The Third Error Continued: Loving Nature and Knowing Why

From the Bring Back Reason series.

On education without nature

But what does this have to do with education and empirical science? The answer is that it has quite a bit to do with how empirical science is typically taught today. Part of this should be clear already from the last section on how learning empirical science can make it more difficult for someone to see something as a unified substantial whole. In a similar way, a strong focus on the component parts of a thing, to the extent that this focus obscures the whole – which must be seen as more than the sum of its parts – obscures the possibility of a thing having a particular nature. Only something with substantial existence can have a particular nature. It is only when we acknowledge that there is actually a thing there that we can consider the thing as a something of a particular kind. And so if our understanding of the objective world, of “nature,” is basically that it is a Heraclitian cosmic soup of various modular units and nothing more, then it is impossible to assert that anything in the world actually has a particular nature. After all, if there is no objective basis for it being considered “some thing” in the first place it cannot be accurately thought of as something with a particular nature.

And so it is not an accident that David Hume came after Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes. The strains in modern philosophy that deny that things have natures, or that the nature of reality is in any way normative even if it can be known (no “ought” from what “is”), did not develop in a vacuum. When the objective world came to be considered as passive modular construction units arranged for functionality, human values were removed into the subjective sphere, the realm of the human subject as one who thinks, feels, and develops culture.

Now while no one in his or her right mind would want to live in the dystopian worlds of Orwell or Huxley, the idea of not being confined by nature is nonetheless an attractive one. Nature can be a hard master. It is not easy to till the soil and earn a living by the sweat of one’s brow. No one wants to put an end to the work of curing disease and relieving suffering. The Baconian project of mastering nature so as to develop technological solutions to relieve human suffering is good as far as it goes. And a classical understanding of nature may have moral implications that some people do not like. It may be great to be able to see the natural world as a source of human values, as some see a return to nature as a healing balm for disconnected modern urban lifestyles. But once we start taking the natural order seriously again we may have to think about other unnatural practices, including some relating to aspects of our personhood that we deem to be fundamental.

How to “Crescite”: on loving the natural world that we master

Do we have to give up all dominion over nature to avoid ending up in a dystopian world? Can we have a type of dominion that does not disregard the reality that is before us but rather tries to respect, and perhaps even perfect it? The answer to this question hinges on our ability to recover a more open-minded outlook, an outlook that reintegrates looking at what something is in itself with how this thing can be useful to us. Our focus should not be only on how a thing can be manipulated for particular functions. We need to first see the real world as it presents itself to us. This seeing must include a fundamental attitude of respecting what is there, respecting the unique subjectivity of each created thing. Our first gaze should be one that apprehends the nature of the thing and contemplates its position in the entire natural world. Then without putting aside this perspective, we can also apply our minds to understanding how to use that which it is legitimate to use. Our reason is a great power that allows us to gain control over the natural world. But this control exercised through putting natural things to artificial uses needs to always remain cognizant of the natural thing itself, and the overall order that it is possible to damage by imprudent meddling.

While on the one hand this is an obvious point – it is foolish to develop land without studying the environmental impact of the development, for example – there is a deeper danger that we risk falling into if one does not recover that ability to see the natural world for what it is before analyzing what it can be for me. The human heart has been made for nothing less than the possession of God Himself. All other good things can only provide a limited and temporary fulfillment of the desires of the human heart. Thus the proper relationship of the human heart to the things of this world necessarily includes a habit of detachment. It is true that we need to love the things of this world; we do not want a cold detachment that fails to see the goodness and beauty in creation. The challenge is to recognize the goodness of created things without setting our hearts on possessing these things as a resting place for the heart. Thus the proper use of the things of this world must include an element of respecting their unique subjective goodness, a goodness that is independent from the person who sees it and points ultimately toward the greatest good to which the human heart longs, God Himself.

This attitude is perhaps best exemplified in the figure of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis has a great respect and love for all the creatures of nature, calling them affectionately by such names as “brother sun” or “sister moon and the stars”, precisely because he lived such an austere life of mortification and penance. In all the creatures of this earth he saw reason to praise God, beginning verses of his Canticle of the Sun with the same words Pope Francis chose as the start of his encyclical on the environment: “Laudato Si.” Those who have overlooked the great penance of St. Francis, as if he was able to see the great goodness of creation simply by following some keen and perhaps even “artistic” insight, are misunderstanding the saint. Only a heart that is set on appreciating all limited goods as pointing toward the greatest good, God, the One who made each human heart for nothing less than Himself, only such a heart can be truly happy with the things of this world. The truth is that all the things of this world are ultimately as nothing before God. A heart is cheapened by adhering to something here below as if it could provide its ultimate satisfaction. In a paradoxical way, only a heart detached from taking ownership in a possessive sense of the good things in this world is able to really see their goodness. And, as St. Francis’s life shows, it is the mortified person who is truly the happiest, since his detachment is a necessary condition that enables him to see the goodness of each thing, contemplating its nature and its overall place in God’s creation.

Michael Moynihan

About the author:

Michael Moynihan

A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan earned B.A. degrees in history and science pre-professional studies with a concentration in the Honors Program from the University of Notre Dame. He graduated Summa Cum Laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America, he joined the faculty of The Heights School in 1995. He has taught chemistry, Advanced Placement chemistry, eighth grade science, ethics, math and religion, has coached The Heights’ cross-country team and founded The Heights Mountaineers program. Michael was named Head of the Upper School in 2002. He and his wife, Angela, have eleven children, with four sons here at the School.

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