Ancient History & Civilisation


Included in this section are a number of texts, from various authors, which illustrate two interlocking debates that flourished in the fifth century, largely under the influence of the Sophistic movement. The first and main debate concerns the relative value ofnomosand physis, the second the origins of humankind and its institutions. We have already met the debate over nomos and physis, law (or custom, or convention) and nature, when discussing certain passages in Protagoras, Hippias, Thrasymachus, and Antiphon; and both Protagoras and Prodicus also had something to say about origins.

Callicles (the evidence for whose views constitutes T1) was a historical figure from the end of the fifth century in Athens, but as usual we have no way of knowing how far Plato is embellishing his views. Nevertheless, the impassioned speech Plato gives him, denouncing conventional morality and singing the praises of the slogan that ‘Might is right’, is one of the great pieces of rhetoric from the ancient world, and a clear expression of one way in which the terms ‘nature’ and ‘convention’ could be used to make a point. According to Callicles nature and convention are invariably opposed (Antiphon agrees). The case at issue is that doing wrong, understood as having more than one’s fair share or gaining an advantage over others, is shameful and wrong according to convention, but (so Callicles claims) is right according to nature. Convention, custom, and law are the means by which the weak keep the naturally strong subdued. Thrasymachus and Callicles both subvert standard morality, but whereas Thrasymachus agrees with morality that the pursuit of one’s own interest and advantage is unjust (but thinks that the natural ruler will follow this unjust course), Callicles claims that the pursuit of one’s own interest and advantage is natural justice. That this doctrine of ‘Might is right’ was not unknown towards the end of the fifth century is chillingly shown by passages from the historian Thucydides (1.75–7; 3.37–50; 5.84–114): the deadpan way in which the historian records this element of Athenian politics, and the way he subtly portrays a progression in Athenian arrogance throughout the first few books, are indictments of the terrible uses to which the conviction that might is right could be put, such as deciding to slaughter the whole population of a town which had rebelled against Athens’ rule.

Critias was a famous oligarchic politician and associate of Socrates from the end of the fifth century. Whether or not he should be counted as a Sophist in his own right is unclear, but at any rate, in both his dramas and his speeches he was strongly influenced by Sophistic ideas (as was the playwright Euripides too). The fragment from his Sisyphus translated as F1 need not, then, represent Critias’ personal views, as opposed to those he put in the mouth of one of his characters, but it is a clear account of a possible position within the fifth-century debate over law and nature.1 What this piece of verse shows clearly is that a defence of the value of law against the attacks of thinkers such as Antiphon need not make one any less radical; for Critias combines such a defence with the view that the gods are fictions, created by a clever man to stop people doing wrong even when they are not overlooked by other people. The inventor’s cleverness lies in his preying on people’s fears: they were already in awe of the power of certain meteorological phenomena, so this storyteller makes the sky the home of the gods.

The Anonymus Iamblichi (T2) is a stretch of prose from the end of the fifth century embedded in the Exhortation to Philosophy of the late Platonic philosopher, Iamblichus. Although Iamblichus does not tell us who the author of the piece is, and does not even signal that it is not by him, in Exhortation to Philosophy he does include a number of sections from other writers, and scholars are unanimous in believing that these words genuinely date from the Sophistic period of the fifth century. The anonymous author shows himself, in a rather tedious fashion, to be a utilitarian democrat, and a champion of law and order, whose virtues he sings at some length, in awkward Greek, and in a very derivative fashion.2 A very similar view, similarly expressed, may be found briefly stated in Euripides’ play The Suppliant Women, at lines 429–38; this play was produced in the late 420s, which may not allow us to date Anonymus Iamblichi more precisely, but does show that the discussion was in the air. The most interesting aspect of the treatise is that just as Callicles could appeal to law, understood as natural law, to justify his view of nature, so our anonymous author includes an appeal to nature to justify his view of the importance of law; that is, our natural inability to live alone compels us to form societies, andsocieties require law and order (compare Protagoras T12). It is also tempting to see a response to Callicles in the middle and at the very end of the treatise, where the author denies that there could ever be a superman strong enough to wrest power from an unwilling population.

T3 was written in the fourth century, and is part of a speech attributed to the fourth-century orator Demosthenes, but the speech contains material which certainly goes back to fifth-century Sophistic debate. Because of the difficulty of differentiating the original fifth-century text from the speech surrounding it, I have translated little of the relevant sections of the speech (15–35, 85–91, 93–6), concentrating on those bits which are most clear and relevant, and which are more likely to contain genuine fifth-century material. Like Anonymus Iamblichi the author defends the importance of law; the interest of the piece is that whereas the partisans of physis had been inclined to argue that man-made laws necessarily change according to the whims of different governments or the same governments at different times, and so that we should look to nature or ‘natural law’ for stability (see Hippias T5 and T6, p. 255), our author turns this on its head by arguing that nature changes from individual to individual, whereas law is stable. However, there are also hints in the speech (although these may not be original to the fifth-century tract) of a reconciliation between nomos and physis: the last couple of sentences translated suggest that the desires and objectives inherent in the nature of a perfectly good man, a paragon of virtue, coincide with the goals of the laws.

The debate on origins continues in T4, which combines an account of origins with the terminology of the debate over nomos and physis. Though writing in the fourth century, Plato is clearly reflecting earlier debate when he has Glaucon challenge Socrates inRepublic to prove that justice benefits a moral person more than injustice benefits an unjust person. Glaucon expresses the challenge with an account of the origin of legal codes and political constitutions as necessary to curb the lawlessness of men’s natures. Glaucon’s account of justice as a compromise is no less cynical than that of Callicles in T1, but his conclusions are different: as far as Callicles is concerned, it is the fact that laws were invented as such a curb that proves their perniciousness, whereas for Glaucon (as for Critias in F1) it proves their value. This is a clear example of how different thinkers could employ similar arguments towards opposite ends.

We have already met theories of progress and origins in Protagoras and Prodicus. In this section, F1 as well as T4 fit into this context. Those theories which are actually theories of progress are naturally part of the nomos-physis debate because, ‘progress’ being a term of approval, they assume that the way we live now is better in various respects from how we lived in the distant past, in a supposed ‘natural’ state. The idea that there was progress and development was important, because previously the tendency in Greek thought had been to locate a Golden Age in the past, and trace a decline from then up to the present.3 A number of passages from both prose-writers and poets could illustrate the wide spread of the idea of progress in fifth-century Greece,4 but the one which is broadest in its scope, despite its brief length, and contains more than just enthusiasm for technical advances, is T5. This is another anonymous tract embedded in the work of a later author, in this case the historian Diodorus of Sicily, who is explicitly reproducing an earlier account of origins and progress.

Summarizing the nomos-physis debate is not straightforward, since the broadness of the terms allowed various thinkers to exploit them in various ways. But one thing that characterizes it is its emotive quality. Nomos and physis each had champions or partisans; the terms were not merely tools of cool, rational analysis, as, for instance, the related contrast between appearance and reality was for Democritus (in F3, p. 176). The partisans of nomos include all those who see humankind progressing from a bestial and vulnerable state to one where law and society offer protection, but also those like Anonymus Iamblichi who, without committing themselves to a theory of progress, simply see in law and order our best hope for survival and life with some kind of dignity, and, at a personal level, for getting on in the world. Ranged against them were the partisans of physis, who vary from radicals like Callicles and Thrasymachus, who value self-interest above all (a view which is apologetically reflected in T4), to Antiphon, who uses the facts of physisto argue for a kind of liberal cosmopolitanism and argues that the natural law of self-preservation shows how defective man-made laws are; and to Hippias, who probably argued that the laws of nature, so far from sanctioning Calliclean self-interest, simply provide us with a more objective moral code.

T1 [Callicles speaking to Socrates] To be specific, where I think Polus was at fault was in agreeing with you that doing wrong is more shameful than suffering wrong. It was this admission of his which enabled you to tie him up in logical knots and muzzle him; he was just too embarrassed to voice his convictions. You pretend that truth is your goal, Socrates, but in actual fact you steer discussions towards this kind of ethical idea—ideas which are unsophisticated enough to have popular appeal, and which depend entirely on convention, not on nature. They’re invariably opposed to each other, you know—nature and convention, I mean—and consequently if someone is too embarrassed to go right ahead and voice his convictions, he’s bound to contradict himself. This in fact is the source of the clever, but unfair, argumentative trick you’ve devised: if a person is talking from a conventional standpoint, you slip in a question which presupposes a natural point of view, and if he’s talking about nature, you substitute convention.* On this matter of doing and suffering wrong, for instance—to take the case at hand—Polus was talking about what was more shameful from a conventional standpoint, but you adopted the standpoint of nature in following up what he said, because in nature everything is more shameful if it is also worse (as suffering wrong is), whereas convention ordains that doing wrong is more shameful. In fact, this thing—being wronged—isn’t within a real man’s experience; it’s something which happens to slaves, who’d be better off dead, because they’re incapable of defending themselves or anyone else they care for against unjust treatment and abuse.

In my opinion it’s the weaklings who constitute the majority of the human race who make the rules. In making these rules, they look after themselves and their own interest, and that’s also the criterion they use when they dispense praise and criticism. They try to cow the stronger ones—which is to say, those who are capable of increasing their share of things—and to stop them getting an increased share, by saying that to do so is wrong and shameful and by defining injustice in precisely those terms, as the attempt to have more than others. In my opinion, it’s because they’re second-rate that they’re happy for things to be distributed equally. Anyway, that’s why convention states that the attempt to have a larger share than most people is immoral and shameful; that’s why people call it doing wrong. But I think we only have to look at nature to find evidence that it is right for better to have a greater share than worse, more capable than less capable. The evidence for this is widespread. Other creatures show, as do human communities and nations, that right has been determined as follows: the superior person shall dominate the inferior person and have more than him. By what right, for instance, did Xerxes make war on Greece or his father on Scythia, not to mention countless further cases of the same kind of behaviour? These people act, surely, in conformity with the natural essence of right and, yes, I’d even go so far as to say that they act in conformity with natural law, even though they presumably contravene manmade laws.

What do we do with the best and strongest among us? We capture them young, like lions, mould them, and turn them into slaves by chanting spells and incantations over them which insist that they have to be equal to others and that equality is admirable and right. But I’m sure that if a man is born in whom nature is strong enough, he’ll shake off all these limitations, shatter them to pieces, and win his freedom; he’ll trample all our regulations, charms, spells, and unnatural laws into the dust; this slave will rise up and reveal himself as our master; and then natural right will blaze forth. (Plato, Gorgias 482d7–484b1 Burnet)

F1 (DK 88B25)

There was a time when human life was chaotic,

As subject to brute strength as the life of beasts,

When not only did the good go unrewarded,

But neither was there any punishment for the bad.

And then, or so it seems to me, men introduced 5

The restraint of law, so that justice would be the tyrant

Of the human race, the master of abuse

And punisher of any transgression.

Next, since the laws made it impossible

For people to commit obvious crimes by force, 10

They began to act in secret, this was the point, I think,

At which some shrewd and clever man first

Invented fear of the gods for mortal men, so that

The wicked might have something to fear, even if

Their deeds or words or thoughts were secret. 15

So that is why he introduced the divine, saying:

‘There is a god, and he teems with life undying.

He will hear all that is said among mortals, 20

And he will be able to see all that is done.

Your evil schemes, plotted in silence,

Will be noticed by the gods. For intelligence

Is one of their qualities.’ With these words

He introduced the crucial doctrine 25

And covered up the truth with a fictional story.

He claimed that the home of the gods is the place

Whose merest mention would fill men with utter terror,

Knowing that this place is the source of fears for mortal men

And of things which support them in their wretched life— 30

The revolving sky above, where, as he observed,

There were flashes of lightning, terrifying thunderclaps,

And the brilliance of the stars in the heavens,

The fair embroidery of the wise craftsman, Time.

Also from the sky heavenly bodies come in a gleaming mass,* 35

And moist rain proceeds from there into the earth.

These are the kinds of fears with which he enveloped men,

And by means of these stories he not only settled

The gods properly in an appropriate place,

But also quenched lawlessness by means of law. 40

[there is a gap of a few lines in the text]

This, I think, is how in the first place someone persuaded

Mortal men to worship the race of gods.

(Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors 9.54 Bury)

T2 (DK 89) The final completion and perfection of anything—it may be skill or courage or eloquence or virtue (in whole or in part)—is a possible attainment under the following circumstances. The first prerequisite is natural ability, and while one may think that this is due to fortune, the following qualities are up to the individual himself: he must be eager to achieve noble and admirable things, work hard at them, learn them as quickly as possible, and persevere at them for a long time. If a person lacks even one of these qualities, it is impossible for him to bring anything to the peak of perfection, but if he has them all, no one will be able to surpass his achievements, whatever his speciality.

A person who wants to gain prestige among men and to let them know what kind of man he is must begin from an early age and apply himself consistently, without starting and stopping. For any of the qualities I mentioned—provided it has been around for a long time after an early start and has grown to perfection—acquires a stable reputation and fame. The reason for this is that by then people know without a doubt that they can rely on the person for this quality, and they do not envy him for it. Envy is what either stops people praising someone and not giving him the exposure that he might reasonably expect, or makes them find fault with him and tell unfair lies about him. The point is that people resent giving someone else respect, because they think it takes something away from themselves, but if they are left with absolutely no choice and have slowly and gradually been won over, they are prepared to praise someone else, even if grudgingly. However, it must also be said that they do not stop to wonder whether a man is as he appears to be, or whether he is setting traps and deceitfully chasing a good reputation by leading people on with a display of fine deeds. But if virtue is cultivated in the way I have already mentioned, it imbues itself with trustworthiness and fame, because once people have become firmly convinced, they stop being capable of deploying envy or thinking that they are being duped.

Besides, the passage of time—if a good long time is spent over any endeavour and business—confirms the quality that is being cultivated, whereas a short period cannot do this. It is true that verbal skill can be acquired and learnt in a short time, so thoroughly that the pupil becomes just as good as his teacher, but as far as concerns the virtue which is formed as a result of the performance of a lot of deeds, it is impossible for someone to start late at this and rapidly bring it to perfection; no, he has to grow and develop with it, by avoiding bad arguments and habits, and taking a lot of time and care over practising and attaining the opposite. Moreover, there is another drawback to the rapid acquisition of prestige, and that is that people resent those who have suddenly and rapidly acquired wealth or skill or virtue or courage.

When a person has set his sights on one of these qualities, has brought it to perfection, and has attained it, whether it is eloquence or skill or strength, he must next employ it for good and lawful purposes. There is nothing more pernicious than for someone to use the good quality he has gained for immoral and criminal purposes, and it would be better for him not to have it than to have it. Just as a person who has any of these qualities and uses it for good purposes is completely good, so the converse is also true, and there is no one worse than the man who uses them for bad purposes.

We should also consider what kind of speech and behaviour supports the intention of someone who is aiming for complete virtue, given that what would enable him to attain this aim is helping large numbers of people. Now, if someone does his neighbours a favour by lending them money, he will be forced to do them a bad turn later when he collects the money. In the second place, he could not accumulate such unlimited wealth that he could go on and on giving gifts and favours without it running out. In the third place, there is also an additional disadvantage, once he has accumulated his wealth, if he spends his money and becomes poor, losing what he had and ending up with nothing. What else might someone do, then, to be a benefactor to others, which does not involve handing out money? And, whatever it is he does, how can he avoid the bad and keep to the good? Moreover, if he keeps giving presents, how can he not exhaust his ability to give? He can avoid this by supporting the laws and justice, because it is justice that unites and joins communities and individuals.

Now, every man should be exceptionally self-disciplined. The best tests of self-discipline are the ability to resist that universal corrupting agent, money; and not sparing one’s soul in the effort to do what is right and pursue the goal of virtue. It is in regard to these two that most people lack self-discipline. This happens because they love their souls (which is to say, their lives), and so this clinging to life and the familiar feel of something they have known all their lives make them protect and cherish their souls. And they love money because there are certain things they fear. What are these things? Illness, old age, unexpected penalties—by which I do not mean penalties imposed by the courts, which one can anticipate and take precautions about, but things like fires, the death of relatives or livestock, and other disasters, which afflict either their bodies or their minds or their wealth. So every man desires money to ensure that he is in a position to use it should any of these disasters arise. And there are other factors too, which just as effectively impel men towards making money—things like competitiveness, the desire to emulate others, and political power, which cause people to regard money as important, because of the help it affords in such situations. But the man who is truly good does not rely on the cloak of someone else’s ornaments to chase after prestige, but on his own virtue.

Where love of the soul is concerned, the following argument might be found persuasive. If men could resist the onset of old age and could remain undying for all time, unless killed by someone else, that might be a valid reason for someone to protect his soul. But since what happens if life is prolonged is not immortality, but baneful old age, then it is sheer stupidity, and suggests over-exposure to bad arguments and objectives, to preserve the soul for infamy, rather than exchanging it for immortal fame—eternal and everlasting esteem in exchange for something mortal.

The next point to note is that one should not desire to gain an advantage over others, nor should one count as virtue the power that accompanies such an advantage, while calling a law-abiding man a coward. There is nothing worse than this frame of mind, and it is the cause of everything that is, so far from being good, bad and pernicious. Since men are constitutionally incapable of living alone and have been compelled to join together with one another, since they have come up with their whole way of life and invented the skills to support it, and since it is impossible for them to live with one another without law (which would be an even worse penalty for them than living alone), it is these necessities that have enthroned law and justice as kings over men,* and they will never be dislodged, because they have been securely bound in place by nature. Now, if a person were born who was invulnerable, enjoyed nothing but good health, never suffered any setbacks, had a supernatural constitution, and was physically and mentally as hard as nails, one might perhaps think that the power that accompanies advantage over others would be all right for such a man, because he could get away with refusal to submit to the law. But one would be wrong to think that, because if (what is impossible) there were to be such a man, it is only by allying himself with the laws and with justice, and by confirming them, and by using his strength to reinforce them and their supports, that he could be safe. Otherwise, he would never survive, because it is likely that everyone would come out against such a man, and because of their conformity to the law and their numbers their skill or power would be superior to his, and they would get the better of him. It therefore turns out that power—what really deserves to be called power—is maintained by law and justice.

The first result of conformity to the law is trust, which brings enormous benefits for everyone and is one of the great blessings of the world. For instance, it is as a result of conformity to the law that property is shared, and this means that even a little property is sufficient, since it is shared around; but without conformity to the law even a great deal of property is never enough. Also, the changes of fortune that affect property and life either adversely or the opposite are managed in a way that maximizes their benefit as a result of conformity to the law; for those who are successful can enjoy their good fortune in safety and without worrying about others’ intriguing against them, while those who fail are supported by the successful ones because, thanks to their conformity to the law, there is interdependence and trust between them. Then again, because of conformity to the law people’s time is not filled with public business, but with the business of daily living, and under law-abiding conditions people avoid the extreme distress brought on by a concern with public business and gain the great pleasure of concerning themselves with their daily work.* Moreover, sleep is the way men find relief from their troubles, and under law-abiding conditions when they go to sleep they do so without fears and without any distressing worries, and they feel similar feelings when they wake up. Fear does not come upon them out of the blue, nor after an extremely pleasant rest do they expect the day to be extremely distressing. No, they pleasantly occupy their minds with untroubled concerns about their daily work, and lighten their efforts to gain the good things of life with high and confident hopes, all of which are the product of conformity to the law. As for war, the source of men’s worst evils, because it brings downfall and enslavement, this too is more likely to afflict lawless people than those who conform to the law.

Conformity to the law entails many other benefits too, which make life easier and offer relief from the difficult aspects of life, but the consequences of lawlessness are the following evils. First, men are too busy to attend to their jobs and occupy themselves instead with public business, which is the least pleasant of all tasks, and because they do not trust and depend on one another they hoard their money, rather than sharing it, which means that money is hard to come by even if there is plenty of it. Also, the outcome of success and failure is the opposite to what we found it was for those who conform to the law. Under conditions of lawlessness, success is insecure and is the object of intrigues, while so far from being repelled, failure is confirmed by lack of trust and interdependence. These two factors also make both war from abroad and internal discord more likely to occur, and even if they were unknown before, they start to happen then. And all the plots and intrigues going on among them mean that people constantly have to be involved in public business, and that they spend their time looking over their shoulders and meeting plots with counter-plots. They pass their waking hours with unpleasant concerns and in sleep they find no pleasant haven but a place of terror, while waking up induces fear and terror and serves only to remind an individual of his troubles. These and all the evils I have already mentioned are the consequences of lawlessness.

Furthermore, the sole cause of that unspeakably terrible evil, tyranny, is lawlessness. Some people have reached the wrong conclusion and attribute tyranny to other factors, claiming that the responsibility for loss of freedom does not lie with the people themselves, who have, on this account, been forced to submit to the tyrant, once he has become established. But this idea is wrong. It is idiotic to think that the emergence of a king or a tyrant is due to anything other than lawlessness and trying to gain an advantage over others. It is simply a result of a general involvement with evil, because it is impossible for men to live without law and justice, so when these two things, law and justice, are abandoned by the general populace, then care and responsibility for them end up in the hands of a single person. After all, how could autocracy devolve on to a single person unless law, which benefits the general populace, had been banished? For anyone to do away with justice and abolish law, the common benefactor of everyone, he would have to be as hard as nails: how else could he deprive the general run of mankind of these things, when he, as a single individual, is vastly outnumbered by the general populace? This would be impossible for a normal flesh-and-blood person, who could become an autocrat only by re-establishing the abandoned opposite qualities. That is why some people have failed to notice that this is what happens. (Iamblichus, Exhortation to Philosophy 95.13–104.14 Pistelli)

T3 The whole of human life, gentlemen of Athens, whether the community in which they live is large or small, is governed by nature and by laws. Of these, nature is disorderly and private to each individual, while laws are shared, ordered, and the same for all. Now, nature may be bad, and then it often has bad objectives; that is why you find this kind of person committing crimes. But the objectives and goals of the laws are justice, morality, and benefit. Once achieved, these qualities are published as a regulation, which everyone shares in alike and equally, and this is what we call a ‘law’. Among the many reasons why everyone should obey the laws are, above all, that every law is a discovery and a gift of the gods, a decree issued by wise men, a means of correcting both deliberate and involuntary crimes, and a compact entered into by the whole community, giving guidelines for the kind of life everyone in the community should live … There are two reasons why laws are made: the first is to stop anyone committing any unjust acts, and the second is for the rest of the community to make those who transgress better by punishing them … I am not about to say anything new or strange or peculiar, but only what you all know just as well as I do. For if any of you is prepared to look into why and for what reason the Council convenes, the Athenian people gather in the Assembly, the courts are filled, and the outgoing officers happily give way to the new ones—why, in short, everything which enables the city to be well governed and safe happens—you will find that all this is due to the laws and to the fact that everyone obeys them. If the laws were abolished, and it was open to everyone to do what he pleased, not only would the constitution come to an end, but there would be no difference between the way we humans lived and the way wild beasts live.

… All men have altars dedicated to justice, law and order, and decency: the finest and most sacred of these altars are in the mind and nature of each individual, but others are built in public so that all may worship at them … For in fact, gentlemen of Athens, where people in general are concerned, it is noticeable that in the case of the best and most disciplined of them the impulse to carry out all their duties comes from their very nature … (Ps.-Demosthenes, Against Aristogeiton 15.1–16.8, 17.4–7, 20.1–11, 35.1–4, 93.1–3 Butcher)

T4 ‘Well,’ Glaucon said, ‘I promised I’d talk first about the nature and origin of justice, so here goes. The idea is that although it’s a fact of nature that doing wrong is good and having wrong done to one is bad, nevertheless the disadvantages of having it done to one outweigh the benefits of doing it. Consequently, when people have experienced both committing wrong and being at the receiving end of it, they see that the disadvantages are unavoidable and the benefits are unattainable, so they decide that the most profitable course is for them to enter into a contract with one another, guaranteeing that no wrong will be committed or received.* They then set about making laws and decrees, and from then on they use the terms “legal” and “right” to describe anything which is enjoined by their code. So that’s the origin and nature of justice on this view: it is a compromise between the ideal of doing wrong without having to pay for it, and the worst situation, which is having wrong done to one while lacking the means of exacting compensation. Since justice is a compromise, it is endorsed because, while it may not be good, it does gain value by preventing people from doing wrong. For any real man with the ability to do wrong would never enter into a contract to avoid both wronging and being wronged: he wouldn’t be so crazy … As for the fact that justice is only ever practised reluctantly, by people who lack the ability to do wrong, this would become particularly obvious if we performed the following thought-experiment. Suppose we grant both types of people—just and unjust—the scope to do whatever they want, and we then keep an eye on them to see where their wishes lead them. We’ll catch our moral person red-handed: his desire to gain the advantage over others will point him in the same direction as the unjust person, towards a destination which every creature naturally regards as good and aims for, except that people are compelled by convention to deviate from this path and respect equality.’ (Plato, Republic 358e1–359c6 Burnet)

T5 (DK 68B5.1) So much for the traditional account of the origins of the universe.* And they say that the first men to be born lived a chaotic and bestial life, setting out one by one to find their food, and eating only the least tough plants and those fruits which grow of their own accord from trees. Since they were under attack from wild beasts, they let themselves be taught by expediency and began to come to one another’s help; and once fear had made them gather together they gradually came to recognize one another’s characteristics. At first the sounds they made were meaningless and confused, but gradually they began to develop articulate words, and by agreeing among themselves which symbols stood for which objects they established a means by which they could communicate with one another and pass on knowledge about everything in the world. But since these kinds of groups were scattered throughout the inhabited world, they did not all speak the same language, since each group had organized its speech just as it occurred to them to do so. That is why there are now so many different languages; and these first groups were also the ancestors of all the various peoples in the world.

Now, since none of the things useful for life had yet been discovered, the life these first humans lived was full of trials and tribulations: they wore no clothing, houses and fire were alien to them, and they knew nothing about cultivating food. In fact, since they didn’t even know how to harvest the food they got from the wild, they didn’t lay up a store of their fruits to cater for the hard times, with the result that many of them died in the winters of cold and shortage of food. As a consequence of this their experience gradually taught them to take refuge in caves during the winter and to store any fruits that would keep. And once they had acquired knowledge of fire and other practical aids, they gradually also invented the arts and crafts and everything else which serves to support living together. Generally speaking, need was the teacher in everything and gave appropriate instruction in each branch of knowledge to a creature endowed with natural talent, hands to help him in everything, reason, and a shrewd intellect. (Diodorus of Sicily,Universal History 1.8.1–9 Vogel)

A. T. Cole, ‘The Anonymus Iamblichi and his Place in Greek Political Theory’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 65 (1961), 127–63.

—— Democritus and the Sources of Greek Anthropology (American Philological Association Monograph, 25, 1967).

W. K. C. Guthrie, In the Beginning: Some Greek Views on the Origins of Life and the Early State of Man (London: Methuen, 1957).

C. H. Kahn, ‘The Origins of Social Contract Theory in the Fifth Century B.C.’, in [27], 92–108.

M. J. O’Brien, ‘Xenophanes, Aeschylus, and the Doctrine of Primeval Brutishness’, Classical Quarterly, 35 (1985), 264–77.

G. Vlastos, ‘On the Pre-history in Diodorus’, in [33], 351–8 (first pub. American Journal of Philology, 67 (1946)).

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