Nomos vs. Phusis

The contrast between nomos (custom, law) and phusis (nature) is emphasized in Pericles’ funeral oration when he describes the differences between Athenian and Spartan soldiers.  He explains, “while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are as ready to encounter every legitimate danger… with habits not of labor but of ease, and courage not of art but of nature, we are still willing to encounter danger, we have the double advantage of not suffering hardships before we need to, and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them” (2.39).  In this passage, Pericles compares the Spartan’s military philosophy (train a lot and be prepared to fight) to Athenian’s military philosophy  (live a normal life and act courageously when necessary).  This contrast between the two militaries is a contrast between nomos and phusis because the Spartans depend on law (nomos) and “painful discipline” to train their soldiers, while the Athenians depend on their natural courage (phusis) to fight.

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One comment on “Nomos vs. Phusis

  1. bstareuph says:

    I think that Pericles might be a little propagandistic in his delivery of this speech when it comes to Athens. While we don’t really have any solid evidence that the Athenians are inherently more courageous than their Spartan counterparts, we do have evidence of two very different ways of life. We’ve talked about in class that Spartan society depends largely on control of their slave class, the helots, and that their existence is largely what enabled the Spartans to have a force of men dedicated solely to making war. Because of that large slave population and an inland situation, Sparta has a lot more work to do in their own land to produce a livable situation, and can’t devote much time to creating an empire. In contrast, Athens is located on the sea and can thus engage in direct trade with a huge number of cities, evidenced by the map of their empire on page 95 of our Landmark Thucydides text. Their navy is already made up of experienced sailors by virtue of both their peacetime and wartime endeavors, and though their land army might be less powerful soldier for soldier when compared to that of Sparta their city’s wall makes it all but impregnable by an all-out attack. In this light, I propose a similar usage of nomos and phusis to that which is proposed above; Sparta’s advantage is in their political system’s way of having a highly effective land army (nomos), and the advantage of Athens lies in the nature (phusis) of their status as a walled port city and their seagoing citizens.

    Eric Ferguson

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