Nomos and Phusis

views updated


Phusis is the ancient Greek word for "nature," cognate with the verb "to grow" (phuein ); as in English, it can be used both for the natural world as a whole and for the "nature" (i.e., the essential or intrinsic characteristics) of any particular thing, which it has "by nature" (phusei ). Nomos encompasses both law and unwritten, traditional social convention. The contrast between the two concepts is central to ancient sophistic thought, with roots in the pre-Socratic inquiry into the underlying natures of things.

For the Sophists, nomos and phusis are polar terms, roughly equivalent (respectively) to the socially constructed and the universally, objectively given. The contrast was most strikingly applied in relation to justice. Antiphon's On Truth argues that justice is a matter of nomos, and nomos and phusis conflict; one should observe the requirements of justice when there are witnesses, but follow the dictates of nature otherwise. By "nature," Antiphon seems to understand what is physiologically given to all humans (Greeks and barbarians alike). By following it one gains what is advantageous to one's existence: life, pleasure, and freedom. In Plato's Gorgias, Callicles argues, with an appeal to animal behavior, that it is a matter of "justice according to nature," as opposed to convention, for the strong to prey upon the weak.

However, the same conceptual framework, including the assumption that nature represents an authoritative norm, could be used to support the opposite stance. The Anonymous Iamblichi argues that law and justice should be obeyed as having "kingly rule" among human beingsa rule established by human nature itself. So the nomos-phusis contrast was a framework for discussion rather than a theory in itself. It allowed for fruitful debate as to where the testimony of nature might be observed, what guidance it could provide, and how the norms of law and morality might relate to it.

Far from being restricted to justice, nomos-phusis is best understood as a catch phrase for the general sophistic inquiry into the institutions of human society. Thus various Sophists seem to have applied the concepts to slavery, gender roles, language, and religion. For instance, the Sisyphus fragment (by either Critias or Euripides) argues that religion was invented by ancient sages as a device for social control, implying that the gods exist only by convention. The contrast could even be extended to questions of general epistemology. Democritus (usually classed as a pre-Socratic, but associated by sources with Protagoras) summed up his atomism by claiming that sensory properties, such as colors and tastes, are merely conventional; in reality there are only atoms and the void. Here, conventional seems to be tantamount to mind-dependent, or merely apparent.

The adoption of nature as a normative standard is the most powerful legacy of sophistic thought. Plato and Aristotle both constructed their ethics and politics around their understanding of human nature, and took this to be in harmony with the nature of the cosmos and the divine. Later, Epicureans and Stoics both argued that the good life is one lived in accordance with nature (kata phusin ), which they explicated by invoking animal behavior in the "cradle argument." But these philosophers differed widely in their treatment of nomos, and the nomos-phusis polarity as such faded from prominence after the Sophists.

See also Antiphon; Protagoras of Abdera; Sophists.


Guthrie, W. K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 3. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Heinimann, F. Nomos und Physis. Basel: F. Reinhardt, 1945.

Kahn, Charles. "The Origins of Social Contract Theory in the Fifth Century B.C." In The Sophists and their Legacy, edited by G. B. Kerferd. Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1981.

Kerferd, G. B. The Sophistic Movement. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Rachel Barney (2005)