Man and nature

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Nature! We are encircled and enclasped by her — powerless to depart from her, and powerless to find our way more deeply into her being. Without invitation and without warning she involves us in the orbit of her dance, and drives us onward until we are exhausted and fall from her arm.

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We live in the midst of her, and yet to her we are alien. She parleys incessantly with us, and to us she does not disclose her secret. We influence her perpetually, and yet we have no power over her.

— Goethe, Ode “To Nature”[1]

With recent events in Japan and images of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami still fresh in our minds, it seems appropriate to revisit the old issue of humanity’s relationship to nature. The proper exposition of the problem requires a great deal of space; therefore, I propose to divide my treatment of the issue into four separate sections, each of which builds on the results of those that precede it.

After all, the problem of man’s relation to nature has been conceived in a number of distinct ways over the ages, many of which survive into the present day, in various mutations. So perhaps it might be useful to begin with an overview, a genealogy of sorts, so that these different conceptions and their relation to one another can be clarified. The presentation will be dialectical, but not out of any obligation to some artificially preconfigured format. It will be dialectical because the subject at hand is itself really dialectical,[2] as the various conceptions of nature interweave and overlap in their progress through history. For man’s orientation to nature has by no means been the same over time; and by that same token there are no later conceptions of nature that do not bear the traces of those that came before it. Continue reading