Nature and convention, might and right

What follows is S. 6-7, Volume I, Book III, Chapter IV of Theodor Gomperz’ “Greek Thinkers”

6. The fascination of this great controversy over the origin of language is second in importance, however, to the contrast it involves between nature on the one part and convention on the other. We are already familiar with the distinction. We met it in the theory of sense-perception formulated by Leucippus and Democritus, in which we learned to recognize convention as the type of change, subjectiveness, and relativity, in opposition to the changeless constancy of the objective world. But the true home of this contrast was not the sphere of sense-perception, nor was it the domain of language; it was rather to be found in political and social phenomena. Archelaus, the pupil of Anaxagoras, is mentioned as the first representative in literature of this fundamental antithesis, but little more than this fact is known to us. His works have been lost, and we can only say with certainty that he discussed “Beauty, Justice, and the Laws” in the sense of that distinction, that he considered in this connection the “severance” of mankind from the rest of animal life, and that he treated of the rudiments of the social state. The antithesis between law and nature was foreign to all epochs in which the spirit of criticism was still in a rudimentary stage. Wherever authority and tradition reigned in undisputed supremacy, the extant rules of life were accepted as the only natural laws, or, more exactly stated, their relation to nature was outside the region of doubt or even of discussion. This is the attitude of the Mohammedan of to-day, who walks among us like a living fossil, clothed in the impassivity of that early era of thought, and invoking the revelation of Allah, as manifested in the Koran, as the supreme authority beyond the reach of appeal in all questions of religion, law, ethics, and politics. To revert to the distinction, however, between nature and convention, we see that its recognition entails two great series of consequences. On the one part, it supplies the weapons for the incisive and destructive criticism of all extant and valid laws; on the other part, it provides a new and paramount standard for the reform which is presently inaugurated in the most diverse fields. But the ambiguity in the word “nature,” which was clearly recognized in later antiquity, rendered that standard extremely vacillating and uncertain—a fact that seems to have increased the readiness of mankind to use it, inasmuch as the vagueness of the formula made it easier for them to include the most various aims and desires. Thus the poet Euripides, when he exclaimed, “This Nature does, who no convention knows,” was thinking of the power of natural impulse which laughs at law and locksmiths; but when he said of a bastard, “His name’s his fault, no difference Nature knows,” the dramatist was thinking of the actual individual nature of men and of its independence of the artificial distinctions of society. In a similar, though not in completely the same sense, Alcidamas the rhetorician exclaimed in his “Messenian Speech,” “the Deity made all men free: Nature has enslaved no man.” The speaker was here dominated by the conception of an imaginary primeval state in which universal equality was the rule; or else he was thinking of a natural law, founded on this or on some other basis, which took precedence of all human institutions.

A distinction of this kind was bound to serve as a means of criticism and negative attack. History and ethnology had widened the study of the moral and political conditions of various tribes, nations, and epochs, and hence was derived a keener perception of the Protean multiformity of human customs and laws. People began to busy themselves with applying the comparative method to the most glaring contrasts. A new literature sprang up about this subject, which reached its summit in antiquity in the treatise “On Fate,” by Bardesanes, the Syrian Gnostic, and which reaped a rich harvest in the age of the Encyclopaedists. Herodotus himself took pride in parading antitheses of this kind. A notable instance occurs in one of his stories about Darius. He relates that the monarch sent for the Greeks at his court to ask them their price for devouring the corpses of their ancestors. They replied that no price would be high enough. Thereupon the Persian king summoned the representatives of an Indian tribe which habitually practised the custom from which the Greeks shrank, and asked them through the interpreter, in the presence of the Greeks, at what price they would burn the corpses of their ancestors. The Indians cried aloud and besought the king not even to mention such a horror. From these circumstances the historian drew the following notable moral for human guidance: If all existing customs could somewhere be set before all men in order that they might select the most beautiful for themselves, every nation would choose out, after the most searching scrutiny, the customs they had already practised. And he ends his tale by giving Pindar right in his remark, “Convention is the king of all men.” The same thought is developed at greater length and with even more point in a treatise which may probably also be referred to this age. There we find the opinion expressed that “if all men were to gather in a heap the customs which they hold to be good and noble, and if they were next to select from it the customs which they hold to be base and vile, nothing would be left over, but all would be distributed among all.” We can hardly conceive a more direct and definite expression of the belief that no act or institution is so bad or ugly as not to be held in high honour by some portion of humanity. This relativist point of view has an enlightening and emancipating effect on which we may pause for a moment. We see it most clearly in the dramas of Euripides, the great poet and prophet of free thought. We marked just now his indifference to the stain of illegitimacy, and we would add here that he made no more account of the brand on the forehead of the slave. In his opinion it was the convention and the name, not nature, that imposed slavery:

“The name alone is shameful to the slave;
In all things else an honest man enslaved
Falls not below the nature of the free.”

He was equally explicit, too, on the question of the difference between noble and humble birth:

“The honest man is Nature’s nobleman.
Who keeps not justice, though the son of Zeus,
Or sprung more highly, count I but as mean.”

We see that little was wanting to break down the barriers of nationality and to make room for the cosmopolitan ideal which we shall meet in full splendour in the Cynics. That ideal was anticipated by Hippias of Elis, in whose mouth Plato put the words—

“All of you who are here present I reckon to be kinsmen and friends and fellow-citizens, by nature and not by law; for by nature like is akin to like, whereas law is the tyrant of mankind, and often compels us to do many things which are against nature.”

7. While Nature meant here the social instinct, the real or probable original equality of mankind, it is obvious that the opposite opinion would not go begging for champions. The victory of the stronger over the weaker and the superiority of talent to mediocrity were bound to attract attention and to be regarded as an emanation of Nature, especially in a society founded on conquest and slavery. We may recall the glorification of war by Heraclitus as “the father and king” of all things, which had differentiated free and slaves as well as gods and men. The sage of Ephesus was the first to recognize and exalt the significance of war or the application of force in the foundation of State and society. When we come to Aristotle we shall meet a kindred point of view, though somewhat less comprehensive and marred by a national prejudice. Aristotle undertook to discover a natural basis for slavery. He justified it in the interests of the barbaric slaves themselves, who were unfit for self-government, and he combated the view that slavery was merely the work of arbitrary convention. Whether or not the literature of the age of enlightenment contributed to this tendency is uncertain, but the probability is on the negative side. Plato at least, who rejected it, selected as its champion among the contemporaries of Socrates, not an author or a teacher of youth, but one of their bitterest foes, a practical politician, who plumed himself on his extreme practicality, and who is otherwise unknown to us. It is in the dialogue called “Gorgias” that this Callicles made a passionate plea for the right of might. He there refers to the dominion which the strong exercises over the weak as a fact founded in nature, and to be characterized accordingly as a “natural law.” The natural law changed forthwith on his lips to a “natural right” or to a dispensation of “natural justice.” The bridge between the recognition of a natural fact and the approval of the conduct corresponding to it was built with considerable ease, and the operation was assisted by the fact that there was one domain at least in which antiquity could perceive hardly any difference between the two. In international relations it was deemed at once natural and right that the strong states should overthrow and absorb the weak. This explanation, however, is not exhaustive in the present instance. For, though Callicles appeals to the right of conquest as well as to the example of the whole animal creation, yet he differs in two essential points both from Heraclitus and from Aristotle. He aims at the subjection, not of a portion, but of the whole of mankind, and his sympathies, if not exclusively, are yet mainly on the side of the strong and the clever rather than of the weak and dull. He takes the part of the man of genius, the “hero” as we should say to-day, against the multitude which tried at once to enslave his soul and to reduce him to the level of their own mediocrity. Callicles rejoiced to think that the man of genius, like a young half-tamed lion, would rise in the fulness of his strength—

“will shake off and break through and escape from all this; he will trample under foot all our formulas and spells and charms, and all our laws sinning against nature: the slave will rise in rebellion and be lord over us, and the light of natural justice will shine forth.”

Such remarks as these express the aesthetic delight in the untamed force of a strong human nature. They represent, moreover, the feeling expressed by a modern champion of absolutism in the words, “the rule of the mightier is the eternal ordinance of God.” A little later on, Callicles in Plato is made to defend a tenet which was less bitterly at variance with the spirit of popular institutions. The better and more intelligent man in his view was to exercise supremacy, and, as we do not live in an ideal world, he was not to be robbed of the right of personal profit. In other words, the fittest and most competent men were to exert the strongest influence and to draw the richest rewards in political life. But the character of Callicles underwent a strange transformation in the further course of the dialogue. The champion of a Carlylean hero-worship, of Haller’s political theories, and of the principle of uncorrupted aristocracies, was suddenly turned to the evangelist of the gospel of an unbridled lust for pleasure. It is clear that this view had not found a spokesman in that age, from the ingenuous remark of Plato himself, “For what you say is what the rest of the world think, but are unwilling to say.” We may confidently assert that the philosopher-poet combined this theory with the others so alien to it, in order to increase the odium which he desired to attach to them. But what was undoubtedly genuine and heartfelt was Plato’s indignation at the yoke of average mediocrity and the frequent blunders of democratic institutions. It formed an intelligible protest against the existing order of the State with its shifting lights and shades. The ideal Athens varied according to the critic’s mood. Some were disposed to hero-worship, with Alcibiades at that moment as their idol. Others were inclined to revive the institutions of aristocracy either in whole or in part. Finally, Plato himself, who was a thorough hater of democracy, preached the Utopian doctrine of the philosophic kings. Thus “nature” and “natural law” were on one side the chosen shibboleth of the growing love of equality with its steady advance to cosmopolitanism, and on the other side they served the aristocrats and the worshippers of a strong personality. One ambition was common to both tendencies. They were moved alike by the desire to break loose from the bonds in which tradition and authority had fettered the mind of mankind.

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