Nomos/Phusis Opposition
Human Law and Nature


Let’s come to the opposition nomos/phusis. First remark: we talked about the birth of philosophy as an explicit activity; we must not, nonetheless, forget that it is, indeed, a double birth of philosophy. And, also, that in Greek cities, definitely since the seventh century–even before Thales himself–we see philosophy emerge not only in words (log?), but in action (erg?), as a political struggle within a community. ‘Philosophy as action’ means a struggle not concerned with the acquisition of some sort of privilege–it’s not about demanding a pay rise or lowering the retirement age–but, instead, with questioning the institutionalized order. Who sets the nomos of the city? And with what criteria? This is a question to which the d?mos (the people) begins to give an answer by establishing itself as the source of law and by fighting for this role – something it may not have achieved, however, at this first historical phase. In any case, with the issue of nomos as a starting point, which is put in practice through political activity, the oppositions being/appearance and truth/assumption acquire in Greece their specific acuity and profundity. The aforementioned oppositions themselves, as I have already stated, existed everywhere and always, since they are concurrent with every human language’s attempt to reify the distinction between “this is how it really is” and “this is how it appears to me”. What is not, however, embedded in language is the distinction between nature and nomosnomos, as well as speech -logos- present us with a wide spectrum of meanings), where nomos is regarded as a concrete constituted rule, and, simultaneously, instituting, constituting the community.

Second remark: we must distinguish the two aspects of the opposition phusis/nomos; first, the philosophical side, explicitly thematized and recognized as a philological point of reference and, second, the opposition as presented in action. Its first, thematized notion appears in a phrase attributed to Archelaus, the first well-known Athenian philosopher, for whom we know but few details, like that he is supposed to have been Socrates’s tutor – the latter’s birth in 469 allows us to place Archelaus and his teaching around 450. As mentioned by Diogenes Laertius, the phrase reads “the just and the unjust, to dikaion kai to aisckhron, exist not in nature, phusei, but in law, nom?”1. Both words are in the dative, a brilliant grammatical formulation, subject of many a doctoral thesis, because of the plurality of its signification, which is impossible to render in French2. I would translate it, thus: “not within and through nature, but within and through law” or “through law, thanks to law, in accordance with law” etc. We, also, have another extract from Archelaus, transmitted to us from Hippolytus3, according to which “men distinguished themselves from other animals/beings by the fact that they instituted, constituted leaders, laws, arts, cities…”. Even if the order and the enumeration is Hipollytus’s and not Archelaus’s, this phrase contains, practically, everything: leaders -power-, laws -the fact that this power is never arbitrary-, arts and cities. We could, also, mention here an excerpt from the Hippocratic treatise On Airs, Waters and Places, in which this contrast between nature and law first appears. The treatise is, nevertheless, most likely contemporary with Herodotus and, therefore, posterior to Archelaus.

Beyond the thematization of terms, the opposition phusis/nomos, present in the context of collective political activity, responds implicitly not only to the pre-Socratics, but even to Hesiod – for example, in the passage from Works and Days4, where it is claimed that Zeus set a nomos for people. Animals can very well slaughter each other, since there is no dik? (justice) amongst them; humans, on the other hand, were given dik?, “the primordial good”. The term nomos is here not juxtaposed to phusis; it nevertheless appears as an object of institution, even if it is not man-made – it comes from the divine. But, regarding it as imposed means dik? for the humans, leaving animals, who lack justice, free to devour each other. In turn, Xenophanes, in criticizing doxa5, is, in fact, attacking nomos in the sense of a social institution, by using terms such as nomizomena (from the verb nomiz?6 ) – namely, ideas that a group, a society or, even all people believe, stand for or embrace. The distinction, however, of phusis/nomos will end up being the object of an in-depth analysis within the context of a critique of language. And here, again, the story begins with Xenophanes who, in extract 32 -which we have already talked about7- accuses humans of giving the name of the goddess Iris to rainbows, which, for him, were just another natural phenomenon like, say, clouds. And we are also likely to find similar propositions in Anaxagoras, as well as in Empedocles, when the latter says, for example, that people call death ‘potmos’, when it is nothing more than a mere separation of elements. But these words are used by conventions and institutions -as a matter of course, if you’d like- and Empedocles tells us that he himself obeys these conventional usages. That is because he is well aware that, in order for the members of a community to talk, they cannot use any word or come up with personal vocabularies. Words are imposed, and language is a law. We, also, saw that Heraclitus is often critical of language, for language separates conventional things that should remain united. Let’s not forget also the case of Parmenides, which we shall not discuss presently.

In the midst of the 5th century, and based on this very critical rationale, the infamous question arises and expands: is language phusei, a natural, or thesei, a conventional/institutionalized thing? Surely, its maturation must have started well before Archelaus’s and Hippocrates’s texts. That is because any critique would necessarily lead to the issue of its conventional or natural character. When a philosopher would say, “this name is attributed to this thing, but, really, it should not be called thus”, the implication is that there is a true name for every thing, alluding then to a natural correspondence. Nevertheless, at least as early as the 8th century, Greeks travelled and knew well that other people called, for example, ‘itou’ what Greeks called ‘table’. How could they pretend that Greek was the only true language? Even within the Greek mainland, there were variations between different dialects that were not limited to pronunciation, but even extended to lexical characteristics. This discussion has, thus, started already from the sixth century and, in my opinion, the best proof of this would be the clear and definite answer in favour of nom? that the great Democritus gives in an extract that we shall briefly comment on.

Democritus is almost contemporaneous with Socrates; we can, in fact, place his peak around 450-440. The extract that we will first focus on comes from Proclus who mentions that, according to some -Pythagoras included-, names have a natural correspondence to the objects they designate. Pythagoras, on the other hand, maintained that names are manmade constructions that are imposed upon things. Is this an irresolvable contradiction? No, because the only one who could name things, he claimed, is the wise man, someone who knows through his intuition of their true nature. There is, then, a man/law-maker, who bestows every being with an appropriate name. It’s an idea that can’t easily be overlooked. Let us think of some quotes written of the poet’s privilege to name things – Mallarmé, for example, in Tombeau d’Edgar Poe: “to give a clearer meaning to the tribe’s words” and Rilke: a “poet gives things their name…”. Having exposed in this way the Pythagoreian notion of natural language, phusei, Proclus goes on to present the opposite argument, Democritus’s. I would advise you, at this point, to read again Plato’s Cratylus, a dialogue dedicated to the conventionality or naturality of language, exposing and criticizing both stances, without reaching a conclusion. It is a dialogue on Plato’s maturity, not a mere exercise, although it remains a problematic and aporetic text. The same also goes for Theaetetus -a dialogue about epist?m?, true knowledge- which, after reviewing different definitions, it refutes them all and concludes by saying that “we shall try to do better next time”. On the contrary -as presented by Proclus-, Democritus’s demonstration is exhaustive and conclusive. The four arguments he puts forth regarding the conventionality of language seem to me, in passing, richer and more fertile than those of Saussure who, in his Cours de Linguistique Generale, in order to introduce the principle of “the arbitrary nature of the sign”, he contends that whatever is called ‘boeuf’ in France, is named ‘Ochs’ beyond the Rhine. Democritus’s ultimate argument is, after all, an anticipatory refutation of structuralism.

Let’s take things slowly. He begins with homonymy: if different things share the same name, how could, then, a name be thought of as natural? If language was phusei -natural- there would have to be at least a distinct name for every thing. And it would have to be only one: it is the second argument, synonymy, which Democritus (or maybe Proclus) calls polyonymy. In this case, language’s naturality would prohibit the giving of more than one name to the same thing. We observe, then, the fertility of these two first arguments that concern the lack of bi-univocal or term-to-term correspondence between things and their names which can, nonetheless, be generalized for every language; one and the same description can very well be applied to a plurality of processes and, also, a single sequence of events can be described in many ways. After all, without this universality of language, it would be impossible to talk. If the same word, the same description could not be applied to an infinite number of occasions, we would have to invent every time a new set of complex words, in order to describe a new event or the same event in a new way. The sophistic digression of this argument, mentioned in the Megaricals, could here be noted: today’s seminar of the 9th of March 1983 is, of course, not the seminar of the 2nd of March; it is, however, also not the same seminar as the one that happened fifteen minutes ago while, in ten minutes something entirely different will be taking place. Wanting to define it, introducing it to the universality of the term ‘seminar’, we effaced its reality, namely the seminar itself. The conclusion for those philosophers interested in the essence of things -not in the art of argumentative debates, though this is not mere controversy- is that, since it is only possible to speak in universal terms, we must admit that the individual is ineffable and can never be conclusively articulated.

The third argument against language’s naturality which Democritus (or Proclus) calls metathesis onomat?n, the displacements of names, is, nowadays, very ordinary: it refers to our ability to change the name of a thing, without at all affecting the thing itself. So we can call Aristocles, Plato and Tyrtamus, Theophrastus -two examples which cannot have been be mentioned by Democritus, as both Plato and Theophrastus lived in the 4th century- without changing their nature, since it is only a convention we are dealing with.

The fourth argument, which is entitled -modestly- ek tes ton homoi?n elleipseos, of lack of semblance, goes well beyond what it seems. How is it possible, asks Democritus, that to the noun phronesis -rationality, judgement, prudence etc.-, the verb phronein -being just, sensible etc.- corresponds, whereas from the word dikaiosun? -justice- no verb derives? In the first case we have a logical, organic link -inherent to both the thought and the thing itself- between a process, an act and a categorical attribute, while in the second we have none. Where is the logic in that? Nowhere. These kinds of asymmetries and anomalies cannot but be human decisions and interventions.

You see clearly, then, why this argument goes further than it seems; that it is, in fact, a precursory refutation of structuralism and all sorts of logicism, because it can be applied to almost all the levels of language and, certainly, to the elementary level of phonology. Phonology teaches us that in language there are concatenations of phonemes that are allowed and others that are not, that cannot form lexemes, words. This logic -which Jacobson, appropriately, called totalitarian: everything that is not forbidden is compulsary- would impose that all permitted concatenations would occur, forming an equal number of lexemes in the particular language. But that is not the case. ‘Veche’ would be, for example, a totally legitimate word in French but it, nonetheless, doesn’t exist. You could, thus, construct innumerable words, much more than those currently admitted to the French vocabulary which, phonologically speaking, would be entirely legitima… And on a lexicological level, word formation and word derivatives are not exclusively done through an internal logic that would, in each case, impose this or the other way of composing words but they, in fact, exhibit an arbitrariness, a sort of dependency from both historicity as well as a connotative and, ultimately, magmatic aspect of signification that Democritus had already mentioned in the disequilibrium between phronein-phron?sis and (nil)-dikaiosun?.

Furthermore, I would like to briefly comment on another extract from Democritus that refers to Diogenes Laertius8: nomo thermon, nomo psuchron; hot and cold existing through nomos, through convention-institution. This sentence does not, of course, refer to language: it’s not the words thermon and psuchron that are being questioned; not also just the relativity of sensory impressions, not even what were later termed in philosophy ‘secondary attributes’ of things: taste, colour, etc., which depend on the sensory organization of humans, as opposed to shape and volume, which are ‘primary attributes’. What Democritus means by nomo is, in my opinion, that there exists a social constitution of hot and cold and, by extension, of the sensory qualities in general, such as of colour, sweetness, sourness etc. This does not refer to a social construction of elementary sensation, but to an incorporation of this elementary sensation into a wider organized apparatus outside which it could not exist – because, as you know, there is no such thing as an isolated elementary sensation; it is always part of a flow of sensations and it is primarily constructed by the subject.

Immediately after these four words, Diogenes Laertius sites another extraordinary phrase by Democritus: etei de atoma kai kenon, in reality there are only atoms and void, etei de ouden idmen, and we know nothing, en butho gar he al?theia, as truth is always in the bottom of the sea, in unreachable depths.

Galen, who repeats the same extract, complements it by demonstrating how Democritus views the balance between phenomena and sensation on the one hand, and thought on the other. First, he tells us, Democritus diebale ta phainomena, he accused experiences of being deceptive: colour, sweetness, bitterness exist only by convention, nom?. After which, the senses give their answer: “Thought is impoverished (or: miserable), having accepted from us tas pisteis (what you can believe, rely on and which is, at the same time, the proof of your beliefs), you now try to destroy us; your victory, however, will be your own downfall”9. We shall risk an analogy: Kant, in his Preface to the Critique of Pure Reason writes: “concepts without sensory material are empty; sensations without concepts are blind”. For Democritus, sensations are sources of error; but they say to thought: “from us you get what allows you to believe, as well as the control and proofs of those beliefs. And if you try to abolish us, this will mean your end as well”. There is no contradiction here, but an ability to see both sides of the issue.

My last remark on the opposition phusis/nomos concerns only the word nomos and can be summed up, in my view, in what I call ‘Greek human creation’. Everything is connected with the infamous issue of circular time, of eternal return, of ignorance of progress; issues that, as I have already alluded, are not typically Greek, at least not in the way that they are presented. One could, in fact, find many testimonies that prove that Greeks had no circular perception of time at all, the most substantial of which -appearing also very early- is the idea of humanity as separated from the animal kingdom and, then, constructed by its own activity and creations. Many historians of philosophy (the remarkable Guthrie for example, author of six volumes of a very useful history of Greek philosophy up to Aristotle, very comprehensive, albeit slightly insipid) speak, in this case, of an anthropocentric theory of progress. And I am quite in agreement with this formulation, with the condition of explicitly distinguishing the term ‘progress’ from the meaning it acquired in the 19th century.

In the nucleus of the Greek conception is the early comprehension that there is a separation between humans and nature, for example, animals; it is not a natural given, but a result, a product of human acts, which poses this separation, which constitutes it; acts that are of the order of nomos. The word is not yet used and the term ‘creation’, poiesis in ancient Greek, an ambiguous term after all, is not ever mentioned in this context. This view, however, exists already in Xenophanes, in this extract that describes people as initially being in utter ignorance but that, through searching “they find, in time, something better”. We also find the same view in Protagoras, according to what we know about his work, or even through what he himself says in the platonic dialogue which bares his name. It can, also, be found in several other prose writers, such as an anonymous mentioned in the Protreptic by Iamblichus. The main testimonies, however, for our issue are to be found in three remarkable passages from the tragic poets. First, in the verses 442-468 and 278-506 of Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, the precise date of which we don’t exactly know10. What we do know, however, is that it is one of the last works by this author, who died in 456. In this tragedy, we have a clear separation between a pre-human and a veritably human condition, even if the perpetrator of this rupture is a god, Prometheus, who delivers arts and nomoi, institutions (one can, after all, find a similar order of themes in the verses 201-213 of Euripides’s The Suppliants, dated around 420).

Nonetheless, less than a generation after Aeschylus, around 440, in Sophocles’s Antigone (verses 332-375), into which this marvellous hymn, which praises the creative force of human beings who institute cities, legislate, create language, arts etc. is inserted – the infamous stasimon beginning with “Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man”11. But terrible in this context has the same meaning as Rilke’s “Every angel is terrible”12. It does not describe terror, horror, escape, but the existence of an insatiable force which, when it appears, it changes the quotidian, the every-day. We will later find in Critias and in the Hippocratic writings, any texts that insist on this separation between man and natural condition – what I call self-institution of humanity.

If the three tragic poets appear to me, once again, privileged witnesses from this perspective, it is because their genius is constituted on the fact that they expressed with excellent clarity what we could call topoi, ideas, issues of their time, as we would call them nowadays. In this precise point rests the relation of a great poet with his time. Think of John Donne or Shakespeare; I am not saying that they copied newspaper articles, but that they were capable of taking contemporary issues and giving them a form and intensity that rendered them projectable beyond the limits of their time. I think, therefore, that the position of nomos, law, as equivalent of the self-institution of humanity is an idea that starts being realized in the turn of the 6th to the 5th century, between 500 and 450 BC. It will be explicitly explored later by Protagoras, the Sophists etc. and, eventually, acquire a pivotal position in Pericles’s Epitaph, in the second book of Thucydides – but we shall see all that later, when we speak of Athenian democracy and its self-conscience.

I wish to add, however, that this understanding of nomos, law, as a self-creation of man, was necessarily fuelled by the political struggles in the cities, which, after the 7th century, had lead to the modification and, occasionally, overthrow of nomoi. Although this political creation was effectuated on a much less radical level, taking into consideration the fact that the statutory context was always protected, it also contributed to the philosophical radicalisation of the idea that humanity is separated from the animal kingdom by imposing its nomos.

This extract is from the thirteenth lecture given by Castoriadis at the École des Haute Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris on March 9, 1983. It is quoted from Ce qui Fait La Grèce, the second volume of La Création Humaine, a series of publications that include all of the philosopher’s lectures at the EHESS between 1980 amd 1995.
Translation: Alexandros Stavrakas


1 Diogenes Laertius, II, 16 (= DK 60 A 1). See also KRS, p. 417
2 Or in English for that matter. Datives, which are found, amongst other languages, in Greek, Latin and German, are used in denoting a case of nouns and pronouns, and words in grammatical agreement with them, indicating an indirect object or recipient (Translator’s Note)
3 Hippolytus, Refutation Omnium Hearesium I, 9 (DK 60 A 4)
4 Hesiod, Travaux, 276-280
5 Doxa = popular belief, opinion (Translator’s Note)
6 Nomiz? = to assume, to hypothetize (Translator’s Note)
7 It refers to a previous seminar of this series (Translator’s Note)
8 Diogenes Laertius, IX, 72 (DK 68 B117).
9 Galen, De la medicine empirique, XV, 8 (=DK 68 B 125)
10 See: Seminar V
11 Wonderful, here, is used instead of terrible, which would be the literal translation of deinon (Translator’s note)
12 Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich – (Translator’s note)

  • About

    Cornelius Castoriadis was a Greek-French philosopher, economist and psychoanalyst, former Director of Studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

    His essay 'Nomos/Phusis Opposition' appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 1/ Human & Divine, available here for purchase.