Dissoi Logoi: Two-Fold or
Circa 425 BCE
This translation of Dissoi Logoi is from T.M. Robinson's Contrasting Arguments: An Edition of the
Dissoi Logoi. Arno Press, New York: 1979. The original text
contains both the English and the Greek as well as a description to the
text's history, notes, and an excellent commentary. Paragraph numbers
added by the editor of this online edition. 1. On good and bad
On the matter of what is good and what is bad contrasting arguments are
put forward in Greece by educated people: some say that what is good
and what is bad are two different things, others that they are the same
thing, and that the same thing is good for some but bad for others, or
at one time good and at another time bad for the same person.
(2) For myself, I side with the latter group, and I shall examine the
view by reference to human life, with its concern for food and drink
and sex. For these things are bad for those who are sick, but good for
the person who is healthy and needs them.
(3) Or again, lack of restraint in these matters is bad for those who
lack restraint, but good for those who sell these commodities and make
money out of them. And illness is bad for the sick but good for the
doctors. And death is bad for those who die, but good for the
undertakers and the grave-diggers.
(4) Farming also, when it makes a handsome success of producing crops,
is good for the farmers, but bad for the merchants. And it is bad for
the ship-owner if his merchant-ships are involved in a collision or get
smashed up, but good for the shipbuilders.
(5) Furthermore, it is bad for everyone else, but good for the
blacksmiths if a tool corrodes or loses its sharp edge or gets broken
to pieces. And undoubtedly it is bad for everyone else, but good for
the potters if pottery gets smashed. And it is bad for everyone else,
but good for the cobbler if footwear wears out or gets ripped apart.
(6) Again, when it comes to contests, be they gymnastic, or artistic,
or military — for example, when it comes to games (i.e., foot-races) —
victory is good for the winner, but bad for the losers.
(7) And the same is also true for wrestlers and boxers and all those
who take part in artistic contests as well; for example, lyre-playing
is good for the winner, but bad for the losers.
(8) And in the matter of war (I shall speak first of the most recent
events) the Spartan victory over the Athenians and their allies was
good for the Spartans, but bad for the Athenians and their allies; and
the victory which the Greeks won over the Persians was good for the
Greeks, but bad for the non-Greeks.
(9) Again, the capture of Troy was good for the Achaeans, but bad for
the Trojans. And the same holds for what happened to the Thebans and to
(10) And the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs was good for
the Lapiths, but bad for the Centaurs. And it is certainly the case
that the fabled battle of the gods and Giants, and its victorious
outcome, was good for the gods, but bad for the Giants.
(11) Another view is that what is good is one thing and what is bad is
another thing; as the name differs, so likewise does the reality. I
myself also distinguish the two in the above-mentioned manner. For I
think it not even clear what sort of thing would be good and what sort
of thing bad if each of the two were the same thing and not different
things; the situation would be an astonishing one indeed.
(12) And I think that the man who says the above-mentioned things would
not even be able to make a reply if someone were to put the following
question: "Tell me now, did you ever before now do to your parents
anything that was good?" He might say, "Yes, I did a great deal that
was very good." "In that case
you ought to do them a great deal that is very bad, if what is good and what is
bad are the same thing.
(13) Tell me, did you ever before now do to your relatives anything
that was good? In such a case you were doing them something bad. Or
tell me, did you ever before now do harm to your enemies? In such a
case you did them a great deal that was very beneficial.
(14) And please answer me this as well: Are you not in the position of
pitying beggars because they are in a very bad way and also
(contrariwise) congratulating them for being well off, if the same
thing is good and bad?"
(15) And there is nothing to stop the King of Persia from being in the
same condition as beggars. For what is for him a great deal of good is
also a great deal of evil, if the same thing is good and evil. And we
can assume that these things have been said for every case.
(16) However, I shall also go though each individual case, beginning
with eating and drinking and sexual intercourse. For, in the same way
as has been mentioned above, if the same thing is good and bad, it is
good for those who are ill should they do these things. And being sick
is bad for the sick and also good for them if what is good and what is
bad are the same thing.
(17) And for all else that has been mentioned in the above argument
this holds good. Not that I am saying what the good is; I am trying
rather to point out that it is not the same thing which is bad and
good, but that each is different from the other.
2. On seemly and shameful
(1) Contrasting arguments are also put forward on what is seemly and
shameful. For some say that what is seemly and what is shameful are two
different things; as the name differs, so likewise does the reality.
Others, however, say that the same thing is both seemly and shameful.
(2) For my part, I shall attempt an exposition of the matter along the
following lines: for example, it is seemly for a boy in the flower of
his growth to gratify a respectable lover, but it is shameful for a
handsome boy to gratify one who is not his lover.
(3) And it is seemly for women to wash indoors, but shameful to do it
in a wrestling school; but for men it is seemly to wash in a
wrestling-school or gymnasium.
(4) And to have sexual intercourse with one's husband in private, where
one will be concealed from view by walls, is seemly: to do it outside,
however, where somebody will see, is shameful.
(5) And it is seemly to have sexual intercourse with one's own husband,
but very shameful with someone else's. Yes — and for the husband too it
is seemly to have sexual intercourse with his own wife, but shameful
with someone else's.
(6) And for the husband it is shameful to adorn himself and smear
himself with white lead and wear gold ornaments, but for the wife it is
(7) And it is seemly to treat one's friends kindly, but shameful to
treat one's enemies in such a way. And it is shameful to run away from
one's enemies, but seemly to run away from one's competitors in a
(8) And it is shameful to slaughter those who are friends or
fellow-citizens, but seemly to slaughter one's enemies. And the above
points apply to every case.
(9) However, I shall go on to what cities and nations consider
shameful. To Spartans, for example, it is seemly that girls should
exercise naked or walk around bare-armed or without a tunic, but to
lonians this is shameful.
(10) And [in Sparta] it is seemly that boys should not learn arts or
letters, but to lonians it is shameful not to know all these things.
(11) Among Thessalians it is seemly for a man first to select the
horses from the herd and then train them and the mules himself, and seemly for a man first
to select a steer and then slaughter, skin, and cut it up himself; in Sicily, however, such
activities are shameful, and the work of slaves.
(12) To Macedonians it appears to be seemly that girls should love and
have intercourse with [another] man before marrying a man, but shameful
to do this once they are married. To Greeks both practices are
(13) The Thracians count it an adornment that their girls tattoo
themselves, but in the eyes of everyone else tattoo-marks are a
punishment for wrongdoers. And the Scythians consider it seemly that,
after killing a man, one should on the one hand scalp him and carry the
frontal hair on one's horse's brow and on the other hand gild or silver
over the skull and drink from it and offer libations to the gods; among
the Greeks no one would want to go into the same house as a person who
had done that sort of thing.
(14) Massagetes cut up their parents and then eat them, and it seems to
them an especially seemly form of entombment to be buried inside one's
children; if a person did this in Greece he would be driven out of
Greece and die a miserable death for doing things that are shameful and
(15) The Persians consider it seemly for men, too, to adorn themselves,
like women, and to have sexual intercourse with their daughter or
mother or sister; the Greeks consider such actions shameful and
(16) Again, to Lydians it appears seemly that girls should prostitute
themselves to earn money, and in that way get married; among the Greeks
no one would be willing to marry any such girl.
(17) And Egyptians differ from everyone else in their views on what is
seemly. For here it appears seemly that women should weave and do
manual work, but there it appears seemly that men should do such things
and that women should do what men do here. Kneading clay with the
hands, or dough with the feet, is for them seemly, but for us just the
(18) I think that if one were to order all mankind to bring together
into a single pile all that each individual considered shameful, and
then again to take from this mass what each thought seemly, nothing
would be left, but they would all, severally, take away everything. For
not everyone has the same views.
(19) I shall bring forward as additional evidence some verses:
For if you make this distinction you
will see the other law that holds for mortal men: there is nothing that
is in every respect seemly or shameful, but the Right Moment takes the
same things and makes them shameful and then changes them round and
makes them seemly.
(20) To put the matter generally, all things are seemly when done at
the right moment, but shameful when done at the wrong moment. What then
have I managed to do? I said I would demonstrate that the same things
are shameful and seemly, and I demonstrated it in all the
(21) It is also said, when what is shameful and what seemly is under
discussion, that each differs from the other. For if one were to ask
those who say that the same thing is shameful and seemly whether any seemly thing has ever been done by
them, they will have to agree that what they did was shameful, if what is shameful and
what is seemly are the same thing.
(22) And if they know that a particular man is handsome, they know that
this same man is also ugly; and if white, also black. And if it is
seemly to treat the gods with respect, it is also shameful to treat the
gods with respect, if the same thing is shameful and seemly.
(23) And it can be assumed that I have made the same point in each and
every instance. Turning to their argument:
(24) If it is seemly for a woman to adorn herself, it is shameful for a
woman to adorn herself, if the same thing is shameful and seemly. And
this applies to all the other cases:
(25) In Sparta it is seemly for girls to exercise naked, in Sparta it
is shameful for girls to exercise naked — and similarly in all
the other instances.
(26) They say that if some people were to bring together from every
part of the world those things that are shameful, and were then to call
people together and command them to take what each considered seemly,
everything would be taken away as seemly. I personally profess my
astonishment if things that were shameful when they were brought
together are going to turn out to be seemly, and not the sort of things
they were when they came.
(27) Certainly if they had brought horses or cattle or sheep or people
they would not have taken something else away. For they would not even
have taken brass away if they had brought gold, nor lead if they had
brought silver coin.
(28) Do they really then take away things that are seemly in place of
the shameful that they brought? Come now, if someone had brought along
an ugly man, would he have taken him away handsome instead? They also
adduce as witnesses poets — who write their poetry to give
pleasure, not to propound truth.
3. On just and unjust
(1) Contrasting arguments are also put forward on the matter of what is
just and what is unjust. Some say that what is just and what is unjust
are two different things, others that the same thing is just and
unjust. For my part, I shall attempt to bolster the latter view.
(2) And I shall say first of all that it is just to tell lies and to
deceive. Opponents of this view might say that doing these things to
one's enemies is shameful and base; yet they would not say that it is
shameful and base to do them to those whom one holds very dear —
parents, for example. For if it were necessary that one's father or
mother should consume some medicament (whether in solid or liquid
form), but he or she was unwilling, is it not just to give them the
medicament in their food or in their drink and not say that it is in
(3) So it is already clear that it is just to tell lies and to deceive
one's parents, and for that matter to steal the property of one's
friends and use violence on those whom one holds very dear.
(4) For example, if some member of one's household had been brought to
grief in some way and were on the point of doing away with himself with
a sword or rope or some other implement, it is just to steal these
implements, should one be able to, or, should one arrive late on the
scene and come upon him with the implement in his hand, to take it away
from him by force.
(5) And surely it is just to enslave one's enemies, should one prove
able to capture an entire city and sell it into slavery? And breaking
into buildings which are the public property of one's fellow-citizens
appears to be just. For if one's father has been overpowered by his
enemies and jailed, under sentence of death, is it not just to break in
through the wall and steal one's father away and so save him?
(6) Or take oath-breaking. If a man were captured by the enemy and
undertook on oath to betray his city if they set him free, would this
man be acting justly if he kept his oath?
(7) I for my part do not think so, but rather that he would save his
city and his friends and the ancestral temples by breaking his oath. So
it is already clear that oath-breaking too is just. And temple-robbery
(8) I am excluding those temples which are the private possessions of
particular cities; but is it not just to take and use for war-purposes
those temples which are the public property of Greece — those of Delphi
and Olympia — if the foreign invader is on the point of capturing
Greece, and if preservation depends on money?
(9) And it is just to slaughter those who are dearest, since both
Orestes and Alcmaeon did — and the god declared that they had acted
(10) I shall turn to the arts — particularly the compositions of poets.
For in the writing of tragedies and in painting the best person is the
one who deceives the most in creating things that are like the real
(11) And I want to adduce evidence from older poetry, like that of
I saw a man stealing and deceiving by
force, And gaining his ends by force in this way was a very just
(12) These lines were in existence a long time ago. The next are from
God does not stand aloof from just
deception. There are occasions when God respects an opportune moment
(13) To this view also there is an opposing view, to the effect that
what is just and what is unjust are different things; as the name
differs, so likewise does the reality. For if one were to ask those who
say that the same thing is just and unjust whether they had ever up to
then performed any just action towards their parents, they will say
Yes. But in that case it was also an unjust
action; for they concede that the same thing is just and unjust.
(14) Or take another point. If somebody knows that some man is just, he
in that case knows that the same man is unjust and by the same token
big and small. But if a man has been very unjust in his actions he
ought to be executed! — For he has brought about [a situation that
(15) Let that suffice for these points. I shall turn to the [specific]
arguments they use when they claim that they can demonstrate that the
same thing is both just and unjust.
(16) For, if what they say is true, [the fact? to demonstrate?] that
stealing the enemy's possessions is just is to demonstrate that this
very action is unjust; and likewise for all the other cases.
(17) They adduce as evidence arts in which what is just and what is
unjust have no place. And poets never write their poems to propound
truth but to give pleasure.
4. On truth and falsehood
(1) Contrasting arguments are also put forward on what is true and what
is false. The one view affirms that the true statement and the false
statement are different things; the other group affirms that the two
statements are on the contrary the same.
(2) I for my part also hold the latter view: first, because the two
statements are expressed in the same words; and next, because whenever
a statement is made, if the event has taken place in the way indicated
by the statement, the statement is true; but if the event has not taken
place in the way indicated, the same statement is false.
(3) For example, suppose a statement consists of an accusation against
somebody of temple-robbery. If the act did in fact take place, the
statement is true; if not, the statement is false. And likewise with
the statement of the man defending himself against the charge. And
lawcourts in fact judge the same statement to be both true and false.
(4) For the fact is, even if, sitting next to one another in a row, we
were [as a group] to say, "I am an initiate", we shall all be saying
the same thing, but only I shall be telling the truth, since only I am an initiate.
(5) It is clear, then, that the same statement is false when the false
is present to it, and true when the true is present to it (just as a
person is the same person, though at one time a child, at another a
youth, at another an adult, and at another an old man).
(6) It is also said that the false statement is different from the true
statement; as the name differs, so likewise does the reality. For if
anyone were to ask those who say that the same statement is false and
true which of the two their own statement is, if the reply were
"false", it is clear that a true statement and a false statement are two different things, but if he
were to reply "true" then this same statement is also false. And if at any time he said
something true or testified that something was true, then he also
testified that these same things were false. And if he knows that a
certain man is an honest man, he knows the same man is a liar.
(7) And in accord with their thesis they say that a statement is true
if the event to which it refers took place, but false if it did not. It
is therefore important to ask jurymen in their turn what their judgment is (jurymen, of course,
not being personally present at the events).
(8) Even they themselves agree that that with which the false is
intermingled is false, and that that with which the true is
intermingled is true. But this view is totally different [from their
5. "(1) The demented, the sane,
the wise and the ignorant both say and do the same things.
(2) First of all they call things by the same name: 'earth', 'man',
'horse', 'fire', and everything else. And they do the same things: they
sit, eat, drink, lie down, and so on, in the same way.
(3) What is more, the same thing is also both bigger and smaller, and
more and less, and heavier and lighter. For in those respects all
objects are the same.
(4) The talent is heavier than the mina and lighter than two talents;
the same thing then is both lighter and heavier.
(5) And the same man is alive and is not alive; and the same things
exist (are the case) and do not exist (are not the case). For what
exists (is the case) here does not exist (is not the case) in Libya;
nor does what exists (is what is the case) in Libya exist (turn out to
be the case) in Cyprus. And so on in all other instances, using the
same argument. Consequently, things both exist (are the case) and do
not exist (are not the case)".
(6) Those who say this — that the demented and the wise and the
ignorant do and say the same things, and all the other things that
follow from the argument — are in error.
(7) For if one were to ask them if dementedness differs from sanity or
wisdom from ignorance, they say "Yes".
(8) For it is quite obvious, even from the actions of each group, that
they will grant this point. So even if they do the same things (as the
demented do) the wise are not demented, nor the demented wise, nor is
everything turned into confusion.
(9) And one ought to bring up the question whether it is those who are
sane or those who are demented who speak at the right moment. For
whenever one asks them they say that the two groups say the same
things, only the wise say them at the right moment and the demented at
moments when it is not proper.
(10) And in saying this they seem to me to have added the small phrases
"when it is proper" and "when it is not proper", with the result that
it is no longer the same thing.
(11) I myself do not think that things are altered by the addition of
such qualifications, but rather when an accent is altered. For example:
"Γλαύκος" (Glaucus) and "γλαυκός " (green), or "Ξάνθος" (Xanthus) and
"ξάνθος" (blonde), or "Ξούθος" (Xuthus) and "ξουθος" (nimble).
(12) The above differed by a difference in the placing of the accent:
the following by being spoken with longer or shorter vowel-lengths:
"Τύρος" (Tyre) and "τυρός" (cheese), "σάκος" (shield) and "σακός"
(enclosure), and yet others by a change in the ordering of their
letters: "κάρτος" (strength) and "κρατος" (of a head), "όνος" (ass) and
(13) Since, therefore, there is such a difference when nothing is taken
away, what if in that case somebody does either add something or take
something away? I shall give an example of the sort of thing I mean.
(14) If a man were to take away one from ten, there would no longer be
ten or even one, and so on in the same way in all other instances.
(15) As for the affirmation that the same man exists and does not exist
I ask, "Does he exist in some particular respect or in every
respect?"Thus, if anyone denies that the man in question exists, he is
making the mistake of asserting "in every respect". The conclusion is
that all these things exist in some way.
6. On whether wisdom and moral
excellence are teachable
(1) There is a certain view put forward which is neither true nor new,
to the effect that wisdom and moral excellence can be neither taught
nor learnt. Those who say this use the following proofs:
(2) That it is impossible, if you impart something to some other
person, for you to retain possession of that thing. This is one proof.
(3) Another is that, had wisdom and moral excellence been able to be
taught, there would have existed recognized teachers of them — the way
there have been recognized teachers of the arts.
(4) A third proof is that those men in Greece who became wise would
have taught this wisdom to their own children and their friends.
(5) A fourth proof is that before now there have been people who
frequented sophists and gained no benefit.
(6) A fifth proof is that a large number of people who did not
associate with sophists have become eminent.
(7) I myself consider this line of reasoning exceedingly simple-minded.
For I know that teachers do teach those letters which each one happens
to possess himself, and that harp-players do teach people how to play
the harp. As for the second proof — that there do not in fact exist
acknowledged teachers — what in that case do the sophists teach,
if not wisdom and moral excellence?
(8) And what were the followers of Anaxagoras and Pythagoras? As for
the third proof, Polyclitus did teach his son how to make statues.
(9) Even if an individual man does not teach [his own wisdom] nothing
will have been proved; but if he is able to teach it, there is your
proof that it is possible to do so.
(10) The fourth point [is valid only] if those in question do not
become wise after associating with skilled sophists. [I say skilled]
because a lot of people do not learn their letters, even though they
have taken a course in them.
(11) There is also an important natural talent whereby a person becomes
capable, without having learned his competence from sophists, of
comprehending the greater part [of a subject] with ease (provided he is
also naturally well-endowed), after learning [only?] a small part [of
it] from those from whom we also learn words. And some of these latter
things (be it a greater or smaller number) one person learns from his
father and another from his mother.
(12) And if someone is not convinced that we learn our words, but feels
sure we are born knowing them, let him ascertain the truth from the
following evidence: should a person send a child to Persia immediately
it was born and have it brought up there without ever hearing the
speech of Greece, the child would speak Persian; should one bring the
child from Persia to Greece, the child would speak Greek. That is the
way we learn words , and we do not know who it was who taught us.
(13) With that my argument is completed, and you have its beginning,
end, and middle. I am not saying that wisdom and moral excellence are
teachable, but that the above-mentioned proofs do not satisfy me.
7. (1) Some of the public
speakers say that offices should be assigned by lot; but this opinion
of theirs is not a very good one.
(2) If only somebody would ask him (i.e., the man who says this), "Why
in that case don't you assign your household slaves their jobs by lot,
so that the ox-driver, if he draws the job of cook as his lot, will
cook, while the cook will drive oxen, and so on in all other instances?
(3) And why don't we bring together smiths and cobblers, carpenters and
goldsmiths, and assign them jobs by lot, forcing them to perform
whatever craft each one draws by lot, not the craft of which each has
(4) Likewise in the case of artistic contests: one could make the
contestants draw lots, and each compete in whatever contest he draws. A
flute-player will perhaps be playing the harp, or a harpist the flute.
And in war an archer or hoplite will be a cavalryman, and a cavalryman
will be an archer; with the result that everyone will be doing things
of which they have neither the knowledge nor the capability.
(5) And they say that this is a good method, and exceedingly
democratic. I personally consider it the least democratic of all
methods. For there are in cities men who hate the people (demos, δημος), and if ever the lot
falls to them they will destroy the people (demos, δημος).
(6) But the people itself ought to keep watch and elect all those who
are well-disposed towards itself, and ought to choose as its
army-commanders those who are suitable for the job, and to choose
others to serve as guardians of the law, and so on.
8. (1) I consider it a
characteristic of the same man and of the same art to be able to
converse in brief
questions and answers, to know the truth of things, to plead one's
cause correctly, to be able to speak in public, to have an
understanding of argument-skills, and to teach people about the nature
of everything — both how everything is and how it came into
(2) First of all, will not the man who knows about the nature of
everything also be able to act rightly in regard to everything?
(3) Furthermore, the man acquainted with the skills involved in
argument will also know how to speak correctly on every topic.
(4) For the man who intends to speak correctly must speak on the topics
of which he has knowledge; and he will, one must at any rate suppose,
have knowledge of everything.
(5) For he has knowledge of all argument-skills, and all arguments are
about everything that is.
(6) And the man who intends to speak correctly on whatever matter he
speaks about must know [ ] and [how to] give sound advice to the city
on the performance of good actions and prevent them from performing
(7) In knowing these things he will also know the things that differ
from them — since he will know everything. For these [objects of
knowledge] are part of all [objects of knowledge], and the exigency of
the situation will, if need be, provide him with those [other objects],
so as to achieve the same end.
(8) Even if he does not know how to play the flute, he will always
prove able to play the flute should the situation ever call for his
(9) And the man who knows how to plead his cause must have a correct
understanding of what is just; for that is what legal cases have to do
with. And in knowing this he will know both that which is the contrary
of it, and the different in kind.
(10) He must also know all the laws. If, however, he is going to have
no knowledge of the facts, he will have no knowledge of the laws
(11) For who is it knows the rules (laws) of music? The man acquainted
with music. Whereas the man unacquainted with music is also
unacquainted with the rules that govern it.
(12) At any rate, if a man knows the truth of things, the argument
follows without difficulty that he knows everything.
(13) As for the man who is able to converse in brief questions and
answers, he must under questioning give answers on every subject. So he
must have knowledge of every subject.
9. (1) A very great and most
attractive discovery that has been made for the way we live is [the
power of] memory; it is useful for all purposes, for both general
education and practical wisdom.
(2) This is true, [as you will see] if you concentrate your attention
[upon the matter]. For by following this course your mind will come to
perceive more 'as a whole' that which you have learned.
(3) Second, you must, whenever you hear anything, go over it carefully.
For by frequent repetition of what you hear you commit it to memory.
(4) Third, you must, whenever you hear anything, connect it to what you
know, as in the following example: you need to remember the name
Chrysippus? Then you ought to connect it with χρυσός
(gold) and ίππος (horse) .
(5) Another example, the name Pyrilampes: you should connect it with
πύρ (fire) and λάμπειν (to gleam). These examples have to do with names.
(6) In the case of things you must act as follows: if you need to
remember 'courage' you should connect it with Ares and Achilles; you
should likewise connect 'metal-working' with Hephaestus, and
'cowardice' with Epeius.