According to him [the Athenian stranger in Plato’s Laws], these men [sophists] assert that all things which are have come into being ultimately out of and through certain “first things” which are not strictly speaking “things” but which are responsible for the coming into being and perishing of everything that comes into being and perishes; it is the first things and the coming into being attending on the first things which these men mean by “nature;” both the first things and whatever arises through them, as distinguished from human action, are “by nature.” The things which are by nature stand at the opposite pole from the things which are by nomos (ordinarily rendered as “law” or “convention”), i.e. things which are not only not by themselves, nor by human making proper, but only by men holding them to be or positing that they are or agreeing as to their being.
– Leo Strauss, from “On Aristotle’s Politics” in The City and Man
The list at the bottom of the quoted passage can help us get through the centuries of thought that have been compacted above it. If each individual man holds something as true, or if one says “this is how it must be” and introduces the possibility of something socially, or if all agree that something must be, then a convention has been born. The list starts with an individual holding something as true, then moves to a community contemplating possibility and finally a community concluding something.
But there is one stage missing in that list: what if an individual speculates and doesn’t “posit?” What if an individual makes a discovery about the human race that is like a revelation, and he does not want to allow that discovery to be obscured by the fact that the many color truth with their own prejudices?
Certainly we are in the fashion nowadays of saying “if something is true, it will hold up under critical scrutiny,” meaning that something that is “true” needs to be able to hold up against any and all arguments, including the character assassination of the person who said it. We don’t know how to properly critique – i.e. make the best argument for a position, show why it is perfectly plausible, then demonstrate there might be something better, or more fitting.
No, we just bash away as if there is some mythical standard out there where there are things that are Absolutely True, and sure, there are, in our own imaginations. I have no doubt that Ideal Forms are a joke about this: everyone thinks in their own head they’ve got the perfect concept of every single thing.
In any case, the one who speculates – who considers possibility outside of the realm of getting others to admit that what they think is true – is probably outside the realm of creating conventions. For that individual men hold something to be true we can ascribe the usual confusion between “truth” and “efficacy.” Most conventions come about because they are useful, and most people think what worked for them will work for another, without a doubt. What is frightening is that capitalism was supposed to promote diversity, but instead promotes conformity, as the utility of the seller means that certain niches are always too expensive to aid.
So the speculator is outside the realm of efficiency, of human power and its ability to shape. Where is he then? We see he is in a curious area, that there are “first things” that explain the origination and destruction of everything, and such “first things” are not separable from the things they discuss (cf. Heidegger). The “coming into being attending on the first things” is what clues us in on this: if things were not, we would not be talking about what is fundamentally prior. Such a phrase works both ways: we try to understand what came first because we think we see life cycles both originate and pass away before us every day. The attention we pay to such processes is not “by nature,” even though it tries to identify that which is “by nature.”
Our attention, and our attempt to make sense of the parts we can see, probably involves a discussion of what is “according to nature,” which is literally a “coming into being attending on the first things.” We could act effectively, but do so trying to consider nature as a guide. Such action would not be perfect, especially as the contemplative by its own admission would be imperfect, as it would be tied to the speculative.
I have not quite shown here how to dodge the complaint that such speculation would be subordinate to the idea that a particular consciousness is defined, more or less, by its place in history. This sophistic distinction above does not presuppose historicism. Nature is transcendent in a sense, perhaps in the sense that we can’t control, when all is said and done, whether we will realize and work with (or better yet, “conform to”) it, or not.
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