Sunday, August 19, 2012

Back to Nature

"I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious to my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but the kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may also do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care." - Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, p. 82

In response to an earlier posting on ecological humility, Tommi Ushanov noted Huxley's critique of Wordsworthian adoration of nature. I am now writing a shorter paper for a book (edited by my colleague Mike Austin) on "applied virtue ethics," in which I start with Huxley vs. Wordsworth. I also plan to use the passage above by Murdoch.

So, one in a Huxleyan frame of mind might wonder whether we can only give attention to nature in the way Murdoch describes once nature has been tamed and made safe. (If we are in the "tropics" and a hungry tiger spots us, we will no doubt give attention to the tiger, but we will also care not to become the tiger's dinner.) Huxley:
The inhabitants of the tropics have no such comforting reasons for adoring the sinister forces which hem them in on every side….Rivers imply wading, swimming, alligators. Plains mean swamps, forests, fevers. Mountains are either dangerous or impassable. To travel is to hack one’s way laboriously through a tangled, prickly, and venomous darkness.
True. But then it can't all be bad either, otherwise we wouldn't be here. (Huxley acknowledges that.) Provisionally, it seems one could argue that even the "hostile and sinister" in nature can humble, precisely because of its otherness (or, if you like the word, it's alterity). Such aspects of nature force us confront the fact that the natural world does not--naturally, as it were--revolve around us, and challenges the self-serving idea that nature was created for us (or, challenges a self-serving way of interpreting that idea as meaning that nature is just a stock of resources for human use; what then of all the animals that Job cannot control?).

Of course, the moment you've been spotted by a hungry tiger is not the moment to wax philosophical. Unless that tiger has been hanging out with Jeff McMahan.

No comments:

Post a Comment