Yesterday a powerful storm rolled over the Washington area, with some of the worst of it pounding Northern Virginia, where I live. Lightning flashed for hours on end, thunder boomed like carpet-bombing, and the rain came down in buckets, flooding the Potomac and the creeks that feed into it. Amazingly, nobody was hurt, but a number of people had to be rescued from cars swept into swollen streams, and a couple of neighborhoods were evacuated. It was, they say, a 30-year storm, worst in a generation.
At 9:15 pm, the power went out in my house. I spent the rest of the evening brooding by candlelight and lightning-bolt, listening to the crash of rain on the windows. The dog hid under the basement sink. My daughter worried about sleeping in the stormy darkness. And me? I had the irrational thought that nature was putting us in our place. I felt small.
What we call nature, the physical world, is in fact two things: the set of all objects and relations, which includes us, and our symbolic understanding of this set, which includes knowledge but also powerfully emotive judgments on that knowledge. If the fullness of the universe is known to any, it is only to the mind of God. To be human is to grasp the world partially, from a special perspective, and with strong feelings about our place in the scheme of things.
For this reason, morality has invariably appealed to nature. In the minds of moralists, the order of nature is more than an irrefutable argument: it’s the mirror of perfection, on which our lives must be reflected and against which our behavior must be judged.
The connection works most persuasively in the context of religion. Even a bloodthirsty faith — say, that of the Aztecs — elaborated a chain of causation whereby the gods create both the natural order and the human race, and command all proper relations and behaviors for things and men alike. An Aztec lived in a harsh but comprehensible moral universe.
Christianity follows the same principle, to a more benign purpose. God created heaven and earth, made Adam from clay and Eve from Adam’s rib, and taught their descendants the law of right living. Cosmic forces and human actions were of one piece: morality attached to the earthquake and the lightning-bolt no less than to the good mother or the murderer. While theologians have always given primacy of place to revelation, there has always been room in Christian thought for nature, which reflected, however palely, the power and the glory of God. The argument by design was long a favorite, and to this day the notion of intelligent design seeks to bridge the gulf between God, nature, and us.
Moral philosophers were no less fond of appealing to nature to justify their beliefs. The Athenians in particular opposed “natural” to “conventional” and considered the opposition identical to that between truth and falsehood. But what did “natural” mean? Deriving the concept from reason, without access to tradition or revealed texts, left the question wide open.
Diogenes the Cynic naively imitated animals. The Stoics equated nature with reason. The Epicureans insisted on pleasure as the object of a natural life. Others, who appear unfavorably in the works of Thucydides and Plato, saw nature as the rule of the strongest, and convention as a conspiracy of the weak to defang their betters. One would think such confusion would become its own refutation: not so. Each of these ancient Greek ideas has a living heir.
Like Diogenes, radical environmentalists today uphold the moral superiority of animals (a faint trace of this can be found in the desire, by the ruling Socialist Party of Spain, to grant human rights to apes). Like the Stoics, supranational bureaucracies like the UN and the EU have insisted on the natural force of various abstract principles, such as the “right to work.” Pleasure-seeking on a self-righteous platform — complete with condemnations of repression and Puritanism — can be found everywhere among the articulate classes, though I would make Europe the poster child. Similarly, the theoretical glorification of power is the great theme of postmodern academics.
The only agreement among these strands of moral philosophy, ancient and modern, is a loathing for tradition and convention: for society as it is, particularly with respect to property and money.
From Diogenes to Al Gore, the doctrines may vary but the contempt for ordinary people — for their stupidity and greed — remains a constant. To worship nature is to hate history, and advocate its overthrow. Because these are moral judgments, rooted in the deepest emotions, nature itself, like the Homeric gods, appears to join the struggle against conventional society, nature becomes the judge, the executioner, the bringer of doom.
Once again, but in a nonreligious context, morality attaches to the hurricane and the lightning-bolt, no less than to the polluter and the exploiter. We are justly punished for our secular sins.
And that brings us back to my storm in Northern Virginia, and the feelings of personal insignificance it inspired. Why did I feel that way? More importantly, what is the proper relation between nature and human behavior?
I felt small in the storm because, compared to the vastness of the world, I am. Technology and society sustain me and enhance my power to act; but let the lights go out, and the thunder rattle my window, and true proportion is perceived.
I do not believe we can base morality on nature, because nature, to human beings, is invariably humanized. Knowledge of the world is always mixed with desire. For survival, that is as it should be. For questions about good and evil, appeals to nature tend to circle back to our moral assumptions, which we impose on our conception of the natural order.
The size of the universe is too vast, in any case, and its life-cycle too bafflingly long. The scale is monstrous, inhuman. That is what I sensed in the storm. Human life, with its rights and wrongs, in a way has no choice but to rely on revelation, if only that of history and community. Conventions and traditions are the rituals of revealed history, by which I mean, of a self-conscious community acting over time in the world. They are all we have, if we don’t wish to bring religious disputes into the argument.
Every Diogenes, every Rousseau, every Thoreau, every Al Gore who heaps contempt on convention and tradition, threatens to strip us naked of our humanity. Because what remains isn’t nature, or order of any sort, but rather chaos and brute force.