Lycophron – an older sophist

20 October, 2014

This week On the Reading Rest I have the collected textual fragments and quotations of a movement of philosophical thought. It wasn’t a school and none of its members, if they can be called so, stand out as great individual thinkers. They were and have continued to be important because they were the prime philosophical target of Plato and Aristotle (P&A). Since they were first criticized some of their fundamental ideas have reoccurred again and again – Cover01not least since the Enlightenment. Next to this collection I have an article by Richard Mulgan.

Sprague, Rosamond Kent. 1972. The Older Sophists. Hackett Publishing Company Acronym: TOS

cover 02 Mulgan, Richard G. 1979. Lycophron and Greek Theories of Social Contract. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1979), pp. 121-128.

Stable URL: Acronym: RiMul


To P&A the sophists of the 400s BCE who very partly contemporary with Socrates, in effect older than P&A themselves and almost dead, were examples of intellectuals, who were fundamentally wrong and dangerous. P&A on the other hand were right and Plato constructed TOS as a fixed historical situation, in effect a background rather than a time span, prior to his own lifetime. Against this fond and partly entangled in it Socrates was depicted as the beginning of Plato’s critique of TOS. As exempla of a failed course, the members of this movement as well as Socrates were not historical persons, but mouthpieces of the past. Socrates, the forerunner of the present was a de facto victim of the past. If one feels the need to build a philosophical system, then this is a way of depicting the past as a two-dimensional background, is model. It implies that since the past is a backdrop of differing meanings, in essence confusion, we may safely put it behind us.

Lycophron was one of TOS and we know almost nothing about him – a very common sophist fate indicating that they were many more than we will ever know. Formally RiMul is a critique of W. K. C. Guthrie, who in A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. 3 The Sophists, Cambridge, Chapter 5:140 1971 wrote that Lycophron: would have agreed with J[ohn] S[tuart] Mill that the only purpose for which law could rightly be enforced against a member of a community was to prevent harm to others; his own good, physical or moral, was not sufficient warrant. If this is true, then Lycophron applied a very specific meaning to the concept ‘social contract’.

About Lycophron and indirectly social contract, Aristotle, Politics III 5, said: … ‘the community becomes an alliance, differing only in location from the other sorts of alliance where the members live at a distance. And the laws become a convention and, as Lycophron said: a guarantor of mutual rights, but not such as to make the citizen good or just.’ (TOS:69)

To begin with RiMul sums up what 5th and 4th century BCE Greeks thought about political contract theory. This allows him convincingly to show that neither Lycophron, nor any other older sophist, inasmuch as they were not 19th c CE. liberals, thought so narrowly about the significance of law in relation to social contracts. Convincingly RiMul argues that Aristotle was not at all interested in discussing what Lycophron actually meant because his exact words, a striking preamble, yet void of specific intention – law is the guarantor of mutual rights – were enough to disqualify him. As far as Aristotle was concerned, law was a means in the hands of the virtuous intended to ‘make the citizens good and just’. Lycophron didn’t think so.

The Journal of the History of Ideas in its turn thought that this unobjectionable critique of Guthrie’s casual name dropping, used by Mulgan as a hook baited with “social contract”, to say something interesting, couldn’t be printed without a reply from Guthrie. Because of the attached reply, and unintendedly, RiMul became a post-structural critique of an older school of researchers. Today, wise in the event, the arrogant and arrogantly short reply from Guthrie stand out as typical of the way an older generation of researchers thought they could rely on their own authority, and the straightforward unquestionable authority they ascribed to giants such as Aristotle, to snub a new generation of researchers. Together, article and comment make up a snapshot of the 1970s turned yellow.

Looking up Lycophron in TOS it would seem that he took an interest in concepts such as communion or reciprosity. Again, according to Aristotle, Metaphysics VIII 6, Lycophron is supposed to have said that ‘knowledge is a communion of knowing and of soul’. Seemingly fond of playing with words Lycophron, when asked, at least according to a comment by Alexander of Aphrodisias (c. 200 CE), what was the cause of the unity of knowledge [sic! not ‘of knowing’] and the soul he replied: ‘the communion.’ Knowledge obviously wasn’t something Lycophron thought was caused, in an Aristotelian sense. Instead his answer indicates that when it comes to knowledge, complementarity is what matters – knowledge is a state of communion in any conscious human being. Neither Knowing nor soul alone qualify as knowledge.

In the individual, knowledge is a condition or simply part of one’s identity and awareness of oneself. But if people live in a community, then we must ask ourselves: how can our individuality, which among other things, according to Lycophron, comprises knowing and soul make knowledge part of their mutual identity? I.e., how does social knowledge come about when people must experience mutual communion?

Since it is an academic sport to guess what Lycophron would have said had he not been prevented by Aristotle, one may suggest that Lycophron, in a fit of modesty, would not have had an answer to this question. He would, nevertheless, have said that a precondition for finding an answer depended on laws that guarantee mutual, that is, communal rights – e.g. the right within a community to be knowledgeable. To a sophist such as Lycophron the knowledgeable: possessing or showing knowledge; well-informed, well-read; sagacious, wise, educated (according to OED), would have been virtue he would have loved to hold up to Aristotle – if only to irritate him.

Lycophron was probably good at that. For instance, Aristotle, who else, illustrates one of four types of insipid expression by quoting Lycophron: ‘the narrow-passaged promontory’ or ‘the many-visaged sky of the mighty-peaked earth’ (Rhetoric III 3). Perhaps playing with words wasn’t Aristotle’s thing.


Of six quotations referring to Lycophron (TOS:68-9) five are by Aristotle. In the outstanding one Lycophron managed to express himself in a most subtle way when pointing at nobility he said: ‘Now the nobility of good birth is obscure, and its grandeur a matter of words’. This may first be seen as audacious, but given that Lycophron’s grandeur too was a matter of words it simply confirms the importance of words for those who want grandeur – the Lycophrons as well as royal tutors such as Aristotle. It may be significant that Aristotle didn’t offer a comment.

Judging from what he was remembered for, Lycophron’s most successful contribution was his ability to coin phrases. There is no point of accusing him of having constructed a philosophical system. Like many sophists his point of departure was contextual, understanding context to change significantly with time and space. We might have called him a post-structuralist except for the fact that, historically speaking, he and other older sophists were pre-structuralists. Post- or pre-, his legacy rested with his ability to irritate Aristotle enough to be quoted so often that the quotes can be read as a critique of Aristotle.


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