Back 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 class. 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 essay, 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 and Plato]. …. the Isocratean rhetorician seeks to attain goals by building relationships in which both parties win. [All quotes credited to 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 from his paper 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, two 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.
Casting doubt on Isocrates’ rhetoric, ethics and politics
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, a 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 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 difficult to share Marsh’s positive estimation of Isocrates’ significance. 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, we need to debate an alternative viewpoint.
How Isocrates pitched for business
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 examines how Isocrates greased the egos of monarchs and tyrants to position himself symmetrically with their existing prejudices and practices.
For instance, examining Isocrates’ letter seeking paid-work from a newly installed dynast, Timotheus son of Clearchus, in the city-state Heracleia (c 346 BC), Garnjobst probes the underlying meaning of the words used in the context of the challenges faced by both men:
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’s 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’s father’s adviser and educator. Hence, in the letter, Isocrates explains how he disowned him once he saw his true character.
So, as I assessed Isocrates for this piece, I came to appreciate the principled integrity and obstinacy of Socrates. He 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.
Aristotle, rhetoric and what made the Greeks unique
Now let’s review Marsh’s arguments in support of his claims, in the context of what made Aristotle and the Greeks unique.
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle invented the modern conception of politics and philosophy, shaping our ways of thinking about virtue, morals, rational discourse/conversation and philosophical and scientific inquiry. But Marsh casually traduces Aristotle and Plato for being in the Socratic tradition.
For instance, Marsh dismisses Aristotle’s understanding of ethos by saying “only the appearance of character created during the speech mattered” for the sage.
What Marsh fails to mention is that Aristotle is the founding father of the modern distinct discipline of ethics. He does not seem to grasp that the word ethics derives from the word ethos; literally meaning character. He does not acknowledge that ethos (ethics) is just one component of rhetoric. He also misses the crucial nuance that Aristotle’s ethics were rooted in nomos (laws and customs of a society; what diverse and opinionated citizens share in common) as opposed to phusis (nature, which informed Platonic thought that sought to rise above opinion to allow truth to govern society’s affairs).
Instead, Marsh accuses Aristotle of being amoral for saying that rhetoric is the art of discovering the successful means of persuasion in any given situation. Marsh proposes that rhetoric itself has to be an ethical discipline. Indeed, the whole point of his paper is to argue that “with Isocrates rhetoric is gradually transformed into ethics”. But this risks misunderstanding both Aristotle and multifaceted rhetoric.
Aristotle held the view that rhetoric (read PR) is a neutral tool. In that light, he was right to alert the public to the fact that character can be faked and audiences misled by clever masters of rhetoric. The crucial point here is that Aristotle draws our atttention to the importance of human agency. It was this radical innovation in perspective that made Classical Greece so special in terms of human progress.
Isocrates’ thinking does not validate Jim Grunig’s models
Marsh claims that Isocrates’ work 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.
Marsh describes how for Plato 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 corresponds to Grunig’s public information model of public relations, in which organisations deliver “objective information” to publics that request it (though I doubt Marsh – or anybody – could justify the use of the word “objective” in a PR context: see page 84) , rather than build proper relationships.
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, 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”.
Marsh critiques and dismisses the usefulness of Plato’s preference for the noble lover model for “PR purposes” by arguing that Plato envisages imposing viewpoints on others. 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.
In the process of developing his argument (see pages 88 – 90), 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 ethical rhetorical) practice. He merely provides some airy quotes from others saying things such as, for Isocrates “rhetoric is a culture of the mind; it is the poetry of the political world”. He also 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 often expressed.
Marsh doesn’t observe that, outside of unconditional love and friendship, relationships, however prized, are not ends in themselves. In other words, the relations PR influences are mostly defined by some sense of a reciprocal calculation of a quantifiable outcome.
He passes over as it it were incidental that when Plato was discussing his “lover” tropes, he was talking about their motivations as part of a wider body of thought. These include a critique of relativism, an examination of the relationship between nomos and phusis, and the difference between appearances and reality. Plato was exploring the boundaries between ethics, epistemology and metaphysics. He was also attempting to define justice in a consistent manner so it could be applied universally.
Philosophical myopia of modern “non-adverserial” PR thinkers
It is not trivial that the core philosophical and political disputes sparked by Socrates, then developed by Plato and Aristotle, remain ongoing.
Contrariswise: Grunig’s models, which describe one-way communication, public information conduit, aysmmetrical and symmetrical communication, have nothing intrinsically to do with philosophical issues, the world of politics and ideas. In fact, they only connect indirectly to the rich art of rhetoric itself. That’s because they are merely process-driven tactical options for managing communications that institutions can use for instrumental purposes (see New Moral Agenda for PR).
Moreover the attempt by Marsh and Grunig to root their symmetrical theories in Habermas’s theory of ethics and “communicative action” based on communicative public freedom is not thought-through properly. (see Marsh page 81 and Handbook of Public Relations)
Habermas took the concepts from Hannah Arendt, who urges us to “think without banisters” in a diverse world. Her writing calls for open-ended opinionated debate in an agonistic democracy. Her work is firmly rooted in the Classical Aristotelian (Zoon Politikon: humans as active social, not necessarily rational, political animals), in which mass debate between equals is a ‘power-generating process’ that transforms society through action. Though I accept Habermas’s doesn’t use the terms as Arendt does. But his concept of deliberative democracy retains an agonistic dimension (1). Hence they both advocate an ethos of “exhaustive controversy” in the public sphere, in which everything can and should be contested again and again.
Though, I agree, Habermas’s work, as Marsh and Grunig say, seeks to show how to bring about mutual understanding. One that is arrived at through Arendt-style coercion free communication and democratic consensus, in which the better argument should triumph.
And it’s worth noting that in contrast to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, it would be hard to spot any ongoing debate – besides one similar to mine with Marsh – that Isocrates sparked. Though I don’t doubt that Isocrates was an insightful thinker. I also accept that he deserves credit for popularizing – in our imagination at least – the “Greek ideal of a liberal education”.
Some insights into Plato’s relationship to truth
Here’s another example from Marsh’s paper that encapsulates why I 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 I don’t), both of Marsh’s objections are vulnerable to challenge.
Plato was not intolerant of opposing views so much as determined to distinguish between truth and opinion, so as to establish the superiority of philosophy over politics. Moreover 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 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]
What Marsh misses is that Plato advocated that the way to find the truth was to engage in dialogue through a contest of minds. And, significantly, Plato was not an opponent of two-way communication based on rational discourse. He was their proponent. For him, the genuine commitment to the search for truth was the key to determining whether people entering into debate were behaving in an ethical fashion. As Gouldner explains, in Plato’s view:
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]
It is true, as Marsh suggests, that after the trial of Socrates, Plato was sure that most humans (the masses) had such poor judgement that they were incapable of searching for the truth. Therefore he developed the controversial concept of noble lies to keep them content. He posited that philosophers (the enlightened elite) could, and should, rise above (the masses’) mere opinions to establish their right to rule (over them).
Established truths do indeed brook no dissent and logically close down all debate. It was to Plato’s credit, however, that he was certain we, including he, could never know the full truth. In essence, he believed in the existence of absolute truth in a similar manner to how religious people believe in an all-knowing God.
Let’s keep a grip on historical perspective and disputes
It is also worth considering how all the masters of Greek rhetoric marketed themselves as being different from those who supposedly indulged in “mere” sophism. Aristotle, for instance, accused Gorgias, who said the hypnotic spell of words could achieve divine feats, of appearing to be wise in order to deceive the public so he could make money.
But I think it was neither fair nor useful of any of them to talk about the sophists as if their sole purpose was to make the weaker argument appear the stronger. Rather I suspect the term sophist became, and remains, a term of abuse for rivals you don’t like. We should take with a pinch of salt claims condemning sophists (rivals) for being merely lovers of fame addicted to winning arguments for winning’s sake.
Amusingly, my explanation of Plato and Aristotle’s thinking could be used to validate Grunig’s conception of what constitutes excellence in PR practice in the 21st century. But I prefer to suggest that we must do better than make superficial ahistorical comparisons. We would profit more by examining the development of communication theory and practice from a sociological and historical perspective. For instance, Grunig’s models were devised for use in our mediated world, whereas Classical Greece’s democracy was unmediated.
Now let’s examine Marsh’s assessment of Isocrates’ supposed uniqueness some more.
Reactionary Isocrates did believe in the natural order
Marsh maintains that unlike Plato, Isocrates did not believe that there was a “divinely ordained best course of action”. That’s not accurate.
In Isocrates’ second speech concerning Nicocles, written for the king to communicate what he expects from his subjects, we discover 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]
It is also hard to accept Marsh’s proposition that Isocrates seriously advocated open and free two-way communication; or that he was ever committed to ensuring so-called win–win relationships and outcomes. For instance, in a letter to Nicoles, 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. [Isocrates to Nicoles, The J. A. Freese Translation]
I take that to mean that the king must choose whom he trusts. The views of the others, we can suppose, are to be either silenced or ignored. The objective here is to keep the king on top; though I accept that he was by all accounts a relatively “liberal” ruler.
In contrast, elsewhere in the poleis of Classical Greece freedom of speech was for everybody. All citizens were considered equal when it came to voicing their opinions. Every citizen was active in politics. There were no kings, leaders and separate state institutions within the polis governing the people. There was an equality of voice and decision-making, which often led to the aristocracy, much to Plato’s anger, being marginalised in the public arena.
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. However Marsh is right to suggest that Plato, rather than Ioscrates, has over the long term proved to be the most potent opponent of democracy.
As for Aristotle, he defined democracy as meaning freedom, and he was not always in favour of it either. Indeed, the discipline of modern politics and philosophical thinking founded by Plato and Aristotle, and to a lesser extent Isocrates, was a reaction to democracy, in the sense of trying to understand its consequences and limit its scope after the fact.
What Cicero really thought about rival Greek schools of rhetoric
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 of the subject.
Cicero did not favour Isocrates over Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Though 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 Isocrates’ eloquence and his ability to master sound and rhythm (Making a New Man: Ciceronian Self-fashioning in the Rhetorical Works, by John Richard Dugan), a crowd-pleasing rhetorical skill that Cicero valued and mastered.
According to the academic James D. Williams (see here), what appealed to Cicero about the rhetorical tradition of Isocrates was its broad educational underpinnings and its personal and pragmatic approach. But Cicero was much too wise to restrict his options to this particular school of thought.
For instance, in De Oratore, Cicero’s masterpiece on the art of oratory, his essays are written in a novel form of the Platonic dialogue tradition. But he gives most credit for his text’s construction to Aristotle’s influence.
The Loeb Classical Library‘s full translation‘s authoritative introduction to De Oratore makes a useful comparison between Cicero’s and Plato’s work:
[In Plato’s work] the conversational form is employed to convey the feeling of corporate research into complicated abstract questions, progressing towards the truth but not attaining it with sufficient certainty and completeness to justify its being expounded dogmatically; the positive results, so far as any can be elcited, are merely tentative. In Cicero’s dialogues on the contrary the facts in respect to the matter under consideration are regarded as already ascertained; doctrines are expounded as dogmatic truths, the dialogue form being adopted as a vivid method of exhibiting the many-sided nature of the subject and the departments into which a systematic treatment of it falls. If differing opinions about it are introduced, the parts of them that are valid are accepted and put together in a single system.
Though I urge readers not to jump to unfounded assumptions by taking this insightful comment about the comparative content of De Oratore out of context. Instead, I suggest we keep our minds open and and take the effort to fathom Cicero’s thinking. In that vein let’s dig a little deeper.
In De Oratore Cicero argues against the one-sidedness of the neo-Atticists who favoured abandoning persuasion for arbitrary critical perfection. He counters that the best orators need to be expedient. And he dismisses the debates between the different schools of Greek rhetoric for their pettiness.
Cicero says repeatedly in De Oratore that rules and theories are inadequate guides to rhetorical practice. He stresses that personal experience matters much more than theories and models. He adds that orators (read PR pros, politicians, priests in the modern context) need to be masters of all the rhetorical methodologies and styles, and to know when to use them.
The classicist George Kennedy nails Cicero’s cleverness. In The Art of Rhetoric in the Roman World, 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.
I don’t want to be unduly harsh on Marsh. I share his admiration for Cicero’s contribution to the development of philosophy, political and ethical values, the concept of public service (duty), and much more. And having not examined Quintilian’s work, I cannot question what Marsh says about his views.
So, where does all this leave us?
Marsh invites us to believe that Isocrates laid the “effective foundation for [modern] public relations“. He maintains that, as opposed to Aristotle’s rhetoric, Isocrates’ rhetoric demonstrated how “to form a genuine ‘we’ out of diversity”. He says “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” with the art of persuasion at its heart.
I beg to differ.
(1) For a useful introduction: Communicative Power in Habermas’s Theory of Democracy by Jeffrey Flynn Middlebury College, Vermont. And to review the strengths and weaknesses of Habermas’s thoughts: Habermas and Pragmatism, edited by Mitchell Aboulafia, Myra Bookman and Cathy Kemp, Routledge, 2002.