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.
(A group of student leaders on campus at Wabash organize a weekly talk by a member of the Wabash community. This is a transcript of the talk I gave this morning.)
As a philosopher, one thing I like to think about is how our ideas about the world affect the way we live in the world. Today I want to talk about how our ways of thinking about how things are variously affect the ability of different people from different groups to thrive. I want to talk specifically about how we use the concept of “natural” to describe the ways we experience the world. We tend to describe things as natural, as “just being that way,” as the way things just happen to be with no input or interference from human beings, when we are unaware of the history of how they came to be that way. That move whereby what was formed for political and social reasons appears as natural is what we call ideology.
As a philosopher, I want to own some responsibility for this, since, as Nietzsche says, “Lack of a historical sense is the original error of all philosophers.”
To correct this error, I want to first back up a little bit and think historically about how the turn to nature has been used as a justification for ways of organizing the world. Leo Strauss explains the historical turn to a concept of nature as a turn to philosophizing. As he puts it, as long as everyone seems to do what you do, you do not prompt the question, is that right? It’s right because it seems like the only way. It is right because it has always been done that way. It is right because it is what everyone you know does. But when you leave your people and you encounter other people who do things differently, you begin to ask whether what your people do is right. Like when you are a kid like I was in a big family where we always sat down together for dinner every night and you think every family sits down for dinner every night until you go to your friends’ house and they have dinner in front of the television and you go home and ask why you have to eat dinner together and your mother tells you it’s because you don’t have a television. Not having a television also seemed right because it was what my family did. Like taking vacations in the mountains instead of at the beach. Read more
Last semester, I ended the last three weeks of my ancient philosophy course on the Stoics. I began the course with Aristotle’s first line from the Metaphysics, “All men by nature desire to know.” The entire course unpacked this sentence and its multiple possibilities. What does it mean for nature to direct our desire to know? How is human nature a matter of knowing? How does knowledge function as a measure of ourselves and of the world? How does knowledge depend on desire? To what extent and in what ways are we responsible for becoming who we are, for fulfilling or not fulfilling our nature? I was happily surprised to find the Stoics a fitting conclusion to these conversations, especially because of the way they think of the order of nature itself as fate, and human virtue as a matter of affirming this order or fate.
The Stoics offered a new possibility for understanding Aristotle’s famous opening line in a way that shows the intimacy between nature, fate and freedom or responsibility for the Greeks. This intimacy is something that is very difficult for Aristotle to separate. The Stoics were students of Zeno of Citium but they were clearly drawing from both Plato and Aristotle. It isn’t much of a stretch then to offer a Stoic interpretation of Aristotle’s anthropology and ethics. When Aristotle says that all men by nature desire to know, the Stoic interpretation would be that human beings fit into the order of the cosmos as knowing beings. They fulfill that order when they fulfill their nature as knowing beings. They are responsible to become the kinds of beings who affirm the order of the cosmos. Human virtue consists in managing the pains and pleasures of the world so that they do not detract but support their role in the order of the cosmos. Human vice is giving in to impulses that detract from the order of the cosmos. Aristotle describes choice as that which leads to actions wherein our desire is guided by reason. Choosing is affirming the rational order of what is. Read more
I’m coming to the end of my 31 days of blogging and I’ve been thinking about how this practice has changed my habits. Like blogging when I travel, I think blogging every day for a month has made me pay more attention to the thoughts that flit in and out of my head. They’ve also made me think about whether I want to develop something I’ve already written about a bit or if it matters enough to me. At the end of last year, I was recognizing a reticence in myself to write whatever insight or thought I had in a way that it looked to me that many people–mostly men–on social media did not have. I felt like I would circle around the idea four or five times and wonder whether it was worth putting in the world, which I talked about in my mid-month reflection on blogging.
Naming that problem has not necessarily changed it. Right now, I’m having one of those moments. I don’t know if my thought is worth sharing — I felt a little like this about yesterday’s post too — or if everyone already knows this except me. But I decided in these moments that the blog was just as much for me as for the world, and if it was important to me, it was worth sharing. Blogging about it gave me the opportunity to work through and clarify an idea that was percolating. I also tried to get out of my head the idea that my audience was other philosophers. In fact, I think this might be one thing that keeps philosophers from effectively engaging in public philosophy: we’re so tough on each other, we end up being more concerned with crafting the argument to be unassailable and original that either we just don’t write or we write to an audience that already is our audience!
The thought I had this morning was about the notion that women are more associated with their bodies than men that I discussed yesterday. I had always thought that the reason for this is that women bear children and so their work is literally in their body. But this morning I was thinking that is not sufficient. After a week of discussing Anne Fausto-Sterling’s work, it occurs to me that we think of men as less involved in reproduction because of our views of women as more their bodies and men less so, not the other way around. Read more
In Charles W. Mills’ essay, “But What Are You Really? The Metaphysics of Race,” he offers an array of markers that are used to identify a person’s race–ancestry, immediate family, self-identity, appearance, experience, self-awareness of culture, and so forth. He argues that the fact that we shift from one criterion to the next in identifying race suggests that we have a political not an epistemological investment in identifying race. Put another way, it’s because we want to maintain a certain structure of power that we shift our notion of what race means in different settings so that it applies in ways that serve that power structure in different moments. This move demonstrates that race is not something we wish to determine for the sake of some uninterested knowledge, but for political purposes.
While arguments against nature might be easier to make in terms of race, many more people think nature supports different roles for men and women. Witness, Larry Summers. Today, my Introduction to Gender Studies students came to the conclusion that we shift our definition of what nature means (either the ground for how things are or the thing that must be overcome) in a similar way to how we shift our definition of identity markers determine race. The shifting senses of nature show that we are invested in nature as a category that grounds certain power structures rather than as a real ground that will give us information about how things out to be. We change what we mean by “nature” depending on what allows us to justify the way things are in a particular context. Read more
I know you’re thinking, wow, Adriel’s run out of things to say in her 31-day blogging challenge and now we’re going to talk about the weather. Stay with me. I am going to talk about the weather, but not because I’ve run out of things to say. It actually turns out that I have become someone for whom weather is an interesting topic of conversation. You know that famous line from My Fair Lady when Mrs. Higgins tells Henry, “I suggest you stick to two topics, the weather and your health,” because Henry seems to be unable of speaking without offending Eliza. That’s the thing about talking about the weather, no one could be offended by it. Talking about the weather really seems to be talking about nothing at all. Read more
As part of the GLCA Ancient Philosophy Collaborative Initiative, I and my collaborators Lewis Trelawny-Cassity and Kevin Miles will be discussing my book Aristotle and the Nature of Community tomorrow, April 17, 2015, at Antioch College, MacGregor 149 at 4 PM. This panel will be convened in conjunction with the philosophy roundtable that meets regularly in Yellow Springs. I’m posting my comments below:
It’s an honor to be given this time and this venue to discuss my research. I’m grateful to Lewis Meeks Trelawny-Cassity and to Kevin Miles for the time and the consideration they have given my book. Kevin Miles was the first person with whom I read the Politics. Since reading Plato and Aristotle with him as a graduate student, I have found a persisting tension between the project of elucidating the question of a text and offering a sympathetic account of it. My own interest in developing a positive account of Aristotle’s Politics might seem to repress rather than illuminate the questions of the text. My drive has been to give the strongest reading in an effort to find an alternative to modern conceptions of political life. I hope that today and not only today, I can try to get clearer about the questions this reading forces upon us. Read more
I asked my students to write a paper explaining how Zeus in Hesiod’s Theogony is a model of what a standard for nature is, what such a standard reveals about Hesiod’s view of nature or “the way things are”, and what is difficult about establishing a standard for how things are. I decided I would do this assignment, too, to give them a sense of what I am looking for and for an opportunity to continue blogging about Greek mythology. Read more
I wrote most of this post in Nafplio, living close to nature. The photograph is of the abandoned robin’s nest found in our hanging ivy planter.
There’s been a resurgence of conversation in philosophy about the role of the nonhuman in recent years. I’ll be honest, I haven’t given it that much thought. But I came to this ah-hah moment the other day in conversation with my lovely husband about sacrifice as the production of the distinction between gods and beasts and the subsequent production of the space in between: the site of the mortal. How sacrifice does that is complicated (see Vernant, Girard, Burkart and Agamben), but the implication of this account is that the line between the beast and the human (and the god) needs to be produced. Read more
Let me start this saga by saying I am not a cat person. Oh, we had cats when we were growing up. But those are sad stories, like most cat stories. Read more