In January, I gave a lecture on the moral bankruptcy of the shame culture in ancient Greece to Associate Professor Josh Greenberg‘s fourth-year undergraduate students of communication. Afterward, a debate arose about Isocrates’ legacy. It revolved around whether his ideas and lived-example laid the foundations for what some practitioners refer to as the morality of modern ethical two-way symmetrical public relations.
I sparked controversy by criticising Public Relations Ethics: Contrasting Models from the Rhetorics of Plato, Aristotle, and Isocrates, by Charles W. Marsh Jr, University of Kansas professor of journalism. The response took me by surprise. This piece, then, is a follow-on contribution. It covers what I would have liked to have said had I had more time and been better prepared.
Marsh asks us to believe in the superiority of Isocrates’ ethical and moral approach to communication compared to his contemporaries. He contrasts what he calls the adversarial/advocacy rhetoric of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to the supposedly more symmetrical and consensual communication techniques developed by Isocrates:
Because Isocratean rhetoricians seek unification and consensus—and because they cannot be certain of a divinely ordained best course of action—they consider the interests and arguments of others in a debate [unlike Aristotle or Plato]. …. the Isocratean rhetorician seeks to attain goals by building relationships in which both parties win. [All quotes from Marsh are from his paper Public Relations Ethics: Contrasting Models from the Rhetorics of Plato, Aristotle, and Isocrates.]
My purpose here is not to provide a comparative analysis of rhetorical rivals. It is to interrogate Marsh’s claims. To set the scene, here are some more quotes that highlight how he wishes to frame Isocrates’ significance and relevance to the modern world:
Isocrates created a moral, symmetrical rhetoric that proved to be more effective, immediately and historically, than its asymmetrical rivals in classical Greece.
It [public relations] can, instead [of its Socratic habits], function admirably (in the several senses of that verb phrase) by following the foundation of Isocratean rhetoric: “to form a genuine ‘we’ out of diversity”.
Recent studies, in fact, support what Isocrates demonstrated and, 2 millennia later, the IABC Research Foundation posited that two-way symmetrical public relations, with its idealistic social role, is the most effective model of public relations.
Bold claims indeed. But do they stand up to scrutiny? I think not. There are a number of good reasons to temper our enthusiasm and moderate our praise for Isocrates.
First off, we know more about Isocrates’ criticisms of his rivals for business in the 4th century BC than we know about his actual theories and thinking on rhetoric. As George Law Cawkwell, an Oxford classicist who specialises on the 4th century BC, explains:
Unfortunately, his [Isocrates'] discussion in the speeches “Against the Sophists” and in “On the Exchange” tells one more of what he objected to in other systems than of what he actually had in his own, but it can be safely asserted that, whereas the training of the Platonic Academy was essentially philosophical, that of Isocrates was almost entirely given over to rhetoric, the art of persuasion. [See his briefing at the Latin Library on Isocrates (436-338 BC)]
Nevertheless, we know an awful lot about Isocrates’ politics and his contemporary reputation. We also know much about his work as an adviser and teacher. As Cawkwell goes on to opine and justify:
There is indeed a strong suspicion that Isocrates would lend his talents to any cause whatsoever, merely for the pleasure of presenting it well. The so-called Cyprian orations—”To Nicocles” (c. 372), the “Nicoles” (c. 368), and the “Evagoras” (c. 365)—are concerned with the laudations of monarchs, while the “Archidamus” (366) puts into the mouth of the heir to one of the Spartan kings a speech full of praise for Sparta and Spartanism. One is correspondingly less impressed when in the “Panegyric” and “Panathenaic” orations he professed admiration for Athens. Such exaltation of style and indifference to matter is contemptible, and, insofar as his purpose in his system of education appears to have been to train others to a similar facility, he can hardly escape the censure he accorded to other rhetorical schools. [Ibid]
In contrast to the progressive picture Marsh paints, Isocrates was no friend of radical democracy, or of the consensus, reconciliation and unmediated co-existence it depended on:
Isocrates did have beliefs, however, some of which are revealed in “On the Areopagus,” composed at the end of the Social War, when Athens’ fortunes were at their lowest for 50 years. In this work he commends the ancient constitution of Athens, under which the aristocratic council of the Areopagus exercised a general supervision over the conduct of citizens. Isocrates’ proposals for returning to the system in operation before the days of democracy were not practical but display profoundly conservative inclinations. [Ibid]
Cawkwell also describes how Isocrates sought to unite the warring Greeks by force, seemingly without regard for the merits and morality of whomever might end up in charge:
…in the letter “To Philip”, Isocrates appealed to the King of Macedonia to reconcile the Greeks and lead them against Persia. Since Philip was on the point of intervening in Greece to settle the Second Sacred War (355-346), many have believed that Isocrates was prepared to submit his country to an outside master.
This is unjust, for Isocrates, a political innocent, had only the vaguest idea of what the consequences of such a policy might be. He had in fact made earlier similar appeals to Agesilaus, king of Sparta, to Dionysius I, tyrant of Syracuse, and to Alexander, tyrant of Pherae in Thessaly, none of whom could conceivably have become political master of Greece. The truth is that Isocrates was seeking merely a military leader. [Ibid]
This credible account makes it very difficult for me to accept Marsh’s admiration for Isocrates. It encourages me to think of Iscocrates as an unworldly political thinker. He also comes across as a flexible and rhetorical (PR) gun for hire to the highest bidder. That’s not anything I object to in principle.
The evidence just does not seem to support the claim that Isocrates put the practice of rhetoric (read PR) on to the moral and ethical high ground. Therefore, when an influential and credible professor of journalism stridently promotes Isocrates’ legacy as a role model for developing excellence and best PR practice in the 21st century, I think we need to debate an alternative viewpoint.
Marsh published his paper in 2001, so he had no chance to ponder a more recent source that casts fresh doubt on Isocrates’ moral and ethical credentials (at least in terms we moderns can appreciate).
In 2006, Joseph Stewart Garnjobst published The epistles of Isocrates: A historical and grammatical commentary, which critiques nine surviving letters by Isocrates.
What’s really fascinating about Garnjobst’s thesis is its account of how Isocrates used opportunistic psychological tricks to get inside the minds of prospective clients. He reveals, studiously, how Isocrates positioned himself symmetrically with the existing prejudices and practices of potential customers. He examines how Isocrates greased the egos of monarchs, tyrants and others to win business. He does so verb by verb, line by line to demonstrate how Isocrates spun his texts and messages. In the process, Garnjobst provides insight into Isocrates’ hubris. The sage appeals to potential patrons as one great man talking to others, and he never forgets to name drop, sometimes dishonestly, or to boast of the extent of his self-claimed influence.
Here is one example from nine, Isocrates’ letter seeking paid-work from a newly installed dynast, Timotheus son of Clearchus, in the city-state Heracleia (c 346 BC). Garnjobst examines the underlying meaning of the words used in the context of the challenges faced by both men:
While pleasure is a personal indulgence, virtue and reputation are to Isocrates public matters, since their attainment must take place in the eyes of the people. Thus the pursuit of virtue would fall into the realm of important things and therefore topics suitable for his [Isocrates'] speeches, which he charterizes as sumbouleutic, whereas he leaves personal matters to writers of epideictic and dicanic speeches [he means anybody in the Aristotlian camp or any other competitors among the sophists]. His pursuit of virtue marks Timotheus out as a person with similar thoughts and interests as Isocrates, and a person suitable to receive advice and education. It is this reason, Isocrates suggests, and not merely familial exenia [Greek term for already existing guest friendship] that motivates him to write to the young dynast.
That Timotheus has distanced his regime from his father will, Isocrates suggests (though it will also sound like a warning), make him a favorite of orators and encomiasts looking to the new dynast for patronage for their facile speeches praising his kindness and wisdom. While this was almost certainly true, what it also suggests is that Thimoeus will be lacking in true advisors [author's italics], those such as Ioscrates who will give him honest advice about the most important matters governing dynastic rule.
Isocrates is appealing for patronage. In return, Isocrates says he can help Timotheus develop the reputation he requires to assert effective control over the polis. We can easily imagine how Timotheus’ authority and legitimacy were cast into doubt by the brutal record of his father’s rule. It is said that, among other outrages, Clearchus delighted in giving people drinks laced with wolf’s-bane, which resulted in their prolonged and painful deaths. In turn, Isocrates is obliged to squirm. He had once been Timotheus’ father’s adviser and educator. In the letter, Isocrates explains how he disowned him once he saw his true character (perhaps that former relationship was what made Isocrates an influential guest-friend of Timotheus).
So, as I assessed Isocrates for this piece, I came to appreciate the principled integrity and famed obstinacy of Socrates. He, unlike Isocrates whose fees were higher than any of his competitors, refused to accept any money for educating people. Socrates thought that the taking of fees encouraged the educator to pander to students’ prejudices, rather than do what they’re meant to do, which is challenge them. It strikes me that Garnjobst’s book highlights an example of the moral dilemma that justified Socrates’ stance in Classical Greece.
Now let’s interrogate some more arguments that Marsh presents in support of his claims.
He accuses Aristotle of being amoral for saying rhetoric is the art of discovering the successful means of persuasion in any given situation. He says that’s not an acceptable ethical position. He proposes instead that rhetoric itself has to be an ethical discipline. Indeed, the whole point of his paper is to argue that Isocrates showed the world how to make it so. But this risks misunderstanding both Aristotle and rhetoric. If I read it correctly, Aristotle says it is the user who needs to be ethical. Rhetoric (read PR), on the other hand, is merely a tool, which can be used for good or for bad purposes. I suggest that Aristotle was concerned primarily with human agency (For me, it was this very concern that underpinned Classical Greece’s uniqueness, making it so significant in terms of human progress).
What we also need to bear in mind is that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and, arguably, Protagoras, invented modern ethics, as well as the modern notions of virtue, rational discourse/conversation and philosophical inquiry.
I believe that Marsh similarly underestimates Aristotle’s depth when he dismisses his understanding of ethos. What he fails to mention is that ethics derives from the word ethos; literally meaning character. Therefore I suggest Marsh is wrong to say that “with Isocrates rhetoric is gradually transformed into ethics”, not least because ethos (ethics) is just one important part of rhetoric. And, surely, Aristotle was right to say that character can be faked and audiences misled by clever masters of rhetoric.
I contend, Aristotle’s contribution to the field of ethics, rhetoric and democracy (whose defining principle he said was freedom), to mention just a few of his claims to fame, deserves more respect and care than Marsh shows.
Furthermore, Marsh would have us accept that Isocrates validates, convincingly, Professor Jim Grunig’s preferred two-way symmetrical model of public relations. Again, I think there are good reasons to dispute this.
To substantiate his point, Marsh’s paper discusses Plato’s use of the theme of love to describe three different approaches to conducting philosophical discourse: the evil lover; non-lover; and noble lover.
According to Marsh’s account, the evil lover reduces his lover to an object fit for the chase. This involves conquest by seduction, or by any means possible, including lies and deception. For the evil lover, the ends justify the means. This is a model that in PR terms, says Marsh, fits Jim Grunig’s two-way asymmetrical model, a form of rhetoric (read PR) that advocates selective truth telling on behalf of clients.
The non-lover lacks passion and lacks a personal motivation, when it comes to developing a relationship with his “loved” one. Therefore, such people are largely indifferent as to whether their courting is successful. Marsh says, this model discussed by Plato corresponds to Grunig’s public information model of public relations, in which organisations deliver objective information to publics that request it. Marsh suggests, not unreasonably, that the premises of the ‘non-lover’ approach, when applied to PR, are flawed because it presupposes that, “the organization makes no other attempt at relationship building.”
The noble lover is Plato’s preferred framework for practicing ethical rhetoric, or more precisely philosophical discourse. Here the lover begins with a firm viewpoint (says Marsh), is sincerely interested in the outcome, and desires to impart his knowledge with a view to improving or ennobling his beloved in some form. In the words of Plato, noble lovers “exhibit no jealousy or meanness toward the loved one, but endeavour by every means in their power to lead him to the likeness of the god whom they honour.”
He critiques and dismisses the usefulness of Plato’s preference for the noble lover “model” for “PR purposes.” Marsh justifies his conclusions by arguing (mistakenly, in my view) that Plato envisages imposing viewpoints on others, rather than discussing them so as to fathom what is mere opinion and what qualifies as being more reliable than that. He then claims that Isocrates put forward a new definition of Plato’s noble-lover model, which prized relationship-building and obtaining unification and consensus in contrast to the latter’s supposedly uncompromising rhetoric.
However, Marsh advances scant evidence to back his claim that Isocrates offers us (never mind the ancients) something of unique value when it comes to insight and defining excellence in PR (or rhetorical) practice. He merely quotes Isocrates saying that good judgement (balancing the interests and arguments of others in debate) rather than science, or a search for illusory absolute truths, should guide people toward the best course of action. But that is the kind of wise viewpoint that Aristotle could also be cited expressing.
What I think Marsh has overlooked is that when Plato was discusing his “lover” tropes, he was talking about motivations as part of a wider body of thought. He was concerned with abstract matters, which I don’t pretend to fully comprehend. These include a critique of relativism, an examination of the relationship between nomos and phusis, and the difference between appearances and reality. Plato was also probing the boundaries between ethics, epistemology and metaphysics. He was attempting to define justice in a consistent manner and to spot universally applicable morals (something Kant was to do much later). It’s worth adding, I think, that all of theses debates, which were begun by Socrates, then developed by Plato and Aristotle, remain ongoing. I note also that while Isocrates was an incredibly astute and insightful thinker, he contributed little of substance – that we know of – to such debates.
Contrariswise: Grunig’s models, which describe one-way communication, public information conduit, aysmmetrical and symmetrical communication, have nothing whatever to do with philosophical issues or with ideas. They are merely process-driven tactical and/or strategic options that institutions can adopt for communication purposes in pursuit of their objectives (see New Moral Agenda for PR for my appraisal of Grunig’s models).
Here’s another example, highlighting how and why I tend to disagree with the popular modern portrayal of Plato in PR circles:
Two problems with Platonic rhetoric, however, have impeded its progress over time: the near impossibility of ascertaining absolute truth and the rhetoric’s aggressive intolerance of opposing viewpoints.
Regardless of whether one agrees with Plato’s philosophical conclusions or not (and to be clear, I reject them), both of Marsh’s objections are vulnerable to informed challenge.
Plato was not intolerant of opposing views. Moreover, in the the spirit of Socrates, Plato would be more likely to ask people what they think and then to get them to interrogate their own arguments, than to say what he thinks. To understand Plato better, the work of the now departed Alvin W Gouldner, Max Weber Professor of Sociology at Washington University (from 1967), is worth citing:
The dialectic [Plato's method of inquiry] is a struggle of minds. It is a contestful way of achieving “truth”. It is congenial to those who think of it – as the Greeks do of aletheia [disclosure] - as that which is non-concealed or forgotten, or as something without deceit. The would-be knower, therefore, does not simply arrive at or find truth, but engages in a struggle to vanquish and to remove the concealment and distortion by which it is assumed truth has been disguised by other persons or forces. [Enter Plato, Classical Greece and the Origins of Social Theory, page 261, by Alvin W Gouldner, Basic Books Inc. New York, 1965]
Unless I’m mistaken, neither did Plato believe that he had discovered absolute truth, though he was firmly committed to looking for it. He advocated that the way to find it was to engage in dialogue; through a contest of minds. And, significantly, he was not an opponent of two-way communication or of rational discourse: he was their proponent. For him, the commitment to the search for truth was the key to ascertaining whether people entering into debate were behaving in an ethical fashion or not. As Gouldner explains:
The search for truth requires that individuals commit to it, and this above all is the sentiment needed for successful dialectic. Men must want to know the truth more than they must wish to win or to be judged victorious in the conversational contest. [ibid page 262]
In essence, Plato believed in the existence of absolute truth in a similar manner to how religious people believe in an all-knowing God. Plato was unsure that humans would ever come to know the truth. He was absolutely certain that he didn’t possess a monopoly on it. Just like Socrates, Isocrates and Aristotle, Plato campaigned against the eristic rhetoric of the sophists. Though, personally, I think it is neither fair nor useful to talk about the sophists (it became, I suspect, a term of abuse for rivals you don’t like) as if they were a coherent group. They were no such thing. So, perhaps overstating his point, Plato accused all, or at least most, sophists of being lovers of fame who were addicted to winning arguments for winning’s sake.
Hence, I could conclude, ironically, that Plato’s thinking validates Grunig’s account of what constitutes excellence in PR practice in the 21st century. I prefer to suggest, however, that we must do better than make superficial ahistorical comparisons between the past and the present. We would profit more by examining the development of communication theory and practice from a sociological and historical perspective (I note in passing that Grunig’s models were devised for use in our mediated world, whereas Classical Greece was mostly an unmediated environment based on peer to peer communication. I find that a significant difference).
Let’s examine Marsh’s assessment of Isocrates some more.
He maintains that unlike Plato, Isocrates did not believe that there was a “divinely ordained best course of action”. That’s not exactly accurate. In Isocrates’ second speech concerning Nicocles, written for the king to communicate what he expects from his subjects, we get an insight into how Isocrates thought that democratic consensus had led the Greeks away from the natural (best) order of things:
He criticized democracies and oligarchies whose rivalries injure the commonwealth. These governments honor those skilled in swaying the crowd, but the monarch claimed he honors those skilled in practice. In war situations monarchy was considered more efficient. Isocrates noted that the gods live under a monarchy. [see here]
I also find it hard to accept the proposition that Isocrates seriously advocated open and free two-way communication, or that he was ever committed to consensus building in a meaningful manner. In his first letter to Nicoles himself, Isocrates advises the king to:
Allow freedom of speech to men of sound wisdom, that you may have friends who will help you to examine any questions on which you may be in doubt. Distinguish those who artfully flatter from those who loyally serve, that the wicked may not get the better of the good. [see here]
I take that to mean that the king must choose whom he trusts. The views of the others, we can suppose, are to be silenced or ignored. In contrast, elsewhere in the poleis of Classical Greece freedom of speech was for everybody. All citizens were considered equal (of course, women, slaves and foreigners were not citizens). Everybody was active in politics and no separate state or state institutions existed within the polis. This equality of voice and decision-making often led to the aristocracy, much to Plato’s anger, being marginalised in the public arena as the poor and middle united against them. Meanwhile, when we talk today about consensus, reconciliation, two-way dialogue and the symmetry of rights (justice: dikaiosune), we normally mean democracy and freedom, not kings – the asymmetrical rule of one over the many – restricting free speech.
So, I maintain that Isocrates was a reactionary by comparison to the spirit that defined the freedom-loving radical democracies in Classical Greece. I also find it hard to think of him as being a suitable role model for us either. However, we know, Plato was democracy’s most potent opponent, not Isocrates, who strikes me as having been on the side of whomever paid him (I don’t think my earlier defence here of Plato collapses because of this challenging fact. That explains why Plato remains so significant and hard to comprehend in the 21st century, I suspect).
As this piece ends, it’s useful to briefly review Isocrates’ impact on Roman rhetoric. Marsh claims:
Cicero and Quintilian could not afford ineffective rhetoric. Their clear preference for the symmetrical rhetoric of Isocrates is its most compelling endorsement.
That view does not correspond with my reading. I suggest, Cicero did not favour Isocrates over Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, or over any other rhetorician. Though I do accept that Cicero did say in his treatise Brutus that the high point of Greek oratory was Isocrates. But we should not read too much into this. Cicero was referring to his admiration for Isocrates’ eloquence and his ability to master sound and rhythm, a crowd-pleasing rhetorical skill that Cicero sought, with much success, to emulate. Yet when it came to taking sides, or to preferring one rhetorical methodology over another, Cicero was too much of a politician to fall into such traps.
In De Oratore, Cicero’s masterpiece on rhetoric, he argues against the one-sidedness of the neo-Atticists who favoured abandoning persuasion for arbitrary critical perfection. Cicero countered that the best orators had to be expedient. In De Oratore, he says over and over that rules and theories are inadequate guides to rhetorical practice. Cicero maintained that personal experience matters much more than theories and models. He believed that orators (read PR pros, politicians, priests in the modern context) needed to be masters of all rhetorical methodologies and styles, and to know when to employ each.
The classicist George Kennedy nails Cicero’s wiliness. In Kennedy’s many books on rhetoric, he explains how Cicero possessed the nouse to maximise existing materials and opportunities. He says that Cicero had the imagination to invent totally new concepts and to break with the past. In other words, Cicero plundered the Greek’s contribution to rhetoric in a very instrumental manner.
Though I feel obliged to say that I share Marsh’s admiration for Cicero’s contribution to the development of philosophy, political and ethical values, the concept of public service (duty), and much more.
Having not examined Quitantilian’s work, I have nothing to say about his views on Isocrates. However, I do wish to draw people’s attention to what Cato said about Isocrates’ legacy. He complained that students from the school of Isocrates wasted so much time on education that they had to use their knowledge to plead before Minos in the underworld.
So, where does all this leave us?
Marsh invites us to believe that Isocrates laid the “effective foundation for [modern] public relations” and that ”history shows that Isocrates’s symmetrical rhetoric clearly was more effective than its adversarial/advocacy rivals.” He also wants us to accept that Isocrates demonstrated that ”effective, achievable ethics foundation for public relations need not function at the relatively low level of the advocacy/adversarial society model.”
I beg to differ.