Carlin Romano

Enrico Mueller, Contests, and Kairos

The impulse to reduce life, the world, or a particular culture to a single principle appeals to many thinkers. It’s natural. The actual world, actual life, and every culture prove astonishingly complex, detailed, and difficult to fathom. It takes an ordinary person, let alone a philosopher, enormous attention to detail to succeed in any real-life, day-to-day situation. It’s therefore an intellectual relief to believe you can thumbnail any of these large phenomena quickly.

Life is hard. Life is unfair. The world is dangerous. The world is wonderful. China is a Confucian culture in which the highest value is harmony. The United States is an individualistic culture in which the highest value is freedom. And so on.

Even the pragmatists, who I think of as living and breathing contingency, uncertainty and hesitancy about dogmatic judgments, engage in their own reductivisms. One example is to think, like Dewey, of every person as an organism, in an environment teeming with challenges and obstacles, who tries to meet those challenges and overcome those obstacles to achieve particular goals. A reductive principle may be more true, of course, the less you reduce it. That is, it may illuminate some of the problems and mysteries one encounters in trying to understand a life, world, or culture without solving all of them. It may serve a limited purpose.

Enrico Mueller attempts a reductive analysis in his essay, “Agonistic Orientation and Cultural Dynamics in Ancient Greece.” In it, he sees ancient Greek culture as “highly competitive,” with “hardly an area of life that wasn’t shaped by competitive thinking.” For Mueller, the “ethos of competition” separated Greek culture from others, and separated Greeks from one another, presumably in a Darwinian sort of way. Mueller sees this ethos permeating all aspects of Greek life from life and death situations to political and professional rivalries to athletic and artistic competitions. Agon, in ancient Greece, was a contest, and some activities, such as the legal agon, took highly specific forms. The ancient Greek world, then, is to Mueller one big contest. Life was a contest. Life was endless competition.

At a common-sense level, the broadness of Mueller’s claim gives one immediate pause. Is he asserting that the Egyptians or Phoenicians or Israelites did not compete in a variety of ways, just like the Greeks? “Competition” is a flexible enough concept that it can apply to almost any social activity that involves multiple people in a group setting. If one Athenian statesman bought a particularly desirable chiton before another got to the chiton store because he walked faster to the store, did he win a competition with his peer? If Sophocles decided to be a playwright rather than, like Phidias, a sculptor, were they really in some sort of competition? “Contest” to the modern English-language ear, sounds more like the legal agon, a competition formally ordered and designed, such as NFL football or professional tennis, or the drama competitions in which Sophocles and Euripides competed.

Yet how much should we expand the focused competition of a contest to activities that lack formal rules and judges, especially if they encompass aspects of cooperation as well? One should note that even formally organized contests usually require prior cooperation. The NFL can’t play its season unless the various teams and owners cooperate on a schedule, on rules of the game, and on the annual NFL draft, all of which undergird the agon on the field. Is the United States thus an agonistic society because an agon takes place on fields all over the country during football season? That‘s just one of the logical problems behind Mueller’s approach. And what about what we today call “win-win” situations? Are they still to be seen as competitions if everyone’s a winner?

Let’s put those preliminary hesitations aside, however, so we may delve more deeply into Mueller’s claims in the specific area of ancient Greek culture. After doing so, I will want to put forth two main theses, both of which draw on a far different view of Isocrates (436-338 B.C.E.) than Mueller advances.

The first is that to the extent one wishes to agree that what Mueller calls “agonism,” or competition, is a fundamental ethos in ancient Greek culture –and, as Mueller also says, a form of orientation for the Greeks–it is through the Isocratean notion of kairos, or expert judgment in a unique moment, that Greeks competed. If one wants to understand the importance of orientation, in Werner Stegmaier’s modern sense, in Greek society, it is orientation to the exact details of a particular situation, of the sort kairos demands, that looms large–not orientation to a felt sense of competition in every setting.

My second thesis is that it is also Isocrates, the chief advocate of shared Greek identity among the various city states of his time, who most undermines Mueller’s notion that the Greeks lived and breathed competition among themselves. No doubt some did, but the Isocratean message, and its success at times, shows that cooperation, as much as competition, existed everywhere in Greek culture. Mueller’s view that in ancient Greece’s “agonistically structured society,” it’s true that, “Everyone, whatever he or she does, wants to be better than the others,” is a huge projection. As George Norlin, editor of the three-volume edition of Isocrates in the Loeb Classical Library, writes of his man, Isocrates advocated the virtue of sophrosyne, or self-control, which Norlin explains as “the disposition to live and let live, to cherish freedom for oneself and respect freedom in others.” Isocrates’s Athens did not always and endlessly seek to be “better” than its peers.

In his first section, “The Culture of Agonism,” Mueller describes a number of uncontroversial instances of competition in Homer and Hesiod, the former involving destructive war, the latter involving less violent and actually “constructive” forms of competition. In Hesiod, Mueller writes, a great leap is taken, “a first manifestation of agonism as a foundational structure of the ancient Greek world.”

In his next section, “Becoming Oneself by Means of Orienting Oneself to Others: Learning through Agonism,” Mueller rightly lauds the high reputation Greek culture has enjoyed through the centuries. He is equally accurate in stressing the way Greek colonization largely eschewed conquest for reciprocal exchange with foreign cultures. It is odd, in fact, that he does not see that plain example of cooperation as a counterexample to his vaunting of the agonistic ethos. If Greek colonizers were so wrapped up in their agonistic ethos to the extent Mueller argues, one would think that they’d be subduing those foreigners rather than cooperating with them, or, as Isocrates did, praising the Egyptians for, in some respect, passing along philosophy to the Greeks.

Mueller argues that the Greeks learned much from Babylonian, Lydian, Persian and Egyptian culture, which is true. But did they do so because they wanted to be “better” than the people in those cultures? Mueller doesn’t provide evidence of that. He simply describes the reciprocal process as the Greeks not just “adopting” matters from those foreign cultures, but “surpassing” them in what he dubs “the specifically Greek art of agonistic learning.” But why “agonistic learning”? Why not just “learning”?

In Part III, “Finding the Right Balance: Politics as Competition,” Mueller zeroes in on an area we still often describe as a competitive sport: politics. Yet we know that the flip side of that is politics as a cooperative exercise, marked in many competitive political cultures by the art of compromise. In other words, an irony of celebrating the agonistic side of politics in evaluating Greek democracy is that it is precisely in democracies, with multiple centers of power, that a winner-take-all mentality is most challenged. That proved to be the case repeatedly in ancient Greek political history.

Mueller appears to acknowledge this when he writes that the “law effectively limited the hybrid tendencies of agonism” that encouraged “family blood feuds” and “petty wars.” So what, then, if aristocrats still “fought against each other within the institutions of the polis for the highest offices”? One needn’t deny that competition existed in ancient Greece to question its power as a dominating ethos, to see that notion as an exaggeration. Yet Mueller writes that “the agon becomes the catalyst for almost all social developments. By integrating it into the political order, competition promoted an ethos that had a direct impact on the education (paideia), even on the creation of the citizen in the sense of a political subject.”

Here it’s opportune to point out that Isocrates, widely seen by scholars as the chief articulator of paideia in ancient Greece, and perhaps the foremost groomer of the good citizen, saw paideia as much less constituted of competition and contrariness across the board, leaving legal battles aside. He writes in To Demonicus that the philosophical teacher should show students “how to become renowned as serious about the virtuous constitution of their character, knowing what to strive for, what to avoid, with whom to spend time, how to manage their lives, and, in the pedagogical arena, how to love learning, guard what one knows, listen to discussions, accumulate lessons, and travel to study with others.“ No mention of there of defeating others in a contest or competition.

In Part IV, “Between the Production of Difference and Orientation to Equality: The Agonistic Individual,” Mueller begins by observing that, “in a certain sense, competition is what creates an individual in the first place,” attributing the value we place on athletic and artistic victories today to the Greek embrace of agon. Here, as elsewhere in his essay, Mueller deemphasizes the equally weighty role of cooperation. Again, common sense leads one to an initial philosophical cavil similar to the point made above about the NFL, a point that would apply to any professional sports league, any political competition for office, or any contemporary artistic competition from the Oscars to the National Book Awards.

None of the ancient Greek competitions, from the Olympics to the drama competitions that involved masters such as Sophocles and Euripedes, could have gotten off the ground if there were not the original cooperative effort of artists, audiences and judges to organize the formal contests. One almost wants to frame this as a slogan: “No competition without cooperation.” Plainly, that slogan doesn’t work when one thinks of war, or any competition that involves no prior communication or cooperation. But remember that Mueller is arguing in his essay for a far more powerful influence of the agonistic ethos than just, “Oh, the ancient Greeks liked competitions sometimes, just as we do.” Rather, he’s arguing for it as something like the Dao in Daoism: the underlying reality of the whole culture.

To his credit, after trumpeting the importance of competition, Mueller belatedly recognizes what he calls the “paradox of agonistic behavior”–that common-sense point that “determining differences in the sense of better or worse performances requires collective agreement on standards prior to the competition.” Indeed, as Mueller notes, cooperation in order to run athletic “agons” often brought intramural Greek wars to a standstill.

When it comes to artistic competitions, however, Mueller keeps up his over-the-top embrace of the agonistic by making quite a leap: that “the agonistic pressure of the Greeks creates the notorious tendency toward originality beyond technical perfection.” What evidence is there of that? Similarly, Mueller here speculates about the psychological effect of the “agonistic tension of the entire society” on the individual’s soul. He also expresses the quite dubious notion that “Every competition only ever has one winner—but multiple losers. Even in the classical period, Greek culture, focused on the ideal of excellence, was largely fixated on the winners.”

We need only look at contemporary competitions, artistic and otherwise, to see how manifestly false this is once one steps beyond the outcome of formalized contests. Mueller fails to acknowledge that all competitions, particularly formally structured ones such as athletic and artistic competitions, always take place within larger societal frameworks that are themselves—as he might want to accept–competitive.

Take, for example, the plethora of popular singing and music competitions around the world. With both American TV shows such as “American Idol” and Europe’s “Eurovision Song Contest,” it has often been not the artist who won the formal competition that later won the bigger prize of a major pop-culture career, but someone who came in second or lower. That’s because competitions also have a display function that allows the talents or appeal of a contestant to win with another set of judges—the public, show-biz agents, the media, and so on. Consider yet another type of contemporary competition: reality dating shows such as “The Bachelor.” It has happened more than once that the partner officially chosen in the formal competition by the supposedly “great catch” around whom the show’s episodes are oriented is later dumped in favor of one of the also-rans.

As a last example, we have the up-to-the-minute case in contemporary U.S. Presidential politics of the fortunes of so-called also-rans. The Georgia politician Stacey Abrams lost her race for Georgia governor. But by coming very close, and raising her national profile, she’s now a top candidate to be the Democratic nominee for Vice-President. California Senator Kamala Harris, another potential Vice-Presidential nominee, finds herself in the same situation—a political winner by dint of losing.

It is, however, when Mueller eventually comes to Part B of his essay, “Agonistic Philosophy,” and Section V, “Athens’ Struggle for Orientation, Sophism, Rhetoric, and Philosophy,” that his thesis in the essay seriously goes off the rails.

Mueller immediately declares and accepts the conventional view of philosophy in ancient Greece that it is “inherently connected with the names of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.” I, like many scholars of the ancient Greek battle among sophistry, rhetoric and philosophy, would absolutely reject the word “inherently” in that sentence. Rather, as I argue in my book, America the Philosophical, Plato accomplished one of the great public-relations triumphs in intellectual history by writing Isocrates out of the canon of philosophy, discussing him in ways that ended up categorizing Isocrates, incorrectly, as a rhetor or sophist.

That conventional and, in my opinion, distorted view of ancient Greek philosophy, which Mueller elaborates in the rest of his paragraph, is especially unfortunate in the context of evaluating ancient Greek culture, including philosophy, as an agonistic, competitive culture. Because it is, in fact, Isocrates, unmentioned in Mueller’s triumvirate, who highlights a stronger organizing principle (if one truly wants a singular reductive one) for ancient Greek culture—the notion of kairos.

To be fair, Mueller recognizes that the contest among different schools of philosophy in ancient Greece illustrated the vibrancy of the competitive principle in that then undefined practice. Yet the very nature of Plato’s thought—absolutist, unempirical (the theory of forms), pro-censorship and anti-democratic (see Sir Karl Popper)—should indicate to Mueller that the supposed “winner” of an intellectual or cultural competition is not necessarily the best, or even better, than its rivals.

Mueller is, of course, aware of nuances of that era’s philosophy battles. He remarks that Plato’s dialogues “deliberately show a biased philosophical perspective” when they deal with arguments between Socrates and his opponents, who, Mueller notes, “almost always lose.” He chides Plato for “the one-sidedness of his criticism.” But when Mueller writes of placing “the Athenian battle between rhetoric, sophistry and philosophy in a temporal context,” he is nonetheless accepting Plato’s biased distinctions, the Platonic tripartite taxonomy, in a way that distorts the very competition he acknowledges.

As several scholars of ancient Greek thought have shown, Plato actually coined the term rhetorike, in the words of classical scholar Yun Lee Too, “as a means of differentiating his own discourse, i.e., dialectic, from non-dialectical language, and of asserting the privileged status of the former.” Thomas Cole, in The Origins of Rhetoric in Ancient Greece, agrees that rhetorike was a “Platonic invention,” and rhetoric scholar Edward Schiappa accuses Plato of attaching a derogatory meaning to it of “deceptive” or “duplicitous” argument. Yet Mueller restates the standard view.

In contrast, Mueller does make a reasonable surmise when he suggests that as Athens became the primus inter pares of Greek city states, it perhaps needed new ways of thinking. One can accept his judgment that we might call the sophisticated (in the modern sense) knowledge of the Sophists “paradigmatic orientation knowledge” because of how they drew on different cultures and practices in their itinerant wanderings. Mueller credits the Sophists with a “concept of orientation” that he says Socrates didn’t understand. He sees it as reasonable pushback on the part of Socrates and Plato that they distinguished themselves from the Sophists by arguing for the possibility of “universal knowledge based on reason and general norms.” Similarly, he’s aware of Plato’s pushback against rhetoric in his early dialogues.

Note, however, a severe downside of Mueller’s agonistic/competitive principle here. If the main reason that Plato pushed back against the sophists and rhetors was simply to distinguish himself, to win—that is, to have the most popular and successful school in Athens, and to mold the discipline of philosophy for the future on his model—that’s far different from having the “best” philosophy in the sense of accurate presentation of the truth. From that angle, Plato can look like a modern-day Democratic or Republican politician, seeking to “distinguish” his or her views from an opponent’s simply because the opponent is an opponent. Writes Schiappa, “If Plato could identify the `product’ of his rival Isocrates’ training as something unnecessary or undesirable, so much the better for the reputation of Plato’s school.”

Mueller goes on to cite two criticisms Plato makes of rhetoric. The first is that the rhetor uses metaphorical language, which is not only merely ornamental and inappropriate for knowledge, but deceptive. The second is that the rhetor’s practice is to seduce his interlocutor’s soul, to get him to care only about persuasion and opinion, rather than truth. To that point, Mueller sounds as if he is not so much supporting Plato’s self-justifying moves as describing them, and the way philosophy “was able to gain an initial concept of itself.”

Mueller aside, however, Plato’s arguments don’t remotely persuade. We know very well today that all “abstract” words of the sort Plato favors, all philosophical words, come from concrete origins, and are originally metaphors. Indeed, philosophers from across widely divergent traditions agree on that. Rousseau argued that people’s “first expressions were tropes.” Derrida declared that “Abstract notions always hide a sensory figure,” and Nelson Goodman, from across the pond and speaking from the Anglo-American analytic tradition, recognized that metaphor “permeates all discourse.” The word “theory,” for instance, evolved from the sense of a Greek general surveying his troops from one end to the other. And Fontanier, the great French scholar of tropes, began his Figures of Discourse by pointing out that as abstract a word as “idea” grew out of the Greek word, eido, “to see.”

Plato’s second criticism, essentially an ad hominem jab at rhetors for caring only about winning an argument, may have applied to some rhetors (as it does to some lawyers today), but ignores that there’s no sound inference from wanting to win an argument to only caring about winning an argument. Some rhetors may have wanted to win their arguments because they believed what they were arguing was true.

At this point, in his Part VI, “The Politics of Education: Plato versus Isocrates,” Mueller arrives directly at what I see as the crucial “competition” in regard to the agon of philosophy. Mueller immediately recognizes Isocrates as Plato’s “genuine and lifelong rival.” His initial descriptions of Isocrates are fine—that Isocrates wanted to educate students to become good citizens and politicians, as well as “better” people. But then things go off in a familiar direction among classicists, toward an inaccurate depiction of Isocrates based on Plato’s caricature of him.

“Therefore,” Mueller writes of Isocrates, “the reference point of his teachings was not the truth of objects, but the most plausible description of the social and human realities. Isocrates’s approach is deliberately pragmatic: he explicitly operates in the medium of probability, based on which people must communicate with each other; he considers pure truth as unattainable and the theoretical fixation as unworldly.”

Mueller’s “therefore” is completely unearned. One reason Mueller gets this wrong is a failure to distinguish between truth in the atemporal, universalistic sense that Plato sought to advance–what Mueller seems to characterize as “pure truth”–and “truth” in a particular circumstance, which allows one to choose the right action in that circumstance. That failure stems from a lack of appreciation of kairos, the very notion that calls on the wise person to orient himself to the exact circumstances of the moment—what is true in those circumstances—in order to make the best decision. Isocrates, like all of us, sometimes dealt with probability. But in his kairos-driven desire to make the best decision in a particular time and place, his belief that an appreciation for kairos constituted the highest intellectual faculty a person could possess, he sought not probable truth, but real truth, the real instant facts, as best as one could obtain them.

Mueller, again to his credit, then acknowledges the clash, the competition, taking place between Isocrates and Plato at the time over the term “philosophy.” But he signals in subtle ways that he leans toward Plato’s view, which eventually won the day. He writes that Plato took it as a “traumatic insult” when Isocrates expressed his derision, in his essay, “Against the Sophists” (note that title), toward Socrates and his followers as thinkers who engage in “mere quibble of words.” Although Mueller is respectful of Isocrates at various points in his essay, he then, with a telling exclamation mark, suggests that such competition between the two (in the hindsight of history) was absurd: “One cannot emphasize it strongly enough: up until the late period of Plato’s academy, it is still completely open what in the future would carry the name of `philosophy’: Plato’s project and the Socratics—or rather that of Isocrates!”

Mueller departs this section of his essay and enters his final one without rendering a direct judgment on the competition between Isocrates’s vision of philosophy and Plato’s. But in Section VII, “Love, Pain. Self-Constitution—Agonistic Orientation Within One’s Soul; Plato’s Phaedrus,” Mueller makes that judgment known.

Describing the Phaedrus as Plato’s final word for his rival, he notes that it is the only place where Plato specifically names Isocrates, and suggests that while young Isocrates once had a promising future as a philosopher (Socrates observes of Isocrates that “something of philosophy is inborn in his mind“), Isocrates “failed at reaching those hopes.” Observes Mueller, “Though Isocrates calls his educational program `philosophy,’ this is, for Plato, in error, as Isocrates missed, as a thinker and teacher, the very nature of philosophy.”

One detects Mueller’s subtle finger on the scales here in a single phrase: “educational program.” It’s a suggestion that Isocrates’s thinking of his work product as philosophy is, in fact, a category mistake by its creator, a misunderstanding of philosophy. That one could play the same rhetorical trick on Plato, and write that “Plato calls his literary dialogues `philosophy’…” should be apparent. But Mueller doesn’t acknowledge that.

Rather, Mueller describes how Plato “partially revised his concept of philosophy” in Phaedrus, and gives a multi-page description of the Phaedrus, with its mediations on love as disease, true love, the soul, the myth of the charioteer and two horses, and madness. Mueller appears to be so swept away by that description that he largely loses the thread of his previous argument. Only in his final paragraphs does he return to his previous subject—the agonistic relation of Plato’s notion of philosophy to Isocrates’s.

In his penultimate paragraph, Mueller writes, articulating Socrates’s purported view while also arguably embracing it in a parenthetical, “True philosophers (not, for instance, Protagoras and Isocrates) have struggled most strongly for the vision of the superheavenly place and are accordingly most capable of actualizing on earth what they saw.” One must note here a commonplace of Plato scholarship about which Mueller never comments—that the later dialogues of Plato, such as Phaedrus, appear to express Plato’s philosophical views far more than those of the historical Socrates.

Mueller makes no further mention of Isocrates—he is, so to speak, thrown under the bus: a philosophical bus that, with Plato at the wheel, took “philosophy” as a discipline into the future. As for that agonistic principle that Mueller launched as the organizational spine of ancient Greek culture, he ends with an imaginative if not very convincing idea. To wit, that the desire-and love-driven strife that Plato depicts in Socrates’s soul in the Phaedrus should be seen as a kind of orientation of one part of the soul to another, and also to an other –a kind of orientation through disorientation. In short, the principle of agonistic competition operates even in the constitution of “a noble Greek individual.”

That last idea amounts to a stretch. As suggested at the outset of this essay, the move to identify a single foundational principle that orients a whole culture should always be viewed with some suspicion. Implanting it in the psychological swings of Socrates himself seems overreach. But if I may formulate the project Mueller undertakes in my own language, as two questions—“What is the role of competition in ancient Greek culture?” and “What is the role of orientation in ancient Greek culture?”—it seems a reasonable project. I would answer differently than Mueller does. Let me express those answers in a short, accessible way, then explain them.

Competition is in the eye of the beholder. One can look at almost any activity in human life and see in it a competitive aspect. Just as easily, one can look at almost any activity in human life and see a cooperative aspect. Watch the two primitive tribes attack each other during the day and one might want to emphasize the competitive side. Watch them both sleep through the night, given a mutual understanding that neither side wants to be attacked when getting a good night’s sleep, and one might emphasize the cooperative side. Think of the famous Christmas Truce in World War I between British and German soldiers in pondering that ambiguity.

To successfully argue that the agonistic principle dominates or structures any society, such as ancient Greek society, I think, one would have to show empirically, with considerable historical evidence, that competition exceeded cooperation in all walks of life, and not just in an obvious manner in formalized contests. I don’t think Mueller meets that standard, at least here.

The issue of orientation in ancient Greek culture provokes more intriguing thoughts. Here Mueller misses a better candidate than agonistic thinking for what he calls an “ethos” of ancient Greek society, and what I would call a pragmatic, problem-solving temperament—kairos. In my view, kairos was the form that orientational thinking, of the sort Werner Stegmaier elaborates in What is Orientation?: A Philosophical Investigation?, took in Greek culture. While Stegmaier describes the sophists as “something like professional teachers of orientation,” I’d say orientation’s champion was Isocrates, and its beneficiary Greek culture. Let me explain.

Like many Greek philosophical terms, kairos is translated by scholars in many ways, but its fundamental meaning evolved by the era of Isocrates to that of “the right or opportune time to do something.” It is the idea that at a given moment, there’s a right thing to do, or a best thing to do. The wise, well-educated person sizes up a given situation, taking in all the information that’s available, and if he or she possesses a strong sense of kairos, makes the right decision, one fit for the occasion. This is the wedding of kairos and phronesis—practical wisdom. It requires flexibility, attentiveness to context, and comfort with the unprecedented, since every situation is unique in at least some respects. The wrong time to do something was kakakairos.

Pseudo-Plutarch offered a lovely anecdotal example of this, supposedly from Isocrates’s own life. Nicocreon, a Cypriot tyrant, was entertaining Isocrates as a guest. He asked Isocrates to make a speech. Sizing up the situation, Isocrates concluded that doing so would not be a good move. He declined, synopsizing kairos in his response. According to Pseudo-Plutarch, he remarked, “[F]or the matters in which I am capable, this is not the moment. And in the matters for which this is the moment, I am not capable.”

Isocrates essentially formed his whole philosophy and system of education—his paideia—around kairos. It formed a foundation stone of both philosophy (in Isocrates’s conception of it) and rhetoric at the height of classical Athenian culture. When we talk about people today, in all sorts of professions and activities, as possessing “good timing,” we experience one instance of kairos’s continued force.

Isocrates’s invocation of kairos can more broadly be seen as an emphasis on contexts, on orienting oneself to real contexts to make good and socially just decisions. Contrary to the portrayal of Isocrates by Plato and others as someone invested only in teaching students how to win arguments, anyone who has read him knows that he also cared as much as Plato or Aristotle about his students acting justly, in a way helpful to the community. The great French classicist Jacqueline de Romilly writes, “For Isocrates…learning to speak well is learning to arrive at ideas and advocate values that will be endorsed and prove effective. This ability, moreover, will win for those who acquire it the esteem of their fellows, for the opinion of the community, which is the sole criterion of truth and goodness, is also the finest recognition of one who had proved worthy of it.”

In his Panathenaicus, published in the year of his death, at age 98, Isocrates wrote, “Whom, then, do I call educated?…First, those who manage well the circumstances which they encounter day by day, and who possess a judgment which is accurate in meeting occasions as they arise.” In many ways, Isocrates can ironically be seen, despite his many years of writing speeches for the law courts, as an apostle of cooperation rather than competition. In his public life, nothing marked him more than his urging of the Greeks to set aside their internal differences and join together to—cooperatively — fight the “barbarians,” that is, the Persians.

Some of Mueller’s observations persuade, but on the whole I think his perspective on ancient Greek culture as one built on an agonistic ethos fails to convince. One reason is what I state at the outset: you cannot convincingly reduce a complex culture to a single principle. The other is that Mueller emphasizes a feature of Greek society, contest or competition, that is very much in the eye of the beholder. A more important notion that better explains the successes of ancient Greek culture, the longevity of its achievements, and our admiration for the ancient Greeks, is their pragmatic approach to life, their commitment to orienting themselves to the contexts around them, so they might make the best judgments possible. They did that by embracing kairos.

Click here to read Enrico Mueller’s response to this essay.