November 7, 2005
Isocrates on the Ethics of Authorship
Behme, Tim. “Isocrates on the Ethics of Authorship.” Rhetoric Review 23.3 (2004): 197-215.
Behme identifies a number of ethical positions on originality and plagiarism in Isocrates’ works. He notes that Isocrates was obsessed with originality and conceived of it as a competitive enterprise, going so far as to say that the ideal speaker “knows how to treat the old subjects as no one else could.” One doesn’t want to be the first to comment on a new subject, but rather to be the last, definitive, wholly original word on a topic (200).
Isoscrates’ ethics are full of contradictions: He vociferously condemned unoriginality, but rarely cited others in his work in spite of admitting that he did repeat their words (205). He also heaped scorn on plagiarism, but often auto-plagiarised his own old statements, explaining that if others used his words, he should be entitled to do the same (204).
The author argues that Isocrates was motivated by the competitive desire for fame, fortune, and immortality (205). He was particularly concerned with the state of his reputation, which fed the reputation of his school and therefore affected his income. His frequent accusations of unoriginality can therefore be read as an attempt to preserve his own reputation while denegrating his competitors (206). Still, his highest concern was his immortal reputation, which he fully intended to extend beyond his death. He believed that his high standards for originality would help him to achieve this ultimate goal (208).
Unlike Logie, Behme seems to take for granted that Isocrates would indeed be considered an Author in the proprietary, solitary, and originary senses of the term. He does not position this claim against contemporary authorship scholarship, which generally holds that the Author did not emerge as a social construct until the 18th century. However, he is careful to point out that we should be sensitive to the vocabulary of particular periods, and so perhaps he would also argue that we should be sensitive to the constructs of those periods, which may not match our own. Still, I would prefer that his claim be better situated. Regardless of this quibble, the article nicely extends the current scholarship on original authorship in antiquity.