There are some questions so basic they seem unnecessary or superfluous. The question “What is nature?” is one of these. We never ask it because we think the answer is self-evident.
But is it?
What many of us do not realize is that the nature of nature is far from a settled question. We think it is settled because we live in a time dominated by the physical sciences, which are commonly attended with certain mechanistic assumptions about the natural world which we imbibe by osmosis from our educational and cultural surroundings. We catch them, to use the words of Samuel Johnson, like we catch the common cold: by contagion. We are unfamiliar with how these assumptions came to be and with the ideas they replaced. We know little about the reasons the older assumptions were abandoned or why the new ones took their place. In fact, the older view of nature has, among most of us, been completely forgotten.
Did the understanding of nature change because the new idea was better, or because it better fit with the cultural presuppositions of the time? Was the old idea of nature refuted or did it simply fall out of intellectual fashion?
Two Senses of the Word 'Nature’
The early 20th century British philosopher R. G. Collingwood pointed out, in his book, The Idea of Nature, that there are two senses of the word ‘nature.’ The meaning of the word with which we are most familiar is that which signifies the cosmos or the external world: the sum total or aggregate of natural things. The other, older meaning is that which originates with the Ionian Greek philosophers—Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximines—which signifies the essence or intrinsic principle of a thing. It is the intrinsic source of behavior. Alexander Pope writes,
Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;Here Pope is using this newer sense of the word 'nature.' Then we have the anonymous author of
God said, "Let Newton be" and all was light.
a nursery rhyme, who advises:
Dogs delight to bark and bite …In this case, the word 'nature' is being used in its older sense. The older sense of the word—
for ‘tis their nature to.
nature as essence—started with the Greeks, who considered it the primary sense of the word:
This [intrinsic principle of nature] is the only sense it ever bears in the earlier Greek authors, and remains throughout the history of Greek literature its normal sense. But very rarely, and relatively late, it also bears the secondary sense … [Collingwood, The Idea of Nature, p. 44]And even when the sense of nature as cosmos came into use, the earlier sense informed their notion of it. We might call the older sense of the word the philosophical sense, and the newer,
the scientific sense. This older, classical view of nature tended not so much to ask how nature worked so much as it asked why nature worked the way it did. "Interest was now directed to the how, the manner of causation" said Basil Willey, "not its why, its final cause." [Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background, p. 14] What has happened in modern times is the philosophical sense has been subordinated to the scientific sense—if not eliminated entirely. The shift in terminology—and in world view—is easily visible in the hindsight of history.
What is the Classical View of Nature?
Every world view operates on the basis of some basic metaphor or analogy. For the Greeks, the analogy by which they viewed nature was the analogy of an organism: a living whole with a purpose, each of whose parts contained within it a purpose of its own, ordered toward the whole of which it was a part. Each thing, whether it was living or not, was like a heart, or a kidney, or a set of lungs: it served some purpose in the whole, and functioned in a way commensurate with
Nature had a purpose, and this purpose in nature was like a mind:
Greek natural science was based on the principle that the world of nature is saturated or permeated by mind. Greek thinkers regarded the presence of mind in nature as the source of that regularity or orderliness in the natural world whose presence made a science of nature possible ... They conceived mind, in all its manifestations, whether in human affairs or elsewhere, as a ruler, a dominating or regulating element, imposing order first upon itself and then upon everything belonging to it, primarily its own body and secondarily that body's environment.It is a view, Collingwood points out, that seems alien to us, inured as we are to the mechanistic view of the world, which assumes that the order and repetition in nature is evidence not of any life in it, but of dead mechanism. It is a view which Chesterton argues is based on a false assumption:
Since the world of nature is a world is a world not only of ceaseless motion and therefore alive, but also a world of orderly or regular motion, they accordingly said that the world of nature is not only alive but intelligent; not only a vast animal with a 'soul' or life of its own, but a rational animal with a 'mind' of its own ... a plant or an animal, according to their ideas, participates in its own degree psychically in the life-process of the world's 'soul' and intellectually in the activity of the world's mind. [Collingwood,p. 3]
All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstacy of his life would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. Heaven may encore the bird who laid an egg. If the human being conceives and brings forth a human child instead of bringing forth a fish, or a bat, or a griffin, the reason may not be that we are fixed in an animal fate without life or purpose. It may be that our little tragedy has touched the gods, that they admire it from their starry galleries, and that at the end of every human drama man is called again and again before the curtain. [G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 107-109]These repetitions in nature were not the effects of the dead clockwork which the modern mechanistic view articulated through its "laws of nature," but of something seemingly alive. You may have been a pagan who interpreted this as evidence of things being gods or a Christian, like Chesterton, who thought that God permeated nature by having created it and being immanent in it:
This was my first conviction; made by the shock of my childish emotions meeting the modern creed in mid-career. I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were wilful. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will. [Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 109-110]Part II of "The Classical View of Nature" will appear tomorrow at Vital Remnants...