Thursday, January 13, 2005

Natural Law Lecture Five

Greek Ideas of Nature and Justice

As I love ancient Greek philosophy and the pre-Socratics, I enjoyed this lecture. Koterski goes back to these thinkers looking for the sources of the ideas and principles that would come to form natural law. I don’t think he is claiming that the pre-Socratics or Plato are actually natural law thinkers, but he wants to look into their thinking for the precursors and beginnings of the ideas.

He starts where Western philosophy always starts: with Thales and the Milesian physicists—those fascinating thinkers with unpronounceable names who first struck out to try and explain the world in terms of physical or natural elements instead of myth and gods. This is a natural place for natural law to look for its roots because these thinkers, by looking to nature to explain nature open the door to explaining morality and society by way of nature as well.

Next, Koterski turns to the Sophists. Largely a contrast to natural law, these thinkers represent more of a positive law approach to ethics and social organization. They viewed human life as largely a human creation and human nature is not emphasized.

Lastly, Koterski looks to Socrates and Plato. Koterski gets close to saying that Plato, particularly in The Republic, is a natural law thinker. He doesn’t, but does insist that Plato is making an early attempt at a kind of natural law. Instead of looking at the obligations and requirements of ethics and society as human creations, Plato looks to human nature and its structures and abilities to find out what obligations and requirements we have and what this nature requires by way of conduct and social institutions.

I do get the sense that Koterski is reading natural law, at least a little bit, into these thinkers. At the same time, the roots and precursors are there and so it is worth starting here when looking at the history of natural law.

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