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Physis (Greek: φύσις) is a Greek "theological, "philosophical, and "scientific term usually translated into English as ""nature".


In Plato's Laws[edit]

"Because those who use the term mean to say that nature is the first creative power; but if the soul turns out to be the primeval element, and not fire or air, then in the truest sense and beyond other things the soul may be said to exist by nature; and this would be true if you proved that the soul is older than the body, but not otherwise."

— Plato's Laws, Book 10(892c) – translation by Benjamin Jowett


Aristotle sought out the definition of "physis" to prove that there was more than one definition of "physis", and more than one way to interpret nature. "Though Aristotle retains the ancient sense of "physis" as growth, he insists that an adequate definition of "physis" requires the different perspectives of the "four causes (aitia): material, efficient, formal, and final."[1] Aristotle believed that nature itself contained its own source of matter (material), power/motion (efficiency), form, and end (final). A unique feature about Aristotle's definition of "physis" was his relationship between art and nature. Aristotle said that "physis" (nature) is dependent on "techne (art). "The critical distinction between art and nature concerns their different efficient causes: nature is its own source of motion, whereas techne always requires a source of motion outside itself."[1] What Aristotle was trying to bring to light, was that art does not contain within itself its form or source of motion. Consider the process of an acorn becoming an oak tree. This is a natural process that has its own driving force behind it. There is no external force pushing this acorn to its final state, rather it is progressively developing towards one specific end ("telos).

Classical usage[edit]

"Homer uses the word physis just once – in the "Odyssey, referring to the intrinsic way of growth of a particular species of plant.[2] This is its earliest known occurrence.

Philosophical use begins very early in "pre-Socratic writings, where the meanings fit well with current senses of the English word nature.[3][4] In the "Sophist tradition, the term stood in opposition to nomos (νόμος), ""law" or ""custom", in the debate on which parts of human existence are natural, and which are due to convention.[5] This is the basis of today's classic biological debate of "nature vs. nurture". nomos would refer to "nurture", and physis would correlate to "nature". The Greeks believed "physis" and "nomos" correlated to many aspects of science and philosophy, such as the gender debate. The Greeks would refer to law, order, and rationalism as "nomos". "Women in general tend to be (in the view of Greek man) on the side of physis, while men are generally on the side of nomos: men can control themselves while women become hysterical (the word is Greek and it means to be taken over by your uterus). Men make and obey laws, but women do what comes naturally (see "Phaedra or "Medea)."[6] nomos could also refer to the practices of mathematics, music, and architecture, which all follow strict sets of rules and attempt to order nature (see "nomos"). "Architecture brings space under control, music brings noise under control, and mathematics brings the infinite under control. For this reason, Greek men liked all three of these arts very much."[6]

Biblical usage[edit]

Though φύσις was often used in Hellenistic philosophy, it is used only 14 times in the New Testament (10 of those in the writings of Paul).[7] Its meaning varies throughout Paul's writings.[8] One usage refers to the established or natural order of things, as in Romans 2:14 where Paul writes "For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law."[9][10] Another use of φύσις in the sense of "natural order" is Romans 1:26 where he writes "the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another".[11][12] In 1 Corinthians 11:14, Paul asks "Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him?"[13][14]

This use of φύσις as referring to a "natural order" in Romans 1:26 and 1 Corinthians 11:14 may have been influenced by "Stoicism. [15] The Greek philosophers, including "Aristotle and the Stoics are credited with distinguishing between man-made laws and a "natural law of universal validity,[16] but "Gerhard Kittel states that the Stoic philosophers were not able to combine the concepts of νόμος (law) and φύσις (nature) to produce the concept of "natural law" in the sense that was made possible by "Judeo-Christian theology. [17]

As part of the "Pauline theology of "salvation by "grace, Paul writes in Ephesians 2:3 that "we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. In the next verse he writes, "by grace you have been saved." [18][19]

Usage in patristic theology[edit]

Theologians of the early Christian period differed in the usage of this term. In "Antiochene circles, it connoted the humanity or divinity of Christ conceived as a concrete set of characteristics or attributes. In "Alexandrine thinking, it meant a concrete individual or independent existent and approximated to "hypostasis without being a synonym.[20] While it refers to much the same thing as "ousia it is more empirical and descriptive focussing on function while ousia is metaphysical and focuses more on reality.[21] Although found in the context of the "Trinitarian debate, it is chiefly important in the "Christology of "Cyril of Alexandria.[21]

Modern usage[edit]

"Physis" is commonly referred to as nature. Back in the Sophists' time, the word "physics" (the study of nature) was derived from "physis" by Aristotle, which is where we got the field of physics today. The "etymology of the word ""physical" shows its use as a synonym for "natural" in about the mid-15th century.[22] In medicine the element -physis occurs in such compounds as "symphysis, "epiphysis, and a few others, in the sense of a growing. The physis also refers to the ""growth plate", or site of growth at the end of long bones.

The change of the word "Physis"[edit]

Since "Aristotle, the physical (the subject matter of "physics, properly τὰ φυσικά "natural things") has often been contrasted with metaphysical (the subject of "metaphysics).[23] "Physis, translated since the Third Century B.C. usually as "nature" and less frequently as "essence", means one thing for the presocratic philosophers and quite another thing for Plato."[24] Physis is a great example of a keyword that was very important in classical rhetoric and helped define Greek language, but over time was modified through culture changes into a related, but new word.[25]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b Atwill, Janet. "The Interstices of Nature, Spontaneity, and Chance." Rhetoric Reclaimed: Aristotle and the Liberal Arts Tradition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1998. N. Print.
  2. ^ Homer's text: ὣς ἄρα φωνήσας πόρε φάρμακον ἀργεϊφόντης ἐκ γαίης ἐρύσας, καί μοι φύσιν αὐτοῦ ἔδειξε. (So saying, Argeiphontes [=Hermes] gave me the herb, drawing it from the ground, and showed me its nature.) "Odyssey 10.302-3 (ed. A.T. Murray).
  3. ^ Guthrie, W. K. C., Presocratic Tradition from Parmenides to Democritus (volume 2 of his History of Greek Philosophy), Cambridge UP, 1965.
  4. ^ Naddaf, Gerard The Greek Concept of Nature, SUNY Press, 2006.
  5. ^ Dunkie, Roger (1986). "Philosophical background of the 5th Century B.C.". The Classical Origins of Western Culture: The Core Studies 1 Study Guide. Brooklyn College Core Curriculum Series. "Brooklyn, NY: "Brooklyn College. Retrieved 30 January 2012. 
  6. ^ a b "DEEP ETHOLOGY - Determinism - Nomos/physis." DEEP ETHOLOGY - Determinism - Nomos/physis. N.p., 22 Feb. 2005. Web. 16 Feb. 2014. <>.
  7. ^ Balz, Horst Robert. Exegetical dictionary of the New Testament. Michigan1994: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. "ISBN "9780802828033. 
  8. ^ Verbrugge, Verlyn D. (2000). New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Zondervan. 
  9. ^ Romans 2:14
  10. ^ Danker, Frederick W. (2014). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
  11. ^ Romans 1:26-1:27
  12. ^ Danker, Frederick W. (2014). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
  13. ^ 1 Corinthians 11:13
  14. ^ Balz, Horst Robert. Exegetical dictionary of the New Testament. Michigan1994: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. "ISBN "9780802828033. 
  15. ^ Balz, Horst Robert. Exegetical dictionary of the New Testament. Michigan1994: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. "ISBN "9780802828033. 
  16. ^ Roberts, John (2007). Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2 May 2017. 
  17. ^ Kittel, Gerhard. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Michigan: Eerdman's Publishing Company. 
  18. ^ Ephesians 2:3-2:4
  19. ^ Verbrugge, Verlyn D. (2000). New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Zondervan. 
  20. ^ Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines A&C Black(1965) p.318
  21. ^ a b Prestige, G.L. God in Patristic Thought, SPCK (1964), p.234
  22. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Physical". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 20 September 2006. 
  23. ^ Discussed in Aristotle's works so titled, "Physics and "Metaphysics
  24. ^ Welch, Kathleen Ethel. "Keywords from Classical Rhetoric: The Example of Physis." Rhetoric Society Quarterly 17.2 (1987): 193-204. Print.
  25. ^ The Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Evolving Concepts of Nature. Proceedings of the Plenary Session, 24-28 October 2014, Acta 23, Vatican City, 2015. link.
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