November 14, 2014
Seminar in Composition
The concept and definition of nature is quite an interesting one for it seems stuck in limbo between the worlds of subjectivity and objectivity. I believe in our world as it stands today, if you were to perform a random sampled experiment and asked people how they would define nature, you would get the same general answer. I claim general because everyone knows that trees and plants are nature but that is quite loose. Wouldn’t this cause nature to be a subjective concept? If so, is this why nearly every great mind in human history has tried to find the one true definition of nature? Making it a fact, making it objective? To paraphrase his work in “Metaphysics,” Aristotle stated ‘all men by nature desire to know.’
As with many other concepts in history like; law, politics and technology have grown and evolved so has the concept of nature. Aristotle and other Greek philosophers were so ahead of their time in their thoughts that the theories they made in Ancient Greece lasted thousands of years and stood as nothing less than doctrines of life. Pre-Age of Enlightenment the European world lived by the word and doctrine of Aristotle and his belief of nature was in condensed and basic terminology - the world consisted of individual, separated substances, which shared certain attributes with other substances. As the age of enlightenment hit the world saw a new wave of philosophers in Spinoza and John Locke start to discard Aristotle and his teachings for their own thought. These men gave Darwin the confidence and freedom to come up with his own theories such as; evolution and a different view of nature. In turn, since Darwin, society has turned more to science.
Since his death in 322 BCE, Aristotle and his principles “remained unchallenged for more than 2,000 years” (12, Palmer) in European nations, removing both reign of free thought and as my Astronomy professor has claimed killed science until the 1400’s. Though fascinated with the natural world, Aristotle will never be accused of having been an environmental philosopher. As I briefly mentioned earlier he split everything into ten categories of ‘substance’ but pure substance was a “unity of form and matter” (14, Palmer), basically the culmination of one mans thought and a piece of nature. Let’s not forget that he did live in Greece where the gods were still a primary explanation for phenomena so this next part of “Metaphysics” displays Aristotle’s theological beliefs in which he asserts ‘since nature makes nothing…in vain,… she has made all animals for the sake of man’ (14, Palmer) in context he is speaking about nature as divine, somewhat of a contradiction between other works of his. It is easy to get lost in his ideals of nature, even I had to read the ‘Aristotle’ section from Palmer’s 50 Thinkers on the Environment to completely understand where he stands. Once I figured out what Aristotle was really going for, the fact that his ideas dominated western civilization for thousands of years makes it very impressive.
Aristotle’s reign over thought ended at the point we now label as the Age of Enlightenment (mid-1600’s – late 1700’s), where figures like Francis Bacon and Galileo began refuting Aristotelian doctrine. Ironically, Palmer parallels Aristotle and Darwin, who too had his critics in the nineteenth century. Great minds, just like ideas do not go unquestioned, I guess. This new age was like the Mike Tyson to Aristotle’s thought, for every new prominent mind was another punch to Aristotle and at the forefront was Dutch man Benedict Spinoza. Spinoza is a perfect representation of the transitions that happened in this new birth of thought, for he was a dedicated Jew until condemned from the Jewish church “on the grounds of heretical beliefs” (45, Palmer). There is a trend of philosophers who were very religious but that either took away from their credibility or took precedence over their work because of the strength of religious organizations like the Catholic Church. Beliefs beyond the book seemed to threaten religious way of life, quite the foreshadowing to today’s world.
Spinoza’s defined nature as “a stone, a plant or an animal are each no more than temporary configurations of finite modifications of the infinite attributes of one thing, God or Nature” (49, Palmer), in which Palmer must clarify that Spinoza believes God and Nature to be one substance with two infinite attributes in the cosmos. Though I have seemingly repeated that the Age of Enlightenment threw away Aristotle’s concepts, change is harder said than done because there are a few parallels between Aristotle and Spinoza’s views on nature especially in the emphasis of the infinite power. While less prominent, a personal favorite of mine, John Locke does include God but zones in more on how mankind fits into this universal puzzle.
In Lori Gruen and Dale Jamieson’s Reflecting on Nature: Readings in Environmental Philosophy, the authors take a section out of John Locke’s “The Second Treatise of Government” where he looks upon man’s place under the power that is nature. Locke makes his philosophy clear right out of the gate about the natural order of life “through the Earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men” (20, Gruen)… sound familiar? To clarify, Locke does not simply define nature but claims as part of his natural order that “God, when he gave the world in common to all mankind, commanded man also to labor” (21, Gruen), as a small part of a piece of enlightenment to man. Throughout this whole passage Locke preaches that we are given the Earth and what a single man works for on this Earth is what he gets to keep. Basically “Whatsoever he removes out of the state of nature…joined with something that is his own, and thereby is his own property” (20, Gruen). This may sound like “finders, keepers” mentality but Locke goes on to explain that Mother Nature gave that object to the man and for the man to take any advantage of it, he must treat it and earn it as his own.
I guess you are wondering where I am going with these men and how do they have an impact on Darwin? It’s quite simple. To start off, Spinoza lived in the seventeenth century making him one of the earliest new age philosophers allowing his values to carry more credibility amongst these new age thinkers. Possibly the most important ideal that Spinoza preached in his time was there are “different ways of seeing one and the same reality” (46, Palmer), which carries over as the overarching theme of the new age. In a time of powerful churches and Darwin being a devout Anglican, proverbs like that allow him to brake the shackles of Creationism to develop the Theory of Evolution. This theme legacies onto Locke when he proclaims “every man has a property in his own person; this nobody has any right but himself” (20, Gruen). Obviously these beliefs are not directed towards Darwin himself, but they struck a place in societies hearts that proved that a common man has the power to do what they really want to if they work hard enough. It’s the ideas of these men and men like them that Darwin learned as a young man in school that lead him to be one of if not the greatest biologist ever and lead a new era of science.
On the other side of the coin, one could claim that Spinoza and Locke came over one hundred years before Darwin making them irrelevant to any of his work. Also, what I said about Darwin learning these ideals in school makes all of these philosophies common knowledge to educated people of the nineteenth century – eliminating any special nostalgia that I may have tried to argue for. I never claimed that either Spinoza or Locke were remotely involved in science and as I have been taught in another lecture Aristotle was quite the bad scientist himself and it was his philosophies that set science back two thousand years. My argument is not about the fact that Age of Enlightenment philosophers influenced more modern society of the last two hundred years but the fact that Darwin is an example took the lessons he was taught and truly became a huge figure in history. Just like a saying I have heard a few times in my life – it is not about how good the advice is but what you do with that advice that proves how successful you will be in life.
Just like how our society goes through many trends, history too exhibits trends. One particularly interesting one I have noticed in my research is that in ancient civilizations like Greece and China, philosophy and early science dominated thought of the people in order to explain the natural universe around them. After Aristotle, science and those who practiced it died along with philosophers because what he preached became gospel to the majority of Western Culture. As the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment hit science made a slow return with great minds like Isaac Newton and Galileo but what really shocked me was the number of notable philosophers. One after another, huge names I learned about all throughout middle and high schools came from one main era. They were the ones that influenced Darwin who in turn lead what for the purposes of my essay am going to call the modern age (1800’s-) where philosophy has died out but he revived science and it grew ever so much in the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Never before in human history have we been so interested in the origins and endless possibilities that is our universe.
Brining everything back one notch, one pattern that sticks the word nature is a higher power, whether it be in; proverbs, books or movies. Nature has always been unpredictable and out of our control. The argument of subjectivity vs objectivity of nature has evolved, even non-scientists like Spinoza and Locke were so compelled by the challenge, could a great mind be called great without tackling the great questions? Many people used theology and infinite power to capture nature, then people like Locke took a different route and attacked a different aspect of nature. The truth is the concept of nature has gone through a lot of changes just like humanity, but after a lot of thought on this topic, one could question a lot of words. Every time I go to dictionary.com there are many versions of a definition of one word. Maybe it’s the concept that matters more than the fact (especially if the fact doesn’t actually exist). Darwin may have tried to define nature in his own words too but like Wilder and Abbey did in their novels Darwin, in his books Voyage of the Beagle and Origin of Species, set out to; discover nature, be one with it and uncover what information it has of our past. This is where he came upon his theory of evolution. But, he could not have done it without the works of men like Locke, Spinoza and even giving credit where credit is due to Aristotle who quite possibly still holds the record for longest speech set in stone.
Locke, John. "The Second Treatise of Government." Reflecting on Nature: Readings in Environmental Philosophy. By Lori Gruen and Dale Jamieson. New York: Oxford UP, 1994. N. pag. Print.Palmer, Joy. "Aristotle." Fifty Key Thinkers on the Environment. London: Routledge, 2001. N. pag. Print.
Palmer, Joy. "Benedict Spinoza." Fifty Key Thinkers on the Environment. London: Routledge, 2001. N. pag. Print.