Sophists and the Mistrust of Authority

Seymour Mac Mahon

The Milgram Experiment demonstrates how disposed we humans are to obeying authority: the majority of participants in the experiment followed the instructions of the authority figure (the experimenter), dressed in a lab coat, to administer a ‘lethal’ electric shock in order to jog the learner’s memory. A study of the Sophists, who bowed to no argument from authority, is an antidote to this tendency. Here I will explore two types of authority challenged by the Sophists: legal/political and rhetorical.

The word Sophist (sophistēs in Greek literally means “one who practises wisdom”) originally in the Ancient Greek world was used to describe any form of sage and could even be used of poets, such as Solon. However, by the fifth century its use became more specific, being employed to designate a certain group of intellectuals who, although having various interests, all specialised in the study and teaching of rhetoric. What Cicero (Tusculan Disputations 5.10–11) says of Socrates is true of the Sophists: they changed the course of philosophy in Ancient Greece by bringing it down from the heavens to deal with human affairs, that is to say, instead of focusing on questions of cosmogony and natural science they discussed primarily ethical and social issues. Whether Socrates is or is not a Sophist is a controversial question. Aristophanes, a contemporary witness, most certainly thought so, as demonstrated by his play, The Clouds (c. 423 BC), where Socrates is presented as the figurehead of the Sophistic movement.

Socrates argues with Strepsiades from his basket, a scene from Aristophanes’ Clouds (A. De Carolis, for E. Romagnoli’s Aristofane, N. Zanichelli, Bologna, 1924).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘authority’  as “Power or right to enforce obedience; moral or legal supremacy; the right to command, or give an ultimate decision.” In essence, the word signifies the state of having power over others as to what they do, say or think. It is natural that the Sophists who, in large part, were itinerant teachers fixed to no particular philosophical school, and who thus embodied a form of individualism, should be averse to sacrificing their independence of thought and freedom of speech to the authority of others. They were even prepared to endure punishment to preserve their intellectual autonomy: Protagoras, for example, suffered expulsion and the burning of all his books for his refusal to genuflect to the authority of traditional religion.

The antithesis conceptualised by the Sophists of phusisnomos (nature versus law/custom) pits the intrinsic and steadfast order of nature against the artificial and arbitrary impositions of custom, tradition and law. It is undoubtedly a powerful analytic tool in questioning legal authority. The concepts of positive and natural law are born from this antithesis. An incisive analysis of the differences between these two types of law is carried out by Antiphon the Sophist in his work On Nature (DK 87 B 44). In relation to their respective origins, positive laws are “artificial compacts” in contrast to the “necessities of nature” – the one, impositions dependent on ratification, the other, inevitable natural growths. This is proven by the fact that transgression of the positive laws only brings punishment if the perpetrator is found out, whereas contravening the dictates of nature engenders automatic consequences regardless of discovery.

Antiphon claims that legal justice is largely antithetical to nature, and that nature is curbed and shackled by the arbitrary demands of law:

The law dictates in relation to the eyes what they should see and not see, the tongue, what it should say and not say, the hands, what they should do and not do, the feet, where they should go and not go, the mind, what it should desire and not desire, but according to nature the things prescribed by the laws for humans are in no way preferable or more fitting than those forbidden.

A papyrus fragment of Antiphon’s On Truth, 3rd cent. AD (P.Oxy. XI 1364 fr. 1, cols. v–vii).

Antiphon is arguing that the restrictive commands and prohibitions of law should be replaced with a freedom that takes account only of what by nature is beneficial or harmful. An intricate analysis is given of Athenian law proving that “benefit as the law understands it is a manacle on nature; in its natural sense it means freedom.” In short, phusis (nature) is presented as intrinsic, necessary, objective and ‘libertarian’ in contrast to nomos (law), which is artificial, optional, subjective and restrictive.

Equally pertinent to this discussion are the ideas of Hippias of Elis, a Greek prototype of the uomo universale (“Universal Man”), who had interests in ethnography, mythology, mnemonics, natural science and many other disciplines, while also being able to boast that everything worn on his body was fabricated by himself, thus combining academic knowledge with practicality. He is equally sceptical of the authority of positive law. In Plato’s Protagoras he makes the grand declaration that nomos (law/custom) is a “tyrant doing violence to nature” (337c).

In Xenophon’s Memorabilia (4.4) we have a more in-depth discussion featuring Socrates and Hippias which seems to provide justification and explanation for this position. He contrasts written laws with unwritten laws: the former undergo constant amendments and annulments even by those who made them, whereas the latter, far from being man-made creations changing relative to place and time, are the work of the gods and are practised by all men. These philosophical reflections current in the intellectual climate of fifth-century Athens might have been the influence behind Sophocles’ Antigone (441 BC), where the unwritten law of burying the dead is prioritised over Creon’s man-made decree forbidding such an act.

Democritus and Protagoras, Salvator Rosa, 1650s (Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia).

The positions of Antiphon and Hippias should be seen as libertarian, i.e., they value individual freedom, rather than somehow anarchic. In their eyes positive law should conform and be answerable to nature, and not the other way round: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Mindless adherence to and passive belief in the law based on its authority alone, as epitomised in a statement, such as, “It’s the law!”, would not cut the mustard with these particular Sophists. For them, a law’s validity should derive from its correspondence to natural justice, rather than the legislative authority which has issued it. This idea and its implications could be said to find a modern echo in a passage from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” This is not, as it happens, the only attitude shared between the civil-rights activist and the Sophists Antiphon and Hippias, who were the first proponents of a kind of universal brotherhood.

Next, let us explore the ideas of Thrasymachus, as they are represented in Plato’s Republic (338c-344c). We know little about the life of this Sophist but Plato portrays him as an irascible character, playing on the literal meaning of his name, “rash in battle”. The belligerence and vigour of his personality is certainly reflected in his doctrines, in which he seeks to demonstrate that the notion of the authority of the state being benevolent and paternal is at odds with the tendencies of human nature.

He states his case very clearly in the beginning of the conversation, declaring that “justice is nothing other than the interest of the stronger” (338c), i.e., whatever those in power deem to be advantageous to themselves they call justice. He overturns the traditional meaning behind the metaphor of the state as the good shepherd. Yes, just like the shepherd cares and looks after his flock/herd not for the benefit of the animals but for his own benefit, those in power in their feigned care for their subjects have as their ultimate aim their own benefit.

Plato’s Academy, as depicted in a mosaic from the the House of T. Siminius Stephanus (National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

That the justice of the state is disadvantageous for those who obey it is shown in many areas of life: the just man pays more taxes than the unjust man, he comes out second best in business dealings and allows his personal affairs to fall into neglect when holding public office. Finally, he argues that the superiority of injustice over justice is illustrated by tyranny, the extreme form of injustice, which is able to override all legal limitations with impunity by means of its force. The point is that one is not punished for transgression of the laws because of one’s injustice but because of one’s weakness to resist the threatened punishment – it all boils down to an equation of power: he who has the might is right. This realism of seeing that human affairs, especially in the case of domestic and international politics, are not governed by the theoretical ideal of justice but by a mechanical equation of force, where the stronger party imposes its will on the weaker party for its own benefit, is recurrent in the historian Thucydides. The most famous example is the Melian dialogue, where the Athenians forbid the Melians from invoking justice because everyone knows that it is a natural law that the stronger take what they can from the weaker (5.89).

In terms of political rule, one cannot help but feel that the unavoidable conclusion arising from the arguments of Thrasymachus is that authoritarianism is necessarily bad for the subjects because of the axiom that rulers rule in their own interest, and, therefore the best government, from the citizens’ perspective, is, as Henry David Thoreau remarks, “that which governs least.” It is important to note that Thrasymachus, in spite of his misgivings with ‘political justice’, still maintained a conception of a purer form of justice: “The gods do not oversee human affairs: for they would not overlook the greatest of blessings among humans, namely, Justice. As it is, we see humans making no use of it” (DK 85 B 8).

Alexander the Great and Diogenes the Cynic, Nicolas-André Monsiau, 1818 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, France).

The Sophists also challenged the authority of the Word (a translation of the Greek logos which signifies both reason and language, the two being inseparable in the mind of the Greeks). Gorgias was a teacher of rhetoric himself and a masterful orator who was deemed worthy of representing his native city of Leontini on an embassy to Athens and there captivated the Athenian public with his florid style. Nevertheless, in his Encomium of Helen Gorgias rather disapprovingly personifies the Word as a “mighty tyrant”. The Sophist draws attention to the psychagogic power of the Word highlighting its ability to exert control over its listeners’ emotional reactions, making them weep or rejoice at sorrows and successes personally unconnected to them. He even goes so far as to suggest that the Word in this regard could be identified with a form of magic and sorcery, having the same effect on the mind as drugs have on the body.

For Gorgias there is an epistemological basis for why the Word wields such influence: if true knowledge were accessible to man of past, present and future events then persuasion could easily be countered (for example, a guilty defendant accused of murder can only hope to persuade by virtue of others not having witnessed the crime), but, as it is, “slippery opinion” is often the only thing humans have to go by, and in this domain persuasion often reigns supreme. As far as Gorgias is concerned, even in scientific and philosophical debates it is the art of rhetoric, instead of a supposed accordance with an objective reality, that makes one theory be believed to be true rather than another.

Pericles’ funeral oration, Philipp Foltz, 1852 (priv. coll.)

In our globalised world where most information is invariably received second-hand via the Word without the touchstone of empirical experience, narratives can impose themselves unchallenged. Consequently, the media has, in theory, a terrifying capacity to create non-falsifiable false versions of the truth. In fact, truth under the power of the Word becomes a matter of persuasion and perception, just as Henry Kissinger astutely comments: “It is not a matter of what is true that counts, but a matter of what is perceived to be true.” The situation becomes more dangerous when combined with the human tendency to lend credence to institutional authority, with the resultant assumption that something must be true because it is printed in the press.

The Sophists are realists in the sense that they acknowledge it is human nature for people to try to gain power over others, thereby establishing themselves as figures of authority. However, in understanding that the situation is rarely beneficial for those upon whom authority is exercised, they refuse to show complaisance in the face of authority. Antiphon and Hippias challenge the “tyranny” of positive law over nature, attempting to undercut any blind faith in the law. The notion that a ruler can rule primarily in his subjects’ interests is utterly rejected by Thrasymachus. Equally, Gorgias, while fully acknowledging the persuasive power of the Word, recommends a suspicious and sceptical attitude towards it, correcting its deviations, as far as possible, with the straightness of truth, derived from empirical evidence and deductive reasoning.

The Sophists do not attempt to diminish the urge to rule or persuade, something anchored in human nature, but they seek to combat the latent tendency in humans to obey. What Aristophanes in his comedy, The Frogs (406 BC), makes Euripides state about  the educational effect of his tragedies on the citizenry could just as well be put in the mouth of the Sophists: “to think, to see, to understand, to enjoy turning things over, to be contriving, to suspect evil, to see things from every side” (956–7). This critical and independent mode of thinking is naturally inimical to authoritarianism.

Seymour Mac Mahon is a Classics PhD student at the University of Nottingham writing his thesis on the topic of noble birth in Sophocles’ plays. He previously completed an MA at the Sorbonne with a thesis on the representation of the Sophists in Aristophanes’ Clouds.

Further Reading

For consultation of the original texts, Diels-Kranz’s Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (vol. 3) (6th ed., Weidmann, Berlin, 1952) remains the standard edition. For a translation of the major extant texts of the Sophists, a good edition is R. Waterfield’s The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists (Oxford UP, 2009). In terms of secondary literature, W.K.C. Guthrie’s The Sophists (Cambridge UP, 1977) offers an exhaustive and cultured presentation, even if he has a tendency to view the Sophists via the prism of Platonism. G.B. Kerferd’s The Sophistic Movement (Cambridge UP, 1981) provides a more concise overview. Finally, J. de Romilly’s The Great Sophists in Periclean Athens (Oxford UP, 1992) is to be recommended for her impartial analysis and reconstructive approach.