Isocrates’ Nicocles: Monarchy and the Good King

Ganymedes Zeus MET L.1999.10.14.jpg

Zeus and Ganymede “Ganymedes Zeus MET L.1999.10.14” by David Liam Moran (= User:One dead president) – Own work. Image renamed from Image:Ganymede serving Zeus.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The passage quoted below comes from an eighteenth-century English translation of the Greek rhetorician Isocrates’ speech, “Nicocles” (c. 372-365 BC). The passage I’ve chosen occurs roughly in the middle of the argument.

The speech as a whole is a political work composed for oral reading and discussion. Isocrates writes in the voice of Nicocles, his former student, who is now king of Cyprus, supposedly addressing his subjects with an instructional speech on good government.

This section begins with a summary of the preceding arguments that prove that monarchy is better than democracy — this is not the writer Isocrates’ personal belief, but is something appropriate for a king to argue, and is likely done with a view to build sympathy for Cyprus among Athenian readers of this speech. The speaker/character Nicocles briefly expands on the point with an analogy to the monarchic government among the Greek gods.

Next, Nicocles touches on how he obtained his position as ruler; the writer explains this section is brief because its expansion is not warranted by the occasion, and serves as a transition to the next major topic, his own reign. He then begins to argue that he deserves his position, and his subjects’ respect, because of his virtues and deeds. His first proof is the way he has handled the administration of his government. Several examples demonstrate his virtuous kingly conduct.

Below the passage, I’ll provide my reasons for selecting this passage, and some food for thought about Isocrates’ methods and aims.

[p. 33]

Those who are under a fixed Monarchy, seem in all respects to have the greatest Power; and those who are under a good Oligarchy, commonly, upon important Occasions, either constitute one General only, or else make him King and Lord of the Army. Those who hate Monarchies, when they send out many Leaders, never perform Things right.

And speaking of Antiquity, it is said that the Gods have Jupiter for their King. If this Tenet is true, it is plain that they give the Preference to this State. And if no one knows the Certainty of this, but we take it for granted to be so, it is a tacit Proof that we have all the highest Esteem for Monarchy. For we should not say that the Gods observed such a Government, if we did not think it more excellent than all others.

How far then Governments excel one another, cannot be fairly ascertained; nor shall I enlarge upon the Subject at present, as what I have already said is sufficient on the Occasion.

As to our Right of Succession, I shall likewise be very brief upon that, as it is an undisputed Point. For who does not know that Teucer,

[p. 34]

the first of our Family, taking with him the Leaders of several People, sailed hither, built a City, and divided the Land among them? And that my Father Evagoras, with great Difficulty and Danger recovered the Kingdom after it had been lost by others; and brought it to this Length that the Phoenecians no longer rule over the Salaminians; but they, as it was originally, govern themselves.

It remains now, according to my Proposal, that I should say something concerning myself, that you may know that your King is such a Person as does not claim Honour on the account of his Predecessors only, but for his own Personal Merits.

For I believe that all Men are ready to own, that Temperance and Justice are the two greatest Virtues, as they do not only benefit us in themselves; but as if we will be at the Pains to consider the Nature, Effect, and Use of Things, we shall find that whatever is not influenced by one of these Qualities, proves the Cause of the greatest Evils. But Acts guided by Temperance and Justice, are highly profitable in Life.

If any of the Ancients have been renowned for these Virtues, I cannot but think myself entitled to a Share in the same Glory. And indeed you will be most sensible of my Justice in this, that when I entered upon the Government, I found the Palace stripped, the Treasury exhausted, and all Things in Confusion, and requiring the greatest Application, Caution and Expence to retrieve them.

I know that when Things are in such a Plight, others would use all Means to make good their own private Affairs, and are obliged to do many Things contrary to their Inclinations: But I have not been tainted with any of these Motives. I have taken

[p. 35]

so religious a Care, that I have omitted nothing that could be done for the Advantage of the City.

And I have treated the People with so great Lenity, that in all my Reign there have been no Banishments, no Executions, no Confiscations, nor any other Misfortune of this Nature.

When we had no Entrance into Greece by reason of the late War; and were ravaged on all sides, I found Means to remove the Chief of these Hardships and Losses; to some I paid the Whole, to others Part; of some I procured Time, and with others I reconciled our Differences as well as I could.

And afterwards, while the Inhabitants of our Island were still disaffected to us, and the King of Persia, though outwardly reconciled, still bore us a Grudge, I mollified both of these; the One by an exact Observance of Justice, the Other by a chearful Obedience.

So great a Regard have I for the Prosperity of other Men, that I do not as others, who have a little more Strength than their Neighbours, cut off their Land and make an Acquisition of it. I even would not so much as accept of that District which was offered to me. I would much rather enjoy my own with Justice, than possess a far greater Kingdom by Acts of Violence.

But to what Purpose is it to spend Time in a Detail of Particulars, when I can in a few Words relate all that is necessary concerning myself? For it will appear, that I have never injured any Man; that I have benefited both our Countrymen and the rest of the Greeks; and that I have bestowed greater Gifts upon them, than all the Kings together who have reigned before me.

[p. 36]
And it behoves those who have a true Regard to Justice, and profess a Contempt of Wealth, to have such Commendations as these to give of themselves.

Source:  Isocrates. (1735). Nicocles [To his subjects the Cyprians, concerning their Duty]. In J. Brown (Trans.), The duty of a king and his people: being two orations of Isocrates; the one containing The duty of a king; the other containing The duty of subjects (pp. 26–43). London: printed for J. Roberts.

[For a later translation, see the 1894 J. A. Freese translation, section 25 to 35]

What this passage shows about Isocrates

As a teacher of a graduate course on rhetoric, I have been pondering several aspects of Isocrates’ approach to rhetoric while reading an assigned text, Logos and Power in Isocrates and Aristotle by Ekaterina V. Haskins (University of South Carolina Press, 2004).

I believe the passage above illustrates several key points by Haskins:

  1. The connection between political rhetoric and citizenly conduct: Haskins explains that Isocrates connected eloquent speech with the rhetor’s overall conduct in life, especially a speaker’s good public reputation. In speech and in life, the honourable word and deed involves placing the good of the community (polis) above one’s private good, adapting words and deeds to exigency and kairos, and speaking true (memorable and powerful) words that are praiseworthy according to the values of the community. In Nicocles, he applies this principle not only to a citizen-rhetor, but to a King.
  2. Isocrates’ chosen genres and modes of political writing and education: Isocrates chose to write epideictic [demonstrative] “speeches addressed to Hellas [Greece] and the polis [city-state]” instead of performing other genres of rhetoric in law courts and political assemblies (p. 19).This choice of genre enabled his particular rhetorical and pedagogical mode: he aimed to teach and practice what he called logos politikos, which was “an indistinguishably ethical and political art” (Poulakos, as quoted in Haskins, p. 19).  Isocrates “teaches” and critiques his real political community and simultaneously “teaches” his students what he believes good, eloquent public rhetoric could be and could aim to accomplish. As a teacher, he provides writings like these as examples of logos politikos for students in his school of philosophy.Even if the occasions of the written speeches were often partly hypothetical, they were often addressed to real Greeks, referred to real historical facts and circumstances, had realistic Greek rhetorical occasions, and thereby demonstrated the adaptation of political subject matter to speaker, audience, and temporal circumstances. Thus, the genre and mode enabled him to join “eu legein (the art of speaking well) and phronein (prudential thinking) for the benefit of the polis” (p. 19).
  3. Political aims: Instead of writing abstract theories and instructions in rhetoric, as Aristotle did, Isocrates hoped that his writings could also serve a good public purpose when read by others beyond his school. His speeches build toward his ultimate political dream of uniting all of Greece’s various city-states, which were not cooperative and were governed by various competing governmental systems: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy.As Haskins explains, “Not a military leader but a retiring citizen, Isocates sees his doxa [reputation] resting on his being a leader of words, ton logon hegemon (Panathenaicus 13), who through his logos has worked to foster concord and good will between the Athenians and other Greeks” (p. 22).
  4. Mythopoesis: Haskins also discusses that Isocrates does not leave behind or denigrate the mythopoetic elements of his society (Homeric traditions, Greek myths) as Socrates and Plato did, but rather makes use of them in ways that are at once respectful of cultural traditions while also supporting his secular and current political arguments and pedagogical aims.
  5. The use of muthos as a speech act: Haskins considers it reasonable “to compare Isocratean self-defense in the Antidosis and other writings to the muthoi of epic heroes” (p. 21). She explains that according to Martin (1989), “In Homer, muthos is ‘a speech-act indicating authority, performed at length, usually in public, with a focus on full attention to every detail’; it usually occurs when someone is boasting or defending his reputation” (p. 21).In the passage above, the character/speaker Nicocles simultaneously theorizes and performs an Isocratean, mythopoetic ethos by referring to his past good deeds (contrasted with evil deeds he chose not to do) and the ethical and political principles on which they are based. Isocrates uses this muthos indirectly to instruct students and the polis in the principle of good public conduct joined with a rhetoric of public self-praise or self-defense that could serve the public good, not just the speaker’s individual benefit.
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