When we say that something is “natural” we often have certain preconceptions about what is authentic, wild or outside of human control. “Natural” speaks of purity, of goodness, of some untouched essence that is almost transcendent in its beauty and power. Inherent in this view of Nature, is that Nature is something inherent, “meant to be,” untouched by humans while, on the other hand, that which comes from humans is artificial. So, one of the first questions to ponder as we approach the Great Idea of Nature is this: Does human intervention make Nature “unnatural?” Is the natural world, without human intervention, more pure or true? Is there even such a thing as Nature without humans or are humans simply a part of Nature?
The ancient Egyptians and most other early civilizations were fundamentally altered, and developed specific coping strategies for living in harmony with Nature. Another framework from which to view Nature is the way the Romantics see Nature. Sensing that the ascent of science and technology in the Age of Industry would forever alter our relationship to Nature, the Romantics see Nature as, above all else, sublime—immensely powerful, able to destroy and infinitely more potent than humans.
By reconfiguring Nature not as a resource for human consumption, or a wildness to be manhandled, controlled and utilized for progress or profit. The Romantic conception of Nature inverts what some of us think of Nature today—several hundred years into a vast industrialization project—as weak, fragile and vulnerable to the machinations of humans and their technological inventions.
The sublime or transcendental view of Nature often accentuates the destructive powers, beautiful and divine, of the world and the powers of Nature that are entirely above humans. In this view, it is not Nature that needs to be protected from humans, it is humans that need to be protected from Nature.
We can also ponder the origin of the natural world in this topic. Is Nature the creation of God who can step in and violate the laws of nature whenever miracles are necessary to fulfill the intent of the Almighty—whether that be to reward or punish, create or destroy, favor or impede? Or is the creator a Deist God who built the universe on rational inviolable principles and then stepped away, allowing the world to run like a clock?
Finally, the resources and syntopical questions of this chapter consider the ways that Nature, and a pontification of its origin, power, purpose and order (or beautiful disorder and wildness), can serve as a source for artistic creativity: as the perfect metaphor for literature, the perfect composition for a painting, the perfect subject for poetry, the perfect analogy for religious teaching.
Principle Questions Relating to the Great Idea
- What are the major frameworks by which to view Nature? Is Nature something inherent, meant to be, as opposed to something artificial? Does human intervention make Nature “unnatural?”
- Is the Natural world, without human intervention, more pure or true? In what ways should humans imitate Nature?
- Is Nature benevolent or malevolent or does it escape these kinds of categories? Is Nature, above all else, sublime—that is immensely powerful, able to destroy and infinitely more potent than humans? Is Nature weak and vulnerable to the machinations of humans and their technological inventions? Does Nature need to be protected from humans or do humans need to be protected from Nature?
- What are the orders of nature? Is Nature the creation of a Good, True, one God? Is a Deist God, who built the universe on rational inviolable principles and then stepped away, more likely? What are the nature and causality of Nature? Is Nature a tool of God to reward and punish humans?
- In what ways can Nature inspire creative art?