Hyperbole and the Morality of Prose Encomium in the Evagoras

C. Michael. Sampson

University of Michigan

Isocrates’ Evagoras stands at a crossroads vis-à-vis traditional forms of praise. Although scholarship has demonstrated numerous affinities with Pindaric epinician,[i] Isocrates himself views his treatise as fundamentally novel: no prose author, he says, has ever attempted praise of a man (8), and Isocrates takes great pains to demonstrate that he will do so without the embellishments of poetry (9-11). While the intention to praise a single contemporary figure with the purpose of immortalizing his virtue (4) rings of the epinician project, the Evagoras proceeds by eschewing traditional forms of poetic praise.

This paper aims to demonstrate that the novelty of Isocrates’ project lies in a crucial innovation: unlike poetic praise, the gods play only the smallest role in the encomium of Evagoras. Evagoras’ deeds are described as lacking divine aid, and by virtue of the independence of his activity, Isocrates ascribes to him a fortune and happiness that in fact surpass those of the gods. Such hyperbole is morally problematic. In traditional forms of praise, one does not operate without divine assistance; to claim to do so is to become subject to the phthonos of both gods and audience alike. The decision to muffle the influence of the divine therefore marks a sharp contrast with prior modes of praise.

I aim to show that the work lays bare the heights to which human activity (independent of the gods) can climb, and that its rhetoric makes Evagoras an object of admiration and emulation even as it makes the morally outrageous claim that his achievements not only lacked divine assistance but that they also surpassed those of the gods. Hyperbole of this sort, I argue, is only possible within a rhetorical framework in which the potential for phthonos has been anticipated and deflected.

[i] See, for example, W.H. Race, "Pindaric Encomium and Isokrates' Evagoras" TAPA 117 (1987): 131-55.


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