Dissoi Logoi: Two-Fold or Contrasting Arguments
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 the Argives.

(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 seemly.

(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 stadium.

(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 shameful.

(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 horrible.

(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 unlawful.

(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 opposite.

(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 above-mentioned cases.

(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 it?

(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 as well.

(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 justly.

(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 thing.

(11) And I want to adduce evidence from older poetry, like that of Cleobuline:

I saw a man stealing and deceiving by force, And gaining his ends by force in this way was a very just action.

(12) These lines were in existence a long time ago. The next are from Aeschylus:

God does not stand aloof from just deception. There are occasions when God respects an opportune moment for lies.

(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 warrants death?].

(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 original thesis].

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 "νόος" (mind).

(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 expert knowledge?

(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 being.

(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 evil ones.

(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 doing this.

(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 either.

(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.