LaRue Van Hook

Alcidamas versus Isocrates: The Spoken versus the Written Word1

The Classical Weekly VOL. XII NEW YORK, JANUARY 20, 1919 No. 12

In examining the quarrel between Alcidamas and Isocrates we study an interesting chapter in the development and history of Greek rhetoric. In many respects the two men were alike. They were contemporaries2; both had studies rhetoric under the famous Gorgias, and Alcidamas had even succeeded to the master's School3; both were Sophists (although each would deny the orthodox title to the other); both claimed to be 'philosophers'4; both resided in Athens5, and there established influential Schools6; both belong to the Epideictic School with respect to their tendencies; both were prominent and gifted men, but almost childishly egotistic, impatient of criticism, and contemptuous of their rivals7.

Here, however, the similarity ends. They were bitter enemies8 and rivals9, and devoted their talents to opposite aims--Isocrates to literary rhetoric, Alcidamas to practical oratory. Isocrates was a publicist, and a slow and painstaking writer: All of his Logoi (except the early six forensic) were meant to be read and not to be spoken. As Quintilian says10, his speech is suited to the palaestra, not the battlefield. It was Isocrates's aim in his literary compositions to achieve something that would have permanent value and be respected. His rhetorical theory and doctrines and methods of teaching are elucidated at length in his writings, particularly in the discourse Against the Sophists (391 B.C.) and in the speech On the Antidosis (353 B.C.). Isocrates held that, if a student had natural ability, then training and practice would bring success. Attention to and imitation of precepts and patterns furnished by the master were of great importance, and assiduous devotion to the writing tablets was a desideratum. Training in written composition on worthy themes was emphasized.

Alcidamas, on the other hand, contemned and belittled the written word, and, in the highest degree, lauded extemporaneous speech. Like his master Gorgias, he prided himself on his ability to answer and discuss immediately and extemporaneously any question, or subject proposed11. It was Alcidamas, therefore, and not Isocrates, who maintained the orthodox tradition of the School of Gorgias, namely, the cultivation of the faculty of oral and extemporary eloquence. Further, Alcidamas, unlike Isocrates, had no real rhetorical system. With him, instruction in oratory was practical and mechanical, rather thar theoretical. He was not ignorant of or altogether indifferent to the means of the art of rhetoric12, but these were for him altogether subordinate to the summum bonum, namely, extemporaneous eloquence; and this eloquence was based on wide knowledge and was to be employed 'in the needs of daily life'13.

In the year 391 B.C., at the beginning of his professional career14, (14) Isocrates wrote his discourse Against the Sophists, in which he attacked the principles and methods employed by his rivals in the profession. Three classes of Sophists are censured: (1) The Eristics; (2) The teachers of rhetoric; (3) The writers of 'Arts of Rhetoric'. Alcidamas belonged primarily to the second class attacked, namely, the professors of Politikoi Logoi, i.e. Political Discourse, or Practical Rhetoric, Deliberative and Forensic. These teachers are accused of dishonesty and stupidity; it is maintained that they are dishonest in their pretensions infallibly to produce eloquent orators from any human material, whether the pupil possesses capacity or imagination, or not. Such charlatanism tends to discredit all in the profession.

A few years subsequent to the appearance of Isocrates's Kata Tôn Sophistôn Alcidamas replied, with his caustic Peri Sophistôn, also called Peri Tôn Graptous Logous Graphontôn (On the Sophists, or On the Writers of Written Discourses). In this composition, which is in its nature a katagoria of the psogos type, Alcidamas bitterly arraigns Isocrates (not mentioned by name) and his School for the teaching and practice of written speeches15.

He marshals all possible points in condemnation and eulogizes the efficacy and value of extemporaneous speech16.

Alcidamas's discourse has no orderly or systematic development of divisions. A logical sequence of arguments is lacking in this composition, which is loosely strung together, although there is a formal prooemium and a striking epilogue. The greatest blemish is due to the frequent repetitions which, in a measure, mar the effectiveness of the presentation. In spite of all this, the discourse, epideictic in character, is of great interest and produces a favorable impression, I think, by vivacity of style, smoothness of flow, and the validity of many of its arguments. The composition is enlivened by many figures of speech. As these figures are not over-bold nor too numerous, as is the case in the Helen of Gorgias17, we do not get at all the impression of bad taste and frigidity (psuchrotês18) which Aristotle, in the Rhetoric, so severely condemns as being a characteristic vice in the writings of the rhetor.

What may be said as to the merits of this controversy? In the first place, we may say that professional jealousy and the intolerance born of conceit in both men resulted in an utter lack of sympathy and complete mutual misunderstanding. These two Sophists were really champions of very different causes with different aims. It will be observed that throughout his discourse Alcidamas refers constantly to the courtroom, to lawsuits and the Assembly, in short, to questions of daily life and of temporary interest. Now to the participant in all such cases the ability to speak extemporaneously (the result of training and practice in extempore speech) is obviously of the greatest value. Alcidamas always has an audience in mind, usually the audience in the courtroom19.

Consequently, with views so narrow and so practical, Alkidamas naturally failed to comprehend Isocrates's ideals and misunderstood his real aims. His accusation, therefore, is somewhat unjust and often beside the mark. Isocrates did not believe in the practice of writing and memorizing set speeches which subsequently should be delivered from memory; this practice was taught by the Sophists of the 'common herd'20 whom he condemns. It was his aim in written discourse, which was to be read, to produce work of lasting value, to be thorough, and to be honest; not merely to educate youths as speakers and litigants, but to prepare them for actual life and as leaders of public opinion. The truth is, that Isocrates aimed at results immeasurably higher than were dreamed of in Alcidamas's 'philosophy'; for the ideal of the latter was to win success in lawsuits and to gain fame in that extemporaneous forensic eloquence which tickles the ears of the groundlings and wins réclame for the day.

In the speech On the Antidosis (353 B.C., 35 years after the discourse Against the Sophists), Isocrates defends himself against his detractors and answers in detail these current charges and misconceptions. He says that he has long known that some of the Sophists slandered his pursuits and represented him as a writer of speeches for the lawcourts, with as much justice as if they should call Phidias a dollmaker, or Zeuxis and Parrhasius signpainters. He affirms, however, that his subjects are not petty private disputes21, but the greatest and highest questions; his interest lies not in forensic rhetoric, but in Panhellenic Politics22.

Alcidamas had asserted23 that the clever speaker (speaking being a difficult accomplishment) could write well, but that the clever writer (writing being easy) could not speak well. Isocrates answers this by affirming24 that the master of philosophic discourses of universal interest (compositions of far greater import than lawcourt speeches) could easily succeed in a lawcourt, but not vice versa. Another charge brought by Alcidamas is that Isocrates's discourses, which have been laboriously worked out with elaborate diction, are more akin to poetry than to prose; in fact, such writers may more justly be called poets than Sophists25. This charge is admitted by Isocrates, who prides himself that this is the case and affirms that listeners take pleasure in his discourses as in poems26.

But it is of interest to note that both Sophists admit qualifications and reservations. Isocrates in the Philip says27: 'I have not forgotten the great advantage which spoken discourses have over written for purposes of persuasion, nor the very general belief that the former are delivered in reference to serious and pressing matters, the latter composed merely for display or gain'. And Alcidamas admits that, after all, he does not altogether contemn the ability to write28.

Finally, it may be said that Alcidamas was fighting a losing cause. The style of Isocrates soon became the standard, and the fashion of writing discourses rapidly grew. Aristotle gave the weight of his great influence to Isocrates and scathingly condemned Alcidamas for frigidity29. Alcidamas is merely mentioned by Demetrius30, and is condemned by Dionysius31. It may be said with fairness, I think, that ancient criticism deservedly praised Isocrates, but treated Alcidamas unjustly. If we estimate the latter by his extant composition, we see that he has been far too harshly judged.

As there is no translation in English, so far as I know, of Alcidamas's discourse, and, since it is decidedly deserving of translation, I have made the following version32.


См. материалы об Алкидаманте на сайте:


E. M. Cope on Alcidamas (From The Journal of Classical and Sacred Philology, 1856. Look past Cope's misguided hostility toward rhetoric to his rich details).

Hazel Lee Brown: Alcidamas and extemporaneous speech (Brown's treatment of Alcidamas on extemporaneous oratory, from her 1911 PhD dissertation at the University of Chicago. Outstanding footnotes).


Links to other sites

· Michigan Papyrus 2754: Alcidamas on Homer

· Brad L. Cook review of J. V. Muir (ed.), 'Alcidamas, The Works & Fragments' (BMCR)

· Ralph M. Rosen review of Neil O'Sullivan, 'Alcidamas, Aristophanes and the Beginnings of Greek Stylistic Theory' (BMCR)





Translated by LaRue Van Hook

Classical Weekly, January 20, 1919

(1) Since certain so-called Sophists are vainglorious and puffed up with pride because they have practised the writing of speeches and through books have revealed their own wisdom, although they have neglected learning and discipline and are as inexpert as laymen in the faculty of speaking, and since they claim to be masters of the whole of the art of rhetoric, although they possess only the smallest share of ability therein-- since this is the case, I shall essay to bring formal accusation against written discourses.

(2) This I shall do, not because I think they possess an ability which I myself have not, but for the reason that I pride myself more on other matters; I believe that writing should be practised as an ancillary pursuit. I am, therefore, of opinion that those who devote their lives to writing are woefully deficient in rhetoric and philosophy; these men, with far more justice, may be called poets rather than Sophists.

(3) In the first place, one may condemn the written word because it may be readily assailed, and because it may be easily and readily practiced by any one of ordinary ability. To speak extemporaneously, and appropriately to the occasion, to be quick with arguments, and not to be at a loss for a word, to meet the situation successfully, and to fulfil the eager anticipation of the audience and to say what is fitting to be said, such ability is rare, and is the result of no ordinary training.

(4) On the contrary, to write after long premeditation, and to revise at leisure, comparing the writings of previous Sophists, and from many sources to assemble thoughts on the same subject, and to imitate felicities cleverly spoken, to revise privately some matters on the advice of laymen and to alter and expunge other parts as a result of repeated and careful excogitation, verily, this is an easy matter even for the untutored.

(5) Whatsoever things are good and fair are ever rare and difficult to acquire, and are the fruits of painful endeavor; but the attainment of the cheap and trivial is easy. Thus it is that, since writing is easier than speaking, we should rightly consider the ability to compose a meaner accomplishment.

(6) Further, every sensible person will admit that the clever speaker, by changing somewhat his natural point of view, will be able to write well, but no one would believe that it follows that this same power will make the clever writer a clever speaker; for it is reasonable to suppose that, when those who can accomplish difficult tasks devote their attention to the easy, they will readily perform them. On the other hand, the pursuit of the difficult is an arduous and repellent undertaking for those who have been subjected to gentle training. This may be seen from the following examples.

(7) He who can lift a heavy burden has no difficulty in raising a light one, but the man of feeble powers cannot carry a heavy load. Again, the speedy runner easily distances his slower competitor, while the sluggish runner cannot keep pace with his speedier antagonist. Furthermore, the javelin-thrower or the archer who can accurately hit the distant mark easily strikes the one near at hand, while the athlete of feeble powers falls short of the remote target.

(8) The analogy holds true in speeches, namely, that the master of extempore speaking, if given time and leisure for the written word, will excel therein, but it is evident that the practised writer when he turns to extemporaneous speaking will suffer mental embarrassments, wanderings, and confusion.

(9) I think, too, that in human life the ability to speak is always a more useful accomplishment, but the writing of speeches is seldom of opportune value. Every one knows that the ability to speak on the spur of the moment is necessary in harangues, in the courtroom, and in private conversation. It often happens that unexpected crises occur when those who can say nothing seem contemptible, while the speakers are seen to be honored by the listeners as possessors of god-like minds.

(10) Whenever the need arises to admonish the erring, to console the unfortunate, to mollify the exasperated, to refute sudden accusations, then it is that the ability to speak can be man’s helpful ally. Written composition, however, demands leisure and consequently gives aid too late to save the day. Immediate help is demanded in trials, but the written word is perfected leisurely and slowly. What sensible man, therefore, is envious of this ability to compose speeches--an ability which fails so completely at the critical moment.

(11) Would it not be ludicrous if, when the herald announces, `Who of the citizens wishes to speak?’, or, when the water-clock in the courtroom is already flowing, the orator should proceed to his writing-tablets to compose and memorize his speech? Verily, if we were tyrants of cities, we should have the power to convene the courts and give counsel relative to public affairs so as to call the citizens to the hearing after we have had time to write our speeches. But, since others have this power, is it not silly for us to practise aught save extemporaneous speech?

(12) The truth is that speeches which have been laboriously worked out with elaborate diction (compositions more akin to poetry than prose) are deficient in spontaneity and truth, and, since they give the impression of a mechanical artificiality and labored insincerity, they inspire an audience with distrust and ill-will.

(13) And the greatest proof is this, that those who write for the lawcourts seek to avoid this pedantic precision, and imitate the style of extempore speakers; and they make the most favorable impression when their speeches least resemble written discourses. Now, since speeches seem most convincing when they imitate extemporaneous speakers, should we not especially esteem that kind of training which shall readily give us ability in this form of speaking?

(14) I think that for this reason also we must hold written speeches in disesteem, that they involve their composers in inconsistency; for it is inherently impossible to employ written speeches on all occasions. And so, when a speaker in part speaks extemporaneously, and in part uses a set form, he inevitably involves himself in culpable inconsistency, and his speech appears in a measure histrionic and rhapsodic, and in a measure mean and trivial in comparison with the artistic finish of the others.

(15) It is strange that the man who lays claim to culture, and professes to teach others, if he possess a writing-tablet or manuscript, is then able to reveal his wisdom, but lacking these is no better than the untutored; strange, too, that, if time be given him, he is able to produce a discourse, but, when a proposal is submitted for immediate discussion, he has less voice than the layman, and, although he profess skill in eloquence, he appears to have no ability whatsoever in speaking. So true it is that devotion to writing conduces to utter inability in speaking.

(16) When one becomes accustomed to slow and meticulous composition, with extreme care rhythmically connecting phrases, perfecting style with slow excogitation, it inevitably follows that, when he essays extemporaneous speech to which he is unaccustomed, he is mentally embarrassed and confused; in every respect he makes an unfavorable impression, and differs not a wit from the voiceless, and through lack of ready presence of mind is quite unable to handle his material fluently and winningly.

(17) Similarly, just as those who are loosed after long confinement in bonds are unable to walk normally, but still must proceed in the same fashion and manner as when previously inhibited, so, the practice of writing, by making sluggish the mental processes, and by giving the opposite sort of training in speaking, produces an unready and fettered speaker, deficient in all extemporaneous fluency.

(18) To learn extemporaneous speeches is, in my opinion, difficult, and the memorizing likewise is laborious, and to forget the set speech in the trial of a case is disgraceful. Everyone would agree that it is harder to learn and commit to memory details than main heads, and similarly many points than few. In extemporaneous speech the mind must be concerned only with reference to the main topics, which are elaborated as the speaker proceeds. But, where the speech is previously written, there is need to learn and carefully to commit to memory, not merely the main topics, but words and syllables.

(19) Now the main topics in a speech are but few, and they are important, but words and phrases are numerous and unimportant, and differ little one from another. Then, too, each topic is brought forward once only, but words, often the same ones, are used again and again. Thus it is that to memorize topics is easy, but to learn by heart an entire speech, word by word, is difficult and onerous.

(20) Furthermore, in extemporaneous speaking forgetting involves no disgrace, since the flow of speech runs smoothly on, as the fixed and precise order of the words is not essential; if the speaker forgets a topic he can easily pass it by, and proceed to the next in order, and so avoid embarrassment; later on, if the omitted topic be recalled, it can then easily be elucidated.

(21) But it is different with the speakers of prepared discourse, since, if the slightest detail be omitted or spoken out of place, perturbation, confusion, and a search for the lost word inevitably follow, and there ensues loss of time--sometimes, indeed, abrupt silence and infelicitous, ludicrous and irremediable embarrassment.

(22) I believe, too, that extemporaneous speakers exercise a greater sway over their hearers than those who deliver set speeches; for the latter, who have laboriously composed their discourses long before the occasion, often miss their opportunity. It happens that they either weary their listeners by speaking at too great length, or stop speaking while their audience is fain to hear more.

(23) Indeed, it is difficult, if not impossible, for human foresight accurately to estimate the disposition of an audience as to the length of a speech. But the extemporaneous speaker has the advantage of being able to adapt his discourse to his audience; he can abbreviate or extend at will.

(24) Aside from these considerations, extemporaneous speakers and those who deliver set speeches can not, in the same way, handle arguments which arise in the course of lawsuits. The former, if they get a point from their opponents, or themselves think of one while intently considering the situation, may easily introduce it; since extemporaneous speech is used exclusively, elaboration does not involve them in inconsistency or confusion.

(25) It is otherwise as regards those who contend with prepared discourses in suits, for, if any argument not previously thought of occurs to them, it is a difficult matter to fit it in and make appropriate use of it; for the finished nature of their precise diction does not permit improvised interpolations, so that either the new arguments which fortune gives them cannot be used at all, or, if they are used, the elaborate edifice of their speech falls to pieces and crashes to the ground. And, since part of the speech is delivered after careful preparation, and part is spoken at random, a confused and discordant style results.

(26) What sensible person, then, would approve of a practice which militates against the use of the help which fortune gives, and is at times a meaner ally to contestants than luck itself? Other arts are wont to be helpful coadjutors to man; this one stands in the way of advantages that come of themselves.

(27) Written discourses, in my opinion, certainly ought not to be called real speeches, but they are as wraiths, semblances, and imitations. It would be reasonable for us to think of them as we do of bronze statues, and images of stone, and pictures of living beings; just as these last mentioned are but the semblances of corporeal bodies, giving pleasure to the eye alone, and are of no practical value,

(28) so, in the same way, the written speech, which employs one hard and fast form and arrangement, if privately read, makes an impression, but in crises, because of its rigidity, confers no aid on its possessor. And, just as the living human body has far less comeliness than a beautiful statue, yet manifold practical service, so also the speech which comes directly from the mind, on the spur of the moment, is full of life and action, and keeps pace with the events like a real person, while the written discourse, a mere semblance of the living speech, is devoid of all efficacy.

(29) It may, perhaps, be alleged that it is illogical for one to condemn written discourse who himself employs it in the present written essay, and to disparage a pursuit through the employment of which he is preparing to win fame among the Greeks. Furthermore, it may be thought inconsistent for a philosopher to commend extemporaneous discourses, thereby deeming chance to be of more worth than forethought, and careless speakers to possess greater wisdom than careful writers.

(30) In reply let me first say that I have expressed my views as I have, not because I altogether contemn the ability to write, but because I esteem it of lesser worth than extemporaneous speaking, and am of opinion that one should bestow the greatest pains upon the practice of speaking. Secondly, I am myself employing the written word, not because I especially pride myself therein, but that I may reveal to those who plume themselves on the ability to write that with a trivial expenditure of effort I myself shall be able to eclipse and destroy their discourses.

(31) Furthermore, I am now essaying the written word because of the display orations which are delivered to the crowd. My customary listeners I bid test me by that usual standard whenever I am able to speak opportunely and felicitously on any subject proposed. To those, however, who only now at last have come to hear me (never once having heard me previously) I am attempting to give an example of my written discourse. The latter are accustomed to hear the set speeches of the rhetors and, if I spoke extemporaneously, they might fail to estimate my ability at its real worth.

(32) Apart from these considerations, it is possible, from written discourses, to see the clearest evidence of the progress which it is fitting that there should be in thinking; for it is not easily discernible whether my extemporaneous speeches are now superior to those I formerly delivered, as it is difficult to remember speeches spoken in times gone by. Looking into the written word, however, just as in a mirror, one can easily behold the advance of intelligence. Finally, since I am desirous of leaving behind a memorial of myself, and am humoring my ambition, I am committing this speech to writing.

(33) It must distinctly be understood that I am not encouraging careless speaking when I say that I esteem the ability to speak extemporaneously more highly than the written word. My contention is that the orator must prepare himself in advance in ideas and their arrangement, but that the verbal elaboration should be extemporaneous; this extemporaneous verbal exposition, in its timeliness, is of greater value to the orator than the exact technical finish of the written discourse.

(34) In conclusion, then, whoever wishes to become a masterly speaker rather than a mediocer writer, whoever is desirous of being a master of occasions rather than of accurate diction, whoever is zealous to gain the goodwill of his auditor as an ally rather than his ill-will as an enemy, nay, more, whoever desires his mind to be untrammeled, his memory ready, and his lapses of memory unobserved, whoever has his heart set upon the acquisition of a power of speaking which will be of adequate service in the needs of daily life, this man, I say, with good reason, would make the practice, at every time and on every occasion, of extemporaneous speaking his constant concern. On the other hand, should he study written composition for amusement and as a pastime, he would be deemed by the wise to be the possessor of wisdom.


From The Classical Weekly, VOL. XII, NEW YORK, JANUARY 20, 1919 No. 12.
Van Hook notes that his paper was read at the Twelfth Annual Meeting of The Classical Association
of the Atlantic States, held at the Drexel Institute, Philadelphia, on May 3, 1918