Ancient History & Civilisation


The question whether Antiphon the Sophist and his contemporary Antiphon of Rhamnus, the eminent Athenian speech-writer and orator, are one or two people will probably never be resolved. Since the title of this book is The First Philosophers, and since I incline to the view that they are two people, I have not here included any of Antiphon of Rhamnus’ excellent speeches, but reproduce the evidence for the philosophical activities of Antiphon the Sophist and fragments from his famous books On Truth and On Concord, though he also wrote a number of other books, including On the Interpretation of Dreams. Indeed, some of the book-titles and testimonia testify to an interest in rhetoric, which makes him particularly hard to distinguish from his namesake,1 but also shows that he shared the common interest of his fellow Sophists. He wrote a handbook on rhetoric, and also a collection of introductions which could be used to preface legal speeches.

On Concord seems basically to have consisted of often wry or humanitarian aphorisms on various aspects of human life. I translate a few as F1–14. Despite ancient charges of obscurity (e.g. by Hermogenes, On Kinds of Literary Composition B 399.18.9 Rabe), the clarity of Antiphon’s insights and expression is pleasing. But the tone of On Truth is quite different, as if written for a more specialist philosophical audience. An attempt to reconstruct a coherent argument from the scattered fragments might go like this. The senses are our windows on to reality and our means of knowledge (F15, F16), but words are deceptive (F16); for instance, we call people ‘Greeks’ or ‘foreigners’, when in fact all human beings are akin (F17), we differentiate between ‘tree’ and ‘bed’, when in fact they are both wood (T1), and we differentiate between ‘circle’ and ‘straight-sided figure’, when in fact they share the same area (T2). So we need to be careful when we make up words (T3): mind is the ruler of the body (F20), but it needs the correct starting-point (F21). This starting-point is conformity with nature, not convention. But nature is just brute reality: it is not made by God (T4), nor does God have any need of us (F22). At some point Antiphon also managed to slip in Presocratic theories about the origin and nature of the heavenly bodies, embryology, and so on (F23–4, T5–8), and a criticism of Homeric poetry and society’s reliance upon it (F25).

The radical nature of much of what Antiphon says in F17–19 needs to be emphasized. The fragmentary nature of the evidence has led to a number of different interpretations in recent years; in particular, it is difficult to tell sometimes whether Antiphon is advocating a point of view, or just reporting a case. But what follows is an orthodox view, and the most natural reading. In terms of the fifth-century debate about nature and convention, he shows himself to be a champion of nature over law and convention, and he uses this to arrive at some conclusions that, however familiar in today’s liberal and pluralistic Western societies, would have seemed highly shocking and unusual to Antiphon’s contemporaries—that there is nothing essential or natural to distinguish Greeks from foreigners, and that all such distinctions are matters of convention;2 that natural law is so much more essential than man-made law that one should obey man-made laws (or at least those which contravene natural law) only in order to avoid punishment and stigmatization, while if one can get away with it, one should transgress man-made laws in favour of the laws of nature; that the whole judicial process is self-contradictory and fails to help those it should help. Antiphon is going much further than simply criticizing the legal system: he says that most laws are hostile to nature, which is to say they do us harm, and that even when they do stand a chance to be beneficial they are weak and governed by a concept of justice which fails in practice.

These are remarkable conclusions for a fifth-century Greek. Self-preservation, Antiphon implies, is the ultimate natural law, and a great deal of his critique of society stems from this: self-preservation requires one to obey unnatural laws when others are watching; pain and discomfort are criteria by which we can judge that something is bad for us, and tends against self-preservation, and by these criteria human laws are bad, since they cause us pain. Like Hippias, he maintains that natural laws are unbreakable, or at least unbreakable without dire consequences to oneself: the kinds of laws he has in mind, however, are less the moral laws on which Hippias appears to have focused than physical demands such as hunger, tiredness, and so on. If you are hungry, you have to eat, or you will die; the pain of hunger is nature’s way of telling you that something is wrong; the pleasure of eating is good, and so Antiphon is some kind of hedonist.

Two thoughts on Antiphon as a hedonist. First, is there, then, a clash between On Truth and On Concord? Many scholars have thought so. In F5, for instance, Antiphon seems to advise against hedonism, and in general On Concord seems less radical than On Truth (see the conservative tone of F1 and F2, for instance). But in fact, in F5, self-interest is still the dominant motive; restraint is counselled in order to avoid the pain of retribution from someone you injure. Instead of looking to short-term pleasure, Antiphon suggests, we should look to the overall pleasure guaranteed by self-interest and self-preservation. This, I think, may also adequately explain the value Antiphon finds in self-discipline in F2. Second, if Antiphon is a hedonist, he is not a partisan of physis in the straightforward sense that physis is for him the summum bonum. Rather, it is a criterion—perhaps the only valid criterion—of what is right and wrong. Your nature will tell you what is right and wrong, and so steer you towards pleasure. In this sense On Concordcomplements On Truth, and may even be mined as a source for more positive, less destructive, comments on law.

Antiphon shares with Thrasymachus a focus on self-interest, but makes a different use of it. For Thrasymachus advantage lies in always being unjust, but Antiphon counsels a more moderate, though more hypocritical stance: it is advantageous to be seen to obey the law, but when there are no witnesses you can do what you like, as your nature judges best, not as the law judges best. But the main thrust of the surviving fragments is his criticism of nomos as incoherent. For instance, he argues that a part of the common notion of justice is that it is just to bear witness against a criminal. But often it is not the case that the criminal wronged you personally, merely that you happened to see him carrying out his crime. If the criminal is convicted and suffers some unpleasant punishment because of your testimony, it follows that though he did not wrong you, you are causing him harm—that is, doing injustice to him. Moreover, in a law court, the instrument of nomos, it is not necessarily the case that justice is done. It depends on one’s skill at persuading a jury rather than on the justice of one’s case. Besides, the legal process comes into play only after the act: it does nothing to prevent injustice in the first place.

These are the kinds of arguments Antiphon brings against nomos. Perhaps he believed that there should be an ideal of justice where these incoherencies do not obtain, a justice which is in accordance with physis, with one’s pleasure, advantage, and self-preservation. This humanitarian and moral ideal is opposed to Thrasymachus’ radical interpretation of the theory of natural right, but is in keeping with the humanitarianism of Antiphon’s comments on the natural and essential identity of Greeks and foreigners, free men and slaves.

F1 (DK 87B60) There is nothing more important for men than education, since any business that is started correctly is likely to end correctly too. After all, it is the kind of seed one sows in the ground that determines the kind of products one should expect. So when one sows a sound education in a young body, it lives and flourishes throughout that person’s lifetime, and neither rain nor drought destroys it. (John of Stobi, Anthology 2.31.39 Wachsmuth/Hense)

F2 (DK 87B61) There is nothing worse for men than lack of discipline. It was recognition of this fact that led earlier generations of men to accustom their sons to discipline, and to doing what they were told, right from the start. The idea was that when they were grown up they should not be upset by any serious changes they met. (John of Stobi, Anthology 2.31.40 Wachsmuth/Hense)

F3 (DK 87B62) Whatever kind of person one spends the majority of the day with, one is bound to come to resemble him oneself in respect of his characteristics.* (John of Stobi, Anthology 2.31.41 Wachsmuth/Hense)

F4 (DK 87B49) Well, then, let’s move on through his life and have him wanting marriage, wanting a wife. That day, that night, is the beginning of a whole new direction for him,* a new destiny, because marriage is a serious trial of a man’s strength. For if she turns out to be unsuitable, how can he deal with this unfortunate situation? Divorce is troublesome, in that it makes enemies of his friends, men with the same ideas and the same qualities, men who have found him acceptable and have accepted him. But it is also troublesome to keep a possession of this kind, to marry pain when one expected to acquire pleasure. Well, then, let’s not speak of such a grim possibility; let’s say that she is completely suitable. What could be more pleasant for a man than a compatible wife? What could be more delightful, especially when he is young? But in exactly the same place, precisely where pleasure is to be found, pain too lies close at hand. For pleasures do not travel unaccompanied, but pain and hard work attend them. All the pleasures of life—the acquisition of knowledge, even victories at the Olympic and Pythian Games and so on—tend to arrive as a result of great pains. Prestige, prizes, all the lures which the gods have given men, involve them in the necessity of hard work and an enormous quantity of sweat. Thinking of myself, for instance, if I had another body to look after as I do the one I have, life would become impossible, since my body’s health, the daily business of scraping together enough to keep it alive, and maintaining its reputation, regard, fame, and esteem, already occupy so much of my time and efforts. What would happen, then, if I had another similar body, which I had to look after in the same way? And it obviously follows from this that even a compatible wife provides a man with just as much affectionate attention and trouble as he gives himself, since now he has to think of the health of two bodies, and of scraping together a livelihood for two bodies, and of the regard and fame of two bodies. Now, then, suppose they have children. Straight away he is beset by nothing but worries, the youthful buoyancy leaves his thinking, and his features change. (John of Stobi, Anthology 4.22.66 Wachsmuth/Hense)

F5 (DK 87B58) The more sensible option, when a man is poised to attack his neighbour with the intention of doing him harm, is for him to be afraid of failing to carry out his intentions and achieving the opposite result instead. For fear leads to hesitation, and hesitation leaves him an interval in which to change his mind, as often happens. This is impossible once the action has already taken place, but it can happen while he is hesitating. Anyone who imagines that he will do harm to his neighbour and remain unscathed himself is not being sensible. Hopes are not always good: hopes of this kind have often brought men low and involved them in irreparable disasters, and they have ended up experiencing what they had been expecting to do to their neighbours. The most accurate criterion by which to judge if a man has good sense is to see whether he resists his heart’s immediate impulses towards pleasure and has proved capable of self-control and self-mastery. But the man who tends to gratify his heart’s impulses is the man who tends towards the worse, not the better, course of action. (John of Stobi, Anthology 3.20.66 Wachsmuth/Hense)

F6 (DK 87B59) The man who has never desired or experienced anything base and bad is not a man of restraint, because he has never had to master anything to compose himself. (John of Stobi, Anthology 3.5.57 Wachsmuth/Hense)

F7 (DK 87B56) A coward is someone whose tongue is full ofconfidence and whose will pushes him forward when the danger is absent and impending, but draws back when faced with the actual event. (The Suda s.v. oknō, 3.514.24–6 Adler)

F8 (DK 87B57) Illness is a holiday for cowards. (John of Stobi, Anthology 3.18.8 Wachsmuth/Hense)

F9 (DK 87B50) Life is like a day watch and the length of life is like a single day, so to speak: once we have looked up at the light we pass the duty on to others, who come after us. (John of Stobi, Anthology 4.34.63 Wachsmuth/Hense)

F10 (DK 87B51) It is incredibly easy to find fault with life, my friend: it contains nothing remarkable or important or significant, but everything is petty, feeble, ephemeral, and bound up with terrible grief. (John of Stobi, Anthology 4.34.56 Wachsmuth/Hense)

F11 (DK 87B52) It is impossible to take back one’s life like a move at backgammon. (Harpocration, Lexicon s.v. anathesthai, 31.1–2 Dindorf)

F12 (DK 87B53a) Some people do not live the life they have, but thoroughly occupy themselves with plans, as if they had another life to live, not the one they have. And meanwhile time passes them by. (John of Stobi, Anthology 3.16.20 Wachsmuth/Hense)

F13 (DK 87B54) There’s a story about a man who saw another man winning a lot of money and asked whether he could borrow it, at interest. The man with the money refused, being a mistrustful kind of person, the kind who doesn’t help anyone else, and he took the money and stored it somewhere. But word got around, and the money was stolen. Later, the man who had stored the money came and found that it had gone. He was very upset at what had happened, and not least because he hadn’t lent the money to the man who had asked him for it, because then his money would have been safe and he would gained the interest as well. He happened to meet the man who had previously wanted to borrow the money and complained about his misfortune, saying that he had made a mistake and that he regretted not having done him a favour and having turned him down, because he had lost all his money. The man told him not to worry, but to imagine that he still had the money and hadn’t lost it, and to put a stone in the place where he had stored the money. ‘After all,’ he said, ‘you didn’t make the slightest use of the money when you had it, and so now you needn’t imagine that you’ve lost anything.’ For if a person hasn’t made use of something he has, and has no intention of doing so in the future, there’s no difference at all between owning it and not owning it: in either case, he suffers no more or less harm. When the gods want to benefit a man, but to qualify their blessings, they give him financial wealth but poverty of good sense, so that his lack of the one asset causes him to lose the other as well. (John of Stobi, Anthology 3.16.30 Wachsmuth/Hense)

F14 (DK 87B65) People with friends often fail to recognize them, and go around instead with those who flatter wealth and fawn on good fortune. (The Suda s.v. thōpeia, 2.723.25–6 Adler)

F15 People believe what they see with their eyes more than they do those things the evidence for whose genuine existence comes from what is unseen. (The Suda s.v. atta, 1.397.15–17 Adler)

F16 (DK 87B1) No single thing uttered by someone has a single meaning, and neither is it one of those things which a far-seer sees with his eyes nor one of those things which a far-knower knows with his mind. (Galen, Commentary on Hippocrates’ ‘On the Doctor’s Workshop’ XVIIIB.656.14–15 Kühn)

F17 (DK 87B44B) <…> we know and respect,* but those who dwell far away we neither know nor respect. This has led to our behaving like foreign savages towards one another, when by nature there is nothing at all in our constitutions to differentiate foreigners and Greeks. * We can consider those natural qualities which are essential to all human beings and with which we are all equally endowed, and we find that in the case of all these qualities there is nothing to tell any of us apart as foreigner or Greek. For we all breathe the air through our mouths and nostrils, laugh when our minds feel pleasure or cry when we are distressed; we hear sounds with our ears; we see with our eyes thanks to daylight; we work with our hands, and walk with our feet <…> (pieced together fromOxyrhynchus Papyrus 1364, fr. B, cols. 1–3 Grenfell/Hunt, and Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 3647)

F18 (DK 87B44A) Justice, therefore, is conforming to the rules and regulations of the community of which you are a citizen.* The way to gain maximum advantage for yourself from justice, then, is to treat the laws as important when other people are present, but when there is nobody else with you to value the demands of nature. For the laws’ demands are externally imposed, but those of nature are essential, and while agreement, not nature, has produced the laws’ demands, nature, not agreement, has produced those of nature. So if your transgression of regulations escapes the notice of those who have made the agreement, you avoid both shame and punishment, but incur them if it doesn’t; however, if you achieve the impossible and violate one of the inherent demands of nature, the harm you suffer is not decreased if what you do goes totally unnoticed, and not increased if everyone sees you, because it is genuine harm, not a result of what others think of you. This is exactly what this investigation of mine is concerned with—to show that most of the actions sanctioned by law are inimical to nature. For laws dictate what the eyes may and may not see, what the ears may and may not hear, what the tongue may and may not speak, what the hands may and may not do, where the feet may and may not go, and what the mind may and may not desire. There is no difference between the things the laws deter us from doing and the things the laws encourage us to do: both are equally inimical to nature. For what is natural is life and death, and life comes about through things which are advantageous, while death comes about from things which are disadvantageous. The advantages offered by the law are fetters on nature, but the advantages offered by nature bring freedom. Properly speaking, it is not the case that discomfort benefits one’s nature more than comfort, pain more than pleasure; for things which are genuinely advantageous should help, not harm. Therefore, things which are naturally advantageous < … >

<…> and people who defend themselves after having become the victims but do not themselves instigate any action, and people who are good to their parents even if their parents are bad to them, and people who allow others to swear an oath when they themselves have not sworn an oath.* Many of the things I’ve mentioned will be found to be inimical to nature, and they bring with them more pain, when less is possible, and less pleasure, when more is possible, and suffering, when suffering is unnecessary. So if support was available from the laws for those who surrender their rights in this way, and degradation for those who choose to resist rather than surrender their rights, then obedience to the laws would serve some useful purpose. But as things are, it looks as though justice under the law does not offer sufficient support to those who surrender their rights in this way. In the first place, it allows the victim to suffer and the agent to act: not only did it not prevent the victim suffering or the agent acting at the time, but also when it comes to punishment it does not favour the victim over the perpetrator. For the victim has to convince those who would punish him that he has been a victim, and he has to be able < … > But it is still possible for the perpetrator to deny < … > (Oxyrhynchus Papyrus1364, fr. A, cols. 1–6 Grenfell/Hunt)

F19 (DK 87B44C) < … > for all parties to tell the truth in court is generally regarded not only as just, but also, and equally, as useful for human customs. But anyone who does this will not be just, given that it is just not to commit injustice against or injure anyone when one has not been injured or had injustice committed against oneself. For anyone who testifies in court is bound to injure another person in some way or other, even if his testimony is true … while because of his testimony the person he testifies against is convicted and loses either property or his life thanks to the testimony of a man he never injured. So he commits an injustice against the person he testifies against, because he is injuring someone who didn’t injure him, and then he too is injured by the person he testified against, because he is hated by him for having told the truth in court. And he is injured not only by the other man’s hatred, but also because he has to spend his whole life watching out for the man against whom he testified. So he gains the kind of enemy whose words and actions will be designed to do him harm, if he possibly can. Now, these injustices—those he suffers and those he commits—are clearly not insignificant, since there is no way (1) that the situation just described is just and (2) that it is just to avoid injuring others and being injured oneself. On the contrary, it necessarily follows either that some other situation is just or that both (1) and (2) are unjust. It is clear, then, that the judicial process, the verdicts, and arbitration to a conclusion, are not just, since in trying to help some people one harms others, and so although those who are helped are not injured, those who are harmed are injured < … > (Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 1797, cols. 1–2 Grenfell/Hunt)

T1 (DK 87B15) Some people take the nature and substance of any natural thing to be its primary component, something which is unformed in itself. They say, for instance, that wood is the ‘nature’ of a bed, bronze the ‘nature’ of a statue. Antiphon cites as evidence the fact that if you bury a bed and, as it rots, it manages to send up a shoot, the result is wood, not a bed. He concludes from this that the arrangement and design of the bed, which are due merely to human convention, are coincidental attributes, and that the substance is that which persists throughout, however it is affected. (Aristotle, Physics 193a9–17 Ross)

T2 (DK 87B13) At the same time, it is not our business [as conducting an enquiry into the principles of nature] to correct all mistakes, but to do so only where someone has drawn false inferences from principles, and not otherwise. Similarly, it is a geometer’s job to refute the attempt to square the circle by means of segments, but it is not up to a geometer to refute Antiphon’s method of squaring a circle. * (Aristotle, Physics 185a12–17 Ross)

T3 That every single one of those whose professional interest lay in the spoken word felt entitled to make up new words is sufficiently and clearly shown by the fact that Antiphon taught the best way to make them up. (Galen, Glossary of Hippocratic Terminology, XIX.66.12–14 Kühn)

F20 (DK 87B2) For all men it is the mind that leads the body to health, illness, and everything else. (Galen, Commentary on Hippocrates’ ‘On the Doctor’s Workshop’, XVIIIB.656.15–17 Kühn)

F21 (DK 87B14) Deprived of a starting-point it would have made the condition of many good things bad.* (Harpocration, Lexicon s.v. diathesis, 92. 2–3 Dindorf)

T4 (DK 87B12) Even if one person were to be a Demosthenes … and another an Antiphon, who was taken to be an orator and, in his book called (like that of Celsus) On Truth, did away with Providence, these people would still be worms wallowing in a muddy corner of ignorance and stupidity. (Origen, Against Celsus 4.25.9–15 Koetschau)

F22 (DK 87B10) That is why he needs nothing and has no expectations, but is without limits or needs.* (The Suda s.v. adeētos, 1. 46. 20–22 Adler)

T5 (DK 87B26) Antiphon says that the sun is fire which consumes the moist air around the earth, and whose risings and settings are caused by the fact that it is constantly leaving the scorched air and instead pursuing the damp air.* (Aëtius, Opinions 2.20.15 Diels)

T6 (DK 87B27) Antiphon says that the moon has its own light, but that the hidden part of the moon is obscured by the sun’s light falling upon it, just as the light of a stronger fire will obscure a weaker one. And he says that this happens in the case of the other heavenly bodies too. (Aëtius, Opinions 2.28.4 Diels)

F23 (DK 87B30) By scorching and melting the earth it makes it wrinkled.* (Harpocration, Lexicon s.v. grupanion, 82.1–2 Dindorf)

T7 (DK 87B32) Antiphon says that the sea is the sweat of the hot substance, from which the remaining moisture was secreted, and that it became salty as a result of being boiled away, which is how all sweat becomes salty. (Aëtius, Opinions 3.16.4 Diels)

T8 (DK 87B34) ‘Headache’ and ‘heaviness of the head’ … and food or drink which causes heaviness of the head: Antiphon says that what causes this is ‘stupefaction’. (Pollux, Lexicon s.v. kephalaion (4), 2.41 Dindorf)

F24 (DK 87B36) The word for what the embryo grows and is nourished in is ‘placenta’. (Pollux, Lexicon s.v. kephalaion (4), 2.223 Dindorf)

F25 < … > or to regard it as bad. A young man ought to have nothing to do with an occupation of this kind. I will explain my opinion about the poets, since I have in the past heard a lot of people saying that it is beneficial to spend time over the poems which men of old have left us. The benefit they afford, they say < … > about things good and bad, and right and wrong; about supernatural phenomena; about what happens in Hades; about human birth and funerals < … > for someone who does not already know about men of previous generations to listen to the poet. Moreover, I think that one poet can improve on another < … > * (Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 414, cols. 1–3 Grenfell/Hunt)

H. C. Avery, ‘One Antiphon or Two?’, Hermes, 110 (1982), 145–58.

J. Barnes, ‘New Light on Antiphon’, Polis, 7 (1987), 2–5.

J. Dillon, ‘Euripides and Antiphon on Nomos and Physis: Some Remarks’, in [23], 127–36.

D. J. Furley, ‘Antiphon’s Case Against Justice’, in [27], 81–91.

G. B. Kerferd, ‘The Moral and Political Doctrines of Antiphon the Sophist: A Reconsideration’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, 4 (1956–7), 26–32.

R. D. Luginbill, ‘Rethinking Antiphon’s Peri Aletheias,’ Apeiron 30 (1997), 163–87.

J. S. Morrison, ‘Antiphon’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, 7 (1961), 49–58.

—— ‘The Truth of Antiphon’, Phronesis 8 (1963), 35–49.

C. Moulton, ‘Antiphon the Sophist, On Truth’, Transactions of the American Philological Association, 103 (1972), 329–66.

M. Ostwald, ‘Nomos and Physis in Antiphon’s Peri Physeos.’ in M. Griffith and D. Mastronarde (eds.), Cabinet of the Muses (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990), 293–306.

G. Pendrick, ‘Once Again Antiphon the Sophist and Antiphon of Rhamnous’, Hermes, 115 (1987), 47–60.

M. Reesor, ‘The Truth of Antiphon the Sophist’, Apeiron, 20 (1987), 203–18.

T. J. Saunders, ‘Antiphon the Sophist on Natural Laws (B44 DK)’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 78 (1977/8), 215–36.

A. Wasserstein, ‘Some Early Greek Attempts to Square the Circle’, Phronesis, 4 (1959), 92–100.

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