The Beginning and End of Nature

When people talk about the end of nature, what exactly is this nature that has ended? It’s not like the whole universe imploded. Earth is still spinning. Nature isn’t the universe, and it’s not a planet. It’s nature. Nature is an idea, a word, a symbol, which is not to say that it is merely those things. Nature is also whatever reality people were referring to when they used the idea, word, or symbol of “nature.” That reality sufficiently degraded so as to indicate to many people that it has ended. There are still organisms, ecosystems, lakes, rivers, atmospheric conditions, roots, fruits, and all kinds of things, so what ended? What is the reality to which ideas of nature were pointing or in which symbols of nature were participating? An answer can be found by returning to the beginning, to the earliest appearances of the idea of nature.

Everybody seems to rely on the notions that they learned from previous generations. If you dig up the roots of nature, you find that the English word doesn’t stray far from it’s Latin roots in natura, which has something to do with that which is born (natus). Accounts of natura in Latin have roots in ancient Greek thinking, where the natural is the physical, phusis (or physis, as older transliterations have it). Aristotle’s Physics is one of the most formative accounts of nature in the history of philosophy and science, but Aristotle and his philosophical friends did not invent the idea. They inherited it from the narratives of their tradition. When scholars look for the earliest use of phusis in Greek, they find it in Homer’s Odyssey, specifically in book 10, when Hermes shows Odysseus the nature of a plant in order to ward off the enchantments of Circe. Here is the passage:

He [Hermes] took me [Odysseus] by the hand and spoke to me and named me, saying:
“Where are you going, unhappy man, all alone through the hilltops,
ignorant of the land-lay, and your friends are here in Circe’s
place, in the shape of pigs and holed up in the close of pig pens.
Do you come here meaning to set them free? I do not think
you will get back yourself, but must stay here with the others.
But see, I will find you a way out of your troubles, and save you.
Here, this is a good medicine [pharmakon], take it, and go into Circe’s
house; it will give you power against the day of trouble.
And I will tell you all the malevolent guiles of Circe.
She will make you a potion, and put drugs [pharmaka] in the food, but she will not
even be able to enchant you, for this good medicine [pharmakon]
which I give you now will prevent her. I will tell you the details
of what to do. As soon as Circe with her long wand strikes you,
then drawing from beside your thigh your sharp sword, rush
forward against Circe, as if you were raging to kill her,
and she will be afraid, and invite you to go to bed with her.
Do not then resist and refuse the bed of the goddess [theos],
for so she will set free your companions, and care for you also;
but bid her swear the great oath of the blessed gods, that she
has no other evil hurt that she is devising against you,
so she will not make you weak and unmanned, once you are naked.”

So spoke Argeiphontes [Hermes, slayer of Argos], and he gave me the medicine [pharmakon], which he picked out of the ground, and he explained the nature [phusis] of it to me. It was black [melas] at the root, but with a milky [galaktos] flower. The gods call it moly. It is hard for mortal men to dig it up, but the gods have power to do all things.

Homer, Odyssey 10.280-306 [trans. R. Lattimore (Harper, 1965), p. 159f]

This is Homer’s only use of the word phusis. It is its first recorded instance. Seth Benardete’s The Bow and the Lyre: A Platonic reading of the Odyssey [(Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), p. 86] includes a summary of this passage, indicating the central role that knowledge of nature (phusis) plays therein.

What Hermes does with the moly is to show Odysseus it’s nature […] If the decisive action is the showing forth of its nature and not the revelation of its divine name, as if it were a magical charm, then the moly itself is irrelevant. What is important is that it has a nature, and the gods’ power arises from the knowledge of its nature and of all other things. To dig up the moly is to expose to the light its flower and its root; they belong together regardless of the contrariety in their colors. It is this exposure and understanding of the nature of things that is difficult but not impossible for men. Odysseus, then, would be armed with knowledge. This knowledge saves him from Circe’s enchantment. Her enchantment consists of transforming man into a pig, with its head, voice, bristles, and build, but the mind (noos) remains as it was before. His knowledge, then, is the knowledge that the mind of man belongs together with his build. They are together as much as the root and flower in the moly. There cannot be a change in the one without a corresponding change in the other. Menalaus’ encounter with constant becoming, in which there are no natures, must have been an illusion. “There is in your breast,” Circe tells Odysseus, “a mind that does not admit of enchantment” (10.329).

Nature had something to do with the way that things are, the pattern or composition or being of things. It was something knowable, something that could show forth and be exposed in the light of day. This is indicative of what Heidegger described as the determination of being as presence, also called the metaphysics of presence, for which the existence of something is its nature, and nature is determined in light of a capacity to show forth and be known.

Of vital importance for Odysseus and his crew, knowledge of nature is useful for warding off enchantment, not being susceptible to the goddess and her charms. Knowledge of nature marks an anxiety about a kind of susceptibility, warding off a radical passivity that threatens to turn humans into nonhumans (Circe’s pigs). The enchanted worlds found in Greek myths and in axial age religions are all oriented, to some extent, toward some kind of transcendence, moving above and beyond the conditions of animals and closer to the condition of gods, those immortals for whom knowledge of nature is easy. This means that nature, with its implicit metaphysics of presence, is anthropocentric. Furthermore, it means that it wards off a kind of enchantment, a kind of spiritual vibe associated with proximity to nonhumans. It wards of animism. Even the most radical panpsychism or nature-loving pantheism of the ancient world still involves an erasure of animism, in other words, it involves a primordial warding off of susceptibility to nonhumans (including nonhuman others and the nonhuman ground of the being which calls itself “human”).

In Homer’s Odyssey, knowledge of nature is pharmacological. More specifically, it is knowledge of a good medicine (pharmakon) that is supposed to ward off the evil drug (pharmakon) of Circe. The word pharmakon is inherently ambiguous, meaning both medicine and poison. As Benardete points out, the good medicine provided by Hermes has more to do with the knowledge of a plant’s nature than with the plant itself. Knowledge of nature is knowledge that resolves that poison/cure ambiguity, distinguishing good medicine from enchanting drugs.

For Homer, the ambiguity of the pharmakon is a difference between surviving and turning into a pig and dying, so “good medicine” has more to do with ambiguities of life/death, human/nonhuman, and medicine/poison than with the moral ambiguity of good/bad. But it was not long after Homer before the moral tones of nature came into play, explicating the ethical aspect of the metaphysics of presence, which involves an inflexible and narrow boundary between good and bad, or more absolutely, between good and evil. Around the fifth century BCE, within a couple centuries after Homer, Greek writings start to express a sense of the natural as morally good, in contrast to human convention (nomos), which often goes awry [cf. Michael M. Bell, City of the Good: nature, Religion, and the Ancient Search for What is Right (Princeton University Press, 2018), p. 49].

“Nature” was never a neutral word or symbol. It referred to a certain field of being, a field of an agrarian society in the Holocene, a very particular field enclosing the way things are. Nature is existence according to the metaphysics of presence. It is existence from the standpoint of anthropocentrism or human narcissism. It is what existence looks like if you ward off the strange enchantments of animism and ambiguity. Nature ended. It’s impossible to keep up the metaphysics of presence with a straight face anymore. This is not to say that there isn’t some “way things are.” There is still the way things are, but the ambiguity and unknowability of those things is not so easily suppressed anymore. The narrow, inflexible boundaries between natural/artificial, human/nonhuman, life/death, toxicity/therapy, and good/bad have become undone.

The nature of things is no longer so easily discernible. The ambiguities of existence are not so easily purified. Inhuman enchantments are not so easy to resist. It is no longer Circe’s drugs that are threatening to render humans susceptible to charms, taking away their humanity, and killing them. This time, the call is coming from inside the house. It is humans doing it to themselves, through global capitalism and global warming, technoscientific innovations and ecological crises. In short, it’s the Anthropocene.

Humans, who are themselves part of the way things are (i.e., part of nature), posited a nature that humans could know, a nature that humans could use in order to make progress in attaining knowledge, health, and goodness. Then, by making progress, humans put an end to nature, thus putting an end to their capacity to continue mastering nature and making progress. To let go of nature is to reconnect to the way things are, a more primordial nature before nature. To let go of nature is thus to let go of mastery and let go of progress.

Getting past progress is real progress. This is a point we hear from Theodor Adorno’s essay, “Progress” [The Philosophical Forum 15.1–2 (Fall–Winter 1983–1984), 55–70].

Progress means: humanity emerges from its spellbound state no longer under the spell of progress as well, itself nature, by becoming aware of its own indigenousness to nature and by halting the mastery over nature through which nature continues its mastery. In this respect it could be said that progress only comes about at the point when it comes to an end. (p. 61)

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