Past attitudes to 'Nature'



So when ancient scholars wrote about nature (natura) what did they understand it to mean? What did it encompass?

As might be expected of a word viewed as one of the most complex in the language, the semantic development of the term ‘nature’ has had a long and convoluted history.

For pre-Socratic thinkers nature did indeed encapsulate everything that they knew of or believed in. A single word, Physis, was sufficient to express this totality. The parameters of nature began to narrow with Plato who distinguished between a creative power existing outside and beyond nature, and the created, nature itself. For Plato, nature thus resided in the tangible and visible universe, the ‘realm of forms’. This would be the view held by medieval neoplatonists down to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. With the ‘rediscovery’ of the works of Aristotle, however, the medieval age was provided with a different configuration of nature’s scope.

Statue of Plato (424/3 BC to 348/7 BC)

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For Aristotle, Platonic nature was too static. It was not physical substance that mattered—as Plato had emphasized—but the principle of change. Nature was not found in the realm of forms but in the realm of motion, of generation and corruption, in the cycles of life and death, and in the terrestrial.

Aristotle thus had the effect of further restricting nature’s locus. Now excluded were those parts of the created universe which were considered to exist in an unchanging form—for Aristotle this was the celestial sphere—whose study belonged more appropriately to mathematics; so too that which was unchangeable and existed in and of itself—God, the prime mover—the subject of metaphysics.

Statue of Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC)

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The Middle Ages drew upon and further extended these Platonic and Aristotelian positions.

For instance, Aristotle had provided seven definitions of nature in his Metaphysics but by the 9th century AD, the Irish theologian Eriugena offered nine definitions. And Alan of Lille—writing in the twelfth century— provide eleven in his Liber in distinctionibus dictionum theologicalium.

But amongst these various nuances, two senses of nature came to dominate medieval thought:

1) nature as the essential quality or character of something

2) Nature (with a capital ‘N’) as the inherent force which directs either the world or human beings or both

From both Plato and Judaic traditions, the medieval scholars developed the idea that God was the creator of nature and in so doing insisted on nature’s subordinate and subservient place in the greater scheme of things. And following Aristotle, some (but by no means all) later commentators had come to restrict their discussions on nature to terrestrial and atmospheric phenomena below the orbit of the moon.

These medieval works were all written in the Christian tradition, their authors and compilers (with the odd exception) vocational churchmen and members of open and closed monastic orders.

But Christianity’s hold was not total. Medieval Europe accommodated significant populations of Jews and Moslems, particularly in Spain after the Islamic conquests of the early eighth century.

Despite this pluralism, and perhaps against first expectations, writings on nature irrespective of their religious and cultural milieux do not radically diverge from one another. This is, in part, explained because all three of the main religious groups in Europe shared a common sacred text, the Old Testament:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and have dominion over it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground. (Gen 1:27-8)

Genesis provided the basis for the cosmological models for Jews, Moslems and Christians alike; while the Book of Psalms provided each religion with its poetic glorification of nature. The cornerstones of all three religions is that humans have dominion over the world – that its resources are there for humans to exploit, with humans place rightfully at the top of the Chain of Being.

However, some (e.g. Preece and Fraser 2000) have argued that the term ‘dominion’ is a mistranslation of the Hebrew term radâ which has been taken to mean despotic subjugation rather than what Preece and Fraser believe is the correct translation: stewardship.

Indeed, it would seem that, traditionally, all three religions were far more attuned to the notion of balance (and thus sustainability), believing that they had a duty of care over their environment.

It is now becoming clear that it was the Enlightenment that brought the separation of Man and Nature. The ‘rational’ thinking of the period insisted upon the superiority of the human mind over the laws of nature; the rise of science saw the rejection of both simple readings of Nature’s workings and the accumulated folklore knowledge of mankind achieved over many millennia.