Man and Nature, Part I: The Shifting Historical Conceptions of Nature in Society

Caspar David Friedrich, "Sunset" (1835)

History proves again and again

How Nature points out the folly of man…

— Blue Oyster Cult, “Godzilla”

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 would require a great deal of space; therefore, I propose to divide my treatment of the issue into three separate blog entries, 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, 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 are no later conceptions of nature that do not bear the traces of those that came before it.

And so, to begin at the beginning:

At some points, nature was viewed as an adversary to be feared, bringing plague, catastrophe, and famine to ravage mankind.  Often these elemental forces were either animistically, naturalistically, or totemistically embodied as divine powers in themselves,[1] or anthropomorphized as gods who commanded these forces as they saw fit.  When cataclysms occurred, it was because the gods or spirits had somehow been enraged by the misdeeds of men, and thus they unleashed their fury upon the mass of fear-stricken mortals.  In Christian times, this same logic persisted,[2] with periods of plenty seen as signs of God’s providence and grace, while periods of blight were viewed as God’s wrath, brought on by the sinfulness and iniquity of men.

Later, at the dawn of the Enlightenment, nature was reenvisioned as dead matter, abiding by a set of mechanical but unknown laws, which could be discovered and mastered through careful study and observation under controlled conditions.  As the Baconian dictum went, contra Aristotle: “the secrets of nature reveal themselves better through harassments applied by the arts [torture] than when they go on in their own way.”[3] Thus began the “conquest” of nature, the quest to harness its forces so that they may serve the ends of mankind.  Robbed of their mysterious properties, natural objects therefore became “disenchanted,” in the Weberian sense.[4] With the arrival of the Enlightenment, as Hegel recognized, “the intellect will cognize what is intuited as a mere thing, reducing the sacred grove to mere timber.”[5]

Romanticism responded to this alienation from nature with a sense of tragic loss, and sought to regain what they saw as the fractured unity of man and nature.  The Romantics exalted the primitive, celebrating the charming naïveté of the ancient Greeks or their modern-day counterparts, who appeared in the form of “noble savages.”  The playwright Friedrich Schiller even dedicated an essay to the distinction between the “naïve”[6] and “sentimental” in poetry.  For modern man, he asserted, “nature has disappeared from our humanity, and we can reencounter it in its genuineness only outside of humanity in the inanimate world.  Not our greater naturalness [Naturmäßigkeit], but the very opposite, the unnaturalness [Naturwidrigkeit] of our relationships, conditions, and mores forces us to fashion a satisfaction in the physical world that is not to be hoped for in the moral world.”[7] The Romantics thus preferred the bucolic simplicity of the small old village to the sprawling chaos of the modern city.  Vitalistic explanations of nature, like Goethe’s and Schelling’s, were offered as alternatives to the Democritean-Newtonian vision of the universe as composed of dead matter and obeying a changeless set of mechanical laws.

Despite its nostalgia for a bygone simplicity of life and man’s unity with nature, the Romantic worldview was gradually overtaken by that belonging to the modern industrialist.  To the industrialist, nature presented itself as a wealth of raw materials waiting to be exploited.  Through the application of human labor, these natural resources could be transformed into social products, valuable commodities to be distributed to the whole of society.  “Man when producing wealth acts upon the things which Nature supplies,” wrote Alfred Marshall, the famous British economist.  “The gifts of Nature to man are firstly materials such as iron, stone, wood, etc., and secondly, forces such as the power of the wind, and the heat of the sun, the source whence all other powers are derived.”  Wealth, Marshall claimed, could only be generated through the action of men on these natural materials, whose worthiness could only be evaluated according to their potential utility.  He continued:

The agents of production are then Nature’s forces, and Man’s force; man’s force being generally most efficient when it is so applied as to control and direct nature’s forces, rather than to counteract them.  And the wealth of a country depends upon the manner in which nature’s forces and man’s force work together in the production of wealth.[8]

One might note how much the modern industrialist’s perspective on nature mirrors that of the Enlightenment man of science.  For both, nature is conceived as nothing more than the sum of dead matter and the mechanical forces that compel it.  The difference is that, while a Bacon or Descartes might be interested in natural products insofar as they might understand them, a Rockefeller or a Carnegie would be more interested in the way they might be exploited so as to generate value.

Though Romanticism took a “dark” and urbanistic turn toward the middle of the century (think Baudelaire and the Symbolists) all the way up to the fin-de-siècle, many of the sentiments it originally possessed toward nature survived alongside Europe’s rapid industrialization and urbanization in the nineteenth century.  The American Transcendentalists are only one of the more notable movements confirming this fact.  In the twentieth century, however, the various currents stemming from early nineteenth-century Romanticism began to reemerge, tying themselves to a number of different political tendencies.  Preservationists, environmentalists, vegetarians, and nudists joined in with groups from all shades of the political spectrum: Teddy Roosevelt-style big-game conservationism in America, NSDAP fascism in Germany, the pseudo-left Front Populaire in interwar France.  Following the end of the war, these tendencies  joined in with sections of the international New Left and later the nebulous “post-ideological” Left in the second half of the century.

For most of these groups, the environmentalists tended to view any exploitation of nature by man as invasive, as a transgression of its inherent sanctity.  Nature for them became something of a Kantian Ding-an-Sich, something inviolable and essentially unknowable.  Its continued “natural” existence, uncorrupted by the malign influence of society, came to be considered a kind of virtue in itself.  Untouched wilderness was thought to constitute some sort of pristine, prelapsarian paradise existing in perfect harmony with itself.  It was thus to be set apart from any considerations of its utility to society.  Faced with the reality of the increased industrial exploitation of natural sites, however, environmental activists blamed the rapid destruction of the environment on the expansion of global capitalism and corporate greed run amok.  And so they marched in protest of the further exploitation of the environment, spouting apocalyptic rhetoric and predicting ecological catastrophe.   All of humanity is doomed, they say, should mankind not mend its ways.  In some sense, this almost marks a return to the primitive belief that the sinfulness of humanity will be met with wrath, and it is almost ironic that the rising sea levels resulting from the melting of the ice caps should recapitulate the biblical Flood.  Modern society for the environmentalists constitutes a sort of capitalist Sodom and Gomorrah, which will soon be punished by Mother Nature.  This is the sort of environmentalism one often encounters today, the dispensationalist hysteria almost eclipsing the sound scientific evidence on which the theory of global warming is based.  These are the times in which we live.

Returning to the original purpose of this outline, however, what should all these various historical conceptions of nature tell us? First of all, it should tell us that the conception of nature is in large part dependent on the society for which it is an object of contemplation.  Nature, though it probably does operate according to an unchanging set of uniform physical laws, has a significance beyond its mere existence in itself.  The concept of “nature” also carries with it a great deal of ideological baggage, and reflects the superstructures of thought in any given age.  The problem, going forward, is thus not merely to find some sort of solution to the prospect of a potential ecological collapse, but to formulate nature as a social problem.  The question of humanity’s relationship to nature goes far beyond “saving the planet” or any such platitude; it involves at its core the disalienation of man from nature, and their reconciliation thereby.  No amount of recycling, collecting of litter, or “going Green” will solve this fundamental issue.  The resolution of the problem of man and nature can only be reached through radical social transformation, and not by the aggregate sum of superficial actions that only treat mere symptoms rather than the underlying problem.

The next entry will focus on the Marxist approach to humanity’s alienation from nature, and from there explore some of the contradictions and false dichotomies set up by the contemporary Green movement.

[1] See Durkheim’s excellent treatment of these different theories of primitive religion in his Elementary Forms of Religious Life.  Translated by Karen E. Fields.  (The Free Press.  New York, NY: 1995).

[2] Durkheim makes very clear that the results of his observations of “primitive” religions apply to the more elaborate religious systems of the West and beyond: “[I]f, in the very humble societies just studied, I have managed to capture some of the elements that comprise the most fundamental religious ideas, there is no reason not to extend the most general results of this research to other religions.”  Ibid., pg. 418.

[3] Bacon, Francis.  The New Organon.  (Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY).  Pg. 81.

[4] “[I]ncreasing intellectualization and rationalization does not mean increasing general knowledge of the conditions under which we live our lives.  It means something else.  It means the knowledge or belief that if we only wanted to we could learn at any time that there are, in principle, no mysterious unpredictable forces in play, but that all things — in principle — can be controlled through calculation.  This, however, means the disenchantment of the world.  No longer, like the savage, who believed that such forces existed, do we have to re­sort to magical means to gain control over or pray to the spirits.  Technical means and calculation work for us instead.  This, above all, is what intellectualization actually means.”  Weber, Max.  “Science as a Vocation.”  From Complete Writings on Academic and Political Vocations.  Translated by Gordon C. Wells.  (Algora Publishing.  New York, NY: 2008).  Pg. 35.

And later: “It is the fate of our age, with the rationalization, intellectualization and, in particular, the disenchantment of the world, characteristic of it, that precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have faded from public life, entering either the obscure realm of mystical life or the fraternal feelings of direct relationships among individuals.”  Ibid., pg. 51.

[5] Hegel, G.W.F.  Faith and Knowledge.  Translated by Walter Cerf and H.S. Harris.  (Albany, NY: 1977).  Pg. 57.

[6] “We consider someone to have a naïve character if in making judgments about things he overlooks their artificial and affected relations and fixes on the simple nature of them.”  Schiller, Friedrich.  “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry.”  Translated by Daniel O. Dahlstrom.  From Essays.  (The Continuum Publishing Company.  New York, NY: 1993).  Pg. 186.

[7] Ibid., pg. 194.

[8] Marshall, Alfred and Marshall, Mary Paley.  The Economics of Industry.  (Cambridge University Press.  London, England: 1879).  Pgs. 8-9.

8 thoughts on “Man and Nature, Part I: The Shifting Historical Conceptions of Nature in Society

  1. I must say from the beginning that this post, as well as future posts on the subject, is deeply indebted to a paper presented last year on Earth Day by Greg Gabrellas and Laurie Rojas, entitled “Against Nature.”

    • Hi Ross and John,
      I am doing a study at the moment having come across this blog, and am interested in reading the paper that you speak of by Greg Gabrellas and Laurie Rojas, do you know when I could find it?
      Help would be greatly appreciated, thank you.
      Best Regards

  2. Excellent analysis of Romantic/Enlightenment focus on nature and on man as “mere matter in motion”, Ross! I agree quite emphatically.

    Though I might quibble with your ranking Christianity alongside pagan religions (as from a historic/theological perspective Providence is seen in both “rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, health and sickness”, to quote the Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 27), on the whole I concur with your comments.

    One thing I would like your thoughts on, however: you make the argument that our relationship with nature hinges on (ontic?) disalienation/disenchantment…and maybe you’ll address this later on, but I have the following thoughts (muddled and preliminary though they may be).

    With the turn in modernity towards Nature/Utopia (2 sides of a similar coin, whether Romantic or Mechanistic)…I wonder if this supposed disenchantment is rather a reenchantment of man/nature, infusing one or the other with attributes and capacities previously belonging only to God (think Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Mayakovsky’s later appropriation of it for 2 examples). For further on this line see Michael Gillespie’s “The Theological Origins of Modernity” (Chicago: U. of Chicago, 2008)–his conclusions in this respect are helpful.

    As he states better than I can: “In the face of the long drawn out death of God, science can provide a coherent account of the whole only by making man or nature or both in some sense divine.” (274)

    I realize you spent more time focusing on the societal nature of Nature, but I’d like your opinion if you have some time.

    I’m sympathetic also in this sense to Karl Lowith’s argument that the Enlightenment was an attempt to realize millennial views long dormant/sidelined in Christianity (think Gnostics/Montanists/Anabaptists).

    Anyhoo, wonderful blog you have here! I like much of your critiques of modernity in other posts that I see…

  3. Really good introduction.

    Capitalism is able to turn even pollution, into something that can be turned into a derivative, that can bring profit. We have cap n’ trade.

    Another aspect is lifestyle. The greens say it all starts with YOU, with changing your lifestyle. We need a world wide planned economy, not my lifestyle to change.

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