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The Hellenistic Reception of Classical Athenian Democracy and Political Thought$

Mirko Canevaro and Benjamin Gray

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780198748472

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198748472.001.0001

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Sophists, Epicureans, and Stoics

Sophists, Epicureans, and Stoics

(p.93) 5 Sophists, Epicureans, and Stoics
The Hellenistic Reception of Classical Athenian Democracy and Political Thought

A. G. Long

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The sophists were some of the most important pioneers of Greek political philosophy. This paper discusses how Stoics and Epicureans engaged with sophistic thought and with previous critiques of sophistic thought. Plato’s accounts of sophists are a central object of study, because Plato and the Academy were, most probably, a key target of polemic in Stoic and Epicurean discussions of sophists. But sometimes the paper tries to get away from Plato, as for example when it considers Epicurean theories of conventions and contracts. Section 5.1 sets out the broader evidence for Stoic and Epicurean engagement with sophists, and the philosophical and/or polemical motivations for such engagement. Section 5.2 considers the Hellenistic, and particularly the Stoic, discussion of the teachability of virtue. Section 5.3 considers the origin of justice and disagreement between cities about what justice demands.

Keywords:   sophists, Plato, Epicureans, Stoics, teaching virtue, justice

Stoics and Epicureans discussed ‘sophisms’ and called opponents inside and outside their schools ‘sophists’.1 How important for their philosophy was the genuine article—that is, the teachers and intellectuals of the fifth century such as Protagoras, Antiphon, and Thrasymachus? Given the themes of this volume, I will be more specific: how important were the sophists for Epicurean and Stoic political philosophy? Plato’s dialogues, especially the Republic, are standardly treated as a key target for both Stoics and Epicureans. By contrast, the sophists are not often thought to throw light on what Hellenistic philosophers were trying to achieve, and it has been suggested that Stoics and Epicureans were too preoccupied with ‘individual’ or ‘naturalistic’ morality to regard differences between laws and customs—a major theme of sophistic thought—as of very much interest.2

The main exception is the Epicurean theory of justice as a contract: ‘justice was not anything in itself, but a contract about not harming or being harmed, arising in people’s dealings with one another in individual regions large or small’ (Epicurus, KD 33).3 Already in the scholarship4 this has been compared with fifth- and fourth-century precedents, above all the contractual theory outlined by Glaucon in Plato’s Republic. The theory Glaucon offers is not his own but belongs to the vast number of people (Republic 358c7–d1) who would side with Thrasymachus and against Socrates, some of whom, it has been argued, are sophists.5 According to this theory, justice arises when people form (p.94) ‘laws and contracts’ (359a3) in order to protect themselves from harm. Antiphon’s On Truth is arguably a more significant antecedent of the Epicurean theory, for in Antiphon the notion of a contract, or at least of an agreement, does rather more work: given that laws derive from an agreement, Antiphon argues, transgressing the laws results in harm only if it is noticed by other parties to the agreement (fr. 44(a) I.27–II.23).6 (There is a contrast with the demands of ‘nature’, which do not depend on an agreement, and so retain their power over us even in the absence of witnesses.) When scholars compare Epicurus’ theory of justice with Glaucon’s, usually their aim is not to show the enduring importance of sophistic thought but to highlight what is distinctive in Epicurus’ conception of benefit and harm. In Glaucon’s theory harming or wronging someone else provides benefits that each party to the contract willingly forgoes (believing it to be more important to protect oneself from others), whereas in Epicurus’ view the contract is not a compromise, for, independently of the contract, people’s interests are not served by harming others.7

Were contractual theories of justice the sophists’ only legacy to Hellenistic political philosophy? In this paper I compare the evidence for Stoic and Epicurean responses to sophists. On the Stoic side we find, surprisingly, greater interest in the sophists’ profession than in their theories. Stoics seem not to have related, for polemical or other purposes, their own discussions of education and the good city to sophistic discussions. Instead Stoics focused on apparently superior alternatives to Greek, or at least Athenian, practice: Plato’s cities and Sparta. Epicurus, on the other hand, produced an unflattering intellectual biography of Protagoras, and in doing so he apparently points to errors or unacknowledged debts in Protagoras’ theories. (Finding the connection between personal criticism of Protagoras and criticism of his ideas is unavoidably speculative.) Epicurean political philosophy, and in particular early Epicurean discussion of differences between laws and conventions, is designed to improve on that of the sophists, and in one passage an Epicurean argues explicitly against relativism.

Before I turn to the texts I should address the following objection. How could engagement with fifth-century sophistic thought advance a Hellenistic philosopher’s interests in the contemporary scene? It is tempting to assume that Hellenistic discussion of ‘sophists’ becomes intelligible only if it is shown to contribute to some contemporary debate or polemical exchange, and a good way to show that is to relate the discussion to Plato. If the discussion of sophistry points to an error on Plato’s part, it will embarrass Plato’s followers (p.95) in the Academy; a discussion about Plato can thus function as a response or challenge to Hellenistic contemporaries. If, however, the discussion of sophists really is about the sophists themselves, it is hard to see how it could speak to, or against, the Stoics’ and Epicureans’ contemporaries.

That objection can be countered as follows. Not every discussion of philosophical (or, to be more neutral, intellectual) predecessors has a contemporary application in the sense of taking aim at contemporary opponents. For example, philosophers may discuss a dead predecessor not because the predecessor has a contemporary following but because he has, the philosophers believe, thrown down a challenge that has not yet been properly appreciated or countered. (That is one plausible explanation for Plato’s discussion of Parmenides in the Sophist.) The ‘contemporary’ stimulus for the discussion is in this case not a contemporary opponent but rather neglect or inactivity (or, alternatively, inadequate responses) on the part of contemporaries. All that I intend to show at this introductory stage is that our study of the texts should not be controlled by the expectation that the target will be a contemporary of the first kind—that is, contemporary opponents of the Stoics and Epicureans.

To this one might object that the sophists were not regarded as ‘predecessors’ at all. Fairly or unfairly, Plato thought that the right response to sophists was merely to show them not to be real philosophers: this is what a philosopher is, we are philosophers, you sophists were not. That Platonic response then made unnecessary further engagement with the historical sophists, even in the Garden and Stoa. But this objection relies on a grossly one-sided view of Plato’s response to sophists, particularly to Protagoras’ political thought, and in any case it is not true to all the evidence for Hellenistic philosophy. As we will see, Plato’s Republic contains a far more nuanced response to Protagoras, and Epicureans—or at least one Epicurean—felt it necessary to distinguish between their theory and ‘Protagorean’ relativism.

One further preliminary remark. Even though I direct attention to sophists I do not attempt to marginalize Plato. We are simply too reliant on Plato for our understanding of sophists, and there is no reason to suppose that the Stoics and Epicureans, if they saw a need to discuss sophists, would have confined themselves to texts written by sophists themselves and ignored the representation of sophists in Plato’s dialogues.

5.1 Stoics on Sophistry and Education

The most direct discussion of sophists to have survived from the early Stoa concerns the sophists’ profession. According to Plutarch (Stoic. Rep. 1043e) Chrysippus in his Ways of Life treated ‘sophistry’ or σοφιστεία‎ as one of three (p.96) sources of income particularly appropriate to the wise man or ‘sage’.8 (The other two were ‘a kingdom’, which stands for either being a king or associating with a king,9 and ‘friends’.) Cleanthes had addressed the same subject in his On the Wise Man Turning Sophist (D.L. 7.175), but unfortunately we know only the work’s title. Is there polemic in Chrysippus’ rehabilitation of sophistry—and, if so, who is its target? Plato in his dialogues apparently disapproves of sophists for charging fees. At the very least Plato draws attention to the contrast between sophists, who charged fees, and the teachers and intellectuals who had not, including the prestigious figures to whom sophists wished to connect themselves, such as Orpheus and Homer.10 So perhaps when Chrysippus allows the sage to draw an income from teaching, his primary intention is to challenge Plato, and thus to challenge or embarrass Plato’s followers. In Stoic ethics there is nothing problematic in deriving money from one’s ‘wisdom’. As an ‘indifferent’, wealth makes no difference to happiness, but as a ‘promoted’ indifferent wealth should be pursued with the same attitude, roughly speaking, as bodily health; the sage’s ‘wisdom’ includes his appreciation of the value and utility of wealth, as well as his knowledge of how, and from which sources, he should make money.11 From this Stoic perspective any suggestion that the ‘sage’ should refrain from earning money looks like irrational squeamishness.

Possibly Chrysippus’ own writing contained an anti-Platonic message on these or similar lines.12 But Chrysippus’ remarks, as outlined by Plutarch, do not show that historical sophists, such as Protagoras, were right to charge fees. They show that genuinely wise people may charge fees for teaching, and the historical sophists (like nearly everyone else) were not wise.13 Furthermore, Chrysippus did not merely discuss the appropriateness of charging fees: he also discussed when to collect the money and what should be promised at the start of the lessons (1043e–1044a). (Fortunately for us, it suits Plutarch’s own polemic to illustrate this with quotations.) When earning money from ‘sophistry’ the wise man should not have a fixed procedure: in some cases he should (p.97) avoid risks by getting all the money at the start, but in the interests of goodwill other pupils can be granted some time before they are required to pay up. Nor will the wise man—or rather, to echo Chrysippus’ startling wording, the wise sophist—promise a specific outcome: making pupils virtuous, or (even less realistically) making pupils virtuous within a year. Instead the wise sophist and pupil should agree on a period of time during which the sophist will do what he can. These comments cannot be construed as objections to Plato; on the contrary, any criticism of previous sophists for promising ‘virtue’ puts Chrysippus on the same side as Plato. The challenge is addressed to the historical figures who, despite their lack of wisdom, have practised sophistry already. What Plato provides is historical information about previous sophists’ promises and practice. In particular Chrysippus is targeting sophists’ claims to provide virtue, as for example in Euthydemus 273d–e, and to have found ‘the’ correct procedure for payment. For an example of the latter, see Protagoras’ boast about his policy in Protagoras 328b–c: Protagoras postpones payment until after the lessons, at which point the pupils either pay in full the amount Protagoras charges or, making an oath, deposit in a temple the amount they think appropriate.14

Chrysippus, then, did not merely allow the wise man to turn sophist, but considered how the wise man would apply his wisdom to the thoroughly worldly business of collecting fees and making realistic promises. In his view, historical sophists failed to recognize (a) the difficulty of becoming virtuous and (b) the need to adapt to the circumstances in our moral and social lives. The fact that Chrysippus had in mind the sophists themselves—not merely Plato’s criticism of sophists—makes his talk of ‘sophistry’ all the more remarkable. The term would be easier to explain if Chrysippus intended simply to criticize or make fun of Plato, but evidently Chrysippus thought through how a wise sophist would actually operate.

All the same, Plutarch’s testimony does not show that Chrysippus took much interest in the historical sophists’ theories and arguments, political or otherwise. The Stoics seem not to have addressed the relationship between their political thought and that of the sophists, even in the specific areas where they contradicted sophists. Consider for example Zeno’s verdict on education in his Republic: ‘general education’ (ἡ ἐγκύκλιος παιδεία‎) is useless (D.L. 7.32).15 Useless for what? Zeno’s own city is designed to attain political (p.98) or interpersonal ideals, most notably concord and friendship (and perhaps freedom),16 and no doubt he thought general education incapable of providing these. But he also intended each individual citizen to be virtuous. This does not straightforwardly distinguish the good city from other cities, for Zeno suggested that those who are not virtuous do not really deserve the name of citizen or even freeman at all (D.L. 7.32–3). Even in Athens or other non-ideal cities the ‘citizens’ are exclusively the virtuous, although it may be more accurate to say that the virtuous people in Athens, should there be any, are fellow-citizens in relation to one another than that they are citizens of Athens. (At some point the Stoics took this to imply that the virtuous people in, say, Athens, Crete, and Persia are all fellow-citizens in relation to one another, and so they must belong to a ‘city’ much larger than any city or nation in the conventional sense; perhaps even non-virtuous people are in some sense the citizens of this larger city. But it is not agreed how far Zeno himself went in this direction, and I avoid that controversy here.)17

If general education really is ‘useless’, it must be unable to deliver virtue in individual citizens, as well as the political goals of concord and friendship. In the scholarship Zeno’s comment on education has been treated as criticism of Plato’s Republic—rightly, in my own view.18 But, one might think, it is Plato’s Protagoras who is contradicted most directly. When challenged in the Protagoras to show that virtue19 is teachable, Protagoras uses general education—early lessons in letters, poetry, music, and physical fitness—to show that virtue is not only teachable but actually taught throughout the citizen body, and for much of the time. Parents may say that teachers should pay more attention to their children’s good conduct than to literacy and music (325d7–e1), but the contrast they draw is rather misleading, for, according to Protagoras, literacy and music themselves contribute to children’s moral education. When children can read, teachers get them to read poetry that encourages them to emulate virtuous men of old (325e2–326a4). (Later Protagoras claims to believe that the ‘greatest part’ of education is the ability to speak well about poetry.)20 As children are immersed in the modes and rhythms of lyric song, (p.99) they become more ‘gentle’ and, as Protagoras puts it, can exhibit the musicality that life itself demands (326a4–b6). Physical education then protects children from the bodily weakness that might cause them to become cowardly in war and other activities (326b6–c3). Moral education continues after childhood, for laws and punishment by the state educate, or ‘straighten out’, adult citizens (326c6–e5). Protagoras does not take a wholly uncritical attitude to contemporary education—he says that some people, such as himself, are better educators than others (328a8–b2)21—but he suggests that it encourages at least the beginnings of moral development.

Zeno, by contrast, denies that ‘general education’ has any moral application.22 In the part of his Republic concerning education he presumably saw himself as writing against Greek education itself, a subject to which he devoted an entire work (D.L. 7.4), as much as against any specific individual. Insofar as he was writing against specific philosophers or intellectuals, we might expect them to be advocates of education as currently practised, such as Plato’s Protagoras. Instead, so far as we can tell, he wrote against the attempt to change education in Plato’s Republic.23 In Plato’s dialogue Socrates expects the philosopher-guards to undertake a new programme of specialist mathematical and philosophical education, but this comes after an intellectually less arduous education in music24 and poetry, as well as physical training (376e–412b). All these parts of early education—music, poetry, and even gymnastics (410b–412a)—contribute to the moral development of the guards, as Protagoras had suggested, but notoriously in Socrates’ city musical modes and poetry are screened and censored before they are offered to future guards. Zeno’s Republic, unlike Plato’s,25 is simply opposed to Protagoras, and yet it is from Plato, not Protagoras, that Zeno distinguishes himself.

(p.100) Zeno’s followers similarly explored the relationship between their political thought and alternatives to Greek education.26 One such alternative was Greek but atypical: Sparta. Another was the Magnesia of Plato’s Laws. Zeno’s junior associate Persaeus wrote both a Spartan Polity and a seven-book critique of Plato’s Laws (D.L. 7.36). Cleanthes wrote On Education (περὶ ἀγωγῆς‎), which may have addressed the Spartan educational system or ἀγωγή‎ specifically (7.175). Cleanthes’ pupil Sphaerus27 then wrote On the Spartan Polity and a three-book work on Lycurgus and Socrates (7.178). That last work presumably concerned Socrates as ‘founder’ and ‘lawgiver’ of the city in Plato’s Republic (see e.g. Republic 379a1)28 and compared him with his counterpart in Sparta. Persaeus’ attack on Plato’s Laws must have shown the differences between Stoic political thought and Plato’s; it is less certain how Stoics presented the relationship between their thought and Sparta, and whether all Stoics took a similar view of Sparta. But obviously after Zeno’s death it continued to be important to show whether, and how closely, Sparta resembled (or had at one time resembled) what Stoics were proposing. Critique of sophistic teaching seems to have had no such place in Stoic self-definition. That makes it a little less surprising that Chrysippus, and probably Cleanthes before him, could describe their moral exemplar working as a sophist.

5.2 Epicureans, Protagoras, and Sophistic

In Epicurean writing there is much stronger evidence for polemic against sophists, especially against Protagoras. Metrodorus wrote a nine-book Against the Sophists (D.L. 10.24). (We do not know the identity of Metrodorus’ targets, although we do know that elsewhere he commented on Thrasymachus.)29 Epicurus sneeringly describes Protagoras as follows: ‘porter, Democritus’ copyist, village teacher of letters’ (D.L. 10.8).30 According to Athenaeus (8.354c) Epicurus’ letter On Ways of Living told a story about Protagoras’ path to sophistry: he was originally a talented porter and then became Democritus’ copyist, before turning his hand to village teaching and then sophistry. The second jibe, ‘Democritus’ copyist’, probably alleges that one or more of Protagoras’ doctrines were not original but derived from his fellow Abderite’s (p.101) theories.31 Perhaps Epicurus is alleging that all of Protagoras’ philosophy was cribbed from Democritus, except for what Protagoras then learned about language and spelling as a small-town teacher and whatever he already had as a porter—namely the ability to put and hold together other people’s property. (In Epicurus’ story Democritus is said to have been impressed by Protagoras the porter’s ‘own synthesis’ of pieces of wood.)32 The porter’s ability to synthesize was then put to work when Protagoras displayed to his readers and pupils variously acquired ideas—including those plagiarized from Democritus—as his own system.

Elsewhere Epicurus is said to have called Protagoras a ‘late-learner’ (fr. 173 Usener). We can only speculate as to what Epicurus had in mind. A guess: Epicurus was targeting Protagoras’ claim (DK B4) that life is too short to establish whether gods are real and what their form is. Epicurus seems to answer both questions decisively: gods are real and anthropomorphic. (In fact it is not certain whether in Epicurus’ theory gods exist independently of human minds.)33 If Protagoras found life too short, he must simply have started philosophy too late. In any case, in the Garden Protagoras was sufficiently significant or provocative in his own right to attract these mocking comments.34

The fullest Epicurean account of sophistry survives in Philodemus’ On Rhetoric, which frequently cites Epicurus and the other ‘great men’ of the Garden. Here the discussion concerns the technical status and benefits of ‘sophistic’. According to Philodemus, the ‘great men’ regarded sophistic as a genuine art, but confined its application to writing speeches and delivering display pieces.35 Political rhetoric, by contrast, is not an art, and competence in politics does not derive from sophistic rhetoric, nor for that matter from any other art, but rather from research and observation.36 Much of this contradicts Plato, particularly the claim about the low epistemic requirements (p.102) of politics: the philosopher-guards of Plato’s Republic may benefit from observing politics during the time spent gaining experience (Republic 539e–540a), but no other part of their marathon training actually prepares them for politics. But it is of course the sophists who have most to lose from the claim that ‘sophistic’ does not prepare one for politics, chief among them being Protagoras, and the claim there is no art of politics directly contradicts Protagoras’ claim (or rather his acceptance of Socrates’ suggestion) that he provides the ‘political art’ (Protagoras 319a3–7).37 Epicureans are giving something to sophists, the possession of an expertise, but are taking away far more with the other hand: do not go to a sophist if you wish to become a successful politician. It is not plausible to suggest that these comments on sophistic can be fully explained in terms of polemic against people other than the sophists themselves.

5.3 Many but One: Sophists on Justice

What then was the significance for Epicureans of the sophists’ political thought? A prominent theme of sophistic thought is the differences between laws, customs, circumstances, and beliefs. Relativism is a particularly eye-catching response to these differences, but in recent years scholars have argued that relativism was not as central to sophistic thought as Plato’s Theaetetus might suggest.38 (In Theaetetus 151e–179b Protagoras is represented as a relativist and is a particularly formidable and tenacious interlocutor, even though he is not physically present!) An alternative characterization of sophistic thought, suggested by Bett, is attention to ‘ethical variability’.39 One and the same item is good in some circumstances or relations, bad in others; or an item is believed by some people to be good or virtuous, whereas other people take a different view of it. What sophists shared was attention to such differences, not a specifically relativistic way of accommodating opposed beliefs.

(p.103) Consider for example two Platonic passages cited by Bett, one from the Meno, the second from the Protagoras. Meno is not a sophist but is supposed to be strongly impressed by the sophist Gorgias, and says that he agrees with what Gorgias says (Meno 71d).40 Socrates then asks him to define virtue, and in his reply Meno makes a rapidly expanding number of distinctions (71e–72a): the virtue of a man is not the same thing as the virtue of a woman, and children have their own virtues, and one must distinguish between the two sexes in childhood—and older men have their own virtue, and one must not forget the difference between a free man and a slave. In the second passage Socrates asks Protagoras whether good things are beneficial to human beings, and Protagoras responds with a bravura list of distinctions (Protagoras 333d, 334a–c). Yes and no, he says: things may be bad in relation to human beings and good in relation to some other creature. Here again the distinctions rapidly accumulate: between different animals, between animals and plants, between a part of animals and a part of human beings, between internal and external parts of a human being. The conclusion is not relativism but that goodness is complex, changeable, and diverse.41 Meno (or Gorgias) and Protagoras both pay close attention to variability and both derive easy fluency in speaking about goodness, or virtue, from the large number of distinctions that can be shown to apply. But they do not share some further conclusion about the significance of these variations.

This may suggest a neat contrast between (1) the sophists and (2) Socrates and Plato: when the sophists examined virtue or goodness they found an ever-expanding plurality, whereas Socrates and Plato believed there to be a single object of definition and understanding.42 But when discussing justice sophists themselves sometimes looked for unity, even when they drew attention to contrasts. Perhaps the best example is Plato’s Thrasymachus (Republic 338c2–339a4). To explain what he means when he calls justice ‘the advantage of the stronger’, he contrasts different cities: some are ruled by a tyrant, others by the people, others still by an elite group. The ruling person or group in each city enacts laws with a view to its own advantage and declares that obedience to these laws is just. Laws vary from city to city—in some cities the laws are democratic, elsewhere they are autocratic, and so on. But even though different cities have different laws, aimed to support utterly different regimes, in each city justice promotes the interests of the rulers—or, in Thrasymachus’ original wording, ‘of the stronger’. In this sense throughout all cities ‘the same thing’ (339a1) is just: ‘it turns out, if one reasons correctly, that justice is the same everywhere’ (339a2­–3).

(p.104) Antiphon describes as artificial the distinction between Greeks and barbarians, and probably held that different laws and customs are responsible for alienating people from one another (fr. 44 (b)). (Unfortunately, given the state of the text, we cannot be certain.)43 Nonetheless he thought it possible to generalize about justice. In his comments on justice Antiphon offers a single definition, designed to accommodate the fact that different cities have different laws (‘justice is not to transgress the laws of the city in which one is a citizen’, fr. 44(a) I.6–11),44 and then speaks in general terms about justice, or ‘justice according to the law’, and its bearing on our interests. For example, ‘much of what is just according to law is inimical to nature’ (II.26–30), and ‘justice from the law’ cannot make good the losses people suffer at the hands of those who flout it (VI.3–9).

These passages offer something different from the comments on virtue and goodness in the Meno and Protagoras. For Thrasymachus the empirical fact that different cities prescribe different things as ‘just’ is merely the starting point: by ‘reasoning correctly’ he tries to show what the varying prescriptions have in common. Reasoning should take us beyond the diversity shown by an empirical survey. And in the surviving passages of Antiphon’s On Truth the fact that different cities and peoples have different laws does not prevent Antiphon from offering a disquieting message about justice in all cities. Already sophists are trying to find the one throughout the many, if not the one over many.

5.4 One and Many: Early Epicureans on Justice

In Epicurus’ theory of justice a lot has changed. Epicurus insists that justice requires more than legislation or obedience to law: a just action or law must be genuinely beneficial, and beneficial to the whole community, not only to its rulers or ruler (KD 36, 37). (The reason for saying ‘community’, not ‘city’, will become clear soon.) All the same, a prohibition, say, that is beneficial to the community is not just until its benefits have been recognized and the community has committed itself to the prohibition. Up to that point it is only beneficial, not just (KD 33). That is, justice requires not only benefit but recognition and coordination by the community. Epicurus describes the agreement between members of the community as being neither to harm nor be harmed (KD 31, 32, 33), and it has been argued persuasively that he includes indirect as well as direct harm.45 For example, he would include as (p.105) just a law to ration water in the event of a shortage (if some people drink too much others will be harmed), as well as laws against battery or theft. (It is convenient to use ‘laws’ as examples, but strictly speaking justice relies on a contract, not on laws.)

In Epicurus’ view, how was his theory an improvement on the theories of his predecessors? Long and Sedley reasonably see polemic against Plato: according to them, when Epicurus denies (KD 33–4) that justice is something ‘in itself’, and that injustice is an evil ‘in itself’, his target is Platonic attempts to isolate justice—from its instantiations, as a Form and object of understanding, and from its consequences, as something good to have (Republic 358b).46 But the most explicitly articulated polemic (if we include the evidence for Hermarchus’ writing as well as Epicurus’ own writing) is against relativists.47

So those who say that in the sphere of legislation all that is admirable and just is so according to individual judgements—they are full of utter stupidity. That is not the case, but rather it is like the other things that benefit, such as what is healthy and countless other kinds.48

Porphyry is reporting the account of justice in Hermarchus’ Against Empedocles.49 Hermarchus goes on to outline the various errors that can be made ‘in the sphere of legislation’: it is possible to think that something beneficial only in certain circumstances is universally beneficial, or to neglect a law that really is universally beneficial. But first he draws a comparison, in the quoted extract, between the just and the healthy (in the sense of ‘health-giving’). This addresses cases where two communities correctly enact opposed laws. All that this shows is that the laws beneficial for one community are not beneficial for the other—just as a diet that is healthy for one person might wreck another person’s health. There is no need to suppose that Hermarchus’ discussion of health and ‘countless other kinds’ of benefit alludes to specialist literature, but it is striking that the kind of differences to which Plato’s Protagoras drew attention—what is beneficial in one relation or context is harmful in another—now reappears in an argument against ‘Protagorean’ relativism.50 (p.106) That communities can correctly enact opposed laws as ‘just’ is no more surprising or mysterious than a doctor correctly prescribing different diets for two different patients—or, to use an example more in keeping with Protagoras 334a–c, correctly using one drug to treat an external part of the body and a different drug to treat an internal part.

Hermarchus’ text may have said little more than this about relativism (we should not forget that his principal opponent was Empedocles).51 What about the other (and, I have suggested, more central) features of sophistic thought, such as the attention to ‘ethical variability’? If we put Epicurus’ account next to those of the sophists, it becomes clear that in the Epicurean account regions have displaced regimes. Thrasymachus showed that different political regimes, democratic, tyrannical, or oligarchic, prescribe different things as just. Epicurus, by contrast, speaks of different kinds of territory.

With respect to what is common justice is the same for everyone—something advantageous in their association with one another. But with respect to the particular features of the territory (κατὰ δὲ τὸ ἴδιον χώρας‎) and however many other factors there may be, the same thing does not turn out to be just for all.

(KD 36)

We find similar wording elsewhere. Epicurus describes justice arising in different ‘regions’ (τόποι‎, KD 33), and Hermarchus suggests that laws that are not universally beneficial, such as those concerned with the killing and eating of animals, depend on the ‘particular features of the territory’ (τὸ τῆς χώρας ἴδιον‎), and so do not constrain us, as we do not live in the same ‘region’ (Porph. 1.12).

Why does Epicurus speak in terms of regions and territories rather than regimes? In part this reflects the limited power of rulers and the limited importance of their interests. As justice must be genuinely beneficial, the rulers cannot by stipulation make anything just; they can merely make the beneficial just, by enforcing compliance to it throughout the community. (By allowing for the possibility of error on the rulers’ part, Epicurus avoids a difficulty that Thrasymachus fails to foresee: Thrasymachus presents justice both as advantageous to the rulers and as obedience to the rulers, but there are cases where the rulers make an error and, in effect, command their subjects to damage the rulers’ own interests. This is the first objection put by Socrates to Thrasymachus in Plato’s dialogue.)52 And, as we have seen, Epicurus requires (p.107) the benefits of justice to be spread across the entire community, not confined to its rulers. If two cities have different, but just, laws, we must explain the differences in terms of the cities’ interests, not the rulers’ interests.

This suggests that Epicurus should have spoken about justice in different ‘cities’, but instead he and Hermarchus favour ‘regions’ and ‘territory’. But Epicurus evidently sees reason to be vague about the size of the communities where justice arises, for in KD 33 he says that justice arises ‘in individual regions large or small’:53 in the Epicurean theory it does not matter whether the community is spread over a small or large area, as long as there are sufficient levels of communication and coordination to make a contract possible. And sometimes the Epicureans considered alternatives to the Greek polis.54 According to Porphyry Hermarchus spoke of the legislation now present in ‘cities and peoples’ (κατὰ πόλεις τε καὶ ἔθνη‎, 1.11), and described the laws concerned with eating and killing animals ‘in most of the peoples’ (1.12). Taking this passage together with Epicurus’ provision for different sizes, we can say that Epicurean theory accommodates (1) the peoples spread over a larger area than a polis but who can nonetheless agree on prohibitions and requirements, but also (2) communities too small to be regarded conventionally as a polis but where the advantages of coordination are already seen. Justice can exist even in such simple communities. From this point of view there is something parochial in sophistic contrasts between different Greek cities. Group (1) cannot fail to put us in mind of the larger political units of the Hellenistic world, but group (2) points in a quite different direction: to Epicurus’ interest in the distant past and the emergence of the first communities.55 Epicurus does not indicate whether group (1) or (2) was more significant for KD 33; on the contrary, he seems to be using the most general wording available to him.

Epicurus also aims to speak in suitably general terms when outlining the factors that account for variation. (Contrast Thrasymachus, who includes only the forms of government in his explanation of variety.) First among these are the ‘particular features of the territory’, which Epicurus perhaps regarded as the most basic or far-reaching explanation. Among the ‘features of the territory’ he may have included local threats or constraints, such as predators (p.108) and scarcity of water or food.56 But he nonetheless wished to allow for the full range of other factors—‘however many other factors there may be’, to quote from KD 36. We might speculate that he would include cases where a community’s past affects what is now in its interests—for example, if previous generations squandered stocks of an important commodity it would now be in the interests of the community (and so just, once agreement has been reached) to restrict use of the commodity. Elsewhere Epicurus explicitly includes variations over time as well as variations between regions. A law becomes just and then ceases to be just if it is beneficial only for a certain period—and yet during the beneficial period it really was just (KD 37 and 38). In KD 37 Epicurus indicates that some people may object to this (or, in his wording, make themselves confused), but the objection he anticipates is that the law was not really just if it is not always just. If he has in mind specific opponents, they are not relativists: they seek to deny not merely the objectivity of moral properties but their reality.57 This does not sound like sophists.

In conclusion, the sophists’ theories were a far more significant point of reference in the Garden than in the early Stoa. As we have seen, in political philosophy relativism is the theory to which early Epicureans most directly oppose themselves, in Hermarchus’ comment on the admirable and the just. As for sophistic accounts of variability, even if Epicureans did not openly criticize them, the comparison with sophists helps us appreciate what Epicurus must have seen as key advantages of his own account of justice. Epicurus tries to improve on the sophists when describing the variability of justice, and specifically tries to avoid any narrowness of outlook, by recognizing different sizes of community, different causes of variation, and changes over time as well as between places. He also avoids presenting the variations as merely a preliminary object of study. For Thrasymachus the political theorist should go beyond the empirical recognition of diversity and recognize, by ‘reasoning correctly’, what just laws have in common. Epicurus, by contrast, aims in KD 36 for a balance between ‘what is common’ and what is not. After all, it is only when we recognize the need for the just to be genuinely beneficial—something that everything just has in common—that we understand why justice is multiform. The same laws could not be beneficial everywhere or at all times.58


(1) See for example D.L. 7.198 (Chrysippus’ On Sophisms), 10.26 (some Epicureans call other Epicureans ‘sophists’); Epicurus On Nature 28, fr. 13 col. X 3–12 sup. (contemporaries advancing ‘sophisms’ are called ‘sophists’). For the last text, see Sedley 1973.

(2) Dihle 1981: 59. Throughout the chapter I use ‘sophistic’ to mean, without disparagement, ‘belonging to or otherwise relating to the sophists’.

(3) For discussion of this doctrine, see section 5.4.

(4) See especially Kahn 1981. Mitsis argues against the view that Epicurus had a ‘sophistic’ contractual theory of justice (1988: 68–9).

(5) So Denyer 1983.

(6) Glaucon famously considers what would happen if someone could escape detection (359b6–360d7), but unlike Antiphon he does not relate this to the ‘contract’ or ‘agreement’.

(7) See Long and Sedley 1987, vol. 1: 135; Vander Waerdt 1987: 418; Mitsis 1988: 83; Brown 2009: 193–4.

(8) For the sources of income, see also Stoic. Rep. 1047f, D.L. 7.189 (and the crucial comments on the passage at Schofield 1991: 18–20), and Stob. 2.109.10–110.8. The passage of Stobaeus shows that some Stoics were uncomfortable with the word ‘sophistry’, as it sounded disparaging; compare Stob. 2.94.8–20. Epicureans preferred to speak of ‘making money from wisdom’ (D.L. 10.120).

(9) Compare Stoic. Rep. 1043b–c and Stob. 2.109.13–14.

(10) See Protagoras 349a, Hippias Major 282e–283b, and Long 2013a: 41, 61. For a different view on the sophists and their fees in Plato, see Lane 2011.

(11) See Stob. 2.95.21–3. For wealth as a promoted indifferent, see D.L. 7.102–6, Stob. 2.83.10–84.2 and 84.18–85.11, and for the relevance of the doctrine to ‘sophistry’, see Schofield 1991: 19 n. 28. At 7.107 Diogenes is more specific: wealth is ‘promoted’ not because it is intrinsically valuable but because of its utility.

(12) So Schofield 2005: 448.

(13) Compare Lane 2011: 256, according to which Socrates may approve of charging money for genuine teaching. For the scarceness of sages, see now Brouwer 2014: 92–135.

(14) For discussion, see Denyer 2013.

(15) Diogenes the Cynic said that music, geometry, astronomy, and similar subjects should be ignored as ‘useless and unnecessary’ (D.L. 6.73; compare 6.103–4). Probably Zeno himself said ‘general education’ or something similarly unspecific, and so gave room for manoeuvre to later Stoics, such as Diogenes of Babylon and (perhaps) Posidonius, who thought that musical education, at least, was not useless. See Woodward 2010 and Posidonius fr. 168 Edelstein-Kidd (= Galen PHP 5.6.20–22), fr. 90 (Sen. Ep. 88.21–8). (It is far from certain that Galen is restricting himself to what Posidonius actually wrote.) Long and Sedley (1987, vol. 2: 423) contrast Zeno’s comment on education with Stob. 2.67.5–12: ‘the wise man alone is a lover of music and literature.’ For the phrase ἐγκύκλιος παιδεία‎, see, for example, D.S. 33.7.7; Strab. 14.5.13; Athen. 4.184b; [Plut.] On Music 1135d. Two of the more important discussions of ἐγκύκλιος παιδεία‎ are in Latin literature: Quint. 1.10.1 and Sen. Ep. 88.23.

(16) See Plut. Lyc. 31 (and the important clarification in Baldry 1959: 8) and Athen. 13.561c. Schofield argues that ‘freedom’ was added by Athenaeus (1991: 48–56).

(17) Contrast Schofield 1991 and Vogt 2008: 65–110.

(18) See Baldry 1959: 5 n. 4; Schofield 1991: 22–56; Long 2013b: 116–22.

(19) At first Socrates’ challenge concerns expertise in politics (319a3–b1), but later (320b5) Socrates speaks of ‘virtue’ or (in another common translation) ‘excellence’, and Protagoras suggests that the subject is ‘justice and the rest of political virtue’ (323a6–7, b2).

(20) Protagoras 338e6–339a3. It is quite possible that he intends merely to take the discussion to an area where he expects to perform better than Socrates.

(21) Protagoras also criticizes the mathematical, musical, and literary education provided by other sophists. He has in mind not ‘general education’ but advanced, technical pursuit of these subjects (318d5–319a2).

(22) He then argued that cities should not build gymnasia and law-courts (D.L. 7.33), and so must have believed that these institutions too should not have the educational role that Plato’s Protagoras attributes to them.

(23) The evidence is at Plut. Stoic. Rep. 1034e. Compare Asmis’ comment on the Epicurean rejection of both traditional education and the Platonic alternative (1995: 19).

(24) See now Schofield 2010.

(25) ‘[Plato’s] Republic works out in monumental breadth and penetrating detail the Protagorean insight that human individuals are shaped through and through by the institutions of their society’ (Broadie 2003: 83–4). Compare also Plato’s discussion of education in the Ship of State, where the interfering ‘sailors’ (i.e. democratic politicians) deny that ‘navigation’ (expertise in politics) can be taught (488b6–7). Protagoras and Plato’s Socrates have different conceptions of that expertise, but they have a common enemy in the sailors. Later Socrates belittles the teaching of salaried sophists (no doubt Protagoras counts as an example), saying that they pass off as ‘wisdom’ the opinions of ordinary people (493a6–9), but he denies that these sophists corrupt the young to any significant extent. The greatest ‘sophists’ are rather those who talk down people like Protagoras (492a5–b4), particularly when they signal approval and disapproval in large numbers and so impose their views on others (492b6–c9). Protagoras’ corrupting influence on the young is tiny when compared with that of his detractors.

(26) See Schofield 1991: 41–2.

(27) Plutarch (Cleomenes 11) provides the tantalizing claim that Sphaerus helped Cleomenes restore the Spartan education or ἀγωγή‎. See Erskine 2011: 123–49.

(28) Lane 2013 explores the themes of legislation and founding in Plato’s Republic.

(29) See n. 37.

(30) For discussion, see Warren 2002: 14–16.

(31) Compare Apul. Florida 18, where Protagoras is said to have got from Democritus the contents of his teaching.

(32) Athen. 8.354c. Compare D.L. 9.53 and Gel. NA 5.3. Epicurus seems to be drawing on a tradition at least as old as Aristotle (see D.L. 9.53) according to which Protagoras invented a device to make the job of a porter easier. It does not follow from this that the anecdote is devoid of criticism; Epicurus may have seen in that tradition a neat way to represent, and belittle, the impression of a system in Protagoras’ writing. Contrast Sedley 1976: 126.

(33) See for example the powerful case for Epicurean gods being ‘thought-constructs’ in Long and Sedley 1987, vol. 1: 144–9.

(34) Plutarch includes Protagoras as one of the philosophers insulted by Epicurus and Metrodorus (That Epicurus Makes a Pleasant Life Impossible 1086e–f).

(35) Sophistic an art: P.Herc. 1674 col. XXXIV 32–5, XLIII 26–35, col. LVI 9–LVIII 8; sophistic the art of writing speeches and delivering display pieces: P.Herc. 1674 col. XXIII 33–XXIV 9. I use the text of the second book in Longo Auricchio 1977, but I have also made use of the findings in Blank 2003.

(36) P.Herc. 1674 col. XXXVII 1–31 (for the text, see Blank 2003: 73), XLIII 26–35; P.Herc. 1672 col. XXI 10–17.

(37) At least one other individual sophist was a target. According to Philodemus (P.Herc. 1674 col. L 11–29), Metrodorus argued that people succeed in politics without learning Thrasymachus’ art, and that Thrasymachus himself could not achieve what he says his art makes possible. It should be noted that Philodemus is citing Metrodorus’ On Poems, not a work on rhetoric or politics, and so Thrasymachus and politics presumably had only indirect or secondary importance for Metrodorus himself. For discussion of Philodemus’ testimony see Chandler 2006: 117–22.

(38) See for example Woodruff 1999: 305. Contrast chapter 9 (‘Sophistic Relativism’) of Kerferd 1981, which uses the theme of relativism to draw together a wide range of sophistic writing.

(39) Bett 2002. Bett recognizes the contrasts between different sophists, but is trying to identify a sophistic ‘style of thinking about ethics’ (2002: 236).

(40) Bett 2002: 237 compares the discussion of Gorgias at Arist. Pol. 1260a27–8.

(41) For a different interpretation, see Rowett 2013.

(42) Compare Arist. Pol. 1260a20–33, which contrasts Gorgias and Socrates.

(43) See Pendrick 2002: 351–2.

(44) See Furley 1981: 83.

(45) O’Keefe 2001.

(46) Long and Sedley 1987, vol. 2: 130. ‘Epicurus’ target is most likely the Platonic notion of an ontologically separate universal that is capable of independent existence’ (Mitsis 1988: 78). See also O’Keefe 2001: 135.

(47) Compare Denyer 1983: 147–9, although Denyer does not discuss Hermarchus. Alberti distinguishes between ‘conventionalism’ and the genuinely Epicurean claim that justice is relative to circumstances (1995: 184).

(48) Porph. On Abstinence 1.12.

(49) For the title of Hermarchus’ work, see Obbink 1988. Porphyry says in advance (1.3.4) that he will omit the material directed against Empedocles.

(50) The point that different things are healthy to different people appears in another Epicurean discussion of relativism (Polystr. On Irrational Contempt 24.23–25.2). Polystratus’ opponents, whoever they were (Sedley 1983 suggests the Academy of Arcesilaus), used the relativity of the admirable and the shameful to undermine the reality of these supposed properties; according to Polystratus, the opponents’ conclusion was not relativism as such but that people are wrong when they believe things to have moral properties.

(51) This is controversial: not surprisingly, scholars have suggested that contemporary rivals, not Empedocles, must be the main target. See Obbink 1988: 432 and Vander Waerdt 1988 (the latter finds polemic against Stoics).

(52) Republic 339b–e.

(53) The importance of this expression has not been recognized. Long and Sedley 1987 translate ‘at some place or other’, and Inwood and Gerson 1997 translate ‘in whatever places’, but compare the use of ὁπηλίκος‎ in Letter to Herodotus 56 and 57, where Epicurus is clearly speaking about size. In KD 33 δή ποτε‎ emphasizes that the size of the individual or respective (ἀεί‎) region does not matter. (Compare ὅσων δή ποτε‎ in KD 36.)

(54) But notice συμπολιτευομένων‎ in KD 38. It is widely recognized that Epicurus’ theory must accommodate a community consisting exclusively of Epicureans (see for example O’Keefe 2001); less attention is paid to the fact that he aims to accommodate different kinds of non-Epicurean community.

(55) See KD 40, Letter to Herodotus 75–6 and (for discussion of On Nature 12) Sedley 1998: 121–2.

(56) Gretchen Reydams-Schils suggests to me that he may also have had in mind the effects of the environment on the character of the local people, as discussed in e.g. Plb. 4.21.

(57) Compare Polystratus’ target in On Irrational Contempt (n. 50).

(58) My thanks to the participants at the events at Edinburgh and Notre Dame where I presented versions of this paper, and especially to Mirko Canevaro, Ben Gray, Gretchen Reydams-Schils and Nicolas Wiater.