WHAT IS NATURE?

Part 1

Any assertion that this or that is, or is not, "right by nature" must remain void of meaning unless we know what nature is. In this matter we are not too well off. The texts we have consulted so far lead us to believe that Aristotle lived in a tradition going back beyond Plato and the tragedians to the older philosophers, and that he counted on being understood when speaking of nature.

The contexts in which this term is used indicate that "nature" refers to constant structures in the movement of being, comprising gods and men, organic and inorganic matter—in other words, to something like a constitution of being. That, however, is all that can be inferred. Where can we learn with a higher degree of accuracy what is meant by nature?

Whoever is looking for an answer to this question will first of all think of the philosophical dictionary in Metaphysics Delta, which offers precise definitions of nature and related concepts. This source, however, is a disappointment. It develops the concept of nature in its three meanings of (a) matter, (b) form or shape (eidos kai morphe), and (c) the unity of form and matter in a thing (Met. 1014b16-1015a5), by means of the experiential models of organism and artifact.

Now if, after reading the dictionary, anyone should feel pride in possessing exact metaphysical knowledge that animals and statues consist of form and matter, we do not want to spoil his fun; we must nevertheless ask ourselves: What can one do with this knowledge in the sphere of man and society, where the question is one of right order? When we recall the texts about what is "right by nature," we recognize immediately that the meanings of the term nature in that context do not fit the definitions of Metaphysics Delta.

And when Aristotle himself attempts to apply his schema of form and matter to society, he gets involved in insoluble difficulties: In Politics 3 he posits, faithful to his definitions, the constitution as form and the citizens as matter of the polis; he then concludes with incisive logic that every revolutionary change of the constitution must bring about a new polis not identical to the previous one (i.e., the thing compounded of form and matter in the sense of nature under c).

This brings up the problem that every time the democrats of Athens overthrow a tyrant, or the oligarchies oust the democrats from power, there arises a new Athens that has nothing in common with the old one except the name; Aristotle even realizes that, alas, politicians with a talent for metaphysics follow his idea or if not anticipate it when they refuse on the argument of a lack of continuity, to honor the public debts of the previous regime; finally, since he is, as much as we are, interested in the Athens that has maintained its identity throughout the changes of its constitutions, he can only leave the problem (aporia) unresolved.

Similar difficulties result from the attempt to apply the schema outlined in the Metaphysics to man by having the soul, as anima rationalis or intellectiva, function as form and the body as matter. At first glance it may appear as if this attempt would have better chances of succeeding; unlike society, which frequently changes its constitutional form, man has for the duration of his life only one form that informs him. (I assume that man has only one and not several souls—which is in keeping with the philosophers and the saints; this means I am bracketing both the ancient Egyptians who believed they have several souls as well as the modern psychologists who, showing remarkable toughness of spirit, assert that they have no soul whatsoever.)

But even if man has only one soul, and therefore is not caught in the specific impasse arising in the case of society from the change of its forms in the course of time, he is still faced with analogous difficulties. These have their origin in the mysterious life of its own that the soul leads, thanks to its special relationship to divine eternity. Since we are human beings living in time, we might not be able to survey this problem comprehensively; and yet what we know of it by experience might well make us wonder whether the term form adequately characterizes the metaphysical status of the soul. Let us take a look at the experiences of the philosophers and the saints.

The Soul as the Philosophers' Prison
or Saints' Joy

The Hellenic philosophers from Pythagoras to Plato have shared the saddening experience that the body is the prison, nay even the grave of the soul, and that we owe an offering of thanks to the god of healing when death liberates the soul from the sickness of temporal life. However the processes culminating in such experiences may unfold concretely, it is obvious that the soul may convey to man the desire that it would rather not be linked to the body. This kind of aloofness one would hardly expect of a form that is firmly impressed on its matter and rules it pervasively.

The kind of linkage that such occasions reveal points not so much to the soul as form, but instead to the body as endowed with a vexing solidity of form with which it embraces and holds fast the soul against her will. In order to interpret this curious relationship, the philosophers do not make any use of the form-matter pattern; on the contrary, they have recourse to myths of a prehistorical fall that had doomed the soul to the prison of the body for the duration of its temporal existence, or to the myths of the Last Judgment and metempsychosis, of the reincarnation of the soul and its ultimate release to true existence in eternity. When it is a matter of the soul's relationship to eternity, myths impose themselves as symbols that lend an adequate voice to the expression of the soul's fate.

The same image that expresses the philosphers' gloom is used by the saints to express their joy. The saint's soul, too, has its sights set on eternity, but if it, like the philosopher's soul, also disparages time, body, and world, in the reality envisioned by the Gospels there is nevertheless the certainty that everything will work out for the best for people of good will. And further, the changes effected in human nature by God's grace through Christ elicit a language that is appropriate to them and akin to myth.

St. Augustine and St. Thomas

We hear talk of changes, conversions, renewals, and rebirths, of a new creature, and of the great transformation that replaces with a new man the old one who has died. The shape, the morphe, is subject to metamorphosis, and the forma to the re-formatio. The rhetorical exuberance of Saint Augustine never tires of amassing ever-new linguistic terms expressing the experience of a being that is transformed, turning away from the temporal dimension and toward eternity: de forma in formam mutamur. . . de forma obscura in formam lucidam . . . a deformi forma in formam formosam [changing from form into form . . . from obscure form into lucid form . . . from a deformed form into a beautiful form] and, finally, de forma fidei in formam speciei [from the form of faith into the form of vision] (De Trinitate 15.8, 14).

The problem of symbolic expression becomes eminently clear in Thomas, as he subjects the relationship of soul and body strictly to the form-matter schema (Summa Theologiae 1.76.1) and thus finds himself compelled to a radically anti-mythical formulation when addressing the changes effected in the soul by grace (ST 1a-2ae, 110, a.2, resp. 3): The habitus of grace is not a mutation of the soul but a new creation; men are created anew out of nothingness— in novo esse constituuntur ex nihilo.

In the myth things can change, they can exchange forms, without losing their identity. In the strict language of Thomas, in which the truths of revelation are thought through in a metaphysical-rational manner, a thing cannot mutate, but a new thing must take the place of the old one, the new originating just like the old one, as a creatio ex nihilo; nor can the form mutate, as in Augustine, but the forma supernaturalis must rather be added to the forma naturalis.

A Preliminary Forumulation of "Nature"

Let us formulate the result of these preliminary reflections on the question of what is nature:

If we mean by nature the constants of the order of being, the nature of man and society obviously comprises much more than a complex determined by the form-matter schema. If, however, we pattern our concept of metaphysics on the classical model of Aristotle, a tradition valid to this day, then only the form and not the constants of movement can be conceived metaphysically as the nature of being.

Thus a broader philosophical concept of nature is brought face to face with a narrower metaphysical concept, or, stated more precisely, a comprehensive conception of what nature is has been narrowed down by the development of metaphysics.

This problem was both clear and acute for Aristotle, for he was a philosopher and not a systematizer, and he did not allow his own definitions to obstruct his view of reality. In the section on physei dikaion he speaks of a nature that is not form in the sense of the Metaphysics; in the same way, in Politics I, he deals with a nature of the polis that has no affinity with the form-matter problem of Book 3; when he actually employs his metaphysical definitions in Book 3 of the Politics, he allows the conflict between definition and reality to come to light and leaves it unresolved, unconcerned about possible charges of inconsistency.

Essentially this curious problem endures to this day. If one wishes to get to the root of the matter and, if possible, to solve it, one must answer the question that has obtruded itself in the course of our reflections:

Why in the history of Hellenic thinking did the comprehensive philosophical conception of nature become narrowed down to the metaphysical concept of form?

The Hellenic thinkers knew that their philosophizing about the nature of things (peri tes physeos) was one configuration among several others that may articulate the question of the ground of being. In his historical survey in Metaphysics Alpha, Aristotle reports that Thales of Miletus, having been the first among the Ionian philosophers to have raised the question of physis, answered it by declaring water to be the origin (arche) of all things; he goes on to assert that even before his time the poets had given the same answer in the guise of the myth of Okeanos and Tethys as the ancestors of all becoming (tes geneseos pateres); finally, using the term introduced by Plato, he calls the myth's older form a theologizing approach, in order to distinguish it from the younger one, termed philosophizing.

The Ionian Formulation of the Problem

There are thus at least two configurations of the question about the ground of being that we would distinguish in today's language as mythical and philosophical. Following Aristotle's suggestion, we shall first identify the features of the Ionian formulation of the question by comparing it with the cosmogonic myths of Egyptian provenance, which are its close kin.

In the numerous cult centers of Egypt, different gods were worshiped as the creators of the cosmos: In Heliopolis, it was Re or Atum, the energy of the sun; in Elephantine, Khnum, a god who creates all things on a potter's wheel; in Thebes, Amon, the hidden god of the wind; in Memphis, Ptah, the earth's energy. If we place the list of Egyptian gods side by side with the list of the elements, i.e., water, air, fire, and earth, which the Ionians took to be the arche, the two reveal similar attempts to find the origin of the cosmos in elemental forces.

The same type of speculation about the origin or beginning of being may proceed as well in the one as in the other of the symbolic media that Aristotle called "theologizing" and "philosophizing." The first of his variants, the cosmogonic speculation, employs the language of the myth that arose from the primary experience of the cosmos, including the gods who govern it. The second variant uses philosophical language that arises as the expression of an experience of which at this point we shall only say, following the implication of Aristotle's terminology, that the gods of polytheism are excluded from this experience.

Thus at the birth of philosophical inquiry there occurs a dissociation of a cosmos full-of-gods into a dedivinized order of things and the divine order whose relationship to the newly discovered character of the All is still unclear. The Hellenic thinkers named "being" that which revealed itself to their differentiating experience; ever since, being has been for philosophers the subject matter of all propositions about order and nature.

The thorny problems of formulating the constitution of being that were raised by the act of differentiation could not be mastered on the first try. The Ionian attempt to identify the nature of being by a material arche was no more than the beginning of a process of thought, which has not found closure to this day.

The Hellenic Development up to Aristotle

We shall briefly characterize its Hellenic development up to Aristotle, in terms of the three main complexes of problems. They have to do with (1) the connection of philosophy with the myth and its separation from it, (2) the relationship of the divine to being, and (3) the relationship of man and his cognition to being.

Under the first heading we note that the Ionic attempt depended upon the form of cosmogonic speculation; in doing so, it borrowed from it the form of the myth in the sense of a story or narration about events in the cosmos. Although the arche is for the Ionians no longer a member of the society of gods, its stance at the beginning is that of a god from whose impetus-giving hands issues a chain of events, passing all the way down to the being experienced in the here and now. The form of the mythic story imposes on the being of the Ionians the character of becoming, of a mythical genesis.

However, once the investigation of its independent structure is under way, since being is experienced not only as a flow but also reveals enduring and recurring forms that abide in the midst of its flux, the nature of being as becoming must necessarily be supplemented by its characterization as abiding and recurrent form. Experiences of this kind set off speculation about being as eternally immutable. When they are reinforced by the experience of transcendence, they can raise the character of a permanence of being to the level of the truth of being in the face of which "coming-into-being is extinguished" (Parmenides B 8, 21).

This truth, if not logically compelling but compelled by the force of the vision, indeed inclines philosophizing toward form as the true being. Since the original insight into the nature of being as a coming-to-be goes back to the primary experience of the cosmos and its expression in the myth, one can define metaphysics, inasmuch as it narrows the insight to the form-matter pattern, as the extreme anti-mythical form of philosophizing.

Under the second heading, when the order of being no longer includes the polytheistic gods, the relation of the divine to being is left in a certain indeterminacy that can still be sensed in the fragments of Anaximenes. On the one hand, this Ionian thinker says: "As our soul, being air, holds us together as a ruling principle, so do breath and air [pneuma] embrace the whole universe" (B 2); thus he seems also to posit an element as the nature that governs being and possibly even produces the gods (A 10); on the other hand, with characteristic vacillation, the tradition has him say that the air is god (A 10).

In retrospect, the hyletic [material] speculation of Anaximenes still runs very close to the Cosmological speculation of the Egyptian type; however, when we look ahead, there seems to loom the possibility of an unmythical god (for air is not one of the gods, but God) as the origin of being, which would relieve the elements of the responsibility of playing the role of arche. If we also consider the equation God-Air-Governor of Souls, we can sense already something of the experience of transcendence in which the soul stands before God, and with the experience of itself as the locus of the openness toward God in being, will also gain a new, philosophical relationship to the myth, exactly of the kind we find in Plato.

The state of suspension is broken only through the experiences of transcendence, especially those of Parmenides; only these experiences facilitate the recognition of the divine as the Beyond in relation to a world which in turn, through this insight, becomes immanent, i.e., this-side-of-God. Only after this separation is there no more need for the divine to release being mythically and genetically into its becoming; instead the divine can then move into a relation to the world as its transcendent-creative demiurge. Experience of being and experience of transcendence thus are closely linked with each other, insofar as the implications of the still-compact experience of being of the Ionian variety fully unfold through the experience of transcendence.

Only in the light of the experience of transcendence, do God, as well as the things of the world, gain that relative autonomy that makes it possible to bring them to the common denominator of being.


ANAMNESIS
CW Vol 6
Chapter 7, "WHAT IS NATURE?"
pp 157-163.




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