What’s Really Conservative about References to Nature
The first references to nature or physis in Athens* were made by those supporting aristocratic partisans against their perception of a rigid democratic establishment in the 420s BCE. Nomos was considered the embodiment of popular sovereignty. Before physis, “to eon” or just “that which is” or easier “the fact” was opposed to nomos. The sophists chiefly served–for a fee–the aristocratic youth whose parents’ wealth and good birth had ceased to give them the power to which they thought they should be entitled. The distinction the sophists offer between physis and nomos justifies the aristocratic claim against entrenched democratic interests.
Physis was associated with one’s birth, so it allowed the aristocrats to associate their own power with their birth, and thus with physis. The aristocrats thought that by virtue of their birth they had a claim to rule. The sophists give them the language of physis to justify this claim through birth, which points to ways that the reference to physis in its beginnings was in the service of a kind of eugenics, those of better birth were those whose rule was more natural. Nature itself was of those who were better born. To be better born was to be on the side of nature. From that claim, the oligarchic interests take up the sophistic view that physis is just what is against the nomos or convention that changes and is thus without ground–a charge familiar to us as a criticism of democratic approaches to justice from Plato. If those who are better born whose claim to rule is natural, and returning to the ancient customs wherein the well-born ruled, then nature is just what had always been, and the changes wrought by the increasingly democratic regimes were suspect. Nature gets put on the side of “things remaining the same,” and convention on the side of constant change and radical disruptive power of the commoners. The sophists introduce arguments that further put physis on the side of intelligence against wealth. Those who newly make wealth still do not have the intelligence that comes with being well-born.
This conservative association of capacity to rule with one’s nature–alongside all the ways that references to nature have been used for centuries to justify a “traditional” order of authority that then assigns those in authority with certain natures and those who by custom are ruled with other natures that must be shown to be incapable of ruling–remains at work in contemporary discourse about women and about BIPOC, as well as other marginalized groups, like persons with disabilities.
The sophistic use of nature recalls Corey Robin’s argument that conservativism goes to any lengths to preserve or return to a hierarchical authority structure, to the extent that conservativism is willing to be quite radical and to up-end all sorts of traditions and practices in order to achieve such hierarchy. Robin’s point seems just as relevant in the context of the first sophistic uses of nature for oligarchic young men wishing to return to an old glory (imagined or real).
This background of the first uses of nature as a tool for the oligarchs to overturn democratic power and make claims to their birth being a sign of the fixed justification of their power turns on its head the notion that Plato and Aristotle’s of nature are in service of the oligarchs. If the gods are associated with democratic Athens, then the Euripidean critique that the gods are beholden to conventions–the nomoi of different peoples–is something Socrates challenges in conversation with Euthyphro. Socrates has Euthyphro acknowledge that the gods are beholden to something outside of them, something beyond convention. But the nature to which they are beholden is not just the givenness of old ways, but requires some account that explains why they would find an action virtuous. Socrates challenges both the democratic convention and the oligarchic reference to birth and asks of nature as essence that it be more explanatory.
In Plato’s Republic when Socrates tells the story of the myth of metals that would be used to get the people to believe that they have certain natures that would make them worthy of ruling, he quite explicitly calls it a lie after having criticized the poets for lying and later describes the philosophers as those who would need to hate the lie. Rather than it be Plato’s own view of nature, Socrates seems to be exposing the oligarchic vacuity of referencing a fixed nature from birth that makes one worthy of ruling, a position that Glaucon and Adeimantus would likely have picked up from sophists.
Similarly when Aristotle describes natures as determined by activity he challenges the notion that they can be inherited. When he makes nature a source of movement and change, he challenges the fixity that supported the sophistic arguments.
So what is really conservative about references to nature? Since the sophists, nature as a fixed determinant that can and should dictate the social order has been invented to resist a world in which more and more people previously barred from share in the rule have such a share. Nature itself as a concept has a history, which we would be well-served to know to resist its uses today. My own philosophical work has been to think about whether nature can be recast to do some other work, to serve more inclusive ends. Nevertheless, the history warns us to beware.
 This discussion of the original employment of physis against nomos is drawn from Martin Ostwald’s excellent treatment in From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law : Law, Society, and Politics in Fifth-Century Athens. University of California Press, 1986, pp. 250-275.
*Physis or nature certainly shows up in Greek literature before this, but as a ground for argument occurs in this context in the 420s according to Ostwald.