Antiphon

Antiphon was an ancient Greek philosopher born in the Athenian village Rhamnous in 480 BC. He was a sophist, one who taught rhetoric (public speaking), as well as a public speaker (orator), and a politician. Like other sophists, he believed that he could make a weaker argument appear to be the stronger, which he displayed in his work the Tetralogies where he argues for both sides of fictitious murder cases. As a politician, he supported oligarchy (rule by few) and the rise of the oligarchic regime the Four Hundred. Ultimately, he would have to defend his own life using his public speaking skills when the Four Hundred were removed, replaced by a democracy, and as a supporter he was brought to trial.

Antiphon was also credited with approximating the value of pi, which he used to try and determine if he could create a square with the same area as a given circle (what is known as “squaring the circle,” an expression that has also come to mean doing something that is considered logically or intuitively impossible). He is also seen as having practiced an early form of psychology, figuring out what people were distressed about, and then speaking to them in a soothing way. In this way, he used his skills as a sophist both to convince people of new things, as well as to put them at ease.

Antiphon believed there is a major difference, and conflict, between human law (nomos) and the way the world is (physis). Physis is necessary, resulting from growth and change. Nomos, on the other hand, is simply the result of humans coming together and agreeing on things. He saw the governments (nomoi) of ancient Greece as having created laws which interfered with the way things are naturally, and in the process causing more pain than is necessary. This is because human law is only applied after the event takes place in the first place, and in this way merely adds insult to injury. As a sophist, he taught people how to defend themselves in court, as well as how to effectively prosecute others. But clearly he believed the Athenian legal system was fundamentally flawed.

Unlike human law (nomos), physis represents the way nature really works. Antiphon saw physis as the recognition that some things are beneficial to life, and others aren’t, instead leading to death. Governments all to often require their citizens to do things which are not the most beneficial to themselves, and therefore causes unnecessary pain and lessens pleasure. Antiphon believed in a naturalistic ethic (“what’s right is what’s natural”) seeing life and death as objective standards which he could root his ethic in. His understanding that pleasurable is a form of hedonism. In this way, Antiphon was both a sophist who profited by helping others find success in court and in political arenas, as well as was concerned with what is right and the ways of nature.