Monday, May 9, 2011


Wolfgang Kullmann, Naturgesetz in der Vorstellung der Antike, besonders der Stoa: eine Begriffsuntersuchung. Philosophie der Antike Bd 30. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010. Pp. 189. ISBN 9783515096331. €39.00.

Reviewed by James Jope,

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Kullmann follows the development of three different concepts of 'natural law' in antiquity: (1) the regularities in nature, without reference to any intentional origin, which resemble laws of nature in modern science; (2) divinely ordained laws; and (3) a vague, 'popular' (volkstűmlich) notion of natural law alongside of the more articulate philosophical views. All three can be traced to Archaic and Classical Greece. (1) is best represented by Aristotle and Lucretius, and (2) by the Stoics and their followers.

Although the Stoics play the pivotal role, nearly half of the book is devoted to the subsequent exploitation of Stoic ideas, particularly by Paul and Fathers of the Church. The crucial contribution of the Stoics was, regarding the cosmos, to link the regularities of nature with the divine will; and regarding Man, to assign us a special responsibility to observe natural law based on our rationality. Christians adapted this in various ways to their own religious world view. Kullmann opens and closes his study with some reflections on medieval and modern developments, remarking with tactful understatement that the conflict of views (which, of course, is at the core of the conflict between science and religion) is still not completely resolved. Kullmann projects a healthy scholarly neutrality. Although he admires Aristotle and modern science—and defends the Stagirite's intellectual affinity with the latter—his reading of the Church Fathers is sympathetic and understanding.

The learning displayed in this book is impressive. There are numerous references to previous work by the same author, including a paper (not readily accessible for this reviewer) mentioned in the preface as the impetus for the present survey.1 Although the book weaves a diachronic narrative, the fact that the contents are organized chronologically by ancient author will also make it a convenient reference source for anyone studying notions of natural law in particular authors. The positions of the more important authors are instructively embedded in a concise analysis of their thought. The chapter on Aristotle is especially admirable as a penetrating summary analysis of complex issues of Aristotelean scholarship. Another interesting section reveals a surprising scientific bent in Basil of Caesarea, in spite of his fourth-century intellectual environment and teleological view of nature.

The treatment of Plato, however, is cursory. Plato's controversial use of the concept of natural law (e.g., in the Laws) seems to be played down in favor of the Stoics. One reason for this is that Kullmann is interested more in the cosmic vision of the universe and nature, and in particular the question whether its regularities are dictated by divine will, than in the ethical aspect of natural law. Although he does discuss the latter, he tends simply to dismiss statements of "natural" ethics as intrusions of the 'popular' notion of natural law.

In recent years, scholars have been critically scrutinizing the ethical aspect of 'natural law' in Stoicism,2 which had serious historical consequences, e.g., in oppressing women and sexual minorities. It is disappointing that Kullmann does not engage with such views. It is relevant but not sufficient to explain positions like the enthusiasm of Philo of Alexandria for the slaughter of men who have sex with men as using the 'popular' concept of natural law to address Greek readers. As Kullmann shows, Philo equated Mosaic and only Mosaic positive law with natural law. His aim was to claim a privileged status for his own homophobic religious tradition.

Nonetheless, scholars interested in the ethical aspect can find important material here. If—to take an example mentioned in Kullmann's study of the Church Fathers—"natural" norms like the restriction of sexual activity to monogamous married couples were in fact little more than an elevation of 'popular' values into the Stoic citadel, that itself is of interest.

Beyond that, however, Kullman furnishes grounds for seeking the source of supposedly natural ethical norms in their authors' own prejudices. He indicates two factors promoting Roman and Christian interest in Stoic philosophy: (1) Stoicism was flexible (indeed, vague) enough to lend itself to adaptation for diverse belief systems. The early Stoics were not as concerned as the Romans with details of casuistry. And some Stoic teachings (e.g. the identity of God, Providence, Nature and Zeus) were more religious than philosophical. (2) The common culture of the Empire rendered Stoicism accessible to authors holding diverse beliefs. Kullmann indicates that Philo went so far as to identify not only the Ten Commandments but even such peculiar Mosaic stipulations as the ban on clothes made of mixed fabrics with natural law. He shows how Cicero exploited Stoicism for Roman propaganda. Although he sometimes sees 'popular' usage behind the moral precepts of Christian authors, they too had a manifest agenda, and Kullmann does not hesitate to call attention to the logical weakness of some of their arguments combining Christian and Stoic elements.

The production of this book is very good. I spotted only few errors ("Göttter" p. 23, "σφαγῖσι" p. 60, "ἐδημιουγεῖτο" p. 81, "legisdationem" p. 97). Ancient quotations are preceded by German translations, but occasionally short but meaningful quotations remain untranslated. In the discussion of Ambrose (p. 126-127) this happens a few times in succession, which may render the discussion choppy for Latinless readers.


1.   Kullmann, "Antike Vorstufen des modernen Begriffs des Naturgesetzes", in Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen, Philologisch-Historische Klasse, 3. Folge, Nr. 20 (1995) 36-111.
2.   For example, Kathy L. Gaca (2003), The Making of Fornication: Eros, Ethics, and Political reform in Greek Philosophy and Early Christianity, Berkeley.

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