Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Nature as Secularization

To make practical reason substantive implies that practical wisdom is a matter of seeing an order which in some sense is in nature. –Charles Taylor

Yet nature is made better by no mean / But nature makes that mean: so, over that art / Which you say adds to nature, is an art / That nature makes.
(The Winter’s Tale, Act 4, Scene IV)

This passage from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale typifies a neostoic attitude present in early modern England. Neostoic notions of free will, necessity, constancy, moderation and self-preservation flourished as interlocutors of nature’s mystique.

The appropriation of classical Stoic texts was widespread throughout England at a time when political turmoil, religious anxieties, and the rise of commercial society acted to disembed individual identity from local and confessional allegiances. Salvaging the emergent disembedded individual from myopia was the idea of nature. The concept of nature provided a psychotherapeutic horizon for the regeneration of government and individual self-fashioning. The meaning of nature was two-fold, consisting of liberty (free-will) and necessity (God’s will). Ultimately, liberty was encapsulated within necessity. In other words, nature provided the means for the exercise of liberty. Therefore, as quoted from The Winter’s Tale, the art of ‘adding to nature’ was provided by nature.

Specifically, with the rise of a disembedded market, the bonds of reciprocity were being reconceived in a language of nature. Confessional language was without the proper authority and rhetorical coherence to persuade and discipline the disembedded self according to creeds of Christian love. Discourses of Christian love had become ornamental and flaccid, in part, owing to propaganda produced in confessional disputes over conscience. As Christian discourses became increasingly censured for shades of opportunism, ‘nature’ provided a new pan-confessional muse for preserving conscience and acted as a scaffold for the construction of national and commercial culture.

As a delocalized national and commercial culture developed a new civic persona emerged, which was indebted to stoic values of self-mastery, as the triumph of reason over the passions. Specifically, the passions become associated with absolute egoism, while one’s use of reason directed one to a lesser or relative egoism that ultimately realized the necessity of public order. The association of stoicism with a more utilitarian self-interest, marked by a sociable egoism largely owed to Seneca. As Seneca writes, “Man is a sociable creature, and is made for the common good of others…men of the best judgment do think that that which concerneth the common wealth is of greater importance than that which toucheth their own particular.” In this way, reason became defined as thinking beyond ones “irrational” desires and instead internalizing the “reasonable” expectations of the social body. This process was facilitated by print culture, which effectively legitimated one’s delocalized experience. As historian Adrian Johns notes, it was “the role of print in transcending place and rendering natural knowledge universal.”

In summation, natural knowledge upheld a notion of universal individual shared self-interests that facilitated a detachment from localized ‘passions.’ In this way outward engagement offset the individual’s emergent detachment from the local.


Blogger Nathan said...

Here are some thoughts of mine about the religiosity of nature, though in an American rather than British context... The process that became nature romanticism seems a little different here, spurred not by oversaturated religion but by its absence, or at least its thinness. In the government-sanctioned wilderness, I found myself, as a Catholic (correctly or not) feeling freed from the theological obligation to attend Mass: either because I was in Mass at every moment there or I was in a time before Mass was necessary, or in so Edenic a state that the lapse Mass is meant to answer had itself been lapsed.

9:42 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

A direct version of the link mentioned in my previous comment.

9:43 PM  

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