The earliest phase was characterized by a conception of the universe as extremely small and of the Earth as the only inhabited planet. The world, however, possessed, besides our physical plane, a number of other planes, also material but with a materiality of a different nature and possessing different properties than ours. None of the planes, including ours, were thought to evolve. They had been created once and for all and were inhabited by good and evil beings. Humans lay at the center of those beings’ interests and were, so to speak, their apple of discord. Humans were not conscious of Nature as something distinct from themselves and did not contrast themselves with it. Individual natural phenomena evoked, of course, one or another feeling-fear, pleasure, awe-but it seems that Nature was almost never perceived as a whole, or was perceived so in a purely aesthetic sense, and even then only by individuals who were highly gifted artistically. For that reason, one rarely finds among artistic works of those eras lyrical poetry about Nature, and even more rarely does one find landscape painting. In the main, the cultures of antiquity, as well as certain later cultures in the East, belong to that phase. As for religion, polytheism was typical of this first phase.
Typical of the second phase were the monotheistic systems, which either ignored Nature or else were hostile to it. The growth of individuality led to the conception that humans could grow spiritually. Nature, on the other hand, showed no signs of spiritual growth. It was stagnant and static; it was amoral and irrational; it was under the power of the demonic; and if the spirit itself was not to be vanquished, that part of a person’s being that was cosubstantial with Nature had to be vanquished by the spirit. This was the antinature phase. The Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu peoples all passed through it; Jewry (meaning believers in Judaism) still remains in it. The latter, however, like the Muslim peoples, did not so much declare war on Nature as simply snub it.
The Semitic attitude to nature has, generally speaking, been marked by a poverty of feeling. It has long been remarked how lacking the authors of the Bible and the Quran were in their feeling toward nature compared to those who wrote the great epics of ancient Greece and of India in particular. The Semites gave Nature what they considered its due, sanctioning procreation with the blessing of their religion, but in their religious philosophy and art they strove to ignore it, and with grave consequences.
They virtually banned sculpture and portraiture because they feared anthropolatry and abhorred the deification of nature. Along with other Semitic elements, this anti-nature mindset spread to Europe with Christianity, stamped out the nature cults of Germanic and Slavic paganism, and reigned there until the end of the Middle Ages.
But the East was also to pass through that phase, though those societies colored it in their own way. The asceticism of radical varieties of Hinduism, the struggle of Buddhism to liberate the human self from the power of Nature-all this is too well known to dwell on here. Thus, we can say that in the first phase people were almost never conscious of Nature as a whole, and only poeticized and deified individual natural phenomena, while in the second phase they viewed it as hostile and under the sway of the demonic.
The third phase is associated with the era of scientific supremacy and with the impoverishment of the world of religious feelings. Having inherited a hostile attitude toward nature from Christianity, people of the third phase freed it of its religious overtones. They did not undertake to overcome the elements of Nature in their own being. They established a strictly utilitarian view of Nature. Nature was, first of all, an object of rational (scientific) research; second, it was a mass of lifeless powers to be harnessed for human use. Our physical horizons expanded immeasurably, knowledge of the structure and laws of our plane reached dizzying heights; that is the value of the third phase.
But there is no point in speaking of natural scientists’ love of Nature. One can experience intellectual love only for products of the intellect: one can love with one’s mind an idea, a thought, a theory, or a scientific field. In such a manner one can love physiology, microbiology, even parasitology but not a lymph node, or bacteria, or a flea. Love of Nature can be of a physiological nature, of an aesthetic nature, and lastly, of a moral and religious nature. But one thing it cannot be is intellectual. If individual specialists in the natural sciences do love Nature, then that feeling has no relation whatsoever to their specialty or, more generally, to the scientific method of knowledge of Nature. Rather, it is a feeling of a physiological or aesthetic nature.
Civilized (or at least, Western) humanity attained the greatest degree of alienation from Nature not, as it might seem, in the twentieth century but in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. Never were fashions so artificial as in the age of the powdered wig. Never were sections of Nature neighboring humanity disfigured so rationally and unnaturally as in the age of the Park at Versailles. It is just as impossible to picture an aristocrat from the age of Louis XIV sunbathing or walking barefoot as it is to imagine a Spartan woman from the period of the Greco-Persian wars wearing a corset and high-heeled shoes. The ascetic attitude toward Nature that had become ingrained in Christianity was wholly responsible, but it was an attitude that in the course of development had replaced spiritual snobbery with the snobbery of civilized society and replaced religious pride with the pride of reason, experiencing nothing but amused contempt for anything that did not bear the stamp of rationality.
The philosophy of Rousseau marks the turning point. But another century and a half had to pass and the world had to enter the age of the metropolis in order for most of humanity to experience a longing for Nature. The Lake poets of England, Goethe and the Romantics in Germany, Pushkin and, especially, Lermontov in Russia loved Nature with a higher aesthetic, and for some, pantheistic love. The Barbizon school of painting emerged, and by the end of the nineteenth century aesthetic love had become firmly established in culture.
In the twentieth century bodily love came into its own as well Passive contemplation of Nature became insufficient; the need arose to experience it in a tactile, active manner, with one’s whole body and through the exercise of one’s muscles. The need was in part met by hiking and sports. Finally, in the first half of our century, the beach, with its physiological evaporation of people into a mixture of sunlight, warmth, water, and play, became an entrenched and lasting part of our everyday life. It is the same enjoyment of the beach that in the days of Ronsard and Watteau would have appeared to be the indecent eccentricities of lunatics and in the Middle Ages would have been equated with the witches’ sabbat on Bald Mountain or with a Black Mass. If one imagines Torquemada suddenly transported as a spectator to the beach in Osten or Yalta, then there can hardly be a doubt that into the mind of that guardian of human souls would pop the thought of promptly organizing an auto-da-fe for those thousands of brazen heretics.
Perhaps nothing so graphically illustrates the narrowing of the rift between humans and Nature during the last hundred years as the evolution of fashion. Overcoats and headwear, at one time the inseparable accompaniments of”cultured” people, even on summer middays, began to be used only when climate dictated. Fifty years ago it seemed improper to leave the house without gloves; now people use them only in cold weather. In place of suits and starched fronts, which our grandfathers roasted in for the sake of decorum even in ninety-degree heat, people began going to work in short-sleeve shirts with open collars. Feet that had been, cramped in fashionable boots were treated to the delight of slippers and sandals. Women were liberated from the nightmare of corsets. Dresses shortened at the legs and open at the neck became the fashion in summer, while long dresses survived only as evening wear. Boys whose great-grandfathers had at the same age paraded about wearing school blazers and a cap even in July now run about barefoot, with no top, kissed dark by the sun. People in large cities, separated from Nature as never before by such great distances and missing its warm embrace, have begun returning to it, as yet almost unconsciously, propelled by an instinctive bodily love, but carrying the seeds of a new, more mature relationship with Nature within the historical experience amassed in their hearts. That is the fourth phase.
Thus, there have been roughly four phases: the pagan, the ascetic, the scientific-utilitarian, and the instinctive-physiological.
By Daniil Andreev “The Rose of the World”. (1959)
(all images by me)