Educational system of the sophists and rhetors in ancient Greece

After reading Plato’s Protagoras and Gorgias, it becomes clear that the educational system of the sophists and rhetors was clearly outdated. When compared to the grand aspirations of philosophy, which advocates for education and culture to be centered solely around the understanding of the most important principles, the sophists’ and rhetors’ approach was truly obsolete.

However, the traditional kind of education, known as the sophists and rhetoricians, persisted and maintained a prominent position as one of the most significant effects on the intellectual development of Greece. Plato’s vehement criticism and persecution of it may be partially justified by the victor’s recognition that he is engaged in a conflict with an adversary who, as long as he remains inside his own boundaries, cannot be defeated.

Comprehending the intensity of his hatred becomes challenging when we view his criticisms as specifically aimed at the prominent intellectuals of Socrates’ era, who were regarded as representatives of the cultural values he despised, such as Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias, and Prodicus. At the time of writing his dialogues, these persons had already passed away and, in the fast-paced era of that century, were rather neglected.

Plato’s skillful artistry was necessary to resurrect the prominent sophists from obscurity and bring their formidable personalities back to life. As a new generation emerged, he created caricatures of both his contemporaries and those who came before him, aiming to criticize them. There is no need to perceive the opponents he describes as simply disguises for prominent individuals from his own day. However, in his portrayal of the sophists, there are numerous characteristics that are relevant to his contemporaries. Plato unequivocally avoids engaging in debates with deceased individuals, particularly those preserved as historical fossils.

First and foremost, rhetoric serves as a tool for practical politics. However, once it is capable of articulating principles of effective governance, it assumes the role of embodying a certain political manifestation of civilization. Isocrates acquired this knowledge through his competition with philosophy. Plato’s most scathing criticism of eloquence was its moral apathy and excessive focus on superficiality, which prevented it from transcending its role as a manipulative weapon for corrupt and unethical politicians.

Consequently, he held the belief that philosophy was the sole form of genuine rhetoric. Isocrates recognized that the significant benefit of philosophy as an educational influence was its possession of a noble moral ideal. However, he did not believe that the goal proposed by the philosophers was the exclusive one deserving of respect, nor did he have confidence in the methods they had selected to achieve it.

Consequently, he decided to elevate rhetoric to the status of the ultimate culture by imbuing it with ‘the most elevated subjects’ as its substance. Like the sophists, Plato, and Aristotle, he firmly believed that any form of culture that extends beyond specialized vocational training is inherently political in nature. However, rhetoric was still missing a significant purpose, a specific undertaking that could unleash the dormant formative energies inside it. The prior discourse appeared insipid and artificial just because it consistently selected the incorrect initial premise.

Enhancing style and language involves more than just technical skills. The concept of ‘art for art’s sake’ is particularly unattainable in the field of literature. Isocrates often emphasizes that the success of a speaker or writer hinges entirely on the significance of the subject they are addressing. Hence, the domain of rhetoric must invariably pertain to matters of politics, notwithstanding the fact that the term ‘political’ was undergoing a transformation in its original straightforward connotation, even during the time when Isocrates penned his works.

Essentially, it refers to matters related to the polls, specifically actions or events that have an impact on the well-being of the community. However, despite the polis remaining as the overarching structure for public life, the significant events of the fifth century gave rise to novel patterns and exposed emerging need.