18 December 2006

"Law (nomos) of Nature (phusis)" a Contradiction in Terms?

John Wild's book, Plato's Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law, arrived in my mailbox the other day. It is indeed, in part, a reply to Popper, as I suspected, but it is a reply also to several other scholars. I did not know this, but Popper's book was part of a 'wave' of books with a similar theme that appeared in the decade after the war.

It's been a while since I've read Popper and did not remember--I could not have been in a position to realize it then--how outrageous so many of his assertions are. These are made salient by Wild's stark quotations of Popper.

Wild is irked especially by Popper's comparison of Plato to the Nazis, and he wishes to argue, in contrast, that Plato--not the Stoics--was the first proponent of the 'theory of natural law' that Wild attempts to set out systematically in the second half of the book. It should be recalled that 'natural law theory' enjoyed high prestige in the years after the war, since it was invoked to justify the Nuremberg trials, and because it was widely regarded as the basis for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To establish that Plato was the first natural law theorist would have been to establish him, then, as a champion of free democracies.

Wild begins by arguing against the common claim that, for Plato or Aristotle, the concept of a "law of nature" would have been a contradiction in terms, on the grounds that they regarded phusis and nomos as necessarily opposed. As against this, Wild cites two passages from Plato (Gorgias 484a, Timaeus 83e), only the second of which, to my mind, is potentially convincing--but one passage would suffice to show the common claim wrong:

kai\ tau~ta me\n dh_ pa&nta no&swn o1rgana ge/gonen, o3tan ai[ma mh_ e0k tw~n siti/wn kai\ potw~n plhqu&sh| kata_ fu&sin, a)ll' e0c e0nanti/wn to_n o1gkon para_ tou_j th~j fu&sewj lamba&nh| no&mouj.
Lamb in the Loeb renders this:
And all these are factors in disease, whenever the blood is not replenished naturally from meats and drinks but receives its mass from opposite substances contrary to Nature's laws.
Don Zeyl in the Cooper anthology, however, avoids 'laws' altogether and has 'nature's way':
So whenever the blood, instead of being replenished in the natural way by nutrients from food and drink, derives its volume from opposite sources, contrary to nature's way, all these things, it turns out, serve as instruments of disease.
Notice that 'law of nature' seems to be not descriptive here but normative. Thus, taking it to mean what usually or 'customarily' happens would be incorrect. (Note also that Zeyl, in employing the repetition, 'in the natural way', 'nature's way', rubs out in his translation an interesting variation in the text.)

But--if I understand it correctly--what I find most interesting is that the sentence invites generalization. It is apparently using the phrase 'law of nature' to refer to 'a regular process which is kata_ fu&sin'; but Plato in many places speaks of regular processes which are kata_ fu&sin--and thus, it seems, he would allow that all of these might appropriately be said to be governed by normative 'laws of nature.' That is, the sentence apparently licenses the wide application of the phrase 'law of nature' in an account of Plato's thought.


Ocham said...
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Michael Pakaluk said...

I've moved a comment originally placed here and relocated it to "Nothing to Sneeze Through", which is where I believe it was meant to be placed by its author. -MP