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Law and Nature in Greek Ethics Author(s): John Burnet Source: International Journal of Ethics ,

Law and Nature in Greek Ethics Author(s): John Burnet Source: International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Apr., 1897), pp. 328-333 Published by: The University of Chicago Press

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328 Internationaljournal of Ethics.

view to the wonder,beauty,and orderof the visible universe, by bringinghimto feel the potential greatness and nobility of man,and at the same timethe limitationsand dependence attendanton his finitude,the religious school can lay the foundationofa true religiouslife. Surely the highestpowers of the human soul meet in that transcendentmood where science and ethics and philosophy, music, art, and poetry fuse to formthe developed religious consciousness. And

this developed

show, must be the main bulwark of humanityagainst the forcesthatthreatenthe disruptionof society,forthe supreme factof the religious sense is spiritual unity. The practical difficultiesin the way of the cultivationof this sense are in- disputably great; but for that very reason it behooves us steadfastlyto look away fromthe letter,steadfastlyto fixour attentionon the spirit.

religious consciousness, as I have tried to









a well-knownpassage of the "Ethics," Aristotle says

that "things fairand thingsjust are liable to such variation and fluctuationthattheyare believed to existby law onlyand not by nature."* Although much has beenwritten,and well written,on thisdistinction,it still seems possible to throwa littlefreshlightupon it. It is easier now thanit used to be to trace the threadofhistoricalcontinuityin Greek thought,and to understandwhatthe doctrinesof Greekphilosophersreally meantto themenwho taughtthemand heard them. And we can do thisby looking at our problem in the twofoldlightof earlierspeculationand contemporaryculture.

I. To understandwhat the Greeks of the fifthcenturyB.C. meant by funs,-a word very inadequately rendered by

* Eth. Nic. A, 1oq4 b, Is, ra & Ka2a Katra- dtiKata.

Kal 7raivnv, (re

JoKceivv6ZA u

t6vovelvat, oioet & #yv7.

. roXXv Iet 6caoopav

Law and Nature in GreekEthics.


" nature,"-we mustcast a glance backwards upon those cos- mological inquirieswhichhad just reachedtheirhighestpoint in the Atomic Theoryof Leukippos and Demokritos. I have shown elsewhere* that the cosmologists fromthe Milesian School onwards had given the name saves to thatprimary substancewhichtheywere all in searchof. It meantto them the mostreal thing,thatwhich must underliethe worldwith all its manifoldappearances and changes. To put the matter simply,science began withthe child's question, " What is the world made of?" The answers thatwere given to this ques- tion covered the whole range fromthe Water of Thales to the " Seeds" ofAnaxagoras or the Atoms of Leukippos. But the question was always the same, and everyanswerto it was a new account of the funs of things,or,as we should say, of the elementor elementsto which things can be reduced and of whichtheyare composed. This primaryelement was, of course, corporeal like the world itself. The time had not yet come when the bond of the world could be soughtin an ideal unity. Even the Pytha- gorean "numbers" were spatial, and space was not clearly distinguishedfrombodybeforethe rise oftheAtomicTheory. Now the fact that ultimaterealityand the world of common experiencewereboth retarded as corporealhad serious con- sequences. Both were of the same kind,and thereforecom- parisonwas inevitable. In proportionas theidea ofsOmrewas more thoroughlyworked out, it naturallytended to become somethingmoreand more remote fromcommonexperience,

that experience seem by comparisonmore

and more unreal and illusory. The Water of Thales was, indeed,somethingwe know, and we could see withouttoo much efforthow everythingelse mightbe solidifiedor vapor- ized water. But now Parmenideshas shown once forall that, if we are going to take the realityof fv'otqseriously,we are bound to deny of it all motion,change,and variety. " It is," and that means that it always was and always will be,-or

and thus to make

* " Early Greek Philosophy,"pp. IO sqq.

I still hold firmlythat we have

no rightto ascribethetermapx7 to thecosmologists.

330 International journall of Ethics.

ratherthattimeis a fiction,-thatIt is absolutelycontinuous, homogeneous, and motionless. This makes the breach be- tweenthe worldwe seem,to know and the worldas it is for thought complete. The "real" of Parmenides is in factan extendedand corporeal" Thing in itself,"whichnot onlyfails to explain the every-dayworld,but banishesit to therealmof the unreal. The Atomic Theory sought,indeed,to make the

" real" yield an explanation of the world by multiplyingthe One of Parmenides into innumerableatoms, but this only served to bring out more clearlythan ever the disparitybe- tween v'ie; and our every-dayexperience.

II. This explains why the ethical problem,when once it

was raised,took the formof a search forf4at;, foran under-

lying and permanentreality,in the vast mass of traditional moralityembodied in the uses and observanceswhichvaried so strangelyfromcityto city,to say nothingof the bewilder- ing maze of" barbarian"institutions.These presenteda prob- lem preciselyanalogous to the problemofthe manifoldworld around us,withits endless diversityand its never-ceasingwar of opposites. And so the question soon resolveditselfinto a

search for the f6ete or underlyingrealityof all

social arrangementsand institutionswe know. Is thereany- thing in human life that corresponds to the One of the Eleatics or to Atoms and the Void? Now, just as cosmological speculation had been forcedto deny the realityof the every-dayworld because it sought for


speculationwas soon forcedto denythe validityof ordinary morality,and forjust the same reason, because the under- lyingprincipleit soughtwas ofone kind withthe factsit was meant to explain. If we look forethical realityin some code of rules which are " really"binding,insteadof seeking it in that which gives binding force to the moral codes which alreadyexist,we are bound to regardthe latteras invalid and arbitrary. And further,just in proportionas we carryout the search logically,the poorer will be the contentof our " real" code ofmorals. For in truth,howevermuch we may disguise the fact,such a code is reached by abstraction. Just

the complex

somethingcorporeal, so the new ethical

Law and Nature in GreekEthics.


as nothingwas leftby the Eleatics and the Atomists but ex- tension and body,so nothingis leftby the later" sophists" but bruteforceand the good pleasure ofthe individual. Mo- rality,too, becomes an affairof Atoms and the Void.

III. The wordwhichwas used to denotethe existingcode

of moralityin any given statewas v' , a word which orig- inallymeant" use," butcoversalso whatwe call " law." When the oracle of Apollo advised men to worshipthe gods, Yiojt* 7ro',w, it is as if it had said " afterthe use of Sarum." Now

we findthat this word is used in a metaphoricalsense by Demokritosto express the unreal characterof our every-day knowledgeofthe world,and nothingcan show more clearly the close parallelism between the ethical and cosmological speculationof the time. In making his famous distinction between" true-born"and " bastard" knowledge,*Demokritos used these words,- " By use thereis sweetand by use there is bitter; by use thereis hot,by use thereis cold, by use thereis colour. But in sooth thereare Atoms and the Void." t Why shouldwhatwe call the" secondaryqualitiesof matter" be assignedto the provinceofUse ? The answerto thisques- tion will give us the key to the whole theory of Law and Nature. It is evidentthat the great outburstof legislativeactivity whichmarkedtheprecedingage had done not a littleto foster moral scepticism. Justas the beginningsof applied natural science had broughtmen faceto facewiththe problemof the

world,so did practical legislationraise the problemof ethics. It had been possible to regardthe customarylaws of older times as somethingfundamental,or even divine. Their au- thoritywas questioned just as little as the realityof the


(axokcal8&c-req), but theexistenceofthe" dooms" themselves,

The kings might give "crooked dooms"

* That thisis thetruemeaningoftheyvr7ca7iand aicoTrbyv6Jrnwas firstpointed out byNatorp(Archiv.,i., p. 355).

t Sext. Math. vii., 135, N61upyXtKVi ical v6Oupiryp&Vv6yc 0&pju6v,v6,uq ipvXp6v, v6OuL Xpodp E'frej & aii-oya ica' icev6v.

332 International journall of Ethics.

and the fact that theycame fromZeus, was not doubted for

a moment. All the old " taboos" and all the old riteswereas

real and unquestionableas the succession of seed-timeand harvest or the rise of Ram, Bull, or Twins at the appointed

season. Indeed, the regularityand constancy of human affairswas farmore clearlyapprehendedthanthe even course of nature. Man lived in a charmedcircleof law and custom, but theworldaround him stillseemed lawless. So muchwas thisso, indeed,that,when the regularcourse of natural phe- nomena began to be observed,no betterword could be found forit than 8c'x'q. Anaximanderspoke of the encroachmentof one element on another as " injustice," and, according to Herakleitos,it is the Erinyes,"the avenging handmaids of Dike," who keep the sun from" overstepping"his measures.* But a code oflaws framedby a known lawgiver,a Zaleukos

or a Charondas,a Lycurgus or a Solon, could not be accepted in thisway as partof the everlastingorderofthings. It was clearly" made,"and,therefore,fromthe pointofview of funq, artificialand arbitrary. It seemed as if it mightjust as well have been made otherwise,or notmade at all. A generation whichhad seen laws in the making could hardlyhelp asking whetherall moralityhad not been " made" in the same way. That this really was the point of view fromwhich the

ethical problem was regarded is shown by the use of


wordO8ansinmuchthesamesenseas Y'tio,. This wordmay

mean either the giving of laws or the adoption of laws so given,tand it thuscontainsthegerm,not onlyofthe theoryof

an original legislator,but also of that known as the Social Contract. The growing knowledge of the diversityof customs and

institutionsin the world,both

Hellenic and barbarian,must

have strengthenedmen's suspicionof the arbitrarinessof all moraljudgments. Herodotusis fullofthisfeeling.The strong- est proof he can give of the madness of King Cambyses is

* " EarlyGreekPhilosophy," pp. 51, 73, I47.

j Accordingas it is referredto theactive,voflovc6civator themiddle, v64#ovw ORE'Oat.

Law and Nature in GreekEthics.


that he laughed at the ritesand customsof other nationsas if those of his own werea bit less artificial. " If we were to

set beforeall men a choice,and bid uses fromall the uses thereare, each

themall, would choose those oftheirown nation." So " it is not likely that any one but a madman would laugh at such things,"and Pindaris rightin sayingthat" use is kingofall."

IV. We find,then,a close parallelismbetween the cosmo-

them pick out the best people, afterexamining

logical and the ethicalproblemof the fifthcenturyB.C. The worldof every-dayexperiencewas seen to be unrealin com- parisonwith the ultimatefans of things howeverthatmight be explained,and the ordinarycodes of morals were feltto be unrealin comparisonwitha similarabstractideal of right. In both cases the error,or ratherthe inadequacy,ofthe views held came fromthe same source. The underlyingrealityof the world and thatof conductwere sought in pari material. The realityof the corporealworld was supposed to be a still morerealbody,and the realityofconductwas supposedtobe a stillmorevalidruleoflife. Such is therealmeaningand origin of an oppositionwhichwas natural and inevitablein the be- ginnings of philosophy,but which is surelyan anachronism now. And yet it still lives on, and it is the same type ot mind which would reduce the world to the interactionof

vibrationsand societyto a compromiseof" naturalrights."