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Platonic-Aristotelian Biopolitical Justice

Plato’s Republic and the Laws and Aristotle’s Politics are not only books on the biopolitical
regulation of populations but also books on justice. They are endeavors to outline the
conditions of possibility of the happiest state but at the same time they are attempts to define
justice and the most just state. What then are their conceptions of justice? The scholarly
debate over this issue has revolved around the question whether Plato and Aristotle were
conventionalists or naturalists, advocating either the view that justice is based on convention
(nomos) or that it is based on nature (phusis). With regard to Plato, there is a virtual
unanimity among the scholars that he is a theorist of natural justice or law of sorts. Some
scholars have gone so far as to suggest that “almost all the elements of the full theory of
natural law as it was to appear in the Stoics and those who came after them” can be found in
Plato’s writings.1 As to Aristotle, the scholarly accounts are more dispersed but the majority
seems to think that he, too, is a precursor of the Stoic teaching of natural law. 2 I agree with
these interpretations to the effect that both Plato and Aristotle indeed argue that justice is
based on nature and that positive laws, in order to be just, must be “according to nature” (kata
phusin). I even agree that Plato and Aristotle, in a sense, paved the way for the Western
tradition of natural law, but I disagree with the accounts that Platonic or Aristotelian natural
justice would have laid the foundation for the Stoic conception of natural law.3 Neither
Plato’s nor Aristotle’s natural justice is justice of the Stoic jus naturale – their justice is


Let us start with the Stoic concept of natural law, explicated most clearly by Marcus Tullius
Cicero. The first principle of Cicero’s teaching of natural law is that justice is based on nature
and not on a particular convention or opinion: “Justice (iustitia) is not based on men’s
opinions but on nature” (Leg. 1.29). Because justice is based on nature it is universal,
immutable and everlasting – and it is found in reason, diffused among all in the form of law:

True law [vera lex] is right reason [recta ratio], consonant with nature, spread
through all people. It is constant and eternal; it summons to duty by its orders, it
deters from crime by its prohibitions […] It is wrong to pass laws obviating this
law; it is not permitted to abrogate any of it; it cannot be totally replaced. We
cannot be released from this law by the senate or the people, and it needs no
exegete or interpreter. There will not be one law at Rome and another at Athens,
on now and another later; but all nations at all times will be bound by this one
eternal and unchangeable law. (Rep. 3.33)

According to Cicero (Leg. 1.30), the whole humankind participates in this law through reason
and to the extent that this reason is evenly distributed among people (“spread through all
people” in the sentence above must be understood in this sense), everybody is capable of
obeying the commands of natural law and thereby, of becoming virtuous: “The rudiments of
understanding which I mentioned before, are impressed similarly on all humans,” as Cicero
writes in the Laws (1.30), continuing in the same chapter that “there is no person of any
nation who cannot reach virtue.” This entails that there is no difference in kind between man
and man:

There is no similarity, no likeness of one this to another, so great as the likeness

we all share. If distorted habits and false opinions did not twist weak mind and
bend them in any direction, no one would be so like himself as all people would
be like all others. Thus, whatever definition of a human being one adopts is
equally valid for all humans. That, in turn, is a sufficient proof that there is no
dissimilarity within the species [nullam dissimilitudinem esse in genere].
(Cicero, Leg. 1.30)

This Stoic-Ciceronian concept of natural law became prevalent also among the early
Christians. Indeed, even the very first documents of Christianity contain marks of this, at
least if we are to believe the Christian interpretative tradition of the Pauline doctrine of the
law of the heart borne witness by conscience as stated in Romans (2:14-15). In other words,
although Paul does not explicitly say that the law of the heart is unchangeable and universally
shared by the whole human race, the subsequent Christian interpretative tradition took it for
granted. Chrysostom writes:

All men have always had the natural law [nomos phusikos] that dictated from
within what is good and what is evil for when God created man, he placed in
him this incorruptible judge: the judgment of conscience. The Jews received in
addition the precious gift of the written law, but the whole human race had its
essential in the law of conscience [ton apo tou suneidotos nomon].4

Furthermore, because everyone has this law in one’s breast and because one has the
conscience by means of which this inner law executes itself, one does not need external
authorities and rules in order to lead one’s life well. By virtue of conscience, every individual
is self-taught (autodidaktos) in moral matters, as Chrysostom continues, which means,
ultimately, that one is radically self-sufficient and free. After citing Romans 2:14,
Chrysostom writes: “For the conscience [syneidos] and reason [logismos] do suffice in the
Law’s stead. By this he [Paul] showed, first, that God made man self-sufficient [autarkês], so
as to be able to choose virtue and to avoid vice.”5 Finally, although the Ciceronian-Christian
law is situated in reason and the heart, it is not absolutely immanent but stands for
transcendence within immanence as this law originates in the mind of god, not in the
immanent unfolding of nature: “First and final law is the mind of god who compels or forbids
all things by reason” (Cicero, Leg. 2.8).


Arguably, there are certain similarities between Cicero’s and Plato’s definitions of justice.
Although there are different nomoi among different people and cultures, Plato argues in the
Laws (10.890d), there is also universal justice transcending any particular culture. This
justice is not based on customs and opinions but on nature (phusis) and it is precisely nature
that is the true criterion of justice. In actual fact, Plato holds, everything that is “according to
nature” (kata phusin) is also just, while anything that is “contrary to nature” (para phusin) is
unjust. In this regard, Aristotle’s concept of justice is more complicated. We have already
seen that Aristotle equates law (nomos) and constitution (politeia) with the concrete order
(taxis) of the city-state. In the Politics, he does the same to justice: “Justice is the order of
political community” (dikê politikês konônias taxis estin) (Pol. 1.1253a37-38). This implies
that in the nomos-phusis controversy Aristotle would side with the advocates of nomos,
meaning the moral relativists Plato criticizes in the Laws and elsewhere. On the other hand,
Aristotle also asserts that there exists “justice based on nature” (dikaiou to men phusikon) that

by definition is “in force regardless of opinions” (Nic. Eth. 1134b18-20). This internal
discrepancy in Aristotle’s concept of justice has triggered many debates as to whether
Aristotle was a “positivist” or a “natural law thinker.”6 Although this question is somewhat
artificial as Aristotle was neither a positivist nor natural law theorist but, as I have attempted
to show above, a theorist of concrete order of life, it is doubtlessly true that Aristotle was also
a naturalist and that for him “natural” (kata phusin) is a normative concept in the light of
which empirical phenomena may be evaluated. Some of his formulations imply that nature is
the highest norm of all: “Everything that happens according to nature [kata phusin], happens
in the best possible way” (Nic. Eth. 1099b20-25), whereas “nothing contrary to nature is
good” (Pol. 7.1325b9-10).7

However, it would be absurd to reduce ancient moral and political views to the above
mentioned categories of conventionalism and naturalism. There exist various forms of
conventionalism and naturalism. To the same extent that there is a difference between the
nihilism of Callicles (Gorgias) and relativism of Protagoras (Protagoras), there are
differences between the various advocates of morality based on nature. Both Plato and
Aristotle are advocates of natural justice but their naturalism, as we shall see, is significantly
different from that of the Stoics.8 Indeed, even Plato’s and Aristotle’s respective views do not
fully converge, as Aristotle employs natural justice arguments mainly in order to defend
existing conventions, while Plato’s natural justice, particularly in the Republic, is aimed at
challenging them. What then is the difference between the Platonic-Aristotelian natural
justice and its Stoic-Ciceronian equivalent?


Let us start with Plato. According to Cicero, as we recall, the immutable law of nature calls to
duty by commanding and deters from the wrong by forbidding. In Plato, we cannot find
formulations like this. Although homosexual relations, for instance, are contrary to nature
(para phusin) and thereby unjust (Laws 8.836c), it is not nature that forbids these relations.
Nature does not do so because for Plato justice does not exist in the form of law, not at least if
the law is understood as something that commands and forbids. For Plato, justice does not
take place in the sphere of law, but is equivalent to the harmonious order of life. It is this
order and everything conducive to it that accords with nature (kata phusin) and is thereby
just. Such an order of life concerns primarily the life of the soul, as it is precisely the

harmony between the different parts of the soul (appetitive, spirited, and rational) that is
justice. Yet the harmony here does not signify that the soul would be at absolute rest. Rather
it is harmonious in the same sense as health is the harmonious order of the body. As the body
is healthy when its each part excellently performs its proper function in the hierarchical
constitution of the body, the soul is harmonious when its each part excellently performs its
proper function (ergon) in the hierarchical constitution of the soul in which the superior
(rational) part of the soul dominates the appetitive and the spirited parts. The same holds true
for entire cities. As there are three different parts of the soul, there are necessarily three
different personality types – Plato calls them also “kinds of natures” (genê phuseôn) (Rep.
4.435b) – in the city-state. And to the extent that the soul is just if it is dominated by the
reasonable part, the city-state is just if it is dominated by the personality type in which the
reasonable part of the soul is the leading part – and more precisely, if each person performs
the function (ergon) proper to the nature of that person and the race he belongs to, meaning
the race of manual laborers, auxiliaries, or leaders respectively. Such an order is harmonious
and just because it is kata phusin.9 Nature is thus a standard and a norm of justice for Plato
but not like a law in jurisprudence but like health in medicine (Rep. 444d-e):

To produce health is to establish the elements in a body in the natural relation

[kata phusin] of dominating and being dominated by one another, while to
cause disease is to bring it about that one rules or is ruled by the other contrary
to nature [para phusin].

Yes, that is so.

And is it not likewise the production of justice in the soul to establish its
principles in the natural relation [kata phusin] of controlling and being
controlled by one another, while injustice is to cause the one to rule or be ruled
by the other contrary to nature [para phusin]?

Exactly so.

Virtue, then, as it seems, would be a kind of health and beauty and good
condition of the soul [euexia psukhes], and vice would be disease, ugliness, and

Now, although it seems that Plato employs kata phusin and para phusin above and elsewhere
as if they were strict opposites, we must be careful not to confuse the Platonic dichotomy
with the Ciceronian licit and illicit. “Contrary to nature” (para phusis) and thereby injustice
does not entail a transgression of nature, let alone a transgression of law, but a perversion of
nature – in the same sense as sickness entails the perversion of health. This means, on the one
hand, that everything para phusin is not equally bad or unjust. Things may be more or less
para phusin, just like one’s body can be more or less healthy. On the other hand, it means
that instead of deeds, justice and injustice pertain to the character (êthos), and the type (eidos
or gênos) of man – character and type constituted by a combination of inborn capacities and
acquired habits. In other words, although both Cicero and Plato argue that nature constitutes
the reference point on the basis of which the life of man and the city must be organized in
order to be just, the Platonic justice of nature does not operate, like the Ciceronian natural
law, in the domain of a mutually exclusive juridical dichotomy between the licit and the illicit
acts, but in the domain of a biopolitical continuum between normal and abnormal types of
men as well as city-states measured by the norm of the healthy character (hugies êthos) (Rep.
3.409c) and the perfect (teleiôs) type (Rep. 5.472c).10 Finally, while the Ciceronian natural
law stands for transcendence within immanence as it originates in the mind of god, the
Platonic justice, despite the model it supposedly has in heaven (Rep. 9.592b), emanates from
the immanence of nature. Justice is not only the order of life according to nature but also that
immanent power (dunamis) that produces, if not perverted by the mixing of races or by a
corrupted environment, the harmonious order of the soul and the city-state (Rep. 4.443b).

The biopolitical essence of the Platonic justice becomes even more apparent if we examine
those reasons why the best personality type and thereby the best state start to degenerate – as
inevitably happens as “everything that comes into being must decay” (Rep. 8.546a)
According to Plato, this happens due to the lack of knowledge of the principles of heredity:

Now, the people you have educated to be leaders in your city, even though they
are wise, still won’t, through calculation together with sense perception, hit
upon the fertility and barrenness of the human species, but it will escape them,
and so they will at some time beget children when they ought not to do so (Rep.

Plato does not tell us why the wise leaders of the city fail but it seems that in his view this
failure is inevitable. Because of this failure, the leaders join brides and grooms at the wrong
time with the consequence that the children will be neither well born (euphueis) nor fortunate
(eutukheis) (Rep. 8.546c-d). Once the leaders of the state are chosen from among these
children, even the best of them fail to distinguish the different races from each other in that
exact way as is necessary if the state is to preserve its happiness and justice. This failure
entails the mixing of the races and it is precisely such mixing that engenders the above-
mentioned unharmonious anomaly in the state, resulting in its degeneration. However,
although such an unharmonious anomaly is contrary to nature (para phusin), it is merely the
first step in the degeneration of the soul and the city (“That is the way this transformation
begins”) followed by a number of more or less degenerate souls and cities – actually so many
that “it would be an intolerably long task to describe every constitution and every character
without omitting anything” (Rep. 8.548d). In other words, the Platonic nature is not violated
like Cicero’s natural law, as the latter is violated by an act of transgression, while the former
is not transgressed at all but rather perverted due to a mistake concerning the principles of
selective breeding – a mistake that results in the mixing of races and thereby a piecemeal
process of degeneration in which each successive generation is by nature worse than the
previous one. If the starting point of this process is the state lead by the pure race and the soul
lead by the rational part, the end point is tyranny in the state and tyranny of the appetitive part
in the soul. At this point, all the principles of selective breeding are absolutely forgotten, for
although a tyrant, too, banishes and kills people, he does it arbitrarily, without having a clue
about the eugenic principles of the well-governed state. He, too, carries out a purge in the
city, but unlike in Kallipolis and Magnesia, this purge is the opposite of the operation the
leaders of these good states carry out in the population. These good leaders act like good
doctors who “draw off the worst and leave the best,” whereas a tyrant, the absolute
perversion of the healthy type, “does just the opposite” (Rep. 8.567c).11

Nature is a norm also for Aristotle: “Everything that happens according to nature [kata
phusin], happens in the best possible way” (Nic. Eth. 1099b20-25), while “nothing contrary
to nature is good” (Pol. 7.1325b9-10).12 Yet although nature bestows us with a measure, the
Aristotelian nature does not provide us with a Ciceronian transcendent, immutable, and
universal law that commands and forbids.13 The Aristotelian concept of nature is essentially

Platonic. It is neither transcendent nor immutable: it is an immanent principle of life, the
principle of life’s movement and rest (Phys. 2.192b20-25). Nor does it command or forbid as
the law does. Yet to the extent that the movement of nature is not arbitrary but aims at the
perfection of each creature (“nature is an end, since that which each thing is, when its growth
is completed, we speak of as being the nature of each thing”, Pol. 1.1252b32-33), it too is
able to provide a norm for life. To the extent that nature signifies that teleological perfection
towards which a being develops according to its immanent potentiality, it provides living
beings a norm immanent in the unfolding of nature. It is true that Aristotle employs the term
nature (phusis) also to designate the coming into being and passing away of beings according
to the natural processes of birth, development, decay, and death. Yet it is precisely this
twofold conception of nature that renders understandable why Aristotle can at the same time
state that everything that happens according to nature happens in best possible way (Nic. Eth.
1099b20-25) and that there are deficiencies in nature (Pol. 7.1337a1-3). Sickness for instance
is natural as it is a part of the natural decaying of a living being but it is contrary to nature
with regard to the perfection of that being. Likewise, human arts such as medicine, education,
or politics that may correct the deficiencies in nature are not somehow opposed to nature.14
On the contrary, they are the highest manifestations of nature’s intention, at least to the extent
that they are able to “promote the activity of [healthy] nature” (Nic. Eth. 7.1154b19-21).

How are we able to know nature’s teleological end? Not by listening to the voice of reason or
conscience bearing witness to the law of heart but by observing the movement of nature in
living beings. By observing living beings, we can in each case decipher the purpose of nature,
namely the end of nature that resides in the excellent exercise of that function (ergon) that is
proper to each being rendering it excellent. However, to the extent that the concept of nature
signifies two things, we must first distinguish between perfect and imperfect modes of being
and focus our gaze on the former, for in degenerate beings (tois diephtharmenois) (Pol.
1.1254a37) nature’s proper intention is perverted. This holds true for all kinds of living
beings including men: “Hence in studying man we must consider a man that is in the best
possible condition in regard to both body and soul” (Pol. 1.1254a37-40). In regard to the
body, we must study bodies that are in good condition, for we “know what good condition is
from bodies in good condition” (Nic. Eth. 5.1129a19-21). Likewise, if we want to know what
the excellence of the soul consists of, we must observe people possessing such a soul. In
Aristotle’s view, in other words, excellence or virtue (aretê) is something that shines forth in
a man whose nature has reached its ultimate point of perfection – and to the extent that

among men reason (logos) is that ultimate point (tês phuseôs telos) (Pol. 7.1334b15-17) and
therefore man’s distinctive function (ergon) (Nic. Eth. 1.1098a7-11), we must, in order to
know the purpose of nature, observe reasonable and wise men.

According to Aristotle, a virtuous man of reason and wisdom is also a just man, for justice
does not only include all virtues it itself being perfect virtue (Nic. Eth. 5.1129b3-33) but
justice is also and precisely the disposition of such a man: “Justice [is] that disposition [hexis]
which renders men apt to do just things, and which causes them to act justly and to wish what
is just” (Nic. Eth. 5.1129a7-8). What is “disposition” (hexis)? In classical Greek, the term
hexis was used of physical as well as of moral states, but originally it appears to have been
predominantly a medical term. The earliest extant texts in which the term occurs come from
the Hippocratic Corpus, where it is used, for example, of the physical condition of the
patient.15 In philosophical texts, it appears for the first time in Plato, who makes frequent use
of the term, notably in his own analogies between the health of the body and the welfare of
the soul (see Theaet. 153b-c, Gorg. 524b, and Phaedrus 241c). Aristotle himself uses it
several times in physical sense in the Nicomachean Ethics, for instance at 1181b3-5 where
physicians are said to try to distinguish the different hexeis of different individuals in
describing how they should be treated. Likewise, in book 2 (Nic. Eth. 1106a14-20), where
Aristotle considers what sort of disposition (hexis) the human excellence (aretê) is, he
illustrates his view that all excellence “not only renders the thing itself good, but it also
causes it to perform its function well” by referring to a biological example, the eye, asserting
that “the effect of excellence in the eye is that the eye is good and functions well.” In other
words, the disposition of the soul does not refer to a propensity of the soul but to its quality
and condition. It is the propensity of the eye to see, but it depends on its natural quality and
condition whether it is good or bad. It is this natural quality of the soul that is excellent or
bad, just or unjust. Arguably, the Aristotelian justice is also related to the acts of individuals,
as it is through the repetition of excellent or virtuous acts that one’s disposition and thereby
one’s personality is molded – in the same way as “carpenters straighten warped timber” (Nic.
Eth. 2.1109b6-7). Yet the essence of this justice remains in the disposition of a person, for the
moral value of a deed does not depend on the deed itself but on the character of its author
(Nic. Eth. 2.1109b18-23): just acts are those acts that individuals who have a just disposition
choose to perform.16 Consequently, an unjust man is not primarily a lawbreaker but one
whose natural disposition diverges from the excellent disposition of the soul: “Some people,
we maintain, perform just acts and yet are not just men” (Nic. Eth. 6.1144a13-14). Evidently,

an unjust man may also be a lawbreaker, but ultimately this is not the determining feature of
his injustice. He is not just because his disposition is not just.17

According to Aristotle, in other words, justice is not an attribute of action and neither is it
embodied in a law but pertains, as it does in Plato, to the character (êthos) and the type
(eidos) of man. It is embodied in a morally healthy man (ho spoudaios) whose disposition has
reached the ultimate point in his natural development and has thereby become just. The
nature is the norm, not as a law but as it is incarnated in the just man. It is this man that is the
“standard and measure” (kanôn kai metron) (Nic. Eth. 3.1113a33) and he is such a measure
because he exercises the function designed to him by nature in the most perfect way. The
potentiality of the unfolding nature is actualized in him in full and to the extent that it is this
actuality that is constitutive of justice, he is also the one to whom the power in the state must
be given:

When it comes about that there is either a class [genos] or even some one
individual that differs from the other citizens in virtue so greatly that his virtue
exceeds that of all the others, then it is just for this class to be the royal class
and to exercise power over everyone (Pol. 3.1288a15-19).

Given the fact that justice is a quality of character, moreover, it is not surprising that instead
of the juridical vocabulary of licit and illicit Aristotle resorts, as does Plato in his theory of
justice, to medical metaphors. Justice, which for Aristotle is a sort of mean (mesotês) (Nic.
Eth. 5.1133b32), is “like health in medicine and fitness in athletic training” (Nic. Eth.
5.1138a30-32).18 Respectively, “vice resembles diseases like dropsy and consumption,
whereas the weakness of the will is like epilepsy, vice being a chronic, the weakness of the
will an intermittent evil” (Nic. Eth. 7.1150b32-35). And to the extent that the Aristotelian
justice resembles health and vice sickness, justice and vice are not antithetical categories like
licit and illicit but constitute, as in Plato’s theory of justice, a biopolitical continuum. Just like
health and disease also justice and vice are relative phenomena. For Aristotle they are relative
phenomena also in the sense that it depends on circumstances who is and how one becomes
just. Justice is not conventional, let alone arbitrary, but based on nature and yet justice is
variable (kinêtos) (Nic. Eth. 5.1134b29-30) – it is variable like health is variable. Health is
not an absolute category for Aristotle: it depends on circumstances who is healthy and what is
conducive to health. Someone may be strong and healthy in certain circumstances, while in

others he appears to be weak. Hence although justice is based on nature, at stake in this
nature is not an immutable and eternal cosmic nature expressing itself in the law written on
the hearts of men but nature as it unfolds in a being living in a certain environment the
conditions of which he must adapt to in order to become just.19

Unlike for Plato, for Aristotle, however, health and disease, including mental health, are mere
metaphors for virtue and vice. According to Aristotle, vice is not a disease (nosos) because an
unnatural disposition due to a disease – bodily or mental – is not vicious at all: “These
morbid dispositions in themselves do not fall within the limits of vice” (Nic. Eth. 7.1148b35-
1149a1). The same holds for bestiality (thêriotês), for although bestiality is horrible,
particularly when it occurs in the human species, it is not vice. In fact, it is even less evil than
vice: “Bestiality is less evil than vice, though more horrible: for in this case the highest part
[reason] is not corrupted, as it is in a [vicious] man, but entirely lacking” (Nic. Eth. 7.1150a1-
2). Disease and bestiality are not vices because the prerequisite of vice is the capacity of
moral choice (prohairesis) but this capacity is lacking in the mentally ill and the inhumanly
brutal.20 Yet although vice presupposes the capacity of moral choice, it is not a transgression
of a law but precisely like a disease with regard to health. Just like a disease is the perversion
of health, bad disposition is the perversion of an excellent one (Nic. Eth. 4.1126b8-9).


It is not only the law-like character of the Ciceronian natural justice that distinguishes it from
the Platonic-Aristotelian natural justice based on the norm distributing individuals on a
continuum from normal to abnormal. The difference between them becomes even more
blatant if we consider who are capable of comprehending the standards of nature. According
to Cicero, as we recall, everybody was capable of this, because in his estimation, “there is no
difference in kind between man and man” (nullam dissimilitudinem esse in genere) – to
which Chrysostom added that natural law renders everyone autonomous. To be sure, the idea
of universalism of human nature was not foreign in classical Greece either. The Sophist
Antiphon, among others, had opined that human beings, Greeks and barbarians alike, are
equally endowed with the essential natural qualities. In point of fact, there are passages even
in Plato in which he seems to embrace the idea of equal distribution of intellectual capacities,
at least when it comes to moral judgments: “We have […] certain convictions [dogmata]
from childhood about the just and the honorable, in which, in obedience and honor to them,

we have been bred as children under their parents” (Rep. 7.538c). It is not entirely clear
whether these convictions are inborn or acquired, but the idea is not that far from the Stoic
doctrine of the seeds of knowledge. In the same book of the Republic, moreover, Plato asserts
that there is a tool (organon) of knowledge in each (hekastos) soul – a tool by means of
which one can discern the truth (Rep. 7.527e). Thus, it is not only the wellborn, let alone the
Greeks, that are able to discern moral truths. By virtue of a tool in the soul everyone can do it.

These statements by Plato, however, are in contradistinction to his overall opinion that people
are not usually capable of truth. They are not capable of it because only philosophy
(dialectics) reveals the truth but “philosophy is impossible for the multitude” (Rep. 6.494a).
Only rare individuals, endowed with necessary inborn prerequisites, are capable of truth, but
even they sometimes go astray because of wrong education or harmful environment (Rep.
6.491e). In other words, although Plato advocates the universality of justice, he nonetheless
was convinced that there is no universality when it comes to human nature. Human beings are
different by nature and from this difference we can deduce the difference of their worth. For
Plato, people are unequal both in terms of nature and value – or more precisely, they are
unequal in terms of value because they are unequal in terms of their nature. Some are healthy
thoroughbreds (gennaioi), while others are ill-bred (agennês), degenerate by nature (Laws
5.735b-c) – and it is against nature and thereby justice to put these ill-bred degenerates before
the thoroughbreds, meaning strong, healthy and promising. Thus, although the Platonic idea
of justice is universal, it does not imply the equality of human beings. It does not imply it,
because for Plato justice means inequality. Justice takes place when an individual fulfils that
function or work (ergon) that is assigned to him by nature in the socio-political hierarchy of
the state – and to the extent that everybody does so, the whole city-state is just.

It is well known that the Platonic harmonious order of life is based on a hierarchical system
of functions. In the case of the city-state, the harmonious order of life according to nature and
thereby justice is obtained when each individual occupies that position and does that job in
the social hierarchy of the city-state that nature binds him to do: “The city was thought to be
just,” as Plato recapitulates what he had shown previously in the Republic, “because three
human types [genê phuseôn] existing in it performed each its own function” (Rep. 4.435b).
More precisely, nature binds to manual labor those who are inferior by nature, to the class of
soldiers or political leaders those who are superior by nature, while the most inferior ones,
deformed in body or soul, must be either exiled or killed. This is justice – but at stake is also

efficiency, the overall productivity of the state, these two being inseparable from each other:
“More things are produced, and better and more easily when one man performs one task
according to his nature [kata phusin]” (Rep. 2.370c). Injustice takes place when this
hierarchical, functional and efficient system of nature is perverted (Rep. 4.434a-c):

But when I fancy one who is by nature an artisan or some kind of money-maker
tempted and incited by wealth or command of votes or bodily strength or some
similar advantage tries to enter into the class [eidos] of the soldiers or one of the
soldiers into the class of counsellors and guardians, for which he is not fitted,
and these interchange their tools and their honors or when the same man
undertakes all these functions at once, then, I take it, you too believe that this
kind of substitution and meddlesomeness is the ruin of a state.

By all means.

The interference with one another’s business, then, of three existent classes and
the substitution of the one for the other is the greatest injury to a state and
would most rightly be designated as the thing which chiefly works it harm.

Precisely so.

And the thing that works the greatest harm to one’s own state, will you not
pronounce to be injustice?

Of course.

This, then, is injustice.

It is true that Plato also advocates equality arguing that justice is equality. In his view,
however, there are two kinds of equalities (Laws 6.757a-d). The first is arithmetical based on
the equality determined by measure, weight and number, the second “geometrical” or
“proportional” equality. In Plato’s estimation, this second is “the truest and best form of
equality,” although it “is not an easy thing for everyone to discern.” It is equality based on
nature (phusis):

It is the judgment of Zeus, and men it never assists save in small measure, but in
so far as it does assist either States or individuals, it produces all things good;
for it dispenses more to the greater and less to the smaller, giving due measure
to each according to nature [didousa pros tên autôn phusin hekaterô]; and with
regard to honors also, by granting the greater to those that are greater in
goodness, and the less to those of the opposite character in respect of goodness
and education, it assigns in proportion what is fitting to each. Indeed, it is
precisely this which constitutes for us political justice (Laws 6.757b-c).

For Plato, this “proportional” equality of nature is not a complementary to the “arithmetical”
equality but its antithesis: the “proportional” equality is according to nature and the
“arithmetical” equality contrary to it. The truest and best form of equality, equality according
to nature (kata phusin), does not entail equal share but “dispenses more to the greater and less
to the smaller, giving due measure to each according to nature” (Laws 6.757d).

The same applies to Aristotle. Justice is equality also for him, but it is equality under which
only equals are treated as equals, while the unequal are treated as unequal: “Justice is
equality,” Aristotle writes in the Politics, “though not for everybody but only for those who
are equals,” but inequality means justice too, “though not for everybody, but for those who
are unequal” (Pol. 3.1280a11-13). Furthermore, it is precisely nature that renders human
beings unequal. Although in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that “we are not born
good or bad by nature” (2.1106a9-10) and that it is training that eventually constitutes man’s
nature (7.1152a30-35), in the Politics (1.1254a23-25) he nonetheless proclaims: “Some
people are marked out from the moment of birth to rule, others to be ruled.” According to
Aristotle, as we know, some people are marked out from the moment of birth to be even
slaves, this being the very intention of nature: “The intention of nature [bouletai men oun hê
phusis] is to make the bodies of freemen and of slaves different” (Pol. 1.1254b27-28). And to
the extent that some people are marked out from the moment of birth to be ruled and even to
be slaves by nature, it is also manifest, according to Aristotle, that slavery as an institution is

It is manifest therefore that there are cases of people of whom some are freemen
and the others slaves by nature [phusei], and for these slavery is both expedient
and just (Pol. 1.1255a1-5).

In other words, slavery is just because some people are slaves by nature – because nature
assigns them to slavery. Why does nature assign some people to slavery? It does so because
some people are incapable of actualizing the full potency of humanity. These people are those
“mistakes” of nature Aristotle speaks about in the Physics (2.199a33-199b1), those
“degenerate beings” (tois diephtharmenois) (Pol. 1.1254a37) that cannot exercise the
function designed to them by nature, meaning the use of reason. In point of fact, in these
people the reasonable part of the soul is lacking altogether (Pol. 1.1254b20-25) and therefore,
they are more akin to animals than men.

For Plato and Aristotle, in sum, natural justice entails hierarchy, not equality, subordination,
not autonomy. It is not against nature to treat different people differently or to violate their
autonomy. On the contrary, it is against nature not to do so, if at stake is an inferior
individual, somebody doomed to be a slave or to die by nature. Education may help one to
become better in terms of virtue and intelligence, as it “fills up nature’s deficiencies” (Pol.
7.1337a1-2), but it cannot replace the fundamental norm of nature according to which some
are born to be leaders and others followers, some freemen and others slaves. As already said,
however, it is not an immutable and eternal law of nature that renders some rulers and some
servants but nature as it unfolds in time and space this unfolding being the process which
reveals the true nature and value of each singular being, whether its constitution is suited to
being a ruler or a servant. Individuals should not be provided with equal share but with what
naturally correspond to their value (Rep. 6.757d), because only the latter is kata phusin.
Natural justice, in turn, is a state of affairs in which this natural order is realized, while
injustice is deviation from this ideal state of affairs but also something that prevents the
realization of this state: “Injustice [adikia] is to cause the one to rule or be ruled by the other
contrary to nature [para phusin]” (Rep. 4.444d). In this regard, Platonic-Aristotelian natural
justice resembles more justice inherent in the naturalism of modern human sciences,
particularly in eugenics and thereby in Nazism, than the justice of natural moral law. Indeed,
even the Nazis advocated universal moral standards and norms derived from nature and life.
When Walter Groß, the head of the Nazi Party’s Office of Racial Policy, in his speech at a
women’s meeting at the Gau party rally in Cologne on October 13, 1934 stated that “it is

against nature and life” to put the sick and the dying before the young, strong, healthy and
promising,21 he meant that such an order of preference is unjust, not only in the Germany of
the 1930s but universally. Justice – let us call it biopolitical justice in contrast to the Stoic
justice based on the juridico-moral notions of law, equality, and autonomy – is universal
because it is based on nature, yet nature organizes itself in a hierarchical manner from which
we can incur the hierarchy of the value of individual lives. The strong, healthy, and wise are
people who live closest to nature, while the weak, sick, and stupid are farthest away from it
and it is this distance from nature and the vital forces of life that determines the value and fate
of an individual life as well as that of a race. People endowed with a disposition contrary to
nature are doomed either to be slaves (Aristotle) or to disappear (Plato) and if they do not do
it by nature, they should be assisted with medico-political measures – and to the extent that
society, particularly democratic society, with its unnatural law of arithmetical equality
resulting in unrestrained freedom has perverted the course of nature, as Plato argues in the
Republic (8.564b-c), these medico-political measures becomes a necessity:

These two kinds [idle and spendthrift people], then, when they arise in any
state, create a disturbance like that produced in the body by phlegm and gall.
And so a good physician and lawgiver must be on his guard from afar against
the two kinds, like a prudent apiarist, first and chiefly to prevent their springing
up, but if they do arise to have them as quickly as may be cut out, cells and all.

Although the Platonic-Aristotelian natural justice paved the way for the Western tradition of
natural law, there is a significant difference between them – and when we move from the
Stoic-Christian world to modern theories of natural right, this difference becomes even more
conspicuous. At the same time it becomes conscious, as the modern concept of natural right
is formulated explicitly against Aristotelian biopolitical justice. In De Cive (3.13), Thomas
Hobbes writes:

I know that in the first book of the Politics Aristotle asserts as a foundation of
all political knowledge that some men have been made by nature worthy to rule,
others to serve, as if Master and slave were distinguished not by agreement
among men, but by natural aptitude, i.e. by their knowledge or ignorance. This
basic postulate is not only against reason, but contrary to experience. For hardly
anyone is so naturally stupid that he does not think it better to rule himself than

to let others rule him. […] If then men are equal by nature, we must recognize
their equality; if they are unequal, since they will struggle for power, the pursuit
of peace requires that they are regarded as equal. And therefore the eighth
precept of natural law is: everyone should be considered equal to everyone.
Contrary to this law is PRIDE.22

In the Hobbesian scheme, the subject of politics is no longer a political animal, a living being
that dwells in the city (zoôn politikon) organized on the basis of natural differences, but an
“artificial” person living in a polity of equals. With respect to such a person, politics is not a
matter of regulation and manipulation of natural life but rather of liberties, rights, duties, and
contracts. Indeed, according to Hobbes, it is on such a terrain of liberties and covenants alone
that politics takes and may take place: “It is true that certain living creatures, as Bees, and
Ants, live sociably on with another (which are therefore by Aristotle numbered amongst
Political creatures),” Hobbes writes in the Leviathan (2.17), but in his estimation this does not
render them political, because “the agreement of these creatures is natural,” while the
agreement between men “is Covenant only, which is artificial.”23 It is not nature but the
capacity to transcend it that renders human beings political beings.

Michael B. Crowe, The Changing Profile of Natural Law (Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977), 17.
A good summary of the nomos-phusis debate in the fifth and fourth century Athens and its modern
interpretations can be found in Tony Burns, Aristotle and Natural Law (New York: Continuum, 2011), 140-171.
G. R. Morrow, “Plato and the Law of Nature,” in Essays in Political Theory, ed. Milton R. Konvitz and Arthur
E. Murphy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1948), 17-26. See also Martin Ostwald, “Plato on Law and
Nature,” in Interpretations of Plato, ed. Helen F. North (Leiden: Brill, 1977), 41-46.
John Chrysostom, Expositio in Psalmos, in Patrologia cursus completus: series Graeca, vol. 55, ed. J.–P.
Migne (Paris: 1857–1866), 147.3, 482C.
John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Statuses, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 1, vol. 9, ed. Phillip
Schaff (Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 12.9, 421.
More than with those who hold that Aristotle was a legal positivist of sorts I agree with those like Fred F.
Miller Jr. and Tony Burns who argue that Aristotle is an advocate of natural justice. Yet Burns is correct in his
criticism of Miller, as he maintains that Miller’s reading of Aristotle is too Stoic. Aristotle does not conceive
natural law as a higher standard of justice which might be used by an individual for the critical evaluation of the
laws and institutions: “The function of natural law is that of providing a theoretical justification or legitimating
for those laws and institutions, especially of course (and notoriously) the institution of slavery.” Burns, Aristotle
and Natural Law, 6. See also Fred F. Miller Jr., Nature, Justice and Rights in Aristotle’s Politics (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1997). However, it is contestable whether the Aristotelian naturalism in which the

natural (kata phusin) is posited as the criterion of the just and the good is naturalism of natural law at all. In my
estimation, Aristotle’s concept of nature, its teleology notwithstanding, is more akin to the concept of nature in
modern human and social sciences than the one in the history of natural law. On the arguments, see below.
On “nature” as a normative concept in Aristotle, see also Robert Geis, “The Moral Good and Normative
Nature in the Aristotelian Ethics,” The Review of Metaphysics 67 (2013): 291-310.
In De Natura Deorum (1.7), Cicero himself states that a gulf divides the views of Stoics from those of the
Peripatetics, particularly because the Peripatetics consider everything from the viewpoint of utility, while the
Stoic morality is based on absolute principles.
Although Plato criticizes Callicles who in Gorgias (483c-484b) insists that violence is the foundation of
justice, it is absolutely clear that the Platonic justice is not antithetical to violence as such. Indeed, it is naturally
just to be violent (for instance, to kill those whose soul is morally so “deformed” that it is incurable), if this
violence contributes to the harmony of the city-state – like amputation contributes to the health of one’s body if
the organ is deformed by a disease.
This is precisely what Foucault meant by norm as opposed to law. The Foucauldian norm, as Ben Golder and
Peter Fitzpatrick correctly put it, “is not concerned with any opposition between legal or illegal, licit or illicit,
but rather aims to distribute individuals on a continuum from normal to abnormal (and in this sense we might
say that one does not contravene a norm in the way one might contravene a rule – rather, one simply fails to
attain a norm).” Golder and Fitzpatrick, Foucault’s Law, 43.
According to Lidz, it is precisely Plato’s medical model of politics and ethics that distinguishes him from the
models of politics and ethics based on the idea of law: “Rather than searching for a single lawlike norm for
action [...] which might be used to determine the rightness or wrongness of one’s actions, the medical model
leads instead to a focus on character, on those traits which would be conducive toward the production of a
certain inward condition (personality type). Thus the medical metaphor already contains within itself the basis
for an agent-centered, rather than act-centered, theory.” Lidz, “Medicine as Metaphor in Plato,” 531.
In Protrepticus (12 Ross), Aristotle likewise writes that anything “which is contrary to nature [para phusin] is
bad,” while the opposite is true with “that which is according to nature [kata phusin].”
It is true that in the Rhetoric (1368b1-10; 1375a25-35) Aristotle explicitly mentions the law of nature (nomos
phuseôs), associating it with universal law (nomos koinos) and distinguishing it from particular law (nomos
idios). He also suggests that this universal law is not only permanent and changeless but also higher than
particular law. Yet it should be noted that Aristotle is not, as Tony Burns points out, advocating but rather
opposing the specific form of natural law reasoning here, dismissing “it as being nothing more than empty
rhetorical persuasion.” Burns, Aristotle and Natural Law, 137. Aristotle was not of course the first to employ the
term “law of nature” (nomos phuseôs). The first surviving document consisting of the term is Plato’s Gorgias
(483c-484b) in which Callicles, Plato’s fictitious adversary, famously argues that conventional morality
(nomos), particularly the view that people deserve equal share, is a contrivance invented by the weak to protect
themselves against domination by the strong, but when the strong dominate the weak, they do it by the law of
nature (kata nomon ton tês phuseôs). See also Burns, Aristotle and Natural Law, 133-122.
According to Jesús Vega, the virtue of men guided by reason consists in “departing from nature.” Jesús Vega,
“Aristotle’s Concept of Law: beyond Positivism and Natural Law,” Journal of Ancient Philosophy 4, no. 2
(2010): 17. Although in the Nicomachean Ethics (2.1103a24-26) Aristotle explicitly states that virtues are not

engendered in us by nature and that nature gives us the mere capacity to receive virtues that are brought to
maturity by habit, in the same passage he also clearly asserts that virtues are not engendered in us against nature
(para phusin) which means that virtues brought to maturity must be according to nature and not against it in
order to be virtues in the first place. In the same way, when Aristotle in the Politics (7.1332a38-b12) states that
there are three things by which men are made good and virtuous, namely nature (phusis), habit (ethos) and
reason (logos), continuing that men “often act contrary to their acquired habits and to their nature because of
their reason,” his intention is not to claim that reason must prevail over nature. On the contrary, his intention is
to warn about such a use of reason, for reason goes astray if it is not in harmony (sumphôneô) with nature. For
Aristotle, anything that “departs” from nature cannot be good or virtuous.
See G. E. R. Lloyd, “The Role of Medical and Biological Analogies in Aristotle’s Ethics,” Phronesis 13, no. 1
(1968): 72-3.
See also Yack, The Problems of a Political Animal, 149-157.
On the other hand, Aristotle explicitly states (Nic. Eth. 5.1129b11-14): “The law-breaker is unjust and the
law-abiding man just. It is therefore clear that all lawful things are just in one sense of the word, for what is
lawful is decided by legislature, and the several decisions of the legislature we call rules of justice.” Yet perhaps
we should pay attention to Aristotle’s wording here: all lawful things are just in one sense of the word – or
“somehow” (pôs). At issue is not justice in the “absolute” or “non-qualified” sense of the word (to haplôs
dikaion) (Nic. Eth. 6.1134a25).
The Aristotelian mean, as we know, does not denote a mean between the best and the worst but the best
between two extremes which both are bad. Like the other virtues, also justice is a mean, but it is not a mean in
the same sense as the other virtues as they denote a mean between privation and excess. Justice is more like
health as health is not a mean between privation and excess but denotes rather the absence of privation. The
same applies to justice. Yet in the same way as the privation of health does not necessarily denote an absolute
absence of health (death), the privation of justice does not entail an absolute absence of justice but rather
deviation from “absolute” justice (Nic. Eth. 2.1109b18-23).
See Lloyd, “The Role of Medical and Biological Analogies,” 76.
See also Ahonen, Mental Disorders, 69-92.
Walter Gross, “National Socialist Racial Policy: A Speech to German Women,” in The Third Reich
Sourcebook, ed. Anson Rabinbach and Sander L. Gilman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 161.
Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen, ed. and trans. Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthrone (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1997), 49-50; see also Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1991), 1.15, 107.
Hobbes, Leviathan, 119-120.