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The Trial of Socrates: 
Antiphon the Sophist

A third century AD papyrus attributed to the first book of On Truth (P.Oxy. XI 1364 fr. 1, cols. v-vii) [1]

Papyrus fragment of Antiphon’s “On Truth,” 3rd century A.D.

1,922 words

Author’s Note:

The following text is a transcript by V. S. of the prefatory remarks on Antiphon the Sophist from the first part [2] of my lecture on Aristophanes’ Clouds. As usual, I have edited this transcript to remove excessive wordiness. The quotes come from the first edition of A Presocratics Reader [3], ed. Patricia Curd.  

Antiphon the Sophist was a younger contemporary of Socrates. He was the author of the treatise On Truth, only fragments of which survive. The Antiphon fragments in A Presocratics Reader very nicely encapsulate the attitudes of the Sophists, showing how they really were related to the Greek natural philosophers. The inner connection between Sophistry and natural philosophy is one of the topics that is brought up in the Clouds and dealt with in a very comical way.

Let’s just look at this passage from Antiphon: “Justice is a matter of not transgressing the laws prescribed in whatever city you are a citizen of.” So, justice is simply a matter of legal convention. There’s no such thing as justice by nature. The Greek word there for justice is dike, and you can also translate that as “right.” All right is conventional, not natural.

That’s a teaching of the natural philosophers, too. When they looked at nature they didn’t see any right and wrong. They just saw natural processes borne along by forces of necessity. They didn’t see any good or evil. So, they regarded concepts like good and evil as human conventions or human creations.

Antiphon assumes this as his first principle in this passage: “A person would make most advantage of justice for himself if he treated the laws as important in the presence of witnesses and treated the decrees of nature as important when alone and with no witnesses present.” So, here is the distinction between what exists by nature and what exists by convention. Right or law exists by convention whereas the decrees of nature are natural.

One of the decrees of nature is that there are desires. Antiphon says that the person who lives best gives due regard to the conventional laws when there are witnesses around and follows nature whenever they can get away with it. “For the decrees of laws are extra additions, those of nature are necessary.” Again, there’s this notion of necessity; not will, not choice, not intelligence, but necessity is the underlying principle of nature.

“Those of the laws are products of agreement . . .” In other words, law is conventional. “. . . not of natural growth whereas those of nature are the product of natural growth not agreement.” The decrees of law are created by human beings. The decrees of nature just happen by nature.

If those who made the agreement do notice a person transgressing the prescriptions of laws, he is free from both disgrace and penalty, but not so if they do notice him. But, if contrary to possibility, anyone violates any of the things which are innate by nature the evil is no less if one notices him and no greater if all observe. For he does not suffer harm as the result of opinion but as a result of truth.

If we transgress the laws of nature, it doesn’t matter if there’s a witness there; we’re still going to suffer the consequences. That’s his basic point.

“This is the entire purpose of considering these matters: that most of the things that are just according to the law are established in a way which is hostile to nature.” So, this is the next teaching. Not only is there a distinction by nature and by convention, but conventions are hostile to nature.

And that’s really true. Just think of all our natural impulses and how conventions, conventional notions of right and wrong, are an impediment of satisfying them. For instance, frat boys are constantly being made aware of the fact that conventions regarding consent can get in the way of satisfying their sexual desires.

Conventions about appropriate behavior in certain circumstances interfere with satisfying your desire to eliminate bodily waste. If you gotta go, you gotta go, but you can’t just go anywhere, right?

Conventions get in the way of the satisfaction of natural needs. If I’m hungry and I don’t have any money, I’m screwed by these conventions. You have to steal, transgress conventions, and police get after you and so forth. So, by their very nature, conventional laws serve to limit the satisfaction of natural desires, and the Sophists thought that that’s bad.

It’s bad because nature’s the only thing with any real dignity or worth, and convention doesn’t have that kind of dignity or worth. We shouldn’t give it that much concern. We have to respect it only insofar as those conventionally-minded people who might see us violating convention might get after us and throw us in jail. But if they’re not around, then we should follow the decrees of nature.

For laws had been established for the eyes as to what they must see and for what they must not and for the ears as to what they must hear and what they must not and for the tongue as to what it must say and what it must not and for the hands as to what they must do and what they must not and for the feet as to where they must go and where they must not.

You can’t look at pornography. You can’t listen in on other people’s phone conversations, even if you’d really like to. You can’t say anything you’d really like to say or do anything with your tongue that you really want to do. You can’t put your hands just anywhere you might want to put them. And you can’t go by foot or plane or automobile anywhere you want to go.  He’s enumerating in rather nauseating detail, I suppose.

“And for the mind as to what it must desire and what it must not.” Convention gets inside our minds and limits the kinds of things you’re willing to consider. There are conventional-minded people who would never consider doing anything even slightly naughty or untoward because they have the whole of society embedded in their heads monitoring them and making them feel guilty for even thinking about things that are unconventional. This is a frustration of the liberty of nature. Follow our desires wherever they lead us.

Now, the things from which the law deter humans are no more in accord with or suited to nature than the things which they promote. Living and dying are matters of nature and living results from what is advantageous; dying from what is not advantageous. But the advantages that are established by the law are bonds on nature and those established by nature are free.

So, if we live by the bonds of nature, we’re free. If we live under the bonds of convention, we’re not free. Freedom is just living in accordance with our natural desires, and so what we’ve lost through our conventional laws is our natural liberty.

And so, things that cause distress, at least when thought of correctly, do not help nature more than things that give joy. Therefore, it will not be painful things rather than pleasant things which are advantageous.

This is another element of the Sophists’ teaching. They define what’s good or evil in terms of pain and pleasure. They’re hedonists. You’re going to see this in the Clouds very clearly when you hear the Unjust Speech. Right and wrong is just equivalent to pleasure and pain.

“For things that are truly advantageous must not cause harm but benefit, but the things that are advantageous by nature are among these . . .” Then there’s a lacuna here, unfortunately; a papyrus wasn’t complete. We’re left to wonder.

“But according to the law, those are correct who defend themselves . . .” Here’s what the law tells us to do, and this is interesting: “The law tells us to defend ourselves after suffering and are not first to do wrong.” We have to wait until we’ve been aggressed against before we can defend ourselves with the law. We hear this all the time. “But the stalker hasn’t done anything yet! You can’t send the police. Wait until the person actually attacks you, and then you can send the police.” That’s what the law-abiding citizen has to put up with. Well, that’s just not good according to nature.

“For those who do good to parents who are bad to them . . .” Those are people who are good by law, right? You honor your father and mother even if they’re monsters. That’s what the law prescribes, but nature doesn’t.

“And you also follow the law, he who permits others to accuse him on oath but do not themselves accuse on oath.” Meaning, those who go around and tattle on others. A law-abiding citizen doesn’t go around tattling on his neighbors, but he sits around and waits until his neighbors tattle on him before he can defend himself. But, of course, some of these things are slanders, right? But you can’t aggress against another person. You just have to wait until they aggress against you. That’s what the law-abiding do.

“You will find most of these cases hostile to nature. They permit people to suffer more pain when less is possible and to have less pleasure when more is possible and to receive injury when it is not necessary.”

“Now, if some assistance came from the laws for those who submitted to these conditions and some damage to those who do not submit but resist obedience to the laws would not be unhelpful.” Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The laws often don’t benefit those who submit to the laws and punish those who don’t.

But, as things are, it is obvious that the justice that stems from laws is insufficient to rescue those who submit. In the first place, it permits the one who suffers to suffer and the wrong-doer to do wrong and it was not at the time of the wrong-doing able to prevent either the sufferer from suffering or the wrong-doer from doing wrong. When the case is brought to trial there is no special advantage for the one who has suffered over the wrong-doer. One must persuade the jury that he suffered and that he is able to exact the penalty and it is open to the wrong-doer to deny it. However convincing the accusation is on behalf of the accuser, the defense can be just as convincing. For victory comes through speech.

This is a pretty bleak view of human society. It’s bleak, but it’s actually terribly accurate.

And so, what’s the solution? The solution is to not be so damn law-abiding and instead to pursue your advantages by all the tools you have available.

One of the most important tools is the art of speaking. But if somebody’s going to do you harm, you have to be willing to do harm to them before they do harm to you. Otherwise, you’re going to be a victim. It’s a very tough-minded philosophy that the Sophists preached. People in Kennesaw [4] with their well-armed houses or the Swiss with their militias are the kinds of people who are not messed around with as much as the ordinary citizen.

This little passage from Antiphon provides a good background to the Clouds. So let’s turn to the Clouds now. This is such a rich and wonderful text.