You are here

Lecture 13: The Age of the Sophists

THE principal subject which engaged our attention in the preceding lecture was the Anaxagorean concept of Nous. We saw that Reason, as conceived by Anaxagoras, is primarily a cosmic agency or power. Anaxagoras is not yet concerned with Reason as it appears in human beings; for the object which he sets before himself is to explain Nature rather than man, in agreement, of course, with the general trend of pre-Sophistic Greek philosophy. It is nevertheless probable that he arrived at the conception of a cosmic mind from a consideration of the part mind plays in the affairs of man. If mind is the principle of order in the Microcosm, he seems to have argued, it must also be the cause of order in the Macrocosm: indeed, he expressly states that all mind is alike, “both the greater and the less,” that is to say, the cosmic and the human. From this point of view, therefore, Anaxagoras' famous doctrine may be regarded as foreshadowing to some extent the new departure Philosophy was soon about to make. But before we proceed to deal with the rise of humanism and the philosophical regeneration which it effected, it is desirable to complete our survey of pre-Platonic natural philosophy by glancing at two thinkers of widely different calibre and culture—Diogenes of Apollonia, who appears to have lived at Athens in the latter part of the fifth century B.C., and Democritus of Abdera, a far more celebrated name.

Diogenes begins by laying it down that all the different objects in the universe are in reality forms of one and the same substance: otherwise it would be impossible, he thinks, to explain the mixture, interaction, and generation of things.1 This primary substance he conceives to be what men call Air;2 and he supposes that Air transforms itself into things by means of rarefaction and condensation.3 Thus far, he is dependent chiefly upon Anaximenes; but the influence of Anaxagoras now begins to appear. We are told that Air is “great and strong and eternal and immortal and possessed of much knowledge.”4 By virtue of its intelligence, the element of Air is able “to preserve the measures of all things, winter and summer, night and day, rains and winds and sunny weather: and anyone,” he adds, “who chooses to reflect, will find that all other things are disposed in the best possible manner.”5 It is by Air, according to Diogenes, that “all things 6 are steered, and over all things Air has power. For this very thing seems to me God,7 and I believe that it reaches to everything and disposes everything and is present in everything; and there is nothing which does not partake of it. Still, no one thing partakes of it in the same way as another, but there are many modes both of Air itself and also of intelligence; for Air is modified in many ways, being warmer or colder, drier or moister, more stationary or in more rapid motion.… And the soul of all living creatures is the same, viz. Air that is warmer than the air outside us, in the midst of which we live, but much colder than the air about the sun. But this warmth is not alike in any two kinds of animals, nor indeed in any two men; it is always different, not greatly different, I allow, but just so far as is compatible with their resemblance to each other. None of the things which are differentiated can become exactly like another without becoming identical therewith. And as differentiation is of many kinds, there are many kinds of living creatures, many in number, resembling one another neither in appearance nor in way of life, nor in intelligence, owing to the multitude of differentiations: but yet they all live and see and hear by virtue of the same element, and all of them, too, derive their intelligence from the same source.”8

I have translated the larger part of this fragment, because it illustrates so well the thoroughgoing pantheism of Diogenes. In this respect he is like a Stoic born out of due time. It is further noteworthy that the reason Diogenes assigns for attributing intelligence to his primary substance is that all things are “disposed in the best possible manner”—an expression in which we seem to recognise a clearer affirmation of design in nature than we have hitherto found in Greek philosophy. But we know too little about his physics to permit us to decide whether he carried out this principle in detail, or whether he restricted himself, like Anaxagoras, to a purely mechanical explanation of natural phenomena. There is at least no trace of teleology in the fragment describing the human veins.9

We have doxographical testimony to show that Diogenes pronounced the soul to be imperishable.10 It is not difficult to conjecture in what sense he must have intended this statement. The air constituting our souls is part of that all-pervading element which Diogenes identifies with God—is in fact a “fragment of the Godhead” (μικρὸν μόριον του̑ θϵου̑),11, and consequently shares in the immortality that belongs to the divine. In a noteworthy passage of Euripides, to be afterwards discussed,12 we meet with the idea of reabsorption after death into the all-embracing element which Euripidessometimes calls by the name of Zeus. Here, as well as elsewhere in his speculations, the poet appears to be influenced by Diogenes.

It was related by Aristoxenus that Plato once expressed a wish to collect the extant copies of Democritus' works and burn them.13 The story, whether apocryphal or not, shows that in antiquity Democritus was regarded as the high-priest of materialism. He was above all things a man of science: he is said to have declared that he would sooner discover a single link in the chain of causes than become monarch of the East.14 The few theological or anti-theological ideas attributed to him need not detain us long.

According to Democritus, Mind (ν ου̑ς) and Soul (ψυχή), between which—so Aristotle affirms—he made no distinction, consist of material atoms, resembling the atoms of fire.15 According to the measure in which these atoms are distributed throughout its frame, the Universe is animated by soul. Cicero asserts that Democritus spoke of the principia mentis or atoms of mind as Gods;16 while the doxographers sometimes ascribe to him the doctrine of a single world-soul or Deity, identical, as it would seem, with the aggregate of fiery atoms in the world.17 But, as Zeller points out, if Democritus spoke of the divine in this connexion at all, he cannot have meant a “personal being, or even any single being at all: he means, not a soul, but only soul-stuff, fire-atoms which produce life and motion, and where they are congregated in larger masses, reason also; but this is altogether different from a single force moving the Universe like the Anaxagorean νου̑ς or the Platonic world-soul.” To Democritus, as to other materialists, that which we call mind or spirit is only the “most perfect form of matter”:18 he assigns to it no peculiar part or province in the creation or government of the world, and we are told that he expressly disputed Anaxagoras' doctrine.19 He himself has no need to postulate a special principle in order to account for the world-producing motion, because movement is an inherent and inalienable property of his atomic bodies.

It would seem, then, that the physical theory of Democritus is complete without the hypothesis of a Mind by which the course of nature is directed and controlled. Following a not uncommon practice of the age in which he lived, he sometimes represented the national Gods as only allegorical expressions of ethical or physical ideas.20 Or, like some of the Sophists, he would ascribe the origin of religion to man's terror at the awe-inspiring phenomena of nature—lightning and thunder, eclipses of the sun and so forth.21 Nevertheless, like his follower Epicurus in later times, Democritus himself seems really to have believed in the existence, if not of Gods, at least of something analogous to Gods. We know from Sextus that he spoke of certain anthropomorphic ϵἴδωλα or images present in the atmosphere, figures of gigantic size, not indestructible, though slow to perish, like the long-lived Gods of Empedocles. These images, he said, are of two kinds, beneficent and the reverse; on which account Democritus prayed that he might meet with “kindly images.” When he remarks that they occasionally appear to men and foretell the future, he is doubtless thinking of the common Greek belief in revelation by means of dreams. According to Sextus, these images were the only Gods admitted by Democritus.22 The subject is a very obscure one; but there is much to be said for Zeller's view that the “images” in question stand for the ordinary Greek daemons, which were long-lived but not immortal. If Zeller is right, we must suppose that Democritus was the “first to enter upon the path so often followed in later times, that of degrading the Gods of Polytheism into daemons.”23

Democritus wrote a book “On Hades,”24 in which he collected and, we may presume, also criticised the numerous fables current in antiquity about the resuscitation of the dead. What else the book may have contained, we do not know; but the probability is that it dealt adversely with popular conceptions of the future life. In a remarkable fragment attributed by Stobaeus to Democritus we are told that “Some men who do not understand the dissolution of our mortal nature, but are conscious of the misery in human life, painfully spend their allotted period of life in confusion and fear, inventing lies about the time after they are dead.”25 Democritus expressly maintained that the atoms composing the soul are scattered asunder at the moment of death.26 He is the first Greek thinker who in so many words denied the immortality of the soul.27

The life of Democritus extended well into the fourth century B.C., and more than covered the period usually known as the “Age of Illumination” or “Enlightenment.” A notable passage of the Republic may serve to suggest to us the leading characteristics of that age. Plato draws a vivid picture of the effect sometimes produced on the individual when he begins to scrutinise his inherited beliefs by the light of reason. We have all of us, he says, certain opinions or beliefs, forming, as it were, our intellectual parentage, under whose care we have grown to youth or manhood. In course of time we discover, perhaps, that these beliefs cannot be justified on rational grounds; dialectic may show that what we have been taught to consider honourable and just is in certain circumstances not more honourable than base, not more just than unjust; and then there is danger lest our moral constitution should be undermined. We are apt to rush to the conclusion that tradition and authority, law and convention are only artificial devices for checking the legitimate impulses and rights of the natural man, and we become tainted with antinomianism.28 The phenomenon which Plato thus describes in connexion with the life of the individual was now beginning to happen in the corporate history of the Athenian people. I say “beginning”; for it is quite clear that in the end of the fifth century B.C., and even later, there was still a large body of Athenians who clung to the political, educational, and religious ideals of the past, and obstinately set themselves to stem the advancing tide of rationalism. It is enough to mention Nicias among statesmen, Xenophon among men of letters, and Aristophanes among poets. That the Athenian demos had not yet discarded the old beliefs is plain from the condemnation passed upon Anaxagoras, Protagoras, and Socrates. But although the rationalistic movement was by no means universal, it is a testimony to its strength and influence that it aroused such bitter hostility in a society conspicuous for the virtue of toleration; and what is of primary importance, nearly all the younger men of ability and spirit were powerfully affected by the new impulse. Borrowing a Platonic figure, we may say that the young men of the period loved to rend and tear with the fangs of dialectic the political and religious principles on which their fathers had been reared. To an orthodox conservative of the type of Nicias it must have seemed as if the foundations of the city-state were being shaken, when men began openly to express their disbelief in divination and even in the very existence of the Gods. The future seemed to be in the hands of the iconoclasts.

It was at this crisis in the history of the Athenian people that the so-called “Sophists” appeared. What effect had the method and teaching of the Sophists on the moral and religious development of Greece? What position did they take up in that contest between faith and rationalism which we have already noted as a distinguishing feature of the period in which they lived? In discussing this question—the only question with which we in these lectures are concerned—it is necessary to be on our guard against attributing any community of doctrine to the various representatives of the class. Down to the time of Grote, the Sophists were generally treated as a kind of quasi-philosophical sect or school, holding certain common principles of a more or less immoral character, by means of which they set themselves to undermine the foundations of society and the state; and any anti-social or antinomian doctrine ascribed by Plato, rightly or wrongly, to a particular Sophist was promptly fathered upon the whole school, who were accordingly denounced in unmeasured terms as responsible for that alleged deterioration in the Athenian character which Grote for his part absolutely denies.29 Whether the Athenians degenerated or not in the latter part of the fifth century, is a question we need not here examine; but it is now universally agreed that the Sophists were not in any sense of the word a sect or school, united by community of creed, but only a profession of mutually independent teachers called into existence by the growing demand for higher education throughout Greece and more especially in Athens. In the Protagoras and elsewhere Plato makes it clear not only that the Sophists taught different subjects, but also that there was no lack of rivalries and jealousies between the different members of the profession. It is consequently, as Gomperz observes, “illegitimate, if not absurd, to speak of a sophistic mind, sophistic morality, sophistic scepticism, and so forth ”:30 we must take the relevant fragments of the individual Sophists, and examine them independently by themselves, before attempting to form an estimate of the kind of influence which these remarkable men exerted on the course of Greek thought.

The earliest and perhaps the most distinguished of all the Sophists was Protagoras of Abdera. In the Platonic dialogue called by his name, we have what is probably a true account of the subject he professed to teach. “By becoming my pupil,” Protagoras says, “Hippocrates will learn how to deliberate wisely about his private affairs as well as about the affairs of the state. I will teach him how to manage his house in the best way, and he will become fully qualified both to speak and to act in public life.” “Do I follow you?” says Socrates. “I suppose you mean the art of politics, and that you promise to make men good citizens?” “Yes, that is exactly the profession I make.”31 If Protagoras had confined his energies within these limits, we might almost have passed him over, although it would still have to be noted that the method by which he taught the “art of words” must inevitably have fostered the impulse towards iconoclasm in his pupils. He was the first to declare that every possible argument on every conceivable subject could be met by another;32 and if Aristotle is to be trusted, he expressly undertook to show men how to “make the weaker argument prevail” (ιὸν ἥιιω λόγονκρϵίττω ποιϵι̑ν)—an accusation afterwards freely levelled at the Sophists in general.33 But Protagoras was not merely a teacher of the youth; he wrote numerous treatises, among them a work “On the Gods,” and another “On Truth ”; and the two most celebrated of his literary fragments express a habit of mind which could not fail to obtrude itself even in the exercise of his profession as a teacher.

The first of these fragments is the notorious homo mensura. “Man is the measure of all things; of that which is, that it is; of that which is not, that it is not.”34 According to certain modern critics, the word “man” should here be understood generically, the reference being not to “this or that specimen of the genus, not any individual Tom, Dick, or Harry, but universal man.”35 If this explanation is correct, we have before us only a vigorous assertion of that anthropocentric view of the world which was rapidly coming to the front in the time of Protagoras. But the ancients understood the saying in quite another sense. Without exception, they interpreted “man” as the individual and not the genus. Protagoras meant, says Plato, that as things appear to me, so they are to me, and to you they are as they appear to you: since you and I are both included under “man.”36 In other words, there is no such thing as absolute truth; or, rather the expression “truth” is a misnomer, and for “true” we ought in strictness to substitute “true-to-me,” “true-to-you,” and so on. Unless, we follow the Platonic explanation of the text, we must suppose that throughout a large part of the Theaetetus Plato is fighting a shadow; and we must further believe that all the ancients from Plato and Aristotle down to Sextus Empiricus either misunderstood or deliberately traduced the doctrine of Protagoras.37 I therefore cannot but agree with Zeller and others in upholding the traditional interpretation, according to which Protagoras meant that each man is to himself the standard of what is true or false. It is of more importance to observe that in its ethical and political applications such a theory would seem to be subversive of morality and civic life. It is a legitimate inference from the maxim of Protagoras that every one may do what is right in his own eyes; and in a notorious line of Euripides the inference is plainly stated:

τί τ̕ αἰσχρόν, ἢν μὴ τοι̑σι χρωμϵ́νοις δοκῃ̑;

“Nought's shameful, save it seem so to the doer.”

The story runs that Plato retorted with the line:

αἰσχρླྀν ιό γ̕ αἰσχρόν κἢν δοκῃ̑ κἢν μὴ δοκῃ̑.

“Shameful is shameful, seem it so or not.”

Nothing could illustrate more clearly the opposition between the Platonic and the Protagorean standpoints.38

The second of the two fragments in question occurred at the beginning of the treatise on the Gods—the earliest of Greek agnostic writings. “About the Gods I cannot know either that they do exist or that they do not exist: for many things prevent me from knowing, the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of life.”39 Protagoras is said to have read the pamphlet at the house of Euripides, whose plays, as we shall see, abound in similar sentiments. An interesting anticipation of Protagoras' attitude appears in a story told by Cicero about the poet Simonides. Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse, requested Simonides on one occasion to explain to him the being and nature of the Deity. The poet begged for a day to reflect, and when the question was repeated on the morrow, he asked two additional days, and afterwards four, and so on, doubling the number of days again and again until the tyrant grew weary of waiting. When invited to give a reason for his strange behaviour, he said, “The longer I deliberate, the greater obscurity I find.”40 Protagoras' agnosticism is more explicit. He confesses himself unable either to affirm or to deny the very existence of the Gods, and places the sentiment in the forefront of his treatise. How he developed it in the sequel, we do not know; but that the general tendency of his book was thought to be hostile to religion, may be inferred from the well-authenticated story that it was publicly burnt, while the author had to leave Athens in order to escape a prosecution for impiety.41

Gorgias of Leontini is important chiefly in connexion with the history of style. Alliteration and assonance, carefully balanced clauses, striking and sometimes fantastic metaphors, together with antitheses that please the ear but upon examination prove unsound—these are among the distinguishing features of his diction. Plato in an eloquent passage of the Republic condemns such artifices because they encourage men to acquiesce in shams;42 and it is difficult to read Isocrates, the most eminent of Gorgias' literary disciples, without endorsing the verdict of Plato. In his treatise “On the non-existent,” Gorgias endeavoured to establish three propositions: first, that nothing exists; second, that if anything does exist, it is unknowable; and finally, that even if something exists and can be known, yet the knowledge thereof cannot be communicated by one man to another.43 The object of physical and metaphysical investigation down to the time of Gorgias had been to discover the underlying reality of things; and it is probably this ultra-phenomenal reality or existence which Gorgias intends to deny.44 As a practical rhetorician, concerned with the preparation of pupils for a practical career, Gorgias has no sympathy with the a priori hallucinations of the former epoch. Although the threefold thesis of Gorgias does not directly bear upon theology, it is obvious that his categories of the non-existent and unknowable would have included the philosophic as well as the popular conception of the Godhead.

We have seen that Protagoras for his part confined himself to a cautious agnosticism; but others of the Sophists appear to have rationalised the Gods out of existence altogether. Foremost among these stands Prodicus of Ceos, best known in later times for the morally unexceptionable apologise of Heracles at the cross roads.45 As Cicero remarks, it was tantamount to a complete denial of religion when Prodicus declared that the so-called Gods were only personifications of those objects which experience had found beneficial to the life of man.46 Demeter (he affirms) is only bread, Dionysus wine, Poseidon water, Hephaestus fire, and so on. We are reminded of the allegorising rationalism of Democritus and other pre-Sophistic philosophers; but the particular aim of Prodicus is to explain the origin of the belief in Gods, on the assumption that the belief is erroneous. “Primitive man,” he says, “deified the sun and moon, rivers and fountains, in a word, whatsoever things benefit our life, on account of the services they render, just as the Egyptians deify the Nile.”47 A similar motive inspires another remarkable and highly characteristic fragment of the period of Illumination. The author is the notorious Critias, than whom we find no one more deeply imbued with the iconoclastic spirit of the age. Before civilisation began, he tells us, brute force reigned supreme. Then followed the discovery of law, and the beginnings of social order; but law, though it could repress open injustice, failed to prevent secret crime. Thereupon, continues Critias, some wise man came to the rescue, and conceived the idea of certain all-hearing, all-seeing, and all-knowing powers, whom he called Gods. He placed them in the heavens, in order that the celestial phenomena, which men already so much feared, might seem to be their work. The Gods are therefore only a shrewd device of some prehistoric statesman who “darkened the truth by a lie” (ψϵυδϵι̑ τυϕλώσας τὴνἀλήθϵιαν λόγῳ).48

A few other relics of the earlier Sophistic literature deserve a passing mention. The Sophist Antiphon, when asked for a definition of the prophetic art (μαντική), replied: “It is the conjecture of a sagacious man.”49 Here again Euripides supplies a parallel. “Best seer is he, who doth conjecture well.”50 A distrust of oracles and divination was one of the features of the time, at least in educated circles. Thrasymachus complains that “the Gods do not behold the affairs of men: otherwise they would not have overlooked the greatest of human goods, viz. righteousness: for we see that some men do not practise it.”51 In the pseudo-Platonic Axiochus a remark is quoted from Prodicus to the effect that death cannot touch either the living or the dead—the living, because they are still alive, and the dead, because they have ceased to exist.52 The form of the sentence bears a suspicious resemblance to the favourite Epicurean paregoric against the fear of death: “when we are, death is not; and when death is, we are not”:53 but it can hardly be doubted that Prodicus and the other Sophists whom I have named were agnostics on the subject of immortality. Nothing is known of the tract on Hades—πϵρὶ τω̑ν ϵ̓ν ῞ Αιδου—which Protagoras is said to have written.

The last of the Sophists whom we need mention is Hippias of Elis, perhaps the most versatile and accomplished of them all. His acquirements included Philology, Mythology, History, Archaeology, and Literature, in addition to the so-called “Arts,”54 namely, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy; he was also the author of a system of mnemonics, and a prolific versifier in the epic, tragic, and dithyrambic styles; and his acquaintance with the mechanical arts was so extensive that “on one occasion he appeared at the Olympic gathering in garments every part of which, from the sandals on his feet to the plaited girdle round his wiast, and the very rings on his fingers, had been manufactured by his own hand.”55 Perhaps he wished to enter a practical protest against the principle of specialisation characteristic of civilised communities; for he appears to have been entirely on Nature's side in the favourite controversy as to the relative merits of Nature and Convention. About his theological views, we know nothing; but the antithesis of which I have just spoken—that of ϕύσις νόμος—played so important a part in the literature of the period that we must consider it a little more in detail.

The first to apply the opposition of νόμος and ϕÍσις in the sphere of ethical conceptions was Archelaus, the pupil of Anaxagoras, and the teacher—so we are told—of Socrates. Archelaus declared that right and wrong have no existence in nature, but only through convention or law: τὸ δίκαιον ϵιτὸ δίκαιον ϵἰ̑ναι καὶ τἰσχρὸν οὐ φύσϵι, ἀλλὰ νόμῳ56 We do not know the reasons that led him to this conclusion, but it is not difficult to surmise what they were. The literary as well as the political activity of the Periclean age had familiarised the Greeks with many peculiarities of foreign institutions and manners; and there is evidence to show that men were beginning to reflect on the extreme diversity, and even antagonism between different races in their standards of morality and taste.57 We may fairly suppose that Archelaus was impressed by the same phenomenon when he declared that ethical conceptions in general owe their existence and authority not to nature—for the natural, in Greek thought, is the universal—but only to fashion, convention, or law (νόμος). Herodotus had already applauded Pindar for saying that νόμος is lord of all.58

Now it is obvious that this theory of an inherent opposition between natural and positive law must have tended to weaken the authority of established institutions and beliefs, by assigning to them a merely local and transient value in contrast with the eternal and universal ordinance of Nature. Let us hear what Plato has to say upon the subject. “These people,” we read in the Laws, “would say that the Gods exist not by nature, but by art, and by the laws of states, which are different in different places, according to the agreement of those who make them; and that the honourable is one thing by nature and another thing by law, and that the principles of justice have no existence at all in nature, but that mankind are always disputing about them and altering them; and that the alterations which are made by art and by law have no basis in nature, but are of authority for the moment and at the time at which they are made. These, my friends, are the sayings of wise men, poets and prose writers, which find a way into the minds of youth. …In this way the young fall into impieties, under the idea that the Gods are not such as the law bids them imagine.”59

On its negative side, therefore, the doctrine of an essential antagonism between Nature and Law must have contributed not a little to the moral and religious unsettlement of the period we are now discussing. In respect of its positive content, the doctrine suggests that we should follow Nature rather than Law. And in point of fact the desire for a “return to nature” is frequently expressed in the literature, of this time.60 The moral value of such an ideal will depend, of course, on the interpretation we give to the word Nature. We may conceive of Nature as “red in tooth and claw with ravine”; or we may think of her as the beneficent mother of all mankind. If we adopt the first of these views, the “life according to nature” will lead us to the “cannibal morality” embodied in such sayings as “might is right,” “That they should take who have the power, And they should keep who can.” On the second interpretation, we shall think little about distinctions of race and nationality, creed and colour and social position: our efforts will be directed towards a realisation of the brotherhood of man, the federation of the world.

Each of these divergent interpretations of the naturalistic ideal seems to have found supporters at the time of which we are speaking. Thrasymachus in the Republic and Callicles in the Gorgias of Plato powerfully advocate the anti-social view that “Might is Right” and “Justice the interest of the stronger”; and Plato is careful to point out that they were not alone in their opinion. “I hear the same story on every side,” says Glauco, “from Thrasymachus and innumerable others; and my ears are ringing with it.”61 As a rule or principle of government, it was constantly exemplified by the conduct of Athens towards her allies. The speakers in Thucydides make frequent reference to the doctrine: “We regard it as an eternal law that the weaker should be coerced by the stronger,”62 and so forth. In the famous dialogue between the Melian and Athenian representatives, after the Melians have expressed a confident hope that Heaven will defend the right, the Athenians thus reply: “We believe that the Gods, as far as we can judge, and that men, from what we see, obey an imperious law of Nature, by inflexibly maintaining their dominion wherever they have power. We did not make this law, nor were we the first to take advantage of its sanction: we found it established, and likely, when we leave it behind us, to continue for ever; and if we now avail ourselves of it, it is in the conviction that you and others, if your power equalled ours, would do so too.”63 In this way the “definition of justice according to Nature”—ὁ ϕύσϵι ὅρος του̑ δικαίου, as Plato calls it64—came to provide a theoretical justification of absolutism, as manifested in the Athenian empire. By no other argument was it possible even to attempt to justify the imperial rule of Athens in the eyes of a nation which regarded the independent city-state as the only legitimate form of polity. The Athenian empire, from the Greek point of view, was in fact a tyranny ; and the institution of tyranny itself was sometimes defended on exactly the same grounds. It was maintained that the “natural” relation between one human being and another is that of “warfare”: law is only an artificial covenant or compact, which no one will observe who is strong enough to defy it.65 This thoroughly anti-social doctrine is emphatically proclaimed by Callicles in the Gorgias of Plato. Nature herself, we are told, declares that it is right for the strong to have more than the weak: for by this principle the whole animal kingdom is ruled. Civilisation with its charms and sorceries seeks to fetter and enslave the strong: but when a man appears upon the scene, be “shakes off and rends asunder and escapes from all these chains, tramples under foot our formularies and juggleries and charms and laws that bid defiance to Nature, till suddenly the quondam slave reveals himself our master; and then it is that Nature's justice shines forth.”66

Of the other and more humane conception of Nature, according to which men are naturally not enemies, but kinsmen, we have an interesting glimpse in the sentiment which Plato in the Protagoras puts into the mouth of Hippias: “I think that we are all of us kinsmen and friends and fellow-citizens by nature, not by law; for like is naturally akin to like; but law, the tyrant of mankind, uses constraint, and is opposed to nature.”67 The words are addressed to an assembly of Sophists, and do not convey the idea of universal brotherhood, but rather the notion of a brotherhood among men of learning and culture, analogous in some degree to the Stoic community of wise men. But the sentiment which they express is at least a step in the direction of the wider ideal which the Stoics also incorporated in their system, at the same time giving to it a religious significance by basing the brotherhood of man on the universal fatherhood of God.68 We know from Aristotle that the institution of slavery was by some of his contemporaries declared to be “unnatural” and condemned on that score.69 A pupil of Gorgias was the author of the saying, “God intended all men to be free: Nature has made no one a slave.”70 The grounds alleged for this attack on slavery belong to the circle of ideas with which we are now familiar; and it is not unlikely that the attack itself reaches back to the age of the Sophists.

We have now reviewed the principal ideas of which it is necessary for us to take cognisance in connexion with the ethical and religious speculations of the so-called Sophists. Some of these ideas will require our attention again, when we speak of Euripides; but in the meantime let us endeavour to see whether there is not at least a common tendency—we have seen that there is no actual community of doctrine—in the different theories we have enumerated. It may safely be affirmed, I think, that the Sophists agreed for the most part in refusing blindly to acquiesce in the traditional principles of Greek morality, politics, and religion. A certain degree of rationalism is characteristic of them all. In the sphere of religion, it manifests itself sometimes as agnosticism, sometimes, in the case of Prodicus for example, as virtual atheism; in the sphere of politics and ethics, it appears either in the shape of an individualism so extreme as to strike at the foundations of society, or in the form of the not less anti-social doctrine that Might is Right, or else it involuntarily tends to substitute for the old conception of the city-state the dream not merely of a Panhellenic but of a universal commonwealth. With the exception of this cosmopolitan and humanistic ideal, which was dimly conceived, perhaps, by Hippias, there is hardly anything constructive in the teaching of the Sophists: they destroyed, but did not, to any great extent, rebuild. If the average Athenian citizen of the older school looked upon them as corrupters of the youth, we must allow that from his point of view something could be said in support of the charge. But in the light of later philosophical development, the movement which we associate with the name of the Sophists is seen to have been a necessary stage through which the human intellect had to pass in order to reach a philosophy at once more rational and more spiritual than any which had yet appeared. To quote the words of Zeller: “The fermentation of the time to which the Sophists belong brought many turbid and impure substances to the surface, but it was necessary that the Greek mind should pass through this fermentation before it attained the clarified stage of the Socratic wisdom; and as the Germans would scarcely have had a Kant without the Aufklärungsperiode, so the Greeks would scarcely have had a Socrates and a Socratic philosophy without the Sophists.”71

  • 1.

    fr. 2.

  • 2.

    fr. 4, 5.

  • 3.

    Diels2 p. 329, § 5.

  • 4.

    fr. 8.

  • 5.

    fr. 3.

  • 6.

    Reading πάντα (with Schorn).

  • 7.

    θϵός is Usener's correction for ἔθος.

  • 8.

    fr. 5.

  • 9.

    fr. 6.

  • 10.

    Diels, Dox. p. 392 ad fin.

  • 11.

    Dox. p. 511. 13.

  • 12.

    See p. 309.

  • 13.

    D. L. ix. 40.

  • 14.

    ap. Euseb. Pr. Ev. xiv. 27. 4= Diels2 fr. 118.

  • 15.

    Arist. de An. i. 2. 405a 9 ff.

  • 16.

    Nat. Deor. i. 120. See Zeller, i.5 2. p. 908 f.

  • 17.

    Diels, Dox. p. 302.

  • 18.

    Zeller, l.c. pp. 907, 909.

  • 19.

    See D. L. ix. 35.

  • 20.

    Diels2 fr. 2; cf. fr. 25 and fr. 30.

  • 21.

    Diels2 p. 365, § 75.

  • 22.

    Sextus, adv. Math. ix. 19, 42.

  • 23.

    Zeller, l.c. p. 939 ff.

  • 24.

    πϵρὶ τω̑ ϵ̓ν ῞ Αιδου, Diels2 fr. Oc.

  • 25.

    fr. 297.

  • 26.

    Stob. Anth. i. p. 384. 18 Wachsmuth.

  • 27.

    Rodhe, Psyche2 ii. p. 192.

  • 28.

    vii. 537 D–539 A.

  • 29.

    History of Greece ch. 67 (esp. vol. viii. p. 174).

  • 30.

    l.c. p. 415.

  • 31.

    318 E f.

  • 32.

    D. L. ix. 51.

  • 33.

    Arist. Rhet. 1402a 23 ff.

  • 34.

    fr. 1 Diels.

  • 35.

    Gomperz, l.c. p. 452.

  • 36.

    Theact. 152 A.

  • 37.

    An excellent criticism of the view advocated by Gomperz will be found in Nestle, Euripides p. 406 n. 12.

  • 38.

    Eur. fr. 19, with Nauck's note.

  • 39.

    D. L. ix. 51.

  • 40.

    Nat. Deor. i. 60.

  • 41.

    Cicero, l.c. 63.

  • 42.

    vi. 498 E.

  • 43.

    fr. 3 Diels.

  • 44.

    Cf. E. Pfleiderer, Sokrates und Plato p. 12.

  • 45.

    Xen. Mem. ii. 1. 21 ff.

  • 46.

    Nat. Deor.. i. 118, quam tandem religionem reliquit?

  • 47.

    ap. Sext. adv. Math. ix. 18.

  • 48.

    Critias, fr. 1. 26 Nauck2 p. 771.

  • 49.

    Diels p. 552, § 9.

  • 50.

    fr. 973 Nauck2.

  • 51.

    fr. 8 Diels.

  • 52.

    369 B.

  • 53.

    D. L. c. 125.

  • 54.

    See Plato, Prot. 318 E, Rep. vi. 511 C.

  • 55.

    Gomperz, l.c. p. 431: cf. Plato, Hipp. Minor 368 B ff., and Hipp. Maior 285 B ff.

  • 56.

    D. L. ii. 16.

  • 57.

    See, e.g., Herod. iii. 38.

  • 58.


  • 59.

    Laws 889 E ff., tr. Jowett.

  • 60.

    I have cited some illustrations in The Republic of Plato, vol. i. p. 354 f.

  • 61.

    Ref. ii. 358 C. Cf. i. 343 A ff., and Gerg. 482 E ff.

  • 62.

    i. 76. 2.

  • 63.

    v. 105, tr. Wilkins.

  • 64.

    Laws 714 C.

  • 65.

    Plato, Rep. ii. 358 E ff.; Laws 626 A.

  • 66.

    483 D ff.

  • 67.

    337 C f.

  • 68.

    e.g. in the Hymn of Cleanthes (ϵ̓κ σου̑ γάρ γϵ́νος ϵ́σμϵ́ν).

  • 69.

    Pol. i. 3. 1253b 21 ff.

  • 70.

    Schol. on Arist. Rhet. 1373b 18.

  • 71.

    l.c. p. 1156: E. T. ii. p. 506.