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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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1. The term “pre-Platonic” has been chosen here
in preference to pre-Socratic, on the grounds that the
only natural terminal point for a survey of early Greek
thought is provided by the events of the end of the
fifth century B.C.; the death of Socrates in 399, almost
coincides with the collapse of the Athenian Empire


(404 B.C.) and with the passing of the great Athenian
tragic dramatists, Euripides and Sophocles (ca. 406
B.C.). Any earlier dividing line, separating Democritus
and the Sophists from the mainstream of early Greek
speculation, would obscure the continuity of the de-
velopment. The first tangible sign of the new period
is not the lifetime of Socrates but the appearance after
his death of Socratic literature, and above all of the
dialogues of Plato.

In the strict sense, a conception of human nature
presupposes a conception of nature, or physis. The
term occurs once in Homer, for the distinctive physical
aspect or form of a plant with powerful magical
properties (Odyssey 10. 303: “And Hermes showed me
its physis,” namely, that of the moly plant). In accord-
ance with this early usage, the phrase “the physis of
man” would mean his visible stature or appearance
(so in Pindar, Nemean 6.5; cf. Isthmian 4.53 Bowra).
On the other hand, the concept of nature as the true,
inner structure or character of a thing, not immediately
visible, is a product of Ionian natural philosophy. Thus
Heraclitus, who promises to “distinguish each thing
according to its physis and point out how it [really]
is” (frag. 1), also remarks that “physis loves to hide”
(frag. 123). Theories of human nature in this sense, as
an object for scientific knowledge or philosophic in-
sight, appear for the first time in Heraclitus and his
fellow philosophers. And it is such theories which are
generally reflected in the use of the Greek phrases from
which we have received “human nature” and “the
nature of man” as loan-translations (ψύσισ ἀνθρωπεία,
ψύσισ ἀνθρωπίνη, ψύσισ ἀνθρωπου
). This terminology
does not become common in Greek literature before
the late fifth century, for example in Thucydides and
the Hippocratic Corpus, where the influence of philo-
sophic speculation is obvious.

As an explicit concept with a fixed terminology, the
idea of human nature is thus a product of the scientific
and philosophical development which begins in Miletus
in the sixth century B.C. For the purposes of the present
survey, however, we may understand “conceptions of
human nature” more broadly, to include not only these
philosophical theories but also the less explicitly
formulated views of the nature and condition of man
which we find in early poetry and in a nontechnical
author like Herodotus. In this broader perspective, the
various pre-Platonic conceptions of man can be located
between two extreme positions: on the one hand, an
archaic view of mankind as wholly subject to the arbi-
trary power and decision of the gods, as expressed in
the Iliad; and, on the other hand, a late fifth-century
view which ignores the gods completely and holds, as
Protagoras puts it, that “Man is the measure of all
things.” After a brief description of the archaic con
ception, we shall consider the various ways in which
it was altered, both inside and outside the philosophical

2. The archaic Greek view of man is dominated by
a polar opposition between mortals and immortals,
between men who walk upon the earth and the gods
who dwell in the sky. The gods are not only superior
to men; they are in the last analysis their masters. Fate
(moira) is not a power which stands above the gods:
in Homer, at least, it is simply the instrument by which
divine control is exercised. A man's fate is literally the
“share” which the gods have alloted him, his portion
of good and evil, his share of life and death. (The notion
of a Fate or Necessity more powerful than Zeus, which
is once hinted at in Hesiod and explicitly developed
by Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound, is unknown in
Homer.) At Iliad 16.443, Hera says quite clearly that
Zeus, if he insisted, could change the moira of Sarpedon
by postponing his appointed day of death; so also for
the death of Hector at Iliad 22.181. The arbitrary
nature of divine decision is emphasized in the words
of Achilles to Priam in Iliad 24.525ff.: “Two vessels
stand at the threshold of Zeus, one full of evil gifts
and the other of good ones.” When Zeus mixes these
and bestows them on a man, his life is a blend of
prosperity and misfortune. But when Zeus gives from
the vessel of sorrows, the man's life is sheer disaster.
In this view, the only consolation for mortality is
undying fame (such as Achilles obtains, and Priam too
in his own way); but this in turn is largely the gift
of the gods. Although some room is left for human
decision, the efficacy of man's action depends in the
last resort upon divine favor or support. In typical cases
human virtues and vices, achievements and failures,
are themselves interpreted in terms of divine interven-
tion. Thus it is a god who puts fury and valor in a
warrior's breast; it is Athena who lures Hector to his
death at Achilles' hands; and Athena again who guar-
antees Odysseus' triumph over the suitors in the
Odyssey. On the negative side, Agamemnon blames
Zeus and Fate and the Fury for his folly in insulting
Achilles; and the poet himself represents Helen's
submission to Paris as a direct result of the personal
intervention of Aphrodite (Iliad 3.380ff.).

This archaic view of man as totally and permanently
exposed to divine forces beyond his control can be
abundantly illustrated from Greek literature down to
the fifth century B.C. It is this helplessness of man in
the face of superhuman power which is expressed in
the various references in archaic poetry to the
“ephemerous” condition of man, changing day by day
as the gods determine; it is this again which is formu-
lated in Pindar's aphorism: “What is he? What is he
not? Man is the dream of a shadow” (Pythian 8.95;


see Fränkel, 1960). This sense of the immeasurable gulf
between god and man is codified in the wisdom of
the seven sages: “Know thyself,” namely, that you are
a mortal and not a god. New motifs are added in
different authors, but the old view can still be discerned
in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and in Herodotus' whole
conception of human history as a pattern of cyclical
reversion between good and evil fortune. When
Herodotus uses the term “human nature,” he generally
has in mind these limitations on human power and
fortune in contrast with the unrestricted strength and
blessedness of divine beings (III 65.3, VIII 38, 83.1).

This polar opposition between gods and men takes
an epistemological form in early philosophic literature.
In one of the first explicit generalizations about human
nature as such (as distinct from statements about the
human condition or situation), Heraclitus says: “Human
character (ēthos) has no insights, but the divine does”
(frag. 78). According to Xenophanes, man can only
have guesswork or conjecture (dokos) on most matters,
where the gods have knowledge of the truth (frag. 34
with A24; cf. Alcmaeon frag. 1). Parmenides' doctrine
of true knowledge and reality is presented as the reve-
lation of a goddess, and contrasted with the delusive
beliefs (doxai) of mortals.

3. The preceding summary of an archaic view of
man which emphasizes human helplessness and the
arbitrary character of the divine assignment of good
and evil fortune is a simplification designed to bring
out certain fundamental traits in early Greek thought.
Some qualifications are clearly required. For instance,
the cult of heroes such as Heracles, Theseus, or Oedipus
was an integral part of Greek religious practice
(although not recognized as such in Homer). This im-
plies a status and power for certain men after their
which tends to blunt the sharp contrast between
mortals and immortals as sketched above. Furthermore,
the princes and warriors of the Homeric poems are
not slaves of the gods, as men are said to be in
Mesopotamian thought: Athena gives advice to Achil-
les with courteous respect, like one nobleman speaking
to another (Iliad 1.207-14). In some aspects of the
Homeric hero, and above all in the portrayal of Achil-
les himself, the notion of the individual as an autono-
mous moral agent responsible for the consequences of
his action is almost as fully developed as in Attic
tragedy. Yet it is precisely because mortals live out
their lives in the shadow of death and disaster that
their action can have the quality of nobility, dignity,
and courage; for the gods who know no death, nothing
is serious.

A more important qualification or alteration of the
archaic view is the moralizing tendency in the concep-
tion of the gods, or at least in the relations between
god and man, with a corresponding emphasis on Justice
(dikē) as a fundamental principle in human life, a
principle which guarantees prosperity or disaster as the
retribution for human merit or crime. There are occa-
sional traces of such a view in the Iliad, and perhaps
in all mythopoetic literature in every land. But it
becomes more systematic and conspicuous in the
Odyssey, where the suitors play the role of villains who
are justly punished for their hubris, their reckless
transgression of normal restraints, while Odysseus and
his son are presented as the wronged parties whose
revenge is assured by divine intervention in the person
of Athena. This moralizing tendency is underscored by
Zeus' remarks in the opening scene of the poem
(Odyssey 1.32ff.): “Mortals are always blaming the
gods; they say their troubles come from us. But they
themselves suffer beyond what is allotted to them,
because of their own folly.” It is above all in Hesiod
that we find the principle of Justice personified as a
goddess, the daughter of Zeus; and this principle plays
a central role in Hesiod's conception of human life and
labor. The prospect of the righteous suffering while
the wrongdoer goes unpunished seems to Hesiod in-
compatible with the government of human affairs by
Zeus: the dispensation of Zeus to fishes, beasts, and
birds is that they eat one another, for there is no Justice
among them, but to men he has given dikē (Works and
276ff.). This view of a moral order in human life
is developed in Solon's poems with a new application
to social and political circumstances. For Solon it is
above all the oppression of the poor and weak by the
rich and mighty which is characterized as hubris and
as an assault upon the holy foundations of Justice (frag.

On the other hand, in lyric poetry we find a deeper
insight into the emotional nature of men. Human pas-
sion may still be seen as the action of divine power
(sexual passion as the work of Aphrodite, drunkenness
as that of Dionysus, and so forth), but the perception
of this action is now internalized to such an extent that
we may perhaps speak of the “discovery” of emotional
experience as such, as an intrinsic property of the
human subject rather than an intervention of forces
from outside (Snell, Ch. III).

In some poetry which is otherwise not influenced
by philosophy, and notably in Pindar, we find a new
view of the human soul or psychē as immortal, and
therefore divine. This view is closely associated with
the name of Pythagoras, and hence it might be re-
garded as part of the philosophic development. Unlike
other philosophic doctrines, however, this view became
popular or at least widely known at an early date. In
some form it seems to have been connected with the
promise of blessedness for the initiates in the state


Mysteries of Eleusis; and a similar view of the soul
as divine was propagated in certain private cults
generally described as “Orphic.” The specifically
Pythagorean notion of a transmigration of souls is
mentioned by Xenophanes and appears to have exerted
some influence on Heraclitus and Parmenides. Its most
systematic statement in the pre-Platonic period is to
be found in the Katharmoi of Empedocles. This notion
of a deathless psychē implies a completely new con-
ception of human nature in its relation to the divine.
But the mystic view of the soul, although familiar to
authors such as Herodotus and Euripides, does not
become a major factor in Greek intellectual history
until it is taken up into the myths of Plato.

4. The view of man in Attic tragedy can largely be
seen as a working-out of the orthodox archaic concep-
tion (above all in Sophocles), under the impact of the
more demanding view of divine justice as formulated
by Hesiod and Solon. This notion of divine justice is
predominant in Aeschylus; it operates in a more prob-
lematic or negative way in Euripides, who often seems
to be insisting that the destiny of men does not conform
to any morally acceptable pattern of divine govern-
ance. In Sophocles we have “the last great exponent
of the archaic world-view” (Dodds, p. 49). All three
playwrights are concerned with the inwardness of
human experience, insofar as it can be represented on
the stage. But Sophocles focuses our attention on the
personal strength which is required for a hero to as-
sume and master a role assigned to him by fate or
temperament; Aeschylus is above all concerned with
the crucial moment of a choice between alternative
courses of action (Pelasgus in the Suppliants; Aga-
memnon in his decision to immolate Iphigeneia, sym-
bolically re-enacted by his decision to walk upon the
purple carpet spread by his wife). More than the other
two, Euripides is concerned with the irrational, de-
structive power of human passion as such. An occa-
sional trace of philosophic influence may be discerned
in Aeschylus and Sophocles; but only in Euripides do
we find the decisive impact of new conceptions of
human nature worked out or popularized in what we
may call the Greek Age of Enlightenment, in the last
third of the fifth century B.C. It is the philosophic
background of these new views which we must now

5. From the beginning, the philosophic inter-
pretation of nature turns its back on the traditional
conception of human life and destiny based upon the
fundamental contrast between mortal and immortal,
between the helpless human subject and his Olympian
masters. The break with this traditional or Homeric
view is, as far as we know, only tacit in the Milesian
attempt to explain the natural world (including thun
der, lightning, earthquake, and other events previously
interpreted as the work of the gods) according to phys-
ical principles operating in an orderly, intelligible way.
The break with the religious tradition becomes explicit
in Xenophanes' attack on Homer's and Hesiod's picture
of the gods. We cannot follow here the new concep-
tions of divinity, but we must note that something
analogous to the archaic opposition between mortals
and immortals is often preserved within the philo-
sophical systems, with a new cosmic power (the
Boundless apeiron of Anaximander, cosmic Fire of
Heraclitus, Nous of Anaxagoras) occupying the position
of the old Olympian gods. But on the side of mortality
the conception of man is an integral part of the con-
ception of nature as a whole, as a system within which
things come to be and perish according to principles
that are the same for the heavenly bodies, for the whole
cosmos, and for the microcosmos which is man. The
human condition is still seen as one of exposure to
forces which are largely beyond man's control, but
these are now the rationally defined forces which con-
stitute the natural order: the hot and the cold, the
winds, the waters, and the sun. And within this rational
view man is seen, without reference to the gods, as
a special kind of animal.

It is in the late fifth century B.C. with Democritus,
Thucydides, and the Sophists, that the typically new
conceptions of human nature are formulated. These
conceptions are conditioned by four notions, three of
which derive from the tradition of Ionian natural phi-
losophy going back to Miletus.

In the first place, the physical origin and structure
of man is thought of as determined by general forces
which operate in the formation of all physical bodies,
including the cosmos as a whole. We have a glimpse
of this in the doxography for Anaximander, which
reports that human beings were first formed in the wet
element (perhaps the sea), enclosed in membranes
which protected them until they were fully grown and
could take up life on land (A30; cf. A11.6 and A10).
Thus the emergence of men is part of the general
cosmic separating-out of the dry from the moist, the
same trend which produces dry land in the first place.
In the theory of Empedocles, the tissues or organs of
the human body are produced by the combination, in
simple proportions, of the same four elements which
produce all other bodies in the world. We have an echo
of some of these early theories in later accounts of the
origin of life, such as that given by Diodorus of Sicily.

In these early theories it is often difficult to distin-
guish phylogeny, or the origin of the species as such,
from ontogeny, or the origin of any given individual.
In line with a general tendency to understand structure
in terms of genetic development, the world-order is


explained by way of a cosmogony and the human
organism is explained by an account of its embryonic
development. There are traces of such explanations for
Parmenides, Empedocles, and others; and we possess
more detailed accounts in the Hippocratic Corpus. The
etymological sense of physis (“nature”) is “growth” or
“development.” On the other hand, the word also
designates the mature structure or constitution of an
organism (or any other body), e.g., its composition,
which results from elements being blended and bal-
anced in various ways. In the medical treatises, health
is generally regarded as a symmetrical blend or equi-
librium of opposing powers, while disease is explained
by the excess or predominance of some one power or
constituent. The earliest known instance of such a view
of health is assigned to Alcmaeon of Croton, who is
probably to be dated in the early fifth century. A full
account is given in the treatise On the Nature of Man,
ascribed to Polybus the son-in-law of Hippocrates.
According to this author (writing about 400 B.C., i.e.,
at the end of our period), the structure of the human
body in health and disease is determined by the inter-
action of four fluids, which bear a certain analogy to
the four elements of Empedocles. “The body of man
contains blood and phlegm and yellow bile and black
bile, and these are the nature (physis) of his body; and
it is because of these that he suffers or enjoys health.
He is most healthy when these are mingled in due
proportion to one another in power and quantity; he
suffers when there is too little or too much of one of
these, or when one is separated in the body and not
blended with the rest” (Ch. 4). This author does not
discuss questions of intelligence or consciousness; in
other treatises such as On the Sacred Disease, these
phenomena are explained by the presence of air in the
brain and veins. The theory of a connection between
air and intelligence (a theory mocked in Aristophanes'
Clouds) can be traced back to the Ionian tradition of
natural philosophy, where we find it expressed by
Diogenes of Apollonia (frag. 4: “men and other animals
live by breathing the air, and this is their psychē and
their thought or intelligence”; cf. frag. 5). The earliest
known statement is that of Anaximenes, whose view
is quoted by a later writer as follows: “As our soul
which is air controls us, so breath and air surround
and control the whole world-order” (frag. 2). Other
authors identify intelligence or thought (nous) with the
entire constitution of the body, as organized in the
mixture of elements. Thus Parmenides identifies mortal
thinking with “the physis of men's limbs,” consisting
of a combination of Night and Light as the two ele-
mentary physical principles (frag. 16). Empedocles
echoes this doctrine and situates human thinking
(noēma) above all in the blood around the heart, as
the place where the four elements are most perfectly
blended (frag. 105): as the physis or physical consti-
tution varies for different men, so does their character
or ēthos (frag. 110.5).

6. So far we have considered only physical and
biological theories of human nature. But even more
important for the new view of man are certain socio-
logical theories which also develop in connection with
philosophic speculation as to the origin of things. The
physical doctrines just described seek to explain the
origin of the species; but how did men come to live
as they do today (i.e., in the fifth century B.C.), in cities
governed by laws and binding customs (nomoi)? More
generally, how did human culture arise? Again, we find
systematic discussion of these questions only in much
later authors, in Lucretius On the Nature of Things,
Book V, and in the introduction to the Universal His-
tory of Diodorus of Sicily. But there is good reason
to believe that the early versions of these theories were
formulated in the fifth century. We have hints of spec-
ulation concerning the origin of human culture and
society in a few early fragments, for example, Xeno-
phanes frag. 18: “The gods certainly did not show all
things to men from the beginning, but by seeking they
find what is better in the course of time.” We know
that Protagoras wrote on “The situation [of man?] in
the beginning,” but we do not know how his account
ran. (Many scholars have used the mythological ac-
count of the origin of human civilization given by
Protagoras in Plato's dialogue of that name to recon-
struct the doctrine of Protagoras' lost work on “the
state of nature.” But since Plato's version involves the
direct intervention of the gods, it cannot be an exact
account of Protagoras' own view. And we have really
no way of knowing how far Plato has adapted Pro-
tagoras' doctrine to his own purposes in the dialogue.)

Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound contains a long and
important speech (vv. 458-84) in which the god enu-
merates the arts which he bestowed upon man. This
passage probably reflects some philosophical account
of human culture which is older than Protagoras; it
may well be the theory of Anaxagoras. But whereas
the poet ascribes the development of civilization to
Prometheus, Anaxagoras seems to have attributed it
to the special physis of the human hand, which makes
man alone a tool-using or tool-making creature, and
hence the most intelligent and “cultivated” of animals.
(Anaxagoras, frag. 21B; the context in Aristotle, De
partibus animalium
687 A7-23 makes clear that it was
the acquisition of arts or technai that Anaxagoras had
in mind.) It is the same admiration for the achieve-
ments of human culture—measured not against the
gods but by reference to other animals—that we find
echoed in the famous ode of Sophocles: “Many are the


marvels (of the earth), but none more marvelous than
man” (Antigone 332ff.).

The fifth-century philosophical theories concerning
the origin of culture are mostly lost, though we have
a brief doxographical account of one such theory for
Archelaus, a pupil of Anaxagoras (Diels-Kranz,
60.A1.16, 4.6). The most important surviving text from
the fifth century is a fragment of the Sisyphus of
Critias, which is concerned not with technological but
with moral and political culture. Written by the future
leader of the Thirty Tyrants, these verses describe, first,
a time in which “the life of men was disorderly, bestial,
and subject to [the rule of] strength, when there was
no prize for good men nor any punishment for evil.”
Then men established laws (nomoi) and punishment “so
that justice might rule and hold crime (hybris) as her
slave.” But these laws prevented only open wrongdo-
ing. To prevent wrongdoing in secret, some clever man
invented the fear of the gods as a deterrent. He de-
clared that the gods are omniscient and that they dwell
in the most impressive region, the sky, whence come
the terrors of lightning and thunder and the blessings
of rain and sunshine. Thus he quenched lawlessness
with “the sweetest of teachings, and concealed the
truth with a false tale” (Critias, frag. 25).

The verses of Critias present us with a definite theory
as to the man-made origin of human law (nomoi) as
well as of the belief in the gods. This may count as
the second basic notion derived, indirectly, from Ionian
natural philosophy. A third comes from Miletus by way
of the world travellers and ethnologists Hecataeus and
Herodotus. The interest in strange lands leads to an
interest in strange customs, and to a realization that
men differ even more in their notions of the right and
wrong ways to honor the dead, for example, than they
do in their physical characteristics. Hence comes an
awareness of the great force of custom or convention,
on the one hand (“nomos is king of all men,” says
Herodotus, III, 38.4, echoing Pindar), with an increased
sense of the relative uniformity of man's physis, or
physical nature. “We are kinsmen and fellow-citizens
by nature,” says the Sophist Prodicus of Ceos in Plato's
Protagoras (337 C-D); it is only “nomos, which is a
tyrant among men,” that has made the participants in
the dialogue strangers to one another, since they come
from different cities. The point is made even more
generally by Antiphon: “by nature we are all alike,
both Greek and barbarian” (frag. 44, Diels-Kranz).

The final ingredient in the new conception of man
in the late fifth century seems to be derived from
common sense and shrewd observation rather than
from any explicit philosophic theory. This is a view
of human beings as basically motivated by self-regard-
ing and essentially anti-social appetites, of which the
most conspicuous are sexual passion and the intrinsi-
cally unlimited desire for wealth and power.

7. In summing up now the new view of man in the
Greek Enlightenment (or in the so-called Age of the
Sophists), for simplicity two phases will be distin-
guished: a more conservative view formulated by
Protagoras (ca. 450-30 B.C.), and a more radical view
to be found after 430 B.C. in Antiphon, in Aristophanes'
Clouds, and (in various forms) in Thucydides' History.
It is the second view which is expressed by the basic
opposition between nomos and physis, such as we find
for example in the great speech of Callicles in Plato's

An evolutionary or naturalist view of nomoi as
man-made need not be subversive of traditional insti-
tutions in its intended moral and political application.
(We may compare this first view with the conservative
doctrines of the social contract in Hobbes and Hume.)
For Protagoras, the doctrine that man is the measure
of all things seems to have meant that what a given
society regards as right and good really is right and
good (for the members of that society). There is no
other criterion of evaluation or obligation; the institu-
tionalized judgment of men expressed in their nomoi
is the only criterion, and it is valid as such. (This is
at least the interpretation of Protagoras' view given
by Plato in Theatetus 167C.)

From similar factual premisses as to the human
origin of moral standards, other fifth-century thinkers
drew a much more radical conclusion. This is baldly
stated by Antiphon the Sophist as a direct opposition
between a man's natural interests and the conventional
restraints which society would impose upon him. The
formula for this opposition is physis versus nomos,
Nature against Convention (or Nature against Law and
Custom). The idea of a fundamental divergence be-
tween human nomos and the nature of things can be
traced back as far as Parmenides, who describes the
erroneous views of mortals in terms of their “customary
beliefs” (nomizein, frag. 6.8) and the words or names
which they have mistakenly imposed on the objects
of opinion (8.38, 8.53, 9.1, 10.3; compare nomizein and
nomos for a misleading form of speech about physical
processes in Anaxagoras, frag. 17 and Empedocles, frag.
9.5). Thus the nomos-physis antithesis first emerges as
an epistemological formula for the contrast of Appear-
ance and Reality. The most striking and important
expression of this view is in the famous statement of
Democritus (frag. 9): “By custom (nomos) there is
sweet, by custom there is bitter, by custom hot, by
custom cold, by custom color; in truth there are atoms
and void.”

It is this antithesis which is restated as a moral theory
in Antiphon's discussion of Justice: “Most of the things


which are just by law (nomos) are hostile to nature
(physis).... Those acts which the laws prohibit are
no more agreeable or more akin to nature than those
which they command.... The advantages which are
established by laws are chains upon nature, but those
which are established by nature are free.” Since there
is no divine sanction for human prescriptions, the lucid
man will ignore them and do as he pleases, taking
measures simply to avoid punishment. We find this
view in comic parody in Aristophanes: since it is a
man who first made the nomos against striking one's
father by persuading other men, says Pheidippides, why
can't I make a new law in turn? (Clouds 1421ff.). It
is with reference to such thowing-off of conventional
chains that the speaker called “Unjust Argument” urges
his disciples to deprive themselves of no pleasure,
including adultery, but to yield to “the necessities of
nature”: “Follow me, enjoy nature, frolic, laugh, deem
nothing shameful” (ibid. 1071-78). It is essentially the
same view which we find more seriously stated by
Callicles in the Gorgias and by Glaucon in Book II
of the Republic. In the Platonic statements this view
is connected with the assumption of an original com-
pact, such as we find hinted at in the fifth-century
passage of Critias quoted above: vexed at being taken
advantage of by a few strong and unscrupulous charac-
ters, the mass of men agreed to outlaw certain forms
of conduct and to impose penalties upon them. But
the strong and clever man is not bound by these re-
strictions, which are designed only to hold him down
and to prevent him from getting what he is strong
enough to take.

It would be inaccurate to say that this view (which
is that of the historical Antiphon and probably of the
historical Critias, as well as that of the Platonic
Callicles and of some characters in Aristophanes' com-
edy) is also the view of Thucydides. But the picture
of human nature and conduct in Thucydides' History
is determined by the presence of such a view in the
background. We can see this most clearly in the words
of the Melian Dialogue: “Justice is a consideration
among men only when the forces are equal; but the
strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they
must.” (For, as Hobbes was later to point out, there
is no pretense of a social compact between nations.)
More generally, “Of gods we believe, and of men we
know, that by a necessity of their nature they rule as
far as their power permits” (Thucydides, V. 89, 105.2).
In the growth of the Athenian empire Thucydides sees
the action of the permanent motivating forces in
human nature: fear, honor or ambition, and the ac-
cumulation of economic profit leading to political
power (I. 75-76; cf. 1-19). In the disaster of Melos
as in the later disaster of Athens he sees the result of
such forces aided and abetted by human folly with the
concomitant action of chance or the unexpected turn
of events. It is because of the constancy of human
nature—or more exactly of the human condition (to
), the interaction of man's natural desires
and fears, his plans and folly, with his changing cir-
cumstances—that the future must resemble the past,
so that an accurate and perceptive history can be a
permanently useful possession for the one who seeks
to understand (but is not always able to alter) the
course of events (I. 22). In the last analysis, Thucydides'
view of human nature as revealed in human history
may be closer in spirit to the archaic conception of
mortal helplessness than one could suppose, but
rendered more tragic by the total absence here of any
positive contrast of the kind provided by the traditional
notion of the gods. The historian's view of man as
defined by his action is ultimately that of a creature
“incapable of comprehending his position within the
limitations of a present moment” in which he is obliged
to act (Stahl, p. 171).

8. Like Thucydides, Democritus and Socrates are
men of the Greek Enlightenment, and their views of
human nature are conditioned by the collapse of the
traditional sense of supernatural control over human
action and destiny. Like Thucydides, both men grew
up in the generation which had heard or read Protag-
oras' statements, that man is the measure of all things
and “concerning the gods, I am not able to know
whether they exist or do not exist” (frag. 4). For both
men the response takes the form of a reassertion of
traditional Greek values such as justice and temperance
or moderation (sōphrosynē), but on a purely naturalis-
tic basis, in other words, on the basis of a view of
human nature which claims that moral action towards
other men and towards the political community as a
whole is in a man's own best interest. Democritus
argued his case on the grounds of an enlightened
hedonism: “If one oversteps due measure, the things
which are most pleasant will become most unpleasant.”
“Moderation (sōphrosynē) increases enjoyment, and
makes pleasure even greater” (frags. 233 and 211).
Bodily needs are limited and easily satisfied; what
causes distress and hardship is excessive desire due to
a misdirected aim of the mind (frag. 223; cf. 159). For
Democritus as for Socrates, “happiness and unhappi-
ness belong to the psychē” (frag. 170), and wisdom
heals the soul of passion as medicine cures the body
of disease (frag. 31). Since the happiness of the individ-
ual depends upon the common good and the well-being
of the city, the life of rational pleasure or “cheerful-
ness” for the individual coincides with the life of just
and lawful action with a mind at ease (frags. 174, 252,
287). Since the soul or mind is itself explained in terms


of atoms in motion, it is probable that Democritus
founded his theory of happiness and moral action on
a thoroughgoing materialism, but the details of his
doctrine on this point are not clear.

In the absence of reliable independent evidence, it
is impossible to separate an account of Socrates from
an interpretation of the Platonic dialogues. (The former
view that Xenophon was a reliable source for our
knowledge of the “historical” Socrates is now largely
abandoned; in many cases Xenophon is not even inde-
pendent of Plato.) It is in the Apology and Crito, if
anywhere, that we catch a glimpse of the real Socrates.
A few characteristic features of his view of human
nature may be noted here. If we set aside the cor-
porealist account of the soul offered by the atomists
and the emphasis upon pleasure, a certain general
similarity to Democritus' moral position is very strik-
ing. All good things for the individual and the commu-
nity depend upon excellence (aretē) of the soul (Apol-
29D-30B). The fundamental reason for refusing
to do an unjust act is that it would corrupt that part
of us “which is harmed by injustice and benefited by
what is just”; and the life of one whose soul is corrupt
is not worth living (Crito 47E). Thus the moral life is
self-regarding, and ultimately secure: “no evil can
happen to a good man, whether in life or in death”
(Apology 41D). Hence no one does wrong willingly,
but in ignorance of the good—of the morally good,
which is the good life itself. In this view moral virtue
is simply knowledge of what is good for a man, and
the life of philosophy is the life of inquiry. If the
Apology is to be trusted, Socrates embedded this intel-
lectual and individualistic ethic within the old contrast
of mortal and immortal, insisting paradoxically that his
only wisdom lay in the recognition of his ignorance:
no man is wise, but only the god (23A). Socrates set
the seal upon this extraordinary teaching by his own
life and death. It was left for Plato (in the myths of
the afterlife, the doctrine of intelligible Forms, and the
moral psychology of the Republic) to provide a fuller
philosophical justification for the view of man en-
shrined in the Socratic paradoxes.


For the pre-philosophical conceptions of human nature,
see Hermann Fränkel, Dichtung und Philosophie des frühen
2nd ed. (Munich, 1962), and idem, Wege und
Formen frühgriechischen Denkens,
2nd ed. (Munich, 1960),
esp. pp. 23-35; Bruno Snell, Die Entdeckung des Geistes,
3rd ed. (Hamburg, 1955); trans. T. G. Rosenmeyer as The
Discovery of the Mind
(Cambridge, Mass., 1953), esp. Chs.
I, III, VII, and VIII; E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the
(Berkeley, 1951), esp. Chs. I-II; an excellent sum-
mary with fuller references in J. Mansfeld, Die Offenbarung
Des Parmenides und die menschliche Welt (Assen, 1964), Ch.
I, pp. 1-41.

Fragments of the early philosophical writings are quoted
from Diels and Kranz, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 7th ed.,
2 vols. (Berlin, 1954). For secondary literature see the refer-
ences in W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy,
Vol. I. (Cambridge and New York, 1962), and Vol. II
(Cambridge and New York, 1965). For the Sophists, see
Guthrie, Vol. III (1969) and Werner Jaeger, Paideia, trans.
Gilbert Highet (New York, 1939), I, 286-331. See also: Felix
Heinimann, Nomos und Physis (Basel, 1945); W. K. C.
Guthrie, In the Beginning (Ithaca, N.Y., 1957); Thomas Cole,
Democritus and the Sources of Greek Anthropology (Cleve-
land, 1967), with full bibliography. For Thucydides see
Hans-Peter Stahl, Thukydides. Die Stellung des Menschen
im geschichtlichen Prozess
(Munich, 1966).


[See also Cultural Development in Antiquity; Historiog-
raphy, Influence of Ideas on Ancient Greek; Macrocosm
and Microcosm; Platonism.]