Isocrates

17 December 1998

The New Rambler will be on hiatus for some time now–probably until early or mid February–while I do various things such as moving to Minneapolis and trying to find a new job and teaching myself HTML and other such minor endeavors. But it will be back in full force–fear not–and with a web page featuring back issues, sundry information and links (I’d be happy to advertise the endeavors of my subscribers, you know), some ramblings on subjects which I thought were too topical or regional or generational to send out to the whole mailing list, and, I hope, a message board. A number of you have written me nice notes and pithy remarks and good insights and excellent commentary, and I haven’t been the best about replying to all of it, but I do appreciate it all.

I read [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all: it is very tiresome, and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. –Jane Austen

Well. Today, 17 December 1998, is two days after my birthday, the day that impeachment votes were supposed to begin, the day after the United States added another chorus of bombing to what history may deem both a tragedy and a farce in the Middle East, and the day after Jane Austen’s 223rd birthday. In fact, I had a dinner party in honor of that occasion last evening. Listening to the radio reports as I prepared a trifle for dessert, I thought it an odd juxtaposition indeed, until I remembered once again the greatest boon I think I have gained from my education: that of perspective. Jane Austen lived, as we do (as has everyone, when you think about it), during a time of international upheaval, but she lived in a world where upheavals were caused by daughters running off with soldiers, or by passing comments made at parties at the expense of other guests, and it is that world that she wrote of, for that was the world she knew, the world whose history she could tell.

It is good to remember, from time to time, that all that will be has probably been before. I find it oddly comforting.

On a few occasions, people have asked me if I shall ever publish the writings of others in The New Rambler. I sometimes say I might consider it. Today that consideration becomes actuality, although I admit I did not obtain the author’s consent first. The following are excerpts from a class lecture by my father, John M. Crossett, which he used at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, the last place he taught before his death in 1981. His remarks are datedly funny (or funnily dated?) at times, but at others more timely than anything I’ve been able to say as I wrote and rejected various forms of this edition. Without further ado (since there’s probably been too much already), I present to you Isocrates, according to my father.

Most of you–I suspect all of you–have never heard of Isocrates. In fact, before the term is over–even before the lecture is over–you will confuse him with Socrates. Some of you are perhaps already confusing the names and saying, “Didn’t I hear this last week?” Well, to help you remember the difference, I shall do two things: first, I’ll give you a mnemonic device, a mechanical means for remembering: “Isocrates” begins with “I,” the same as the personal pronoun which you use to refer to yourself–and Isocrates is teh one you like; Socrates, on the other hand, is the one they killed, the one you’re supposed to like but really don’t. There, now that you have that straight, I can begin.

If you have read Isocrates’s essay, you will perhaps have some sense of what he was like. But it will help even those of you who have read it already to know something more of the man. Single-handed, he affected the Western world, and your lives, far more than did Plato or Aristotle. These two names, although they belong to men of infinitely greater worth than Isocrates, have a “press” which far outstrips their actual influence. We need only think of such facts as these: Aristotle’s works disappeared for almost 200 years after his death, and were not rediscovered until just before the time of Herod the Great and Christ; Plato’s works disappeared, except for a couple of dialogues, from the Western world for almost 1000 years. The kind of thing which Isocrates did–as we shall see–took form in political reality, not merely in ideas; and so those of you who believe that reality is more important than truth will easily credit him with being the more important man. If importance be measured by influence, you will be right.

Although Isocrates turned to rhetoric–to that “knack,” that form of “cookery,” so well analyzed and despised by Plato–he knew enough philosophy to try to redeem it from the vices which Plato remorselessly catalogued. In fact, he tries to re-define philosophy–to make it equivalent to what we call a liberal arts education: the kind of education which, in Milton’s words, “fits a man to perform justly, skilfully, and magnanimously all of the offices, both private and public, of peace and war.” (Milton, “Of Education” [emphasis mine])

It will be worthwile to observe a few of the implications to be found in Milton’s words. First, the word “offices.” It comes from the Latin officium, and it is the title of one of Cicero’s works. It signifies “duties,” that is, the kind of thing whcih one is supposed to do in one’s office. Nowadays, alas, the office is onl the physical building where one does one’s work; but one’s office in antiquity was in the man’s official role, not just in a building. It went with him wherever he was while he was acting in that role. For instance, President Ford is not just president while he is in the White House; he is also president while he is travelling from one city to another on his airplane, or while he is talking to and mingling people, or–especially, alas–while he is being shot at by assassins.

Second, these “offices” are both public and private. You may remember the last lecture, in which I mentioned that the Greek word for a private citizen was idiotes, from which we get our word “idiot.” The Greeks emphasized public life, not private–a fact which we can tell simply from comparing their public buildings, like the Parthenon (which we all know) to their private homes, of which we know almost nothing. But Milton, in the tradition of Cicero and Isocrates, equates both public and private–in short, what we could call “the whole man.”

If you have read the Nicocles, you will perhaps have noted the remarkable defence which Isocrates makes for virtue, for arete [a loaded Greek word which we translate as virtue, but of course it’s rather deeper than that]: “. . . . we practise justice and the other aretai not so that we can be less well off than others but so that we can lead lives full of good things.”

Who would practise virtue, asks Isocrates, if it was of no practical benefit? It is a view which should be near and dear to all of you; in fact, it is a view which is near and dear to all of you. After all, for several decades, now, American educators have been selling a liberal arts education to the American people on the twofold grounds that a) it is a good thing to do; b) it leads to better and more high-paying jobs. We’ll probably take up that point in class; but if we don’t, try to remember this: that Isocrates is a decent Callicles, an influential Girgias, a mellow Polus.

Well, Isocrates, then–if I am right–tried to re-define philosophy: for Socrates and Plato it has been a dialogue plus dialectic, concerned solely with ethics and the state of the individual soul and concentrating on the state of the soul in the afterlife. Such is the point of the great myth which appears at the end of the Gorgias. For Isocrates, however, philosophy became culture–what we call a liberal arts education–and its aim was this world, just as the education given here at Cornell College, like that of virtually all other colleges of liberal arts both here and abroad, is designed to equip you to face what we call the “real world.” Just think of that phrase, the “real world,” and recall, if you can, our earlier distinctions between what is true and what is real. You will measure your progress, or corruption–dependent on your point of view–in this course by the degree that you come to think what is true is more important than what is real.

Best wishes for the holidays and the new year to all.

4 thoughts on “Isocrates”

  1. Laura,

    You are Cassanda-like in foreknowing how people will come to contact you. For no reason that I can remember, today I typed “John Crossett” into Google and reached you.

    I was a student of your father’s at Parsons College back in 1962-63. He made a profound impression on many of us — in fact, the whole the school. I had two courses with him as well as the good fortune to bum an extended lift from him(Fairfield to upstate New York) during a Christmas break.

    I’m saddened to know that he died so soon and that you were so very young when you lost him.

    I would certainly like to talk to you about your Dad if you would like to do that. E-mail me your phone number and times when you are reachable and free to chat.

    Bob Robson
    Class of 1963

  2. Laura,
    It is so strange that last Sunday I did the very thing you mentioned. I typed in your fathers’ name because he will always be the most influential person in my life. Then I was captivated by your writings and perhaps read your entire blog. The entry about Mrs. Dollaway was especially intriguing. You wouldn’t remember but I babysat for you a number of times and scores of children have enjoyed the Frog and Toad books because you and your father introduced them to me. I teach math to eighth graders now and your father is still having an influence on hundreds of students each year as his quotation (not quote!) “repetition is the essence of education” is introduced to another generation. I make a feeble attempt to provoke them to actually think and reason.
    He so thoroughly adored you. One of my fondest memories of him was when one afternoon as I went to your house to babysit, he was changing your diaper on the hallway floor. He had his pipe still in his mouth and said to you, “Laura, tell Ms. Krupa how you used the toilet today.” Then he added, as only he could, “you must try that again sometime.”
    I wasn’t really a classicist. I was an education/theatre major who wandered into his class and was so thoroughly captivated by perhaps the only teacher who had ever challenged me to think that I just ended up taking as many classes from him as I could.
    I’d love to “talk” to you more.
    Thank you so much for all you have shared. Cornell College class of 1979

  3. Hello. I graduated from Cornell College in 1976, majoring in philosophy, history & Greek (lots of overlap). I took every course I could from your father. He is the most extraordinary person I’v ever met.

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