Thursday, May 10, 2007

Greek of the Week: Nomos and Physis, Pt. 3

Picking up where we left off with Callicles last week, we observed that many of his ideas were indicative of a certain mood which found varying expressions in fifth century Athens.

We've already seen, in Aristophanes' Clouds, for example, the notion of holding animals up as models for "natural" human behavior. And as for nature as the basis of international relations we need not look any further than Thucydides (The History of the Peloponnesian War 5.105.2 (quoted below) and 4.61.5): in the course of trying to negotiate peace between rival Sicilian cities, Hermocrates of Syracuse warns the other delegates of the dangers of internal fighting amongst themselves while Athens sits waiting to move in (4.60). He finds the Athenian strategy to be perfectly understandable, and says that he lays no blame on those who are resolved to rule, because "it has always been human nature (for the stronger) to rule over those who submit" (πέφυκε γὰρ τὸ ἀνθρώπειον διὰ παντὸς ἄρχειν τοῦ εἴκοντος).

Continuing with Callicles, what justification, he goes on to ask, did Xerxes or his father have for invading foreign lands, if not that they were acting according to the nature of right (κατὰ φύσιν τὴν τοῦ δικαίου), indeed according to the law of nature (κατὰ νόμον γε τὸν τῆς φύσεως), though this is not a law that humans have made (483d6-e4). Here we have the first coinage of the paradoxical term "law of nature". For the sake of clarity it should be mentioned that the sense in which Callicles uses the term should not be confused with the later Stoic lex naturae ("natural law"), nor with the "laws of nature" with which modern scientists are concerned.

This formulation does have an earlier parallel in Thucydides 5.105.2 ("The Melian Dialogue") where we see the Athenians inform the Melians that he should rule who can as a matter of natural and eternal necessity:
ἡγούμεθα γὰρ τό τε θεῖον δόξῃ τὸ ἀνθρώπειον τε σαφῶς διὰ παντὸς ὑπὸ φύσεως αναγκαίας οὖ ἄν κρατῇ, ἄρχειν· καὶ ἡμεῖς οὔτε θέντες τὸν νόμον οὔτε κειμένῳ πρῶτοι χρησάμενοι, ὄντα δὲ παραλαβόντες καὶ ἐσόμενον ἐς αἰεὶ καταλείψοντες χρώμεθα αὐτῷ...

From our opinion of the gods and of human nature we hold that clearly it is a general necessity of nature to rule where one is able. We did not make this law, nor were we the first to utilize it once it was made. It existed when we received it, and it will continue to exist forever when we have left it behind...

There is no denying the similarities between the positions of Callicles and the Athenians in the Melian Dialogue. Particularly striking is the notion of some principle in nature which says that the strong rule the weak regardless of any human-made laws. It is also obvious that both positions can be reduced to one of self-interest. Where they part ways, however, (and the difference is perhaps a subtle one), is in the Athenians' lack of any appeal to a consideration of "right".

The Athenians are "realists": "we are doing this because that is just the way the world is." Callicles, on the other hand, is not arguing that just because it happens this or that way in nature it is better (he is not reducing "ought" to "is"). In his rejection of conventional in favor of natural "right" as something better and morally superior he is saying that clear thinking individuals have come to judge that what is right by nature is superior because it is the nomos of nature, it is what nature prescribes (P. Shorey, What Plato Said (1933) 154).



  1. I'm afraid I missed the last seminar but now I've caught up. I presume figuring out what exactly is physis is where you'd have difficulty. You can observe and analyze things that are seemingly natural, but what are they? How much can you say about them?

  2. You bring up a good point, Drano-san, which may eventually have to be addressed. Personally, I think "nature" is all there is, but that in itself is a problematic proposition (free will, etc.).