On a Parish Death Notice
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On a Parish Death Notice

1. Nature’s many lives

‘Nature’, in common usage, can mean a number of different things. Sometimes it refers to the external world, and more particularly to the earth’s surface, and more particularly still to that part of the earth’s surface made up of biomass. In the same general conceptual vicinity, we also find the notion of nature as environment, as the surrounding medium through which we move. At other times, ‘nature’ refers to the particular nature of a given being, or what is sometimes called ‘essence’—what it is to be a particular entity rather than another.

The first sense of ‘nature’ reflects the word’s etymology, which is rooted in the Latin verb nasci, ‘to be born’. Nature, in this understanding, is that which undergoes generation and growth (and generally also corruption or death). This connection between nature and birth is similarly reflected in the Slavic and many other Indo-European languages (in Russian, for example, nature is priroda, connected to the verb roditsia, ‘to be born’; in the Sanskrit prakṛti, by contrast, the verbal root has to do more with active creation than with generation). The concepts of generation and growth are also embedded, if less evidently, in the Greek term phusis, from which of course we get both ‘physical’ and what is sometimes held to lie beyond this, the ‘metaphysical’.

For Aristotle, phusis describes what is everywhere the same, in contrast to [End Page 35] human-based nomos or ‘custom’: thus he observes in the Nicomachean Ethics that in Persia as in Greece, fire burns the same.1 This burning is governed by nature rather than by culture, and therefore national boundaries have no bearing on it. Yet nature as the indifferent background to or support of human life is not prior, conceptually or temporally, to nature as essence. In fact, the first written occurrence of phusis, in Homer’s Odyssey, refers to the particular nature of a plant: here we read of Argeiphontes, who draws a plant from the ground and shows it to the narrator, revealing its unique phusis.2

How are these two primary meanings of ‘nature’ related? And what is the significance of their lexical overlap? For Aristotle, phusis was in different senses both the matter and form of a thing, that is, both the ‘physical’ stuff from which a thing is made, as well as the immaterial principle that makes that stuff into a particular thing. In the modern period, there would be little room for form, and we see attempts such as Descartes’ to account for all of nature as consisting entirely in the modifications of res extensa or extended stuff. Eventually, the notion of the ‘metaphysical’ would take on connotations very much like the ‘supernatural,’ which in the end is a Latin calque of the former Greek, even if the two terms have had very different and only partially overlapping histories. For many in the modern period, beginning roughly in the era of Descartes, we are left with nature or nothing at all (except in the very reduced domain of the human soul): there can be no principles above or outside of the natural world giving it shape or imbuing individual things with their particular natures, and nor can this ‘within’ be conceived as consisting in immaterial principles such as form or entelechy or soul.

Curiously, nature is also often held to be a first principle or a source, a behind-the-scenes operator that makes the scene what it is. In this role it can move between both form and matter: on the one hand, it is the essence, or the immaterial something that makes a bodily being the sort of being it is; on the other hand, nature is the formless generative stuff out of which forms arise. In this latter role, it is sometimes popularly envisioned as ‘Mother Nature,’ a personification that is not at all surprising when we bear in mind the etymology of the term. Nature so conceived is not just a source but also a ‘secret’: as Pierre Hadot has compellingly shown, the idea that ‘nature loves to...