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, 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, 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.” 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. 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.”
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” 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.” 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.