Physis and Nomos in Aristotle's Ethics

Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy Newsletter 12 (2005)
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The relationship between nature and normativity in Aristotle’s practical philosophy is problematic. On the one hand, Aristotle insists that ethical virtue arises through the habitual repetition of ethically good actions, and thus no one is good or virtuous by nature. Phusikê aretê or “natural virtue” is more like cleverness (demotes) than prudence (phronêsis) and it can result in wrong actions. Yet on the other hand, at times Aristotle appears to use nature to justify normative claims. Thus the problem with Aristotle’s use of the notion of nature in his practical philosophy is that in some instances what is natural seems to be ethically neutral, but in other instances it seems to set the standard for human perfection. Modern Aristotle exegetes have sometimes argued that Aristotle must, consciously or not, be using the term “nature” in at least two different senses here. To use the language of Julia Annas, when Aristotle talks about “natural virtue” in the sense of the talents or abilities which one possesses from birth, he has in mind the notion of “mere nature,” but when he discusses the perfections which a virtuous individual enjoys by his or her nature, Aristotle has in mind the notion of nature as an “ethical ideal.” I would like to suggest an alternative solution to the problem of reconciling Aristotle’s different senses of nature in his Ethics. In Nicomachean Ethics V.7, Aristotle claims that political justice {to dikaion politikon) possesses a “natural” {phusikon) part and a “conventional” {nomikori) part. Aristotle claims that both nature and convention admit of variation, and his language suggests that the two are ultimately parts which need to be interwoven or combined. Scholars who have struggled with Aristotle’s apparently disparate senses of the idea of nature have assumed that nature is an ethical ideal which can be separated from and serve as a guide for that which is merely conventional. I argue that when Aristotle invokes what is “natural” as a norm, he does so under the assumption that the natural component of a norm is ultimately separable from its conventional part only in abstraction. Just like the syllable “BA” is not reducible to the letters “b” and “a,” but instead is a whole greater than its two parts, political justice is a composite unity of nature and convention which, in unifying the two parts, transforms them.

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Thornton Lockwood
Quinnipiac University


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