A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded upon trash and waste, and such a society is a house built on sand.

- Dorothy Sayers

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Eco-Justice and the Virtues: The Role of Prudence in the Ecological Struggle

The first of the four great cardinal virtues (from the Latin “cardo” - hinge) is the virtue of prudence (phronēsis in Greek, prudentia in Latin). My experience as a high school teacher of Latin and philosophy has taught me that the significance that the ancients accorded this virtue often seems counterintuitive to those who share the contemporary association of prudence with mere risk-avoidance - as the merely sensible avoidance of danger and hardship. What, my students often wondered, is so virtuous about that? This ambivalence about prudence is reflected in current popular usage as well, in which the word prudence, (like the word pious), is just as likely to be used derogatorily as appreciatively. For while it is generally acknowledged to be a good thing to be regarded as faithful, just, compassionate, generous, or gentle - even by those who lack such virtues - to be characterized as prudent is almost insulting. The word conjures up a ghostly images of calculating but timid businessmen or overly scrupulous spinster aunts, and these images, in their turn, suggest a combination of cowardice and self-interest.

The ancient writers, though, whether pagan or Christian, had a much broader and more inclusive understanding of prudence. It was, for them, primarily an intellectual virtue, a disposition directed principally towards truth, knowledge, and reason. For Aristotle, and for those who followed his lead, whether Stoic or Christian, prudence was the Ur-spring of morality itself, a virtuous disposition that made it possible to deliberate rightly regarding that which was good or bad for men, not abstractly, but concretely, in specific situations in the world as it is actually is; and by means of such deliberation, to act rightly. Prudence, then, is a kind of good sense. It good sense directed toward the service of all that is rightly apprehended by human beings to be worthy of aspiration. Properly speaking, it may even be described as the intelligence of a human being who seeks to be good. Without it, we cannot know what use to make of the other virtues in our efforts to be moral.

Thomas Aquinas, expanding on Aristotle, makes it clear that prudence, of all the cardinal virtues, is the one that must govern the rest. Without prudence, he argued, temperance, courage and justice could tell us neither what should be done, nor how to do it. These other virtues, as Aquinas saw it, would, without the organizing intelligence of prudence as practical reasoning, be either blind or indeterminate. The just person, though he might love justice, would not know how to factually go about achieving it, and the courageous person would have no idea how to apply courage, nor under what circumstances it would be beneficial.

Aquinas was equally clear, however, in his recognition that prudence alone is not goodness. Without the support of the other virtues, prudence quickly devolves into mere shrewdness, or to an empty form of rationality deprived of any goal. It is, in a very real sense, a purely instrumental virtue, enlisted to serve the ends that are not its own, concerned, for its own part, principally with the choice of means. This, however, is precisely what makes it essential to virtue, since no virtue, in any given concrete situation, can do without it.(1) By itself, prudence is nothing, but without it neither the other virtues not the goods to which they are dispositions engender morality. A little reflection serves to make this obvious. Simply loving justice does not make one factually just, as generations of decent and well-meaning but incompetent rulers have shown. Loving the truth does not make one factually learned, as is manifest in the sloppy ramblings of every autodidact that has ever lived. Nor does loving peace make us genuinely peaceable. The road to hell, as has been frequently observed, is paved with good intentions. It is in order to avoid such disastrous outcomes that prudence is necessary, since prudence is the governing foil to all of the anarchic tendencies in us that frustrate the fruition of all that to which we love and aspire. It is an intelligence that governs the other virtues without in any sense supplanting them.

Less abstractly, though, how is one to characterize prudence? To begin with, as Aristotle insisted, prudence is not a science but an art, dealing principally with contingencies. It is the nuanced examination, in a concrete situation, of what might be possible, and by what means, and this is not a matter about which, generally speaking, genuine certainty exists. Prudence is, after all, is a kind of deliberation between alternative courses of action, and one does not need to deliberate unless there is a choice to be made. If one is an engineer who has been engaged to rebuild an essential bridge that has been washed away, and one does not know how great the span is between the riverbanks, it is prudence that drives one, by whatever methods are available, to measure the span. On the other hand, once the span is known, then this ceases to be a matter for deliberation. Prudence then passes on to the questions of which types of building materials are suitable and which are available, and to the question of how many laborers will be needed, and how one might go about training and paying these laborers. In other words, it is precisely the uncertainty of the concrete situation that calls out for prudential reasoning. Genuine prudence, then, is what a wise individual does in a situation in which one is deliberating, not about what is good, per se, but about how the good is to be achieved when there is some uncertainty about whether and by what means this good can be achieved.

The fact that prudence is an art rather than a science is, perhaps, easier to recognize in a specific case. Take, for instance, prudential parenting – every parent must, to some extent, make it up as he or she goes along, since every child is unique, and since the social, historical and economic circumstances in which one raises each child are also unique. This does not, however, mean that any old method of parenting will do, just as long as one is more or less well-intentioned. Far from it. Parents must use every bit of reason, discretion, knowledge and foresight that they have to successfully raise virtuous, healthy and happy children - and even then, all that they have to bring to the task may not, in the end, be sufficient. In any case, it is simply not enough to love one's children and wish them well while doing whatever one likes without serious reflection. A great many parents have done precisely that and failed miserably at parenting their resultingly damaged off-spring. That some such parents have succeeded in spite of their lack of prudence does not make them virtuous, but lucky, and luck is no virtue. Similarly, ecological virtue entails more than simply loving a particular natural environment. Insufficient knowledge and inadequate skill and foresight have doomed more than a few well-intentioned ecological initiatives, and persons with all the good will in the world have often done immense damage to eco-systems. Whether we like it or not, love and good intentions cannot take the place of practical intelligence. To participate fully in any good requires a certain degree of knowledge, skill, and commitment. The governing art of prudence is always necessary.

That prudence is an art does not mean that one cannot study it in order to try and improve one's own skill at practical moral reasoning. To be virtuous is to do as the virtuous man does. The frustrating apparent circularity of this Aristotelian insight belies its intrinsic brilliance. To know what prudence is is to know how good persons deliberate, and the quest for such knowledge is not nearly as arcane as some might imagine it to be, since we can, in a pinch, ask those who are virtuous how they do it. People have been doing exactly that for centuries, and the knowledge of the art thus accumulated is what we call ethics. Remarkably, for all of the arguments and differences of opinion regarding the metaphysical underpinnings of morality and the proper application of moral codes and laws to difficult situations, there is an extraordinary degree of genuine agreement regarding the apparent underlying methodological principles that sound moral decision making intuitively reflects. One cannot be prudent by proxy, of course – the the study of morality is no replacement for moral action. One must still apply what one has learned from others to the particular circumstance of one's own life, and the outcome of such application is everywhere uncertain. Nevertheless, one can learn the art of prudence in much the same way that one can learn the arts of painting, dancing, writing, parenting and governing. One can sit at the feet of the masters of the art and learn the basic methodological skills, and then begin to exercise what one has learned, either under their direct tutelage, or by attempting to apply their best advice.

In the case of prudence, what we learn under this tutelage, and from the philosophical reflection that has stemmed from it, are certain requirements of method in practical reasoning. To paint like an old master is an art, but learning certain brush-strokes and an understanding of color theory is essential if one is going to ever do better than daub paint on canvas; dancing too, is an art, but there are things a body must be taught to do in time with music if one is ever to be, however modestly, a good dancer. Failure to achieve these degrees of modest methodological competency is fatal to these arts, and prudence is no different. What then, are these methodological competencies for the art of prudence?

The first, and most widely recognized of these practical competencies is that one must, consciously or unconsciously - and preferably consciously - embrace a coherent plan of life. A moral life is only possible to persons who think about their opportunities, and who intelligently direct, focus, and control their urges, inclinations and impulses. One must have what the modern ethicist, John Rawls, refers to as a rational plan of life. Failure to do so leaves one drifting from moment to moment with no overarching sense of who one wants to be, or what one wants to achieve in life – and one cannot succeed at a goodness to which one never aspires. There are many forms of human flourishing, many greater goods in life that one can choose to participate in, but only if one makes a commitment to do so; and every such commitments involve the sacrifice of lesser desires and whimsies to one's greater goals and aspirations. No one has the time or resources to participate fully in every form of the good, so one must make a reasonable preferential selection between them, based on one's own inclinations, talents, and resources.

Balancing this is another widely recognized practical competency, which is that of acknowledging the plurality of goods which present themselves, and refusing to act against these goods, refusing to diminish them while pursuing one's own chosen goals, even if these goods have not been significantly adopted as part of one's own rational plan of life. A monk may forgo the joys of a happy marriage, sex, and children, and be a better person for it. On the other hand, a monk who denigrates these goods, casting aspersions on them, or seeking to inhibit others from adopting them as part of their own rational plan of life is a puritanical prude, or an ascetic snob. The intellectual who finds sports uncongenial and advocates the elimination of team play is similarly imprudent. As a parent, one may focus on a particular excellence in raising one's child, encouraging a quasi-ascetic focus on a particular activity for the sake of acquiring excellence (as in the parent who raises a violin prodigy) or one may opt for a broad and diverse sort of educational regimen which provides greater scope and balance but little depth of participation in any one good. Either method may represent a prudent, moral approach to childrearing. But a parent who sneers at the mediocrity of the well-rounded children of other parents, or who regards the passionate intensity of the child prodigy as a kind of mutilation, are each guilty of a failure to recognize the diversity of goods and the legitimacy of the many forms of participation in it.

Another methodological principle reflects the factual interdependence of human beings and the individual's need for the cooperation of a greater community in order to successfully attain his or her goals. Solitude has its place, and in the context of a particular plan of life, even isolation may be valued – to say that humans are socially interdependent is not to say that anchoritism is inhuman – but even the most solitary and isolated of human lives depends extensively on other human beings for its well-being. Even monks had mothers, as the aphorism has it, and for most of us, this fundamental dependence upon the community at large is considerably more extensive. On the basis of self-interest alone, we have an incentive to act in such a way as to foster the common good of our own community. This does not entail slavish conformity to one's community - one may, after all, seek not only to perpetuate but also to enhance or improve one's community, and one may even choose to seek another community more amenable to one's goals and abilities - but it does condemn activities and life commitments which result in the diminution or unraveling of human society. We need others, and they need us. Our moral deliberation must reflect this interdependency if it is to be prudent.

A fourth, and familiar, methodological requirement is that prudential reasoning makes no arbitrary preference between persons. This universalizing principal was most famously advocated by Immanuel Kant, who sought to ground an entire ethic in this principal alone. As a comprehensive ethic, Kantian deontology is utterly unworkable but, in the context of a fuller and richer virtue ethics of the sort historically adopted by most Christians prior to the Reformation - as a methodological principle of prudential reasoning - it remains essential. One's own well-being, and that of one's family and friends, with whom one's own well-being is intimately linked, may reasonably be one's primary concern, and the subject of one's principal efforts. But this is surely not simply because it, and they, are one's own. Objectively speaking, we are driven by reason to affirm that our own well-being and that of one's family and friends, however precious, are no more so than any one else's. The only rational ground for self-preferentiality is that it is only through one's own free and rational participation in the goods that one is capable of doing what is virtuous and reasonable in the first place. Christ said to love others as oneself, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. His clear implication is that it is natural and right to love ourselves from the outset. We are, after all, in the optimal position to fulfill that which is good for ourselves and for those with whom we are bound by ties of love, affection, and duty; but to violate this methodological principle by limiting ourselves to this alone, or by placing ourselves at a higher value than others, is to violate rationality itself, and deprive ourselves of the natural human flourishing rationality represents. It is, as the Church Fathers frequently opined, to become “as a beast.”

This methodological requirement of practical reasoning, that one shows no preference between persons, represents, as the legal scholar John Finnis puts it, “a pungent critique of selfishness, special pleading, double standards, hypocrisy, indifference to the goods of others that one could easily help ('passing by on the other side') and all the other manifold forms of egotistic and group bias.”(2) Moral deliberation which fails to universalize its judgments in this way, is imprudent, because it fails to participate in the good of rationality itself. It fails to make use of one of the principle resources for deliberative reasoning.

A fifth methodological principle is that one should always bring about or achieve the good, whether for ourselves or for others, with a reasonable degree of efficiency. Life is short, and time, energy, and resources are limited. One should not waste one's opportunities by using inefficient or wasteful means, and when one is deliberating about what one should or should not do, one should judge one's options according to their effectiveness, fitness for achieving one's purpose, by their utility, and by their likely consequences, both positive and negative.

This methodological principal is not, however, a justification for a utilitarian, or any other form of consequentialist ethics. Utilitarianism is doomed by its failure to recognize that the “good” to which humans aspire is fundamentally pluriform. The “good” cannot be reduced to a single category such as pleasure or happiness which can be weighed and measured for comparative evaluation. Is knowledge better than friendship? Is political order better than political freedom? The utilitarian seeks to answer this question by inquiring as to which causes the most pleasure or happiness (or, similarly, by what minimizes pain and suffering). But to what or to whom is this question addressed? It is not a question that one can put to knowledge or friendship, or to any other apprehended good itself, but only to the prudential deliberation of a moral agent. The person deciding must decide this for him or herself, and there is no answer to the question but that which is assigned to it by the one deliberating. James may prefer knowledge, and Mary, friendship, and though they are both right to value the good they prefer, neither is wrong in their assignation of relative value, since this entirely depends on the rational life plan of the person who makes the decision. To acknowledge that “x” and “y” are both good, while giving greater weight to “x” than “y” in one's own rational plan of life, does not entail, as the utilitarian imagines it it does, a truth claim that “x” is proportionally “better” than “y” according to any single scale of value. There are many goods, and they are fundamentally incommensurable.(3)

Even if this were not the case, though, and the “goodness” of of every apprehended good could somehow be univocally measured and compared, the utilitarian demand that one “maximize good” cannot result in any kind of determinate result, and so provides no actual guidance to the deliberating will. To do so, the principle would also have to delineate whether the good to be “maximized” is to be maximized with or without reference to its distribution. Is it solely the good which is to be maximized, regardless of how few acquire it? Or is that the good is to be maximized in a way consistent with an overall average of good for all? Or is it perhaps that the good to be maximized in such a way that the maximal increase of good for some must also result in at least a minimal increase of good for all? Or is it even that the good should be maximized only in such a way that all get an equivalent amount? Some such specification is essential if the principle of maximizing good is to have any meaning whatsoever. Otherwise, the utilitarian principle is as meaningless as the rules for a hot dog eating contest in which it is specified that the person who eats the most hot dog wins, but which fails to specify a time limit for the contest. Who wins? The contestant who eats 10 in a minute? The contestant who eats 500 in a week? Or the contestant who eats 100,000 over a lifetime? The rules don't provide the participants with an answer. Similarly, no utilitarian principle can offer any suggestion as to which state of affairs constitutes the most maximal “maximization” of the good. Utilitarianism is useless as guide to moral decision making, because it is vacuous.

Indeed, not just utilitarianism, but every consequentialist ethic that says that the goodness of an act is solely a function of its results must inevitably enjoin one to make decisions about what one does on the basis of what would produce the best state of affairs. Unfortunately, the options available to us, as well as the preferential ordering of the incommensurable goods to which one can aspire, are simply innumerable. Any truly consequentialist assessment of these presented possibilities could never end, just as it could never determine where to start. Once one grasps this, one begins to realize that what actually generates the conclusions of any apparent consequentialist calculus is not the calculus itself, but always some other unstated principle; an overwhelming desire perhaps, or a predetermined objective, or the traditions and biases of a given group or ideology, or (ideally and preferably) precisely the sort of methodological requirements of prudential reasoning that we have been seeking to enumerate. In any case, prudential reasoning cannot rely upon principles that provide no factual guidance.

This is not at all to suggest that one can ignore or disregard the foreseeable consequences of one's actions and take refuge solely in one's “good intentions.” The end intended, and reasonably expected to directly result from one's course of action, is, of necessity, one of the essential elements of the discursive moral reasoning that we call prudence. Nevertheless, it is only in this narrower and more limited sense, however, that the “end justifies the means.” If the means one uses violates one or more of the other methodological principles of prudential reasoning, then it stands condemned, regardless of the final state of affairs to which it aspires. Failure to grasp this one of the great moral failures of our modern civilization.

Such considerations bring us to a fifth, and closely related methodological principle that has been identified during the centuries of moral reflection upon the dictates of prudential reasoning – which is that respect for the good must be intrinsic to every moral act. No action which, of itself, does nothing but damage or impede a realization or participation in a basic good (such as life, friendship, justice, play, knowledge, faithfulness and so forth) can be good. This methodological principle is often relegated to the discussion of hard cases as a function of the “law of double effect”, but this is to conceive of the principle too narrowly. What is essential here is the rational observation that if one is doing something intrinsically harmful, something that is in violation of some fundamental good, the action itself is bad, regardless of whether further consequences may ultimately result from the act. To threaten to kill hostages in order to encourage one's enemy to capitulate (4) is wrong because, as an act, the killing of hostages is simply one of taking life. Similarly, to abort a fetus, even to bring about the consequences of an improved lifestyle or emotional state on the part of the mother (or society at large), or to torture a prisoner to achieve the goal of acquiring vital military information, are both intrinsically wrong. Any argument to the contrary depends upon a kind of consequentialist reasoning which is, as we have already seen, literally senseless, arbitrary, and therefore utterly impossible to rationally implement. The extended consequences of an act may seem likely to be very good (the enemy may be likely to surrender to avoid further killing of hostages and the war be ended, the young woman may be freed of the serious social and economic consequences of a minor and understandable lapse of judgment for which she may not have even been principally responsible, and the prisoner may divulge information which will save the lives of both soldiers and civilians), and it is easy to let oneself be swayed by such extrinsic consideration to do that which is wrong without careful prudential deliberation. Unfortunately, these acts themselves (killing hostages, aborting the fetus, torturing the prisoner) achieved none of these objectives. However likely or foreseeable the goods intended may appear, each is an effect or consequence of another free act by another person. All that has been achieved directly is the death and/or suffering of a those who are neither directly responsible for the evil that one is seeking to avert, nor for the decision to actually do so. The civilian hostages, the fetus, and the military prisoner, have each been treated as a means to an end. Their rights have been violated for the possible benefit of others. Unsurprisingly, it is on this methodological principle of prudential reasoning that the whole edifice of human rights has been erected. We violate it at the cost of our souls.

There are cases, however, in which the positive effects intended are actually part of the act itself, and so, in a very real sense, actually form part of the description of the act itself, such that we cannot characterize it as just damaging to a basic good. Instances of this would be the removal of the fallopian tube (in which the fetus has fatally lodged) in the case of an ectopic pregnancy, or the killing of an enemy soldier who is strafing an orphanage with machine gun fire. These acts, though they intend the killing of the fetus and the soldier, also directly result in the good desired, the saving of the mother's life, and the protection of the orphans. In some (but not all) such cases, such acts may be morally permissible, or even morally obligatory, but this depends almost entirely on whether or not the other methodological principles of practical reasoning are met. The universalizing principle mentioned earlier, in particular, provides a useful test in such cases. Would the person considering the act have thought that the action was reasonable if he himself were to be the person harmed? If so, it may be that the act can be justified. It is only means of such careful casuistry that many of these difficult cases can be evaluated. The complexity of the prudential deliberations involved in such cases are, I hope, obvious.

One final methodological principle that I wish to discuss (and I am far from sure that this is an exhaustive list of such principles – there may be, and probably are, many more and possibly even some that we have not yet discovered) is that of following one's conscience. This methodological principle affirms that after one has deliberated as carefully as the situation and the limitations of circumstance allow, one should, indeed, one must, follow one's own best moral judgment about what one should do. This is so, even though one's judgment may be flawed. Indeed, it may even be tragically wrong, but at the moment of decision, one has the obligation to do what believes it is over-all best to do, and to refuse to do that which one believes it is over-all best not to do.

This sovereign dignity of the conscience flows from the fact that prudential reasoning is never merely a mechanism for making good moral decisions, but like every other virtue, always a mode of participating in the good itself. Even in error, if our error is honest, the virtue of prudence has a kind of integrity that is worthy of respect, both by ourselves and others. This explains why justice is always rationally tempered by mercy, in that we judge others not only on the basis of what they do, but also on the basis of what appears to have been their intent. The religious person trusts that God, in his mercy, will do the same when the time comes for us to be judged in all our flawed ignorance, for what we have done and left undone. Although the gravity of moral decision making demands that we seek to inform our conscience as well as we may, in the moment of decision, our best judgment is all that we have to rely upon – and so we must.

It is important to recognize that each of these methodological principles, however much they may have been enshrined in moral rules and laws, are themselves principles of reasoning and justifiable on rational grounds alone. As rules, these methodological principles may inform our consciences and put us on guard against sloppy thinking, but they are not that which make the decisions based upon them good. They are good because they are demanded by rationality itself, and rationality is itself recognized as a basic value, is a good.

To sum up, then, prudence is the intelligence of virtue. It is, as Augustine so aptly put it, “love that chooses with sagacity.”(5) It is the deliberative stance of an intellectual will that, while oriented to the good, takes into account the actual circumstances of the world. It evaluates the resources of its present circumstances for the potential to preserve, extend, or establish that which is good in the future, and considers the legitimacy of the many projects available to it to bring about such a future - knowing that any future that results directly from the acts which it approves and initiates is one for which it will be held responsible as an agent. Prudence is the virtue of one who seeks to do good, rather than ill, knowing that one has a limited and finite amount of time, energy, knowledge, and skill with which to achieve whatever good goals one seeks to achieve, whether for oneself or for others. Without it the virtues would be blind, heedless, uninformed and—at best—fitfully and inefficiently applied. For this reason prudence is a cardinal or a hinge virtue, a virtue without which most of what is morally good could not be achieved by beings such as ourselves. Animals do not need it, since they need not decide what is right to do. This is mostly decided for them by naturally ingrained patterns of behavior. Nor does God need prudence, since God has perfect knowledge of every particular and already knows how and by what means the good is to be fulfilled. But for us, a moment of prudential deliberation is essential if we are to be good.

In the wake of the recent oil spill in the Gulf, the near destruction of the ozone layer, the growing concerns about global warming, and the ever increasing number of studies that make blindingly obvious the degree to which we are poisoning ourselves while destroying the natural food chain on land and sea, it is perhaps not very difficult to grasp the important role that prudential reasoning must play in any struggle for ecological sanity. If we recognize our own survival as a good, and if we have the good grace to recognize that our survival as a species is dependent upon a great deal of that which is not human in nature, then we must acknowledge our great duty to engage in thoughtful and prudential deliberation about the resources available to us to achieve this goal, and the moral legitimacy or illegitimacy of the many putative ecological projects that are available to us for achieving this good. Some, like forced sterilization, the use of vital human foodstuffs for fuel, or our Western civilization's gerrymandering of natural resources for our own benefit, are clearly immoral in their violation of one or more of the methodological principles enumerated above. Others, like nuclear power, genetic engineering, and many other eco-technological and planetary engineering proposals must be, given our limited knowledge and these projects' great potential for unintended disaster, evaluated with great caution to ensure that we do not end up doing more harm than good or transforming ourselves into something less than human in the process. The degree of prudential insight necessary to decide these matters is formidable, and our civilization is gravely acculturated to look for short cuts, and to use a machine when a little sweat equity would serve as well. As a consequence, we should be on our guard and demand caution, careful study, and thorough and independent ecological assessments for all such projects, rigorously sifting them for unexamined assumptions and hidden dangers. The willingness to “try anything” in the face of disaster is a heedless invitation to imprudence that we must resist, and this willingness represents one of the principle dangers of our civilization's longstanding lack of ecological foresight. It is precisely to avoid such risks that we must begin to take action now. In the face of our folly, we do not dare to rely solely on technological quick-fixes. Nor can we afford to do nothing.

Fortunately, these options are not exhaustive. There are, ready to hand, many other projects whose prudential character is already obvious. Less extravagant, more comprehensible, and more modest in scope, these projects already commend themselves to us as sensible and prudent steps toward the establishment of a saner, more just, and sustainable way of living. The widespread lack of acceptance of these projects principally results from the fact that they are difficult, obliging us to significantly change the way we live. Surely, though, the fact that morality requires effort should come as no surprise to anyone. Morality always entails hard choices and the suppression and sublimation of our baser desires on behalf of a fuller and richer participation in the good. The idea that ecological virtue must be easy and involve only the most minimal of alteration in one's own manner of living is childish. Anyone who tells us that we can achieve ecological sanity without a struggle has petrochemical products to sell us on the side. In this, as in all moral struggles, the narrow road of virtue must partially be its own reward.

The circumstances are these: As a civilization, we are, and have been for quite some time, using too many non-renewable energy sources, too much fresh water, too much otherwise arable land, too much metal, too many trees, too many dangerous chemicals, and so forth, all to support unexamined and unsustainable lifestyles of hyper-mobility and hyper-consumption. In contrast to this, prudential wisdom suggests to our consciences that which we have chosen to hide from ourselves: that it is possible, if not easy, to be happy, joyful, and fulfilled, and to genuinely flourish as human beings while using significantly fewer of these precious non-renewable resources and poisons. Indeed, for those of us who are Christians, the joyful example of the poverty of the saints renders the truth of this affirmation unavoidable.

This recognition makes it clear that it is possible to organize our patterns of life in such a way as to limit our own participation in the on-going destruction of our eco-system by living more simply. We can do this both by consuming a great deal fewer resources, and by disengaging, to a greater and greater degree, from making use of a high technology that is absurdly energy intensive and resource destructive.
We can do this. We can also employ whatever political power and clout that we have to oppose further unconstrained use of non-renewable resources. We can vote against politicians who borrow against the natural resources and future labor of our children to pay for programs and perks that, regardless of their abstract desirability, we cannot currently afford. We can demand that the many harmful substances currently being used in manufacturing and agriculture be restricted, and refuse to use them ourselves. We can oppose further road-building, reservoir construction, and the many other forms of endless building projects that damage our few remaining functioning natural ecosystems. We can oppose zoning and redistricting efforts which presuppose and perpetuate the necessity of automobiles, and we can do so while driving less or eliminating our automobiles altogether in favor of more efficient forms of transportation. We can fund, found, or choose to live in eco-villages, slow cities, or other forms of environmentally friendly communities. Those of us with land can grow food, and those of us without it can buy our food locally and support healthy agricultural techniques and sane and ethical animal husbandry. We can demand fair trade practices for foreign imports, and only purchase products from those companies whose business practices are such that we would be willing to accept moral responsibility for both their means of production and the treatment of employees. We can allow our moral principles to sway our investment strategies, and accept a lower rate of return as the price of honesty and sustainability. We can commit to reusing, repairing, and recycling as a way of life, thereby reducing the insidious and relentless demand-side pressure for hyper-production on the marketplace. We can bear the short-term economic consequences that such changes will entail with equanimity, supporting one another and financially assisting those in our communities who are most in need, waiting it out as the market readjusts to a new economic reality in which bad ecological behavior is no longer subsidized, and where the excluded ecological costs of our civilization's production is once again rationalized and reintegrated into the economic life our our nation and our world. We can teach our children to do these things as well, and experience a renewed hope that our own financial well-being, diminished though it may be, will no longer result in their own penury.

These projects, and countless others like them, we already have the resources to engage in if we were only willing to do so. Since the dangers of failing to take action are already apparent and incalculably great, simple prudence demands that we act – that we follow our consciences and start to live in an ecologically sane way, whether or not those around us are prepared to understand or willing to cooperate.

Prudence, as we have seen, is the intelligence of virtue. Ecological prudence demands that we bring to bear all of the intelligence, knowledge, sagacity and discipline of which we are capable to the overarching problem of restoring ecological sanity and sustainability to the circumstances of our own lives, and through us, to our civilization as a whole. Once we see, in all good conscience, that this is true, we must obey our conscience and act accordingly. No one else will do it for us.
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(1) Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia-Iae, quest. 57, art. 5, and quest. 61, art. 2. The section above represents my own summary of these passages. See also Iia-IIae, quests. 47-56.

(2) John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, Clarendon Law Series, OUP, Oxford, 1980, p. 107.

(3) Interestingly, Palamite Orthodox theology provides this essential insight of Aristotelian and Thomistic virtue ethics with a theological support that Thomism itself lacks, by rejecting the Augustinian and Thomistic impulse to affirm that the goods which are the attributes of God (such as “love”, “life”, “truth” and “wisdom”) are somehow “identical” in the existential being of God. Palamism insists, on the contrary, that while these “Divine Energies” of God have their source in the utterly unknowable transcendental unity of God's essence, it is solely this which provides for their “unity”, as they remain factually “distinct” and irreducible to one another. Distinction is preserved even in unity.

(4) Rather close to home, America actually did this at the close of World War II, first by threatening to use, and then horrifically, by actually unleashing atomic weapons on Japanese citizens in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The morally erroneous principle that citizens could be legitimately targeted militarily had already been well established in the European theater of war during the air raids by both the Axis and the Allied military command.

(5) St. Augustine, De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae, sec.15: “Prudentia, amor ea quibus adjuvatur ab eis quius impeditur, sagacitur seligens.” (“Prudence is a love that chooses with sagacity between that which hinders and that which helps it").

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ecology and the Virtues: The Role of Fidelity in the Struggle for Ecological Sanity

It has often occurred to me, when reading various works on ecology, and ecological matters in general, how seldom the virtues are mentioned. This seems to me to be a significant oversight. After all, the struggle against the ecological hubris of our civilization is, or at least ought to be, an ethical struggle if nothing else; a struggle to undo or at least ameliorate the damage that we have done to ourselves and to the natural world that sustains us. It is, to speak bluntly, a struggle between right and wrong, good and evil, and it is by means of the moral virtues that we gird ourselves for all such struggles. With such considerations in mind, I'm taking a break from Balaam's Ass to write a few short articles on the essential significance of certain virtues in sustaining our struggle to achieve ecological sanity. While this exercise is primarily for my own benefit, seeking to clarify the relationship between virtue and eco-justice clearer for myself, in the hope that I won't ultimately end up falling prey to a defect in my own writing that I find in so many otherwise excellent works on ecology and eco-justice, I will post them anyway, in the hope that someone else may find them helpful.


Rather than beginning with the traditionally enumerated cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and justice, I have chosen to start with a rather simpler, and less demanding subject: the virtue of fidelity, or faithfulness. This choice is partly a matter of procrastination on my part (putting off the harder and more difficult to analyze virtues for a later date), but it is also motivated by certain autobiographical reflections of my own. Over the last several months it has finally started to dawn on me that my own late-awakening obsession with matters ecological was not unrelated to a parallel reawakening of interest and reflection upon my own childhood in Africa, a reawakening that was sparked, in part, by reading several very good childhood autobiographies, Mukiwa, by Peter Godwin, and Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller, each of whom had somewhat similar childhoods to my own, growing up white in South-East Africa. Reading these works filled me with a desire to dust off and examine that childhood, and to keep faith with the child that I was then, and inspiring me with a resolve to reincorporate those experiences more fully into who I had become in the present.


An important part of that childhood, though, was its domination by a natural landscape of relatively unspoiled natural beauty that few Americans now have an opportunity to experience. Unfortunately, though, that pristine natural world, so vivid in memory, had come to seem so distant from my current realm of experience, that it was almost as if I had become an exile from my own existence. Where had that child gone? And what had happened to the world – to the open land, the animals, the plants, and the wide embracing sky – in which I had the good fortune to ramble endlessly and happily as a child?


Like Dante, I came to myself - not so much in a “dark wood” - but in a gleaming, glittering, hard, and utterly disenchanted world of widgets, plastic bags, automobiles, concrete, and intellectual abstractions that seemed more and more artificial, meaningless and ugly every day. I discovered, belatedly, that I wanted to be faithful to the inchoate compassion and justice of the child I was then; the child who cried for hours on his first reading of The Lorax, that lovely little ecological parable by Dr. Seuss; who was alternately enraged and horrified by the poverty of his African playmates. I also wanted to be faithful to that glorious natural world that everywhere surrounded me in my youth, not only in Africa, but also, to a lesser extent, here in my family's furlough visits to an America that was considerably less urban and overdeveloped then than it is now. I wanted to be faithful to the beauty, rich fecundity, and natural rhythms of the rivers I had once fished that had since been dammed into ugly reservoirs surrounded by expensive houses in which, to the undiscerning eye, only automobiles seemed to live. I wanted to be faithful to the lakes and ocean shores on which I once played, where no tar washed up on the beach; where fishermen went out and returned with their nets full of fish. I wanted to be faithful to the fields and meadows and forests I once knew, many of which have since been paved over or ravaged by deforestation; and to the wonderful fruits and vegetables that came out of our family garden, enjoyed in their season, and remembered longingly during the long seasons in which they did not grow. I wanted to be faithful to the child in me who once knew that animals were beings in their own right, almost persons, with claims of their own upon the world, and a source of endless delight and joy.


Mind you, as a child I was neither naïve or sentimental about animals. I knew that many of them, like the village chickens and goats and cows that wandered about on the commons eating and drinking and cavorting and crowing in accordance with their own reasons and purposes, might, as a matter of need, end up being killed to satisfy my own and others' need for food. But I also knew something rather important then that I had somehow managed to forget on my adult excursions to the local supermarket to purchase battery-raised chicken and feed-lot fattened beef: No one but a complete jerk (like the sadistic teen aged ex-patriot brat who lived down the street from my family) would willingly injure or torture an animal for any reason; and not even he would do it for something as vague and inconsequential as utility or efficiency.


In short, my desire to keep in touch with who I was as a child started to get morally complicated. Not only did I find that I didn't much want to be complicit in cruelty of modern animal “husbandry”, but I also found myself wanting to be faithful to the wider and more ecumenical sympathies of the child I once was. I wanted to be faithful to the snakes and snails and chameleons and hedgehogs and hyenas and mongooses and sables and dik-diks and fish eagles and all the other creatures whose sudden appearance on a lonely ramble with my dog through the African veldt of my childhood and adolescence brought me up short in fear, curiosity, and awe; creatures whose existence in no way directly served my own, but which had, for all of that, an intrinsic beauty, and rightness of their own; animal existences at home in a territory that was theirs, not mine; a territory in which I was, and knew myself to be, the interloper. In short, in the process of rediscovering my childhood, I also uncovered within myself a desire to be faithful to all the good things of the natural world that I knew and experienced as a child – to the beauty of a world that had since been manipulated, misused, and misappropriated nearly into non-existence, and to whose damage and destruction I had become increasingly blinded and jaded.


In pursuing these autobiographical reflections, I have turned, again and again, to the traditional language of virtue, speaking of “faithfulness”, and “fidelity.” But what is this “faithfulness” - this fidelity - of which I speak? Is it genuinely a virtue, or, as one more unsympathetic might be inclined to suggest, little more than romantic nostalgia? Is there a difference? And if there is, if fidelity is a virtue, then how is it different from mere nostalgia, and how can the cultivation of this virtue assist us in our own struggle to achieve a more ecologically just and sane way of living?


To begin with, taking a wide view, fidelity, or faithfulness, is first and foremost a human characteristic, strongly related to our species' remarkably sophisticated capacity to recall and revisit the past in memory. That to which we are faithful must be capable of representation in our mind, and the contents of our minds are, inevitably, mostly the products of our past experiences. In emphasizing the human dimensions of this characteristic, I am not suggesting that animals have no memory. All such broadly anthropomorphic denials seem uncharitable on the face of it, as well as being absurdly hard to reconcile with the facts of experience. Certainly my dogs seem to remember me from day to day, and almost nothing in the animal kingdom seems to forget the instrument by which, or the circumstances in which they have been done harm. Nor do animals seem to find it difficult to “remember” where food is to be found or where their youngsters have been left. Not only do animals seem to remember, but they even seem to possess, in some manner of their own, the particular combination of commitment and memory that characterizes fidelity itself. The fact that the phrase “as faithful as a dog” is a cultural maxim is certainly suggestive, and the vigilant and courageous care that many animals have for their young seems to indicate their possession of at least something analogous to fidelity. In any case, all such denials are intellectually pointless, since we have so little insight into how the consciousness of animals is internally expressed and exercised. A certain degree of agnosticism on the subject seems warranted. Nevertheless, it remains the case that our apparently unique capacity to wield linguistic universals - our ability to talk to others (and ourselves) about our experiences – does seem to have altered the mnemonic capacity in humans in some truly fundamental ways, making of it a genuinely peculiar human experience that is in some ways unique to our species. Animals we are, of course, but something more than that as well.


Indeed, this introspected duality between that which is more purely animal and that which is uniquely species specific to ourselves is so self-evident that it has inevitably given rise to a wide variety philosophical dualisms, dualisms that seem at least as hard to reject out of hand as they are to accept uncritically. Our body is as it were, the present of the present; while our mind, as St. Augustine boldly proclaimed, is the present of the past. It contains that which the past bequeaths to us and all that remains of it within us, as memory. Indeed, it is arguable, that it was with memory - perhaps along with its more dubious imaginary analogue, concern or anticipation (of an always unknown and largely imaginary future) - that the mind itself began. Many have thus speculated, and if, indeed, memory and concern do represent the root sources of human mentality, then of these two it is memory that is by far the more useful and content laden of the two. How seldom we are misled or made fools by acting on the basis of our memory! How often by our fearful imaginings and hopeful anticipations!


I began by speaking of fidelity, and I appear to have been sidetracked into discussing memory instead. Unfortunately, getting a grip on memory seems essential for understanding fidelity as well. After all, fidelity is dependent upon memory. It is, as it were, a special kind of exercise of memory, an affirmed connection between our present selves and something presented to ourselves in thought. As such, fidelity is well grounded in the nature of what we are as humans beings, in our mode of existence as a unique type of animal who can call to mind, remember, and consciously reflect upon past experiences. And let there be no mistaking it; this human memory is a good thing. It helps us avoid errors, keeps us humble with the memory of our faults and failures, encourages us with the memory of our successes, and enables us to actively reconnect with our past experiences and accumulated knowledge to seek information as our need and circumstances demand.


Indeed, for all that forgetfulness may appear a benison at times, it is almost always so only as the salve of failure, a momentary reversion of animal need over the distress and complexity of fully human consciousness. A person suffering at the ragged end of Alzheimer's is recognized as human only by bodily form and charity, not by any evidence of the fact in his actual behavior - which is why the disease is such an agonizing tragedy for those who once loved the victim, who go on desperately trying to love him still, even as all that is recognizably human in him drifts away. In the light of such examples, one cannot help but think that those who celebrate forgetfulness and nescience have something to hide. And though the life of animals, almost wholly grounded in the present, does not seem bereft of joy, nevertheless, it is not a human joy. Nietzsche who once opined that “it is possible to live almost without memory, indeed, to live happily, as the animals show us, but without forgetting it is utterly impossible to live at all.”1 He was as wrong about this as he was about so much else. We are what we are, beings suspended upon a bridge of time, coexisting luminously in the past and present. To be less than this is diminution.


How is it, though, that we can co-exist in this way? Memory itself, as centuries of philosophical reflection in the empiricist tradition has taught us, is no guarantor of trans-temporal unity. To know something from the past, through memory, is not yet to know that we are the same being as the person who had those experiences. This is affirmed in experience not by memory alone, but by an act of will, by fidelity, by the deliberate acknowledgment of unity of our present existence and the experiences of the past. There have been those, like Montaigne, who have made an even stronger claim, that “the foundation of my being and identity is purely moral; it consists in the fidelity to the faith I swore to myself. I am not really the same as yesterday; I am the same only because I admit to being the same, because I take the responsibility of a certain past as my own and because I intend to recognize my present commitment as still my own in the future.”2 There is something to Montaigne's observation, but the claim seems too bold; the mystery of personal identity is not so easily dissolved. I am inclined, like Bishop Butler in his famous critique of John Locke, to believe that, in the ontological realm, identity proceeds both memory and will. It seems far more reasonable to suppose that the fact that we, for instance, do not experience the memory of others, but only our own, has a strong metaphysical basis in a factual personal identity across time that is simply occult and unexaminable. Nevertheless, the fact remains that any such purely essential metaphysical unity can have no bearing on the moral realm save by an act of will. Unless one, by an act of fidelity, affirms the unity of one's own being across time, one cannot engage in ethical action at all. Fidelity, then, is a sine qua non of the moral struggle.


That this is so requires but a moment of reflection. What would become of moral effort if it were not sustained through time? What would justice be, if the just were not also faithful? Who could be said to love that was not faithful to his love; or be a friend, who had no commitment to pursue a friendship in the present to those to whom he was a friend in the past? What would a promise mean to one who did not affirm his identity with the one who once made the promise? Who could be honest who had none but passing fidelity to the truth? The truth, no doubt, would continue to be the true, but it would have no practical influence on human behavior; it could not give rise to virtue. If, as Nietzsche suggests, sanity may, on occasion, be preserved by forgetfulness, it remains equally true that without fidelity, there could be nothing of the many virtues that give human life its purpose and dignity. “Fidelity is”, as Andre Compte-Sponville so rightly observes, “the virtue of memory; it is memory itself as a virtue.”3


Aristotle claimed, and rightly, that most virtues represent a mean between extremes, and this is as true of fidelity as it is of most virtues (with the possible exception of love). That which is less than faithfulness is fickleness; that which is more than faithfulness is pig-headed obstinacy (or its religious equivalent, fanatical fundamentalism). This is not to suggest, of course, that one can be “too faithful”, but rather, is simply to recognize fidelity for the kind of virtue that it is. By definition, fidelity is neither fickle nor obstinate, but rather, an expression of just the right degree of commitment. This “right degree of commitment” is determined by its object of the fidelity. To be faithful until death to the spouse one loves is rightly admirable. To be faithful unto death to one's soccer team, or to one's ill-informed and second-hand political nostrums is not; it is fanaticism. Fidelity is the virtue of willed commitment to that which is good, precisely to the extent, and precisely to the degree to which, that to which one is faithful has actually experienced as being good. Fanaticism is commitment beyond what something is worth. Stubbornness is commitment to that which was once thought to be good, but now can be seen (or for which one has the evidence to see, if one would but examine it) to not be so. Fickleness is the failure to commit oneself to what one knows to be good whenever this becomes painful, involves too much effort, or contravenes one's own personal and irrational passions. By definition, then, fidelity is one's on-going commitment on behalf of those persons, ideas, things, or projects – anything that can be said to exist – to whatever degree that one has reasons to believe, because of past or present experience, that those persons, ideas, things, and projects are truly good and worthy of one's commitment.


With this definition in hand, one can now readily grasp the difference between fidelity and mere nostalgia. Fidelity is faithfulness to the past, or to one's previously accepted commitments, beliefs or projects, not because they are past, per se, nor because they were mine, nor even because one would find them comfortable or comforting if they could be made present, but rather because they are perceived in one's memory, even through the veil of time, to have been good, true, beautiful, worthwhile and so forth. Another way of putting this is that a man moved by nostalgia alone is moved by his passions rather than by reasons. He longs for the things and activities of the past simply because he misses what he has been deprived of by time, rather than necessarily because these were intrinsically good, worthwhile or worthy of emulation. This is not to say that nostalgia is necessarily bad, any more than any other simple desire or its fulfillment is intrinsically immoral. Nor can it be denied that nostalgia and fidelity may quite often have the same objects. It is, however, to insist upon the morally essential distinction between “what I want” and “what is good” in this particular case. Nostalgia alone is simply desire separated from its current fulfillment by the passage of time, with no more moral significance than an itch in the absence of a free hand with which to scratch it. Fidelity, on the contrary, is a virtue, and like all virtues, is oriented toward the good.


The relevance of this virtue to the struggle on behalf of eco-justice and the environment should now, I hope, begin to be evident. The natural world is full of things that we have reasons to believe are good, beautiful, true, and worthy of respect. For those of us who are Christians, these reasons include, not insignificantly, God's own revealed affirmation that everything that He has made (and He made everything) is good, and worthy of His own loving commitment, much greater than our own. Unfortunately, a great many of these good things, human beings included, are now threatened by the wrongful behavior, avaricious lifestyles, false ideologies, technological hubris, indolence, stupidity and neglect of human beings.


To speak in religious terms, this is, to be sure, a situation of on-going fallenness into which we were born, and a product of centuries of mismanagement, rationalization, selfishness and greed, for which none of us currently are entirely responsible. Furthermore, it can be hard for us to extricate ourselves from the fact that it is precisely this antecedently existing set of circumstance that has largely shaped our own ideas, expectations, and desires, whether for good or ill. If some fortunates, like myself, were blessed in having a childhood immersed in and illuminated by the experience of a more or less natural world, many more were not. Indeed, for many modern American children, nature is simply experienced as a shadowy outside presence whose impact is experienced principally in negative terms, in the experience of unregulated temperature, insect bites, power outages, extreme weather, and boring mandatory camping trips in which they are unable to play video games or watch television. Each of us has been marked, for good or ill, by the situation into which we have been born and to which we have become acclimatized.


This sense of alienation from nature, however, and our culture's hubristic and patently false sense of technological transcendence over the natural world, is, for all of its apparent persuasiveness, manifestly a kind of forgetfulness. It forgets where food comes from, where fresh water comes from, and what kind of climatological conditions must exist for us to survive. It also forgets that our actions have consequences, whether intended or not. Our civilization's failure to acknowledge these fundamental dependencies, along with the necessary obligations that such dependencies entail, are the result of a complex political, economic, and ideological history, the effects of which have been perpetuated into and even aggravated in the present. In the present, however, the dangerous consequences of our improvident behavior, which were partially (though never entirely) hidden from us in the past by the vast surplus fecundity of the land and sea, and by our extensive use of non-renewable resources such as petroleum, coal, and so forth, can no longer be denied. Awareness of these consequences can, should, and have led many of us to critically reexamine much of the dubious cultural baggage masquerading under the banner of progress in the light of all the currently available evidence. The experience is bracing, and disturbing, since doing so reveals the degree to which virtually all of us are, in one way or another, are participants in this ecological tragedy as it continues to unfold.


In this light, ecological awareness is nothing more nor less than each individual's own personal recognition of this on-going destruction of the good things of nature for what it is, vicious. The struggle for eco-justice, on the part of those of us who have become aware of this viciousness in ourselves and in our own civilization, is simply a way of being faithful to all that which is experienced as good and vulnerable in the world – everything that makes a legitimate moral claim on our attention. It is a methodical commitment, first, to extract oneself, as far as one able, from a wrongful culture of waste and damage for which, even if it is not wholly of one's own making, one has chosen to take responsibility. It is allowing oneself to be moved by one's fidelity to the goodness of the natural world and to the humans which utterly depend upon it (whether they acknowledge the fact or not) to eschew participation in way of life that is fundamentally unsustainable, that will result in a greater and greater destruction of the natural world in each generation, and that will, if unchecked, terminate in a temporally uncertain but factually predictable collapse of the increasingly fragile eco-systems upon which human life depends. It is being moved by one's fidelity to the natural world, to one's self, to others, and to the factual truths about the world as one has, by education, study, prayer and conviction, come to understand them, to change the way one lives, to develop and support projects to ameliorate the damage humans have done to the natural order, to educate others of the damage that continues to be done and of the beauty that is being lost, and, finally, to resist those who perpetuate and defend the ongoing desecration of nature in the name of profit, lifestyle, ideology, or habit.


This is our task. Out of a sense of fidelity to all that is good, beautiful, lovely and true, to ourselves as moral beings, and to the God and Father of all things (who has instructed us in Scripture to “be not weary of well-doing!”) we must continue to advocate, defend, and commit ourselves to the goal of a just, harmonious, prudent, and sustainable relationship between genuine human need and the natural order. We should not be fickle in our efforts, nor should we be intransigently stubborn in our methods, but we must, for all of that, be utterly faithful in our resolve, a resolve that need not even be subject to our chances of success (although, to be sure, the chance of success of anything is always rendered more probable by its attempt). Indeed, in this sense, faithfulness is the moral spine of virtue, since as a virtue, faithfulness does not require one to consider whether or not one shall succeed, but only, and finally: “Where should my commitment lie?” And this is as it should be. A man's faithful devotion to his wife or dedicated service to his country is made meaningless by neither the death of his wife, nor the destruction of his country, whatever his detractors may suggest.


So, let us be faithful to the natural world. Perhaps, in the process, some of us may recover a little of the wonder and joy we once experienced in it, along with some of the gratitude that we once bore in our heart for the Maker of it all - renewing in ourselves a sense of faithfulness to the persons that we were before the sordid business of life tarnished the wonder of of our existence. It may even be – who knows? - that others, less fortunate in their own experiences, and moved to join us solely by the light of reason and our own example, may yet come to experience the beneficent goodness of creation for themselves. One can always hope...and that's a virtue too.


May it be so. Amen, amen, amen.



1 Friedrich Nietzsche, “History in the Service and Disservice of Life,” trans. Gary Brown, in Unmodern Observations, ed. William Arrowsmith, Yale University Press, 1990, p. 90.

2 Michel de Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond, in The Essays of Montaigne, trans. George B. Ives, Harvard University Press, 1925, vol. 2, book 2, ch. 12, pp. 401-02.

3 Andre Comte-Sponville, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life, trans. Catherine Temerson, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2001, p. 19.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

On the Gulf "Oil Spill" - Cultural Assumptions and Technological Hubris

Well, another ecological disaster has occurred, and it seems clear that this one is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Rather than focus on the obvious tragedy (and it is a tragedy, of biblical proportions) I'd like to focus on the question of just how it was that anyone could have thought that drilling for oil a mile under the sea, in the midst of America's richest fishing beds, and less than 50 miles from a sensitive and invaluable coastal ecology could have ever been a good idea.

The motive here, as usual, was profit, driven by America's apparently unquenchable desire for more more mobility, more power, and more motorized stuff. In short, as I outlined in the first two chapters of my book (see previous postings), this new round of ecological abuse and mismanagement was brought about by the general avarice and technophilia of our current civilization. This simply has to be acknowledged, even in the midst of our rage at British Petroleum's fecklessness. After all, even wicked, stupid, or thoughtless people (even oil executives) do not risk destroying the environment for no reason. The reason exists, and we (most of us at least) are doing our own part to create the demand that provides oil executives with a motive, in the form of ever more massive profits, for reckless behavior.

As I suggested toward the end of chapter one of Balaam's Ass: Orthodoxy and Eco-Justice, however, there are also some deep cultural assumptions at work in making such disasters more likely, and and in rationalizing the behavior which, far too frequently, leads to such disasters. The first of these, I suggested, was the underlying assumption that we cannot do any really titanic damage to the eco-systems that sustain us all. And the second, supporting the first, is the assumption that there will always be a technological solution ready to hand if things go wrong...leading to the corollary assumption that one need not not be hampered in one's decision making process by a concern for worst-case scenarios.

According to recent news reports, BP’s plan, filed with the US government’s Minerals Management Service for the Deepwater Horizon well, which was dated February 2009, said repeatedly it was “unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities”. Furthermore, while British Petroleum admitted that a spill would “cause impacts” to "beaches, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas", it argued that “due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected” (see more at: http://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/Article.aspx/1716969?UserKey=#ixzz0mzfkyY5D).

The first of these statements is, I suggest, a narrowly specified restatement of assumption #1 above, and the second, a general restatement of assumption #2. Nothing bad will happen, of course...but if it does, we will have "response capabilities" capable of dealing with it. Of course, as time and circumstance have now shown, neither of these assumptions were actually true. Bad things, horrifically bad things, can and do happen when we are dealing with matters that are (in this case literally) out of our depth, when we apply our technological wizardry to radically new circumstances in which we lack an accumulation of carefully aquired wisdom. Furthermore, technological fixes are not always available, and are certainly not always available soon enough to do us any good. These assumptions to the contrary are an expression of hubris...and hubris is generally thought to be subject to divine sanction, whatever one's religious tradition.

Like everyone else, I dearly hope than human ingenuity may, even now, pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat and save us from the worst consequences of British Petroleum's hubris. Because if it doesn't, a lot of people, animals, and plants are also going to pay dearly for BP's hubris. After 911, Americans took to using the the phrase "never forget." I hope that it gets applied in this case too, and that oil executives and politicians sit up and take notice. I, for one, am not going to forget which politicians have urged us to renew off-shore drilling. Nor am I going to forget the name of the company whose short-sighted desire for increased profit unleashed this horror upon the Gulf. May the memory of this disaster be to British Petroleum's everlasting shame, and, with any justice, contribute to its ultimate bankruptcy as well, since long experience suggests that the bottom line just about all that is likely to affect an international corporation like BP.

At the very least, perhaps at least we'll get to stop hearing any more of their silly eco-friendly advertising twaddle about "BP" standing for "beyond petroleum."

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Here's Chapter Two of my book...after a long delay.

The Modern Era: Beyond Freedom and Dignity

In 1928, the same year that Thomas Midgley Jr. was busy inventing his chlorofluorocarbons, another member of our technologically adept western civilization, Martin Heidegger, published one of the most influential masterworks of twentieth century philosophy, Sein und Zeit, or as it was translated in to English, Being and Time. In this dense, ambitious, and ferociously intelligent work, Heidegger sought to achieve nothing less than to uncover and interpret the meaning of Being itself, a program for which he proposed taking the being of humans as “the primary entity to be interrogated” since, as he reasoned, human being “already comports itself, in its Being, towards what we are asking about when we ask this question.”(1)

It would be hard to overestimate the intellectual and cultural significance of this work, or the influence of Heidegger’s characterization of the human as a sheer presence, a “being-there” who finds himself contingently thrown into an alien context which pervasively threatens to engulf him in its instrumentality; an “ek-sistence” which, to be authentic, must stand apart from the tool-system of reality in a defiant act of self-assertion. All the same, it is equally hard to imagine any book less suited for a best seller list; to describe Heidegger’s work as “popular” would be grossly misleading. Still, as judged by its immediate impact and influence upon his intellectual contemporaries in Europe, Heidegger’s “ontological” description of man did appear to have the force of a self-evident truth for many of them; if nothing else, Heidegger had successfully placed a diagnostic finger on the pulse of the intelligentsia of our civilization.

To see why this was so, it is important to begin by understanding that the privileged elite of Western civilization had already conceived of themselves, for the better part of two centuries, as utterly unique, radically discontinuous beings confronted by an impersonal, material world – nature itself as it had already been conceptualized by that same elite in Western science in ever increasingly mechanistic and value-free terms. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Western industry, during the same period of time, was ever more thoroughly exploiting this “intrinsically meaningless world” as a value-neutral source of natural resources to be manipulated for human gratification. The widespread acceptance of the entirety of Martin Heidegger’s thesis, however, suggests that by the end of the first half of the twentieth-century the anthropological self-understanding of the West had undergone a significant transcription from a major to a minor key. The intellectual elite of Europe, heirs of more than three millennia of Europe’s personalist cultural and intellectual heritage, now anxiously acquiesced to a description of themselves as not so much privileged as lonely and abandoned – recasting themselves as absurd aliens in a dead and meaningless world.

In fairness to Heidegger, it has frequently been argued by those more sympathetic to his philosophical program than I am myself that he probably never meant for his work to be understood in such a light. Although his philosophical program obviously diverged from the moral personalism of his teacher Edmund Husserl and other turn of the century personalists such Max Scheler, it remains true that in his later works, at least, the continuity and complementarity of Being and being-human become far more prominent. In his subsequent reflections upon the four-fold presence of “being here” as a clue to the understanding of being human, some have found a useful philosophical resource for restoring both human dignity and ecological sanity, an approach that Heidegger himself seems to have encouraged. Regardless of Heidegger’s own later philosophical trajectory, however, it is clearly the radical discontinuity between man and nature of Sein und Zeit that has proved most influential, and it was this emphasis that his existentialist successors, such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre seized upon, though they made the thesis their own by dramatizing it into a claim that the non-human world (whose construction by modern science as a determinist system of matter in motion they accepted as given) is, for the human subject, inhuman, nauseating, and absurd.

For these existentialists, to be human was to find oneself as a stranger in an estranged world: existing as an intentional, meaning-creating project which is, with respect to its environment, a kind of nihilating nothingness; utterly discontinuous with, and engaged in a fundamental Promethean conflict with nature’s intrinsic meaninglessness. In such a world, humans, deprived of any support from a meaningful and value-permeated universe, can no longer be understood as fully moral subjects. Of the personalist heritage of three millennia of Western anthropology, only an attenuated consciousness and an arbitrary freedom remain. A human being can no longer be regarded as having a “nature” precisely because a human experiences himself as not being natural as nature is now understood; in this new context, the conscious intentional freedom of mankind is fundamentally contradictory to anything that can be described as “natural.” The world of the “natural” is dead, meaningless, and material, and poses a stark threat to humans which seek to impose their own will upon it - even as they know, given the stark certainty of death, that every human project must fail and be crushed by the mindlessly deterministic forces of nature.

Professional philosophy has its fads and fashions, and as a branch of academic philosophy, existentialism appears to have run its course. Few professional philosophers now willingly embrace its chilly and exhausting libertarian passions, preferring instead to accept a more limited academic role as intellectual problem solvers in the purely semantic world of logical analysis, or accepting, with relief, the “good news” of scientific naturalism - that we are not really persons after all - and settling into a subordinate role as cultural defenders of the empirical sciences. Setting aside its current academic significance, however, existentialism remains a critical testimony to the intellectual climate of the West at a given time, even as (to give it its due) it positively represents one last tenuous connection with a perennial understanding of man as a moral subject, rather than as a particularly complicated biological robot wholly continuous with a mechanistically conceived nature. Perhaps even more significantly, existentialism’s still unabated popularity beyond the precincts of the academy in art, literature, and film suggests that it continues to encapsulate, for many, a moment of genuine recognition.

That this moment of recognition exists is undeniable. What are we to make, however, of the fact that an understanding of the human condition that seemed most evident to many of the foremost thinkers, writers, revolutionaries and artists of our civilization at the middle of the last century – that of a lonely arbitrary freedom defying the absurdly mathematical orderliness of a dead and meaningless reality – still retains a kind of terrible fascination over our culture even now, several generations after the death of the philosophical movement that spawned it? Does this not suggest that many of us do, indeed, perceive ourselves as perplexed, defiant aliens in a meaningless universe? That, just a little over one hundred years after Nietzsche’s defiant proclamation that God was dead, nature is even more so, and humans are lonely survivors?

Nietzche’s contemporary, the celebrated Russian Orthodox writer Fyoder Dostoevsky, recoiling in pious horror from the Western-influenced apostasy of the intellectual elite of Russia, thundered out his judgment that in a world without God, “everything would be permitted.” The statement has the characteristic virtues and vices of pulpit oratory; it is both memorable and thought provoking - and exaggerated. Still, if Dostoevsky proved to be a trifle hasty in believing that everything would be permitted in such a case, one of the many consequences of the crumbling edifice of religious belief in Europe was a growing sense that a great many of the social and cultural prohibitions of Western society could no longer be rationally justified. It was in such a light that Nietzsche’s Zarusthustra, brushing aside Doestoevsky’s concerns, proclaimed the death of God as good news, and by the end of the first half of the 20th century, many Europeans and Americans seemed primed to receive his tidings. In the face of the tragic destruction of two generations of youths who, in the immortal words of Ezra Pound, had died “for an old bitch gone in the teeth/ for a botched civilization”, there were many who, feeling trapped and betrayed by the stultifying and ungrounded conventional morality of their nominally Christian and utterly bankrupt and war-torn European civilization, were more than willing to abandon authority and try to make it all up on their own. This deliberate cutting oneself adrift from traditional social and ethical norms is simultaneously celebrated and interrogated in Philip Larkin’s famous mid-twentieth century poem “High Windows”:

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s f--king her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is the paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives –
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide
To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

The critical view of the past, and the rampant hedonism of a culture cut free from its traditional moorings in traditional religion is clearly evident here, as is Larkin’s own residual reverence, which serves as a corrective even as it lacks an objective correlative. In any case, it is in this moment of conscious hostility towards conventional European and American society that so characterized the post-war society of the West in the 50’s and 60’s that environmentalism, as opposed to the older and more traditionally philosophically and religiously motivated conservationism, was born, bearing with it the era’s uncritical assumption that if conventional Christian morality had authorized the despoliation of nature, nature and the environmentalist movement would be better off without it. The deeper and more disturbing implications of Nietchze’s thesis for Western culture, however, had already been drug into the light and made explicit by the secular existentialists. If there is no God, then neither is nature a creation, lovingly crafted with a purpose, meaning, and value all its own that had been bestowed upon it by its Creator. It is rather a cosmic accident, or an absurd jest; mere dead matter propelled by blind force, and ordered solely by efficient causality. In such a world, it is the human as a moral subject, attempting to live out his life in terms of value and purpose, who is anomalous, defiantly treading water above an ocean of meaninglessness only to sink again into the absurd nothingness from which he emerged. If God is dead, then so too must nature be, and humans are left as nothing more that embattled strangers, doomed to defeat, a thesis to which a great many of our contemporaries have already acquiesced. The new environmentalists, drawing upon a subjective romantic (and latently, if often heretically, Christian) tradition of hostility to science and technology, rejected the minor premise of this argument while accepting its conclusion by a kind of cultural osmosis: Humans are anomalous, alien intruders.

As I sit here in my back yard writing this alongside my garden and under the spreading shade of an enormous three hundred year old oak tree, occasionally petting my dog and taking a breaks to watch a pair of squirrels skitter around the tree trunk, it can be intuitively difficult for me to see how any such notion of a basic discontinuity between humans and nature could have ever come to appear so evident to so many in our culture. In such moments as these, the notion seems so primordially counterintuitive that it is hard to take it seriously. As the ancient writers, both classical and Christian, never grew tired of observing, we live in, and as, our bodies, possessing a rhythm that is primordially integrated with that of nature herself. The cycle of wakefulness and fatigue echoes that of the day and night. The rhythm of the moon’s waxing and waning has its counterpart in the rhythm of my wife’s and daughter’s bodies, and the annual seasons of spring, summer, fall, and winter harmonize with the visible stages of my life, now receding from a vigorous summer into the gracious acceptance and reduced intensity of autumn. In my need for food and shelter, for the sharing of the joys and tribulations of my life with my spouse, and in my anxious parental care for my daughter, my life meshes with and corresponds to that of all animate being. Rising to pray and water my garden at dawn, ready for my coffee and breakfast, I sometimes see a rabbit peacefully grazing in the empty lot adjacent to my home, or silently observe a neighborhood cat stalking something through the deep grass, and I cannot help but sense with a kind of basic primordial awareness that they and I are related.

This sense of relatedness is at times piercing. On a recent walk I came across a young bird, fluttering ambitiously if unsteadily down from its nest, anxiously tended by its parents, who chirped encouragingly and warningly as I cautiously approached. In watching them, I could not help but recall my own shouted words of encouragement and warning as my daughter rode her bicycle for the first time, gliding free of my guiding and supporting hands. In a similar manner, when weeding the garden in the evening, I see the cucumber tendrils groping for the bamboo poles I provided for their support, I feel a deep kinship. I too, have often experienced the need of external support in my weakness.

In short, I sense my own place in the order of things, both in the rhythm of the seasons and in the biological lives and natural systems that sustain both them and me. In the springing up of the first shoots of the garden I experience a surge of hope; in the rich warm organic decay of the compost that I spread in my garden I sense the value of the past and the fecundity of history; and in the falling of the autumn leaves I sense the passing of time and grieve for the inevitability of death – my own, and that of those I love. Even the tasks which are uniquely my own, peculiarly human, and thus unshared by the other biological creatures with which I share the world, in no way sever or distance me from my environment. I can, as no other animal can, cherish the beauty of the three-petaled violets that magically appear, in all their fragility, in spring, and recall and miss them in the mind-numbing heat of a Texas August. I can remember and mourn the passing of a favorite dog, and suffer a twinge of guilt as I crush the caterpillars that I find on my tomato plants. When, in the years before I was a priest, I raised rabbits and goats for food, mine was the responsibility for caring for them decently, ensuring that they too, could enjoy their brief lives, even as I acknowledged my own legitimate need to cut short those lives to feed my family. The bitter regret at the quiet snap of the rabbit’s neck, and the sickened revulsion at the bright arterial spray of the blood issuing from the wound my sharp knife made as it passed through the neck of a goat, are uniquely human, as are the culinary arts with which my wife and I made the most appetizing and nutritious uses that we could of the food their deaths provided us.

As a human, I can, in my own special way, appreciate the truth and the integrity of nature, and serve its good, as a faithful husbandman and steward of all those things that have been given me. When camping, far from the lights and noise of the urban sprawl, I can pause awestruck before the presence of the holy in a quiet forest meadow, and lift my eyes in awe to the stars of heaven. I too, can perceive, in the fittingness of the behavior of the living beings that surround me, the grandeur of the moral law, and strive to keep it. All this is uniquely mine, as a human. Still, the (increasingly sporadic) bees fertilizing the flowers of my garden, and our faithful pug barking to warn us of the approach of an unfamiliar visitor, are no less surely fulfilling the tasks of their own unique natures. The many ways in which I am distinctively human do not need to separate me from the natural order, and there are times in which I intuitively and immediately sense the harmony of my own existence with that of all of creation, moments in which I belong, deeply, in the green and abiding space of the natural world. At moments like these, I find it difficult to imagine any experience more primordially given and faithfully received than that solemn awareness.

Historically speaking, I am not alone in this perception. The notion that humans are alien to their natural environment is genuinely alien to the Western tradition of civilization as well. Until at least the Renaissance, and typically even until the seventeenth century, Western thought was as consistently and insistently naturalistic as it was personalistic, regarding human beings as moral subjects at home in, and continuous with their natural environment.

I have deliberately chosen to adopt the world “naturalist” for this sense of continuity between human beings and nature; certainly the etymology of the word seems apt for such a purpose. In our own time, however, this term has frequently been co-opted by those who would deny that humans are persons, in the traditional sense, at all. In this modern use, “naturalism” has become a moniker denoting any philosophical position which accepts, as normative of all of reality, the monistic reality construct of a given thinker. In current parlance, the term is generally used with the adjectival modifier “scientific”, to indicate that the philosopher in question accepts the monistic construction of reality favored by the hard sciences, excluding from the ontological domain of the “really real” all references to purposes, intentions, meanings, values, and even such secondary qualities such as color, taste, and sound. Reality, for such thinkers, is simply what science studies. Whatever cannot be grasped by the methods of the empirical sciences is not real at all.

This use of the word evolved from the late medieval and Averroist distinction between the natural and the supernatural, a distinction previously unknown to Orthodox thought, and one to which even the scholastic tradition came late. It was unknown to the Cappadocian fathers, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. John of Damascus, and even to St. Augustine. Ontologically, the only distinction made by Orthodoxy was the distinction between the created and the uncreated, nature and the Holy Trinity. Roman Catholicism, too, did not come to this distinction until very late. Although, in his synthesis of Aristotle and St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas lays the groundwork for such a bifurcation of reality, even he overwhelmingly preferred the terms philosophical and theological to indicate that the apparent bifurcation was procedural and epistemic, not ontological. It is only with William of Ockham in the 15th century that this bifurcation of reality into two truths and two natures become characteristic and habitual. This Ockhamist distinction was adopted by the Protestant reformers, however, and the use of this terminology eventually became central to the efforts of both Catholic reactionaries and Protestant reformers to preserve the autonomy of religious belief in the face of hostile assaults by reductionistic advocates of modern sciences. This was so much the case that by the 19th century the term “supernatural” had became widely used to denote the dimension of the sacred as it intersects and relates to the “natural” world described by the physical sciences. The modern use of the term “naturalistic”, in reaction, came to be seen as a contradictory rallying term for all conceptions of reality that insist that the human, his works, and his environment are self-contained and self-sufficient, needing no explanatory recourse to God, miracles, or, in its most recent manifestation, any of the attributes of personhood as well.

This use of the word is genuinely counterintuitive, however, and depends for its meaning on a short-lived and largely misleading contrast between the natural and supernatural that was itself, genuinely and tragically confused. Naturalism, in its broader sense, as used to characterize the continuity and complimentarity of human being with the rest of nature, has been an abiding feature of western thought ever since the pre-Socratics. The ongoing stresses and conflicts of this Western tradition principally had to do with arguments regarding the ontological status of nature itself, and how it was to be understood. That humans were to be understood as a part of nature, however, had never seriously been in doubt.

Indeed, questions regarding the “nature” of nature in Hellenism principally turned on the issue of whether the world was to be accepted as self-existent and autonomous (as it was, for instance, by Heroclitus), or whether the elements and laws of the physical universe should be worshipped as gods (as in classical paganism), or whether the rational ordering of the world should be traced back to a single God (as with Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics). To this, Judeo-Christianity added the more properly basic ontological question of whether or not the rationally ordered world was, not only ordered by God, but even more radically, metaphysically contingent, and created by Him from nothing. The shared assumption of all of these traditions, however, was that human were part of nature. Moreover, for all of them, within the world of nature, the principle significant distinction to be made was between all that was natural - the living, meaningfully ordered web of purpose within which every being had its own purpose and appointed task - and the realm of artifacture, devoid of a life and an intrinsic purpose and meaning of its own. In this division, too, humans were universally included in the world of living and meaningful nature rather than artifacture.

This classical sense of the continuity between man and nature becomes most fully explicit in Aristotle, who went as far as to simply equate the moral order with the natural order, as did the later Stoics that followed in his wake.(2) In this Stagarite tradition, the moral order is only distinct from the natural order in that humans, because of their rational nature, must consciously grasp the purpose and the nature of the cosmos through the intellect and honor it through an act of will, whereas the operation of natural law is automatic and vital for other creatures. The content of this law, however, is constant. It is a single order that is either vital or moral, and it is that which is “natural” that is good, and that which is disruptive of nature that is “evil.”

The Christian fathers were able to take this classical and Aristotelian conception of the continuity of the moral and the natural order in stride with little substantial modification. The writings of early Christian fathers, such as St. Ambrose, St. Athanasius, St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Ephraim the Syrian and St. Gregory of Nyssa, are replete with analogies between animal behavior and human behavior, and moral lessons applicable to human societies are frequently drawn from careful (and sometimes less than careful) descriptions of the interactions of animal societies. The moral law, reflecting the purpose and intentions of God’s creative plan for the universe, regulates not only human behavior, but rather, is seen by these representative writers of the Christian tradition as being a set of intrinsic regulative principles for all creation. In the West, this tradition was most fully, and perhaps most problematically, systematized by Thomas Aquinas. There is much to be critical of in Thomas Aquinas’s handling of such matters, and even the less systematic and situational application of the principle of analogy by earlier writers is at times naïve and occasionally savors of projection. Still the fact that these parallels between animal and human societies generally seem strained to us now (heirs, as we are, of a quite different and less complimentary understanding of the nature of the relationship between man and nature) is perhaps more a measure of how far removed we have become from this basic naturalism of our classical and Christian heritage than anything else. The natural and moral laws of marital love and fidelity, the duties and joys of parenting, the love of place and kindred, the rhythm of aging and renewal, and the lessons of hard work, thrift, and a proper use of material resources according to need alone – all of which certainly are evidenced in even a casual perusal of the behavior of a great many animal species similar enough to human beings in this or that analogical particular to be relevant - still can and do serve as hints and shadows of a proper natural order for human life as well. According to this tradition, humans are distinctive only in their freedom to know and accept, or ignore and reject that natural law, and in their capacity to intellectually discern, transcending that law, the further revealed “theological virtues” of faith, hope and charity. As such, they remain fundamentally related to the entire natural order of creation.

This understanding of the fundamental unity of humanity and the cosmic order is also present in the other, parallel tradition of Western thought, generally described as “Platonic”: an idealist tradition traceable from Socrates through Plato, Middle-Platonism, Plotinus, and, more peripherally, the Stoics (3) down to the flowering of the Humanist revival in the Renaissance. Superficially, this fundamentally idealistic tradition may initially appear more ambiguous in its naturalism. When one thinks of Socrates scornfully insisting that he has nothing to learn from trees, Plato rejecting the material world as a shadowy copy reflected on a cave wall in the Republic, or Plotinus insisting that it is the intellectual soul which is the true and immortal essence of the person (an essence whose salvation lies in being liberated from the corpse of the physical body) it is not difficult to project our own modern problematic upon this tradition and see in all this a whiff of things to come. Indeed, there have been times when apologists and detractors of this tradition alike have been inclined to read into it a fundamental opposition between nature and humanity. Still, neither Socrates nor Plato denied that there was a natural order, albeit both intellectual and physical, and nor did they ever deny that this order includes human beings. The more fundamental opposition in this tradition is moral, between the rational and ideational ordering of the cosmos, taken as a whole, and that of the customary and always legitimately questionable habitual ordering of the world of human society. This opposition is clearly apparent, for instance, in Plato’s effort to design an ideationally rational community in his Republic. The idea of the Good, the superstructure of Ideas, and the human reason that can apprehend both are neither “supernatural” nor “contra-natural”, but rather signify the real and fully genuine order of the cosmos in which both nature and humans participate in the more or less imperfect way that each particular mode of existence allows.

This is even more apparent in the thought of Plato’s intermediate philosophical heirs, the Stoics, for whom the logos simply is the order of the cosmos, directing the life of animals and humans alike. Indeed, as the bearer of the “spark of reason”, the logos spermatikos, humans are anything but estranged or unnatural to the cosmos, the moral order of which they exemplify when they live a life according to reason. It is only in one’s failure to fully exemplify the rational ordering of his nature as a “microcosm”, subjugating what is higher to what is lower, that one becomes unnatural, living a disordered life of unruly passions which contravene the rule of nature’s logos.

This cosmological tradition too, Christianity was able to co-opt theologically for its own ends, although with considerably more wariness. The theological potential for disaster in this regard was recognized early in Christian history by the condemnation of Origen’s and Evagrius’s insufficiently critical synthesis of Christian and neo-Platonic thought, a synthesis that clearly lent itself to a disdain for the material world and to an unwarranted spiritualization of eschatological categories such as the resurrection of the dead. When combined with the Christian ontological commitments to creation ex nihilo, it also opened up a dangerous potential for placing values, the structure of Ideas, and the rational soul that apprehended them on the uncreated rather than the created side of the balance sheet, in a way that invited either a spiritual/intellectual pantheism and/or a divorce between God and the realm of the physical, as this is to be more blatantly found, for instance, in Persian-influenced Gnostic sects such as Manichaeism. After some initial hesitation, Christian theology rallied to reaffirm the goodness and significance of all creation, both intellectual and physical, and to affirm the metaphysical chasm between God’s uncreated existence and that of all creation. Humans, even in their participation in rationality, remained firmly entrenched within the created order of things.

On the other hand, the notion of man as microcosm had theological potential as a philosophical tool for understanding both the Incarnation and the relationship between humans and the rest of creation, and was developed accordingly. Similarly, in the Platonic and Stoic notions of the Ideas and the Logos, Christians found useful philosophical tools for understanding the relationship between God (specifically, Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity) and the created order. Beginning in the speculations of such writers as St. Ireneas and St. Athanasius, developed by the Cappadocian Fathers, and reaching its fullest and most complete development (to date) in St. Maximus the Confessor, Christian theology developed its own ideational theory of the logoi (words), as the intellectual principles that both define the essence of every created being, and establish God’s will and intention for them. There are obvious echoes of the Platonic theory of “ideas” which were thought to underlay all that exists, but the differences here are equally important. In Christian thought, the logoi, as exemplars or conceptions, do not form an autonomous realm between God and His creation. Rather they are divine energies, God himself acting in and as the world. As a consequence, there are no mediating restrictions on God’s creative freedom or on the cosmos’s radical metaphysical dependence upon Him. The doctrine of the logoi theologically affirms the divine presence in the world, the world’s destiny in God, and the transcendental unity of all of the created order, from which human beings, as an integral part, are called forth to serve as steward, representative, and symbolic recapitalization.
For Orthodox theology, at least, this way of approaching things thus established a harmonization of the two strands of the philosophical tradition, reaffirming the Aristotelian notion of the continuity of the moral and the natural law by grounding it and elevating it into a more fundamentally theological notion of God being “encoded”, as it were, in everything that is made. Understanding themselves to be surrounded by symbols and analogies of God’s presence on every side, Christians came to regard nature, as St. Anthony and St. Athanasius had already explicitly articulated as early as the 4th century, as God’s book. The unity of the moral and the natural law is grounded in the unity of creation’s relatedness to God in the logoi of the one Logos of its Creator.

In the next chapter we shall examine this Orthodox Christian tradition of naturalism in further detail. For now it is sufficient to acknowledge that all three of the major intellectual strands of Western civilization were united in their affirmation that human beings were neither “alien” nor in fundamental opposition to “nature”, but rather integrally related to nature, both as part to whole, and also as a symbolic recapitulations, in their composite nature, of the cosmos itself.
The Western tradition did, however, provide one intellectual conception that, once wrenched from its context, may well have contributed to the possibility of the modern development of the notion of a “meaningless nature.” Both the Stoics, most influentially in Seneca, and the Western Christian theological tradition stemming from St. Augustine, rather sharply contrasted the authentic cosmos as it was originally ordered (in Stoicism) or created (in Augustinianism) with the radically “fallen” nature of our current environment, and this was adopted with a vengeance by Luther, Calvin and the Protestant inheritors of the Reformed tradition. While these traditions certainly placed the blame squarely on human agency for bringing sin into the world, they also loaded up the mental and intellectual landscape of Western Europe with such motifs such as “the prison of the body” and “a pilgrim in a barren land” that, when liberated from a similarly dark Augustinian conception of the human intellect and will in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, may well have fostered a kind of disrespect for the natural order in the West.

Arising in the dark contexts of the collapse of ancient Rome and revived in the contexts of the Black Plague and the vicious wars of the Reformation era, these darker and more problematic expressions of the radical fallenness and brokenness of nature perhaps partake more of periodic cultural despair than of any real genius of the philosophical and religious traditions in which they arose, however. Christians, in particular, reciting every week the shared creedal affirmation that they “believe in the maker of heaven and earth, of things visible and invisible” were hard put to entirely fail to recognize nature as God’s creation and their own continuity with that creation. For these motifs to be alchemistically transmuted into the 20th century existentialist vision of the human as a stranger in an absurd and meaningless land required several catalysts. The first was provided by the so-called “New Humanism” of the Renaissance.

It is one of the proto-myths of our current technological civilization, endlessly repeated, that the sharp opposition to Copernicus’s heliocentric system in the 15th century was motivated by human arrogance and a desire to maintain mankind’s privileged situation at the center of the universe. In fact, the truth is very nearly the opposite. Given a traditional religious interpretation of the Ptolemaic hierarchy of the spheres (a cosmological model which served as a functional “map of creation” for medieval Christians) the position of earth at the center meant that it was the place farthest away from the throne of God in the heavens, a point further emphasized by the traditional location of hell at the center of Earth, with the devil, as in Dante’s Divine Comedy, located in the abyss of abysses, there at the very center of things. If Earth, in the medieval Christian tradition was the center of things, it was more so as ground zero is the center of a blast site than in any positive sense. Indeed, for a medieval Western Christian, humanity’s location there on the doorstep of hell was more a reflection of his fallen state than of any particular privilege. In this light, Copernicus’s scheme of things was objectionable because it placed the fallen earth into the heavens, which had hitherto been regarded as relatively free of the baleful influence of man’s fall, and consequently a realm of cosmological perfection - a place of blessedness to which a man might, by grace and sanctification, ultimately attain.

This doctrinal otherworldliness had certainly been exacerbated and made extreme by the Augustinian emphasis on the radical fallenness of terrestrial creation in the Western Church, but for all that, the official teaching of Christianity throughout its history, both East and West, was that the complete fulfillment of human nature was not to be found in the created order, whose goodness, while real, was both limited and participatory. More positively expressed, the goodness, order, and beauty of creation was functionally anticipatory, leading one onward - like Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy - towards the Holy Trinity as the source of all goodness, order and beauty, for man and the rest of creation alike. Nevertheless, against the backdrop of the fall of the Roman Empire, the exclusive triumph of Augustinian theology in the West, and the successive and traumatizing waves of the Black Plague, it is hardly surprising that the Western Christian appreciation of the “goodness” of the created order had grown somewhat attenuated during the late middle ages.

The late 14th and 15th century, however, saw the emergence in the West of humanism, arriving with the educated Greek-speaking émigrés of the threatened, and ultimately Saracen-sacked Byzantium. As this reflected light from the last bright flame of Byzantine Hellenism gradually came to illumine the Western world, a more balanced understanding of nature, once again acknowledged as a beautiful, beneficent and nurturing Mother rather than as the last grim outpost of hope in the antechamber to hell, began to be articulated, first in Italy, and spreading out from there to all of the intellectual centers of Europe. As a corrective, this “new” humanism was useful and long overdue, but it bore with it the potential for other misunderstandings all the same. For what was not imported with it into the West, given the Great Schism and the theological divergences of the Eastern and Western Christian dogmatic teachings, was the broader religious context and culture of Byzantium in which this humanism had been conventionally embedded. This was a significant loss, for as I have already indicated and will seek to examine more fully in the next chapter, Byzantine Christianity had achieved its own kind of synthesis between this positive understanding of nature and of a Christian theology that made use of a terminology and of theological categories with which the West was either unfamiliar or to which it was openly hostile. Transplanted into the more somber and less amenable Augustinian theological context of Western medieval Christianity, this new recognition of the beneficence of creation and of the spiritual significance of physical reality could not help but be regarded almost exclusively as a gift of the classical heritage of Greek civilization.

Given this understanding of its provenance, and considered apart from the Christian tradition that had preserved and cherished it, the distinctive Byzantine emphases upon the beneficence of the world, the beauty of physical things, the spiritual significance of the physical component of human nature, and the centrality of man as a “microcosmos” that recapitulates, represents, and articulates all of nature, were almost inevitably received as a world-view in tension with Christianity rather than grounded in it or complimentary to it. As a result, a more secular and theologically ungrounded Hellenic understanding of the intellectual and significance of the human subject began to develop in subterranean conflict with institutional Christianity in the West, an understanding that took ever greater liberties with the Christian understanding of both humans and nature. In particular, the notion of the fallenness, not only of nature, but of humans as well, began to erode.

From the perspective of Orthodox Christian dogma this was not entirely a bad thing. Certainly the Orthodox Church finds more common ground with, say, Erasmus, Cajetan or Arminius than with either St. Augustine or Luther on matters relating to freedom and the human will. Nevertheless, a more dubious result of this erosion was that the pursuit of knowledge, in particular, began to mutate, taking on a new and principally secular objective. If for the classical tradition the purpose of knowledge was virtue, and if the purpose of knowledge in the Christian tradition had been to come to know God and to apprehend the God-relatedness of all of nature, the Europeans of the 16th century, conditioned as they were by a century of more or less secular thought that reveled in the sensuous life of the body and the senses (and inclined toward a belief that a great deal more of human happiness and fulfillment were to be discovered in the use of natural things than their clergymen had thus far been willing to admit) hit upon a different notion. This new attitude was summed up epigrammatically by Francis Bacon, the prophet of the dawning scientific era, in his oft quoted phrase “knowledge is power.”

The radical discontinuity of this understanding with all that had gone before is hard to over-stress. Francis Bacon and the like-minded revolutionaries who succeeded him were no longer interested in the goal of intellectual power as kind of self mastery born of reflection, or of insight concerning how to live a good life. Even less were they interested in what they took to be fuzzy-headed “mystical” notions of a divinized union of humanity and creation with God. The goal of knowledge was now simply physical power, of the sort best represented by earth-moving equipment, explosive devices, and genetic engineering. (4) In his own works, Francis Bacon ambitiously proposed nothing less than a complete transformational overhaul of the scientific study of nature - what was then known as natural philosophy –– into an abstractive and interrogative mode of study in which humans would seek to grasp the principles of nature, not so much by sympathetic observation as but by a forcible and technology-driven mode of inquiry that set up experimental constraints on what nature could offer in reply. Moreover, this narrow and exclusive quest for the efficient causal principles of nature was no longer to be motivated by a desire, as in the natural philosophy of the past, to emulate its order, to sympathetically understand and preserve its integrity, to aesthetically appreciate its beauty, or even to come to understand the wisdom and goodness of its Creator, but rather solely for the purposes of manipulating nature technologically for the purpose of serving human needs and desires.

Bacon’s articulated motivations for pursuing this overhaul of natural philosophy were both ethical and religious, but they are an ethics and a theology of such a peculiar character when evaluated by the understandings of man’s relationship to nature which had prevailed in classical and Christian civilization, that they would have appeared both flatly hubristic and heretical in any proceeding generation. For instance, Bacon’s first motivation was to improve the quality of human life through a concentrated application of the mechanical arts and sciences. Writing in the breezy and optimistic style that we have come to associate with popular propagandists for technology ever since, Bacon insists that such a reform will create “a blessed race of Heroes or Supermen who will overcome the immeasurable helplessness and poverty of the human race, which cause it more destruction than all giants, monsters, or tyrants, and will make you peaceful, happy, and secure.”(5) The notion that technology, by itself, could insulate humans from the most significant evils of life and endow them with benefits which Dante, two centuries before, would have attributed solely to the attainment of the Beatific Vision of God, would have seemed considerably more bizarre to Sophocles, Seneca, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Thomas Aquinas or Francis of Assisi than it does to us now. Even more revolutionary was Francis Bacon’s other motivational justification, which was more or less explicitly theological, but a theology of a sort never before penned by the hand of man. In brief, he argued that the progressive advance of science and technology that he envisaged should be adopted for the purpose of reversing the consequences of the fall itself, claiming that science and technology would permit humans to recover the Godlike powers that he had lost upon being thrown out of Eden.(6) In Christian terms, this is not so much Christian theology as anti-theology. More Luciferian than even Pelagian in his sentiments, Bacon was advocating that his civilization mobilize to overturn, by its own efforts, the prior judgment of God, and even this, not for the purpose of reconciliation or fellowship with God, but to obtain a similar kind of power. With enough arrogant aplomb to make a “Death of God” theologian envious, Francis Bacon actually subtitled the first of the works in which he outlines his project for the sciences (entitled The Masculine Birth of Time) as The Great Instauration [Restoration] of Man’s Dominion over the Universe.

Bacon’s avowed anthropology was similarly immodest. He begins his revolutionary Refutation of Philosophies with the following succinct statement of his anthropological faith: “We are agreed, my sons, that you are men. This means, as I think, that you are not animals on hind legs, but mortal gods.”(7) Such a declaration, of course, necessarily opens up a vast gulf between human beings and the rest of animate creation. Humans, conceived of on such an Olympian scale, stand in stark opposition to the rest of nature, which is dwarfed in significance by comparison. Indeed, in an essay entitled “Thoughts and Conclusions” in which Bacon is critical of the “natural magicians” of the Renaissance for being too restrained in their collaborative approach to nature, Bacon commends the new technologies for their unrestrained power to “not only bend nature gently, but to conquer and subdue, even shake her to her foundations.”(8) Nor is this an isolated statement. Bacon’s writings are full of violent imagery and sexually charged metaphors by means of which he rejects the image of nature as a mother, worthy of respect and consideration, and systematically replaces it with metaphors and similes in which nature is an unwilling strumpet, or a domestic slave. Unsurprisingly, he himself (or science, more generally) is represented as a procurer or slave-trader, as in this passage: “I am…leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.”(9)

Here, at last, for the first time in Western thought, do we begin to apprehend many of the problematic ideational elements that have come to characterize our modern technological civilization. Here humans are elevated in status to God-like beings, unbounded by any natural limitations or metaphysical humility, and conceptually separated from nature by a chasm of anthropocentric valuation and by a pattern of unidirectional duties and obligations (from nature to man and never back again) which undermines any genuine relatedness or filial sympathy. Here too, is nature is debased, reduced to the status of a slave, in whose tiresome resistance is acknowledged no integrity of its own but rather only an illegitimate rebelliousness towards its rightful human master. As such, it is right, just, and wholly moral to overcome any natural impediment to human goals by whatever force is necessary. The goal of science is not so much genuine understanding as simply power, a power that, while not unrelated to human need, sees the satisfaction of human need as only the first step toward a more ultimate and worthwhile goal of human fulfillment in material wealth, a fulfillment that is unrelated to any ethical, cultural or spiritual goals that transcend human need or desires. Thus science is valued principally for its ability to extend man’s manipulative physical power to remake nature into such convenient forms usable and consumable by human beings. Unfortunately, however, if Francis Bacon’s attitudes are remarkable, they are only so in their temporal priority. Guided by a similar blend of overweening ambition and acquisitiveness, our civilization has been pursuing a similarly extreme, aggressive, heedless, and grandiose goal of placing nature under the complete management of human greed ever since.

If Bacon’s program lacked anything, it was a theoretical model of nature that rendered the victim impervious to human sympathy. One can, after all, still feel sorry for a slave, especially if the slave is one’s mother, and the initial resistance to strip mining, vivisection, factories that belched foul smelling smoke, the commodification of agricultural animals, and the loss of forests to armies of axe and saw-wielding foresters was considerable, sparking a latently Christian romantic backlash. Certainly in Bacon’s own time, his devaluation of nature was still far from normative. To Shakespeare and others of Bacon’s contemporaries, the controlling image of nature was one of “a living animal…a vast organism everywhere quick and vital, its body, soul, and spirit held tightly together.”(10) Thinkers and artists of the time typically regularly referred to this living, almost Gaia-like entity as nurturing mother. Montaigne, for instance, proclaimed that “whoever contemplates our mother Nature in her full majesty and luster is alone able to value things in their true estimate.” (11) This organic and maternal understanding of nature, and the ethical restraints that such an understanding implied, proved to be increasingly at odds with the desire shared by Francis Bacon and the early capitalists and pioneers of the Scientific Revolution to exploit, manipulate and restructure nature for human benefit. Fully two generations later, Robert Boyle provides us with an example of scientific fulmination concerning the “pernicious” effects of this common attitude: “The veneration wherewith men are embued for what they call nature has been a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior creatures.”(12) He goes on to complain that such reactionary and conservative attitudes led many to regard the scientific program for conquering nature to be not only impossible but “impious” as well.

By that time, though, Boyle and others were in the position to offer a comprehensive and philosophically sophisticated alternate model of nature with almost as great a classical pedigree as the one it replaced in the form of corpuscularian philosophy, a revival of atomism, an ancient Greek materialist philosophy which affirmed that the world, and everything in it, was comprised of extremely tiny indestructible billiard balls in motion. In its modern formulation, by philosophers such as Rene Descartes, atomistic theory was used to cast doubt on “naïve” and “non-scientific” conceptions of nature by undermining the foundation of all such theories in the lived world of experience. Atomism, with its claim that the ontologically basic objects of nature are too small to be visible by the human senses, had the effect of invalidating all non-scientific judgments regarding the natural order. Any apparent knowledge to the contrary, reflected in such common sense judgments as “the bark of that tree is an interesting shade of brown” or “that factory is ugly and smells disgusting” or even “you should stop smearing that gunk on the rabbit’s eye, you’re torturing him” were all illusions cast by the aggregate causal effect of undifferentiated atoms as they impinged upon the senses. On such a view, nature was not a person or a community of persons, or even, strictly speaking, any thing at all. Rather, it was, to use a rather more modern phrase – “just one damned thing after another.”

In the deft hands of philosophers like Rene Descartes, the atomism of Democrates was united with the 17th century’s fascination for complex and autonomous machines, and developed into a comprehensive new image of nature, banishing the living, active, and creative Mother of Classical, Christian and Renaissance cosmology and replacing it with a mechanized, orderly, and, above all, mathematical version of this ancient materialistic doctrine. The world was now regarded as a lifeless and mathematically precise machine, to which God, (if one still wanted so inconvenient a hypothesis), was only distantly related as a clockmaker who had no further involvement in its affairs; a world from which even human consciousness was banished. Not only was this atomistic, deterministic, and materialistic world not itself alive, but neither, strictly speaking, was anything in it. Even the human body and the “higher” animals were now simply automata.

More aware than are many of our contemporaries of the latent absurdity of removing the scientist from the science, Descartes carefully retained the human subject as a “thinking thing” on the basis of “self-evidence.” Our conscious existence, epistemically validated by Descartes famous “cogito ergo sum” argument, angelically stands aloof as an intellectual and immaterial ghost on the margins of the clockwork machine that is our body. Lacking a similarly self-referential argument on the behalf of dogs, horses, cows or chickens, however, Descartes denied that there was any scientific or philosophical evidence in behalf the otherwise quite similar proposition that animals possess souls, minds, or even sensation, insisting to the contrary “that there is nothing in the whole of nature that cannot be explained in terms of purely corporeal causes totally devoid of mind or thought.”(13) Horribly, even screams of animal pain to the contrary are dismissed by the Cartesians as mechanistic illusions – frequently likened to the scream of a pipe organ when a key is pressed.(14) At one fell swoop, a brave new world had arrived: man was divorced from nature entirely and the vivisectionist labs and battery farms of the modern era were granted, in advance, their justification for existence.

One need not be enamored of Rene Descartes’ vision to appreciate how perfectly it achieves the purposes for which it was conceived. The Cartesian world, extricated from divine influence, human subjects, animal companions, secondary qualities, purposes, intentions and values is both unclutteredly simple and reassuring in that, in outline at least, we already know what we shall “discover” when we study it: matter in motion, propelled by the blind but orderly forces of efficient causality. Nothing any longer exists within the natural world that cannot be studied comprehensively and exhaustively by the application of the inductive and mathematical methods of the new sciences. Nor can anything that remains possess the sort of integrity necessary to impose moral constraints on the use of scientific technology. The world has been effectively reduced to a reservoir of raw material resources which must wait for humans to decide what to do with them. It is in their use and utility for human purposes that they acquire their significance and meaning, and in no other way. Nature is nothing more than a machine, and if it is not always a functional machine as yet, well, it can certainly be made into one.

This vision of the world as a machine is one of the deepest and most abiding metaphors of our culture, and this pervasive metaphor has transformed our dealings with the natural world and our own self-understandings for the better part of three centuries. If we do not any longer take the metaphor strictly literally, failing to acknowledge the many differences between mechanical objects like clocks and biological organisms, we nevertheless are utterly bewitched by a worldview that insists that nature is neither revelatory or personal, that the worth of things is established by their human usefulness, and that the biosphere and its inhabitants, which first appear remarkable, diverse, and dazzlingly complex to the eye of the casual beholder, are in fact, remarkably simple objects, already known to be reducible in principle to a mathematical schemata. The atomistic vision of Rene Descartes, which denies that any whole or complex can have a unity and integrity of its own, and that everything in nature is always nothing more than the aggregated sum of its parts, has justified reductionism in science even as it has contributed to the modern atomistic and alienated notion of the self, which in turn has generated a radical and socially corrosive individualism. In the world of machines, only the parts are real, whether these parts are conceived of as the “selfish genes” of evolutionary theory or in accordance with the rabid individualism of the social-contract theory of political liberalism. We are so inured to these metaphors that we no longer are even aware of their bizarre character. We describe our children as “our most important natural resource”, the body of an athlete as “a beautiful machine”, and the human mind as a “computer” without so much as a passing thought as to the genuine appropriateness of these metaphors to lived experience.

As an ironclad straight-jacket for the sciences themselves, which purports to assume in advance what they shall discover, the Cartesian world was set emphatically aside by the physicists of the twentieth century, who found its mechanistic assumptions far too simplistic to account for a great many of the phenomena of the natural world. Nevertheless, a great deal of current science still approaches the world with the atomistic and materialist assumptions of Rene Descartes, Robert Boyle, and Francis Bacon. Neuroscientists studying the human brain pursue a cherished program of reducing the personal attributes of consciousness, intentionality, and apparent freedom of human beings to discrete electro-chemical activities measurable by the physical sciences of chemistry and physics, and scientists pursuing the human genome project often proceeded on a similar mechanistic assumption that they could find, by mapping the genetic sequences, the discrete “program” that makes a person.(15) Contrary to the expectations of early researchers in either field, neither program has met with much success in terms of meeting these early goals, but that has done little to modify the boundless optimism of those engaged in these and similar projects. They already know what must be there, so they are determined to find it.

I began this examination of Western Civilization by posing a question: How did we come to convince ourselves of the deeply counterintuitive notion of the human as an alien stranger thrown into a meaningless and mechanical world, given that such an understanding stands in stark contradiction to the heritage of Western Civilization in both its classical and Christian formulations? At this point, I believe we have uncovered at least one of the elements of the answer to this question. Since the 17th century, Western scientific thought – and our popular culture in its wake – has substituted an abstract theoretical construct for the richer nature of lived experience. In a way that has become so basic to us that we rarely even grasp what we are doing, when we discuss “nature” we are rarely talking about the natural environment of lived experience, the living, purposeful and meaningful world that, in our pre-theoretical moments at least, we experience as home. Instead, whether well or badly, sophisticatedly or naively, we are generally referring to a highly sophisticated construct of matter in motion which corresponds better to the methods and purposes of the natural sciences than to any real object of lived experience. Within such a construct, as we have seen, there is no place for a moral subject, precisely because the methods and purposes of the natural sciences as they have been conceived of since Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, have been designed to exclude us from the field. As we have seen, this is no accident. The machine world was designed to exclude personal characteristics from the outset, along with all that pertains to persons: meaning, value, beauty, goodness, truth, and holiness.

Lest I overly annoy my high school science teachers, let me hasten to admit, in spite all that I have said so far, that there are a great many times and circumstances in which such a methodological device for excluding anything that complicates our purposes for manipulating the world, or for removing anything from the web of scientific investigation that is not amenable to the scientific method, is both useful and necessary. Once one has already decided, on the basis of a richer and fuller ethical and intentional understanding of the world, that it is of overriding importance to build a bridge across a river that will not collapse when used in this or that particular way, then the relevant natural qualities are the tensile strengths and the lengths of the materials used, not with the aesthetic beauty of certain structural flaws, the color of the bolts, or the religious convictions of the engineer (although this need not and should not exclude a consideration of the aesthetic merit of the final product). Similarly, if one is going in for an operation to have a life-threatening tumor removed, the moral character of the surgeon pales in comparison with the significance of his anatomical knowledge and procedural skill. Techné, in its place, is a genuine and authentic mode of human existence, and has been ever since the first day on which one of our early ancestor first set off with a pointed stick to obtain protein for his children. Unfortunately, however, we have been encouraged to treat this one-sided construct world of science and technology, not simply as a useful tool, but rather as though it were actually reveals in truth what nature is, even when this model flatly contradicts or utterly fails to illumine the ethical, aesthetic, purposive and inspirational givenness of that which stands before us in all its genuine experiential fullness and phenomenological complexity. Scientific knowledge of the world is always an abstraction from that richer world, and to the extent that the terms and categories of individual scientific disciplines are meaningful at all, these terms and categories, like the whole edifice of the scientific enterprise itself, are grounded, however informally, on our real and living experience as conscious subjects embodied in the actual world. Quite literally, even terms like weight, force, distance, duration, hardness, and causality are intentionally grounded in the life-world of human interaction with medium sized objects, and would be completely meaningless and incomprehensible to us apart from this lived interaction with objects that experientially manifest such properties at the human level. Furthermore, these same objects may also manifest the properties of being colorful, aesthetically pleasing, symbolically charged, inspiring, valuable, purposive, and good. It is only the scientistic rejection of this fuller and richer reality on behalf of a construct comprised solely of the mathematically measurable and technologically manipulable features of nature which is being called into question here, not the scientific enterprise as an investigation into these features themselves. We would be infinitely poorer without the detailed knowledge about the efficient causality of the physical world that scientific investigation and experimentation provides us; but neither we nor the scientists themselves would be capable of grasping this knowledge at all if it was not originally grounded in a broader and more inclusive ontological reality of lived experience.

We need science, now more than ever, and the rational process of universalizable abstraction which the physical sciences represent is, at its best, one of the glories of our human nature. Without the careful research of atmospheric chemists like Rowland and Molina we would have been utterly at the mercy of our bad decisions in synthesizing and releasing large quantities of CFC’s into the atmosphere. Similarly, as we shall see, without the scientific discovery of the abnormal rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, we should not even be aware of the impending menace of global warming. In short, no sane and rational approach to the environmental problems that beset us will encourage scientific ignorance or an abandonment of the scientific enterprise as a solution.16 Science is, however, a human enterprise, and the value-free construct of reality that it methodologically enshrines must be illumined and guided by both a more fully naturalistic appraisal of the moral, aesthetic and spiritual value of those things that science studies, and by a recognition of ourselves as ethical decision makers native to, and situated in, a world which reveals vastly more to us than the scientific method can begin to properly grasp or acknowledge. It is not surprising, then, that when we fail to acknowledge this – when we accept the impersonal and value-free construct of science as a replacement for reality itself - the moral subject that we know ourselves to be, must appear as radically “unnatural.”

The importance of this conceptual development of the “machine world” to the problem we have been considering cannot be overstated, which is why I have spent so much time examining its historical genesis. If our current difficulties were merely conceptual, however, the solution to our problem would already be contained in its diagnosis, calling for nothing more than a change in our ontological commitments, much as an ancient student of philosophy might have selected to abandon the austere ontology of Parmenides’s Way of Truth for the richer and more inclusive vision of Aristotle. An examination of the concept of the mechanistic understanding of nature itself, however, cannot account for its inertial power, for our practical addiction to an understanding of the world that most of us in our more reflective moments find morally bankrupt and intellectually questionable. The conceptual construct world of the physical sciences has become far more convincing to us than Parmenedes’ theory could have ever been for any ancient Greek, and for a very good reason. The machine world, to speak bluntly, is no longer as purely theoretical for us as it might have been in the time of Francis Bacon, or even of Richard Boyle. We find it infinitely more difficult to divest ourselves conceptually of the Cartesian machine-world precisely because the radical expansion of technology that this conceptual development enabled has now constructed a new experiential reality that, to an ever greater and more comprehensive manner, actually conforms to the theory. Our technology has, in effect, translated our concepts into artifacts, no longer restructuring only our conception of nature but also the environing texture of ordinary lived experience. It is no longer normal, but exceptional for us to feel the sun on our backs and a breeze in face as we toil with a hoe in vegetable garden. It is no longer normal, but exceptional, for us to watch the sun set from a back porch, watching the shadows spread upward from the base of the oak and into the branches until they overtake the last bright green in the high branches and merge with a darkening sky. It is no longer normal, but exceptional to stand nervously on guard over the lambing of an ewe amongst the sweet smelling hay of a barn on a cold February morning, welcoming the unsteady newcomer with relief as he struggles gamely to his feet. What is normal is no longer natural.

Again, all of this is obvious, but its significance is seldom commented upon (and from the amblon least of all). How are we to rightly till and keep God’s creation, and exercise a just and loving stewardship of it (where and when such stewardship is necessary) when most of our lives are spent in artificially illumined and humidity and temperature controlled concrete boxes, following an artificial schedule regulated by mechanical timepieces rather than the solar cycle or our bodily rhythm of wakefulness and exhaustion? How are we to heed the still small voice of God, and the dictates of reason and conscience, when we are continuously instructed, entertained, enticed and recorded by a bewildering variety of electronic audio-visual devices, and subject, at any moment, to the blaring imposition of the will of some distant individual who has obtained our cell-phone number? These questions are not easy to answer, but we must find a way to do so, for it is precisely in such a Heideggerian artificial tool world that we, for the most part, live. Indeed, even the interruptions and dangers of our world are no longer natural. Airplanes, buzzers, alarms, traffic lights and early warning system signals have replaced early morning bird song, insect bites, dogs barking, and the unwanted knock on the door by a nosy rural neighbor as irritants, and we are far, far more likely to killed by an automobile accident, by an environmentally caused cancer, or by a despairing lunatic driven insane by the conceptual madness of the culture in which we live than by a bear, an earthquake, or a mishap with an axe. It is all of a piece, this life of ours, and it is, in every sense real; but it is not now, and never will be, “natural.”

Unfortunately, though, whether we approve of this state of affairs or not, it is in this, the lived context of urban dwellers in the modern industrial nations that the vast majority of us form our conceptions of nature; not in an intimate interaction with God’s creation, but surrounded by a host of artifacts which correspond quite neatly with Descartes’s construct of reality as dead and meaningless matter propelled by efficient causality. In this world, we encounter neither the law of nature nor the moral law, but rather, as a certain city dweller scribbling away in the British Library had already recognized by the middle of the 19th century, only the works of our own labor.(17) Admittedly, this urban world that we have made is no less artificial than the conceptual mathematical schemata that spawned it. Even now, had we but the eyes to see it, our technological world of artifacts is far from constituting anything but a baroque facade over the natural world that has always been there. Nevertheless, precisely because it is this world of artifacts in which most of us actually live, we are constantly tempted to take it for the real thing. When we do, the “machine world” construct can come to seem intuitively obvious, as can the more radical and thoroughgoing “scientific naturalism” that recommends that we see ourselves as complex robots well integrated with such a world and “natural” to it, or the equally radical (if more anthropologically-oriented) existentialism that, finding nothing like ourselves in such a “nature,” over-generalizes and repudiates the world itself in anguish and despair.

All of this suggests that if we are to rediscover ourselves, and reestablish a loving relationship with the created order of which we are an intrinsic, if unique part, it will not be sufficient just to recover a better and more authentically grounded model for understanding our interrelatedness with the natural world. Important as this subject (to which I will turn in the next chapter, with an examination of the historic cosmological understanding of the Orthodox Church) may be, it will also be necessary for us to find our way back to a lived and vital relationship with the natural world itself, bypassing, by commitment, subterfuge, or by whatever other means are available to us, the technological machine world that substitutes itself for her at every turn. With this in mind, we will thus also need to interrogate our Orthodox tradition for specific modes of resistance, traditionally articulated ways of living as humans that may help us to extricate us from our experiential bondage to techné. Otherwise, we will find ourselves endlessly tempted by our environment to take a bite out of one of the attractively tinted plastic apples on the dining room table and, finding it tasteless, be encouraged to wonder: What’s so important about nature after all?


1. Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, pg 14-15 (Being and Time, p. 35)
2. See for instance, book I of Aristotle’s Politics, where this is particularly explicit.
3. My inclusion of the Stoics in both lists is inevitable – they are heirs of the Stagarite tradition of Aristotle in their understanding of the composition of the human person, and heirs of Platonism in their exemplarism.
4. This last may seem like a historical anomaly, but actually Francis Bacon was quite prescient of our own era in this regard, as he was in much else. In his novel of scientific utopia, New Atlantis, he envisioned the creation of novel organisms suited to fulfill human needs and desires. (Citation needed - I read the passage while doing research and I have yet to relocate a copy of the work...mea culpa)
5. Francis Bacon, “The Masculine Birth of Time,” in The Philosophy of Francis Bacon, Benjamin Farrington, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 72. Reading this from the vantage point of four centuries of technological development, in a world still replete with helplessness and poverty, it is easy to smile at Bacon’s ardently naive optimism, but the smile is quickly followed by a wince of recognition. Can we not find similarly glowing passages regarding the ultimate effects of technological advancement in almost any current scientific and technological journal of our own era?
6. (quotation needed – somewhere in The Masculine Birth of Time)
7. Francis Bacon, “The Refutation of Philosophies,” in The Philosophy of Francis Bacon, Benjamin Farrington, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 106.
8. Francis Bacon, “Thoughts and Conclusions,” in The Philosophy of Francis Bacon, Benjamin Farrington, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 93.
9. Francis Bacon, “The Masculine Birth of Time,” in The Philosophy of Francis Bacon, Benjamin Farrington, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 62.
10. Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York: HarperCollins, 1980, ch. 4, p. 104.
11. Michel de Montaigne, “Of the Education of Children,” quoted in Willey, Seventeenth Century, p. 41.
12. Robert Boyle, A Free Enquiry in toe Vulgarly Receive’d Notion of Nature (London:1686) 18-19.
13. See Rene Descartes, Ouvres 3:47-49 (letter 186, 1 April 1640).
14. See Rene Descartes, ibid, letter 192, 11 June 1640, 85.
15. Stanley Crick, for instance, could write “I myself, like many other scientists, believe that the soul is imaginary and that what we call our mind is simply a way of talking about the functions of our brains” and goes on to add that “once one has become adjusted to the idea that we are here because we have evolved from simple chemical compounds by a process of natural selection, it is remarkable how many of the problems of the modern world take on a completely new light.” Of Molecules and Men (University of Washington Press, 1966) 87, 93.
16. Let me take this opportunity to note my own critical objection to an otherwise intelligent and thoughtful Orthodox critic of modern science and technology, Philip Sherrard, who shares many of my objections to the machine world of Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes. Unfortunately, Sherrards’s works are lumbered with what I take to be an excessively Platonic understanding of Christian cosmology, and in defense of this somewhat aberrant understanding, he feels obliged to reject the entire edifice of modern science in its entirety, a project which I reject for the reasons given above.
17. The reference is to Karl Marx.