To the Children of Jason


Isocrates. Isocrates with an English Translation in three volumes, by Larue Van Hook, Ph.D., LL.D. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1945-1968.

One of our envoys who were sent to you has brought me word that you, summoning him apart from the others, asked whether I could be persuaded to go abroad and reside with you. And I for the sake of my friendship with Jason and Polyalces would gladly come to you; for I think such an association would benefit us all. Many things hinder me, however, especially my inability to travel and that it is unseemly that men of my age should dwell in a foreign land; next, because all who heard of my residence abroad would justly despise me if, having chosen to pass my former life in tranquillity, I should undertake in old age to spend my life abroad, when it would be reasonable for me, even if I had been accustomed to live somewhere else, now to hasten home, since the end of my life is now so near at hand. Moreover, I have fears for Athens, since the truth must be told; for I see that alliances made with her are soon dissolved. So, if anything of that kind should happen between Athens and you, even if I could escape the ensuing accusations and dangers, which would be difficult, yet I should be ashamed if I should be thought by any either to be neglectful of you on account of my city, or on your account to be indifferent to the interests of Athens. For in the absence of a common ground of interest I do not see how I could please both sides. Such, then, are the reasons why I cannot do as I wish.

But I do not think that I should write to you about my own affairs only and be indifferent to yours; on the contrary, just as I would have done had I come to you, I will now try to discuss these same matters to the best of my ability. And pray do not entertain any such notion as that I have written this letter, not on account of your friendship, but for the purpose of making a rhetorical display. For I have not become so demented as not to know that I could not write anything better than my previously published discourses, being now so far past my prime, and that if I produce anything much inferior in merit, I should find my present reputation grievously impaired. Besides, if I were intent upon producing a composition for display instead of having your interest at heart, I should not have chosen of all available subjects that one which is difficult to treat passably well, but I should have found other themes, much nobler and more logical. But the truth is that never at any time have I prided myself on the compositions of the former kind, but rather upon the latter, which most people have disregarded, nor have I undertaken my present theme with that intention, but because I see that your troubles are many and serious and wish to give you my own opinion concerning them. And I think that for the giving of counsel I am in my prime—for men of my age are trained by experience, which enables them to perceive more clearly than the younger men the best course of action—but to speak upon any proposed subject with grace, elegance, and finish is no longer to be expected at my age[*](Cf. Isoc. 5.10.); indeed, I shall be content if I discuss these matters in a not altogether negligent fashion.

Do not be surprised if I am found saying something which you have heard before; for one statement I may perhaps chance upon unwittingly, another I may consciously employ, if it is pertinent to the discussion. Certainly I should be foolish if, although I see others using my thoughts, I alone should refrain from employing what I have previously said.[*](For this apology see Isoc. 15.74 and Isoc. 5.93-94 (with Norlin's note).) This is the reason, then, for these introductory words, that the very first precept I shall present is one of those most often repeated. I am accustomed, that is, to tell the students in my school of rhetoric[*](Literally “philosophy”; but for the meaning of “philosophy” in Isocrates see the General Introd. to Vol. I, pp. xxvi ff., of Isocrates (L.C.L.).) that the first question to be considered is—what is the object to be accomplished by the discourse as a whole and by its parts? And when we have discovered this and the matter has been accurately determined, I say that we must seek the rhetorical elements whereby that which we have set out to do may be elaborated and fulfilled. And this procedure I prescribe with reference to discourse, yet it is a principle applicable not only to all other matters, but also to your own affairs. For nothing can be intelligently accomplished unless first, with full forethought, you reason and deliberate how you ought to direct your own future, what mode of life you should choose, what kind of repute you should set your heart upon, and which kind of honors you should be contented with—those freely granted by your fellow-citizens or those wrung from them against their will; and when these principles have been determined, then and only then should your daily actions be considered, in order that they may be in conformity with the original plan. If in this way you seriously search and study, you will take mental aim, as at a mark, at what is expedient for you, and will be the more likely to hit it. And if you have no such plan, but attempt to act in casual fashion, inevitably you will go astray in your purposes and fail in many undertakings.

Perhaps some one of those who choose to live planlessly may attempt to disparage such reasoning and ask that I give my advice forthwith with regard to what has just been said. Hence I must not shrink from declaring my honest opinion about it. To me the life of a private citizen seems preferable and better than that of a king, and I regard the honors received under constitutional governments as more gratifying than those under monarchies.[*](Isocrates was a firm believer in democracy, but often complains that the Athens of his later life has grievous faults; see General lntrol., Vol. I, p. xxxviii.) It is of these honors I shall endeavor to speak. And yet I am not unaware that I shall have many adversaries, especially among those who are in your circle, because these persons especially, I think, urge you to despotic power; for they do not examine from all sides the real nature of the question, but in many ways deceive themselves. For it is the powers, the profits, and the pleasures that they see in royalty and expect to enjoy them, whereas they fail to observe the disturbances, the fears, and the misfortunes which befall rulers and their friends. Instead they suffer from the same delusion as do men who set their hands to the most disgraceful and lawless deeds. These in fact are not ignorant of the wickedness of their acts, but hope to extract all the profit therein and yet to be exempt from all the dangers and ills which inhere in such acts, and to manage their affairs in such fashion as to keep the perils at a distance and the benefits within easy reach. As for those who have this conception of the matter, I envy them their easy-going philosophy, but I myself should be ashamed if, while offering counsel to others, I should be negligent of their interests and look to my own advantage instead of putting myself altogether beyond the reach of both the personal benefits and all other considerations and advising the best course of action.

Being aware, therefore, that I hold this conviction, I beg you to give me your attention. . . . [Then followed in the letter the practical advice of Isocrates to the future rulers of Thessaly, presumably setting forth the advantages of a government under a constitution, i.e., a limited monarchy.\