The Great Conversation: Nature
By Gabriel Blanchard
Like a tree, the idea of nature has many roots and many branches.
Nature is a complex concept with a wide range of “opposites.” The natural can be opposed to the artificial, the immoral, the moral, the civilized, the supernatural, the unnatural—and all of these have further ramified senses, including some that combine with each other.
The idea at the root of nature’s various meanings, maybe, is “what hasn’t been interfered with.” A plastic plant is contrasted with a natural one because natural plants grow by themselves, instead of needing a factory to make them on purpose; laws and social conventions are contrasted with nature because they often aren’t how we would spontaneously behave; crimes like parricide are specifically “unnatural” because family love and loyalty arise without any special work from family members. A short post like the ones in this series couldn’t do justice to all the ramifications of the idea of nature, so we will look at three of the most important in the history of thought: natural law; nature as contrasted with grace; and the natural world.
Natural law theory—expressed by Jefferson as “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”—is a very ancient idea. Natural law theory as it is known today is primarily a refinement of the Enlightenment; but the idea that right and wrong are tied into the inherent, well, nature of human beings and of the world around us is as old as Aristotle, and older. The essential idea is that human beings have a single, united nature, with a certain kind of dignity and purpose that inevitably defines their behavior (both as individuals and towards other people). Behavior that serves human dignity and purpose is therefore natural, and anything which wastes or injures these things is, accordingly, a violation of natural law; an external standard can therefore be discerned, by which the laws of a state or institution can be judged as just or unjust. This is precisely what Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers were appealing to.
Nature as contrasted with supernatural grace, though a topic confined principally to Christian authors, has been another flourishing topic. Grace, in Christian doctrine, is direct help from God in doing things that human nature as we know it finds difficult or even impossible (definitions get more precise, and more different, in various theological traditions). Where nature in the previous sense is practically synonymous with goodness, nature in this context is usually something corrupt; at minimum, it is something relatively inferior or limited, while grace is precisely super-natural.
Finally, there is nature in the sense of the natural world. Interestingly, scientific advances since the Renaissance have not only altered our picture of nature but even altered what we think nature is. In the Medieval world, it was believed that everything below the Moon was made of the four classical elements, and that everything above it was made of a different kind of substance (called aether). This was a deduction from the apparent changelessness of the heavens beyond the Moon: things that behaved in such radically different ways must be made of radically different substances, or the heavens would show change and decay just like the earth does. Hence nature was used as a name for everything beneath the Moon. The appearance of a nova in 1572 helped usher in a completely altered idea of the heavens—and a far vaster idea of nature with it. Our concept of nature was revolutionized yet again in the early twentieth century, as the stately, ordered universe conceived by scientists from Newton to Einstein was abruptly challenged by quantum theory, which derived nature from an inherently chaotic atomic world, whose laws were only the laws of averages.
If you liked this post, you might also enjoy our profile of Dorothy Sayers, or Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson’s piece on Fyodor Dostoevsky. Or take a look at another of our “Great Conversation” pieces, like this one on the virtue of courage or this one on rhetoric.