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Against Isocrates

by Jeffrey J. Fisher

When St. John Paul II claimed in Ex Corde Ecclesiae that Catholic colleges and universities should be devoted “without reserve to the cause of truth,”   one might assume he was merely expressing an obvious platitude. And as with most such platitudes, one might further assume that no one seriously disagrees with it; that the eyerolls one might notice at a faculty meeting when someone voices a similar claim are due to its obviousness, and not to its being disputed. But these assumptions, I contend, are mistaken. St. John Paul II’s claim is substantive and contentious, and increasingly few faculty and administrators at institutions of higher learning seem to agree with it. In order to understand better both the substance of St. John Paul II’s claim and just how faculty and administrators today disagree with it, I propose to examine the tradition of education to which Ex Corde belongs. Like much else, that tradition was born in ancient Athens.

While Plato’s Academy is often highlighted as the progenitor of the modern university, when he opened its doors in 387 BC, he was far from the first person to offer an advanced education to ambitious young Athenians. Rather, the Academy was born into competition not only with the itinerant sophists that populate Plato’s dialogues (Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias, etc.) but also with the extremely successful educator and rhetorician, Isocrates. Though they all were educators, Plato, Isocrates, and the sophists disagreed deeply with each other about the goal or purpose of education, and they disagreed in ways that have more than a passing resemblance to debates about higher education today. 

Most contemporary Catholic institutions of higher learning follow in the footsteps of Isocrates or perhaps even the sophists. Ex Corde, however, would have them be far more Academic. To see this, consider these three different schools in more detail.

First consider the sophists. Quite famously, the sophists were reputed to “make the weaker argument appear the stronger,” no doubt because Protagoras himself boasted to do just this. From what we can glean from our ancient sources, the basis for Protagoras’s boast and the sophists’ reputation was their focus on teaching adversarial argumentation skills. If you paid Protagoras four minae – roughly, $50,000 in 2021 dollars – he would teach you both how to think through and criticize arguments and how to construct persuasive ones of your own. And the sophists claimed such skills were worthwhile because these skills were advantageous for being a respectable and useful citizen; they would help make you successful. Those of us today who think it a good idea for an 18-year-old to borrow thousands (and thousands) of dollars just to pay for and learn “critical thinking skills,” all so that he or she might then pursue a respectable and successful career by making use of these skills, are but the latest heirs of the sophists.

Consider a second ancient view of the purpose of higher education. Isocrates was one of the ten great Attic orators, and he opened a school in 392 BC, antedating Plato’s Academy by five years. He charged an even higher tuition than the sophists, and by the end of his life, Isocrates was one of Athens’ wealthiest citizens. Much like Plato, Isocrates was firmly critical of the sophists. Indeed, when Isocrates first opened his school, he advertised it with a work titled Against the Sophists.


In Isocrates’ view, one serious problem with the sophists’ educational program is that it does not deliver on its promises. While Isocrates thinks the sophists’ goal of imparting useful skills is indeed a correct goal for education, he thinks the sophists fail to accomplish this. One reason for their failure is that they do not teach the appropriate subjects, in particular, astronomy, geometry, and other theoretical, abstract subjects. According to Isocrates, these studies help to train the mind to think in a clear and precise manner, and being able to think in such a manner will make one more successful in whatever practical endeavors one pursues.

But the more serious problem with the sophists’ education program according to Isocrates is that it ignores virtue; sophists entirely neglect the ethical development of their students. The sophists cater to their students’ desire to be respected and to be successful, and such catering, Isocrates suggests, ends up encouraging a knavish kind of greed. For not only does the sophist not correct his students’ self-focused vision of success, but he then equips his students with tools that have been sold to them as instrumental for furthering that vision (or, at least, sophists attempt to equip them with such tools).

According to Isocrates, in addition to teaching practically useful skills, education ought to focus on making students better, more virtuous people. The role of higher education is to produce graduates who are just towards others and face adversity with courage; students who are wise and, in short, possess the entirety of virtue. Although Isocrates does not describe in detail how exactly his instruction accomplishes this, he suggests that the development of virtue requires habit and exhortation. Isocrates’ political speeches (somewhat analogous to modern day op-eds), exhorting as they do justice, temperance, and virtue generally, are presumably one of Isocrates’ tools for such instruction. More generally, Isocrates indicates that his very life serves as a model from which students can learn.

Happily enough for someone in his line of business, it turns out that by being just, one will secure for oneself all the material advantages that power-hungry misers are set upon, according to Isocrates. On more than one occasion, he explains that justice and virtue, far from being inimical to material success, in fact help one to “have more.” Thus, Isocrates is not being disingenuous in appealing to a potential students’ desire to have more, since the ethical training that students receive poses no potential roadblock to securing material advantages; indeed, the ethical training is sold as the highway to such advantages. Though we do not know how much Isocrates charged in tuition, we do know that it was notably higher than what the sophists charged, and that students would typically spend three or four years at his school. (So perhaps $250,000 for all four years?)


Those of us today who think the value of higher education lies both in 1) promoting the socio-economic success of students by supplying them with practically useful skills and in 2) making students more just, are but the latest heirs of Isocrates. 

Ex Corde presents a view of education that is quite clearly at odds with the view put forward by the sophists. But it is also, despite some superficial similarities, at odds with the view put forward by Isocrates. And it is this latter claim that Catholic universities and colleges desperately need to realize. For while few Catholic institutions have adopted exclusively the sophists’ view of the purpose of higher education, all too many of them seem to have adopted Isocrates’. One would be hard pressed to find a Catholic university that would refrain from highlighting the economic rewards that follow upon acquiring one of their calligraphed lambskins. One would be equally challenged to find one that does not speak enthusiastically about furthering justice. And it is not mere lip service that these universities pay to these goals. From the launching of new job-focused degree programs to the founding of institutes concerned with (various aspects of) justice, institutional and financial resources are being thrown at such goals.

To understand the vision of higher education presented in Ex Corde, we need to consider the third ancient view of higher education: that represented by Plato and his tuition-free Academy. Towards the end of his life Isocrates published the Antidosis, a defense of his school that also contained criticisms of his rival in higher education, Plato’s Academy. While Plato criticizes various ideas of Isocrates throughout his dialogues, the direct Academic response to the Antidosis was entrusted to a younger member of the school – the (at that point) ten-year veteran of the Academy, Aristotle. Aristotle’s response was the Protrepticus, a work which had been lost, but which recently has been largely reconstructed by D.S. Hutchinson and Monte Ransome Johnson.

Whenever Isocrates extols the study of geometry, astronomy, and other such theoretical subjects (such as metaphysics or theology), he also adamantly rejects studying these things for their own sakes. In themselves, these subjects have no useful or practical application; in themselves, they are pointless. The value of these subjects lies solely in the fact that their study sharpens one’s mind, making one better at reasoning clearly and communicating effectively. The target of his criticism—the people who study these subjects for their own sakes—are the members of Plato’s Academy. They pursue theoretical studies to the point of uselessness; this is Isocrates’ chief criticism of the Academy.

Aristotle replies to this criticism in the Protrepticus

To seek from every kind of knowledge something other than itself and to require that it must be useful is the demand of someone utterly ignorant of how far apart in principle good things are from the necessities; they are totally different. For among the things without which living is impossible, the ones which are liked on account of something else should be called necessities…, while all those that are liked for themselves, even if nothing else results from them, should be called goods in the strict sense; for this is not valuable because of that, and that for the sake of something else, and this goes on proceeding to infinity – rather, this comes to a stop somewhere. So it is absolutely ridiculous, then, to seek from everything a benefit beyond the thing itself, and to ask ‘So, what’s the benefit for us?’ and ‘What’s the use?’ For it’s true what we say: such a fellow doesn’t seem like someone who knows noble goodness.


Aristotle’s idea is this: Isocrates claims that something is valuable only if it is useful. And so the value of any educational subject lies in the further good that the study of that subject helps one to achieve. For example, the value in studying accounting lies ultimately in the job (and paycheck) that it helps one receive; studying accounting is thus useful. But, as Aristotle argues, not every valuable thing can be useful. For a thing is useful only if it helps one achieve some further good. But what about that further good? Does its value also lie in its usefulness? If so, an infinite regress looms. And according to Aristotle, the result of such a regress is that nothing is in fact valuable; that all our desires are ultimately empty and in vain. For when in answer to the question as to why studying accounting is good we cite the job that it will help one receive, we have not really answered the question. Rather, we have merely indicated that to answer that question, we must first answer the prior question, Why should we think the career of an accountant is good? And if the strategy is always to shift to some prior question, well then we will never really answer any of the questions. We will never, in fact, explain why any of these things is good.

And so Aristotle insists that there must be things that are valuable not for what they help you to achieve (i.e., not because they are useful), but because they are good in their own right and valuable for their own sakes. Such goods give point and purpose to all we do, for we choose useful things ultimately for the sake of these goods. Quite ironically for those who would extol usefulness and excoriate useless pursuits (e.g., the sophists, Isocrates, your aunt when you tell her you are majoring in one of the humanities) it turns out that useful things are valuable only because they help one achieve or acquire useless ones.

It is among these “useless” goods that we find the theoretical sciences, such as physics, philosophy, and theology. The importance of these goods, and indeed the fact that they even are goods—follows from Aristotle’s view of human nature. In his view, human beings have a divine element in their souls. It is the part of their souls by which they are oriented toward ultimate and unchanging truths, and which gives rise to the natural human desire to know. Starting from our wonder at the natural world—be it the decentralized collective action of an ant colony (How can they do that without a leader?), the movement of the heavenly bodies (Why are the rotations so regular? Why do they rotate?), or simply a frog (What’s the deal with frogs?)—human beings search for more and more fundamental and unifying explanations. We desire not merely to know, but to know the ultimate reasons for the cosmos and all its parts, including ourselves.

 The most important of the “useless” goods are those that perfect or fulfill our nature. Thus, the study of nature (physics, biology, etc.) is among the most important of human pursuits, since it perfects our nature, fulfilling our natural desire for knowledge. But even more important is the study of philosophy and theology, which Aristotle calls ‘wisdom’. Physics, as good as it is, does not fully satisfy the human desire for knowledge, for it does not concern itself with ultimate explanations. Rather, it confines itself to explaining physical phenomena in terms of certain physical features or processes. But of course, human wonder is not so confined, for we naturally want to know answers to yet further questions, such as Why are there physical processes at all? or, even more generally, Why is there not nothing? And such questions are beyond the scope of physics.

The answers to such questions comprise wisdom. Wisdom is concerned with ultimate truths and explanations and is thus not merely one among these most important goods; rather it is the highest good achievable by human beings. For the ultimate causes or principles are necessarily above or beyond nature; they are necessarily supernatural and hence divine. In knowing them, we not only enter into a kind of communion with the divine, but we engage in the very same activity as divine beings do. Aristotle calls this activity ‘contemplation’. In contemplation, we satisfy (as far as is humanly possible) our natural desire for knowledge and thus perfect (as far as is humanly possible) our human nature. The perfection of our nature requires, ironically enough, transcending our nature and becoming as godlike as we humanly can. Thus, wisdom is the greatest good, and we ought, as far as we humanly can, to cultivate our minds and commune with the divine.

Aside from the greater material abundance that allows people today to pursue such cultivation in greater numbers than the ancient Greeks, there is a further advantage that we today have when it comes to the pursuit of wisdom. And it is an advantage that Catholic universities in particular are uniquely well suited to make the most of.   That advantage is the deposit of faith. To see how exactly this is an advantage, consider Aristotle’s argument for the existence of God and his subsequent arguments that God must be immaterial, eternal, and immutable in his Metaphysics.   To understand these arguments, one must be well versed in metaphysical theorizing. Such theorizing, however, is incredibly difficult. And because of its difficulty, the proper conclusions to be drawn are not always obvious and we can seldom be certain that we have reached such conclusions even when we have. In part to help us avoid such uncertainty and potential confusion, God has revealed Himself to humanity, and thus we may all know, with stronger conviction than we otherwise would, not only that He exists, but also that He is immaterial, eternal, and immutable. In addition, the deposit of faith contains truths about God that cannot be established by the exercise of natural reason alone; truths to which even the best of philosophers—Plato and Aristotle—had no access. Such truths include the doctrine of the trinity and that of the incarnation. The specifically Catholic university, then, is uniquely well suited to carry out the kind of education that Aristotle and the Academy had envisioned. For Catholic universities have at their disposal these revealed truths about God, from which a greater and surer understanding of the ultimate principles of reality can more easily and more fully proceed.  

But what about justice? Is that not a good as well, a perfection of our nature? To this, Aristotle’s answer is of course an emphatic ‘yes’. Justice is a character virtue, perfecting us in our dealings with others. But justice has the following curious feature (as do all the other character virtues): while it is valuable in itself, it is also valuable for what arises from it. For example, giving others the respect that is due to them, while valuable in its own right, is also valuable for what arises from it, namely friendship, peace, and stability. This fact, however, gives justice a patina of un-leisurely necessity – we engage in just actions because our circumstances force such actions on us. But would that our circumstances were different! Were our world better than it in fact is, we would not have to engage in, for example, just actions aimed at the redress of racial discrimination since, in a better world, such discrimination would not exist and would have never existed. And this world, where there is no need for these acts of justice, is clearly better. This fact, according to Aristotle, reveals that justice cannot be the most valuable of goods.

Now none of this is to say that justice ought not be pursued. But it does show that not every important human endeavor ought to be subsumed under the pursuit of justice. There are things more important than justice. Part of what makes that better world better is that people in that world will have greater occasion to pursue goods that are valuable just for the sake of themselves; they will be better able to pursue the life of the mind. Happily enough, even in our imperfect world, there are institutions ostensibly dedicated to precisely these more important goals. Ex Corde is a call for Catholic universities and colleges to realize that they are such institutions.

“It is the honour and responsibility of a Catholic University to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth.”   But what about equipping our students with knowledge that they can use, as the sophists and Isocrates did? “Without in any way neglecting the acquisition of useful knowledge, a Catholic University is distinguished by its free search for the whole truth about nature, man and God.”   In other words, the distinctive purpose of a university education is not to teach useful skills, but to pass on and investigate the most fundamental of truths. Even a cursory glance at Ex Corde will quickly reveal other passages striking a similar note about the primacy of truth in university education.

But the sophists of today seem fewer and farther between, which is just to say, there are fewer and fewer universities that understand themselves merely as purveyors of useful skills. It is Isocrates’ followers who are ascendant in universities today; they determine the course of contemporary university education. But Ex Corde would have us resist them just as it would have us resist the sophists. For the primary cause of the university is truth; not justice. And this matters. For truth is the “fundamental value without which freedom, justice and human dignity are extinguished.”   Treating justice as the primary and ultimate concern of human endeavors will, ironically enough, inhibit justice. Without an accurate grasp of the dignity of the human person (which includes our having a divine-like nature which is perfected by truth), and without dedication to Truth (which became incarnate), justice will be more poorly served. Thus, those who are interested in furthering justice will best achieve their goals by giving truth its proper due. Just as the sophists tried but failed to teach useful skills, so too do the Isocrates-es of the world try and fail to inculcate justice. And they fail precisely because they are Isocratic; precisely because they demote truth. To do justice to our fellow human beings, we must recognize them as the kind of creature for whom the life of the mind—for whom truth—is the highest good. Or so at least Ex Corde Ecclesiae suggests.









1    John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, encyclical letter, Vatican website, August 15, 1990,, sec. 4.

2    D.S. Hutchinson and Monte Ransome Johnson, “Authenticating Aristotle’s Protrepticus,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy XXIX (2005): 193-294. For more on the relationship between Aristotle’s Protrepticus and Isocrates’ Antidosis, see D.S. Hutchinson and Monte Ransome Johnson’s unpublished manuscript, “The Antidosis of Isocrates and Aristotle’s Protrepticus,” accessed July 1, 2021,

3    Aristotle apud Iamblichus, Protrepticus IX 52.16-53.2. Translated by Hutchinson and Johnson “Authenticating Aristotle’s Protrepticus,” 260-1.

4    See John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, sec. 16-19.

5    See Aristotle, Metaphysics Λ.6-7.

6    John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, sec. 4.

7    Ibid.

8    John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, sec. 4.

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Jeffrey J. Fisher

Jeffrey Fisher is Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Loyola. His research focuses on Ancient Greek philosophy, including Plato's late metaphysics and its connections to the ethical and political philosophy of both Plato and Aristotle, and he runs an ancient philosophy reading group for the Philosophy Department. His has research and teaching interests in ethics and political philosophy and in the history of philosophy more generally.

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