The death of Nature

Prior to the second half of the seventeenth century the dominant philosophy of Nature outside of the Church was Hermeticism. In the Hermetic philosophy the world was understood organically, that is, as akin to a living organism. The modern distinction between animate and inanimate objects was not recognised; rocks, metals and the elements were not seen as passive but animated by an internal principle.6 So, for example, metals grow in the earth according to their own principle rather than due to the influence of external force. The original conception is often attributed to Plato, who wrote in the fourth century BCE:

Therefore, we may consequently state that: this world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence . . . a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related.7

To separate the spiritual and the physical was the first objective of the new mechanical philosophy of the seventeenth century. Particularly in the second half of the century, natural philosophers were drawn to the new worldview closely associated with the name of René Descartes. Descartes saw the world as comprising no more than matter and motion, with matter itself defined solely by the space it occupies, ruling out any inner essence or form. By taking the machine as a metaphor for the cosmos he denied it any life force or inner motive. In the mechanical philosophy, the progressive dissection of the material world yielded only finer particles, an atomistic conception from which the spirit was banished. In this conception the Earth was rendered dead. Today we take a dead Earth as given yet, as Mircea Eliade pointed out, experience of a radically desacralised nature is a recent discovery.8

The romantic movement of the early decades of the nineteenth century was a reaction against the denial by mechanical science and industrial practice that matter had any inner essence or vivifying force. Francis Bacon had shockingly likened scientific experimentation to torture, in which Nature is placed on the rack by the scientific inquisitor and forced to yield up its secrets. For Wordsworth the new science meant the death of the world he loved:9

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings; Our meddling intellect Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:— We murder to dissect.

A decade later, in Germany, Goethe expressed the same sentiment:10

To docket living things past any doubt You cancel first the living spirit out: The parts lie in the hollow of your hand, You only lack the living link you banned.

Descartes' intervention was in fact the culmination of a philosophical break that occurred some three centuries earlier within the dominant theological school of Scholasticism.11 Prior to this the prevailing view, inherited from the Greeks and formalised by Thomas Aquinas, understood reality as possessing a mysterious aspect beyond human comprehension. In the thirteenth century some began to argue that there is nothing essentially inexpressible about the divine or the inner essence of things, and indeed we can talk about God in the same way we can talk about other beings. If there is nothing inherently mysterious then the human intellect can attain certainty about all things. In other words, the world, reality, is characterised by clarity and distinctness, and so has to be graspable by the human intellect. It was this prior shift that allowed Descartes to reduce the world to matter and motion.

To the modern mind the presumption that existence can only be conceived as clear and intelligible seems obvious, almost banal, yet the argument that existence must be graspable by the human mind was a momentous shift. In sharp contrast with Thomas Aquinas's notion of being as 'something with unknowable and unanalysable depth',12 reality has no deeper quality. The unknowable becomes that which is not yet known, so knowledge is confined to the rational, conceptual and empirical. As this view took hold, the Earth was emptied of any powers other than those identifiable by mechanical science.13

The new science's presumption of the knowability of reality seems indisputable today—the alternative is characterised as superstitious—yet it met resistance from poets, philosophers and ordinary people. Wordsworth wrote of 'a sense sublime, of something far more deeply interfused', and the enduring appeal of the romantic poets (and perhaps French impressionist paintings) speaks to the popular recognition of something beyond the superficial appearances of everyday life. In the new science, 'life' no longer had something mysterious at its core but became graspable in biological terms, which killed any idea of a living Earth. Still, it took some time for the old idea of a living Earth to be expelled from the public realm. In 1817 the philosopher Hegel wrote that 'the earth is a living whole or an individual organism because it is the totality of all of its own chemical processes . . .'.14 Goethe, too, referred to the Earth as 'a living earthly body',15 and in 1851 Thoreau penned these words: 'The earth I tread on is not a dead inert mass. It is a body—has a spirit—is organic . . . It is the most living of creatures.'16

In resisting the Cartesian division between the human and the non-human the romantic poets and philosophers stood before a tide of history that would soon wash over them. This was a pity because their conception has been vindicated now that Nature has struck back, reminding us that the separation and elevation of humans was all along a conceit and that the 'master' was no more than a servant who stole onto the throne while the monarch slept.

Modern science's separation of the knower and the known needed vigorous promotion and there was no proselytiser more committed than the father of modern chemistry, Robert Boyle, who laid down the rules for experimentation endorsed by the Royal Society in the seventeenth century.17 In his 1686 book A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature, Boyle imagined the world to be like a puppet moved by a divine force that can overrule any mechanical processes that may be present.18 In the new conception the world is like 'a rare clock' which, once constructed, is set ticking so that 'all things proceed according to the artificer's first design' without any subsequent intervention by God, the clockmaker.19 The new conception, according to Boyle, complied with the church's understanding of the increasingly detached role of the divine being.20 God was being banished from the Earth to some separate realm. If at any time God should decide to overrule the operations of the clockwork mechanism, which knows nothing more than matter and motion, then the result is properly understood as a miracle. Instead of a God that both transcended the world and lived within it, He became a divine outsider to a spiritually denuded world. His actions then became external interventions, in the absence of which science rules.21

In a remark that lends early weight to the contention that the mechanical philosophy helped release the forces that have given us the climate crisis, Boyle observed that one of the lamentable consequences of the philosophy that venerates a living natural world is that it deters men from exercising their rule over it; piety towards nature, he wrote, is 'a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior creatures of God'.22 William Derham, who in 1711 delivered the prestigious Boyle Lecture, put it more bluntly:23

We can, if need be, ransack the whole globe, penetrate into the bowels of the earth, descend to the bottom of the deep, travel to the farthest regions of this world, to acquire wealth, to increase our knowledge, or even only to please our eye and fancy.

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