Antiphon (c. 480–411 BCE)

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(c. 480411 BCE)

Antiphon was an Athenian sophist, author of Truth, Concord, andif identical with the same person as Antiphon of Rhamnusthree Tetralogies and many court speeches. The identity of the sophist and the speechwriter remains uncertain but is increasingly accepted (see Gagarin 2002; for contra, Pendrick 2002). If the two are the same, Antiphon was an aristocratic Athenian, admired by Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War 8.68), who wrote sophistic works, taught, gave legal and political advice, and wrote speeches for litigants in court. He was a leader of an oligarchic coup in 411 BCE and was tried and executed after the coup quickly failed.

Antiphon's Tetralogies, probably his earliest works (450430 BCE), were intended for intellectual stimulation and pleasure and perhaps for public performance. Each group of four speeches (two on each side) treats a hypothetical case of homicide. In the First Tetralogy, the identity of the killer is uncertain, and arguments are based on the likelihood (eikos ) that the defendant is the killer. The Second disputes whether a young man who threw a javelin that killed a boy is responsible for the death. The Third questions who is responsible for a man's death during a drunken fight. None of the Tetralogies has a conclusion or verdict. Their aim is to explore issues and forms of argument (likelihood vs. truth, fault and responsibility, cause and effect) with subtlety and cleverness. They also raise questions about the relationship of logos (speech, argument) to reality, and the relationship between opposed arguments when each claims, with some justification, to speak the truth.

Perhaps in the 420s BCE, Antiphon composed the sophistic works Truth and Concord only fragments of which now remainand the even more fragmentary Politicus and Dream-Interpretations. Truth explored a wide range of issues, including mathematics (squaring the circle), meteorology, and natural philosophy. The largest surviving fragments show Antiphon exploring the relationship between nomos (law, convention) and physis (nature), particularly with respect to law and justice. He may be saying that law is purely a matter of convention, and that a person may violate the law as long as no one else will know of it.

See also Sophists.


Antiphon. "Antiphon." Translated by J. S. Morrison. In The Older Sophists, edited by Rosamond K. Sprague, 106240. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1972. English translation of all surviving works, including fragments, and of the ancient testimony for Antiphon.

Gagarin, Michael. Antiphon the Athenian: Oratory, Law and Justice in the Age of the Sophists. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. Assumes a single Antiphon and analyzes all the works, including the three surviving court speeches.

Pendrick, Gerard J. Antiphon the Sophist: The Fragments. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Introduction, Greek text with translation, and full scholarly commentary on Truth, Concord, and the other sophistic fragments.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Edited by Robert B. Strassler. New York: Free Press, 1996.

Michael Gagarin (2005)