Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.07.13

Klaus Friedrich Hoffmann, Das Recht im Denken der Sophistik.  

Reviewed by Fernando Oreja, Institut für Philosophie, Technische Universität Berlin (
Word count: 3109 words

H(offmann)'s book on "Recht" (right, law, justice) in the Thinking of the Sophistic is with its 496 pages a full and in many ways exhaustive treatment of the subjects indicated in the title. We can only welcome such a publication because, since the second volume of Wolf's Griechisches Rechtsdenken1 no comparable treatise, apart from works which deal with sophistic thinking on justice only within the framework of a more general contemplation, has been published. However, this book, a reworked thesis, has more to offer than only its claim to completeness. Beyond this one will find some interesting and original views concerning many aspects of the specialized research, and, more importantly, also some just as original theses concerning the sophistic movement as such, its systematicity and its development in time. There are very few questions concerning the sophists which have been finally resolved, and, even if in the last decades relatively many and also good contributions have appeared, the number of established and no longer disputed facts hasn't increased noticeably. H. frequently draws far-reaching conclusions, which appear to be decisive footsteps outside the already known paths, and because of this alone it's certainly worth while to take a closer look at this book.

Next to a short introduction (1-11), the book consists of eight chapters, which offer mainly "philological interpretations" of several sophists and sophistic texts (Protagoras, Thrasymachos, Polos and Callicles in the Gorgias, Hippias, Antiphon, the so-called Sisyphus-fragment, the Anonymus Iamblichi and the Δισσοὶ Λόγοι) and finally a long (358-423) "summary", which attempts to be a "systematical survey" of the whole problem of justice in the sophistic movement. Then there is also a bibliography of twenty-two pages and an index of passages.

In the introduction H. attempts to justify the perspectives of his work against the background of the whole of the research literature and indicates which are the advantages of his own work and which are the characteristics that make its publication desirable. Two aspects are strongly emphasized by H.: his work offers individual interpretations of the different sophistic texts, even detailed "philological interpretations", and, secondly, a systematical survey of the whole movement, which attempts to respect its many-sidedness. And so "spreading classifications" are given up at the beginning (4), making visible the "many layers of the sophistic thinking on justice", as is emphasized by the author time and time again. H. believes that the sophistic movement is "contradictory in itself" and therefore it is inappropriate "to ask for the sophistic thinking on justice" (4, 10, 358, 361, ...). The insistence on the many-sidedness is important because, according to the author, other interpretations of the sophistic thinking on justice and of the Sophistic itself are in danger of making the different views of the different Sophists subservient to a one-sided leading thought, or to look at them from only one angle (for example the political angle, the movement's enlightenment aspect, its contradiction to Platonic idealism, its political link to Pericles ...) (5-10).

H.'s diagnosis of the state of the research may seem too undifferentiating and too excessively general to be of any help. Considering the Sophistic from one leading thought may be one-sided if one assumes that the existing unity of the designation has nothing to say about the unity of what is being designated. But, if that were the case, one would expect the author to give a critical explanation of the supposed unity of the designation, as well as an indication of the criteria he used for the selection of the texts for his research. Indeed, in the central eight chapters (which follow, even in their sequence, Diels' selection) he treats only those texts and those persons which the research of the early nineteenth century, starting from Platonic criteria and the Platonic determination of the sophistic phenomenon, considered as belonging to the 'sophistic' and being related to present day views on justice. Although something is won by H.'s approach (the rightly recognized 'many-sidedness'), the movement as such then evaporates. Only one time is the question of a real determination of the sophistic movement touched upon (358), but it is then forgotten again without any consequences.

Very remarkable to me seems to be H.'s opinion on the relationship between philosophy and sophistic. It is an incontrovertible fact that Plato's understanding of the sophistic has in many respects been of determining importance. The greater part of the available sources are either directly passed on by him or have been decisively influenced by his interpretations. Plato's indefatigable exertions to force the sophistic into an opposing relation to philosophy have turned out to be fatal. The dominating negative view on the sophistic movement until the beginning of the nineteenth century is not necessarily the most important consequence of this fact. More important to me seems to be the unification under a single name of what were originally very different intellectual tendencies, which share in the end only the fact that they let themselves be brought into a certain opposition to the philosophy.2 H. has little to say on the problem of the coloring of the sources by philosophy, or on the possibility that the (now missing) unity of the movement can be explained only thanks to Plato's intervention and interpretation. Nevertheless, to me H.'s approach seems to be an important one. H.'s book raises two points against the generally accepted interpretations, which, starting from the opposition between sophistic and philosophy, only emphasize the negative motives of skepticism and relativism. In the first place, unfortunately only in the margin and without working it out in detail, he points out a certain continuity, like the common ethical starting point beginning with the question of utility (9, n.24 and 393, n.121). Secondly, based on the φύσις-concept, he points out a development within the sophistic movement, which suggests an interesting kinship with philosophy. After the Protagorian criticism of νόμος, the φύσις-concept developed during the course of the so-called νόμος-φύσις-debate into a basis of argumentation on which the truth of certain statements can be definitely founded. This development of the sophistic offers, next to an aspiration for established truths, also "all the armament with which to overcome the relativism ascribed to her" (366).

The philological expositions, which occupy the larger part of the book, are always of a high level and done with great rigor, taking almost all relevant literature into consideration. Let me examine as example the new explanation of Protagoras' Homo-Mensura-sentence (HMS in the following),3 contained in the chapter about Protagoras (12-70). It's important to H. to establish an ethical meaning in the HMS. His discussion (12-41) starts with two problems which are supposedly easy to solve. In the first place ὡς is supposed to mean 'that' (and therefore the εἶναι of the subordinate clause gets an existential meaning) because of the parallel to the so-called Gods-fragment (80B4). Secondly, μέτρον, according to the concept itself, presupposes something being measured; therefore the being of the χρήματα cannot be what depends upon the μέτρον. At first glance these two points seem to be irreconcilable, and H.'s argumentation here is somewhat unclear. How these points can be reconciled will be demonstrated later by means of a masterpiece of interpretation. I will come back to this. The misunderstanding deepens because of Plato's Theaet. 152a6ff. There Plato, in his interpretation of the fragment, replaces ὡς with οἷα. As is well known ὡς can mean 'that' or 'in which manner', while οἷα can only mean 'of what quality'. H. argues: "Because Plato's οἷα (of what quality) can in no way mean the same as ὡς (in which manner), evidently Plato has understood ὡς as meaning 'that'" (p. 14). In his explanation of the sentence Plato replaces ὡς with οἷα, and that means Plato understood ὡς as meaning 'that'. Everything becomes clearer when one notices that in a comment like this H. simply repeats distortedly the reasoning in von Fritz' Protagoras RE-article.4 Von Fritz argues that, from a philological point of view, ὡς has to mean 'that' in the sentence, that is to say the μέτρον decides on the being of the χρήματα. However, he explains Plato's replacement with οἷα very well by the circumstance that what are χρήματα to Protagoras, (and these are all things, therefore ὡς are in Plato's understanding (against the background of his own ontology) ποιότητες, qualities, modulations of a given thing (therefore οἷα). Precisely in order to explain the many peculiarities of the Protagorian phenomenon, Plato invents that new word in 182a9: ποιότης (more or less: quality). The word appears there for the first time in the whole of Greek literature. The Protagorian phenomenon, following the Platonic reconstruction of the doctrine in the first part of the Theaetetus, is always peculiar (ἴδιον 154a2) and necessarily always related to something else. That's why Plato says we are never dealing with the hotness or the whiteness (θερμότης, λευκότης), rather always with a warm or a white (θερμόν, λευκόν) (Theaet. 182b1-2). That is to say, the general qualities are never to be found in that which appears, because there cannot be found anything in common which could be predicated as an identical abstract quality of different individuals and which could be expressed by the Greek suffix -της (about the same as -ness in English). The generalization of the state of things is the following: in the Protagorian perception arises an always individual and peculiar ποιόν τι, "a quale", and never a ποιότης, a general, over the individual's existing "quality".

That H. didn't understand all this becomes clear from his thoughtless use of the word ποιότητες for the explanation of the χρήματα (cf. 18, 19 n.24, 20 n.25, 21, 33 etc.), since this Platonic word creation expresses exactly what the Protagorian χρήματα never can be. One thing is clear: one cannot take a word that appears for the first time with an explicit technical use within a systematical research out of context and give it a meaning which it simply doesn't have.

It remains incomprehensible that the interpretation of the sentence which is expressed clearly in Plato's Theaetetus is immediately rejected by H. by means of questionable reasoning (16 n.19). According to Plato's explanations, one should understand χρήματα as things without substrate, which only in connection with a μέτρον can come into existence in the appearance (be it as αἴσθησις or δόξα). These are definitely not ποιότητες. This possibility, which postulates the essential unity in the appearance of the measure and that what's being measured, is rejected by H. with the argument that man were in that case not μέτρον but rather the cause of things, and that is in contradiction with Theaet. 152b. (16 n.19). It's pretty terrible to interpret the joining of the appearance of measure and what's being measured as a causal relation, and one has to ask oneself whether H. is really serious on that point. It's also more then questionable to use Plato here as evidence because it is exactly Plato's interpretation which explains verbosely how what is being measured and what measures come into being together, without one being able to say the one precedes the other (cf. 156a ff.).

But how can one reconcile the translation of ὡς as 'that' and the assumption that what's being measured precedes what measures? This masterpiece of interpretation is accomplished by translating χρήματα with an explicit ("nuetzliche Dinge": useful things) or implicit ("Gebrauchsdinge": articles of use) periphrasis. The translation, after repeated consideration, remains on p. 31: "Man is the measure of all articles of use [Gebrauchsdinge] (potentially useful things), of those, that are (it), that they are (it), of those, that are not (it), that they are not (it)".5 Thus a simple concept (χρήματα) is represented by a complex one (articles of use, useful things), and it is assumed that the distributive participle τῶν [μὴ] ὄντων does not refer to the whole syntagma, but only to the adjective, that is to say, not to the things, but to the usefulness or utility of the things. Thus the things are already available before the application of the μέτρον, and the μέτρον decides only on their usefulness or utility. So one can say that ὡς does have the 'existential' meaning of 'that', but the being of the second part of the sentence is not attached to (or deprived of) the things, but only to the adjective that arose from the translation. However, such an interpretation cannot be held, simply on the ground that the Greek χρήματα is a single concept, having whatever connotations, whose latent supposed analytical unfolding cannot be taken apart grammatically in the translation. Therefore τῶν [μὴ] ὄντων cannot refer just to the adjective which one has read into the translation, but must refer to the word χρήματα as a whole.

On p.32 H. tries to escape from this difficulty: "According to it [= the previous translation] man is the criterion upon which it is decided whether something is a χρῆμα (something useful) or whether a χρῆμα exists, respectively." N. 51 p. 31 is the first time that it is taken into consideration whether one has to understand εἶναι as a complete verb or as copula. But it is simply wrong when he says that it doesn't make any difference for his interpretation whether one reads it as complete verb or as a copula with elliptical predicate complement because, if εἶναι is a copula, then my criticism is completely justified, and if εἶναι is a complete verb, then even H. himself has to admit that that what's being measured does not precede what measures.

It's important to H. to emphasize the ethical value of the HMS. This brings him to distinguish between two different interpretations, both correct, of the sentence (33). First there is the 'subjective' interpretation. All notions human beings have of the χρήματα are true, but do not say anything about the χρήματα themselves, rather only about their 'ποιότητες' as H. understands it. The second one is the 'objective' interpretation, according to which there is for each human being "an objectively valid utility, whose μέτρον represents an (individual) human being". What is truly useful is objectively recognizable in individual cases. This interpretation is very interesting. The parallel passages quoted on p.34 ff. concerning the ethical interpretation of the sentence are impressive. However, we have to mention certain absurdities which do arise. One has at least to ask a) what is meant by 'truth' in the case of the subjective interpretation, so that one can say all representations are true, but have nothing to do with what is being represented, and b) how can one interpret μέτρον as an objective standard in reference to what is useful when this concept is always linked to αἴσθησις and δόξα in all sources.

At the beginning of the 'summary' H. asserts emphatically how difficult it is, because of the scarcity of the sources passed on to us, "to give an historically correct presentation of the sophistic thinking on justice and its development" (359). Because of this he offers us not a chronological, rather a systematical survey, which "does not necessarily coincide with the chronological overview" (359). Thus much is taken away from the original intention of the systematical presentation: either it is a formal arrangement of the sources or a history of the sophistic thinking on justice. H.'s unwillingness to face at all the problem of the lost unity associated with the plurality of the sophistic thinking leads him to the inconsistent attempt to present a movement, which possibly isn't one according to his own view, in its development. In fact the survey is an arrangement of the doctrines and positions which were treated in the single chapters in the light of eight relevant concepts (truth, φύσις, νόμος, δίκαιον, utility, social contract, constitutions, equality of men). The different meanings of the termini under discussion are made clear, and also certain possible systematical interdependencies are revealed. Thus H. treats de facto the sophistic thinking on justice as an homogeneous entity, and similar problematic contexts are supposed to apply to all sophists. Only thus one can understand H.'s fundamental claim that calling on the φύσις gives an answer to the logical and epistomological problems, which are indeed inherent in Platonic philosophy, and which are consequently only sufficient proof, if at all, in the cases of Protagoras and Gorgias.

In general one can say that H.'s attempt to present a survey has led him, in spite of his recognition of the many layers, to an excessive schematization which goes against the true nature of the sources. H. systematizes the sources, the unity of which he had determinedly disputed before, as if they all were in the same line of development, as if they all were linked by interdependencies, and as if they all gave only different answers to the same problems. This is clear in the case of concepts like 'truth' and 'φύσις'. He is of the opinion one should start the systematical survey with the question of truth, because all thinking on justice is founded on certain presuppositions. The attempt to define justice, says H., presupposes the possibility to define it, and thus apparently the task is set "to discover the true concept of justice" (360-361); so the question for truth has always been there, both for those who presuppose that it is possible to define it and for those who dispute it. And both, so it is said, need a principle to found their interpretation of truth on, and this principle is φύσις (361). This train of thought isn't conclusive or historically accurate, because one can find clear attempts to define justice only within the context of Platonic dialogues. Callicles or Polos try to do it only at the instigation of Socrates, and this doesn't say anything about their assumptions concerning the logical presuppositions of the possibility of a definition. These logical presuppositions are certainly available in the case of Platonic philosophy, but not in the case of the sophistic. Polos and Callicles enter into what is only a dispute, subjected to certain formal rules, which doesn't have to say anything about the presuppositions in content. It was Plato who made of the linguistic and ontological foundations and presuppositions of the definition the basis of his philosophy, and tried precisely to use that against the sophists.

H.'s book is without any doubt of great value. All in all it is an intelligent and clearly structured book, in which much research is invested: all the textual evidence is taken into consideration, and all the relevant literature is quoted. This makes it an excellent point of departure for follow-up-research. Apart from the detailed questions we have discussed here, it is an irreplaceable work in its field, which thoroughly deserves all attention.6


1.   Wolf, E., Griechisches Rechtsdenken II: Rechtsdenken und Rechtsdichtung in Zeitalter der Sophistik, Frankfurt a.M. 1952, abbreviated by H. as Wolf II 1952 (cf. for example 5, n. 9 and 11) though this abbreviation is overlooked in the bibliography. Apart from this, I've noticed more then two dozen printing errors in the whole book.
2.   What's most interesting in the much quoted chapter LXVII from Grote's History of Greece, London 1850, pp. 434-544 (reprinted in Irwin, T. Classical Philosophy: Collected Papers, vol. 2, Socrates and his contemporaries, New York and London 1995, pp. 2-113) is not so much the rehabilitation of the sophistic, which was already undertaken by others (for instance Zeller had already started with this in the first two editions of his Griechischen Denker I, Tubingen 1844 and 1856; references to Grote can only be found in the third edition: Leipzig 1869), but rather the discussion of the unity of the movement, which could only be fixed in content by the Platonic view.
3.   One can find the greek text of this fragment in the Theaetet 152a2-4 in the following wording: φησὶ [Protagoras] γάρ που "πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον" ἄνθρωπον εἶναι, "τῶν μὲν ὄντων ὡς ἔστι, τῶν δὲ μὴ ὄντων ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν". Jowett translates the passage thus: "Man, he says, is the measure of all things, of the existence of things that are, and of the non-existence of things that are not".
4.   von Fritz, Kurt, "Protagoras", in RE vol.23, 1, 1957, pp. 908-921. Reprinted in: id., Schriften zur griechischen Logik I, Stuttgart 1976, pp.111-117.
5.   Der Mensch ist das Mass aller Gebrauchsdinge (potentiell nuetzlichen Dinge), derer, die (es) sind, dass sie (es) sind, derer, die (es) nicht sind, dass sie (es) nicht sind.
6.   I want to thank A. Holsbergen (the Netherlands) for his help with the English version of this review.

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