Democracy and Democratic Language in Isocrates
Date: 3 May 2022
University of Exeter
PhD in Classics
The Athenian orator Isocrates (436-338 BC) is frequently branded as an insincere supporter of democracy who was promoting an oligarchic agenda in disguise. Within this framework, his use of the dēm- family of words and closely related terms has usually been either neglected or interpreted as corroborating his alleged anti-democratic ...
The Athenian orator Isocrates (436-338 BC) is frequently branded as an insincere supporter of democracy who was promoting an oligarchic agenda in disguise. Within this framework, his use of the dēm- family of words and closely related terms has usually been either neglected or interpreted as corroborating his alleged anti-democratic stance. By challenging these trends, I explore how a re-examination of Isocrates’ usages of democratic vocabulary throws light on his political views and, more generally, on the role of his political thought within the development of Greek political thought. The opening chapter provides some preliminary remarks on the issues at stake and the methodological approach. The thesis then analyses the Isocratean usages of two notions inextricably related to democracy: Chapter 2 focuses on speaking freely by examining the occurrences of parrhēsia, Chapter 3 explores his use of the idea and language of equality. Both chapters show that, rather than distorting their alleged true meaning, Isocrates problematises these terms and notions on the basis of their deeply-rooted flexibility. Chapter 4 investigates the usages of dēmagōgos highlighting the relevance of his interest in political leadership. This chapter also analyses the Isocratean depictions of Alcibiades to elucidate further his views on leadership. The final chapter develops these insights by examining the occurrences of dēmotikos and showing that Isocrates redefines what it means to be in favour of the dēmos in light of his ideas on leadership. Overall, by means of a semantic approach, this thesis argues against the view of Isocrates as an anti-democratic thinker and suggests a more sophisticated approach that takes into account two essential elements. On the one hand, the fact that Isocrates exploits, and stretches, the ductility already embedded in these terms in order to tackle contemporary historical and political issues. On the other hand, his interest in what makes a good leader in both internal and external politics and the crucial role that this profound interest in leadership plays in shaping his views on what democracy should look like.
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