Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Greek of the Week: Nomos and Physis, Pt. 1

For many later sophists nomos [law;custom] appeared not simply as a constraint on human nature, but as a tyrant over it, which ran contrary to nature. And so Hippias (Plato, Protagoras 337d), for example, could say that "nomos is a tyrant over human beings: in many ways it constrains us contrary to nature" (... ὁ δὲ νόμος, τύραννος ὢν τῶν ἀνθρώπων, πολλὰ παρἀ τὴν φύσιν βιάζεται...). The same sentiment is echoed in a fragment of Antiphon's (Diels and Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker 87A 44): "the majority of just acts according to law are prescribed contrary to nature" (τὰ πολλἀ τῶν κατὰ νόμον δικαίων πολεμίος τῇ φύσει κεῖταἰ). In these passages the antithesis between nomos and physis [nature] appears clearly enough. Whereas earlier sophists, however, had seen nature as being essentially "what is," and nomos as being "what ought to be," later sophists sought to elevate physis above nomos, and from nature derive valid norms. Some would take this idea to radical extremes, and in the process set about the destruction of all traditional notions of law and convention and posit a "right life according to nature."


  1. This can be read at multiple levels: we should stop wearing clothes, and start crapping on the streets, without toilet paper... On the other hand, we could let the fundamentalists continue ruling every single aspect of life. Amazing how humanity has gone this far without solving these ancient questions, isn't it?

  2. "Crapping on the streets", etc. or letting the conservatives have their way is often what it amounts to, isn't it?