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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

The Sophists and the Nature/Culture (Physis/Nomos) Distinction/Conflict

Last time I ended by saying that the polis was a complete ethic; it was not a system of government, but an entire culture that was felt to be part of the individual. If the polis was a complete ethic, then this ethic was made up of, and rested upon, the written and unwritten laws, customs, practices and conventions of its people. This was the substance of the polis – its way of doing things, its manner of being. And since being a member of the polis was the substance of the individual – what it meant to be a human being – all these laws, customs, conventions and practices were not thought to be restrictions, or rules made up by human beings. They were not necessary but unwelcome restrictions: learning them and practicing them was what a person did in order to learn how to live well. Grouped together, they were called the “laws” – nomoi (Sing. – nomos). Right through the century up to Socrates, and beyond as well, most people felt that the nomoi were more than human . They either issued from a divine source or were divine themselves. They were not something you changed at will for the sake of convenience or efficiency. They were not something “out there”, imposed on you by something called “society” or “the state”. They were what you were.

The Sophistic movement, with its individualistic rationalism, came to be seen as a challenge to this very traditionalist view of how one lived the right sort of life. It put traditionalism, whether naïve or sophisticated, into question and, in a sense, it forced the birth of political philosophy. When it appeared on the scene – really with Plato – political philosophy came as reaction to both the democratic polis and to the individualistic rationalism that was associated with it. It was Plato who, speaking as a conservative wanting to restore some of the traditional ways on a rational basis, thought he saw an essential connection between democracy and a chaotic, amoral individualism whose logical outcome would be the overthrow of “isonomia”, the rule of law.

The Sophists were simply a group of relatively accomplished individuals who travelled from place to place teaching various skills – for a cash payment – to the sons of the well-to-do. There were no universities in Greece at the time, and the Sophists claimed to be able to teach the sorts of skills, principally  mathematics, rhetoric and the types of analysis that it requires, that would enable ambitious young men to gain glory in their political careers. Thanks largely to Plato and the comic dramatist Aristophanes, the Sophists have had a terrible reputation for nearly 2500 years. The terms sophist and sophistry came to be a very serious reproach. You were using sophistry when you slung together a barrage of specious but clever arguments without regard for the truth. Sophist came to mean  a kind of intellectual hired gun, an unprincipled technician of rhetoric willing to hire out to the highest bidder. Like a professional PR flak these days.

The Sophists themselves claimed that they were supplying a training in political “excellence”. The term used was arete (pronounced ah-reh-TE), which is sometimes translated as “virtue”. The problem with “virtue” is that it carries very strong connotations of an inward, spiritual morality, conscience, along with qualities like frugality, piety, honesty, charity, etc… But the Greeks, at least until Socrates, made no distinction between a public morality and a private, individual one. They had no concept of an individual being ruled by his own inner voice, his conscience. Morality simply was the ethical code of the community – its nomoi – and it was difficult, if not impossible to imagine that ethical conduct existed apart from the very specific and detailed and long-accepted rules and customs of a given community. In Greek, something had “virtue”, “arete”, when it had the qualities required to carry out a specific function. It was more like “excellence”. A hammer or a plant could be excellent in this sense, just like a child (who would have to know his/her place) or a politician. An excellent politician would possess the qualities needed to carry out the political function. He would have political “arete”.

Now, to us, the fact that there were such people around is not likely to raise any eyebrows. Who would care that teachers existed who, for a fee, would teach political skills to any and all who could afford it?

But such teachers and what they did were shocking to the traditionalists (of both upper and lower classes) because their existence implied that politics was simply something you could use to your own advantage, like a common craft. The life of the polis was supposed to be a lifelong education in character, supplied by the nomoi traditionally handed down from generation to generation. Politics was an expression of and medium for such character. One could not be a fully human being unless you were fit to engage in the type of common action that political life implied. The capacity to be a polites or citizen was felt by the aristocracy (and sometimes very strongly) not to be something you picked up in the same way that someone might learn a trade or craft. Especially to the aristocracy (where the Sophists recruited their students), the quality of political “virtue” was something that their young inherited, both in the sense that they had it by “good breeding” and in the sense that they soaked it up by participating in the activities which were suitable to the upper classes (military training, athletics, the supervision of a large household). Political education came from such activities and from reading the right books – the aristocratic poetry of Pindar (much of which celebrated the glories of olympic victors), and the heroic epic poetry of Homer. Tradition and traditional texts summed up the aristocratic character and mores as the highest model of human and therefore political excellence.

So the Sophists represented an alternative to the traditional education of the aristocracy. They also implicitly questioned the status of the authority of such a tradition. They brought in the idea that, through rational means, a tradition which had been taken as divine could be improved upon. And this was connected with the substance of what many of the Sophists taught. They were familiar with the physical and cosmological theories of the “Pre-Socratic” Greek philosophers ( we’ll see a bit more on these later in connection with Plato) and these theories were an implicit (and sometimes very explicit) attack on the traditional gods. The very technique of arguing that they taught, called by them “dialectic” could easily lead in the direction of skepticism or relativism: it meant first marshalling all the argument on one side of an issue, and then taking up the other side with equal thoroughness. Such training easily leads to the belief that the individual intelligence testing itself in debate has to be the final arbiter – not accepted, long-standing beliefs and customs.

So the third thing the Sophists came to represent was the emancipation of the individual from the customs and traditions of the polis. Now this was not the sort of  thing was felt or recognized all at once or quickly. And it was certainly not simply the doing of the Sophists themselves. For example, the theories of the Pre-Socratics had been around for about a hundred years. Socrates, in the Apology, mentions that he picked up a copy of Anaxagoras’ book in the marketplace and was for a time quite taken with such theories. The Sophists represented what must have been felt by both aristocratic and democratic traditionalists as an insidious hollowing out of the polis – which was its traditions.

The Sophists made people more and more aware of the dilemma that the polis faced as it became more and more a self-conscious endeavour on the part of the community to direct its own destiny and shape itself. Here is how one famous historian of ancient Greek culture puts it:  “In the 5th Century there were only two possibilities. Either the law of the state was the highest standard for human life and coincided with the  divine government of the universe, in which case a man was a citizen, no more and no less; or else the standards of the state conflicted with those established by nature or god, so that man could not accept them, in which case he ceased to be a member of the political community, and the very foundations of his life dissolved, unless he could find some certainty in the eternal order of nature.” (Werner Jaeger, Paideia, Vol. I, 326)

It is to this conflict between human nature and the laws of the polis (or the polis itself) that we now have to turn.  Not only did the Sophists teach the newfangled ideas of others in a newfangled way, some of them came up with some very pointed and drastic political ideas of their own. But keep in mind that it was not only the traditional aristocrats who were suspicious of the Sophists. The Sophists were training the wealthy sons of the oligarchical party, so that democrats were also suspicious of them. Not only Socrates, but the Sophist Protagoras was prosecuted for impiety.

The Sophists did not only teach various techniques. They also taught new ideas about politics and ethics, ideas that they either found in or helped introduce into Greek political discourse. Some of these ideas will show up, for example in the speeches that the historian Thucydides reports in the “Melian” and Mytilenean” Debates (which are part of your required reading). In all cases, these new ideas were based upon a new distinction between nature (Gk. – “physis”) on the one hand and the polis and its nomoi on the other. They took over from earlier Pre-Socratic philosophy the general idea that underlying the variety and multiplicity of the phenomenal world (the world in its appearing), there was one single, permanent substance that remained identical through all of its transformations; or that this (not always visible) nature was real, permanent and unchanging and that despite the evidence of the sense all change and variety were an illusion. They applied this distinction to human beings.

What this meant was that underneath or beyond the many and varied ways of humans there was a single, permanent human nature with a necessity all its own. Human beings were, and should be recognized as being, first of all subject to the necessity of their own natures. All the laws, customs, practices, beliefs, opinions, taboos, rules, sentiments and obligations that existed were now seen to be the creations or inventions of human communities. The nomoi of particular communities could now be looked down upon as not-divine, as less than natural, as artificial, man-made and transitory, as being less real than nature, even as wrong – to the extent that the nomoi conflicted with this underlying nature, with its greater or more authentic necessity.

It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that without the distinction between nomos and physis (nature and convention), there never would have been any political philosophy. There still might have been a political theology, but no political philosophy. With this distinction, the great question came to be about the character of this necessity that makes us what we are, and about how it might be known. One of Plato’s most fundamental objections to the Sophists, and perhaps the main motivation of his political philosophy, was that the necessity of nature did not have the character of unselfconscious, unseeing, uncaring force. For Plato, physis was a mind, and like a mind, physis would have a purpose, which was the good in itself. Plato, in other words, did not retreat behind this distinction between nature and artifice, but became the first real political philosopher by trying to give nature a new and rationally grounded content and meaning. Every political philosophy to follow Plato’s will have to take over that same task, in one way or another. Plato will be objecting, first of all, to a view of human nature as essentially a collection of blind appetites and compulsions that mirrors the blind chance and impersonal forces of the universe of the Pre-Socratic “natural philosophers”.

Now, in and of itself, this distinction between nature and convention is without much of a specific political content. A number of different contents can be adapted to this distinction. And the famous historian of Greek philosophy W.K. C. Guthrie suggested that the Sophists developed three general versions of the relation between physis and nomos:

1. Nature agrees with Conventional Justice

The first version is associated with the Sophist Protagoras (about whom you might want to read in Plato’s dialogue of the same name). On the whole this version is rather conservative, in the sense that it stays close to existing (in this case, democratic) institutions and ideas. It is therefore conservative in a situational sense rather than the substantive sense. It does not venerate tradition, nor does it seek to hold up as natural a hierarchical society. What Protagoras wants to do is replace the traditionalist sense of respect for the nomoi with an argument based upon reason and nature.

Protagoras essentially conceives of the nomoi as the being the unconscious product of social evolution. In the course of painfully constructing civilization on the basis of trial and error and crude intelligence, humans slowly discover that they owe to political order all the blessings and comforts of civilized life. These are not only the advantages of relative security and material comfort. These blessings also include the possibility of mutual trust and friendship.

In Plato’s dialogue by that name Protagoras constructs a clever apology for Athenian democracy on the basis of a contrary-to-fact hypothesis: had the political/ethical virtues of  righteousness (Gk. – “dike”) and shame (together with respect for others [Gk. – “aidos”] ) not been a part of the natural potential of human beings, then political societies would not have been possible. Thus political virtue must be widely distributed and democracy has its basis and justification in this wide distribution, especially when it is combined with a proper education in the nomoi. The polis therefore does not need to have its affairs run by any special class of experts. Expertise is necessary in the specialized crafts but not in politics, which demands that everyone have a share in justice and moderation. An echo of this idea, an echo that is perhaps part parody, an inversion of this doctrine, will show up in Plato’s Republic, where each of the three classes is assigned different parts of the whole form of justice, with the common people possessing only the passive excellence of moderation – of knowing their need to be ruled by others.

Protagoras’ doctrine appears, at least on the surface, to reconcile physis and nomos; it appears to justify the existing laws on the basis of their usefulness in serving human nature. Human nature is basically portrayed in utilitarian terms, however, as the ability to learn to rationally calculate the consequences of certain courses of action in terms of their effects of pleasure and pain. What justifies the law is that it is an effective instrument for protecting the material and psychological benefits of civilized life. But it has no higher or divine purpose any more; it has been “relativized”. “Man, or human nature is the measure of the law, rather than the law of the city being the measure of man.

Protagoras was famous for the expression: “Man is the measure of all things…” The law does not stand above human nature, calling upon the individual to transcend selfish motives. It is basically the outcome of a collision of selfish motives.

At least from the perspective of the philosophies to come this is the great weakness of Protagoras’ utilitarian conception of human nature and political obligation. If law is simply grounded on the “base” motive of individual self-seeking, how can it command obedience and respect in and of itself? How can it be absolutely good? It is simply a matter of expedience and convenience and will be conveniently overlooked when it does not serve the purposes of self-seeking individuals. As more and more individuals come to look on the law as only justified by their own convenience and interests, society is bound to degenerate into a greater and greater state of lawlessness, at first hidden, and then manifest. Finally, law will not even seem so important from the perspective of the material security that produced it. Everyone will increasingly look simply to force.

So there is an irony or a “dialectic” at work here: the civilization based upon a merely utilitarian respect for law harbors a ferocious lawlessness in which the truth of the matter is a simple struggle for power. But these conclusions were not first drawn by the idealist conservatives like Plato and Aristotle. They were first worked out by the Sophists themselves.

2. “Realism”: “Justice” is just a Reflection of Unequal Power

This brings us to Guthrie’s second type of theory about the relation of physis to nomos, the type he calls “realism”. Here we have an argument, not quite yet to the effect that might is right, but that, given what we observe of human behaviour and human nature, we must conclude that nomos is weak, or else, as with what is implicit in Protagoras, the nomoi are reducible to the selfishness and ambition that are part of human nature. The classic expressions of this attitude are the positions taken by three of the characters in Plato’s Republic: the Sophist Thrasymachus, and Plato’s brothers, Adeimantus and Glaucon. Since we will be coming back to them in connection with that book, I don’t want to spend any time on them here.

What is particularly relevant in this context, however, is that in the “realist” position, the reduction of legal justice or conventional justice to selfish interest is much more clear and evident than it is with Protagoras. It is not so clear in Protagoras’ theory because Protagoras tends to assume the existence of a kind of pre-established harmony among different enlightened self-interests. Protagoras therefore begs the question about the inequality of power. What the realist position does is to bring this problem more clearly into the open. For Protagoras, conventional justice is worthy of respect because everyone benefits from it. What the “realists” point out, is that not everyone benefits from it equally. And that this inequality can be so great that it could be said that some are harmed by it. Any form of conventional justice, they say, will establish a situation in which some parties are at a permanent advantage with respect to other parties. The rules of the game are in effect rigged by the stronger party. Justice is the interest not of everyone, but of the stronger party – and that is all there is. It is not difficult, at least at an emotional level, if not intellectually as well, to sympathize with Thrasymachus’ outbursts of impatient and angry cynicism at what seems to him Socrates’ complacent or absurdly naïve view that a different justice than the interest of the stronger actually exists. If there is a lack of equality in the benefits of legal justice, then is it justice? If law merely holds up the structural interest position  (as we might say now) of those who happen to be militarily, economically or politically dominant, then there is no justice – at least not in human affairs. It is absurd, moreover, for the weaker party to appeal to justice to cancel out the advantage of the  stronger. It is absurd, because it is unrealistic. The weaker should look to developing their own strength, and just stay quiet. [Look for this position among some of the Athenians in the “debates” from Thucydides]

3. There is a Conflict between Nature and Conventional Justice:

Protagoras’ position reduced justice to material self-interest. The realist position challenged the assumption that there is a general harmony of enlightened self-interests. The rules of justice always reflect the unequal power in society, and that is all that justice is. Once you accept these two assertions, it is a quick jump to holding the idea that “justice” is nothing but a form of power or domination. If justice is simply the effect of unequal power, is this not as good as saying that unequal power is justice? Might is right. Conventional justice, to the extent that it does inhibit the assertion of power over others on the part of the stronger party is therefore unjust by nature. So we have the third position, one that puts nature in contradiction with convention, and asserts the paradoxical claim that “justice” (a human invention according to Protagoras) is unjust because it goes against the necessity of human nature to assert and express its ambition for power and domination. This is roughly the position of the Sophist Callicles (about whom you can read in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias), and the position that the character Glaucon in Plato’s Republic will want Socrates to disprove. What it does is try to solve the problem the Realist recognizes at a purely logical level by abandoning the premise that equality is essential to justice. Or, you can think of it as reversing the premise: it is now inequality that is essential to justice. Any condition, like that of justice, that suppresses the natural inequality of human nature is unjust.

However, as Guthrie points out, there are two directions from which nature can be opposed to convention: There is a position diametrically opposed to that of Callicles and it is the equally revolutionary position (from the point of view of the traditional polis) of the Sophists Antiphon and Antisthenes that the very distinctions of superiority and inferiority, along with positions of unequal power, were not the products of nature but the effects of convention. Physis, nature, in reality was a situation in which all human beings had to be taken as equals. The institution of slavery, the idea of noble birth, the existence of relative wealth and poverty, even the inferior status of women, were all artificial, and had no basis in nature.

What is important at the moment, however, is that either and both of these antithetical positions (of Callicles or of Antisthenes), that construe nature as a challenge to conventional justice are also antithetical to the institution of the polis. In Callicles’ case, the champion of nature as uninhibited desire for power, steps outside the polis (the polis is no longer of his nature – Aristotle will call such a creature “a beast”), and destroys it as an idea insofar as the polis is based upon the rule of law, and the ideas of equality (we are all equally subject to the law) and solidarity (we are all members of a whole larger than any one or few of us) inherent in that idea. In the case of Antiphon and Antisthenes, the polis is also negated, insofar as it begins to come clear that a) theoretically, the laws of the polis would only be valid insofar as they are expressions of a universal law of equality that would apply to all humankind, and that therefore the laws of any given polis have to be judged by this higher, unwritten “law” of nature, and b) the polis is also practically negated to the extent that it is based upon an aniequality of classes and of genders.

One of the reasons that Socrates was vulnerable to prosecution was that he was perceived to be, like the Sophists, challenging final authority of the polis and its nomoi.

In the next two lectures, we’ll try to see whether he was doing this, and in what way, and how this would lead to Plato’s attempt to refute the Sophists once and for all.

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