Philosophies of Nature


One of the tragedies of modernity is that not only has Christian culture been displaced, but even the very vocabulary of our Christian heritage has been jettisoned or redefined. A classic example is the concept of "free will", which in Catholic Tradition means man's capacity to act of his own volition without internal coercion. In the mind of the modern post-Christian, however, free will usually is the belief that human beings are morally free to engage in any behavior they wish, so long as they are "following their heart". Thus, all sorts of behaviors seen as sins in Catholic Tradition become expressions of man's "free will" in the secularist's view. The traditional term is redefined to mean something completely different from the classical understanding. In this essay, we will examine what nature means in the Catholic Tradition and how contemporary society has utterly redefined what it means to "act in accord with nature."

What is Nature?

A similar fate has befallen the terms 'nature' and 'natural.' This is of no mere academic interest, for what is or is not "natural", and what that implies, is extremely pertinent in the moral debates of our day. For example, when two homosexuals attempting to contract marriage suggest that their love is "natural", what does this mean, and how is a Catholic to respond? Or when evolutionary-sociologists say that man is not monogamous "by nature", how is his usage of the term "nature" different than the Catholic usage? These distinctions are important in the moral and cultural controversies of our age.

There have been many different definitions of nature, each nuanced depending on whether one consults the Eastern or Western Fathers, the pagan Roman moralists or the Greek philosophers. But setting aside these various regional distinctions, a generally agreed upon definition would be that nature is that which causes a thing to be what it is. Understood such, it is an ontological-metaphysical concept, not a scientific one; you cannot isolate "nature" under a microscope. Nature is an organizing principle that gives a particular form to a being. In Aristotelean terms, nature is related to form. The world is made up of an undifferentiated mass of matter; it is the form which gives organization and cohesion to matter, making it this particular being and not something other. As such, it is innate in things - something they are born with. Hence the word, nature, derived from the Latin nasci and natus, to be born).

However, though nature is something innate in us, we must not confuse it with the mass of appetites and instincts that come with any creature. Our working definition of nature is that which causes a thing to be what it is. In Scholastic terminology, this is sometimes called the substance or essence of a thing. So when looking at human nature, for example, we are not simply asking "What characteristics are humans born with?", but "What characteristics are part of the essence of humanity? What is the unique characteristic feature of human beings that differentiates them from other creatures?" Therefore, while human beings are born with the need for sleep, this is not, properly speaking, the essence of being human, simply because humans share sleep in common with all other animals. If we are looking for a definition of human nature, we must look at that which makes us what we are; i.e., what is distinctively human?

In the classical tradition, what sets humans apart from other animals is the rational intellect. Hence the classical definition of man as a "rational animal." Man possesses many other faculties in common with the other animals - mobility, reproduction, communication, sexual desire, etc. - but his reason is unique to him. Therefore, the most appropriate characteristic of human nature is the possession and use of reason. This is why Aristotle and the Thomists said that the soul is the form of the body; it is because of the rational soul that a human being is human; in other words, that he is what he is.

To Act in Accord with Nature

From a moral perspective then, what does it mean to 'act in accord with nature'? In the traditional view, acting in accord with nature means exercising right reason in our moral conduct and our intellectual pursuits. This is what virtue consists of - acting in accord with right reason habitually. Thus, for the Catholic, to act in accord with nature means to pursue virtue.

Contrast this with the modern concept of 'nature.' The modern definition retains the classical concept of nature as that which is innate, but fails to see it as formative. In other words, 'human nature' becomes simply what human beings do "on their own" without reference to what makes people distinctly human. The search for a uniquely characteristic feature of humanity is lost. If this is the case, then it follows that any action that comes "naturally" to a person is in accordance with "nature". Thus, for the modern, to "act in accord with nature" means to do what comes naturally.

If this is accepted, a whole slew of vices suddenly become "natural" acts. Men naturally experiences intense movement of the sexual appetites, and since it is "natural" to gratify these, the fulfillment of sexual desire, even in homosexual acts, becomes "natural"; romantic love between members of the same sex becomes natural. It becomes natural for a man to lust after multiple women, and in fact unnatural to assume man can be content with one wife, since monogamy requires moral restraint. Gluttony, greed, drunkenness - anything that can be justified as arising from a "natural" urge becomes morally licit. And in such a climate, we cannot speak of absolute rights and wrongs in moral acts, because the final criterion of what is right and natural is whether or not we are "following our heart."

Contrast this with the classical view. In the classical Catholic view, to act in accord with nature means to act by virtue of that characteristic which is uniquely human: reason. This often means that acting in accord with nature may be difficult, because we have to overcome our lower passions to act in accord with reason. In the contemporary view, to act in accord with nature is to do what comes naturally or easily. Rather than overcoming our lower appetites, we are encouraged to hand ourselves over to them, satisfy them, and even identify ourselves by them. In the contemporary view, it is easy to do what is natural, because "nature" is simply the mass of undifferentiated passions, instincts, and appetites possessed by every man and animal in common. 

It is important to bear this distinction in mind, especially when we are discussing the great moral questions of our day with people who hold to this severely reductionist view of nature. If we fail to understand how the concept of nature has been twisted, we lose the debate before it begins, because we are arguing with terms provided to us by a morally bankrupt modernity.

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