I. Various Meanings of the Notion of Nature - II. Nature in the Ancient Classical World 1. Presocratics 2. Plato and the Atomists 3. Nature According to Aristotle’s Thought - III. Nature in the Old Testament - IV. The Christian Conception of Nature from Early Christianity to the Middle Ages 1. The Development of Some Early Perspectives 2. The Christian Celtic Tradition and Some Mediaeval Authors 3. Thomas Aquinas - V. Nature according to the Principal Non-Christian Spiritual and Religious Conceptions - VI. The Revolution of Immanentism: The Renaissance and Magic - VII. The Concept of Nature in Modern Science: Leading Theories and Conflicting Theories between the 16th and the 20th Centuries 1. The Turning Point of the Modern Age 2. The Mathematical and Quantitative View of Nature 3. The Holistic and Vitalistic Views of Nature - VIII. A Comparative Synthesis
I. Various Meanings of the Notion of Nature
Etymologically, the word “nature” derives from the Latin verb nascere (“to be born”). In Greek, the equivalent sense is expressed by the term physis, a word which refers both to “growth” and to “production.” The word for “nature” is feminine not only in these two ancient languages, but also in numerous modern languages such as Italian, German, French, and Spanish. The word refers by analogy to woman, considered in her role as mother and, therefore, as the giver of life. Viewed in this light, nature can be understood as that dimension of reality where beings are generated and grow according to some order or rule. Nature refers, in short, to the world of “becoming” (in antiquity, this included inanimate objects due to the belief that all things were considered “living”). In fact, looking again to etymology for guidance, we find that nature can also be described, and significantly so, as “being that illuminates itself, that appears.” This is because the word “nature” derives, at least in part, from the Indo-European root bhu, which signifies “being.” The word bhu, in turn, itself derives from the root bha, which signifies “light.” From the standpoint of etymology, therefore, the word “nature” can also be understood as an “epiphany that signifies and signals being.” It is also worth keeping in mind that the term “cosmos” (Gr. kosmos) can refer both to order and harmony as well as to “adornment” (the English word “cosmetic” captures this sense). Etymologically, this appears to be the background and the structural grounding for the term nature.
Following this brief etymological introduction, we will now consider the deeper sense of the term. Regarding nature, as often occurs in other instances, mankind has shown itself to be an interpreter of reality, analyzing the contents of human experience in ways that at times can oppose and contradict each other. Due to its complexity and manifold valences, nature has since antiquity offered a particularly fertile ground for the development of contrary interpretations. The first key interpretation of nature is open to the role of a first cause, a cause that is in its essence “different” from the world of phenomena. This first cause transcends nature or, at any rate, represents a transcendent principle or primordial base. The second interpretation is marked by its rejection of this understanding of nature. The defenders of the first position affirm that nature is full of meanings. They maintain this position even though they admit their interpretations of these “meanings” vary (and, also, they admit to varying interpretations of the relationship between the “visible world” and the “invisible world” that is its ontological foundation). Affirming the existence of a cause that has determined the appearance (in a logical, if not chronological, sense) of the cosmos, and therefore of nature, carries with it the conviction that a rationality exists at the base of the phenomenal world, whether one speaks of creation from nothing, emanation, filiation, or of development from some seed planted by this supernatural cause. Nature, from this perspective, is transparent and intelligible. It contains ontological “whys” as well as questions that are rooted in the sacred and to which only religious/metaphysical wisdom, not secular wisdom, can furnish answers. Nature does not appear to be accidental, like the fruit of a series of purely material events. It appears, rather, to be the product of some design of which it is the actualization. It is interesting to note—and one would have to get down into the specifics to verify this—how this understanding has maintained its fundamental character over the course of the millennia, from the pre-Christian era down to our own day where one can still find it in the thought of numerous scientists. It is an understanding of a metaphysical sort, which conceives of reality as subdivided into many levels or qualitative dimensions that are integrated with each other without any division. It should be noted that in this view, matter constitutes one state of being, one aspect of reality. It is not identified with the whole of reality.
On the other hand, the second position tends, at least in its basic outline, to lack any concept of nature understood as a whole. It views nature solely as an aggregation of objects, as a sequence of material, physical, and casual phenomena. Nature becomes a reality that is closed in on itself, one-dimensional, self-subsisting, and self-justifying. Such a vision, while both ancient and enduring, encompasses a system of ideas and interpretations of nature and the cosmos that is ultimately materialistic and reductionist. According to this system, reality, understood as “being in its totality,” is “nothing more than matter,” nothing more than “the physical,” while all non-physical dimensions of reality are only epiphenomena of matter, like some glandular secretion, to use an illustration from biology. Over the course of time, these “non-physical” dimensions are submerged and ultimately lost within this amalgamation of material parts. All of these emergent understandings of reality ultimately explain away the complexity of nature and the cosmos as derived, rather than original, phenomena.
II. Nature in Ancient Greece and Rome
By examining a carefully chosen selection of texts and authors, one can grasp the predominant understanding of nature in the world of classical antiquity.
1. The Presocratics. In the Orphic Hymn to Nature (the final composition of which is placed between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D., but which reflects a body of knowledge that is much more ancient, i.e., prior to the 6th century B.C.), there are several elements that reveal an understanding of nature as a primordial generative power. Visible reality is merely the manifestation of this primordial power. Nature (capitalized) is defined as the omnipotent “supreme divinity,” incorruptible, first-born, and possessing in itself its own principal. It is infinite, self-sufficient, beneficent, “eternally providential,” “life immortal,” and the “divine mother,” “generator,” and “nurse” of all things. Nature itself dissolves in cycles. It is the font of movement that governs all phenomena. From all of this, it emerges that Nature should be considered a primordial being. But, in fact, this is not the genuine line of Orphic thought, at least on its deepest level. According to some authors, the Orphics actually adhered to the position that above and beyond a series of polarities (in which one is able to insert nature), there existed a unifying and transcendent principle, a doctrine that was “secretly handed down,” as part of an esoteric and hidden aspect of Orphism. The content of the Hymn can be taken, therefore, as the popular exoteric expression of the Orphic position. One may add that in the ancient Greek world, nature was considered the world of dark “necessity” (Gr. anánke) and the ironclad repetition of events in which there is no room for freedom.
A tradition of ancient Greek learning is preserved in the Presocratics Pherecydes, Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, and Pythagoras. Some have detected in the writings of these authors certain Orphic and Dionysian elements, as well as traces of Indian (Vedic and Upanishadic) and Iranian (Avestic) influences. While they often differ in terms of emphasis, nuance, and literary form, the Presocratics affirm, in terms sometimes symbolic, sometimes mythical-allegorical, the reality of the origin and permanence of the physical world. As is well known, certain statements of Aristotle have given rise to a belief that the Presocratics were materialists who adhered to a theory of “naturalism,” understood in the modern sense of the term, i.e., that they were ultimately prisoners of the physical, sensible dimensions of the world. The thought of the Presocratics is reducible, in other words, to a primitive expression of the modern scientific spirit, albeit with a mixture of pantheism and hylozoism. In reality, their principal philosophical aim was not to investigate the mechanical causes of the universe, nor to explain celestial and meteorological phenomena. When the Presocratics speak of water, air, and fire—although their meaning may be concealed in the symbolism that they attach to these terms drawn from the physical world—they are not referring to these material elements themselves, but rather to their ontological “root” or foundation as the source of all things. What the Presocratics have in common, therefore, is their search for an origin, an ontological foundation, or a primordial “potency.” Nature was, for them, before all else, a productive and poetic entity. Nature is to be understood as a physical phenomenon only secondarily.
The Presocratics shared the idea that the unity of all things is an expression of the one eternal Principle that permeates them, a principle which cannot really be separated from the multiplicity of things that, although it differs from, it nonetheless generates, moves, and calls back to itself. In this act of self-manifestation, this Principle, which remains firmly within itself, takes the name of physis, or Origin. It is both transcendent and immanent, visible and invisible, the fundamental cause and the final end. In other words, it is a synthesis with respect to all of the things which are subjects of becoming. One can conclude that the different dimensions of reality, both the sensible and the insensible, become “fused,” but not “confused.” It is evident, in short, that the significance these philosophers attached to “nature” was both fuller and deeper than we are accustomed to attach to it today. For this reason, attributing our own understanding of the term to these philosophers would only result in distortions and misunderstandings.
2. Plato and the Atomists. Plato’s Timeaus (427-347 B.C.) reveals even more about the ancient Greek concept of nature. In this dialogue, nature is expressly equated with a great living organism: “This world is truly a living being endowed with a soul and with intelligence by the providence of God” (Timeaus, 30b). According to Plato, nature is “life” inasmuch as it is entirely permeated by a living soul. The great Greek philosopher returns several times to this theme in his works (cf. Gorgias, 508a; Phaedo, 97b-100a; Politics, 269c-273e; Philebus, 28a-31a), underscoring his idea of the Intelligence that is present in the immanent world soul.
The thought of one of Plato’s contemporaries, Democritus of Abdera (460-370 B.C.), differed radically from both the commonly held popular beliefs of the Greeks regarding nature and from the philosophical ideas of the Presocratics, Plato, and Aristotle. Although the groundwork for this philosophy had already been set forth by Leucippus, who lived in the same period as Empedocles and Anaxagoras, it is only with Democritus that a truly new vision of the world, the “atomistic vision,” is introduced. The essence of this thought, which one can also find more clearly set forth in the thought of Epicurus and Lucretius, is the reduction of nature to a purely objective mechanism and the identification of knowledge with sensible experience, to the exclusion of every mythic, religious, mystical, and vitalistic element. This sort of physicalistic realism does not perceive the phenomenal world as a dynamic expression of some subtle, invisible, divine force that permeates creation. Instead, two elements are at the root of nature: the “plenum,” that is, being, identified tout court (i.e., without qualification) with matter, and the “void,” identified in turn with non-being. These two principles function as the foundations of reality, understood as a whole. Matter, according to both Leucippus and Democritus, is composed of atoms, invisible and microscopic elements that are qualitatively equal to each other, differing only in their shape and size.
The birth and death that one observes continuously in nature is nothing other than the result of the aggregation and disaggregation of these atoms. There are no intrinsic “qualities” of bodies, such as, for example, taste, odor, and color. Such intrinsic characteristics are only apparent, existing solely on the sensible level. In reality, they are determined by the disposition and the ordering of the underlying atoms; they are not inherent in them as such. These atoms, in turn, are characterized by a continuous, spontaneous, eternal, and random motion, determined according to the “reason” and “necessity” of immutable, objective, ironclad laws, which are not, however, to be understood as elements of some intelligent design in any way whatsoever. Nature is similar to some great machine, the infinitesimally small and irreducible parts of which contain the roots and explanations for all of its features. Consequently, to understand the “whole” one must understand the “parts.” The atomism of this line of thought is radical: The very gods are no different from the rest of reality because even they are nothing more than the end result of the aggregation of atoms. On par with all of the various physical beings, the gods are merely material aggregates: They are pure and simple shadows, indifferent to the happenings of the world. Everything that exists in nature, including the gods, is the object of a linear and perpetual becoming, indifferent with respect to any finalism, intention, project, or plan of either the part or the whole. Nature is a mere aggregation of things and of events. The existence of any higher order of reality with which that aggregation might be placed in contact is denied.
3. Nature According to Aristotle. I have chosen to devote a separate section to Aristotle’s idea of nature both because of the complexity that characterizes his thought on the topic and because of the enduring influence of his thought on Western philosophy. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) defines nature as “a principle or cause of being moved and of being at rest in that to which it belongs primarily, in virtue of itself and not accidentally” (Physics, II, 192b). And also, “nature is the source from which the primary movement in each natural object is present in it in virtue of its own essence” (Metaphysics, V, 4, 1015a). Such movement, deriving from the very root of a thing’s nature, therefore connotes a fundamental and distinguishing element. Aristotle distinguishes between life, in the strict sense in which both animals and plants are said to be alive, and nature, conceived more fully so as to include even the mineral world. It may be helpful to draw a contrast here with artificial things, i.e., those things that are the product of human skill and art, in order to bring into sharper relief the specific meaning of a natural act according to Aristotle. A “natural” thing produces its own kind, while an artificial thing is produced by something which is external to it (for example, a human being is born from another human being, but a bed is not begotten by another bed). Other attributes inherent to the Aristotelian concept of nature are those of “stability” and “formal specificity,” as each form is tied to specific beings. Furthermore, nature can be analyzed under the twofold polarity of active and passive being, inasmuch as something moves and is moved on its own part: “For the matter is called the nature because it is qualified to receive this inner principle [i.e., the nature], and the processes of becoming and growing are called nature because they are movements proceeding from this. And nature in this sense is the source of the movements of natural objects, being present in them somehow, either potentially or in a complete reality.” (Metaphysics, V, 4, 1015a). The movement of nature, according to Aristotle, is not accidental or purely mechanical, but is permeated and guided by the idea of finalism; it is like a self-oriented process. There is, therefore, a receptive aspect in these comparisons with movement, movement that is intrinsic to the nature of the being and permits the realization of the end of each being, understood as a “totality” and not as simply an aggregate of atoms. Such an end is considered innate to each being, not external to it, and is arrived at through a process consisting in the passage from “potency” to “act”: “Everything changes from that which is potentially to that which is actually” (Metaphysics, XII, 2, 1069b). Among the four types of causes regulating natural processes that are posited by Aristotle to explain movement—namely, the material cause (the matter making up a body), the formal cause (the form implicit in the thing that changes), the efficient cause (the force or power that renders a change possible), and the final cause (the end toward which a thing tends by its own impulse)—the final cause could be seen as an “attractor,” on account of its placement within each particular being which “becomes.”
I have already alluded to chance events, excluding them from among the proper action of nature, but this does not mean that Aristotle denied the existence of chance and that everything in his understanding of the phenomenal world was arranged in an “ordered” fashion. In fact, Aristotle believed that chance events are indeed present in nature, although they can be ascribed only partially to the four causes I have just mentioned. For this reason, chance events are not considered “natural” essentially. One calls a thing fortuitous when it does not possess its own end or final cause, even if it is not without a cause in the absolute sense, i.e., totally indeterminate. Such an event is indeed caused through the operation of an efficient cause, but only in an accidental mode inasmuch as it lacks some end or, at any rate, attains to an end that is different from that at which it had originally aimed. The monstrosities present among living beings are thought of in this sense.
In the Aristotelian understanding, natural realities possess in themselves the origin of their own order, dynamic of birth, and activity. It seems evident, therefore, that one does not speak of beings shaped by ideas external to themselves, as a Platonist would, but of beings in which the “form” inheres as an essence that is specific to those beings as a global, formal cause. The whole natural individual resides in the very becoming of that individual, from its very beginning to its ultimate end, and is present in potency at the very moment of its birth. The relationship between cause and caused does not prove to be a relation between two distinct realities, at least insofar as that relationship subsists within a single being. Movement likewise proves to be an intrinsic modality of being, and therefore does not form its opposite, its negation, but rather its essential manifestation. One might assert that being is able to be “expressed in many ways” and that nature can be understood, following from this, as the relation “of single living wholes to their parts.” From this it emerges, one should now be able to see, that Aristotelianism is far from any sort of vitalism. Indeed, Aristotle expressly refuses to accept the identification of nature with some giant living organism or with some immanent and unitary soul. Aristotle’s thought proves to be equally far from any sort of global finalism based on the idea of the presence of some general plan resulting from the action of some divine demiurge. His finalism, in fact, inheres in single individual beings. It is for this reason that the sort of above-mentioned “chance” events—chance being defined in relation to the existence of a partial final regularity—are possible.
In sum, it should be evident that Aristotelian teleology is not a form of anthropomorphism, inasmuch as the finality of nature is of an entirely different sort from that proper to human action: The former is non-conscious, the latter is conscious. I will now take the opportunity to explain how this organic and holistic understanding of nature is diametrically opposed to the atomism of Leucippus and Democritus. Aristotle held (cf. De Caelo and De Genereatione et corruptione) that atomism provided a wholly unsatisfactory explanation for the complex actions of nature. For Aristotle, the self-evident orientation of natural processes to their proper ends and the qualitative dimensions of nature are irreducible to the purely quantitative constituents of physical bodies in constant and more or less accidental motion. A world born of and sustained by solely mechanical causes would be a whole composed of phenomena deprived of individual specific identities. This simply cannot be reconciled with the fact that each individual being tends to its own self-realization, has its own autonomous and internal end, and that it, in sum, acts teleologically. At this point, the conceptual foundations of the two opposing modern scientific approaches to nature have now been clearly revealed: On the one hand, there is the organic and complex approach of Aristotle, while, on the other, there is the mechanical and reductionist approach of the Greek atomists. Further on, more will be added to this discussion.
All this being said, one must keep in mind that the most widely held belief in antiquity remained the belief in nature understood as a great and unified body, both animate and sacred. Cicero (106-43 B.C.) reminds us that even in the ancient Roman world people clung to the idea that “the world itself, furnished with life and sensation” was a being “spherical, burning, and revolving” (De Natura Deorum, I, 18). According to Stoicism, nature is permeated with the supernatural. The presence of a logos, of an organization according to a rational design, testifies to this fact and shows that the divine mind has stamped the sign of its wisdom on the entire cosmos. Similar references are found in Virgil (cf. Aeneid, VI, 724-7), Plutarch (cf. Isis and Osiris, 56), and Plotinus (cf. Enneads, IV, 3). On this problem and the various implications of a pantheistic vision of nature, I refer the reader to what has been written in the corresponding article on pantheism in this encyclopedia.
Returning to our main line of argument, the Greco-Roman world, at least before blatantly irreligious materialistic and mechanistic theories gained the upper hand, saw nature as a realty that in all of its parts was permeated by and pregnant with divinity, at times leading to its being considered eternal and uncreated, even though, in terms of causality, it was considered to originate in the sacred and invisible dimension.
III. Nature in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament, one discovers a somewhat different outlook. One sees the introduction of a fundamental new concept, that of “creation ex nihilo,” the fruit of the free act of the divine will. This understanding of creation carries with it a marked separation between god and the cosmos and, upon reflection, between human beings, made in “the image and likeness of God,” and nature. Nature loses the character of a sacred reality permeated by the divine; that would be idolatry, the adoration of a fetish object, of material things. Nature is, to be sure, the work of the omnipotent God, and insofar as it is such, at least in its origin, it is “good.” But nature always remains something radically other than the divine, more connected to the world of earthly life, to the world of human sustenance, and much less to the world of the spiritual life. In the Jewish world, the concept of God the transcendent Creator of the physical world excludes nature from the role of a living reality, a reality that in other religions incarnates the divine power, and a reality to which individuals of other religions turned in their search for God. The God of the Old Testament is more present in history than he is in nature.
In the first chapters of Genesis one finds certain indications of the basis for this relationship between mankind and nature when God, speaking to Adam and Eve, says: “Fill the earth, have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground” (Gn 1:28). The expression “have dominion,” which consists of the verbs “to subject” and “to dominate” in Hebrew, seems to signal a right that human beings have received, in the Garden of Eden, to dispose as they please of creation, including all living beings, whether they are animals or plants. Recently, however, it has been observed by some that these two Hebrew verbs may not have been translated accurately. The Hebrew verb kabas, usually translated as “to subject,” indicates precisely “taking possession of a territory,” without any necessary connotation of oppression. The verb radah, translated as “to dominate,” means rather “to pasture, to conduct, to guide, to rule,” and therefore might better be understood as assigning to mankind a role more analogous to that of a pastor than that of a master. There is a similar need for greater precision in the passage where God takes Adam and Eve, settles them in the Garden of Eden, and charges them “to cultivate and care for it” (Gn 2:15). There is an inherent religious significance in these words, inasmuch as “cultivate” (Heb. ‘abad) includes an implicit reference to religious service (i.e., a reference to “cult” in the classical sense of the term) and to mankind’s relationship with God, while “to care for” (Heb. samar) includes a similar reference to the faithfulness of God toward His people and to the loyalty owed by the people to God.
It would seem, therefore, that mankind’s relationship with nature, at least in the Garden of Eden, was one of love, protection, and respect. Creation was entrusted to the care of mankind with the divine blessing. Human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. Human actions effecting nature ought to be those of a divine vicar who works for the good of the world, protecting life and preserving the diversity of the forms of plant and animal life that God willed to exist. It is in light of these aims, and by reference to these criteria, that human justice and goodness are properly measured. But this harmonious relationship seems to have been lost with original sin. The earth became “accursed,” sterile, and an enemy to the descendants of Adam and Eve who must work the land in sorrow and fatigue. Nature is no longer the garden for which we must care, but the world against which we must struggle to survive. The effects of original sin are also poured out on the land: The evil that was committed by mankind profoundly altered all of creation. Further on in the biblical narrative, God, disgusted with the behavior of the descendants of Adam and Eve, “regretted that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was grieved” (Gn 6:6), and he decided to wipe out all living things indiscriminately. Animals appear to be the innocent victims of the twisted acts of mankind. But there are still some men and women, represented in the symbolic figure of Noah, who avert the complete destruction of life and guarantee the survival of all species, even of those which are useless for the survival of the human race: Indeed, in the biblical text Noah, to differentiate him from the others, is called a “just man.”
After the flood, the Bible tells of the formation of a covenant between God and all the creatures who have come off of the Ark (cf. Gn 9:10), a pact that extends beyond mankind to encompass all of God’s creatures. The rapport that mankind had previously had with the other living beings has, however, now been lost. God explains this new relationship to Noah and his sons after the flood: “Dread fear of you shall come upon all the animals of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon all the creatures that move about on the ground and all the fishes of the sea; into your power they are delivered” (Gn 9:2). One might see in these words, taken out of context, an invitation to exercise unlimited dominion over nature, a nature, moreover, that is now considered solely in utilitarian terms as the source both of nourishment and essential resources for mankind. Man—one must always keep the biblical text in mind—is superior to the other living creatures that God has placed “under his feet” (Ps 8:7). But a different conception emerges when one considers other passages in addition to these. This deeper reflection on scripture brings into focus a God who provides wisely for the well being of all of nature, both animal and plant life, even those parts of nature that are unnecessary for the well being of mankind. (cf. Jb 38-39). One even reads of the little ones in their nest who “cry out to God” in their hunger, because, evidently, it is to be expected that he would take care of all living things, without regard for their utility to mankind. The teaching of the prophets must also be recalled here regarding the coming of the messianic age, when the primordial, prelapsarian harmony between the Lord and his creatures will return, owing to the reconciliation that the Messiah will bring about by washing away the consequences for nature of the sin of mankind. Hosea spoke of a covenant of God “with the beasts of the field, with the birds of the air, and with the things that crawl on the ground” (Hos 2:20). Isaiah likewise speaks of a harmony between mankind and the animals in a nature where there will no longer be any danger or risk of harm (cf. Is 11: 6-9).
Several observations can be made about these texts from the Old Testament. The first regards the type of relationship that the Jewish people had with nature, a relationship that was characterized by a certain uneasiness and awkwardness that is reflected in the “tone” of certain biblical passages. This is not evident concerning the relationship between God and nature, which is always serene and harmonious, but of that between mankind and nature, which is rendered ambivalent and problematic on account of original sin. One also notes a certain solidarity between nature and the interior life of mankind, due to which the spiritual life and the cosmos turn out to be in a sympathetic relationship, an attribute common to other religious traditions. In conclusion, one can say that the biblical message suggests a sacramental and symbolic understanding of creation where man, rather than being the absolute master of a desacralized and purely material creation, comes to be presented as a being created by God as guardian and guarantor of the world, although in some cases man is guaranteed, in his own existence, by the testimonial presence of the other living creatures.
IV. The Christian Conception of Nature from Early Christianity through the Middle Ages
The original Old Testament conception of nature (which at later times incorporated some aspects of the more mature Greek thought on the subject, which was itself not exempt from mechanistic and desacralizing conceptions of the cosmos) returned with the birth of Christianity. In addition to certain minimally organic accretions that were to emerge in the following centuries, the empathetic relationship between events in the spiritual and material orders is already present in and confirmed by the Gospels themselves: Creation is thrown into confusion and regenerated in harmony with the events of the death and resurrection of the Son of God. The Gospels themselves do not offer many things that would have been useful for defining a conception of nature proper to the new religion, but in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (cf. 8:20-22) there is an interesting point: Creation, having received a man as its king, remained in a state of humiliation due to Adam’s condemnation, which redounded to the detriment of all of nature, even though nature did not share in the guilt. Creation hopes for its own redemption, but “groans and is in agony even until now” Paleo-Christian depictions of Christ show him playing the flute surrounded by wild animals captivated by his music, a testimony to the relationship between the supernatural and the natural worlds, where the supernatural world guides and impresses its harmony, i.e., its form, on the natural world.
1. The Development of Some Early Perspectives. Some of the Church Fathers, including Origen, Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor, developed a theology of nature, although such a theology was far more lively in Eastern Christianity than in the Christianity of the West. Gregory of Nyssa (333-395) was profoundly convinced that the material world was dreamlike and misleading, but at the same time he maintained that there were symbols and signs within it capable of leading one to God. Gregory Nazianzus (ca. 330-390), for his part, recognized that things in nature could constitute a “call to divine worship.” The order of the cosmos prefigures the transcendental order. St. Augustine (354-430), however, believed that due to original sin nature was in a fallen condition and remained entirely unredeemed, notwithstanding the coming of Christ. Preoccupied with drawing the attention of the Church to the problem of original sin, Augustine sometimes obscured the epiphanic and anagogical role of nature. With the passage of time, one witnesses a growing alienation of the Church from nature, to the point where it even comes to be viewed by some with suspicion, a remarkable change given the veneration which nature had enjoyed in pagan culture. Mountains, the wilderness, and deserts end up signifying the places of battles and spiritual conflicts, rather than environments in which to enjoy serenity and dedicate oneself to contemplation. In reaction to the pre-Christian world, the Church came to affirm the radical and absolute separation of god from the world, almost to the point of embracing the excesses of the Gnostics who considered the cosmos, and therefore nature as well, to be the creation of an Evil Principle. One cannot deny that a certain pessimistic component existed in Christianity, a “separatist” tendency to shun matter, carried to the point of devaluing the phenomenal world and assimilating it, in the best case scenario, to the dimension of the irrational or identifying it, in the worst case scenario, with moral disorder. It is from this perspective that the expression “world” became synonymous with sin and signified opposition to God, virtue, and the Spirit. According to this understanding of creation, nature is in its definition essentially contaminated by sin; matter is permeated by Evil. It is in this way that nature, viewed with suspicion in certain Christian circles, came to be estranged from the religious life. If one considers the content of the medieval bestiary, to offer one example of this estrangement, one observes that God has come to be seen as “detached,” while the animals are only material, increasingly allegorical, symbols of virtues and of divine gifts. Nature becomes simply the world of appearances. The medieval religious individual still felt a bond with the entire cosmos, perceiving it as a great living network of reciprocal relationships, but this was more a matter of a residual type of rapport with nature.
There are, however, some outstanding exceptions who gave life to a rich tradition. One must not forget such luminaries as Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, John Scotus Eriugena, Theodoric of Chartres, William of Conches, Bernard Silvestre, and, of course, Bernard of Clairvaux, who affirmed: “You will discover more things in forests than in books. The trees and the rocks will teach you things that no teacher will ever tell you.” This calls to mind the religious perception of nature that for centuries has been associated with what has come to be called “Celtic Christianity.”
2. The Christian Celtic Tradition and Some Mediaeval Authors. In the Christianity that flourished in those Celtic lands that remained ethnically pure, first and foremost Ireland, one discovers a fusion of the profound appreciation that the ancient Celts felt for nature, which they conceived of almost as an enormous sacramental space, and the evangelical spirit, shorn of its reserve before nature. It is not by chance that we owe our first medieval philosophical formulation of a concept of nature to John Scotus Eriugena (9th century). His concept of nature, which has strong metaphysical overtones, is more properly understood as a theology of nature, according to which the Trinity is present in the world of phenomena, permeating animals, plants, and minerals. The Irish monks authored outstanding poetic works which emphasized a harmony between God and the world, delineating for their contemporaries a role for man as administrator, manager, and priest of creation. According to this Celtic Christianity, “There exists no artificial division between the sacred and the profane. Everything is holy. All life, all of creation is full of the divine presence. No place lacks this divine presence.” This being the case, one can speak of the “sanctity of creation.” This line of thought rejects every “improper and artificial distinction between creation and its Creator. God is not only transcendent, but also immanent” (cf. Duncan, 1992). Celtic Christianity essentially embraces life in its entirety: In prayer, mankind raises the same praise to God that nature ceaselessly gives. Man plays the role of mediator between God and nature, the role, that is, of priests of creation.
Both St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) and St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) deserve mention on account of their mystical view of nature, an understanding that is not very different from that of the Irish monks. The saint of Assisi lived in an age marked by heretical Christian sects of a distinctly Manichean flavor, such as the Cathari and the Albigensians, who considered the vitality of creation to be a manifestation of Evil. These heresies gave rise to a climate that produced a less than favorable estimation of nature. Francis fully restored creation to its innocence and its spiritual beauty. Placing himself face to face with nature, as God had done after creation, Francis found it to be good and beautiful. Every form of existence came to be valued according to its own proper dignity, not in virtue of its usefulness to mankind, but in a vision of fraternal collaboration in common work, a vision far removed from any idea of striking fear into and dominating the other living things. The famous episode of the wolf of Gubbio is indicative of Francis’s love for a nature not yet domesticated by mankind. He sought to leave tracts of land uncultivated, “for the green of the grass and the splendor of the flowers in the field,” and to not cut entire branches from the trees, so that “they would be able to throw out new sprouts.” As St. Bonaventure wrote, “It truly seemed that every mechanism of the world was put at the service of the senses, at that point so purified, of this holy man” in an openness and a reciprocal readiness that even today is inexplicable from the rationalist point of view. The love of St. Francis for nature was in full accord with the poverty he desired and sought out: Poverty is nudity and nudity is the natural condition. He died naked on the naked ground (cf. Stanislao da Campagnola, Francesco d'Assisi nei suoi scritti e nelle sue biografie dei secoli XIII-XIV [Assisi: 1981]).
Hildegard of Bingen also lived in a mystical relationship with nature, expressed in, among other places, the short prayers she composed. Her vision of the universe comes very close to that of Hugh of St. Victor (c. 1096-1141). The whole of nature comes to be included in the reign of the spirit, which reveals itself in every sphere of creation, in every event, and in each thing. The spirit is perceived as a wise flaming force that generates life, that flows into the beauty of the fields, that sparkles in the crystalline water and in the shining sun, and that reveals itself in the invisible wind. Everything is permeated by God, not only mankind, but the animals, plants, and the mineral world. The omnipotent God is love and participation, transcendence and immanence, as he is in the works of St. Francis.
Alchemy, born in Alexandrian circles and then Christianized, came to play an important role in the Christian conception of nature, especially in the Middle Ages, providing a sacred science of the material elements, raised to the heights of the light of the intelligible world. One should note, in this regard, the names St. Albert the Great, Roger Bacon, Raymond Lull, and Arnold of Villanova.
The school of Christian Platonism at Chartres also played an important role in the 12th century. The members of this school, taking up and developing the ideas of Eriugena, described nature as a great organism vivified by the Holy Spirit, assimilated in certain aspects with the Anima mundi of pre-Christian thought. A parallel line of thought with a rich cosmic intuition of spirituality characterized the school at Oxford, a line of thought that was continued and deepened in the work of the neo-Platonizing bishop Robert Grossateste (1175-1253). Finally, mention must be made of St. Bonaventure, the Doctor Seraficus (Seraphic Doctor), who considered nature equivalent to the Bible, at least insofar as they both contain signs that have to be deciphered and that lead us to God.
In many of these conceptions of nature, the world appears to be made up of hierarchically arranged levels, analogous to the spiritual powers that animate it from within, i.e., the angels, and comes to be regarded as a macrocosmic structure placed in an empathetic relationship with mankind, the microcosm.
3. Thomas Aquinas. For a vision of nature that is more rational than mystical, we turn to the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), which takes the Aristotelian idea of nature and inserts it into a worldview dominated by the notion of creation. The doctrine of the creation of the world from nothing did not keep St. Thomas from accepting Aristotle’s fundamental idea that nature is an operative and guiding principle, intrinsic to each individual. God, in the thought of Saint Thomas, is a transcendent being insofar as he is Creator, who nevertheless acts in an imminent mode in individual living beings: “God is necessarily in all things and in them in a most intimate way” (Summa Theologiae, I, q. 8, a. 1). The interior principles individuated in nature in Aristotle’s philosophy become, in the thought of Aquinas, faculties that are placed by God in the world. In contrast with Greek thought, which was tied to a concept of order and harmony that necessarily inheres in the closed reality of the cosmos, the thought of St. Thomas is open to the dimension of a divine providential plan that accompanies suaviter et fortiter [gently and vigorously] each thing to its end (cf. Tanzella-Nitti, 1997): God works in every creature, without negating their identities, by inserting them into a larger and deeper design of a transcendent order.
Another difference between Thomas’s and Aristotle’s understandings of nature concerns the existence of chance. The existence of chance was accepted by Aristotle, but it was denied by St. Thomas and the other great Christian thinkers on the level of the providential First Cause. (Chance exists only on the level of a per accidens coincidence of causation). Everything in creation comes about by the will of God: Nature, which is a divine work, does not make mistakes and does not consent to events that deviate from the norm with respect to the final cause, something that Aristotle had concluded was possible. Matter adopts itself to a form inasmuch as its Author so disposes. The monstrous events and creatures that occur in nature are willed by God in view of a particular design, both transcendent and mysterious. In nature, the miraculous comes to be seen as a constant possibility that is perfectly rational from the divine point of view. In fact, if a miracle constitutes a break in the ordered chain of causation from the perspective of the dimension of created phenomena, from God’s point of view the problem does not exist: God cannot be limited by that which he created as the free act of his own will. Therefore, he is able to do whatever he pleases in order to pursue his ends, even diverging from the laws of nature, inasmuch as in reality he is following the higher law that is identified in its fullness with his will. In the Medieval Christian understanding of nature, therefore, there exists a form of necessity rooted in the higher level of Being, a necessity that is perhaps more cogent than that posited in the world of ancient and classical Greece (cf. Gilson, 1991).
In conclusion, I believe that the words that Dante Alighieri has to say to Beatrice in the first canto of the Paradise well summarize some of the concepts expressed above: “All things, among themselves, possess an order; and this order is the form that makes the universe like God. Here do the higher beings see the imprint of the Eternal Worth, which is the end to which the pattern I have mentioned tends. Within that order every nature has its bent, according to a different station, nearer or less near to its origin. Therefore, these natures move to different ports across the mighty sea of being, each given the impulse that will bear it on” (Divine Comedy, Paradise I, 103-114).
V. Nature according to the Principal Non-Christian Spiritual and Religious Conceptions
Turning our attention to non-Christian religions, we must first briefly examine Islam, providing some elements of documentary evidence as we do so. In the Koran, there are numerous passages in which nature is described as a place where one can seek the face of God. For the one who is wise and knows to look to the root of things in order to arrive at the essence beyond appearances, the harmonious order of the world is a sign (surah 30:22; 44:3-5). According to the Islamic scholar Seyyed H. Nasr, nature, considered as a text, is a complex of symbols which should be read in accord with their proper meaning (cf. Nasr, 1968, 1996). The Koran is the counterpart of this natural sort of text translated into human words; its verses are called ayat (“signs”), which is the same term used for the phenomena of nature. Both nature and the Koran express the presence of God and the veneration of him. As a sacred book, it is a guide on the way to spiritual salvation, and it is for this reason that the text of the book is so carefully protected. According to the revelation of the Koran, mankind has been entrusted the task of governing the earth in the name of God (surah 35, 39). Human beings ought to be concerned with whether the natural resources that are necessary for life are conserved and with whether the earth is stripped bare on account of mankind’s thirst for power and domination. Accordingly, mankind’s responsibility for the world embraces all of creation, not only other human beings, but also the animals, plants, and all of the earth. In the Rose Garden of Mystery, by Mahmud Shabistari, physical reality, seen as a holographic structure, is illuminated by the transcendent immanence of the Supreme Principal: “Know that the world is a mirror from top to bottom, in every atom one can sense a hundred flaming suns. If you spread out the heart of a drop of water, a hundred pure oceans will flow from it. If you examine attentively every grain of sand, you will be able to see in it a thousand Adams. And while the center of the heart may be small, it is a residence that can host the Lord of both the worlds” (the two worlds are understood here as the spheres of Becoming and Being).
The ancient Egyptians and Persians, before being incorporated into the Islamic empire, demonstrted a comparable attitude toward nature. In Egypt, the order of the cosmos was thought to have been generated and sustained by the divinity. The elements of nature were seen as forces that revealed supernatural beings, incarnations of a transcendent principle. For the religion of Zarathustra, which originated between 1000 and 600 B.C. and still has followers today in Persia and India (albeit reduced in number), the Earth was an incarnation of an angel, and therefore part of the angelic hierarchy, which took on a central role in ancient Iranian wisdom. The entire cosmos was subject to the divine law (Asha) and each earthly thing had its own celestial counterpart, which dignified it and ratified its right to existence. Likewise, in Hinduism, we find the concept of a cosmic order (rta) permeated by a “transcendent immanence.” We have an example of this in the Chandogya-upanishad (6, XIII), where the young Svetaketu is taught by his father about the presence of the supernatural Being within nature using the example of water in which salt is dissolved. The flavor of the salt can be found everywhere in the water, but its “essence” remains whole and distinct, for otherwise it would be impossible to separate the salt from the water. In this way the Supreme Being is omnipresent within, but not identified with, nature: “Everything insofar as it exists is animated by this subtle essence; this is the only reality, this is the atman.” As we have already remarked, this soul which permeates everything is an expression of the supreme Brahman, the Absolute Principle, that is purely metaphysical and transcendent. It must be kept in mind, moreover, that in Hindu circles, according to their tantric conception of the world, a series of potencies on the metaphysical order, analogous to the numi of the Romans, are present in the multiple aspects of nature, of which they are the real roots.
In a wisdom text such as the I Ching, the basis not only for Taoist but for Chinese thought in general, we find a reaffirmation of the idea that nature reproduces transcendent models, on account of which the world is a mirror of the divine. In fact the “firstborn images,” or “archetypes,” brought to completion in the creative act (I Ching, Book II, sect. 1, ch. V, § 7), from the non-duality of the Supreme Principle, through a series of “changes” expressed by symbolic numbers, leads at last to the manifested world, conceived as an “intelligible order.” One finds a similar expression of things in the wisdom of the Hebrew Kabbalah: All that exists in heaven or on earth is found eternally in the ten primordial aspects of God. All that which is perishable is simply an analogue of the Imperishable and of the Eternal, from which it emanates (cf. Schaye, 1977). This archetypical vision, which some believed to be an invention of Plato, is also evident in a reading of the Emerald Table: “The lowest is similar in everything to the highest and the highest is similar in all respects to the lowest, and this is because the miracles come to their completion in only one thing.” It is evident in the Aitareya Brahmana of Hinduism as well, which affirms, “As it is on high, so it is down below.” Every being of nature has therefore its own essential “reason” which grounds it and justifies its existence in a manner that is not contingent, but absolute, at least with respect to the human will.
According to Taoist metaphysics, the cosmos—the physical manifestation of metaphysical reality, rooted in the Tao (analogous to the Asha or to the rta of Hinduism)—is formed through the mediating joint action of two forces. We speak of the “harmonic union” of two principles, categories, or poles that are apparently opposed but are in reality complementary, the Yin and Yang, Form and Substance, which are on a level subordinate to the Absolute Principle, and which spring forth from the Archetypes. In nature, therefore, there is a harmony that is determined by the equilibrium of these two polarities, which are counterpoised and complementary. Disorder, both at the macrocosmic level and at the microcosmic level, derives from the rupture of this equilibrium. It is interesting to note in this context that the role of mankind with respect to the environment in traditional China was that of the mediator between Heaven and Earth, but not the “measure of all things.” Humanity ought to maintain the stable equilibrium and harmony between Yin and Yang. In Taoism, nature is taken as an example of an action without force, unified, and spontaneous in a higher sense: It is the “metaphor of the perfect action.” One finds analogous ideas in Buddhism (cf. Suzuki, 2002) and in Shintoism.
VI. The Revolution of Immanentism: The Renaissance and Magic
In certain respects, the Renaissance signals a profound break with the idea of nature that had reigned in the West, a break that was far more drastic than that brought about by either Judaism or Christianity. Certainly, it was a process that was both ambiguous and contradictory, even if a common foundation can be identified in the immanentism that was diffused through the various strata of society and found also, in part, in writers such as Bernardino Telesio (1509-1588), Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639), and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), who advocated the idea of the cosmos as a living reality vivified by the Spirit, in a perspective that had pretensions of being neo-Platonic. The grounding of nature in a transcendent and divine order appears to increasingly fade and, at the same time, become increasingly formalized. The cosmos becomes, in fact, secularized. In place of the malleability and pliability of the mediaeval understanding, there is substituted, slowly and not without resistance, a rigid and deterministic vision of the world. In the world of official religion, one witnesses a parallel process that was markedly in opposition to this immanentism. This opposition, however, ultimately contributed to the development of a certain novel idea of nature. God comes to be seen more and more as a Being absolutely transcendent and omnipotent, and less and less as an expression of a loving presence with a separate immanent dimension. The idea of mankind made in the image and likeness of God develops in a way parallel to this compartmentalizing model with regard to its relationship with the world: Humanity lays claim to absolute power over nature while individuals lay claim to the right to use nature however they please. This sort of attitude has remained in the depths of the Western psyche even now that the process of laicization and secularization has distanced the modern mind from its religious roots. In the end, unbridled immanentism and radical transcendentalism, however opposed they might have been in appearance, ended up collaborating in the creation and affirmation of a new way of understanding nature.
One can observe an example of this narrowing of vision and behavior in the figure of the magician, a Promethean figure, often steeped in at least potential naturalism, covetous of “power” over things, straining to act in that more “subtle” sphere that exists between the material and the spiritual worlds. This naturalistic magic was based on two fundamental principles: The possibility of effecting a radical transformation in, on the one hand, nature, and on the other, on the passive and purely receptive character of matter considered as such. Renaissance naturalism, therefore, breaks with the Aristotelian principle that recognized a difference between natural and artificial things with regard to the diversity of their respective forms. Instead, it proclaims the artificiality of nature, a nature that is, moreover, manipulable at the pleasure of the individual magician. The figure of the Renaissance magician, skilled at intervening in the course of natural events and altering them, established the foundation for an optimistic, and absolutely novel, understanding of the possibility of human progress in mastering nature. Indeed, emblematic of the age is the figure of Enrico Cornelio Agrippa of Nettesheim (1486-1535), a person who enjoyed an almost disturbing level of protection even in ecclesiastical circles, and in particular of two cardinals, La Mark and Campegi. His work Occult Philosophy or Magic, one of the richer compendia devoted to the subject, deserves mention.
In this cultural climate, God himself became the archetype of a magician who has it within his power to do everything. Every human priestly function is set aside: Nature progressively loses one of its principal functions, i.e., that of analogically facilitating our access to God, and becomes an end in itself. It becomes more and more an object to be dominated and less and less a hidden essence to be discovered analogy, which had been governed by deep and objective laws establishing the appropriate correspondence between the various levels of meaning, is reduced to free and sometimes anarchic associations of ideas. There is an ever more uncontrolled flow of metaphors; the part comes to make itself the whole. A restrained immanent subjectivism is put in place, a subjectivism oriented toward abolishing mystery and rendering mankind like God, searching for omnipotence. Up until that time, nature, seen as a mother, had been respected and protected by humanity, inasmuch as there had existed certain spiritual and moral limits in our encounter with it. But in the Renaissance, the magician approached nature in a manner that was almost incestuous, breaking century old rules and uniting himself to it in an illicit union, seeking not only to understand the power it possesses but also the ability to use it at will. Once the taboo against incest had been overcome, nature became like a lover to be conquered, a lover who would be cheated again and again by the consort who has been freed from all those chains and laws, in a process of continual and increasingly deeper secularization.
VII. The Conception of Nature in Modern Science: Leading Theories and Conflicting Theories between the 16th and 20th Centuries
1. The Turning Point of the Modern Age. Without the long process of transformation that the meaning we attach to nature underwent, modern science could not have been born, even though other types of science might then have had the possibility to assert themselves. The path, at times tortured and in some cases seemingly contradictory, has its logical and coherent completion in the 16th and 17th centuries, principally in the works of learned individuals such as Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Francis Bacon, Gassendi, Mersenne, and Boyle. An image of nature emerges that is very much like a disordered and chaotic kingdom, a kingdom to be put under control, dominated, and exploited solely in the interests of mankind. The Greek and Christian visions of the cosmos, in which that sense of a limit was so very strong, is entirely eclipsed.
The fundamental cause of this shift was the definitive affirmation among the naturalists of the idea of nature as a passive reality, both mysterious and opaque. This was an understanding of nature anticipated by the Renaissance era exponents of magic, though in a different context. Such passivity came to be attributed to the very essence of matter, characterized by its density, form, and impenetrability. In this outlook, motion and change do not derive from the action of any properties or intrinsic faculties, as they did in Aristotelian-Thomistic thought, but are instead explained solely in the light of laws governing action and reaction as well as the principles of inertia. This shift constituted an abandonment of the idea that nature is an entity endowed with the capacity for self-development towards a series of ends in harmony with the divine end. The theories of the atomists played a notable part in all this. One must remember that the ancient atomists were known in the Middle Ages through the mediation of Aristotle until, in the year 1417 with the rediscovery of the poem De Rerum Natura of Lucretius (98-54 B.C.), it became possible to know their ideas directly. The crucial transition consisted in the insertion of atomism, originally atheistic in its orientation and therefore unacceptable for a Christian society, into a perspective made compatible with the dogma of creation, where God is the Legislator and Author of the norms regulating the movement of these atoms which give rise to the entire universe.
On the whole, all of this constitutes a revolution in the vision of the world, the distant antecedents of which can be found in the theological circles of the nominalist theories that had been advanced in the late Middle Ages, according to which the Aristotelian vision of nature as a being with its own autonomous and principal characteristics would unacceptably limit the freedom of God. The Protestant doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of God and the passivity of mankind was also a contributing factor. This doctrine furnished useful analogies to many naturalists of the period. In fact, the idea that “God works everything, mankind nothing” was quickly translated into the physical world with the analogous idea that “God works everything, nature nothing.” In other words, every contribution of nature in the work of the Creator comes to be considered a theological absurdity. The innate Mechanism in the new understanding of the world can, therefore, trace its origins to certain “religious” currents in the Reformation. In the same vein one can discern, although less clearly defined, other effects of the Protestant mentality—a certain literalism and an aversion to any metaphysical symbolism—all favoring the affirmation of that superficial, material, and purely phenomenal understanding of nature that has become typical of modernity.
One subsequent stage in the development of this modern understanding of nature was the total marginalization of the role of God that is found in 17th century Deism, according to which God created the world and mankind but subsequently plays only a disinterested role in the universe. This permitted the moderns to carry to completion the effectively definitive elimination of the presence of the divine in nature. It finds its ultimate fruition in the decisive and fatal affirmation of atheism.
2. The Mathematical and Quantitative View of Nature. In order to identify a series of key personalities in the process that led to the victory of an ironclad atomistic and mechanistic understanding of nature, we must now take a step back and consider Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) again, paying particular attention to his two great works, A Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), and his Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations about Two New Sciences Belonging to Mechanics and Local Motions (1642). He prepared the way for the eventual crisis of the imposing edifice of the medieval conception of the universe, a conception that was both Christocentric and, consequently, also anthropocentric (the term has here its valid meaning within the Christian understanding of human beings, not its modern meaning). God still plays an important role at the heart of Galileo’s theoretical system, but already he is starting to appear like a being distant both from the cosmos and from nature: He is increasingly a Creator who furnishes only the initial impulse and less and less the Being who constantly sustains creation in all its parts. Even the magician’s interactive and empathetic understanding of the universe, typical of the naturalism of the Renaissance, is foreign to Galileo. His language is almost proto-positivistic; his approach to nature is of a mathematical-quantitative sort. The qualitative is at last expelled entirely because it is judged to be an inessential projection of the human mind. Material objects are fundamental, not their reciprocal relationships. Belief in complex interactions intrinsic to nature in itself, in interactions that are sometimes efficacious even at a distance, comes to be considered an absurdity. As an aside, we may recall that Galileo, in his enthusiasm for innovation, considered the influence of the moon on the seas to be a superstition of the past.
Some authors have brought to light certain contradictions in Galileo’s thought. He was still marginally influenced by ideas of an “organic,” that is to say Aristotelian, bent, and he even thought that he was following Plato when he affirmed geometrical understandings of physical reality, but in fact the core of his thought was influenced above all else by atomistic and mechanistic theories. In effect, Galileo marks a moment of transition, sometimes not entirely coherent, between a complex organic mentality and a mechanical and simplifying mentality. We find an example of this in his ambiguous relationship with the Aristotelian heritage embodied in such ideas as the rule that movements are naturally inclined in particular directions. Galileo accepted this idea at least in part: In fact, to his mind, the indifference of matter to movement can be ascribed solely to horizontal movement. One cannot therefore assert that Galileo considered matter to be entirely inert.
To the mechanistic model of the cosmos elaborated by René Descartes (1596-1650) (cf. Principia philosophiae, 1644), we owe the attainment of a coherent phase in the process of secularization in the understanding of nature. The rejection of the organic tradition became complete. The Aristotelian understanding of the end (intrinsic), confused with the teleological understanding (extrinsic), is abandoned: The metaphor of the machine begins to impose itself as the only valid model. The French philosopher also theorized a radical dualism between a res extensa and a res cogitans, that is, between matter, including the bodies of animals and human beings, and thought, now synonymous with soul. Nature is now a great machine peopled by machines of varying sizes. According to Descartes, there is no difference between the artificial and the natural; therefore, any living organism is equivalent, when considered as a whole, to a machine that has been constructed by an artisan. Against this background, the human soul finds itself in a state of total separation from the realm of the living, in a rigid relationship between “I” and “object.” Human beings are, so to speak, “inhabited” by rational souls, connected to the body through the mediation of the pineal gland. The neo-Platonic spiritus mundi is transformed into a subtle mechanical ether, while the force that is responsible for motion is no longer a vital reality, inherent in bodies themselves, but a simple measure of quantity and acceleration. Matter comes at last to be considered entirely inert and uniform, pure quantity subjected to the mathematical laws promulgated by God, who acts like a king legislating in and for his realm. All physical phenomena reduce to exact numerical relationships. With Descartes, the idea of mankind standing at the head of nature in the role of patron and absolute master becomes increasingly dominant.
This understanding was the motivation that drove the speculation of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) (cf. Novum Organum, 1620), whose thought reduced nature to an economic resource to be exploited without limitation, with secrets to be extorted and extracted, treating nature not as a benevolent mother but as a chaotic and mysterious stepmother. Bacon used metaphors that were strikingly clear, possessing a level of violence never before seen, that were taken from the rituals and processes of sorcery. Nature, according to Bacon, having first been compelled and forced by the mechanical arts, should be obligated to serve mankind and rendered a slave. He introduces the concept of “molding” the surrounding environment by means of science. In his New Atlantis (1627), the English philosopher and scientist foreshadows the Promethean man capable of creating various sorts of artificial animals different from those present in nature, rendering them more useful. In this way, a manipulative and utilitarian utopia is born, a utopia based on the following axioms: nature is a great machine; it possesses infinite resources; it is inert in itself; and its actions run along predictable courses inasmuch as they follow pathways of a deterministic sort. It becomes evident that the search for an absolute and mechanical power for mankind demands a nature that is rethought and reconstructed in proportion with these frankly anthropocentric aims.
With Newton, Gassendi, Mersenne, and Boyle the circle is at last complete. Mechanism reaches the apex of its internal coherence, although still remaining within a context that is, at least theoretically, “Christian.” One can say that this understanding of nature was dominant until quite recently in scientific circles and remains so in the popular mind. Nineteenth century Darwinism and contemporary neo-Darwinism constitute examples of how the utilitarian-mechanistic and reductionist paradigm was finally developed and applied to increasingly wider fields, maintaining its essential integrity with only a few minor adjustments. One of its leading exponents, F. Jacob, reconfirms the mechanistic and atomistic credo when he asserts that all biological phenomena can, in the final analysis, be reduced to ideas drawn from Physics and Chemistry: Nature, at last, is nothing other than the sum of elements belonging to the inorganic world. The order of living things derives, to put it quite simply, from the accidental amalgamation of physical-chemical components, on which natural selection has worked in a deterministic fashion. In point of fact, this puts nature on par with a reality that is perennially “unresolved,” unstable, and opaque. Such an understanding of nature fits well with the “spirit of the time” of which, to offer an example, Hegel and Marx represent two extremely coherent philosophical expressions: Even though they approach matter from two different perspectives, they both consider nature in itself a “nullity,” inasmuch as mankind alone, in this the final rationalization of the extreme anthropocentric position, has become the center of everything.
3. The Holistic and Vitalistic Views. In opposition to this dominant intellectual current there always existed, although oftentimes only underground, a contrary line of thought, tending toward the organic and holistic and open to the dimension of the “transcendent.” Beginning with Goethe, this line of thought would ultimately attract biologists belonging to the school of “idealistic morphology,” physicists such as Bavinck, Heitler, Fantappiè, and also Schrödinger and Heisenberg, and, finally, in our own day, prestigious scholars such as Bertalanffy, Thom, Sermonti, Penrose, Fondi, Chauvin, Costa de Beauregard, Arcidiacono, and Davies. According to the last of these, quantum physics marks a decisive turn toward a holistic and global vision of nature. Max Planck (1858-1947) himself had earlier invited his fellow physicists to reintroduce the “idea of wholeness” insofar as it is inherent in the very structure of nature: Only in this way can nature's laws be formulated in a satisfactory way. The universe turns to being a unified and hierarchical whole, systematic (Bertalanffy), made up of interdependent parts, a fine interactive network, and an integrated assortment of relationships, all regulated by laws. We are here at the furthest extreme from any idea of dividing nature into its simple elements, those so-called “fundamental building blocks.” The phenomenal world, in the thought of these authors, takes on once again the character of an animated and living structure, arbitrary yet exemplary, an organism of organisms, the place in which “the stamped form lives and develops” (Goethe) as a dynamic and ordered reality. The embryologist A. Dalcq has written that form is profoundly material while also being profoundly spiritual. It cannot exist without matter to sustain it, nor can it be properly expressed without invoking a certain supernatural principle. Form creates a problem that appeals to the greater resources of our intelligence. His own examination, Dalcq asserts, obliges one to conclude in favor of the primacy of an Order, of an Idea, of an Organizing Structure in all biological phenomena.
As the famous French anatomist and histologist L. Vialleton had already affirmed in the first half of the 19th century, “physical-chemical causes have the functions that were attributed to them by the Mechanists, but the order of their succession, their nature, and the results of their operations, are first regulated by the organization of being, which is the seat of it all.” (L’origine degli esseri viventi. L’illusione trasformista [Rome: 1935], p. 283.) In fact, from an Aristotelian standpoint, organization of this type “intervenes as a form or as a final cause,” according to an understanding in which, at least in nature, “to become” and “to be” intertwine with each other instead of reciprocally cancelling each other out. In these authors, one at times even sees evidence of an influence of Platonic and Pythagorean ideas. D’Arcy Thompson wrote that: “The harmony of the world is made manifest in Form and Number and the heart and soul and all the poetry of natural philosophy are embodied in the concept of mathematical beauty. [...] This is the teaching of Plato and Pythagoras, and the message of Greek wisdom to mankind” (On Growth and Form [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961], p. 326). The physicist Roger Penrose affirms resolutely that: “I have made no secret of the fact that my sympathies lie strongly with the Platonistic view that mathematical truth is absolute, external, and not based on man-made criteria; and that mathematical objects have a timeless existence of their own, not dependent on human society nor on particular physical objects” (Penrose, 1989, p. 116). The Platonic archetypes return, now seen as dynamic models that mold the phenomenal world.
In conclusion, it does not do to forget the important contribution made by the new Physics, and specifically by quantum mechanics. As evidenced by Fritjof Capra (The Tao of Physics, 1975), in our awareness of nature we surmount the division between the subject-I and object-nature that is characteristic of the Cartesian vision: The observer becomes part of the observed whole, of the phenomenal world, an event that carries with it a profound interaction between subject and object. The separation which for a long time blocked our approach to the phenomenal world now becomes senseless: The wall comes crashing down.
VIII. A Comparative Synthesis
At the end of this excursionthrough the various meanings that have been attached to the term “nature” over the course of the centuries, I will limit myself to a few final remarks which, while attempting to synthesize what has been said so far, nevertheless do not purport to confront all of the problems in this field today. The new millennium opens on a situation that is sometimes chaotic: There no longer exists a model of nature that is universally accepted in science and philosophy. If previously it was impossible to affirm a univocal conception of the physical world, today the problem is all the more glaring. Tendencies, needs, and opposing perspectives interact and intertwine in ways often indifferent to the difficulties that may arise in the course of their so doing. On the one side, we have the ever broadening sensibility of the contemporary understanding of nature considered as a dynamic and relational reality, liberated from the mesh of mechanism and atomism that is increasingly in contrast to the recent developments in biology and physics. On the other side, there is the more manipulative enterprise, including, for example, the effort that is being made to alter the genetic inheritance of human beings, animals, and plants. This enterprise has arisen against the background of the evolutionist standpoint and is in fact quite optimistic. It has roots that can be traced back to the thought of Francis Bacon. It seems to proceed with an almost light-hearted arrogance, willfully blind to the grave consequences that radical and revolutionary intervention in nature might have on a number of different levels. It may seem that these contrasting paradigms are able to stand one alongside the other without any conflict, but this is not the case. Sooner or later, it will be necessary to cut this Gordian knot, this uneasy and explosive meshwork, at least before its perverse effects become irreversible. How can this be done? In the first place, by reacquiring the “sense of the limit,” a process that will no doubt be slow, but which certainly cannot be imposed from the outside upon a society that has become enchanted by a Faustian and Promethean mirage. It will be necessary to bring people around to “seeing” nature, to “feeling” it, leaving behind them the age of artificiality, the age of that technomorphic vision of the world which contemporary culture has been spreading around the globe. And it is precisely this aspect, characteristic of modern ideology, that has brought about the progressive incorporation of the natural realm into the realm of the artificial, giving rise to the metaphor of the living world as a machine, resulting in a logical concatenation of events, of a process of hardening and symbolic ossification of the phenomenal world. It is in this way that the limit is broken down which separates the two spheres of the natural and the technical that one perceives the enchantment of creation as a real place and, at the same time, as a symbolic place in which the divine power expresses itself. Confronted with this reality one ought to show a certain respect and put oneself in an attitude of reverent attention, that is, in a cognitive attitude that is not one of domination, but one that is open to marvel. It will, in short, be necessary to “re-enchant the world,” to liberate it from the reductionist and one-dimensional interpretation that enchains it in a utilitarian, manipulative form of slavery. Even today, in the subconscious of the Western mind, nature does not have any value in and of itself, but is considered only one of many economic values, a source of profit and of material, or at least psychological, well-being, and as something to eventually be conserved, but nevertheless only in relation to the interests of human beings. Only an attitude that is religious in a rigorous sense (not in the sense of a false pantheistic religiosity) could open the way to understanding and dialogue between us and the environment that surrounds us.
Mircea Eliade (1904-1986), in his studies on the history of religions, demonstrated that, “For religious man, nature is never only ‘natural’; it is always fraught with a religious value. This is easy to understand, for the cosmos is a divine creation; coming from the hands of the gods, as is the case, for example, with a place or an object consecrated by the divine presence. The gods did more; they manifested the different modalities of the sacred in the very structure of the world and of cosmic phenomena. The world stands displayed in such a manner that, in contemplating it, religious man discovers the many modalities of the Sacred, and hence of being” (The Sacred and the Profane [New York: 1961], p. 116).
Reacquiring this state of “perceptive community” with nature, liberated from its cerebral accretions produced by secularized society, which has disfigured and reduced it to a shadow and a parody of itself, is tantamount to overcoming the human obsession with “mastery” over nature. This will require that we recognize anew our own limitations, demystifying the fiendish utopia of domination over the environment that is based on absolute and total comprehensive knowledge of the phenomenal world, as well as a level of understanding which from the perspective of the scientist does not accept as a matter of principal the idea that there are areas of shadow or places inaccessible to human knowledge. Instead, we ought to perceive nature afresh, with modesty and sobriety, as an entity which, in its most profound aspect, “loves to hide itself.” We must avoid the temptation of seeking to see the hidden face of nature out of a desire to dominate her. We must respect the essence of nature, overcoming the disengagement that comes from “weak thought” and nominalism. The recognition of the inherent essence of nature requires a parallel recognition of its specific dignity, of its ends and its aims, that is, of its autonomous identity, an identity that is incompatible with unrestricted and unlimited manipulation. Mankind began by seeing nature as a complex and living organism, capable of self-generation (as the etymology of the word reveals), and then slowly transformed nature into an anonymous mechanism, the most simple sort of mechanism possible, that is to say, one that is predictable and subject to domination, projecting, in a unilateral mode, certain aspects of our coarse human mental processes onto the surrounding world, following a praxis that was frankly anthropocentric. Today, the inverse process seems to be occurring, at least in part, although still in the chaos without a center that is modernity on the wane. Causalism, mechanism, atomism, determinism, and reductionism , are being openly defied by opposing and no longer marginalized, nor even marginalizable, approaches such as holism, organicism, system understanding, and complexity, in a series of outcomes that is still unpredictable.
In psychological and spiritual terms, this struggle can be interpreted as the confrontation between one vision that is permeated with fear and hatred toward nature—which takes nature as something that we must attack preemptively out of a fear that it will overwhelm us, according to a collective pathology that would merit its own separate study—and a more serene vision, which does not share the insecurities of today’s secular society, but knows how to reinvigorate, in a contemporary vein, an approach that was proper to human culture in its better period and that finds its full expression in Christian religious thought (cf. John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, nn. 15-16). Only a new culture, a culture that is religious in a profound sense, will be able to lift the veil of ignorance and arrogance that has, by altering the perception of the phenomenal world in the eyes of our secularized society, generated a menacing ghost and destroyed our capacity to discern the true essence of creation.
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