BMCR 2003.08.21

Antiphon the Sophist. The Fragments. Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries 39

, , The fragments. Cambridge classical texts and commentaries ; 39. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xi, 472 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0521651611 $75.00.

Antiphon the sophist is probably best known for his contribution to the fifth-century debate over the relationship between law and nature, for his attempt to square the circle or for his example of the ‘buried bed’, which induced Aristotle to ascribe to him the view that the matter, and not the form, of natural objects should be regarded as their nature. However, this is not to say that the extant remains of his works are well understood. On the contrary, to come to terms with the surviving evidence is not an easy task. The new collection that Gerard J. Pendrick (henceforth P.) now provides runs to some 140 pages of testimonia and fragments, with a facing translation. Yet it remains difficult, even after reading the almost 70 and 200 pages of P.’s introduction and commentary respectively, to understand the meaning of many fragments, to assess the nature of the works they come from and to form an adequate idea of the man who wrote them. The cause of this, to be sure, is not P., who presents an enormous amount of relevant material, carefully translates and interprets the transmitted texts and intelligently judges a substantial body of literature, but rather the nature of the evidence, since it simply does not allow for answers to many of our more general questions. At least, this is the verdict which P. himself delivers time and again in his commentary and introduction and constitutes a major merit of his new edition.

A second major merit of P.’s edition, compared with those of Diels-Kranz or Untersteiner, is the updating of the collection of texts. These are all taken from existing editions, but in some important cases, e.g. that of the Oxyrhynchus papyri which preserve parts of Antiphon’s treatise ‘On truth’, this means a considerable advance.1 P. has also added some new material, of which mostly consists of parallel passages that had previously been neglected but also papyrological and epigraphical finds unknown to former editors. Thus, provided with a rich bibliography and several indexes, P.’s work will prove to be a starting-point and an indispensable resource for further research. The fact that its goal is not to establish any general thesis concerning Antiphon does not detract from this judgement; rather, the detailed, well-documented and sensible commentary and introduction that result from this reserve are further reasons for approval. As P. states in his preface, the goal of his edition is simply to present a collection and discussion of all the evidence for the life and writings of Antiphon the sophist.

In what follows I will present and discuss the main parts of the work: introduction, text and translation, and commentary. I will linger on a little over the introduction, because there the general line of interpretation that P. applies in his commentary becomes apparent.

Many problems of interpretation to which I alluded already emerge in P.’s introduction, which focuses on Antiphon’s identity, his works and his thought in its fifth-century context. As for the first of these topics, P. rejects the wide-spread ‘unitarian’ position, according to which Antiphon the sophist is to be identified with his contemporary Antiphon of Rhamnous, the politician and logographer. Instead he favours a ‘separatist’ position, based on a careful discussion of the ancient testimonia, the linguistic and stylistic characteristics of the works current in antiquity under the name of Antiphon and the ethical, political and religious ideas these works have been thought to reveal. P.’s conclusion is that the testimonia offer probable, though not certain evidence for distinguishing Antiphon the sophist from the Rhamnousian, but that this distinction cannot be supported by a comparison of the language and style of the fragments of the sophist and the speeches of the Rhamnousian, let alone by an analysis of the contents of their writings. According to P. linguistic and stylistic differences do exist but are not compelling; and arguments based on the contents of the works are likely to remain inconclusive in view of the fact that the ideas of the sophist on e.g. law, morality and society are but imperfectly known from fragmentary evidence preserved without sufficient context to guide its interpretation, while those of the politician cannot be extrapolated from speeches he wrote for others or from his own political activities. In fact, as P. points out, the contents of the works have equally been adduced in support of the ‘unitarian’ as well as the ‘separatist’ position.

As regards the works of Antiphon the sophist, P. first of all discusses the textual problems provided by the list of Hermogenes of Tarsus. Partly as a result of these problems the work entitled ‘Politicus’, and even the works ‘On truth’ and ‘On concord’, which Hermogenes attributes to the sophist, have also been ascribed to Antiphon of Rhamnous. P. opposes such interpretations and sides with the majority of editors and commentators, who count them as works of Antiphon the sophist. To these works he then adds the ‘Dream-book’. Hermogenes does not mention it, but according to P. this may simply be due to the fact that is was not included in the ‘corpus Antiphonteum’, the ancient standard collection of the writings of Antiphon of Rhamnous, into which the writings of the sophist were included at some time or other and for some unknown reason — an inclusion which, according to P., already in antiquity contributed to the wide-spread confusion of Antiphon the sophist with the Rhamnousian.

After these preliminaries P. treats each of the four works separately. Whenever the sources allow, he determines the number of books, distinguishes between verbatim quotations with or without a book-number on the one hand and secondary reports on the other, takes stock of the topics dealt with and explores the possibilities of reconstructing a common theme or thread of argument. He also discusses the style and possible means for dating the works. Most of the time, however, as a result of the nature of the evidence, his conclusions about the chronology and the structure and purport of the works are negative. For example, he criticizes many overall interpretations of Antiphon’s ‘On truth’, because they focus on his discussion of law and nature as opposite standards of advantageous human conduct but neglect the many fragments that cover a diverse range of subjects — epistemology or psychology; cosmology, astronomy, geology; but also geometry and medical or physiological theory — that seemingly have nothing to do with it. In addition, according to P., all those interpretations assume what ought to be demonstrated, viz., that the work actually had a unifying theme. As he points out, the title ‘On truth’ is likely to be of later date, and works of Presocratics such as Anaximander or Anaxagoras cover a comparably wide range of subjects.

P.’s discussion of Antiphon’s thought in its fifth-century context concentrates on three topics. First of all he examines attempts to impose on the remains of his writings a consistent philosophical system. The conclusion is that the fragmentary and incomplete nature of the evidence resists all such attempts. Second, he situates Antiphon’s thought in the philosophical context of his time, which leads to the result that his problems and interests seem conventional. The efforts of commentators to link specific views attested in the fragments to doctrines of his predecessors or contemporaries are mostly speculative and unconvincing. Finally P. compares Antiphon’s papyrus fragments on the opposition between law and nature with other contributions to the fifth-century debate over the principles of advantageous human conduct, that is, with the discussions of some of these contributions in Plato’s dialogues. He points to several similarities but also to differences between Antiphon’s treatment of the topic and the views ascribed to Callicles in the ‘Gorgias’ and to Thrasymachus or Glaucon in the first book of the ‘Republic’.

P.’s text and translation are both of high quality. He distinguishes between testimonia and fragments, which follow as closely as possible the numeration employed by Diels-Kranz and Untersteiner. Meanwhile, many passages are more generously printed within a larger context and furnished with a full critical apparatus. Also included are lists of the standard editions on which the texts are based and of the principal relevant manuscripts. However, nineteenth-century positivistic tendencies have not completely vanished. For words that are presumably Antiphon’s own are printed in bold typefaces, both in the fragments and in their translations. These are accurate but not always as literal as possible. P.’s aim, I suppose, has not been to strive after literalness but to produce a flowing version in natural English, which nevertheless conveys the exact meaning of the original.

The commentary is rich. Whenever necessary it deals with textual and even papyrological issues, and with lexical and grammatical, stylistic and literary topics. Of course, it also enters into many questions in the fields of ancient intellectual history, philosophy and science and their historical developments. It is not feasible to do justice to all of it. I therefore concentrate on two topics mentioned already in the first paragraph of this review: Antiphon’s treatment of law and nature as principles of advantageous human conduct (Fragments 44a-c) and his example of the ‘buried bed’ (Fragments 15a-h). I select these topics because of their significance but also because P.’s comments on the fragments in question may clarify the judgement I passed earlier about the sensible but also sceptical character of his commentary.

Fragments 44a-c are transmitted in three Oxyrhynchus papyri. This means that the passages we possess are taken from their original context, which makes for a difficult interpretation of Antiphon’s overall purpose in formulating the arguments that are preserved. P.’s reminder of this fact is extremely useful, for it is natural to interpret the parts of the work we do possess in the light of similar discussions, e.g. in Plato’s ‘Gorgias’ or in the first book of his ‘Republic’. As a matter of fact many scholars have taken such a stance,2 for example in relation to Antiphon’s argument in Fragment 44a that the most advantageous way for an individual to deal with justice as conventionally conceived of, that is, as obedience to the law, is to obey it in the presence of witnesses but disregard it in their absence. This is so, according to Antiphon, because transgression of the law entails some sanction of the justice system, and consequently disadvantage, only when it is observed. Violations against nature, on the other hand, are punished automatically, in so far as conduct in accordance with nature is considered as advantageous, conduct contrary to nature as disadvantageous. It is perfectly natural, I think, to view this argument of Antiphon’s as part of the rebellion of an individual against the law of a community in the name of human nature. It would also seem perfectly natural to go one step further and credit Antiphon with advocating a new and superior form of justice in some relation to human nature instead of conventional legal justice; that is, it is perfectly natural to align such an Antiphon with the Callicles who expounds a theory of ‘natural justice’ in Plato’s ‘Gorgias’. Nevertheless, nothing in our text suggests that Antiphon held any normative conception of justice, let alone a conception of justice as conduct in some accordance with nature. Therefore P., referring to Furley, does an extremely useful job to stress this fact.3 Of course, in passages that are lost Antiphon may have argued for what is missing now; and we may speculate about it, as many scholars have done, but we cannot be said to have any certain knowledge here. This means, however, that the purpose of Antiphon’s argument, and consequently the tenor of his thought in this respect, is unknown. And the only thing we can do, in want of further evidence, is indeed to speculate. As a heuristic means this has its value, but, as P. points out, it is hazardous, as is clearly shown by many interpretations of Fragment 44b which were propounded before the content of a new papyrus in 1984 exposed as false textual supplements on which they relied.4

The opposition between law and nature, which is so important in Fragments 44a-c, reappears in Fragments 15a-h. The most interesting of these parallel passages is Fragment 15b, which is taken from Aristotle. Antiphon’s example of the ‘buried bed’ is cited as proof for Aristotle’s thesis that some earlier philosophers identified the nature of individual things with their ‘first’, that is, with their ‘proximate’ matter. Aristotle tells us that Antiphon stressed that if the putrefaction of a buried bed made of wood should get the power to send up a shoot, this shoot would not be a bed but wood. This is so, according to Antiphon, because the arrangement of the wood into a bed is not the φύσις or ‘nature’ of the wood, but a temporary work of human craftsmanship, and so belongs to the realm of νόμος — a term which I have hitherto translated as ‘law’, but which in fact has a much wider sense, for it may be said to cover the whole of human cultural life.5 The nature of the bed, so Aristotle continues, Antiphon conceived of as that which persists while undergoing modifications such as the arrangement of the wood into a bed. Now Aristotle claims that this conception of Antiphon’s comes down to identifying the nature of a thing with its matter, that is, he reads into Antiphon’s view on the buried bed his own distinction between matter and form. This, however, as P. argues on the basis of several indications in Aristotle’s text, is likely to be just another example of his usual procedure when dealing with the Presocratics. Antiphon’s example may simply have had the purpose to demonstrate the superiority of φύσις over νόμος, of nature over human craftsmanship, of the essential over that which is imposed upon it by man. P. refers e.g. to Fragment 44a, column i, line 25, where the law is said to be ‘imposed’ upon nature. Nature is that which is primary, the law and cultural life in general are only secondary. In such a way P. connects Fragment 15b, along with its parallel passages, with an important theme of Antiphon’s work ‘On truth’. But he refrains from further speculations as to the import the ‘buried-bed’ argument may have had in the scheme of this work, for in view of Aristotle’s false suggestion it does not seem to affect any search for the underlying essence of things, and Aristotle’s suggestion, so P. maintains, constitutes in this respect the only evidence we have.

In conclusion: P. has written a well-documented, helpful and sensible commentary which accompanies a text and translation which are of high quality. His edition is likely to become an indispensable work of reference for years to come.


1. Usual collections of the evidence: H. Diels and W. Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 6th ed., 3 vols., Berlin 1951-52 and M. Untersteiner (and A. Battegazzore), Sofisti, Testimonianze e frammenti IV: Antifonte, Crizia, Florence 1962. Editions of the Oxyrhynchus papyri: B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt, in: The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. XI (London 1915), pp. 92-104 and vol. XV (London 1922), pp. 119-122. See also note 4 below.

2. P. gives a list of references on p. 320; see also n. 115 on p. 61.

3. D.J. Furley, “Antiphon’s case against justice”, in G.B. Kerferd (ed.), The Sophists and their legacy, Wiesbaden 1981, pp. 81-91.

4. The papyrus was edited by M.S. Funghi, The Oxyrhynchus Paryri, vol. 52 (London 1984), pp. 1-5.

5. Implicit in this sense is the opposition with nature. For the fifth-century debate over this opposition see J.W. Beardslee, The use of φύσις in fifth-century Greek literature, Chicago 1918 and F. Heinimann, Nomos und Physis: Herkunft und Bedeutung einer Antithese im griechischen Denkens des 5. Jahrhunderts, Basel 1945 (= Darmstadt 1987).