views updated May 17 2018


NATURE. Nature is often taken to be the reality of the physical and material world. It is placed in opposition to culture, the product of human intervention and production. Yet historians recognize that nature is actually a product of human culturea complex concept that has changed according to the views of particular individuals and cultures in history. Nature can be thought of in terms of its componentsfor example, the cosmos or material substancesand it can be conceptualized as an entity in itself. In both respects the early modern era marked numerous controversies concerning the nature of nature and concerning the makeup and behavior of its constituent components.


Any investigation of the idea of nature in the early modern era must take into account the Aristotelian framework that was defended well into the seventeenth century. Aristotle explicated his views on nature (physis in Greek) in the second book of Physics, in the seventh book of Metaphysics, and in the first book of Parts of Animals. He considered the natural and the artificial to be distinctly separate entities. Animals, plants, and the four Aristotelian elementsearth, air, fire, and waterexist by nature. A natural thing has an essence that makes it a genuine kind of species. It possesses the principle of movement or change and rest within itself. This principle can entail local motion, that is, growth and shrinkage, or qualitative changes, that is, modifications. Nature is the distinct form of things that have within themselves the principle of motion. That form moves toward its final cause or goal, for the sake of which it exists. In contrast, art can imitate nature but can never be natural. Artificial things do not have a principle of motion. Any change to a fabricated object is accomplished by the actions of an external agent. A tree grows by nature, whereas a house must be built by a builder. Art is separate from nature and is always inferior to it.

The Aristotelian natural world, described most completely in Aristotle's On the Heavens, was made up of two spheres, the sublunar and the supralunar. In the sublunar sphere matter consisted of four elementsearth, air, fire, and watereach of which had a tendency to move to its natural place. Earthly bodies, for example, tended to move down toward the center of the Earth, whereas fiery bodies tended to move up. Motion contrary to such natural motion, as when a stone (made of the element earth) was thrown upward, was unnatural or violent. The region above the Moon was made up of the quintessential element that was entirely different from the four sublunar elements. This fifth element was unchanging and perfect. Its natural motion was circular. Aristotle argued that the elements that made up the cosmos were eternal, rather than created. Matter was continuous. The universe was not infinite but limited, the cosmos was circular, and the Earth was at rest in the center.

Early modern scholars and natural philosophers were thoroughly schooled in the principles of the Aristotelian natural world and in the complex traditions of commentary and discussion that surrounded it. The Aristotelian corpus provided the foundation of the university curriculum. Natural philosophy, which included both the physical and the life sciences, was particularly emphasized in the Italian universities, where it was considered prerequisite to the study of medicine.

Particular discoveries or interpretations that arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries undermined the entire Aristotelian edifice of nature. The heliocentric system of Nicolaus Copernicus (14731543) provided an alternative to Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology but also subverted the Aristotelian doctrine of the natural place of the element earth. Galileo Galilei's (15641642) comparison of the surface of the Moon to that of the Earth and his discovery of the moons of Jupiter suggested that the supralunar realm was identical to the sublunar. Observations of comets and sunspots suggested novelty in the heavens rather than the presence of an unchanging quintessential element.


Renaissance humanism entailed an intellectual movement focused on moral philosophy, history, and rhetoric that included an intense interest in antiquity and the desire to restore Latin to the language of Cicero. By the late fifteenth century humanists had begun to influence the university curriculum. In their rediscovery and extensive study of ancient texts, they reedited the works of Aristotle and brought other ancient works into view. For example, Lucretius's atomism, explicated in the newly discovered On the Nature of Things, could be set against the Aristotelian doctrine of continuous matter. The many Neoplatonic texts that became available from the late fifteenth century provided a basis for the development of new philosophies of nature.

In the Theologia Platonica (1482; Platonic theology) Marsilio Ficino (14331499) posited the universe as a hierarchy of being in which a rational soul (that included the human soul within it) was at the center of the universe between the perceptible corporeal world and the noncorporeal intelligible one. Ficino believed that the cosmos and its forces exhibited numerous correspondences among all the different levels. Other natural philosophers, influenced by Ficinian Platonism, developed innovative visions of the natural order. Bernardino Telesio (15091588) postulated that the principles of heat and cold constituted the causes of all earthly processes, while the Sun, a unique natural fire, provided the underlying motive force. Telesio's system of nature was characterized by "the living character of everything and the consequent connections between man and the cosmos" (Ingegno, p. 252). Giordano Bruno (15481600) endorsed the Copernican system of Earth moving around the Sun but went beyond Copernicus in his description of an infinite universe of innumerable solar systems in which the elemental processes were everywhere the same. Francesco Patrizi (15291597) wrote an immense encyclopedia of natural philosophy, Nova de Universis Philosophia (1591; New philosophy of universes), in which he suggested that the illumination of the world proceeds from the first divine light. This illumination, which is both corporeal and noncorporeal, fills all space and motivates all heavenly and earthly processes. It is a hierarchical universe in which soul is intermediary between the corporeal and noncorporeal realms.

The new philosophies of nature often placed the individual human soul in contact with the divine and with the spirits of the noncorporeal cosmos. Many such philosophies included a doctrine of correspondences in which things within both physical and noncorporeal realms reflected and influenced one another. The belief in the ability to exert influence from a distance through correspondence underlay magical outlooks wherein the magus or magician could manipulate divine powers for material ends. Renaissance nature philosophers were often anti-Aristotelian, and they were vulnerable to charges of using demonic magic and of heresy. Patrizi's vast encyclopedia was put on the Index of Prohibited Books by the Roman Inquisition. Bruno was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600.


Lorraine Daston has noted that early modern views of nature can be investigated only if the modern dichotomy between nature and culture is put aside. The early modern period instead utilized a variety of categories defined vis-à-vis the natural. The super-natural was a category largely created by Thomas Aquinas (12251274) in the thirteenth century. He viewed miraclessupernatural eventsas God's intervention in the natural order and therefore above that order. A second category, "preter-natural," described events that were highly unusual, "beyond nature," but not supernatural. Examples include monstrous births, bizarre weather, the occult powers of plants and minerals, and other deviations from ordinary natural events. A third category, the artificial, comprised objects fabricated by humans that could imitate nature but could never become part of the natural world. Finally, the unnatural was a moral category used to describe acts, such as patricide and bestiality, that transgressed the natural order ordained by God.

During the early modern era the boundaries that defined these categories were increasingly called into question. Miracles as events brought about by supernatural intervention became contested territory in the context of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic reform movements. A religious movement labeled "enthusiasm" developed in northern Germany, England, and the Netherlands in which members of Quaker and other Pietist religious groups claimed direct experience of the Divine as a result of enthusiastic inspiration. Yet the enthusiasts were condemned as a threat to political order and religious orthodoxy. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries enthusiasm and miracles in the present (as opposed to the distant past) became increasingly unacceptable within established political and religious orders.

The category of the preternatural presents a complicated history. From the sixteenth century through the mid-seventeenth century natural philosophers, such as Girolamo Cardano (15011576), Pietro Pompanazzi (14621525), and Francis Bacon (15611626), focused on preternatural events, such as celestial aberrations, monstrous births, and other odd occurrences. Such events became a significant focus of the early scientific societies as even the briefest perusal of the Transactions of the Royal Society attests. By the 1720s, however, these wonders of nature came to be largely ignored. Preternatural phenomena had been subsumed under the natural.

Substantial evidence points to a further developmentthe disappearance of the boundary between the natural and the artificial. Objects of nature and objects of art came to be interchangeable. In the 1490s Leonardo da Vinci (14521519), in his treatise on machines and mechanics, Madrid Codex I, made analogies between natural and constructed objects as a way of trying to understand the workings of each. Little more than a century later Bacon and René Descartes (15961650) each insisted upon the identity of the essential attributes of the artificial and the natural. Such identity and interchangeability was evident in the great collections naturalists accumulated in the seventeenth century. These collections displayed a mixed conglomeration of natural specimens, preternatural wonders, and objects made by humans. Human artifice had gained in status, taking its place beside and becoming interchangeable with the myriad objects of the natural world.


Attitudes toward nature were influenced by the growing importance of material objects within society and by the exchange of those objects within commercial relationships that extended across Europe and beyond. Early modern Europeans exhibited a growing interest in conspicuous consumption as well as a fascination with novelty, including objects and marvels from lands recently discovered and colonized. The makers of objectsartisans and men and women skilled in craftsenjoyed increased cultural status that developed as a result of the growing positive valuation of practice and hands-on experience. Artisans began to value their practices as generative of a kind of knowledge derived from direct and intimate experience with materials and with nature. Artisan-trained individuals and others of various backgrounds wrote books in which they validated their own experience by means of the authority of nature. For example, the potter Bernard Palissy (15101589) described his many experiments to find a formula for a new glaze and repeatedly endorsed the value of practice over theory. The physician Paracelsus (14931541) not only railed against the book learning of contemporary medicine in the universities but also endorsed direct experience with nature as essential to knowledge concerning the natural world, including knowledge of health and disease. Reading the "book of nature" for Paracelsus entailed experiencing it directly and thereby being able to read God's "signatures," external signs that revealed the internal nature of things.

Bacon's empirical approach envisaged a vast cooperative project of collecting the facts of nature. Bacon hoped to create detailed descriptions of natural phenomena and of processes of the "mechanical arts," such as metallurgy and glassmaking. From such histories, Bacon advocated the creation of axioms that would allow humans to read the "book of nature." For Bacon this book was authored by God. Humans could know God's works through its operations, to be had through the senses. Words are not "reliable signs of things." Rather, things provide "the only reliable criteria for shaping words properly" (Bono, pp. 218220). The "secrets" of nature can be discovered initially through the collection of sense data and through controlled experiments. Simple data collection is insufficient, however. Careful creation of axioms and an attempt to understand the relationship of diverse things to each other would allow the book of nature to be understood.

Increasingly the observations of particulars and the positive valuation of individual experience gained credibility as a way of knowing the natural world. Individual experience and observation could be used in a variety of waysthe investigation of plants and animals, the gathering and study of objects both natural and fabricated in collections, or the dissection of human bodies. Individuals from a variety of backgrounds undertook to discover the "secrets" of nature, sometimes characterizing their pursuit as a kind of hunt. Perhaps, as one scholar has suggested, a traditional view of natureas an inviolable, feminine entity to be protected from curiosity and aggressive explorationdeclined.

Especially from the late sixteenth century investigators began to construct special kinds of individual experiences known as experiments. Experimentation developed as a great variety of practices designed to test and validate knowledge claims about the natural world. The experimenters were compelled to defend their methods against the Aristotelians. The Aristotelian term common experience referred to experience agreed upon by everyone. In contrast to the evident and universal premises of Aristotelian experience, experimenters claimed knowledge as a result of specialized, contrived experience using often complex apparatus or instrumentation. Much investigation in the history of science has been devoted to analyzing specific experiments to understand what was done, how the experiment was taken to verify particular claims about the natural world, and the ways in which the experiment was "legitimated." Often in the early modern era the reports of reliable "witnesses" lent credibility to the claims of the experimenter.

An important development was the application of mathematics to physical phenomena. This took many forms, from Galileo's analysis of balls rolling down inclined planes to Isaac Newton's (16421727) experiments in geometric optics. The new "physico-mathematics" of the seventeenth century rejected Aristotelian assumptions that made mathematics a self-referential discipline irrelevant to the material world and physics nonmathematical. It also either implicitly or explicitly assumed that nature itself was in some way mathematical. Descartes removed mind and spirit from the physical world and defined physical matter as extension. If the world comprised geometric extension, it could be understood by analyzing the mathematical relationships within it.


Descartes developed a view of nature and its workings called "the mechanical philosophy." For Descartes the world consisted of particles of matter that move whenever necessity forces them to move. Matter was extension in three dimensions. Natural philosophy consisted of describing the mechanisms of moving particles as they produced all the variable phenomena of nature. The universe was a plenum. Motion was possible because the entire mass of matter moved together. The universe consisted of a huge number of immense particle whirlpools called vortices. Particulate matter in motion explained all phenomena in nature. The mechanical philosophy developed by Descartes was highly influential. Although Descartes's successors modified the particulars of his system, it dominated European thought by the end of the seventeenth century.

Descartes first formulated physical laws that could be expressed mathematically and that were valid for all physical phenomena. Appearing in chapter seven of The World (16291633), they concerned inertia, collusion, and a law stating that particles of matter tended to move in a straight line. Later philosophers, such as Christiaan Huygens (16291695) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716), criticized some of Descartes's specific conclusions but continued to describe the physical world in terms of laws that governed matter in motion. Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) included the three laws of motion that laid the foundation for classical physics. Newton's laws described the motion of bodies and the mathematical relationships between the forces that governed those motions.

In the eighteenth century, the "Age of Enlightenment" as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (17241804) first called it, the notion prevailed that a scientific revolution had occurred in the prior century and that it was ongoing. The two key words of the Enlightenment were "reason" and "nature." The laws of reason had become synonymous with the laws of nature. Experimentation had become the way of reasoning about nature. Enlightenment philosophers and the public alike made Newton into a hero. They attempted to find further natural laws that would predict natural events completely and accurately. They sought greater determinism in nature. Although they did not fully succeed, most Enlightenment natural philosophers believed that experiment would continue to augment the progress that had occurred in understanding the natural world.

See also Bacon, Francis ; Bruno, Giordano ; Copernicus, Nicolaus ; Descartes, René ; Earth, Theories of the ; Enlightenment ; Galileo Galilei ; Huygens Family ; Kant, Immanuel ; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm ; Leonardo da Vinci ; Newton, Isaac ; Paracelsus ; Scientific Method ; Scientific Revolution .


Primary Sources

Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle. 2 vols. Rev. Oxford translation. Edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, 1984.

Ficino, Marsilio. Platonic Theology. 3 vols. Edited by James Hankins and William Bowen. Translated by Michael J. B. Allen and John Warden. Cambridge, Mass., 20012003. Translation of Theologia Platonica.

Galilei, Galileo. Sidereus Nuncius; or, The Sidereal Messenger. Translated by Albert van Helden. Chicago, 1989. The best English translation.

. Two New Sciences Including Centers of Gravity and Force of Percussion. 2nd ed. Translated by Stillman Drake. Toronto, 1989. The best English translation.

Newton, Isaac. The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Translated by I. Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1999. Includes an extensive and useful guide by Cohen.

Secondary Sources

Bono, James J. The Word of God and the Languages of Man: Interpreting Nature in Early Modern Science and Medicine. Vol. 1, Ficino to Descartes. Madison, Wis., 1995.

Daston, Lorraine. "The Nature of Nature in Early Modern Europe." Configurations 6 (1998): 149172.

Daston, Lorraine, and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 11501750. New York, 1998.

Dear, Peter. Discipline & Experience: The Mathematical Way in the Scientific Revolution. Chicago, 1995.

Eamon, William. Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture. Princeton, 1994.

Grendler, Paul F. The Universities of the Italian Renaissance. Baltimore, 2002.

Hankins, Thomas L. Science and the Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K., 1985.

Hattab, Helen. "Laws of Nature." In Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution from Copernicus to Newton, edited by Wilbur Applebaum, pp. 354357. New York, 2000.

Ingegno, Alfonso. "The New Philosophy of Nature." In The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, edited by Charles B. Schmitt and Quentin Skinner, pp. 236263. Cambridge, U.K., 1988.

Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco, 1980.

Osler, Margaret J., ed. Rethinking the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer. Leviathan and the Air- Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton, 1985.

Smith, Pamela H. The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution. Chicago, 2003.

Smith, Pamela H., and Paula Findlen, eds. Merchants & Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe. New York, 2002.

Pamela O. Long


views updated May 18 2018


No interpretation of the idea of nature is good for all people in all places at all times. The interpretive position here reflects pivotal conceptual developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Charles Darwin's century brought home forcefully the reality of time, of evolutionary process that ultimately transforms all things. Darwin's contemporary T. H. Huxley believed that evolution forced the question of our place in nature upon us. Twentieth-century science posed a further interpretive challenge. We have reached the end of credible claims to certainty concerning nature. Given uncertainty, open-ended inquiry becomes the hallmark of rationality, and the idea of nature remains inevitably in flux. A third interpretive factor emerges at the intersection of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The present cultural trajectory is on a collision course with the evolved biophysical scheme. The interpretive challenge is to account for the predicament of a naturally evolved species whose cultural evolution has led to maladaptive ideas of nature that must be transformed in order to avert biophysical catastrophe.

Nature before Literacy

Arguably, the nineteenth-century discovery of the Paleolithic, the period of human development stretching from about two million to about ten thousand years ago, is exceeded in significance only by the discovery of biological evolution. Ensconced within cultural cocoons of literacy and technology, we believe that paleo-people were stupid savages since they were not literate and possessed only rudimentary technology. There are two rejoinders to such notions. First, the paleo-strata unequivocally confirm that the historical epoch of literacy is a mere moment in a human past stretching across several hundred thousand years. And second, the assumption that we monopolize intelligence and genius is untenable. Our paleo-ancestors were capable of imaginings that rival those of the greatest minds of history.

Nevertheless, any reconstruction of Paleolithic ideas of nature remains conjectural. Interpretation depends on reading "texts" that, rather than being alphabetic, are material artifactsstone points and knives, cave paintings and megalithic constructions, and tens of thousands of other artifacts. Additional evidence comes from paleo-notions of nature that resonate in surviving aboriginal cultures. Collectively these materials support three conjectures. First, Paleolithic hunter-gatherers realized that there was an order to the world that they inhabited. While the pattern varied seasonally, there was regularity in the movement of animals, in the growth of plants, in the presence or absence of water. Second, paleo-people believed the inherent order of nature was cyclical, since the world moved in repeating cycles. Third, paleo-people believed their role was to harmonize with rather than change the circumstances of existence.

These conjectures can be challenged across multiple fronts. For example, there is evidence of climatic upheavals that through natural selection eliminated all but the most behaviorally adaptable hominid bands. How, then, could paleo-people believe in a cyclical nature? And yet evidence from the Neolithic strata suggests that the myth of the eternal return and the belief in the Magna Mater (the Great Mother) were foreshadowed during the Paleolithic.

Nature in Antiquity

Antiquity is defined here as a zone of cultural transition at the boundary between the Old and the New Stone Age, the Paleolithic and the Neolithic. Climate change is increasingly accepted as the environmental driver that ended the era of the great hunt. Whereas utility vanished at the margin of portability for paleo-people, the Neolithic brought profound changes to material culture and thus to notions of nature. Sedentarism, the cultivation of cereal grasses, and the domestication of animals transformed human relations to nature. Forests were cleared for fields and building materials. Crops were planted and tended. Rivers were diverted into canals to support irrigated agriculture. Permanent habitation was constructed. Wild creatures, such as bears and wolves, formerly totems with which humans empathically identified, became predators.

Materials for the conceptual reconstruction of ancient ideas of nature can be found in texts marking the passage from orality into alphabetic literacy, such as the Sumerian-epoch Gilgamesh and the Old Testament, the latter a primary source for prevailing if conflicting Western notions of nature. The Old Testament manifests two antagonistic ideas of nature. One reflects agriculture, where humankind increasingly asserts its dominion over the earth while paying the price of great toil. The other is that of a world of milk and honey where humans wandered the earth freely, living in an Edenic condition. On either account a creator god is posited as the agency of creation. A cosmos is constructed and populated, culminating on the sixth day with the arrival of Adam and Eve. Life is good, until the original pair fall into temptation and sin. The consequence was expulsion from the Garden, arguably a remembrance of a deep past free of the woes of agricultural existence.

Pre-Socratic Ideas of Nature

Alphabetic literacy changed the way that humans thought of nature. It is the pre-Socratics, the Greeks, and to a lesser extent the Egyptians and Romans, who in their theorizing of nature appear as our kindred spirits, even if we believe their theories are mistaken, in their commitment to rational explanation. A clear line separates pre-alphabetic from post-alphabetic accounts of nature; the mythical accounts of antiquity become topics of derision. Nature increasingly becomes a conceptual entity known only through rational inquiry.

The pre-Socratic philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides laid down two basic channels in which contemporary ideas still flow. According to Heraclitus (c. 540c. 480 b.c.e.), reality is a moving river into which humans cannot step twice. And yet, since total chaos would defeat knowability, he posits the strife of opposites as a limit on chaos. Hot becomes cold, wet becomes dry, winter gives way to summer. The wise person behaves according to these basic insights into evanescence and its limits. Heraclitus's notions resonate with contemporary evolutionary thinkers, systems ecologists, and chaos theorists. Chaos theorists celebrate Heraclitus as the conceptual source of a second scientific revolution in the twentieth century. We can also recognize Paleolithic resonances in Heraclitus, including his notion of nature as a cyclical process with which humans should exist in harmony.

Heraclitus's conceptual antagonist was Parmenides (born c. 515 b.c.e.), who argued that reality does not move since "all is one." The apparent motion of nature was for him just that: appearance and not reality. His immediate followers, such as Zeno, devised the famous paradoxes of motion, such as the tortoise and the hare, that conceptually defeated all challenges until the twentieth century. If the tortoise, however slow, starts ahead of the hare, however fast, and if in any given unit of time the hare closes one-half of the distance to the tortoise, the hare can never pass the tortoise because there will always remain an unclosed interval between them. The appearance, then, that the hare catches and passes the tortoise is a deception"the way of seeming," as Parmenides termed it, and not the "way of truth." The conceptual truths of nature deny perceptual appearances.

The best-known successors to Parmenides are the atomists, Leucippus and Democritus. Perhaps the first truly modern theorists, they corrected Parmenidean conceptual excess. The variety and phenomena of nature were constituted by the arrangement of many "ones"that is, the atoms themselves. The perceptions of a changing world could now be admitted without undercutting nature's conceptual knowability. Atomic theory today traces its roots to Leucippus and Democritus.

Nature in Greek Rationalism

All these thinkers pale in comparison with Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), the greatest classical theorist. Aristotelian ideas of nature dominated Western civilization until the scientific revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. So pervasive is his influence that some believe Western intellectual history is little more than footnotes to his work. Only a partial description showing Aristotle's continuing influence can be included here.

First, Aristotle introduced the category of cause as a key explanatory feature for theorizing nature. He understood the diverse phenomena and different kinds in nature in terms of four causes: the formal, material, efficient, and final. Aristotle's account of causation surpasses the theories of his predecessors. For example, his notion of material cause chimes with the atomism of Leucippus and Democritus, and yet the atoms themselves are neither a final cause, since they have been set into original motion, nor an efficient cause, since they can be rearranged by other factors, including human agency.

Second, Aristotle argued that all motion is a consequence of an original, unmoved mover. Without the unmoved mover any causal sequence would entail an infinite regress. Aristotle's notion of an unmoved mover, while driven by his logical commitment to avoiding motion that cannot be explained, resonates not only with earlier Hebraic conceptions of a creator god but also with Parmenidean commitments to a final rational explanation for all that is, was, or ever will be. It also resonates with the Heraclitean stream of influence: natural processes and creatures move.

Third, Aristotle offered a theoretical account of living nature manifesting a sensitivity to the explanatory and descriptive requirements of the behavior of plants and animals. These motions could not be explained in the same way as those of inanimate objects. While not an evolutionary thinker in modern terms, he recognized the diversity of natural kinds with their characteristic patterns of reproduction and growth.

The theoretical legacy of the Greeks is highly significant. While it is an exaggeration to say that the period between the fall of Rome and the Middle Ages was a conceptual wasteland, and while descriptive accounts of nature flourished (in astronomy, for example), there were few developments beyond Aristotelian ideas. The Middle Ages brought some conceptual refinements, but no paradigmatic breakthroughs. For example, William of Ockham (c. 12851349?) deduced that a simpler explanation was to be preferred to a more complicated explanation when the explanatory power was equala logical principle of parsimony known as Ockham's razor. But it is the theorizing of classical Greek civilization that lives on, even if implicitly.

Nature during the Scientific Revolution

Facilitated in part by advances in instrumentation, such as the telescope and microscope, the scientific revolution brought paradigmatic change to the idea of nature. When Galileo Galilei (15641642) observed moons orbiting Jupiter on a predictable schedule, the consequences were enormous. Earth could no longer be conceived as the center of the cosmos, as the focal point of a godly creation. Bacteria were first observed by the Dutch naturalist Anton van Leeuwenhoek (16321723) in 1683 (although the science of bacteriology had not yet arrived). As with Galileo, so with Leeuwenhoek: the apparent reality of nature visible to the naked eye was not what it seemed.

Changes in instrumentation were accompanied by changes in the powers of mathematical analysis. Working independently, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (16461716) and Sir Isaac Newton (16421727) developed what is now called the calculus. The move into conceptual abstraction that began with the Greeks was radically transformed by such mathematics. The scientific idea of nature was more and more represented in terms of equations and laws, devoid of so-called secondary qualities such as color and sound. There was an increasing commitment to Parmenidean tendenciesthat is, the reduction of nature to permanence through mathematically described mechanical relations. The hallmark of rationality thus continued in the tradition of Parmenidean Onenature as an unchanging and therefore totally knowable singularitywhile admitting to diverse mathematical characterization of natural phenomena.

The scientific revolution is often thought of as culminating in the work of Newton and the view of nature according to what is now termed "classical physics." But Newton is best understood as both an original thinker and a synthesizer. The work of three other thinkers is indicative of his precursors.

The first of these thinkers was Francis Bacon (15611626), aptly characterized as the man who saw through time because he straddled the medieval and modern ages. A practicing scientist, his scientific discoveries are less significant than his radical new ideas concerning nature itself. Science, he realized, was powerpower over the natural world. And that power could lead human beings to a second world fashioned according to their wants and desires. Much of the utopian character of our own time, the belief that through the advance of theoretical knowledge and its technological application all problems might be solved, was first articulated by Bacon. His arguments effectively became a legitimating rationale for societal support of the natural sciences. While our rationales are primarily economic, his were ethical. He addressed the ancient problem of the fall into sin, which effectively sundered godly relations between humankind and nature. Toil and suffering, the ruined earth, affliction with drought and storm, insects and disease, were the consequences of the Fall. On the Baconian view a New Jerusalem could be had through the power of science to set nature right again, returning humans to an Edenic condition. Contemporary studies, including those based in critical, feminist theory, argue that the Baconian view of nature reflected an intensely hierarchical and patriarchal society. "Man" (meaning, the male members of the human species) would wrest scientific knowledge from an unwilling and unruly natural world, and through such knowledge gain power over "her."

The second was Galileo, an Italian physicist and astronomer famous for his encounters with the Inquisition, whose work in physics fundamentally undercut Aristotelian physics. Building on the theoretical work of Nicolaus Copernicus (14731543), who overturned geocentrism, Johannes Kepler (15711630), who first theorized the laws of planetary motion and the sun's influence on planetary orbits, and Tycho Brahe (15461601), who had achieved unparalleled accuracy in measuring the motions of the heavens, Galileo brought a new mathematical precision to the description of planetary motion (ironically, believing wrongly that the motion was circular rather than elliptical) and to falling material objects. Through his many experiments and observations, Galileo realized that there was but one kind of motion in nature, whether celestial or terrestrial, not two as the Greeks had believed.

Third, the work of the Frenchman René Descartes (15961650) had a profoundly important influence on physics. Descartes invented analytical geometry, a technique that allowed the precise description of the trajectories of material bodies in motionlater refined by Newton. His further work on methodology (the method of analysis) was likewise crucial. He argued that the way to understand complex physical phenomena was to reduce them to simpler components until reaching the level of irreducibility. Finally, Descartes argued that the new science of physics, built on mathematical description and prediction, would make humankind the master and possessor of nature.

Isaac Newton's Nature

While the advances made by Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes were considerable, history's judgment is that Newton revolutionized Western thinking, dominating his age much as Aristotle did that of the Greeks. Many of his notions, such as the absolute nature of space and time, were repudiated in the twentieth century. And yet Newtonian ways of thinking rule today's culture, lying at the heart of our notion of human dignity as control over nature. We have institutionalized notions that nature is little more than atoms in mechanical and therefore predictable motion. So construed, nature becomes nothing but raw material awaiting technological conversion into goods of economic value.

Newton himself was not concerned with such derivations from his ideas, but with nature as matter in motion, especially the movements of the heavenly and terrestrial bodies. His invention of the reflecting telescope, the calculus (which he called his "fluxional method"), and the laws of motion coalesced in an ability to describe physical systems mathematically and thus to make accurate predictions. For Newton material atoms were the fundamental characteristic of nature, bound together by the force of gravity. Newton theorized the law of planetary attraction, which he argued varied inversely to the square of the distance from the sun. However, Edmond Halley (16561742) did more to popularize the Newtonian idea of nature than Newton himself. Using a Newtonian reflector and Newtonian physics, Halley calculated the orbit of what is now called Halley's Comet, accurately predicting its appearance in the night sky in the year 1758.

Classical science, as Newton's science is now called, and the scientific picture of the world and humankind's relation to it, became the way that Western civilization understood nature. But several problems with the classical view soon appeared. For one, nowhere in the cognizable world picture did human beings appearas if nature was devoid of human presence. Further, the Newtonian notion of nature facilitated naive realism, the notion that nature was known without interpretation, as if Newton had given us a "God's eye" view of nature as the way it was and forever would be. These conundrums continued throughout the twentieth century and remain with us today.

Nature in Darwin's Century

Classical science assumed that objectivity depended upon the separation of the knowing observer from the world of nature. Charles Darwin's (18091882) theory of evolution upset that assumed separation forever, reinserting humankind into a cognizable view of nature. Darwin's penetrating insights into the nature of our own humanityand the importance of languageare effectively a Copernican revolution in our self-understanding of the idea of nature itself. Humankind can no longer be thought of as separate from the cognizable world picture. The status of humankind as something apart from, rather than a part of, nature becomes, after Darwin, increasingly incomprehensible (consider, for example, Werner Heisenberg [19011976], who makes clear that not only are humans embedded within biophysical systems but that our observations themselves profoundly color what can be known).

As with Newton, so with Darwin's precursors, who framed the stage upon which he stood. First, the work of scientists in disparate disciplines, such as geology and paleontology, combined with Darwin's work in natural history, led to what can be termed the discovery of time in four crucial dimensions, beginning with geological time. Irish Archbishop James Ussher (15811656) had calculated the age of the Earth, based on biblical interpretation, as no more than 6,000 years. Charles Lyell (17971875) heralded the arrival of a scientifically informed grasp of the enormity of geological time. Lyell's theory of very slow but uniform change in the Earth upset the dominant theory of catastrophismthe notion of a ruined Earth as God's punishment for sin. Geological inquiry expanded the notion of time over almost unimaginably large temporal scales: Ussher's estimate was off by nearly six magnitudes.

Second, paleontology disclosed through the discovery of successive layers of the fossil record a continual transformation of the forms of life. The natural world could no longer be rationally understood as frozen into eternal forms, but only as a ceaseless flux. The work of Georges Cuvier (17691832) drew in part from the geological law of superposition. Fossilized life forms found in lower strata were necessarily older than those lying above. Cuvier also observed that the various strata themselves had characteristic life forms, suggesting a coming and going of great epochs of life.

Third, Darwin's own studies made clear that the process of natural selection had not only shaped but continued to shape the flora and fauna. His five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle provided the data that were soon interpreted as evidence for natural selection over biological time. The adaptive radiation manifest in his famous finches, whose beaks illustrated the evolutionary diversification of forms through adaptation, became an exemplary case study. While Darwin lacked any knowledge of the genetic basis for inheritance of advantageous characteristics, discovered by Gregor Mendel (18221882), he clearly understood that natural selection was governed by the principle of survival of the fittestan idea that the economist Thomas Malthus (17661834) had developed in relation to human populations.

Finally, near the end of the century, archeologists discovered the Paleolithic strata, a clear record of cultural transformation as successive generations of humans adapted their lives to the natural world. However dimly, these discoveries coalesced in a dawning awareness that humankind is a naturally evolved species that has moved into culturea symbolically mediated space from where nature is increasingly and continuously theorized. The ongoing inquiries of prehistoric archeology and paleoanthropology have fundamentally changed both the ways we think of ourselves and our ideas of nature.

Nature in the Twentieth Century

Reflecting the dominant notion of nature as nothing more than atomsin motion subject to mechanical laws, an unparalleled fusion of science, technology, and market capitalism colored the twentieth century. During the eighteenth century the Newtonian worldview was translated into an economic theory of marketplace capitalism by Adam Smith (17231790). Market societies of the twentieth century believed they possessed the power to bend nature to any and all human purposes. The rational exploitation of nature for human benefit was publicly and privately institutionalized. Wild rivers were tamed, deserts made to bloom, old-growth forests harvested. The apparent mastery of the atom heralded an era of nuclear energy in which power would be too cheap to meter. Modern chemistry promised better living. The "green revolution" offered agricultural plenty to the hungry masses. There would be no Malthusian limits to the growth of human population nor to its steady economic advance. Mirroring the dreams of Bacon's New Jerusalem, cultural progress seemed to be virtually a law of nature.

But perhaps the greatest changes were in the life sciences, especially biology and ecology. Both were profoundly affected by the molecular revolution and the Cartesian belief that complexity must be reduced to analytical simplicity. James D. Watson's and Francis Crick's discovery of the double helix as the structure of DNA in 1953 promised mastery over life itself. Molecular biology, supported by advances in scientific instrumentation, combined with market capitalism to offer the promise of organisms better than those produced by nature. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) became the rage in the late twentieth century. Biotechnology reinvigorated the Baconian dream of a second world. And yet, as the twentieth century wound down, scientific and other critics raised fundamental questions about the sustainability of a cultural trajectory built around the ideas of the scientific revolution. Classical physics, while theoretically useful, was neither the one, true view of nature nor the final word.

Twentieth-Century Ideas

There is no definitive twentieth-century idea of nature. The turn of the century marked the beginning of a virtual revolution in the work that collectively constitutes the new physics. Albert Einstein's (18791955) theory of special relativity challenged the Newtonian notion of absolute space and time. And yet Einstein's theories did not support conceptual relativism. He was a Parmenidean in modern guise. God, in his account, did not play dice with the universe. Einstein dedicated the last half of his life to discovery of what came to be known as God's equationa mathematical expression of the fundamental reality that explains all that there is, was, or will be.

The middle of the twentieth century might be represented through the work of Werner Heisenberg (19011976). If Einstein is a Parmenidean, then Heisenberg's principle of indeterminacy and quantum theory manifest a Heraclitean vision. In his account, the very activity of the observation of nature made a profound difference in what was observed. Physical sciences could achieve relative precision in one measurement only by sacrificing certainty in another. Heisenberg's insights into the atom were equally brilliant. The particles within atoms did not, Heisenberg demonstrated, behave according to Newtonian mechanics. While the picture of nature offered by classical physics remains useful in certain domainsfor example, calculating the trajectories of flying objects or predicting the motions of planets and starsthe Newtonian view has lost intellectual hegemony.

The latter decades of the twentieth century can be represented by work of another Nobel laureate, Ilya Prigogine (19172003). Prigogine and many others constitute a rapidly growing epistemic community studying the phenomena of nature that are in disequilibriumincluding life itself. After embracing chaos theory, the possibility of definitive description disappears, as does the notion that complex phenomena can be disassembled into constituent parts and then reassembled. Biological and ecological scientists in particular have challenged reductionistic mechanism. The principle of superposition, which underlies the description and explanation of linear phenomena, has been repudiated by the life sciences, where nonlinearity rules.

The implications of such accounts for our idea of nature, as well as the conceptualization of our place in nature, are enormous. The belief that humankind has sure and certain knowledge of nature is untenable. While remaining useful assumptions at some scales of inquiry, atomism, reductionism, and mechanism are not absolutes. Laplacian determinism, the notion that, given sufficient knowledge of nature, sure and certain prediction of the future is possible, has been discredited. Radically new perspectives on the nature of nature and the cosmos itself have started to emerge. Time itself has clearly been recognized as a fourth and absolutely essential dimension of any comprehensive idea of nature.

The notion that humankind has dominion over the evolved world has also been discredited. Our knowledge of nature is limited, more contingency and probability than necessity and certainty. Increasingly the lack of equilibrium in the natural world gives evidence that our present interactions with it are unsustainable over biologically and ecologically meaningful scales of time. Political and economic temporal scales are known to be discordant with nature's temporal horizons. The fragility of humankind's dominion is clearly manifest in multiple dysfunctional relations between cultural and natural systems. Despite the received idea of nature, nature profoundly acts on culture. The idea of nature as a passive material world over which humankind has dominion has failed, gravely intensifying the question of humankind's place in nature. Conceptual developments in areas such as cosmology also lead to a chastened view of our place in nature. The visible material cosmos is a very small portion of reality. Dark matter, as it turns out, while unseen, is as consequential in understanding the cosmos as visible matter.

As the twentieth century ended, the notion of a discord between the culturally dominant idea of nature and nature itself gained credence. The cultural system, which had given birth to and nurtured the idea of nature as passive matter in motion, subject to reductionistic explanation and technological control, began to experience pervasive environmental dys-functions. The anthropogenic depletion of stratospheric ozone, collapse of oceanic fisheries, deforestation of Amazonia, disruption of global weather patterns, and extinction of biodiversity posed ominous warnings as well as major conceptual challenges that can only be met by articulating alternative ideas of nature and humankind's place therein.

Nature in the Third Millennium

Clearly, the idea of nature is semantically and conceptually conflicted. If we think of nature as meaningful across multiple temporal and spatial scales, from the cosmic to the subatomic, then we can also understand that our dysfunctional relations are due in part to our lack of either the ability or the commitment to integrate knowledge of nature across scales. Contemporary thinkers argue that the hold of ancient dreams, especially the return to the Garden, must be put behind. And the failed idea of nature inherited from classical science must be replaced by alternative ways of conceptualizing nature and our place therein.

Some of these emerging ideas were first broached in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by alternative voices such Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold, and then more vigorously in the latter part of the twentieth century by Ilya Prigogine and Edward O. Wilson. Thoreau argued that the best humankind could hope for was a sympathy with the intelligence of nature rather than sure and certain knowledge. Leopold, observing the destruction of nature at an unprecedented scale, argued that humans should think of themselves as citizens of the land community rather than as the conquerors of nature. Near the end of the century Prigogine argued that humankind must, for the first time in its history, engage the evolved complexity of the natural world in dialogue, as a conversational partner. And Wilson made clear that humankind's actions over the first few decades of the new millennium would have profound consequences for the future of life.

As a linguistically reflexive, naturally evolved yet culturally self-conscious species, we might yet find our way into more tenable and less destructive notions of nature. But the challenge is enormous. How might we break free of the notion that we are the dominators of a brute, blind, material world of nature into an idea that leads us to restore some sense of ourselves as natural creatures, living in harmony with nature, while also retaining our distinctive cultural identity? There is no ready answer. Perhaps we will come to know the idea of nature more fully when we have come more fully to realize the enormity of time and our own historicity. There are reasons to think, as we enter the twenty-first century, that humankind might come to embrace an idea of nature that includes ourselves as cognizing subjects within it while not reducing ourselves to it.

See also Aristotelianism ; Biology ; Development ; Ecology ; Evolution ; Life ; Life Cycle ; Natural History ; Naturphilosophie ; Newtonianism ; Organicism ; Physics ; Science, History of ; Scientific Revolution ; State of Nature .


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Max Oelschlaeger


views updated May 09 2018


In Land of the Spotted Eagle (1933), Luther Standing Bear recalls the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the time before his Lakota people were driven from their homeland in what is now South Dakota and Nebraska:

Only to the white man was nature a "wilderness" and only to him was the land "infested" with "wild" animals and "savage" people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery. Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it "wild" for us. (P. 38)

As Standing Bear suggests, there is no "nature." There is only the inhabited planet—the land—which must be overlaid with specific cultural meanings to become natural or wild. In the United States in the nineteenth century, nature meant different things to different people, depending on who they were and what relation they bore to the powerful historical trends that were reshaping both the land and them, especially imperial expansion, industrialization, and urbanization.


One of the most powerful uses of the word "nature" was to designate places and people not yet "civilized," not yet incorporated into the growing capitalist republic. During the decades after the Revolution, Euro-American settlers pushed across the Alleghany and Appalachian ranges onto land that would soon become the second and third tiers of states. As they did, they came into immediate conflict with the native peoples of the region. In addition to epidemic diseases, the settlers brought with them the well-tried strategy of negotiating piecemeal treaties with individual tribes, treaties that gradually squeezed the tribes onto smaller and smaller remnants of their former territories. One of the most powerful tribes was the Shawnee, led by the great orator Tecumseh (1768–1813). At an 1810 frontier meeting with William Henry Harrison (who was then governor of the Territory of Indiana), Tecumseh protested against American imperial expansion and articulated a radical vision of native resistance and communal ownership of nature:

The way, the only way to stop this evil is for the red men to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first, and should be now—for it was never divided, but belongs to all. No tribe has the right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers. . . . Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? (Turner, p. 246)

Tecumseh hoped to bring together the northern tribes and lead them in a war to defend their homelands against the advance of the whites. But his plans were defeated during the War of 1812: he allied his forces with the British and was killed defending the rear of a retreating British column. The defeat of the Shawnee cleared the way for settlers to move into what was then called the Northwest, the vast reach of fertile hills and prairies below the Great Lakes.

Two decades later President Andrew Jackson made systematic displacement of the remaining natives into federal policy with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Jackson's annual addresses to Congress during the period are bluntly racist justifications of what we now call ethnic cleansing. He represents Native Americans as childlike primitives and argues that forcing tribes like the Cherokee to march the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma is a necessary part of America's mission to occupy and transform the wild continent: "What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms . . . and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization and religion?" Like most others who came to believe in white America's "Manifest Destiny" to settle the continent from sea to sea, Jackson recognized only one kind of liberty, the liberty to engage in the violent conquest of territory and profit.

American's transformation of its natural environment and the displacement of Native Americans formed the most central subject matter for some of its first "indigenous" literary texts, the early national historical romances. Modeled after the Highland romances of the Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott, these fictions set out to narrate a usable past for the new nation. James Fenimore Cooper's (1789–1851) The Pioneers (1823), for instance, tells the story of Judge Marmaduke Temple, who clears a vast estate and founds the village of Templeton in central New York State. Based on Cooper's family history, The Pioneers is a triumphal narrative of civilizing the wilderness, of hard work awakening the land from "the sleep of nature" so that it can "supply the wants of man" (1:233). At the same time, the text is marked by anxiety about the destruction of nature, an anxiety that is voiced most consistently by frontiersman Natty Bumppo, or Leatherstocking. Natty objects sorrowfully when Templeton's villagers gather in a clearing to kill tens of thousands of passenger pigeons for sport: "This comes of settling a country!" he says. "Here have I known the pigeon to fly for forty long years, and, till you made your clearings, there was nobody to skeart or to hurt them." Natty goes on to compare the pigeons to the region's natives who, he implies, are being slaughtered just as mercilessly: "There's Mr. Oliver, as bad as the rest of them, firing into the flocks as if he was shooting down nothing but the Mingo warriors" (1:248). Instead of calling on the villagers to stop firing, Natty responds to their indiscriminate destruction by demonstrating the more selective violence of his long rifle. As if to suggest that genocide would be more acceptable if more accurate, Cooper has his hero shoot a single pigeon, dropping it from a great distance after it becomes separated from the flock.

Cooper developed his characterization of Natty further in subsequent romances, especially The Last of the Mohicans (1826), which is set during the French and Indian Wars of the mid-eighteenth century. Here Natty plays an important liminal role: he is a colonial mediator between the overcivilized English and the noble savages of the New World. Raised by the Delaware chief Chingachgook, Natty has absorbed Mohican nature lore, but his blood remains safely European. By the end of the novel, he has come to embody a fantasized American identity that symbolically resolves national anxiety about genocide. By incorporating token elements of native culture while replacing actual natives, he represents an American republic that has connected itself with nature, thereby revitalizing itself in relation to degenerate European monarchies.

Cooper faced stiff competition in the production of historical romances. Both Lydia Maria Child's (1802–1880) Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times (1824) and Catharine Maria Sedgwick's (1789–1867) Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts (1827) take on the fraught subject of miscegenation, or interracial marriage between whites and natives. A liberal Unitarian and early abolitionist, Child allows her heroine, Mary Conant, who is overcome by grief at the drowning of an English suitor, to marry an exaggeratedly natural Wampanoag man, Hobomok. As in so many sentimental novels of the time, this transgressive marriage choice is simultaneously matter for moralistic punishment and a vicarious enactment of radical possibility. In the end, the plot enforces segregation of the biracial couple. Mary's suitor turns out not to have drowned as she had believed. He returns, and Hobomok quietly withdraws into the receding wilderness, leaving behind a couple whose white offspring will populate the wilderness his departure makes available.

In Sedgwick's Hope Leslie, however, it is a young man, Everell Fletcher, who must make a difficult marriage choice. The orphaned Hope Leslie, a passionate and independent girl, is his foster sister. Also living with his family is Hope's noble soulmate, Magawisca, the captured daughter of a Pequod warrior. She wears a naturalized costume—deerskin waistcoat, leggings, and moccasins, decorated with feathers and beads—that gives her "an air of wild and fantastic grace" (p. 23). And she speaks in elaborate figures meant to evoke the alleged natural poetry of native dialects: "My foot . . . is used to the wild-wood path. The deer tires not of his way on the mountain, nor the bird of its flight in the air" (p. 24). On visits to nature outside the bounds of the Puritan community, Magawisca teaches Hope the stories and lifeways of her people. Meanwhile, their friend Esther Downing, a pious Puritan girl, cultivates the silence, industry, and submissiveness expected of her. All three are potential love objects for Everell. His eventual marriage to Hope enacts the founding moment of the American nation and determines the future identity of its people. Like Cooper's Natty Bumppo, Hope is an intermediate figure, one whose white body is racially acceptable, but whose absorption of native self-reliance and culture through Magawisca has fitted her for the rigors of life in the natural New World. The plot drives Hope and Everell inevitably together while allowing Magawisca to nobly sacrifice herself and her own desires to their future prosperity.

Just as the first fiction writers in the United States patterned their work after British models, so too did the first American Romantic poets. William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), and other "Fireside Poets" wrote verse that was firmly rooted in the English accentual-syllabic tradition but that took up materials native to the American landscape. Bryant was known as "the American Wordsworth," and in his ode "The Prairies" (1832), nature is represented as a "magnificent temple" where the historical drama of the rise and fall of nations plays itself out. The poem stages an imaginary invasion in which red-skinned invaders wipe out a preexisting race of Mound Builders. Bryant remarks philosophically:

Thus change the forms of being. Thus arise
Races of living things, glorious in strength,
And perish, as the quickening breath of God
Fills them, or is withdrawn.

(Pp. 187–188)

Thus Bryant erases the violence of conquest and naturalizes genocide, suggesting that it is just one more of nature's cycles. He ends by comparing the noise of an "advancing multitude" of settlers to the "domestic hum" of the bee, an "adventurous colonist" who enlivens a wilderness made silent by the passing of the savage "red men" (p. 189).

As actual natives were driven farther and farther west, retrospective idealization of their culture became a staple of Fireside poetry, as in Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha (1855), a cycle of Ojibwa stories adapted in verse. This long poem begins by calling together its audience in lines that clearly reflect the cultural work that nature and naturalized people were being made to perform:

Ye who love the haunts of Nature
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Ye whose hearts are fresh and simple,
Who have faith in God and Nature,
Who believe that in all ages
Every human heart is human,
That in even savage bosoms
There are longings, yearnings, strivings
For the good they comprehend not,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Listen to this simple story,
To this Song of Hiawatha!

(P. 114)

Like Hobomok, Hiawatha is a primitivist caricature, a "noble savage" who quests mightily to defend his people. But in the end he paddles his canoe placidly into the western wilderness to make room for white men who will learn natural piety from the traditional stories of his tribe. In other words, as readers in the rapidly modernizing United States became conscious of their increasing distance from the frontier, poetry about native subjects offered a nostalgic vision of nature as a wellspring of uncomplicated morality and faith.

Native Americans did not acquiesce silently to being both literally and figuratively exiled into nature. They were extremely inventive in their efforts to use both printed literature and oratory to escape from the wilderness. In the late 1820s, Cherokee spokespeople dispatched several "memorials" to Congress. These highly formal documents ventriloquize the republican discourse of the Declaration of Independence in order to argue that the Cherokee are a sovereign nation seated on ancestral lands. The Cherokee leader Sequoyah invented an eighty-six-character syllabary that allowed for publication of a bilingual newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. The Phoenix reported on the tribe's adoption of a constitution, the building of schools, and advances in agriculture. One of its editors, Elias Boudinot (c. 1802–1839), toured the country soliciting funds to pay for a new press. In a speech he delivered before hundreds of audiences, titled "An Address to the Whites" (1826), he resolutely distanced himself and his people from nature: "You here behold an Indian, my kindred are Indians, and my fathers sleeping in the wilderness grave—they too were Indians. But I am not as my fathers were—broader means and nobler influences have fallen upon me" (pp. 3–4). By demonstrating that he, as a representative Cherokee, had abandoned nature and become civilized, Boudinot hoped to convince his audience, and the nation at large, to negotiate with his people as equals.

William Apess (1798–1839) was less conciliatory. His fiery essay "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man" (1833) remains one of the most forceful native indictments of American racism and imperial expansion. Apess reaches a rhetorical pinnacle discussing the prohibition of miscegenation, denouncing "the ill-fated laws made by man to hedge up the laws of God and nature" (p. 159). Ironically, his hortatory conclusion draws an implied analogy between the settlers' conquest of nature and the defeat of racism: he calls for the "tree of distinction" or prejudice to "be leveled to the earth"; should this be done, "then shall peace pervade the Union" (pp. 160–161). That peace did not come. The last significant battle in the East came in 1832 when Illinois and Wisconsin militia attacked and defeated a band of Sauk and Fox Indians led by Black Hawk and drove the survivors into Iowa. By 1840 all of the significant eastern tribes had either been physically destroyed or removed beyond the Mississippi River, leaving room for Euro-American writers and readers to forge new imaginary relations with the land.


The Quaker poet and New York newspaper editor John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) was widely admired for his pastoral accounts of the New England countryside such as Snow-Bound (1866), a nostalgic portrait of his family at home on his childhood farm. He saw a firm link between natural piety and political radicalism, and in "The Tent on the Beach" (1867) he described his conversion to abolitionism as the moment when he decided to make "his rustic reed of song / A weapon in the war with wrong" (p. 243). In the Northeast, where native removal had been completed half a century earlier, and where industrialization and urbanization were moving forward quickly, the mid-nineteenth century saw important new applications of the very old idea that nature is a simple, innocent refuge from a degenerate civilization. A generation of northeastern intellectuals, many of whom, like Whittier, were just one generation removed from the farm, came to see nature as an idealized alternative to brawling capitalist cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, where poverty and class conflict had become defining features of everyday life. The most visible manifestation of this pastoralism was a broad utopian socialist movement, Associationism, whose participants built large cooperative agricultural communities. George Ripley (1802–1880), for instance, founded the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1841. In a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Ripley described his hope that a collective life of direct engagement with nature through manual labor would produce "a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can now be led amidst the pressures of our competitive institutions" (Frothingham, p. 307). Dozens of such pastoralist communities were founded across the United States and tens of thousands participated in the movement, mounting a direct ideological challenge to capitalism at the moment of its birth.

Ripley's close friend Emerson published an individualist's version of this challenge in an influential little book, Nature (1836), the central manifesto of what has since been dubbed New England transcendentalism. Emerson describes a pantheist divinity immanent in nature and announces that all people potentially can make direct contact with it. Doing so elevates us, for nature's "floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature" (p. 7). Emerson calls on his readers to transform themselves spiritually through contact with the eternal truths of nature and thereby to transform the social world: "As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit" (p. 48). Nature is structured in a somewhat mechanical, rationalist fashion that contrasts with its ideas, but Emerson also experiments with an accretive, sinuous style that he saw as natural; he would make his later essays grow like vines. Moreover, his natural idealism provided his readers, many of whom were elite liberals, with a secular warrant for participation in a wide range of reform projects directed at the growing urban working class, such as temperance and debt-relief campaigns, as well as prison and asylum reform.


John Greenleaf Whittier's 1867 poem "The Worship of Nature" gives an absolute statement of the nineteenth-century idea that nature is a sacred and pristine space, a categorical opposite to the mundane, grubby landscape of society. The poem sets up an elaborate metaphorical comparison between an idealized forest grove and a cathedral, suggesting that a feminized Nature, rather than an anthropomorphic God, is the most reliable source of grace. Human beings seem to be absent from this place of worship, although implied personifications of natural phenomena provide ghostly images of devout nature worshippers. Then, people arrive with a vengeance in the poem's final line, the tone shifts to one of outrage, and "man" is dismissed as a sacrilegious philistine, incapable of understanding the immanent divinity of nature. On one hand, the poem expresses the abolitionist Whittier's desire for redemption in the wake of the horrifically bloody Civil War. On the other, it also reflects a clear trend among radicals who appealed to an idealized nature as a source of humane values: the contrast between their exaggerated vision of nature's purity and their century's cruel social history could inspire demoralization and finally detachment.

The harp at Nature's advent strung
Has never ceased to play;
The song the stars of morning sung
Has never died away.
And prayer is made, and praise is given,
By all things near and far;
The ocean looketh up to heaven,
And mirrors every star.
Its waves are kneeling on the strand,
As kneels the human knee,
Their white locks bowing to the sand,
The priesthood of the sea!
They pour their glittering treasures forth,
Their gifts of pearl they bring,
And all the listening hills of earth
Take up the song they sing.
The green earth sends its incense up
From many a mountain shrine;
From folded leaf and dewy cup
She pours her sacred wine.
The mists above the morning rills
Rise white as wings of prayer;
The altar-curtains of the hills
Are sunset's purple air.
The winds with hymns of praise are loud,
Or low with sobs of pain, —
The thunder-organ of the cloud,
The dropping tears of rain.
With drooping head and branches crossed
The twilight forest grieves,
Or speaks with tongues of Pentecost
From all its sunlit leaves.
The blue sky is the temple's arch,
Its transept earth and air,
The music of its starry march
The chorus of a prayer.
So Nature keeps the reverent frame
With which her years began,
And all her signs and voices shame
The prayerless heart of man.

Whittier, Complete Poetical Works, p. 261.

It also laid the groundwork for more radical ways of thinking about nature's transformative power.

Henry David Thoreau's (1817–1862) Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) enacts and extends Emerson's ideas, telling the story of two years Thoreau spent living in a small cabin he built on the shores of a pond outside Concord, Massachusetts. Walden begins by detailing the mechanical "lives of quiet desperation" that townspeople endure (p. 8). Sullied by the curse of trade and trapped by the unnatural logic of the marketplace, "the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day" (p. 6). Thoreau acts out an organic alternative to town life: he sheds artificial needs and communes with nature, giving himself time to appreciate life's "finer fruits" (p. 6). He arrives in the end at an optimistic conviction that a "beautiful and winged" future lies waiting to spring forth from the "the dead dry life of society" (p. 333). Walden also experiments with the naturalization of literary form, collapsing two years of experience into one and organizing it according to the cycle of the seasons, thus offering the transition from inert winter to glorious spring as a metaphor for individual and social rebirth. Because it so insistently represents nature as a sacred space threatened by a degenerate society, Walden also includes some of the first proto-environmentalist discourse in American literature: Thoreau complains that "the wood-cutters, and the railroad, and I myself have profaned Walden" (p. 197). In essays like "Walking," he argues that "in wildness is the preservation of the world" (Collected Essays, p. 239). And in his natural history manuscript Wild Fruits (unpublished until 2000), he calls for the protection of large tracts of wilderness to be held by society as a "common possession forever" (p. 236). Protecting nature was not only an environmental issue for Thoreau but a social one, too. For like Whittier, he saw wild nature as the moral touchstone that inspired his own radicalism, including his commitment to the abolition of slavery and his staunch opposition to American imperial adventures in Mexico.

Nature operates as a utopian alternative to brutal modernity in many other important transcendentalist texts. Margaret Fuller's (1810–1850) travel narrative, Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (1844), represents the West as a potential feminist republic where nature "did not say, Fight or starve; nor even, Work or cease to exist; but, merely showing that the apple was a finer fruit than the wild crab, gave both room to grow in the garden" (p. 26). Caroline Kirkland (1801–1864) describes the western territories as a classless society in her memoir A New Home—Who'll Follow? (1839). In her village "home on the outskirts of civilization" people live "in complete equality" and all "rise with the sun or before him—to breakfast with the chickens." For Kirkland, "this primitive arrangement" serves as an important reminder to those "who are apt occasionally to forget, when speaking of a particular class, that 'those creatures' are partakers with themselves of a common nature" (p. 4). Similarly, in Nathaniel Hawthorne's (1804–1864) The Scarlet Letter (1850), it is only in the forest that Hester Prynne is free to respond naturally to her own physical and emotional impulses. Exiled there by the sexist Puritan theocracy, she is transformed into a wise woman, "self-ordained a Sister of Mercy," for whom the symbolic A has come to mean "Able" (p. 259). In the forest, she decides that "the world's law was no law for her mind" (p. 259), and she immerses herself in the revolutionary spirit of times when "the human intellect, newly emancipated" concludes that "the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew" (p. 260). Likewise, Emily Dickinson's (1830–1886) pastoral lyrics represent nature as a sacred retreat from the pressures of oppressive social institutions:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—
I keep it, staying at Home—
With a Bobolink for a Chorister—
And an Orchard, for a Dome—


Dickinson's poems are wild hymns, cracking the metronomic meter of Protestant church songs and celebrating a redeeming communion with an often feminized natural world.

The transcendentalist vision of nature was by no means universally accepted. For America's most intensively oppressed people, wilderness often seemed to be anything but a safe space. In much African American literature of the mid-nineteenth century, nature is represented as a terrifying wasteland populated by slave hunters and their dogs. Escaped slaves must pass through this anarchic, isolating landscape on their way to the North, where a truer freedom is protected by law and the organized black community. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), nature stands as a terrorizing obstacle to escape from the South. Imagining the road north, Douglass (1818–1895) envisions a wilderness of the worst sort: "after swimming rivers, encountering wild beasts, sleeping in the woods, suffering hunger and nakedness,—we were overtaken by our pursuers, and, in our resistance, we were shot dead upon the spot!" (p. 74). In Douglass's novella The Heroic Slave (1853), however, nature is a more ambiguous space. The hero, Madison Washington, first articulates his desire for freedom in a "dark pine forest" near "a sparkling brook" (p. 177). But after his escape, he spends five purgatorial years as a refugee in "dismal swamps," wandering "at night with the wolf and the bear" until an apocalyptic forest fire drives him out, forcing him to make his way north to Canada (p. 193). Similarly, in Harriet Jacobs's (1813–1897) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Linda Brent is forced to hide in "Snaky Swamp," passing a "wretched night" tortured by insects and paralyzed by fear. Even so, she remarks that the swamp's "venomous snakes were less dreadful to my imagination than the white men in that community called civilized" (pp. 112–113).

A second alternative to the transcendentalist spiritualization of nature appears, paradoxically, in the work of the most wholly city-based writers of the period. A powerful ideological current among the developing working class focused on "free soil" as a solution to urban poverty. Radical figures like the newspaper editor George Henry Evans and the labor leader Stephen Simpson called on the federal government to distribute western homesteads to relieve chronic unemployment. Their crusade centered on the claim that access to productive soil was a natural right, commensurate with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Nature was not an otherworldly retreat or alternative moral order but a material necessity, the ground of a productive and independent livelihood. Herman Melville's (1819–1891) powerful indictment of labor relations under capitalism, "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1853), stages the consequences of workers' alienation from the physical earth. The protagonist is a tortured copyist imprisoned in a Wall Street workspace that is "deficient in what landscape painters call 'life'" (p. 636). Bartleby declares a solitary strike against this oppressively unnatural world. In the end, he finds peace by dying in a prison, the Tombs, next to an emblematic patch of grass, "a soft imprisoned turf" that has grown "by some strange magic" in the "heart of the eternal pyramids" (p. 671).

Similarly, in Walt Whitman's (1819–1892) Leaves of Grass (1855), nature is the physical ground of all human life, whether economic, spiritual, or political. Beginning from the egalitarian principle that "every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you" (p. 27), Whitman offers a utopian alternative to the shallow utilitarianism and turgid piety of his contemporaries: "That I eat and drink is spectacle enough for the great authors and schools, / A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books" (p. 52). Whitman celebrates the irreducible physicality and naturalness of all things, including people, in breathless catalogs. His secular, democratic scriptures radically transvalue the mundane world of nineteenth-century capitalism, compelling us to see the natural beauty of the world's body and our own, showing us that "a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars" (p. 57).

Unstable and multivalent though it was, the idea of "nature" was absolutely central to the history and culture of the nineteenth-century United States. It authorized westward expansion by marking the unsettled continent as raw wilderness awaiting cultivation. Native Americans were represented as occupants of the unimproved state of nature, as primitive savages requiring civilization or displacement. They contested this designation, harnessing the power of print to argue that they were just as civilized, perhaps more so, than their hypocritical adversaries. Once the dislocation of the eastern tribes was complete, native culture was revalued, becoming the subject of compensatory nostalgia for a natural life on the land. Then, as capitalism radically transformed both social hierarchies and the physical environment, this pastoral vision of harmony with nature became a complex moral touch-stone for America's most powerful critics, the New England transcendentalists. The value of nature was challenged by the African Americans and women who were the subjects of the period's struggles for human equality; nevertheless, nature did much to inspire truly radical criticism of the young nation's most fundamental contradictions and discords.

See alsoLeatherstocking Tales; Nature;Romanticism; Transcendentalism; Wilderness


Primary Works

Apess, William. On Our Own Ground: The CompleteWritings of William Apess, a Pequot. Edited by Barry O'Connell. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

Boudinot, Elias. An Address to the Whites: Delivered in theFirst Presbyterian Church, on the 26th of May, 1826. Philadelphia: W. F. Geddes, 1826.

Bryant, William Cullen. Poetical Works of William Cullen Bryant. New York: Appleton, 1878.

Child, Lydia Maria. Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times. 1824. Reprinted in Hobomok and Other Writings on Indians, edited by Carolyn Karcher. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Leatherstocking Tales. 2 vols. New York: Library of America, 1985.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. 3 vols. Edited by R. W. Franklin. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998. Variorum edition.

Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave. In Autographs forFreedom, edited by Julia Griffiths. Boston: J. P. Jewett, 1853.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of FrederickDouglass, an American Slave. 1845. Reprinted in Autobiographies, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. New York: Library of America, 1994.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures. New York: Library of America, 1983.

Frothingham, Octavius Brooks. George Ripley. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1882.

Fuller, Margaret. Summer on the Lakes, in 1843. 1844. Edited by Susan Belasco Smith. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Collected Novels. New York: Library of America, 1983.

Jackson, Andrew. "President Jackson's Message to Congress 'On Indian Removal,' December 6, 1830; Records of the United States Senate, 1789–1990." Record Group 46, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. 1861. Edited by Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Kirkland, Caroline. A New Home—Who'll Follow? or,Glimpses of Western Life. 1839. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975.

Melville, Herman. "Bartleby, the Scrivener." 1853. In Pierre, Israel Potter, The Confidence-Man, Tales, and Billy Budd. New York: Library of America, 1984.

Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts. 1827. Edited by Mary Kelley. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Standing Bear, Luther. Land of the Spotted Eagle. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1933.

Thoreau, Henry David. Collected Essays and Poems. Edited by Elizabeth Hall Witherell. New York: Library of America, 2001.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden; or, Life in the Woods. 1854. Edited by J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Thoreau, Henry David. Wild Fruits: Thoreau's RediscoveredLast Manuscript. Edited by Bradley P. Dean. New York: Norton, 2000.

Turner, Frederick, III, ed. The Portable North American Indian Reader. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Whittier, John Greenleaf. Complete Poetical Works of JohnGreenleaf Whittier. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1894.

Secondary Works

Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau,Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995.

Drinnon, Richard. Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980.

Jehlen, Myra. American Incarnation: The Individual, theNation, and the Continent. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor asExperience and History in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and thePastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

McKusick, James C. Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Merchant, Carolyn. Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Miller, Angela L. The Empire of the Eye: LandscapeRepresentation and American Cultural Politics, 1825–1875. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1967.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge, 1992.

Rosenthal, Bernard. City of Nature: Journeys to Nature in the Age of American Romanticism. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1980.

Shi, David. The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through Violence: TheMythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West asSymbol and Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Worster, Donald. Nature's Economy: A History of EcologicalIdeas. Cambridge, U.K, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Lance Newman


views updated May 18 2018


Thinking about science, technology, and ethics easily raises questions about nature. Science considers whether and how nature can be understood. Technology considers whether and how humans can control nature. Ethics considers whether and how science and technology can be guided by standards of right and wrong that might be rooted in nature. One of the most common objections to science and technology is to argue that they go against nature, just as one of the strongest defenses is to present them as eminently natural.

Nature and Reason

The English word nature is derived from the Latin word natura, which is related to the verb nasci (to be born) and the noun natus (birth). The Latin natura corresponds to the Greek phusis, of which the root is phu (growing, becoming, being). Nature is the original birth or coming into being of something. More generally, nature is concerned with the "first things," the origins of things.

The idea of nature seems to have been discovered or invented first by ancient Greek philosophers and scientists. Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) identified the "first philosophers" as "humans who spoke about nature" in looking for the "principles" or "beginnings" of all things (Metaphysics 983b5–19). These Greek philosophers thought of phusis as the beginning or coming to be of something. But more often phusis meant the sort or kind or description of something—the essential character of a thing or a class of things. The nature of something could be what it is at birth or what it grows into at maturity, what it is at its beginning or at its end. "Nature is an end," Aristotle explained, "because whatever anything is like when its growth is completed, that we call the nature of each thing" (Politics 1252b33–35). These Greek philosophers began by asking about the nature of each thing, what each thing is like. And then they asked what everything was like. Thus, the Greek philosopher Parmenides (c. 515 b.c.e.) could write a book with the title On Nature, which considered the "nature" of everything.

When nature becomes everything, it is impossible to define. But generally nature is a term of distinction, and so its meaning may be clarified by asking what is its opposite. In ancient Greece, "nature" (phusis) was most commonly set in opposition to "custom" (nomos) or "art" (techne). Custom and art are human products. By contrast, nature is what arises on its own without human interference. Nature is what is not customary or artificial.

Philosophy or science arose in ancient Greece when a few thinkers noticed that customary practices and beliefs varied across human societies. This led them to doubt the authority of human customs and to look for what was universally true by nature as opposed to what was believed to be true by human custom. Whatever arises by human custom or artfulness is changeable, but what arises by nature, it was argued, is unchangeable and thus more real than the perishable products of human activity.

The ultimate justification for customary practices and beliefs is the claim that they are divine, that they originated from the commands of gods or god-like ancestors. But when Greek philosophers and scientists explained the "first things" as natural rather than customary or artificial, this suggested that even the gods might be artificial or human-made, as being products of storytelling. The natural was opposed to the divine or the supernatural. Consequently, as indicated by the Athenian trial and execution of Socrates (469–399 b.c.e.), who was charged with impiety, the philosophic discovery of nature implied a questioning of the gods.

Revelation and Nature

The religious believer could respond by denying the idea of nature as the autonomous order of the world and affirming that whatever exists is what it is only through the creative activity of the gods or God. The Hebrew scriptures contain no word that corresponds to nature. In the Greek scriptures, the word phusis does not occur except in the letters of Paul, who was influenced by Greek philosophy.

Yet the medieval scholastic tradition of Biblical theology adopted the Greek idea of nature insofar as God was understood to be the creator of nature. Indeed, this assumption allowed Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), for instance, to interpret the order found in the cosmos (which he termed lex aeterna or eternal law, because absent revelation the world was seen as eternal) and in human nature (which he termed lex naturalis or natural law) as both rational and normative in character. The natural law of what it is to be human was manifest in three levels of natural inclination or desire: for physical life, for family and children, and for political and rational experience.

In the late medieval period, as creation itself increasingly came to be conceived in technological terms, this nevertheless led to nature being thought of as God's artifice. As a divine construction, nature could stand on its own and was governed by its own "secondary laws." Although God ultimately remained the transcendent "first cause" of all things, the divine necessarily began to be pushed to the margins of scientific investigations.

The founders of early modern science such as Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Robert Boyle (1627–1691), and Isaac Newton (1642–1727) adopted this medieval teaching in defending the science of nature as the study of "secondary causes," while increasingly delimiting the higher authority of Biblical theology as the study of God as "first cause." Nature was the book of God's works, and the Bible was the book of God's words. The book of nature was written in the language of mathematics, which was more pure and more progressive than theological disputes concerning historical revelations. To understand nature, scientists were thus encouraged to discover those mathematical principles of nature that constituted the "laws of nature."

The mathematical and observational methods of modern science have succeeded in uncovering the laws of nature in a sense much more expansive and less normative than for Thomas Aquinas. Does this advance in the scientific understanding justify the control of nature? Does the possession of power convey the legitimacy of its use? Bacon, René Descartes (1596–1650), and other early modern proponents of science certainly projected that their new science would conquer nature for human benefit. Beginning in ancient Greece, philosophers and scientists had striven for a theoretical comprehension of nature. Modern scientists under the banner of Bacon and Descartes strove for power over nature. The point was not just to understand nature but to change it, so that modern science from its beginnings exhibited an inherently technological orientation.

Organism versus Machine

The contrast between traditional and modern concepts of nature may also be presented as a contrast between visions of nature as an organism and as a machine. For the Greek philosophers and medieval theologians, nature was primarily manifest as a something that is born and grows. Even for premodern materialists such as Lucretius (c. 99–c. 55 b.c.e.), nature seems to be a super organism with a consequent sacred or awe-inspiring character. Although he seeks to remove all religious superstition from the world and present nature as devoid of gods, his poem De rerum natura opens with praise of sky and earth as the father and mother of all living things. In the presence of such a reality—indeed, as part of such a reality—humans are called upon to accept and to live in harmony with it. And for Plotinus (204–270 c.e.), throughout "the air, the earth and sea, there are advents of terrestrial, aquatic, and aerial gods [so that] the world is throughout filled with deity; and on this account is according to the whole of itself the image of the intelligible" (Proclus, Platonic Theology, 7.2).

For modern philosophers such as Descartes, however, nature was primarily manifest by inanimate entities such as rocks that can nevertheless interact as carriers of energy to create complex structures. For Descartes, even living things are complex machines—plants, animals, and human bodies (including the human brain and nervous system) are all machines.

Such a view of nature as machine undercuts the traditional distinction between nature and artifice. The science of nature as machine yields a technology by which nature as technology can be further molded by human beings to serve human purposes. When Bacon declared that "nature to be commanded must be obeyed," he transforms the premodern basic end in itself of obedience to nature into a mere means (Novum organum I, 3). Although he argues that all humans can do "is to put together or put asunder natural bodies" with "the rest [being] done by nature working within" (Novum organum I, 4), for him nature as a mechanical process has already ceased to exhibit much in the way of intrinsic value. From the eighteenth century romantic poets to contemporary deep ecologists, humans have worried that the science and technology of nature as machine brings about first in theory and then in practice, in Bill McKibben's phrase, "the end of nature": a wholly artificial world controlled by human will with no room left for natural spontaneity or wildness.

In response to this Romantic notion of nature and technology in conflict, some people have defended technology as itself natural. All organisms alter their environments in adaptive ways, and many animals build artificial structures: Beavers construct dams, bees fabricate hives, and leaf-cutter ants cultivate fungus gardens and herd aphids. Charles Darwin (1809–1882) contended that tool-making was common in the animal world, and human technology differed in degree not in kind. Some biologists argue that human technology expresses "niche construction," which is a trait found generally in the living world, because organisms do not just adapt to fixed environments, they also change environments to construct their own niches. There is no fixed "balance of nature," because nature is constantly in flux from the ever-changing forces of both physical and organic causes. For example, the present concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere has arisen from the production of oxygen by photosynthetic organisms. As a consequence, many organisms have evolved a capacity for aerobic respiration and other traits as adaptations to this atmospheric increase in oxygen levels over the course of geological time. Without such a change in the atmosphere brought about by ancient photosynthetic organisms, human beings could never have evolved.

The Problematic Appeal to Nature

Despite the modern replacement of nature as divine with nature as machine, and outside the more extreme Romantic attempts to re-valorize nature, it is nevertheless the case that the appeal to nature exerts a popular influence. On the one side, one of the most common criticisms of genetically engineered foods or bioengineered human-machine hybrids is that they are in some sense unnatural. On the other, one of the most common general forms of praise for science and technology is that they are natural and thus improperly delimited. The so-called naturalistic fallacy is found across the spectrum of discussions about relations between science, technology, and ethics.

Among those who have criticized this appeal to nature as a ground of moral judgment, it is common to distinguish two senses of nature. When scientists speak of the laws of nature, they mean nature as the collective whole of everything that exists or could exist, including humans. When non-scientists speak of nature they more common refer to whatever is spontaneous or not the result of human contrivance.

Insofar as nature covers the entire order of things, argued John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) in a classic modern criticism of the appeal to nature, the moral injunction to "follow nature" makes no sense; humans have no choice in the matter. Everything people do must conform to nature in this abstract, all-encompassing sense. On the other hand, if nature is the spontaneous order of things free from human influence, then "following nature" would be irrational and immoral. It would be irrational, because any human action would alter the course of nature and would thus be unnatural. And it would be immoral, because natural phenomena often have evil effects. Mill declares in his essay "Nature": "Either it is right that we should kill because nature kills; torture because nature tortures; ruin and devastate because nature does the like; or we ought not to consider at all what nature does, but what it is good to do." Morality requires that we go against the impulses of nature.

So morality is not natural, Mill concludes. Rather, it is nature artificially perfected by human cultivation and artifice to satisfy the moral concerns of human beings. Those who argue for a natural moral law mistakenly assume that what is can be the rule and standard for what ought to be. Natural science can reveal the natural facts of existence, but morality must tell humans about the moral values of human life.

This distinction between is and ought, or between facts and values, supports the common distinction between nature and culture. Morality is assumed then to arise not from nature but from culture, because moral norms of right and wrong, good and bad, are products of human cultural artifice. Through science, people can understand nature. And through technology, people can control nature. But to judge the moral ends of scientific understanding and technological control, one must go beyond nature and enter the realm of culture, which is an artificial world of human social contrivance set apart from the natural world. As Remi Brague (2003) has shown, Mill's essay on nature manifests the shift from the premodern idea that nature is a model for human action to the modern idea that nature needs to be corrected, not imitated.

The proponent of natural moral law might respond by saying that although cosmic nature might be indifferent to moral distinctions, human nature is not. If one can identify some human desires and inclinations as natural and not merely conventional, one can say that the naturally good human life is one that satisfies those natural desires and inclinations. Variable moral customs of culture can then be judged as good or bad, depending on whether or not they conform to those natural desires and inclinations. So, for example, if human beings have natural desires for life, for parental care, and for social bonding, then one can judge those beliefs and practices that satisfy these desires as naturally good.

Even Mill accepts this in his utilitarian morality, when he claims that the ultimate good for human beings is the attainment of happiness, which is the satisfaction of their natural desires. For example, humans' moral duties to others arise from their natural sentiments as social animals who care for their fellow creatures (Mill 1991). Of course, as Mill insists, people's moral virtues do not spring spontaneously from their human nature, because they need to be cultivated through individual habituation and social customs. But still, as Aristotle said, the cultivation of such virtues is made possible by our natural desires and inclinations (Nicomachean Ethics, 1103a14–26).

And so reflections about science, technology, and ethics lead to complex questions about the meaning of nature. To ponder such questions is part of human nature.


SEE ALSO Bioengineering Ethics;Christian Perspectives;Descartes, René;Earth;Environmental Ethics;Environmentalism;Nature versus Nurture;Rousseau, Jean-Jacques;Sierra Club;Thoreau, Henry David.


Brague, Remi. (2003). The Wisdom of the World: The Human Experience of the Universe in Western Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Klein, Jacob. (1985). "On the Nature of Nature." In Lectures and Essays, ed. Robert B. Williamson and Elliott Zuckerman. Annapolis, MD: St. John's College Press.

Lewis, C. S. (1967). "Nature." In Studies in Words, 2nd edition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

McKibben, Bill. (1989). The End of Nature. New York: Random House.

Mill, John Stuart. (1969). "Nature." In Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Vol. 10., ed. John M. Robson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Mill, John Stuart. (1991). On Liberty and Other Essays, ed. John Gray. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Odling-Smee, F. John; Kevin N. Laland; and Marcus W. Feldman. (2003). Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Strauss, Leo. (1953). Natural Right and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Torrance, John, ed. (1992). The Concept of Nature. Cambridge, UK: Clarendon Press.

Wigner, Eugene P. (1984). "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences." In Mathematics: People, Problems, Results, ed. Douglas M. Campbell and John C. Higgins. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


views updated Jun 27 2018


Though the Bible is full of the awareness and appreciation of nature from the creation narrative up to the Psalmist's declaration, "The heavens declare the glory of God…" (Ps. 19:2), it does not profess a comprehensive doctrine of nature in relation to man and God. Nature is a testimony to the work of the Creator (Isa. 40:26; Amos 5:8; Job 38–41), not a subject for speculation. As opposed to the pagan world-view which endowed natural objects with divinity, the Bible makes it quite clear that the natural world was produced by, and totally subject to, God – not in any way part of Him. This, in sum, is its doctrine of nature.

In Rabbinic Literature

A similar lack of speculative interest in nature is apparent in rabbinic literature, though to a lesser degree. Contemplation of the majesty of the heavens or the myriad creatures on earth served the rabbis as a reminder of the wondrous ways of the Creator rather than as the starting point of physical speculation. Thus when R. Akiva considered the manner in which land and sea animals were confined to, and dependent on, their respective elements he would say, "How mighty are Thy works O Lord" (Ps. 104:24; Ḥul. 127a). On the other hand, the purely aesthetic appreciation of nature was played down in preference to the more centrally religious values. This is apparent in the (generally misunderstood) passage, "He who walks by the way studying, and interrupts his studying by saying 'How pleasant is this tree, how pleasant this plowed field'… it is as if he were deserving of death" (Avot 3:8).

The nearest to a conceptual discussion of nature comes in rabbinic consideration of cosmogony and of miracles. The ideas that God looked into the Torah and using it as a blueprint created the natural world (Gen. R. 1:1), and that miracles were built into the natural order at the creation (Avot 5:5; Gen. R. 5:5) would seem to reflect Stoic doctrine (see *Creation and Cosmogony; *Miracles).

The teleological argument, from design in nature to the existence of a Designer, is found in rabbinic literature, albeit in a philosophically naive form. Thus it is said of Abraham that he first came to know God by pondering on the comparison between the world and a palace. Just as a palace which is illuminated must have an owner so too must the world (Gen. R. 39: 1; cf. Midrash Temurah 5).

In Hellenistic and Medieval Jewish Philosophy

In their philosophy of nature, as in other branches of philosophy, Hellenistic and medieval Jewish thinkers were influenced greatly by the current general philosophical doctrines. Thus, for the most part, they adopted the view that the universe is governed by immutable laws; that all objects in the sublunar world are formed out of combinations of four basic elements – earth, air, fire, and water; that the celestial world consists of a fifth element; and that substances in the universe can be classified hierarchically as inanimate, vegetative, animate, and rational. However, the philosophical view of nature posed problems for the traditional Jewish view as expressed in the Bible and Talmud. For traditional Judaism the universe did not run according to set immutable laws. Rather God directly regulated the workings of the universe that He had created, ensuring that events would lead to the specific goal He had in mind. The medieval Jewish philosopher, unable to give up this view of nature completely, sought in his philosophies of nature to reconcile the biblical and talmudic concepts of *creation and *miracles with the theories of secular philosophy. For some of them, the design and order that they observed in nature constituted the evidence for the existence of a Creator – the teleological argument.

*Philo held that the world was governed by laws which were instituted by God at the time of creation. He maintained that all objects in the universe were composed of combinations of the four elements, interpreting the wings of the seraphim in Isaiah's vision (Isa. 6) as the four elements, one pair representing earth and water, and the second pair, fire and air. The third pair he interpreted as the forces of love and opposition which initiate movement in the other four elements (De Deo, 9–10).

*Saadiah, too, held that all objects are composed of four basic elements (Emunot ve-De'ot, 10:17; 1:3; 2:2), and that the world is governed by set laws. As a follower of the *Kalam, which accepted creation and advanced proofs for it, Saadiah had no difficulty with the doctrine of creation. Among the proofs which Saadiah advanced for creation was one based on the order existing in nature, a proof that he adopted from the Kalam. Saadiah argued that since all composite objects must be fashioned from their component parts by an intelligent being, so the world, which is itself a composite of many composites, must have been created (ibid., treatise 1). *Baḥya ibn Paquda employs a similar argument in his Ḥovot ha-Levavot (1:6).


Adopting the neoplatonic conception of the universe as a series of descending spheres, Jewish neoplatonists sought to combine the theory of emanation with the biblical concept of creation. In attempting to do so, Isaac *Israeli, somewhat arbitrarily, maintained that the intellect, which next to God is the highest being in the world, was created by God, and that all other objects emanate from the intellect (S. Fried (ed.), Sefer ha-Yesodot (1900), 69). Aristotelian influences are evident in Israeli's doctrine of the elements.

Joseph ibn *Ẓaddik, although generally a neoplatonist, adopted Aristotle's philosophy of nature. However, he deviated from it in his definition of matter and form, assigning to matter the position of the one real substance and to form a status similar to that of accidents (Sefer Olam Katan, 1:2).

*Judah Halevi, who was generally critical of Aristotelian philosophy, criticized the Aristotelian doctrine of the four elements on the ground that it has no basis in experience, for while we do perceive the qualities of heat, cold, wetness, and dryness, we do not perceive them in their pure form as primary elements (Kuzari, 5:14).


Abraham *Ibn Daud, the first of the Jewish Aristotelians, in his Emunah Ramah, adopted the Aristotelian concepts of form and matter, substance and accident, and the categories, finding allusions to the categories in the 139th Psalm. Unable to accept the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity of matter insofar as it conflicted with the biblical concept of creation, Ibn Daud posited the existence of a formless prime matter which was the first stage in the process of creation.

*Maimonides, while he totally accepted Aristotelian physics, differed with the Aristotelian view that the world is eternal. Maintaining that neither eternity nor creation could be proved, he chose to accept creation as the theory advanced in the Bible. He held that miracles were predetermined at the time of creation, and that they were not abrogations of natural laws, but occurred through the exertion of one natural force upon another.

*Levi b. Gershom disagreed with the Aristotelian notion that time and motion are infinite (Milḥamot Adonai, pt. 6, 1:10–12). Levi proved that the world was created from the teleological character of nature. Just as every particular object in nature moves toward the realization of its own particular goal, so the universe, the sum total of all the things that exist within it, moves toward an ultimate end. He is unique among Jewish philosophers in that he rejects the idea of creation ex nihilo, maintaining that there existed an eternal absolutely formless matter out of which God at a particular point in time created the universe (ibid., 1:17–28). He interprets the biblical story of creation to coincide with this theory.

*Crescas criticized Aristotelian physics, especially his doctrine of space, maintaining that, in opposition to Aristotle, a vacuum was possible (Or Adonai, bk. 1, pt. 2, ch. 3). Crescas believed that it was inconsequential whether or not the world was eternal; what is important is that God created the world ex nihilo, but not necessarily at a specific moment in time.

[Alfred L. Ivry]

Modern Period

Scientific philosophy entered a new phase with the doctrine of Kant that the natural world was phenomenal, being the manifestation, through the categories, of the noumenal world – the unknowable ding an sich. The development of this doctrine in Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling and the bifurcation of spirit and nature influenced Jewish philosophers of the school of idealism.

Solomon *Formstecher gave Schelling's doctrine of the nonconscious world soul a theistic interpretation. The world soul is the essence of the natural world though separate from and independent of it. Nature, in turn, is totally dependent on the world soul, being but one aspect of its manifestation. Formstecher makes a distinction between the religion of nature – in which the world soul is merely the highest principle of nature, and the religion of the spirit – in which the world soul is independent of nature and is the essence of ethics. The former is paganism, the latter Judaic religion.

In the philosophy of Samuel *Hirsch the central problem is more anthropocentric, namely, the relationship of man to nature, and the framework of his solution is Hegelian. Hirsch relates man and nature to God by regarding Him as the ideal to which man strives in asserting his freedom against nature. For in such ethical striving man is supporting spirit against nature, and spirit is the common element between man and God. Hirsch too distinguishes between the ethical religion of the spirit (Judaism), and nature religion.

Nachman *Krochmal does not, like Formstecher and Hirsch, start from the assumption of a split between spirit and nature. For him nature is merely an end point on the scale of spiritual development, which rises in degrees from primitive religion up to the Jewish world view. This leads him near to a pantheistic position in that he claims that all existence is immanent in the Absolute Spirit, God.

In the early system of Hermann *Cohen, which while accepting Kantianism rejects the unknowable ding an sich, the idea of God plays the role of a bridge between ethics and the natural world. It is the guarantee that ethical fulfillment is possible in nature. Since, however, God is ideal rather than real, Judaism is in essence ethics as religion. His later philosophy, however, represents a complete volte-face. There it is God who has prime ontological status, and the natural world is the vehicle of God's manifestation with no independent being of its own.

A.I. *Kook, whose philosophy has been summarized by Hugo Bergman as "mystic pantheism," believed all reality to be a manifestation of God in a myriad of individual forms which in turn have no reality without Him. The plurality of the natural world is unified in God, the source and ground of its being. Adapting a kabbalistic notion, Kook believes that holy sparks are everywhere in nature, for it is shot through with a harmonious divine force. This "life force" of nature is not, like Bergson's élan vital, blind, but rather purposive. Evolution of nature is interpreted to mean that all creation, striving to be reunited with God, moves toward the Divinity. Judaism is thus, for Kook, the preeminent attempt to see nature in its total harmony and to sanctify, rather than reject, the material world.

A similarly positive approach to nature is apparent in the ideology of the early Labor Zionist Movement, especially in the work of A.D. *Gordon. Here however, there are clearer heterodox tendencies toward pantheism. Life's ideal, for Gordon, is a form of cosmic harmony of the human and material worlds. This harmony has been interrupted by the unnatural urban life of the Jew in the Diaspora, and in order to reestablish it he has to return to the soil to be as near to nature as possible. Gordon's ideal of unity with nature is not simply an ethical goal but is based on the metaphysical belief that man is organically united to the cosmos, and that it is the unbalanced emphasis on the intellect rather than on man's intuition which is at the root of human alienation.

In the dialogic writings of Martin *Buber, particularly in I and Thou, there is an echo of the belief in the existence of "sparks" in all things. It is possible, according to Buber, to enter into an I-Thou relationship even with inanimate objects, and this relationship need not be simply passive but may be one of full mutuality. In answer to criticisms of how one can enter into what seems an essentially personal relationship with non-personal nature, Buber remarks that in such a relationship the natural object reveals its being. There is a reciprocity of being between the person who addresses the object as "Thou" and the object so addressed, for the world is potentially a revelation of the divine (I and Thou, postscript, rev. ed. 1958).


Guttmann, Philosophies, index s.v.nature; law, natural; and science, natural; Husik, Philosophy, index; I. Efros, Philosophical Terms in the Moreh Nebukhim (1924), 50, 134–5; H. Malter, in: Festschrift… Hermann Cohen (1912), 253–6 (Eng.); Zunz, Poesie, 634; S.H. Bergman, Faith and Reason (1963), 27–54, 81–97, 98–120; I. Epstein, Judaism (1954), index; N. Rotenstreich, Jewish Philosophy in Modern Times (1968), 52ff.


views updated Jun 27 2018



By: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Date: 1836

Source: Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Nature." Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1836.

About the Author: American author, poet, lecturer, and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), educated at Harvard and Harvard Divinity School, was an ordained Christian Minister. Early in his career, however, as pastor of Boston's Second Church, he resigned his ministry because of doctrinal doubts. His misgivings about formal Christianity, however, did not shake his spirituality or religious faith. Neither did the many tragic deaths of loved ones he sustained throughout his life—although they darkened his spirit—including the death of his first wife, Ellen Tucker, in 1832, and of his young son, Waldo, in 1842. Emerson maintained a belief in the unity of man and nature and espoused a doctrine of optimism, self-reliance, mysticism, and the immanence of a God whose presence could be seen and felt in all nature. Along with such figures as Bronson Alcott (1799–1888) and Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), Emerson was a central figure in the New England Transcendentalist Movement of the 1830s and 1840s and the founder of its magazine, The Dial. The defining principle of Transcendentalism, which is also at the heart of Emerson's thought, is that the world itself has a soul and that the world's soul is identical with each individual person's soul.


Emerson wrote "Nature" following a trip to Europe he made after his wife's death from tuberculosis. In England, he met the great poet of nature, William Wordsworth, and toured the Lake District with him. He spoke with the political philosopher John Stuart Mill, and developed a close friendship with Thomas Carlyle, a highly influential Scottish writer who brought together, in his powerful and highly-charged prose, a German Romantic sense of the force of nature and a stiff-backed morality of individual responsibility.

Growing out of these encounters and Emerson's own misgivings about traditional Christianity, as well as his own experiences of solitude and communion, "Nature" is a moral and inspirational essay devoted to shaping its reader's attitude towards nature. Emerson wants to elicit more than a sense of reverence for nature, although he begins with the assumption that beholding the natural world will provoke reverence. More significantly to him is the doctrine of oneness or the interdependence of the person and nature. As Emerson experiences the process of beholding nature, he comes to understand that, not only is nature responsible for what he experiences, but he is responsible for what nature expresses. With great subtlety, Emerson attempts to affect the way mankind sees and experiences nature in order to influence the way people define themselves and act in relation to nature—as the industrial tools to reconfigure nature become more sophisticated and more widely available.


The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection. Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood. When we speak of nature in this manner, we have a distinct but most poetical sense in the mind. We mean the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects. It is this which distinguishes the stick of timber of the wood-cutter, from the tree of the poet. The charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men's farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title. To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says—he is my creature, and maugre [in spite of] all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me. Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight …

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.

Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight, does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both. It is necessary to use these pleasures with great temperance. For, nature is not always tricked in holiday attire, but the same scene which yesterday breathed perfume and glittered as for the frolic of the nymphs, is overspread with melancholy today. Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.

… Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other's hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man. The useful arts are reproductions or new combinations by the wit of man, of the same natural benefactors. He no longer waits for favoring gales, but by means of steam, he realizes the fable of Aeolus's bag, and carries the two and thirty winds in the boiler of his boat. To diminish friction, he paves the road with iron bars, and, mounting a coach with a ship-load of men, animals, and merchandise behind him, he darts through the country, from town to town, like an eagle or a swallow through the air. By the aggregate of these aids, how is the face of the world changed, from the era of Noah to that of Napoleon! The private poor man hath cities, ships, canals, bridges, built for him. He goes to the post-office, and the human race run on his errands; to the bookshop, and the human race read and write of all that happens, for him; to the court-house, and nations repair his wrongs. He sets his house upon the road, and the human race go forth every morning, and shovel out the snow, and cut a path for him.

… The simple perception of natural forms is a delight. The influence of the forms and actions in nature is … needful to man … To the body and mind which have been cramped by noxious work or company, nature is medicinal and restores their tone. The tradesman, the attorney comes out of the din and craft of the street, and sees the sky and the woods, and is a man again. In their eternal calm, he finds himself. The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough …

The world proceeds from the same spirit as the body of man. It is a remoter and inferior incarnation of God, a projection of God in the unconscious. But it differs from the body in one important respect. It is not, like that, now subjected to the human will. Its serene order is inviolable by us. It is, therefore, to us, the present expositor of the divine mind. It is a fixed point whereby we may measure our departure. As we degenerate, the contrast between us and our house is more evident. We are as much strangers in nature, as we are aliens from God. We do not understand the notes of birds. The fox and the deer run away from us; the bear and tiger rend us. We do not know the uses of more than a few plants, as corn and the apple, the potato and the vine. Is not the landscape, every glimpse of which hath a grandeur, a face of him? Yet this may show us what discord is between man and nature, for you cannot freely admire a noble landscape, if laborers are digging in the field hard by….


That an essay like "Nature" should be written in the early years of the American Republic seems essential as well as inevitable, for it lays a philosophical groundwork for the idea of democracy. Each person's perception of the natural world, Emerson asserts, has its own validity and authority; each person is endowed, moreover, with the same power of perception as every other person if he or she will only choose to use it; and each person can participate in the experience of nature which Emerson sees as the primary spiritual exercise of mankind and as a primary way of seeing God and of knowing God's attributes.

In addition, nature provides a justification for exploration, which is the other pillar upon which America is founded. Historians and philosophers often characterize Americans as a people traditionally drawn to nature, who seek divinity in it, and find in it a limitless prospect. Nature is an extension of humanity.

Emerson, however, also uses the essay to issue a warning. Nature is given its full existence by human perception of it. But nature must be the force and guide that shapes the quality of human perception. If humans are to be true to themselves and to nature, they must interact with the natural environment with a sense of awe and respect. In "The Winter's Tale," Shakespeare states this idea with paradoxical irony: there "is an art/ Which doth mend Nature, change it rather; but/ The art itself is Nature." Emerson, in "Nature," states the idea with representative American pragmatism: "You cannot freely admire a noble landscape, if laborers are digging in the field hard by." Regard for nature and self-regard are one.

Emerson's influence was great and telling in its subtlety, for he set a group of ideas flowing through American culture. His ideas influenced the thought of such advocates and protectors of nature as Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), author of Walden, and Walt Whitman (1819–1892), visionary poet of a democratic America in which nature and industry combine in a way that ennobles both. Emerson's work also had directly practical results. He was an important influence on the naturalist and educator John Muir (1838–1914), who explored the glaciers of Yosemite and became one of the founders of the Sierra Club, which remains today an important voice for environmental preservation and conservation.



The Emerson Dilemma: Essays on Emerson and Social Reform, edited by Gregory T. Garvey. Athens, Ga: University of Georgia Press, 2001.

Geldard, Richard G. God in Concord: Ralph Waldo Emerson's Awakening to the Infinite. Burdett, N.Y.: Larson Publications, 1999.

Wilson, Eric. "The Electric Field of Nature." In Emerson's Sublime Science. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Worley, Sam McGuire. Emerson, Thoreau, and the Role of the Cultural Critic. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2001.

Web sites

American Transcendentalism Web. 〈〉 (accessed November 22, 2005).

Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography. 〈〉 (accessed November 22, 2005).


views updated May 14 2018


Nature refers to the source out of which something has come into being. The word nature is derived from the Latin natura (birth) or nasci (to be born). A similar meaning is found in the Greek physis, which means growth. The concept of nature holds a variety of meanings, depending on the relation in which it is understood. In a political setting, nature is often seen in contrast to custom, culture, and law. In religious terms, nature is often opposed to grace and spirit. Viewed philosophically, nature can be understood in contrast to history and freedom. Nature can also be seen as: (1) the object of scientific observation and enquiry; (2) a normative notion, such as the question of "natural" behavior; (3) an essential notion, such as human "nature"; and (4) a notion concerning evidence, as in the exclamation "naturally!" These different meanings can be taken either as a sign of the philosophically problematic use of this notion or its need of specification.

Historical overview

Several of these concepts have their roots in ancient Greek philosophy. In pre-Socratic philosophy nature was seen in contrast to relativism. Cultures varied, but nature was considered constant and was therefore regarded as ethically normative. Aristotle, who understood nature in teleological terms, carried the notion of the normativity even further. The essence (form) of natural beings carried with it a certain purpose that determined the good life. The morally good life was believed to be in accordance with nature, an understanding further developed in Stoic philosophy, which argued for life in accordance with nature.

These concepts of nature had an enduring impact on theological and philosophical thought during the Middle Ages. During this period, however, a contrast between nature and the supernatural was increasingly endorsed. Nature was distinguished from the divine. For the Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274), however, nature was not opposed to the divine. Aquinas maintained an analogy of being (analogia entis ) between eternal law (lex aeterna ), the constitutive law of being that is identical to divine reason, and natural law (lex naturalis ), which is understood as the participation of the rational being in eternal law.

During the sixteenth century, nature could also be set in contrast to divine will. Consequently, in the beginning of the seventeenth century, nature became increasingly understood as morally neutral. As physics became identified with mechanics during the scientific revolution, nature came to be understood in mechanistic terms, as something that could be described with physical laws. This change in the role of the sciences, and the corresponding change in the understanding of nature, implied a different relation to nature. Nature became understood as that which was different from human beings and that which humans, as rational beings, were to control. The natural sciences served this purpose as knowledge about nature was regarded as power over nature.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant (17241804) had an enduring impact on the scientific understanding of nature. According to Kant, the different objects of nature could not be known in themselves, but could only be known as appearances determined by the epistemological categories of space and time. Consequently, Kant's transcendental philosophy implied that in the apprehension of nature human beings were structuring the very same nature. Kant became influential for his emphasis on the interrelation between nature as an object and the formative impact of the human apprehension of nature.

Another fundamental turn in the scientific understanding of nature was the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859). According to Darwin's theory of evolution, new species originated from other species, and natural life was formed according to the principles of variation and natural selection. This view of nature has often been seen as opposed to a theological understanding of nature as designed by God. As a consequence, nature was no longer considered as good in itself, but as morally ambiguous.

Modern scientific concepts of nature

In a contemporary setting, the diversity of the notions of nature is as varied as in previous epochs, with a host of holistic, religious, and ecological understandings in play. Karen Gloy has demonstrated how an organicist notion of nature has been in use since the Renaissance. The ecological mode is present in environmental ethics. The philosopher J. Baird Callicott argues that nature is to be seen as a biotic community. Based on evolutionary theory, nature is regarded as an interrelated, interdependent, ecological web of life, which raises the ethical implication that the good is defined as that which furthers the stability of the biotic community. Jürgen Moltmann endorses a theological understanding of evolution in which evolutionary theory is not contrary to the doctrine of creation. Like Callicott, Moltmann argues that the ecological community of life serves as the basis of the moral demand to preserve nature. Furthermore, both Callicott and Moltmann endorse the connection between a holistic and normative notion of nature.

In other theories, nature is seen as self-organizing. Niels Henrik Gregersen views nature in the light of autopoietic systems theory. It is argued that the Christian theology of creation is not contrary to an understanding of nature as self-productive. God's self-consistency and self-relativization in exchange with nature is endorsed. God not only sustains nature but is also seen as a structuring cause. Michael Welker challenges the traditional concept of creation. Often creation is understood as a unique act of bringing into existence, but Welker argues that God is not simply active but also reactive in the creation of the world. The act of creation is an interaction between God and the activity and productivity of nature. Both Gregersen and Welker argue for the self-productivity of nature.

Nature continues to be a fundamental religious, philosophical, and scientific concept. The variety of meanings and aspects to this notion is perhaps one source of its continuing appeal to various discourses of enquiry.

See also Autopoiesis; Kant, Immanuel


callicott, j. baird. in defense of the land ethic. essays in environmental philosophy. albany: state university of new york press, 1989.

darwin, charles. on the origin of species (1859). new york: bantam, 1999.

gloy, karen. das verständnis der natur. i die geschichte des wissenschaftlichen denkens. munich, germany: verlag c. h. beck, 1995.

gloy, karen. das verständnis der natur. ii die geschichte des ganzheitlichen denkens. munich, germany: verlag c. h. beck, 1996.

gregersen, niels henrik. "the idea of creation and the theory of autopoietic processes." zygon 33, no. 3 (1998): 333367.

moltmann, jürgen. god in creation: a new theology of creation and the spirit of god, trans. margaret kohl. san francisco: harper, 1985.

soper, kate. what is nature? culture, politics and the non-human. oxford: blackwell, 1995.

welker, michael. "what is creation?: reading genesis 1 and 2." theology today 48, no. 1 (1991): 5671.

ulrik b. nissen


views updated May 29 2018


Mathematics is widespread in nature, and mathematical concepts are essential to understanding the biosphere, the rocks and oceans, and the atmosphere. This article explores a few examples.

The Fibonacci Series

In 1202 a monk in Italy, by the name of Leonardo Pisano Fibonacci, wanted to know how fast rabbits could breed in ideal circumstances. Suppose a newly born pair of rabbits, one male, one female, are put in a field. Rabbits are able to mate at the age of 1 month. So at the end of its second month, a female can produce another pair of rabbits. Suppose that these rabbits never die and that the female always produces one new pair (one male, one female) every month from the second month on. The puzzle that Fibonacci posed was: How many pairs would there be after 1 year?

  1. At the end of the first month, they mate, but there is still only one pair.
  2. At the end of the second month the female produces a new pair, so now there are two pairs of rabbits in the field.
  3. At the end of the third month, the original female produces a second pair, making three pairs in the field.
  4. At the end of the fourth month, the original female has produced yet another new pair, the female born two months ago produces her first pair also, making five pairs.

The resulting series of numbers, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, , is known as the Fibonacci series. Fibonacci's experiment is not very realistic, of course, because it implies that brothers and sisters mate, which leads to genetic problems. But the Fibonacci series is puzzlingly common in nature.

Bees. The Fibonacci series is evident in generations of honeybees. For instance, in a colony of honeybees there is one special female called the queen. There are many worker bees who are female too, but unlike the queen bee, they do not produce eggs. Then there are drone bees who are male and do no work. Males are produced by the queen's unfertilized eggs, so male bees have only a mother but no father. In contrast, females are produced when the queen has mated with a male, and so females have two parents. Females usually end up as worker bees but some are fed with a special substance, called "royal jelly," which makes them grow into queens ready to start a new colony when the bees form a swarm and leave their hive in search of a place to build a new nest.

Let's look at the family tree of a male drone bee ("he").

  1. He had one parent, a female.
  2. He has two grandparents, since his mother had two parents, a male and a female.
  3. He has three great-grandparents: his grandmother had two parents but his grandfather had only one.
  4. How many great-great-grandparents did he have?

Here is the sequence:

Number ofparents:grand parents:great-grand parents:great, great grand parents:gt, gt, gt grand parents:
of a male bee:12358
of a female bee:235813

Flowers and Other Plants. Another example of the Fibonacci series is the number of petals of flowers: lilies and iris have three petals; buttercups have five petals; some delphiniums have eight; corn marigolds have thirteen petals; some asters have twenty-one whereas daisies can be found with thirty-four or fifty-five petals. The series can also be found in the spiral arrangement of seeds on flowerheads, for instance on sunflowers, and in the structure of pinecones. In both cases the reason seems to be that this forms an optimal packing of the seeds (or cone studs) so that, no matter how large the seed-head (or cones), they are uniformly packed, and about the same size.

The Fibonacci series also appears in the position of a sequence of leaves on a stem. It should be noted that among plants there are other number sequences and aberrations. In other words, the Fibonacci series is really not a universal law, but only a fascinatingly prevalent tendency in nature.

The Golden Number (Phi)

If we take the ratio of two successive numbers in a Fibonacci series (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, ), dividing each number by the number before it, we will find the following series of numbers:

The ratio seems to be approaching a particular value known as the golden number, or Phi (ϕ ). It has the value of 1.61804. The golden number is an amazingly universal constant. It turns out that ϕ = 1 + 1/ϕ, or ϕ 2 = ϕ + 1.

Plants grow from a single tiny group of cells right at the tip of any growing plant, called the meristem. There is a separate meristem at the end of each branch or twig and it is here that new cells are formed. Once formed, they grow in size. Cells earlier down the stem expand and so the growing point rises. These cells grow in a spiral fashion, as if the stem turns by an angle and then a new cell appears, turning again and then another new cell is formed and so on. These cells may then become a new branch, or perhaps on a flower become petals and stamens.

The amazing thing is that a single fixed angle can produce the optimal design no matter how big the plant grows. If this angle is an exact fraction of a full turn, for example, (120°), then leaves of a vertical branch will be on top of each other. The fraction needs to be an irrational number. It turns out that if there are ϕ (or approximately 1.6) leaves per turn, then each leaf gets the maximum exposure to light, casting the least shadow on the others. This also gives the best possible area exposed to falling rain so the rain is directed back along the leaf and down the stem to the roots. For flowers or petals, it gives the best possible exposure to insects to attract them for pollination. And this angle optimizes the seeds on a sunflower. The Fibonacci numbers merely form the best whole number approximations to the golden number, ϕ.

see also Chaos; Fibonacci, Leonardo Pisano; Fractals; Golden Section.

Bart Geerts


Garland, Trudi H. Fascinating Fibonaccis: Mystery and Magic in Numbers. Palo Alto, CA: Dale Seymore Publications, 1987.

Mandelbrot, Benoit B. The Fractal Geometry of Nature. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1984.

Schneider, Michael S. A Beginner's Guide to Constructing the Universe: The Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art, and Science. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.


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na·ture / ˈnāchər/ • n. 1. the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations: the breathtaking beauty of nature. ∎  the physical force regarded as causing and regulating these phenomena: it is impossible to change the laws of nature. See also Mother Nature. ∎  the countryside, esp. when picturesque. ∎ archaic a living thing's vital functions or needs.2. [in sing.] the basic or inherent features of something, esp. when seen as characteristic of it: helping them to realize the nature of their problems | there are a lot of other documents of that nature. ∎  the innate or essential qualities or character of a person or animal: it's not in her nature to listen to advice | I'm not violent by nature. See also human nature. ∎  inborn or hereditary characteristics as an influence on or determinant of personality. Often contrasted with nurture. ∎  archaic a person of a specified character: Emerson was so much more luminous a nature.PHRASES: against nature unnatural or immoral.someone's better nature the good side of a person's character; their capacity for tolerance, generosity, or sympathy: Charlotte planned to appeal to his better of nature used euphemistically to refer to a need to urinate or defecate.from nature (in art) using natural scenes or objects as models: I wanted to paint landscape directly from nature.get (or go) back to nature return to the type of life (regarded as being more in tune with nature) that existed before the development of complex industrial the nature of similar in type to or having the characteristics of: the promise was in the nature of a check that the nature of things1. inevitable: it is in the nature of things that the majority of music prizes get set up for performers rather than composers.2. inevitably: in the nature of things, old people spend much more time a state of nature1. in an uncivilized or uncultivated state.2. totally naked.3. Christian Theol. in a morally unregenerate condition, unredeemed by divine grace.the nature of the beast inf. the inherent or essential quality or character of something, which cannot be changed.ORIGIN: Middle English (denoting the physical power of a person): from Old French, from Latin natura ‘birth, nature, quality,’ from nat- ‘born,’ from the verb nasci.


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The word nature stems from the Latin natura, whose meaning ranges from "birth" to "the order of things." In English, nature comprises all plants, animals, and ecosystems, as well as the biological and nonbiological materials and processes of our planet. This range of meaning narrows if we consider the use of the word natural. Something is natural if it is not artificial, if it pertains to or comes from the natural world. When we speak of bears, mountains, or evolution and say, "they are natural," we mean they are neither human nor created by humans. Thus the concept of nature is often restricted to beings, things, or processes which are not human in origin.

Conceptual and empirical inquiries into nature loosely center on eight questions. The first question is a scientific one, which simply asks what constitutes nature: What are its essential properties and how shall we classify them? The second seeks purpose in nature, asking whether the earth is a designed home for humankind or an accident of cosmic history. A third question explores the effect of the natural environment on human physiology, psychology and culture, examining whether nature determines who we are or constrains what we can do. A fourth examines the metaphors used to understand nature: Is nature an organism subject to death or a machine of fungible parts? The fifth question studies how nature changes: Is it dynamic, changing as a result of internal processes, or static, changing in response to external human disturbances? A sixth surveys how people have transformed the natural world, and the seventh queries whether human beings and their societies are part of or separate from nature. The final question investigates whether nature has a structure of intrinsic moral values: Does nature have values or a good of its own, and if so, should human beings respect these values or promote this good?

We lack unambiguous answers to these questions, though the questions are important in themselves, for they help us clarify our assumptions about nature. Humans, for example, have emerged from the evolutionary processes of nature. Thus our thoughts and actions are certainly natural, yet our societies and technologies are unique in the natural world, and the scope of our impact on nature is without precedent in other species . It seems that while we are part of nature biologically, we are separate from the rest of nature in our social and technological characteristics, and to declare humanity natural or non-natural is unhelpful. The best alternative may be to accept the ambiguity of our relationship to nature, conceiving of humankind as relatively natural and non-natural depending on the time, place, and activity.

See also Bioregionalism; Deep ecology; Ecosophy; Environmental attitudes/values; Environmental ethics; Environmentalism; Humanism; Speciesism

[William S. Lynn ]



Collingwood, R. G. The Idea of Nature. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1945.

Glacken, C. J. Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought From Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Lyon, T. J., ed. This Incomparable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Lyon, T. J., and P. Stine, eds. On Nature's Terms. College Station, TX: Texas A & M University Press, 1992.

Nash, R. F. The Rights of Nature. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1989.

Williams, R. "Nature." In Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

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