Plato’s Counterfeit Sophists

  Tell, Håkan. 2011. Plato's Counterfeit Sophists. Hellenic Studies Series 44. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

6. Competition in Wisdom

We shall proceed by reviewing the sources we have for competition in wisdom. Special attention will be given to the recurring contrast between intellectual and athletic achievements and their due rewards. The material on the sophists will then be considered against the backdrop of this discourse. We shall suggest that the competitive elements present in the sophistic material should be understood as traditional and in line with the practices of earlier sophoi. In fact, competitiveness and contestation will prove to be some of the most pervasive characteristics of the Greek wisdom tradition.

Hesiod supplies us with early evidence for competition in wisdom. In the Works and Days he discusses his (un)familiarity with sailing and concedes that he has only sailed from Aulis to Euboea—a distance of some 65 meters. [7] He continues:

ἔνθα δ’ ἐγὼν ἐπ’ ἄεθλα δαΐφρονος Ἀμφιδάμαντος
Χαλκίδα [τ’] εἰσεπέρησα. τὰ δὲ προπεφραδμένα πολλὰ
ἄεθλ’ ἔθεσαν παῖδες μεγαλήτορες. ἔνθα μέ φημι
ὕμνῳ νικήσαντα φέρειν τρίποδ’ ὠτώεντα.

In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (149–150, Allen) we hear of a similar competition:

οἱ δέ σε πυγμαχίῃ τε καὶ ὀρχηθμῷ καὶ ἀοιδῇ
μνησάμενοι τέρπουσιν ὅταν στήσωνται ἀγῶνα.

But with boxing and dancing and song they remember and delight you, whenever they arrange a contest.

Later, the poet asks the maidens who are his audience to remember him in the future (ἐμεῖο δὲ καὶ μετόπισθε μνήσασθ’), and to say that his songs are the best in times to come (τοῦ πᾶσαι μετόπισθεν ἀριστεύουσιν ἀοιδαί), whenever a stranger asks them. [

There is also some interesting information in the work that has come down to us under the name Contest of Homer and Hesiod. This piece was composed close to the time of Hadrian, but it is clear that the author draws upon sources that go back at least to the Museum of Alcidamas in the early fourth century BCE. [10] The setting for the Contest of Homer and Hesiod is the funeral games of Amphidamas, king of Euboea, and in addition to trials in bodily strength and speed, there is also a competition in wisdom (σοφία), lines 62–66:

κατὰ δὲ τὸν αὐτὸν
χρόνον Γανύκτωρ ἐπιτάφιον τοῦ πατρὸς Ἀμφιδάμαντος
βασιλέως Εὐβοίας ἐπιτελῶν πάντας τοὺς ἐπισήμους ἄνδρας
οὐ μόνον ῥώμῃ καὶ τάχει, ἀλλὰ καὶ σοφίᾳ ἐπὶ τὸν ἀγῶνα
μεγάλαις δωρεαῖς τιμῶν συνεκάλεσεν.

At the same time, Ganuctor was celebrating the funeral games of his father Amphidamas, king of Euboea, and summoned for a competition all men who were famous not only for their strength and speed, but also for wisdom, honoring them with great gifts.

We hear of judges (κριταί, 69) presiding over the contests, as the sages question each other. Whoever gives the best answers is victorious. The capacity to answer any question is crucial, and this is highlighted in Homer’s remark to Hesiod (160):

ἄλλο δὲ πᾶν ὅ τι σῷ θυμῷ φίλον ἐστὶν ἐρώτα
Ask anything else that is dear to your heart.

Hesiod walks away the victor on the grounds that his poetry promotes peace whereas Homer sings of war. His prize is a tripod, which he dedicates to the Muses. In this work, then, we hear of a highly formalized competition in wisdom, alongside other more traditional athletic competitions, where what counts is one’s ability to answer any question. Further, the winner is crowned (ἐστεφάνωσεν, 208) and rewarded with a prize in the same manner as the athletes: the words ἀγωνίζομαι and ἀγών (54, 65, 68, 71, and 215), νικάω and νίκη (71, 207, 209, 210, 214, 216, and 255) are used to describe the competition between Hesiod and Homer. These verbs are typically affiliated with athletic prowess. [
11] It is worth mentioning that the prize, a tripod, is a familiar element in our sources as a reward for wisdom: Diogenes Laertius tells the story of the tripod and the Seven Sages, where the Delphic oracle declares that the tripod should belong to the wisest man alive. [12] In the Contest of Homer and Hesiod we similarly have a wisdom contest with the prize of a tripod and, as we shall see shortly, an important role played by oracular responses.

In the same tradition, Heraclitus expresses his strong disapproval of Homer and Archilochus, and voices his discontent within a framework of competition:

τόν τε Ὅμηρον ἔφασκεν ἄξιον ἐκ τῶν ἀγώνων
ἐκβάλλεσθαι καὶ ῥαπίζεσθαι καὶ Ἀρχίλοχον ὁμοίως.

In fragment 2, Xenophanes outlines his criticism of athletic competition, and compares the benefits of his own wisdom to those of the athletic competitions: [

ῥώμης γὰρ ἀμείνων
ἀνδρῶν ἠδ’ ἵππων ἡμετέρη σοφίη

σμικρὸν δ’ ἄν τι πόλει χάρμα γένοιτ’ ἐπὶ τῶι,
εἴ τις ἀεθλεύων νικῶι Πίσαο παρ’ ὄχθας·
οὐ γὰρ πιαίνει ταῦτα μυχοὺς πόλεως.

Our sophia is better than the strength of men and horses.

Traditionally, this fragment has been read as Xenophanes’ condemnation of athletics. If we put it together with the passage quoted from Heraclitus, however, we can read it as an affirmative declaration of his own wisdom, in which his intelligence is carefully framed to contrast with the benefits of athletic victory. Heraclitus, focusing exclusively on competition in sophia, acknowledges that his wisdom participates in an agonistic relationship with earlier and contemporary sophoi. Xenophanes, on the other hand, shifts the focus and articulates the benefits of wisdom contrastively by saying what athletics cannot accomplish. Both Heraclitus and Xenophanes, however, promote the pursuit of wisdom as an agonistic activity. Similar sentiments were later expressed in Euripides’ Autolykos, where the uselessness of athletes is contrasted with the benefit to society of the wise man:

16τίς γὰρ παλαίσας εὖ, τίς ὠκύπους ἀνὴρ

ἢ δίσκον ἄρας ἢ γνάθον παίσας καλῶς

πόλει πατρῴᾳ στέφανον ἤρκεσεν λαβών;

23ἄνδρας χρὴ σοφούς τε κἀγαθοὺς

φύλλοις στέφεσθαι, χὥστις ἡγεῖται πόλει

κάλλιστα σώφρων καὶ δίκαιος ὢν ἀνήρ,

ὅστις τε μύθοις ἔργ’ ἀπαλλάσσει κακὰ

μάχας τ’ ἀφαιρῶν καὶ στάσεις· τοιαῦτα γὰρ

πόλει τε πάσῃ πᾶσί θ’ Ἕλλησιν καλά.

battles and civil strifes. For such things are good both for every

Thucydides offers a perfect illustration of the agonistic aspirations of works such as those of Herodotus in his disclaimer at the beginning of Book 1. There he contrasts these agonistic tendencies in favor of his own goals:

κτῆμά τε ἐς αἰεὶ μᾶλλον ἢ ἀγώνισμα ἐς τὸ παραχρῆμα ἀκούειν ξύγκειται

Thucydides addresses other aspects of this agonistic nature later in his work (3.38.4–7). The context is a deliberation in the assembly over what actions should be taken in the face of the revolt of Mytilene in 427 BCE. Cleon addresses the assembly and criticizes the citizens for allowing the act of political deliberation to turn into an oratorical competition:

The persons to blame are you who are so foolish as to institute these contests (κακῶς ἀγωνοθετοῦντες); who go to see an oration as you would to see a sight, take your facts on hearsay, judge of the practicability of a project by the wit of its advocates, and trust for the truth as to past events, not to the fact which you saw more than to the clever structures which you heard; the easy victims of newfangled arguments, unwilling to follow received conclusions; slaves to every new paradox, despisers of the commonplace; the first wish of every man being that he could speak himself, the next to rival (ἀνταγωνιζόμενοι) those who can speak by seeming to keep up with their ideas by applauding every hit almost before it is made, and by being as quick in catching an argument as you are slow in foreseeing its consequences; asking, if I may so say, for something different from the conditions under which we live, and yet comprehending inadequately those very conditions; very slaves to the pleasure of the ear, and more like the audience of a rhetorician than the council of a city (ἁπλῶς τε ἀκοῆς ἡδονῇ ἡσσώμενοι καὶ σοφιστῶν θεαταῖς ἐοικότες καθημένοις μᾶλλονἢ περὶ πόλεως βουλευομένοις).

Trans. Crawley

This passage illustrates how commonplace these competitive performances were, and how, in the eyes of Cleon (and, presumably, Thucydides), they were significant enough to influence negatively the political climate of the time.

But perhaps the most important source for actual competitions in wisdom comes from the medical writers. In the treatise Nature of Man, we are told how inadequate are the theories of others who, although they adopt the same opinion (γνώμῃ τῇ αὐτῇ), nevertheless fail to say the same things (τὰ αὐτά). [26] And the author continues:

Γνοίη δ’ ἄν τις τόδε μάλιστα παραγενόμενος αὐτέοισιν ἀντιλέγουσιν· πρὸς γὰρ ἀλλήλους ἀντιλέγοντες οἱ αὐτοὶ ἄνδρες τῶν αὐτέων ἐναντίον ἀκροατέων οὐδέποτε τρὶς ἐφεξῆς ὁ αὐτὸς περιγίνεται ἐν τῷ λόγῳ, ἀλλὰ ποτὲ μὲν οὗτος ἐπικρατέει, ποτὲ δὲ οὗτος, ποτὲ δὲ ᾧ ἂν τύχῃ μάλιστα ἡ γλῶσσα ἐπιῤῥυεῖσα πρὸς τὸν ὄχλον.

We are left without any doubt that there existed formal debates on a variety of topics that we can loosely collect under the heading of sophia, and that these debates bore a close resemblance to other forms of agonistic contests with a developed vocabulary of winning and losing (περιγίνεται, ἐπικρατέει). This is a point stressed by Lloyd:

In the Nature of Man (1, 23–24) the author goes on to assert that it is the lack of understanding that makes the debaters contradict themselves (αὐτοὶ ἑωυτοὺς καταβάλλειν … ὑπὸ ἀσυνεσίης). The verbs used to mean “debate” and “contradict” in the passages quoted above (καταβάλλειν and ἀντιλέγειν) correspond to the names of Protagoras’ works, the Overthrowing Arguments (Καταβάλλοντες) and the Contradictory Arguments (Ἀντιλογικοί), and they seem to be appropriately used in the context of competitive debate, where the goal is to overcome one’s opponent. [
29] Gorgias uses the verb καταβάλλειν in his Defense on behalf of Palamedes when he talks about the danger that awaits the judges if they make the wrong decision and condemn him:

ὑμῖν μὲν γὰρ μέγας ὁ κίνδυνος, ἀδίκοις φανεῖσι δόξαν τὴν μὲν καταβαλεῖν, τὴν δὲ κτήσασθαι. τοῖς δὲ ἀγαθοῖς ἀνδράσιν αἱρετώτερος θάνατος δόξης αἰσχρᾶς·

In this passage, καταβάλλειν is employed where reputation is at stake. By winning the argument one’s own reputation is enhanced, while that of the opponent is overthrown; and this is clearly the meaning of the passage from the Hippocratic corpus quoted above, where the disputants attack each other in order to be proclaimed victors in the debate. It is also likely that this was the ability that the Overthrowing Arguments of Protagoras dealt with, and which he sought to instill in his students. Plutarch preserves the name of one of Thrasymachus’ works, Ὑπερβάλλοντες, and though the prefix used here is different, the meaning is likely similar to that of the κατα-prefix. [

What emerges from the examples above is a pattern of competitive performances of wisdom where such qualities as poetic excellence, riddle-solving capabilities, and specialized expertise were highly valued and rewarded. The competitive venues for these performances employed a language that mirrors the vocabulary we traditionally associate with athletic competition, for example, the use of terms such as “judges,” “winners,” “crowns,” or “prizes.” A crucial feature of these performances seems to have consisted in the ability on the part of the sage to answer any questions posed to him. In the surveyed material we witness a clear rivalry between athletic and intellectual accomplishments. The swiftness or strength of athletes is repeatedly juxtaposed to the wisdom of the sages (ταχύτης ποδῶν and ῥώμη vs. σοφίη in Xenophanes; ῥώμη καὶ τάχος vs. σοφία in the Contest of Homer and Hesiod; and τάχος καὶ ῥώμη vs. γνώμη καὶ λόγοι in Isocrates). The juxtaposition between athletic and intellectual prowess exhibits a formal characteristic that suggests that this rivalry was a traditional topic. [34] Sophoi could be quite jealous of the rewards reaped by athletes. Xenophanes, for example, complains about how athletic victors receive the front seats at the games (καί κε προεδρίην φανερὴν ἐν ἀγῶσιν ἄροιτο) and meals at public expense (καί κεν σῖτ’ εἴη δημοσίων κτεάνων ἐκ πόλεως), [35] despite the fact that, in his view at least, his wisdom is more deserving than their accomplishments. This theme is picked up by Socrates who, when asked to suggest an alternative penalty to the death penalty suggested by his accusers, answers:

τί οὖν πρέπει ἀνδρὶ πένητι εὐεργέτῃ δεομένῳ ἄγειν σχολὴν ἐπὶ τῇ ὑμετέρᾳ παρακελεύσει; οὐκ ἔσθ’ ὅτι μᾶλλον, ὦ ἄνδρες Ἀθηναῖοι, πρέπει οὕτως ὡς τὸν τοιοῦτον ἄνδρα ἐν πρυτανείῳ σιτεῖσθαι, πολύ γε μᾶλλον ἢ εἴ τις ὑμῶν ἵππῳ ἢ συνωρίδι ἢ ζεύγει νενίκηκεν Ὀλυμπίασιν· ὁ μὲν γὰρ ὑμᾶς ποιεῖ εὐδαίμονας δοκεῖν εἶναι, ἐγὼ δὲ εἶναι.

Socrates contrasts his own accomplishments and usefulness to the polis to the achievements of the athletic victors. By claiming for himself the public recognition normally granted to athletic success he locates himself within the agonistic tradition outlined above. It is interesting to note that Socrates’ claim to fame came from the oracle of Apollo at Delphi which, after being asked by Chaerephon whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates, pronounced that there existed no wiser man in the world. [
37] Socrates challenges the rewards given to athletes and claims that he is more worthy of them, but he also attributes his reputation for wisdom to the prophetic utterances of Delphi. He thereby acknowledges, at least indirectly, his indebtedness to a long tradition of practitioners of wisdom dating all the way back to the Seven Sages. [38] Furthermore, although he emphasizes the rivalry between athletes and sophoi, the question posed to Delphi regarding his wisdom is clearly asked with a view also to the rivalry among sophoi—no one is wiser (σοφώτερος) than Socrates—and thus stresses the twofold competition seen above: both between athletic and intellectual pursuits and among practitioners of wisdom.

Isocrates also complains that athletic achievements are held in higher regard than intellectual pursuits (Panegyricus 1):

Πολλάκις ἐθαύμασα τῶν τὰς πανηγύρεις συναγαγόντων καὶ τοὺς γυμνικοὺς ἀγῶνας καταστησάντων, ὅτι τὰς μὲν τῶν σωμάτων εὐτυχίας οὕτω μεγάλων δωρεῶν ἠξίωσαν, τοῖς δ’ ὑπὲρ τῶν κοινῶν ἰδίᾳ πονήσασι καὶ τὰς αὑτῶν ψυχὰς οὕτω παρασκευάσασιν ὥστε καὶ τοὺς ἄλλους ὠφελεῖν δύνασθαι, τούτοις δ’ οὐδεμίαν τιμὴν ἀπένειμαν.

I have often wondered over those who convened the Panhellenic festivals and founded the athletic contests, that they deemed success of bodies worthy of so great gifts, whereas to those who privately toiled on behalf of the public and prepared their own minds so as to be able to benefit even others, to them they assigned no honor.

It is particularly relevant that this complaint is voiced in the context of the games at the Panhellenic sanctuaries. It emphasizes the traditional theme of the opposition between athletic and intellectual pursuits, on the one hand, but it also focuses attention on the games as potential or desired sites for competition in wisdom, on the other. [
39] What, then, do the frequent comparative appeals to athletic prowess accomplish? The answer, I suggest, is twofold. It situates intellectual activity within the sphere of public goods—goods that deserve public recognition. But, perhaps more importantly, it construes wisdom as a competitive enterprise—one with winners and losers and with high stakes in the taking for the victor.


[ back ] 1. The material considered in this chapter is very selective. I have tried not to cast my net too widely and have thus often—but by no means always—ignored elements of competition manifested in the poetic tradition. Instead, I have sought to outline a set of competitive practices in whose tradition the sophists later operated. For a fuller account that considers the whole poetic tradition and material, see Griffith 1990.

[ back ] 2. Although there exist numerous studies on every possible aspect of the athletic competitions, not much attention has been paid to the Panhellenic games as places for agonistic public performances and debates on topics ranging from poetry to natural philosophy and human anatomy. Some notable exceptions are Lloyd 1979, esp. 92–98, and 1987:50–108 to whose excellent discussion and references my argument is greatly indebted; Richardson 1981; Griffith 1990; Osborne 1993; and Graziosi 2001. For a discussion of the athletic competitions at the Panhellenic games, see, for example, Gardiner 1910; Kyle 1987; Tzachou-Alexandri 1989; and Golden 1998. The gravitation of practitioners of wisdom towards the Panhellenic centers is further explored in chapter five.

[ back ] 3. Sextus Empiricus Adversus Mathematicos 7.60 = DK 80B1 and Diogenes Laertius 3.37 = DK 80B5. For καταβάλλω as a wrestling metaphor borrowed from athletics, see Gagarin 2001:171–186, esp. n6; and Hawhee 2004:35–39.

[ back ] 4. Hippias Minor 363c-d = DK 86A8.

[ back ] 5. Gorgias 449c = DK 82A20. Similar practices were shared by Ion in Plato’s Ion, who claimed to be able to explain and elaborate on any point in Homer before an audience.

[ back ] 6. DK 90 1–9.

[ back ] 7. West 1978:20.

[ back ] 8. Works and Days 654–657, West. Hesiod makes another mention of the competition between singers (ἀοιδοί) at the very beginning of the same poem (lines 24–26), where it stands as a model for good strife (cf. Lloyd 1987:58n29): [ back ] ἀγαθὴ δ’ Ἔρις ἥδε βροτοῖσιν. [ back ] καὶ κεραμεὺς κεραμεῖ κοτέει καὶ τέκτονι τέκτων, [ back ] καὶ πτωχὸς πτωχῷ φθονέει καὶ ἀοιδὸς ἀοιδῷ. [ back ] This eris (‘emulation’, ‘competition’) is good for mortals. [ back ] Potter bears a grudge against potter and craftsman against craftsman, [ back ] And beggar envies beggar and singer singer.

[ back ] 9. 166–173. Iliad 2.594–600 also provides evidence for poetic competition in the epic tradition. Here the Muses in anger remove the ability to sing from Thamyris of Thrace, since he boasted that he would be victorious (νικησέμεν) against the Muses in song.

[ back ] 10. For a fuller discussion on the sources for this work, see West 1967, who believes that Alcidamas invented the narrative on the contest, and Richardson 1981, who argues that Alcidamas’ Museum uses an even older account dating back to the sixth century BCE. For the question of how the Michigan Alcidamas Papyrus relates to the Museum and the Contest of Homer and Hesiod, see Koniaris 1971 and Renehan 1971.

[ back ] 11. It is also interesting to note that Hesiod wins the competition because his poetry is judged to be more beneficial to society by promoting peace. This is the same criterion that is applied in the agon between Aeschylus and Euripides in the Frogs. For this theme (rejection of war and praise of peace), see Richardson 1981:2–3.

[ back ] 12. This theme is discussed at greater length in chapter five, above, 122–123.

[ back ] 13. Diogenes Laertius 9.1 = DK 22B42.

[ back ] 14. For a treatment of the tradition critical of athletics, see Bowra 1938; Marcovich1978; Kyle 1987, esp. 124–154; and Larmour 1999:41–55.

[ back ] 15. DK 21B2, 20–22. For a full discussion of this fragment, see Bowra 1938 and Marcovich 1978, esp. 16–26. Similar sentiments were later expressed by Isocrates in Antidosis 250: “But what is most astonishing of all is that while they would grant that the mind is superior to the body, nevertheless, in spite of this opinion, they look with greater favour upon training in gymnastics than upon the study of philosophy” (trans. Norlin).

[ back ] 18. Ohlert 1912; Lloyd 1987:85; Griffith 1990:192 with footnotes 24–27; and Dillery 2005, esp. 176.

[ back ] 19. Fr. 278, West.

[ back ] 20. Lloyd 1979:60–61, esp. n6 with bibliography; Lloyd 1987:85–87, esp. n127; Griffith 1990:192; Graziosi 2001:69.

[ back ] 21. Contest of Homer and Hesiod 215–229. Cf. Thucydides 3.96.1.

[ back ] 22. Contest of Homer and Hesiod 323–338. Heraclitus picks up on this failure of Homer to understand what the riddling boys meant in fr. 56 (DK 22B56), where he likens the deception of Homer, the wisest of all Greeks, to the deception of men with respect to their recognition of visible things.

[ back ] 23. Lucian Herodotus 1.

[ back ] 24. For an exploration of the connection between wisdom and athletics in ancient Greece, see Larmour 1999, esp. 41–55.

[ back ] 25. 1.22.4.

[ back ] 26. The date of this treatise is roughly 440–400 BCE. In the words of Jones: “In Chapter I Melissus the Eleatic, who flourished about 440 B.C., is mentioned in such a way as to show that his doctrines were not yet forgotten or out of date, and throughout the first eight chapters the influence of Empedocles is strong. We ought then to postulate for the first section a date not earlier than 440 B.C. and not later than (say) 400 B.C.”, Jones 1923, 4:xxvii. See also Lloyd 1979:92–98.

[ back ] 27. Nature of Man, 15–20.

[ back ] 28. Lloyd 1979:93.

[ back ] 29. Pollux 2.120 = DK 87B98 attributes the use of the participle ἀντιλογούμενοι to Antiphon.

[ back ] 30. DK 82B11a, 35.

[ back ] 31. DK 85B7.

[ back ] 32. Lysias Olympian Speech 33.2.

[ back ] 33. Panegyricus 45.

[ back ] 34. Gorgias, for example, uses this dichotomy in his Funeral Oration honoring the Athenians who had died in war. There he praises the Athenians for being able to exercise these two qualities at once (καὶ δισσὰ ἀσκήσαντες μάλιστα ὧν δεῖ, γνώμην <καὶ ῥώμην>), and he later goes on to say that they use their prudence of opinion to check the imprudence of strength (τῶι φρονίμωι τῆς γνώμης παύοντες τὸ ἄφρον <τῆς ῥώμης>), DK 82B6. The problem with this fragment is, of course, that the two uses of ῥώμη are conjectures, but it fits so well with the pattern we have already detected in the quoted sources that I find it a very likely, and thus illustrative, conjecture.

[ back ] 35. DK 21B2.

[ back ] 36. Apology 36d. Cf. Marcovich 1978, esp. 19–20.

[ back ] 37. Apology 20e-21a.

[ back ] 38. The connection between Delphi and wisdom is further explored in chapter five.

[ back ] 39. For a fuller discussion of Isocrates’ criticism of athletics, see Kyle 1987, esp. 134–137.


It is in the light of the competition in wisdom outlined above that I suggest we now review the material on the sophists. Although the main bulk of the evidence concerns only two of the sophists, Gorgias and Hippias, I believe it provides us with a representative view of the intellectual practices of the other sophists. In the case of Gorgias, we have already seen that he made quite a name for himself at the Panhellenic games (ἐμπρέπων δὲ καὶ ταῖς τῶν Ἑλλήνων πανηγύρεσι), [40] where he gave public displays. We also hear of his activities in Athens:

There is a controversial piece of evidence from Clement of Alexandria. [43] In a discussion on the futility of worldly wisdom, he refers to Gorgias:

καὶ τὸ ἀγώνισμα ἡμῶν κατὰ τὸν Λεοντῖνον Γοργίαν διττῶν [δὲ] ἀρετῶν δεῖται, τόλμης καὶ σοφίας. τόλμης μὲν τὸ κίνδυνον ὑπομεῖναι, σοφίας δὲ τὸ αἴνιγμα γνῶναι. ὁ γάρ τοι λόγος καθάπερ τὸ κήρυγμα τὸ Ὀλυμπίασι καλεῖ μὲν τὸν βουλόμενον, στεφανοῖ δὲ τὸν δυνάμενον.

And our contest needs two virtues, according to Gorgias of Leontini, daring and wisdom; daring, on the one hand, to withstand the danger, and wisdom, on the other, to understand the riddle. For speech, just like the proclamation at Olympia, summons whoever wants [to compete], but crowns only the winner.

Bernays, who saw in this passage the first prose mention of Olympia, [
44] was puzzled over the use of αἴνιγμα γνῶναι, and asked if Clement indeed meant to imply that there existed riddling contests at Olympia. He thought not, and suggested instead an emendation of the word that would agree with a line in Homer. [45] Diels also emended αἴνιγμα, but chose a word that meant “to trip up” (πλίγμα), taking the metaphor from the world of wrestling. Ferguson, on the other hand, defended αἴνιγμα and thought that it was “a plain allusion to a famous legendary feat of σοφία,” that is, Oedipus’ encounter with the Sphinx. [46] Thomas Buchheim likewise sees no reason for emending the text as long as it has not been clearly established what sort of ἀγώνισμα is meant. [47]

Although it is hard to sort out any obvious and undisputed conclusions regarding Clement’s quotation of Gorgias, it is still worth the effort to take this passage seriously and compare it to the investigation we have conducted thus far. To begin with, the ability to solve riddles and the designation for such knowledge as σοφία is a well-established pattern that emerges from our sources. Further the positioning of Gorgias’ intellectual activities in the context of competitions (ἀγώνισμα) is also a common theme. Finally, his competitive performance of wisdom at Olympia, one of the most important Panhellenic centers, mirrors a pattern we have detected dating back to the alleged congregation of the Seven Sages at these centers. We may never know the truth about Clement’s quotation, but we can perhaps glean from it attitudes regarding wisdom that circulated in antiquity. These attitudes, as far as we can determine, seem to agree to a remarkable degree with other, older, and more reliable sources, such as those voiced in the Contest of Homer and Hesiod.


[ back ] 40. Philostratus Lives of the Sophists 1.9.4 = DK 82A1.

[ back ] 43. Clement of Alexandria 1.11.51. I describe it as controversial for several reasons. First, most scholars have wondered why Clement chose to quote Gorgias at this particular point in his work. Second, they have failed to understand the significance of the word αἴνιγμα used in the passage and have thus suggested a variety of emendations (τἀ αἴσιμα “what is fitting” Bernays; πλίγμα “crossing the legs in wrestling, tripping one’s opponent” Diels, DK 82B8). Third, no clear consensus has been reached on the quote itself, that is, what should fall within quotation marks and what should not. Finally, it has also been argued that the quote comes from two different places in Gorgias’ works. For a full discussion of these problems, see Bernays 1853:432–433; Ferguson 1921:284–287; and Buchheim 1989:192–195.

[ back ] 44. Bernays 1853:432. The presence of the words τὸ κήρυγμα τὸ Ὀλυμπίασι made Bernays conclude that this passage was indeed taken from the Ὀλυμπικὸς Λόγος.

[ back ] 45. Bernays 1853:433. The line is from Iliad 15.207.

[ back ] 46. Ferguson 1921:284–287.

[ back ] 47. Buchheim 1989:192.

[ back ] 48. Philostratus Lives of the Sophists 1.9.4 = DK 82A1; Pausanias 6.17.7 = 82A7; Pausanias 10.18.7 = DK 82A7; Dio Chrysostom 37.28 = DK 82A7; Cicero De Oratore 3.32.129 = DK 82A7; Pliny Naturalis Historia 33.83 = DK 82A7; Athenaeus 11.505d–e.

[ back ] 49. Kurke 1993:141–149 and 1999:315. For a discussion of the significance of Gorgias’ statue as a subtext in Plato’s Phaedrus, see Morgan 1994.

[ back ] 50. Plutarch Numa 1 = DK 86B3.

[ back ] 51. Lives of the Sophists 1.11.7 = DK 86A2.

[ back ] 52. Hippias Minor 368b = DK 86A12. Compare this to the flamboyant appearance of Empedocles, who, “liked to walk about with a grave expression, wearing a purple robe with a golden girdle, a Delphic wreath, shoes of bronze, and a luxuriant growth of hair, and attended by a train of boys,” Guthrie 1965:132. For a fuller discussion on Empedocles, see Kingsley 1995.

[ back ] 53. Griffith 1990:201n7 has called attention to this feature: “If at times … I appear to minimize the originality or distinctiveness of the sophists, and of Euripidean ‘shock-tactics,’ this is only because I think that the continuities have been consistently undervalued by ‘progressivist’ critics committed to an oversimplified model of a developing Greek ‘consciousness’ and an accompanying rise and fall (decadence) in literary practice and taste.”