Have you ever met someone who, despite being at the top of his occupation, will come out with rubbish in an ordinary conversation? Who can’t understand simple, everyday life matters and his personal life is messy and sad? Why does this happen? Why would a well-educated man, intelligent enough to succeed in difficult scientific fields, make a mess in everyday things?
These questions are not new. Since antiquity, philosophers have been trying to explain this paradox and Isocrates, a great teacher of the 4th century BCE, has given us a very adequate explanation. An explanation so simple, that you might wonder why we haven’t given it the appropriate attention.
The Panathenaicus speech
This speech was written by Isocrates at the age of 94, in order to account for his life work and to respond to his criticizers who accused him of dogmatism and implacability, as Isocrates was absolute about his opinions. In the prologue of this speech, he presents his opinion about the truly educated man; an opinion that can’t be easily accepted, not back then, not today either.
The fundamental idea for Isocrates’ conclusions is this: Many men who have reached a mature age and have mastered Geometry, Science or any other specialized field, and might even teach others, seem to appear more foolish when it comes to everyday matters even when compared to their students. Therefore, as truly educated would be regarded the one who:
- Has the acumen to properly interpret the circumstances and to benefit from.
- Is decent, fair and tolerates irritating people. Is kind and meek with his friends.
- Can control his impulses and deal with misfortunes bravely.
- Doesn’t get corrupted by happy circumstances. Who enjoys more what he has earned with labor and good thinking, than what he has gained by chance.
He who combines all the above is for Isocrates an educated man. It is the man who thinks sensibly and moderately so that he can identify and pursue his benefit, without despising all others around him.
How it is done
The only way to acquire this practical wisdom as Isocrates describes it, would be the teachings of rhetoric. The Rhetoric Art teaches us how we can use reason and speech to express our opinions clearly and to convince our audience of their correctness. Isocrates claims that whoever masters this talent, gains all the qualities that make the truly educated man; him who can succeed in life more than anyone.