Authenticating a Pythagorean Political Text
|December 17, 2010||Posted by Phil Horky under Blog, Language/Literature, Philosophy|
I am working on the problem of the authenticity of a series of fragments in the Doric dialect attributed to the mathematical Pythagorean Archytas of Tarentum, preserved by Stobaeus and called On Law and Justice (Περὶ νόμου καὶ δικαιοσύνης). A provisional version of the Greek texts and translation can be found here. This is not the place to go into the details of the problems offered by these texts (and others like them) or the status quaestionis, but I would like to preview how I am attempting to establish new paradigms for discussion of their authenticity. In essence, my tentative hypothesis is that they are products of the early 4th Century BCE in South Italy and may have some claim to be by Archytas himself.
I argue this in various ways, but one chief aspect of my argument is to place them within a larger context of sophistic writings of the late 5th and early 4th Centuries BCE. Evaluation of “law and justice” was, I think, a stock theme among the sophists, as we discover in the “second” beginning to Plato’s Republic, in Book II. There, Glaucon, Plato’s brother, describes the opinions of contemporaries on what sort of good “justice” (ἡ δικαιοσύνη) is, and whence it came to exist. It is here that Glaucon provides us with crucial evidence for our attempts to re-frame the question of the authenticity of On Law and Justice:
Then let’s discuss the first subject I mentioned – what justice is and what its origins are. They [Thrasymachus and the countless others] say that to do injustice is naturally good and to suffer injustice bad, but that the badness of suffering it so far exceeds the goodness of doing it that those who have done and suffered injustice and tasted both, but who lack the power to do it and avoid suffering it, decide that it is profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to do injustice nor to suffer it. As a result, they begin to make laws and covenants, and what the law commands they call lawful and just (καὶ ἐντεῦθεν δὴ ἄρξασθαι νόμους τίθεσθαι καὶ συνθήκας αὑτῶν, καὶ ὀνομάσαι τὸ ὑπὸ τοῦ νόμου ἐπιτάγμα νόμιμόν τε καὶ δίκαιον). This, they say, is the origin and essence of justice (καὶ εἶναι δὴ ταύτην γένεσίν τε καὶ οὐσίαν δικαιοσύνης). It is intermediate between the best and the worst. The best is to do injustice without paying the penalty; the worst is to suffer it without being able to take revenge. Justice is a mean between these two extremes (τὸ δὲ δίκαιον ἐν μέσῳ ὂν τούτων ἀμφοτέρων). People value it not as a good but because they are too weak to do injustice with impunity. Someone who has the power to do this, however, and is a true man wouldn’t make an agreement with anyone not to do injustice in order not to suffer it. For him that would be madness. This is the nature of justice, according to the argument, and these are its natural origins.
(Plato, Republic II, 358e2-359b7; translated by Grube/Reeve)
As we see, Glaucon suggests that one must go through the arguments of those “countless others” before moving onto a per se definition of what justice really is. Critics have long noted the significance of this passage for placing Plato’s thought within the larger context of Greek political discourse about the “social contract”: Adam, who focuses primarily on Athens, adduces comparisons with Euripides, the sophist Lycophron, Thucydides, and both Callicles and the Athenian Stranger from Plato’s own works . Kerferd expands to the larger Greek world by adding Hippias of Elis, Critias of Athens, Protagoras of Abdera (as represented in the “Great Speech” of Plato’s Protagoras), Democritus of Abdera, and even Herodotus of Halicarnassus (or Thurii) . One figure, I might add, who has stayed under the radar is Xenophon, who recounts an debate “On Justice” (Περὶ τοῦ δικαίου) in which Socrates convinces the sophist Hippias of Elis both that (a) “what is just is the same thing as what is lawful” (τὸ αὐτὸ…νόμιμόν τε καὶ δίκαιον), and (b) the this identification holds for human beings as well as for the gods, who give unwritten laws . “Countless” indeed the others are, I would suggest, and it is within this larger environment of intellectual debates throughout the Greek world that we should see the On Law and Justice attributed to Archytas as operating to present an uniquely “Pythagorean” view of the problem of defining justice and its origins.
But the most important evidence not brought to bear on the problem of the authenticity of On Law and Justice, I would argue, is the mysterious Protagorean figure known as “Anonymous Iamblichi“, a sophist from the late 5th or early 4th Century BCE. In my next post, I will discuss this figure and how his defense of what is “lawful and just” provides a useful test case for our hypothesis.
 J. Adam, The Republic of Plato, Vol. 1: Books I-V (Cambridge, 1938), pp.68-9.  G. Kerferd, The Sophistic Movement (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 148-53.  Xenophon, Memorabilia IV.4.5-25.