think and search to find true answers, but when we still end up with an incomplete understanding we need to be able to work with what we have. After all, whoever found a way to gather reliable data about the future?