ElAnt v1n1 - Two Letters of Isocrates and Ring Composition

Volume 1, Number 1
June 1993


Ian Worthington,
Department of Classics,
University of Tasmania,
Tasmania 7001,
e-mail: ian.worthington@classics.utas.edu.au

Isocrates' literary merits have been subjected to study for many years. ( 1 ) Often reaction to various aspects of his style has been unfavourable, and examples of this reaction range from Dionysius' criticisms, for example in his essay on Isocrates (cf. 2-3 and 13-14), to, more recently, Kennedy's comment: 'He was tiresome, long- winded, and above all superficial. His style is typical of him. It says as little as could be imagined in as many words as possible ( Panathenaicus 84 ff.). ( 2 ) Isocrates may indeed be overly verbose and overdo figures of speech and the like, but there is plenty worthy of commendation, not least being his ability to control a vast array of subject-matter in the longer works and the exactness he shows in such things as the composition of his periods. ( 3 ) This we should expect, for at Against the Sophists 16 Isocrates himself tells us that an integral part of an orator's training was how to structure and to organise subject-matter, and care in the composition of a work again crops up at Antidosis 62-63. Such skills were no doubt taught at his school as part of his system of rhetorical training. ( 4 )

Whilst Isocrates' political pamphlets (together with his political acumen or lack thereof) have been the subject of the most scrutiny, his letters, from a stylistic viewpoint, have been relatively neglected. Although for a long time Isocrates' epistles were regarded as spurious, this view no longer has credence, ( 5 ) and I accept that they are genuine even the notorious first and third. ( 6 ) The relative neglect of the letters is not necessarily a surprise: it does not follow that letters, irrespective of their political value or importance, would have been composed with the same care as a major political or forensic speech. However, this does not seem to be the case, as I hope to show below. Furthermore, analysis of two of Isocrates' letters helps to counter some of the criticisms levelled against his stylistic abilities.

Recently I published an article on ring composition in Greek oratory and the implications of that device for the literary critic and for the ancient historian. ( 7 ) In my discussion I gave some examples of the highly complex and sophisticated use of the device by Dinarchus, a 'minor' Attic orator normally condemned on literary grounds for incoherent arrangement of material, wearying repetition and long, formless sentences. ( 8 ) I also made various assertions based on the technique, including: (i) that it helped to show that speeches were revised after oral delivery, when compositional perfection, not accuracy of content, played a more important role, and (in Dinarchus' case at least) how hard it was to reconcile historical accuracy with the level of composition; (ii) that it showed how stylistically and structurally skilled the writer was (and thus Dinarchus, so often criticised, is deserving of some literary elevation); and (iii) that since the device appears in so many literary genres it was probably ubiquitous in Greek writing. ( 9 )

In the course of my work on Dinarchus and now on the other Greek orators, I wondered whether the orators used ring composition in other writings and not just in their speeches, which were intended for a wide circulation. Such other works would include letters, which, although addressed to individuals or groups of individuals, were often 'open' and thus the contents were public knowledge. If the technique of ring composition could be found in a letter, then in my opinion it would (a) show the care taken by writers when composing any type of written work; (b) lend weight to the argument that ring composition was ubiquitous in all branches of writing; and (c) perhaps even have some relevance for the level of literacy, given the audience at which the letter was aimed. Two orators who wrote letters, Demosthenes and Isocrates, sprang to mind. Since, through my work on Dinarchus, I seem to be championing the 'stylistic underdogs', Demosthenes was thus excluded (ring composition, incidentally, is evident in Demosthenes' public and private speeches); ( 10 ) this left Isocrates. Although I looked at all of his letters, for the purposes of my argument (not to mention reasons of space and my sanity) I analysed in detail just Epistles 3 and 5 for the device. The results are startling to say the least, as can be seen from the following diagrams.

The abbreviation 'I' stands for Isocrates, 'P' for Philip II, and 'A' for Alexander III. The asterisk after the bracketed chapter number in the secondary level of Epistle 3 indicates that the element divides into a tertiary level, which is given below the secondary level.

Epistle 3 To Philip ii

Primary Level:

(1) I writes of the action P must now take (the Persian invasion). (2) I advised P before to unite the Greeks against Asia. (3-4) I has been exhorted to persuade P to invade Persia. (4-5) P's reasons for invasion are honourable; he will achieve glory. (6) I hopes to see message of previous pamphlets (Persian invasion) fulfilled.

Secondary Level:

(1) I discussed the best course for Athens and P with Antipater. (1) I now writes to P about the action to be taken after Chaeronea. (1) [He offers] similar advice to that in To Philip (Persian invasion).

(2)* In 346 I told P to unite the Greeks by diplomacy. (2) Having defeated the Greeks (at Chaeronea) no need for diplomacy now. (2)* The Greeks have to obey P, desist from rivalries, and turn to Persia.

(3) Did I advise P to invade Persia, or was this P's idea. (3)* I assumed idea was P's and concentrated on it in his speeches. (3) Greeks exhorted I to persuade P to invade Persia for the glory of Greece. (4) I would not exhort P by letter if he was younger, but in person. (4) I beseeches P not to disregard the invasion of Persia.

(4)* P's desire is great and honourable, as befits those excelling all others. (5)* P will attain great glory from the defeat of the Persians. (5) P's victory will be easier than the advance to power and renown he now has.

(6) I is grateful to his old age because the dreams of his youth . . . (6) Committed to writing in Panegyricus and To Philip (invasion of Persia) . . . (6) Has allowed him to see some fulfilled and the rest hopefully in the future.

Tertiary Level:

(2) P was advised to reconcile Athens with Sparta, Thebes, Argos. (2) All Greeks were to be brought into concord. (2) P was to persuade the major cities so that others would follow.

(2) As a result of Chaeronea all are compelled to be prudent . . . (2) They now have to do what P says and wishes. (2) They are to desist from usual madness and carry the war into Asia.

(3) I is unsure who had proposed the original idea of invasion. (3) He had not been acquainted with P at that time. (3) He supposed it to be P's idea and concurred with it.

(4) An unsatisfied thirst for anything else is ignoble. (4) Moderation is esteemed more than anything else. (4) A thirst for glory and honour for their own sake is not ignoble.

(5) P will achieve great glory worthy of all his past deeds . . . (5) When he makes barbarians and Great King subservient to Greeks. (5) Nothing will remain for P to do except to become a god.

Epistle 5 To Alexander

Primary Level:

(1) Despite his advanced age I is intelligent and wise. (2-3) A thinks eristic is for private matters, and is unsuitable for leaders. (3) Leaders must know how to conduct themselves (rule). (4) A rejects eristic for rhetoric, which is useful in debates on public affairs. (4-5) Though young, A is intelligent and learning wisdom.

Secondary Level:

(1) I is not senile despite his age. (1) I does not speak unwisely at all. (1) I is as intelligent now as when he was a young man.

(2) A is sensible in what and how he learns. (2-3) He does not mix with base Athenians, only learned and virtuous ones. (3) A (sensibly) distinguishes the necessary from the useless in all affairs.

(3) Leaders must know how to conduct themselves (rule).

(4) A rejects eristic for rhetoric, which is useful in debates on public affairs.

(4) A is now learning how to rule wisely and justly. (5) A exhibits wisdom by his studies. (5) A will surpass all in wisdom if he applies his learning (when ruling).

There is little doubt that the above two letters were written in a most deliberate and sophisticated fashion, and thus are testimony to Isocrates' structural and compositional abilities. At the same time, it is to be noted that even letters were subjected to the most rigorous composition.

Since I have shown that ring composition is evident in these two letters, and I believe it is in all of them, I throw out the challenge now to analyse Isocrates' major works for the device. I am confident that it will not be found to be lacking, and indeed the stylistic and literary echoes of the alleged defects of Panegyricus 75 ff., to which Dionysius of Halicarnassus draws attention ( Isocrates 13- 14), are, I believe, an indication of the technique. ( 11 ) Dobson has drawn attention to the elaborate ways by which Isocrates composed his periods, and even compared them to Pindaric odes, and this too implies ring structuring. ( 12 ) Moreover, it is significant that at the same part of his work Dobson says that Isocrates' adherence to this type of structure led to monotonous repetition, ( 13 ) for this is precisely the sort of criticism pointed against Dinarchus by Blass, Jebb, Dobson and others. However, what they thought was merely monotonous reiteration in Dinarchus' speeches was, in fact, the reverse. We find that repetition of a theme tends to enclose a particular structural unit which is all part of the overall design of the work. ( 14 ) The same is likely to be found in Isocrates (and the other orators), and, as at least the letters indicate, we should be more careful in our denigration of aspects of Isocrates' literary style and skill.

I hope to have stimulated some reaction from the above, and I look forward to that reaction, however abusive, scornful or supportive, in a future issue of Electronic Antiquity .


1. There is the essay on him by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and cf. the biography by Pseudo-Plutarch at X.Or . 836e-839d. More recently, see F. Blass, Die Attische Beredsamkeit , 2nd ed., 2 (Leipzig, 1892), pp. 101 ff., R. C. Jebb, The Attic Orators from Antiphon to Isaeus , 2nd ed., 2 (London, 1883), passim, especially pp. 54 ff., J. F. Dobson, The Greek Orators (London, 1919), especially pp. 126-135, and George Kennedy, The Art of Persuasion in Greece (Princeton, 1963), pp. 174-203.

2. Cf. Kennedy, Art of Persuasion , p. 203. Others have been less critical: Blass has some praise for Isocrates in his lengthy discussion, and see too Jebb, Attic Orators 2, pp. 58 ff. and Dobson, Greek Orators , pp. 131-135, for example.

3. See further below, with n. 12.

4. On Isocrates' rhetorical teaching and his influences thereon see R. Johnson, 'Isocrates' Methods of Teaching', AJPh 80 (1959), pp. 25-36; see too Blass, Attische Beredsamkeit 2, pp. 107 ff., Jebb, Attic Orators 2, pp. 9-13, 36 ff. (cf. 431), and Dobson, Greek Orators , pp. 135 ff.

5. Cf. Dobson, Greek Orators , p. 129 (cautiously) and Kennedy, Art of Persuasion , p. 191 n. 97.

6. Cf. Blass, Attische Beredsamkeit 2, p. 328, Kennedy, Art of Persuasion , p. 195, and see especially L. F. Smith, The Genuineness of the Ninth and Third Letters of Isocrates (Lancaster, PA, 1940), passim.

7. 'Greek Oratory, Revision of Speeches and the Problem of Historical Reliability', Class. et Med. 42 (1991), pp. 55-74.

8. The full set of structures to Dinarchus 1 is given in Appendix 2 of my A Historical Comentary on Dinarchus. Rhetoric and Conspiracy in Later Fourth-Century Athens (Ann Arbor, 1992); on Dinarchus' style see ibid., pp. 13 ff. with 27 ff. on his use of ring composition.

9. See the bibliography at 'Greek Oratory, Revision of Speeches and the Problem of Historical Reliability', pp. 58-59 notes 7-14.

10. Note the comments on the structure of Demosthenes' Against Leptines , On The Symmories and On The Crown of Kennedy, Art of Persuasion , pp.221-223 and 232-234, and cf. my 'The Authenticity of Demosthenes' Fourth Philippic', Mnemosyne 44 (1991), pp. 425-428. The parts of Demosthenes 18 discussed by A. R. Dyck, 'The Function and Persuasive Power of Demosthenes' Portrait of Aeschines in the Speech On The Crown ', G&R n.s. 32 (1985), pp. 42-48, also indicate ring composition.

11. See especially Blass, Attische Beredsamkeit 2, pp. 165 ff. and Jebb, Attic Orators 2, pp. 68 ff. on Isocrates' arrangement. Again, the nature of the examples given by Blass and Jebb to Isocrates' speeches indicates ring composition.

12. Dobson, Greek Orators , pp. 133-134. On Isocrates' periods see especially Blass, Attische Beredsamkeit 2, pp. 160-170 and Jebb, Attic Orators 2, pp. 61 ff.

13. Jebb too makes the same criticism in a stronger tone at Attic Orators 2, pp. 62-63.

14. On these points affecting Dinarchus see in detail my commentary on Dinarchus at pp. 27 ff.

Ian Worthington
e-mail: ian.worthington@classics.utas.edu.au

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 1 - June 1993
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606