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Sophists and Superman

In an earlier post, I suggested that the Glaucon’s initial inquiry into the nature of justice in Plato’s Republic II is chiefly a response to sophistic arguments involving the relationship of “law” to “justice”.  This is significant for our own investigation into the authenticity of the text called On Law and Justice and ascribed to the Pythagorean philosopher Archytas of Tarentum.  There is further evidence worth considering that suggests the influence of this debate among the sophists of the late 5th and early 4th Centuries BCE. A sophistic text preserved by Iamblichus in his Protrepticus, whose title is unknown, and which features an author often referred to in the scholarly literature as “Anonymous Iamblichi”, has never, to my knowledge, been brought to bear on the study of the On Law and Justice attributed to Archytas[1], and it provides us with a very useful point of comparison for the composition of our text.

Anonymous Iamblichi’s text has generally been regarded as written by a follower of Protagoras in the generation following him, although some have gone so far as to argue that it is a genuine text by Protagoras.  Regardless of whether this text was penned by Protagoras or by one of his followers – a question that is likely never to be answered – it should be considered a sophistic text of the type described by Glaucon in Republic II, on the origins and essence of justice, and part of the intellectual milieu of the first two decades of the 4th Century BCE.

A short summary of the arguments made by Anonymous Iamblichi, with examination of precisely how “law and justice” (ὁ τε νόμος καὶ τὸ δίκαιον) recur as a topos within the text, reveals the debt that the Archytan On Law and Justice owes to the larger genre of sophistic epideictic show pieces on the nature and origins of justice.  In Anonymous Iamblichi’s text, the argument leads up to a discussion of “law and justice” by way of a demonstrably Protagorean claim: there is great value in the apprehension of the arts of speaking (τέχνην τὴν κατὰ λόγους πυθόμενος).[2] The author argues that good repute can be attained over time through learning the arts of speaking and, importantly, of avoiding bad arguments and habits.[3] Once one has attained certain skills to a level of full mastery, he is expected to employ those goods for “good and lawful purposes” (εἰς ἀγαθὰ καὶ νόμιμα καταχρῆσθαι δεῖ), rather than to abuse them for “unjust and unlawful” (ἄδικά τε καὶ ἄνομα) ends.[4] This argument should be seen as a challenge to the Calliclean argument in Plato’s Gorgias (483a8-e4) that boils down to “might is right”.  Anonymous Iamblichi provides a very interesting counterargument to the Calliclean position in what I am calling the “Superman”argument:

If there should be anyone born with such a nature as the following – invulnerable, not subject to disease, free from emotions, of supernatural power, with body and soul of adamant (ἄτρωτος τὸν χρῶτα ἄνοσός τε καὶ ἀπαθὴς καὶ ὑπερφυὴς καὶ ἀδαμάντινος τό τε σῶμα καὶ τὴν ψυχήν) – perhaps one might suppose that power based on self-aggrandizement (τὸ ἐπὶ τῇ πλεονεξίᾳ κράτος) would serve for such a one (for such a one, one might argue, would be unscathed even if he did not submit to the law); but one would not be correct in such a supposition.  For even if one admitted the possibility of such a man, as in fact there cannot be, he would only survive if he allied himself with the laws and with justice (τοῖς νόμοις συμμαχῶν καὶ τῷ δικαίῳ), supporting (ἐπικουροῦντα) these and lending his strength to backing up these and what conduces to them.  Only thus would he ensure his safety; otherwise he could not survive.  For I think that all men would stand opposed to a person of such a nature because of their own lawfulness (εὐνομία), and in virtue of their numbers they would overcome such a man by craft or by force and get the better of him.  Accordingly, it becomes apparent that power – true power, that is – is preserved by law and through justice (τὸ κράτος…διά τε τοῦ νόμου καὶ διὰ τὴν δίκην).

(Anonymous Iamblichi, from Iamblichus, Protrepticus pp. 100.18-101.6 Pistelli; translated after Dillon and Gergel)

The Nietzschean Ubermensch among the Sophists?

The “superman” is employed as a counterargument to the Calliclean claim that the strength based on self-aggrandizement (pleonexia) makes possible the “superman’s” safety when he declares war on “law and justice”.  Naturally, the Persian King Xerxes is a perfect example for Callicles to cite as something approximating a “superman”.  But even if, Anonymous Iamblichi argues, such a “superman” were to exist and to declare war on “law and justice”, he would nevertheless be overcome by the superiority of numbers and technology of those other humans who naturally have proclivity to the law.  Anonymous Iamblichi would not dispute Callicles’ claim that nature and law are strongly related, but he would dispute the contingency that natural law accords with the principle of “might means right”.

I guess it’s a good thing (for his own sake) that our superman is a law-abiding citizen and standard-bearer of the Justice League.  Anonymous Iamblichi would approve.

Anonymous Iamblichi's Ideal Superman


[1] Carl Huffman’s otherwise excellent ‘Archytas and the Sophists’ (in Caston and Graham (eds.), Presocratic Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Alexander Mourelatos, Ashgate: 2002, pp. 251-70) discusses F3 of Archytas in the light of Anonymous Iamblichi, but not the Archytan fragments of On Law and Justice.

[2] Iambl. Protr. p. 96.26-7 Pistelli.

[3] Iambl. Protr. pp. 96.28-97.4 Pistelli.

[4] Iambl. Protr. p. 97.16-22 Pistelli.

4 Responses to Sophists and Superman

  1. Is it laws, though, or is it nomoi? I’m sure the point holds either way, and great to bring in Anonymus Iamblichi here – that must be spot-on. But I suppose the dikaion operates in a different, perhaps more reliable way when working along with nomoi as convention or societal norms, as we would put it, than with ‘laws’.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Chris. I’m sure you’re right to point out that nomos here – in the context of Anonymous Iamblichi – refers to norms or customs rather than “law” in a strict sense. The same would appear to hold for someone like Antiphon in the fragments of On Truth. But it is interesting to see how, for example, Ps.-Archytas considers the status of nomos along the lines you’ve laid out and points to a larger debate about that status within (what I imagine to be) the political discourse of Magna Graecia during this period:

    ‘The law ought to regard god, demons, parents, and in general the things that are noble and honorable as primary, and things that are beneficial as secondary. For it is appropriate for the lesser to follow the greater. And the law ought not to be inscribed on the houses or doors, but present in the habits of the citizens. For not even in Sparta is the city-state managed by the multitude of its written mandates, best-lawed as they are, but rather much more by the customs of its citizens.’

    and a little later on…

    ‘Therefore, the law ought to be ingrained in the habits and pursuits of the citizens. For it will make the citizens self-sufficient and distribute to each what is appropriate in accordance with his worth. For, in this way too, the sun, being carried through the zodiac distributes to all on earth birth, nutrition, and life in due measure; for instance, it organizes the well-mixed regularity (eunomia) of the seasons. That is why Zeus is called both the Shepherd (Nomios) and the Distributor (Nemeios), and he who distributes food to the sheep is called ‘nomeus’. And the verses sung by those who play the lyre are called ‘nomoi’ (‘melodies’, but also ‘laws’), for they also arrange the soul by being sung with harmony, rhythm, and measure.’

    ([Archytas,] On Law and Justice F 4 Stobaeus 4.1.138 pp. 85.10-88.4 Hense = Thesleff 1965: 34.15-35.30)

    Currently, Monte Johnson (UCSD Philosophy) and I are preparing an article-length critical edition and analysis of these troublesome little fragments. There is much more to be said about to dikaion and its relationship to nomos in F 4 of On Law and Justice as well. Hopefully we’ll get to the bottom of these and many other issues soon!

  3. About the first comment:
    Maybe Hegel’s Philosophy of Law will help you to conceptualize this process of internalization of instituted law through education: the real place of ethical philosophy is neither the external state law, which is obeyed only because of the fear from punishment, nor the pure ideal of Kantian universal practical law, which has never been really applied, but the “Sittlichkeit”: an ethical behavior which is concretely practiced by the members of a certain society but spontaneously, only because they are aware that to do so is good.

  4. Dear Phil,
    I am reading your translation of the very interesting fragments by Archytas, especially the last one, the number 6, and I wonder myself why you translate “dogma” as “belief” and not as “official decree”, “decision of the whole polis” (cf dokeî moi…= “I decide…”). I think that it would fit better with the juridical context.
    Alexis

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