Corax of Syracuse

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Corax or Korax (Greek: Κόραξ; fl. 5th century) was one of the founders (along with Tisias) of ancient Greek rhetoric. Some scholars contend that both founders are merely legendary personages, others that Corax and Tisias were the same person, described in one fragment as "Tisias, the Crow" (corax is ancient Greek for "crow"). Corax is said to have lived in Sicily in the 5th century BCE, when Thrasybulus, tyrant of Syracuse, was overthrown and a democracy formed. Under the despot, the land and property of many common citizens had been seized; these people flooded the courts in an attempt to recover their property. Corax devised an art of rhetoric to permit ordinary men to make their cases in the courts. His chief contribution was in helping structure judicial speeches into various parts: proem, narration, statement of arguments, refutation of opposing arguments, and summary. This structure is the basis for all later rhetorical theory. His pupil Tisias is said to have developed legal rhetoric further, and may have been the teacher of Isocrates. As in the case of Socrates, all we know of the work of Corax is from references made by later writers, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. According to Dan Harder, Shakespeare derived the name Sycorax from Corax of Syracuse.[1]

Corax is best known for developing the "Doctrine of General Probability". This stated that people are inclined to believe what they think is likely to be true. The most widely-recognized illustration of it begins with the premise of a small man accused of attacking a large man. Given that people make judgments of probability based on experience, they are likely to think the small man did not beat up the large man because he is probably too small to do so. This concept was highly effective in the courts, as persuasion was a key part of winning over a jury.[2] Corax originated some of the basic principles and laid the groundwork for the Greek scholars to follow- Socrates, Plato and the most important contributor, Aristotle.

The famous but apocryphal story of how Tisias tried to cheat his teacher is passed down in the introductions to various rhetorical treatises (e.g. R4 in H. Rabe, Prolegomenon Sylloge, Rhetores Graeci, XIV, Teubner, Leipzig 1931). According to this tale, Tisias convinced Corax to waive his customary teacher's fee until Tisias won his first lawsuit; however, Tisias conspicuously avoided going to court. Corax then sued Tisias for the fee, arguing that if Corax won the case, he would get his pay, but if Tisias won (his first lawsuit) he would then have to fulfill the terms of their original agreement. Some versions of the tale end here. Others attribute a counterargument to Tisias: that if he lost the case, he would escape paying under the terms of the original agreement (having not yet won a lawsuit), and if he won there would still be no penalty, since he would be awarded the money at issue. At this point, the judge throws both of them out of court, remarking "κακοῦ κόρακος κακὸν ᾠόν" ("a bad egg from a bad crow") (Suda, #171 under "K").


  1. ^ Harder, Dan (June 3, 2010). "The Origins of Sycorax". Retrieved August 25, 2010. 
  2. ^ Murphy, James (2013). A Synoptic History of Rhetoric. Routledge Books. p. 28.