Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.4.07


Klaus Friedrich Hoffmann, Das Recht im Denken der Sophistik (Beitraege zur Altertumskunde 104). Stuttgart und Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1997. Pp. 469. DM 168. ISBN 3-519-07653-5.

Reviewed by C. Joachim Classen, Georg-August-Universitaet, Goettingen

This book deals with "Recht" in the sophists' thought, Recht being the German equivalent to law, justice and right.

In the preface the author states that in order fully to understand the very special nature of the sophists' thought on these matters it is essential to realize 1) that it influenced Socratic-Platonic philosophy, though it is in conflict with it, 2) that in itself it is not homogeneous (as various thinkers maintain different views), 3) that it is oriented primarily towards practical application, and 4) that it is of importance even today in view of the problems it raises such as what is justice? what is the basis of human morals and human laws? are human beings equal by nature?

In eight chapters the author discusses first the position of Protagoras (12-70); here he accepts as views of Protagoras much -- too much, I think -- of what Plato attributes to the sophist. Next he turns to Thrasymachus (71-109), again arguing that Plato represents Thrasymachus more or less adequately, then to the Platonic Polus and Callicles in the Gorgias (110-150), showing that "the right of the stronger" is not the theory of a sophist, but reflects rather the position of some politicians. In dealing with Hippias (151-175) he doubts the reliability of the dialogue with Socrates in Xenophon's Memorabilia, therefore concentrating on Plato's account. In the next very thorough section he sides rightly with those who distinguish two Antiphons (176-272) and discusses at great length the sophist's views on right and justice as well as his theory of knowledge and criticism of language. The fragment from the Sisyphus (273-289) he attributes to Critias (with question mark), not to Euripides, but warns against identifying the views expressed therein with those of the sophist-politician. The next chapter is devoted to the so-called Anonymus Iamblichi (290-333) and the last to the DISSOI LOGOI (334-357) in which he defends the traditional dating against recent doubts.

At the end the author postpones a chronological survey in view of the difficulties, i. e. the scantiness of the evidence, the nature of the common features some of which seem to reflect no more than the intellectual climate of the time and the inadequacy of many monocausal explanations (such as: x depends on y etc.) and prefers first to summarize his findings at considerable length systematically (358-423) under the headings "truth and relativism", "FU/SIS (nature)", "NO/MOS (law)", "DI/KAION (justice)", "profit, advantage", "theory of contract", "constitutions" and "equality of men" and gives some indications as regards a possible chronology, i. e. the possible development of the various ideas.

As regards truth and relativism (362-368) the author, after emphasizing first that most sophists (with the exception of Gorgias and the author of the Sisyphus-fragment) regarded the cognition of truth as major goal man should try to attain, concludes (rightly) that according to Protagoras there is a subjective truth in the sense that all judgments which an individual passes on the basis of his sense-perceptions or ideas are true for him, and claims also (less convincingly) that Protagoras assumed an objective truth in the area of advantage/profit ("Nutzenwahrheit", 364) in the sense that what is beneficial or advantageous to a person or a city may be determined not only by this person or city, but by an expert, i. e. by a third person. On the other hand he argues that an objective truth based on FU/SIS is assumed by Antiphon and also by the author of the DISSOI LOGOI who seems even to have looked for objective criteria of truth for moral problems.

Of FU/SIS the author distinguishes three meanings, one with a subdivison: FU/SIS as the universe, FU/SIS as human nature (with regard to individuals and to human beings in society) and FU/SIS as the essence of a thing, and he shows that Plato's Callicles derives his view of "the right of the stronger" ultimately from the 'cosmic' meaning, while for Alcidamas the cosmic FU/SIS is a proof for the equality of men. With respect to NO/MOS, the author states as result of his investigation that some attacked it (in the sense of conventions including the written laws) as arbitrary, man-made (Plato's Hippias, Plato's Callicles and also Antiphon) and others defended NO/MOS (in the sense of the actual written laws) e.g. the Sisyphus-fragment, the Anonymus Iamblichi, Lycophron and only Protagoras in the wider meaning of conventions and laws.

With regard to justice the author identifies five positions: conventional ideas are accepted by the Anonymus Iamblichi, the DISSOI LOGOI and Lycophron (1); the Protagoras of Plato's Theaetetus refrains from determining what justice in general means, as for him it varies according to what is expedient for each individual or group or community (2); Plato's Thrasymachus accepts the traditional view of justice and rejects it (3). Callicles develops a new concept of justice, based on FU/SIS, i. e. the right of the stronger (4), and Antiphon seems to reject even the idea of justice as such (5). Next the author stresses that it is to advantage or profit that most sophists attribute the greatest importance, however differing as regards details. For some it is the advantage of the individual which matters most, with Polus, Thrasymachus and Callicles (three figures from Plato's dialogues) maintaining the most extreme views, while Antiphon, though starting from a similar position, seemingly comes to criticize that of the others. Some, e. g. Protagoras (the Protagoras of Plato's Theaetetus), consider the advantage of the individual within the framework of the interests of the community, and such a view is maintained by the Anonymus Iamblichi also.

For the theories of social contract the author groups together again Protagoras and the Anonymus Iamblichi and also the Sisyphus-fragment and Lycophron, who accept laws though man-made as unavoidable for the life of a community, while others show open hostility, e.g. Plato's Callicles. Similarly with respect to the various forms of constitutions, monarchy (or rather tyranny) is favoured by Plato's Callicles as well as by his Polus and by his Thrasymachus and oligarchy by his Hippias, whereas Antiphon seems to argue rather for democracy and with some modifications Protagoras and the Anonymus Iamblichi, Lycophron and Phaleas also. Finally the author shows that some sophists may (at least by implications) have regarded all men as equal, e. g. Protagoras, Hippias, Lycophron and Phaleas, but only Antiphon and Alcidamas seem to have pronounced such views.

The author ends with some remarks on a possible chronological development and, conscious of the inherent difficulties (see above), indicates the likelihood of three stages: a limited criticism of the laws on the basis of Protagoras' relativism (of which he speaks here a little surprisingly) as starting point for the more radical attacks (after Gorgias' arrival in Athens) on the laws founded on the concepts of FU/SIS and after about 400 B. C. a return to a more conservative position.

Throughout the author bases his discussion on a competent and very careful examination and interpretation of the relevant texts, relying however too much, I think, on Plato's representations of the sophists in his dialogues, and a thorough consideration of most of the secondary literature which he uses with commendable discrimination. In future studies of this thorny area nobody can afford to ignore his conclusions, though not everybody will agree with all of them.
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