Against Nature

I love not Man the less, but Nature more.
—Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, 1812

[Socrates surely was not the first philosopher. This means political philosophy was preceded by philosophy. Aristotle calls the first philosophers “those who discourse on nature;” he distinguishes them from those “who discourse on gods.” The primary theme of philosophy, then, is “nature.” What is nature? The first Greek whose work has come down to us, Homer himself, mentions “nature” only a single time; this first mention of “nature” gives us a most important hint as to what the Greek philosophers understood by “nature.” In the tenth book of the Odyssey, Odysseus tells of what befell him on the island of the sorceress-goddess Circe. Circe had transformed many of his comrades into swine and locked them in sties. On his way to Circe’s house to rescue his poor comrades, the god Hermes meets Odysseus and wishes to preserve him. He promises Odysseus an egregious herb, which will make him safe against Circe’s evil arts. Hermes “drew a herb from the earth and showed me its nature. Black at the root it was like milk its blossom; and the gods call it molly. Hard is it to dig for mortal men, but the gods can do everything.” Yet the gods’ ability to dig the herb with ease would be of no avail if they did not know the nature of the herb—its looks and its power—in the first place. The gods are thus omnipotent because they are, not indeed omniscient, but the knowers of the nature of the things—of natures, which they have not made. “Nature” means to hear the character of a thing, or a kind of thing, how a thing or a kind of thing looks and acts, and the thing, or the kind of thing, is taken not to have been made by gods or men. If we were entitled to take a poetic utterance literally, we could say that the first person we know who spoke of nature was the Wily Odysseus, who had seen the towns of many men and women and had thus come to know how much their thoughts differ from town to town or from tribe to tribe. It seems that the Greek word for nature (physis) means primarily “growth” and therefore also that into which a thing grows, the term of the growth, the character a thing has when its growth is completed when it can do what only the fully grown thing of the kind in question can do or do well. Things like shoes, chairs or artworks do not “grow” but are “made”: they are not by nature but “by art.” On the other hand, some things are “by nature” without having “grown”, even without having come into being in any way. They are said to be “by nature” because they had not been made and because they are the “first things” out of which or through which all other natural things have come into being. The atoms to which the philosopher Democritus traced everything are by nature in the last sense. Nature, however understood, is not known by nature. Nature had to be discovered. The Torah, for example, does not have a word for nature. The equivalent of “nature” is something like “way” or “custom.” Prior to the discovery of nature, humankind knew that each thing or kind of thing has its “way” or its “custom”—its form of “regular behaviour.” There is a way or custom of fire, of dogs, of madmen, of human beings: fire burns, dogs bark and wag their tails, madmen rave, human beings can speak and wage war. Yet, there are also ways or customs of the various human tribes (Egyptians, Persians, Spartans, Moabites, Amalekites). The radical difference between these two kinds of “ways” or “customs” came to the centre of attention by discovering nature. The discovery of nature led to the splitting up of “way” or “custom” into “nature” (physis) on the one hand and “convention” or “law” (nomos) on the other. For instance, human beings can speak naturally, but this particular tribe uses this particular language due to convention. The distinction implies that the natural is prior to the conventional—like ethic is prior to aesthetics. For it is a fact that the entire life of a human being is a struggle and every human being symbolically a combatant. The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing. War follows from enmity. War is the existential negation of the enemy. Mythic violence is the imposition of an economic and political power that has asserted itself over all human life and living species, projecting a form of authority out into the world that then becomes accepted as reality itself—as progress and free will. It is mythic because there is no true or ontological basis for its power; its right to rule is self-proclaimed and then naturalized so that it becomes seen as fated and inevitable—as in the case of liberalism and capitalism. It is violent because, without a genuine basis for its authority, mythic violence must endlessly strike out, killing and hurting over and over again to establish its power and even its reality. The question of purposiveness in nature isn’t just a theoretical question about how we must understand the world, if we are to get it right; it is also an eminently practical question about how we should treat our fellow creatures, what we owe them as fellow seekers of the good. Unlike the other animals, we do not just have a good but know that we have one. This obligates us to recognize one another as ends in ourselves, as opposed to mere means. But it also obligates us to recognize other species as ends as well, even though they are constitutively unable to recognize this themselves. The distinction between nature and convention is fundamental for classical political philosophy and even for most modern political philosophy, as seen most simply from the distinction between natural right and positive right. Once nature was discovered and understood primarily in contradiction to law or convention, it became possible and necessary to raise this question: Are political things natural, and if they are, to what extent? The very question implied that the laws are not natural. However, obedience to the laws was generally considered to be justice. Hence, one was compelled to wonder whether justice is merely conventional or whether there are things that are just. Are even the laws merely conventional, or do they have their roots in nature? Must the laws not be “according to nature”, and especially according to the nature of humankind, if they are to be good? The laws are the foundation or the work of the political community: is the political community by (human) nature? The gods do not approve of humans trying to seek out what they do not wish to reveal, especially the things in heaven and beneath the earth. One cannot understand the nature of humans if one does not understand the nature of human society. Socrates, it seems, took the primary meaning of “nature” more seriously than any of his predecessors: he realized that “nature” is primarily “form” or “idea.” If this is true, he did not simply turn away from the study of natural things—a kind of study in which, the nature or idea of justice, or natural right, and surely the nature of the human soul, is more important than, for example, the nature of the sun. In Plato’s Republic, we witness one of the strongest attacks on art ever written. In the Book X, Socrates argues that while a craftsman is a useful member of society building useful artefacts, an artist is just an imitator creating appearances of real objects. Plato described a society in which mimetic art is considered inferior to handcrafts, art, indeed, is something rather useless, and to that extent, the ideal society is the one led by a philosopher —and not by an artist. He thought of a system based on philosophical, not poetic, education. Artists, especially poets, are considered dangerous to Plato, because they have the potential to impress young people by repeating rather than by describing sonnets and plays, tempting them to imitate rather than to comprehend epic poems. Socrates even suggested the need to avid poetry books altogether, and one definitely could imagine Plato replacing Homer as a model of education for future generations. The way out of this situation is seen mostly in the abandoning of art altogether. Acknowledging power as the principle of all relations pays for the awakening of the self. Given the unity of this ratio, the divorcement between God and humankind dwindles to the degree of irrelevancy to which unswervable reason has drawn attention since even the earliest critique of Homer. In Homer, epic and myth, form and content, do not so much emerge from and contrast with, as expound and elucidate, one another. The aesthetic dualism attests the historico-philosophical tendency: Apollonian Homer merely continues that general human artistic process to which we owe individuation. The creative god and the systematic spirit are alike as rulers of nature. Humankind’s likeness to God consists in sovereignty over existence, in the countenance of the lord and master—and in command. What men want to learn from nature is how to use it wholly to dominate it—and other men, and other species. That is the only aim. Myth turns into illustrated thought and nature into mere objectivity, and consequently, ends up stripped of its essence by instrumentalized reason or art—the myth; artifices everywhere. Humankind pays for the increase of their power with alienation from that over which they exercise their power, knowing them in so far as it can manipulate them. Just as the fetishized object alienates the shaman in his trance and dialogue with the spirits, so is the commodity for the exploited, so as the sign for the freeman. The scientific knows things in so far as she can make them. The artist imitates nature in so far as he wants to control it—possessing and transforming its aura. In this way, their potentiality is turned to his own ends. In the metamorphosis, the nature of things, as a substratum of domination, is revealed as always the same—like shadows in the cave. This identity constitutes the unity of nature. It is a presupposition of the magical invocation as little as the unity of the subject. The shaman’s rites were directed to the wind, the rain, the serpent without, or the demon in the sick man, but not to materials or specimens. The categories by which Western philosophy defined its everlasting natural order marked the spots once occupied by Oncus and Persephone, Ariadne and Nereus. The pre-Socratic cosmologies preserve the moment of transition. The moist, the indivisible air and fire, which they hold to be the primal matter of nature, are already rationalizations of the myth mode of apprehension. Abstraction treats its objects as did fate, the notion of which it rejects: it liquidates them. The distance between subject and object, a presupposition of abstraction, is grounded in the distance from the thing itself, which the master achieved through the mastered. The dualization of nature as appearance and sequence, effort and power, which first makes possible both myth and science, originates in human fear, the expression of which becomes explanation. It is not the soul, which is transposed to nature, as psychologism would have it. Moving spirits are no projection, but the echo of the real supremacy of nature in the weak souls of primitive men. The separation of the animate and the inanimate, the occupation of certain places by demons and deities, first arises from this pre-animism, which contains the first lines of the separation of subject and object. When the tree is no longer approached merely as tree, but as evidence for an Other, as the location of an spirit, language expresses the contradiction that something is itself and at one and the same time something other than itself, identical and not identical. Humankind projects the intentional structure of cognition onto mechanical nature—and nature is no more than mere mechanism (quantum or Newtonian). The gods cannot take fear away from men, for they bear its petrified sound with them as they bear their names. Humankind imagines itself free from fear when there is no longer anything unknown. The adventures of Odysseus are all dangerous temptations removing the self from its logical course. He eludes death by outwitting the fatefulness of the mythical name in which the word commands the object, exploiting the distinction between sign and intention in the discovery that Udeis has multiple meanings. He is able to elude Polyphemus on the basis of a legalism. Yet this manoeuvre, while it prevails over myth, does not dissolve it. The immutable mythic word, a formula of unchanging nature, is replaced by a second formalism: From the formalism of mythic names and ordinances, which would rule men and history, as does nature, there emerges nominalism. The form of the nominalist term is as indifferent to its content as was the mythical word that ruled its content. The nominalist separation of form and content reappears in the idealist theory of language in which “concepts and with them words are abbreviations of a multiplicity of characteristics whose unity is constituted solely by consciousness. Like the heroes of all true novels later on and other masters of artifices, Odysseus loses himself in order to find himself; the estrangement from nature that he brings about is realized in the process of the abandonment to nature he contends with in each adventure; and, ironically, when he, inexorable, returns home, the inexorable force he commands itself triumphs as the judge and avenger of the legacy of the powers from which he escaped—the stars down to earth. At the Homeric level, the identity of the self is so much a function of the unidentical, of dissociated, unarticulated myths, that it must derive itself from those myths. The self—Odysseus—develops in this voyage by becoming like what it masters at the same time that it dissolves its affinity to its object. When blinded, Polyphemus demands the name of his attacker, and the cunning Odysseus replies “Udeis,” discovering a pun on his own name meaning “nobody.” This is the name that the furious titan then helplessly bellows in calling his brothers to his assistance: “Nobody” has hurt him, he cries, and his brothers mockingly fail him in his plight. Odysseus made this punning discovery in fright, becoming “nobody” as a model of Polyphemus’ undifferentiated chthonic nature. As elsewhere in the episode with the titan, Odysseus asserts himself through self-sacrifice. He takes Polyphemus’ side against himself, at one point offering him wine to better enjoy a slaughter that would have eventually included Odysseus himself: “Take Cyclops and drink. Wine goes well with human flesh.” Odysseus exploits this self-sacrificial regression to find the opportunity to blind the Cyclops and escape. By making himself like Polyphemus, in answering to his needs, he gains power over him, destroys first nature, and differentiates himself from what would overwhelm him. Yet this differentiation is apocryphal. Odysseus emerges from the struggle a self-identical, invariable, force of nature as the power of self-preservation, a second immanence, that does to itself and first nature, by self-control, what it once feared from first nature: it destroys particularity. He has become “nobody.” The historical voyage itself has become a natural event. External mimicry of the natural force of the Cyclops becomes internal self-identical mimesis, ultimately the order of the ratio, which is itself a structure of the self- sacrifice of particularity to universality. Thus, in its conscious control of nature, the self has triumphed by becoming opaque to its self- reproduction as second nature. Artifice is the means by which the adventurer self loses itself in order to preserve itself. The seafarer Odysseus cheats the natural deities, as does the civilized traveller, the ethnographer or artist—the so-called cosmopolite—who offers them colored glass beads in exchange for ivory and marble. Only occasionally, of course, does he actually feature as a barterer when gifts are exchanged, and in the process, it naturalizes, objectifies and mystify all over again. Without shelter, nature remains at the mercy of adventurers of jargon with their neologisms and other techniques of illusion and linguistic manipulation, prestidigitation and domination. Siren calls, the myth, natural history perpetuating itself; not anymore: the truth emerges in evanescent flashes.]