The sophists: natural justice or social justice?

by Dorian Minors

October 4, 2020

Analects  |  Newsletter


The ancient Greek sophist philosophers often debated the influence of natural laws on the social ones we use to constrain them. This is most striking in the discussion of justice. Where is the justice of nature—the drive toward pleasure and the domination of the weak by the strong–more useful or productive than the justice of society—those laws and norms installed by people to constrain our natures?


Greek philosophers argued whether social morality was a creation of the weak to control the strong, but of course this is simply another form of strength.

The Sophists of Ancient Greece were very fond of debating the superiority of natural laws (phusis) against social ones (nomos). Was it more correct to abide by the principles of nature? Or to subvert them by instead instituting human rules and conventions?

The debates, in the sophist tradition, were not to arrive at the answer but rather to be used as a framework for discussion: where does nature play its hand, what does that tell us about the world, and how might the social norms of laws and moral behaviour relate to it?

Many of the surviving debates centre often on the topic of justice. Where is the justice of nature—the drive toward pleasure and the domination of the weak by the strong–more useful or productive than the justice of society—those laws and norms installed by people to constrain our natures?

At a first glance, it would seem obvious that the answer is human law—the product of rationality and reason. But of course nothing is quite so simple. In the dialogue Gorgias, Plato has Callicles denounce social morality as an invention of the weak to neutralise the strong:

They distribute praise and censure with a view to their own interests; they say that dishonesty is shameful and unjust—meaning by dishonesty the desire to have more than their neighbors; for knowing their own inferiority, they would be only too glad to have equality…But if there were a man who had sufficient force [enter the Superman], he would shake off and break through and escape from all this; he would trample under foot all our formulas and spells and charms, and our laws, that sin against nature…He who would truly live ought to allow his desires to wax to the uttermost; but when they have grown to their greatest he should have courage and intelligence to minister to them, and to satisfy all his longings. And this I affirm to be natural justice and nobility. But the many cannot do this; and therefore they blame such persons, because they are ashamed of their own inability, which they desire to conceal; and hence they call intemperance base…They enslave the nobler natures, and they praise justice only because they are cowards.

Of course, this has to be understood in the light of the time. The democracy of Plato’s day appeared to have degenerated into something quite disheartening; dominated by populist rhetoric, indecision, and poor leadership due in part to the wholesale execution, scapegoat fashion, of the leadership during the Pelopennesian war. This democratic ‘mob’ were distributing ‘praise and censure’ only ‘with a view to their own interests’.

And yet, this mob rule was a product of the ‘naturally’ powerful. At least of a certain kind. The mob was a dangerous and pliable force, dominated by those who could harness their desire to take what they didn’t earn.

In Protagoras, Plato imagines or recalls Socrates’ complaint:

If a man were to go and consult…any of our great public orators…he might perhaps hear as fine a discourse; but then when one has a question to ask of any of them…they can neither answer nor ask; and if any one challenges the least particular of their speech, they go ringing on in a long harangue, like brazen pots, which when they are struck continue to sound unless some one puts his hand upon them

A familiar sentiment now that “populism [has become] the concept that defines our age”. Today, many feel as though the system has left them behind. Under the banner of various populist leaders, the neglected and forgotton have banded together to cause the upheavals of Brexit, the Trump phenomenon, and the international rioting that has coalesced under the banner of black lives but is very obviously representative of much more.

For us now, as then, the people chafe against a government that doesn’t dole out the benefits they feel they deserve, and as Thrasymachus declares in Plato’s Republic:

The different forms of government make laws, democratic, aristocratic, or autocratic, with a view to their respective interests; and these laws, so made by them to serve their interests, they deliver to their subjects as ‘justice,’ and punish as ‘unjust’ anyone who transgresses them…by fraud and force takes away the property of others, not retail but wholesale. Now when a man has taken away the money of the citizens and made slaves of them, then, instead of swindler and thief he is called happy and blessed by all. For injustice is censured because those who censure it are afraid of suffering, and not from any scruple they might have of doing injustice themselves

And thus the battle of the nomos and the phusis continues. The natural law of pleasure and power warps the social laws which seek to constrain it.

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