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  • Seneca and Nature
  • Thomas G. Rosenmeyer

Ralph Waldo Emerson addresses nature in two of his works: an 1836 booklet which is a ponderous religious tract1 and an elegant and sophisticated essay, one of the second series of essays published in 1844.2 His first words, "On a beautiful October day," furnish the clue for how he starts: he begins by talking of nature as if it were synonymous with the out-of-doors, especially a landscape unspoiled by human intrusion, the kindly counterpart of Tennyson's "Nature, red in tooth and claw." "Here no history, or church, or state, is interpolated on the divine sky and the immortal year"; "we nestle in nature, and draw our living as parasites from her roots and grains, and we receive glances from the heavenly bodies, which call us to solitude." But then he suddenly stops in his tracks and recalls that the schoolmen's natura naturata, nature as it contrasts with cities and the laws, is not the only understanding of the word. "Let us no longer omit our homage to Efficient Nature, natura naturans, the quick cause, before which all forms flee as the driven snows . . ." As a matter of fact, as we look back over his earlier rumination on unspoiled nature, he had said that it "judges like a god all men that come to her." "Judges like a god" is not quite at the level of full personification and efficient cause; but the notion of judgment reminds us of the Stoic tendency to see in nature a lawgiver that invites men to obey its rules. [End Page 99]

Emerson's beautiful essay, which, in its later sections, strikes some rueful notes and ultimately equates nature with the mind imagining, is a splendid demonstration of how many different meanings the term packages within itself. As one critic has it: "Nature and the natural are the most porous words in the language; they soak up ideology like a sponge," and "The invocation of nature . . . is more often a way of pre-empting discussion than generating it. It exacts assent."3 At the level of least semantic force, and especially in modern science, nature can be a shadow word, an excess term attached to a noun or adjective that could very well do without it.4 "The nature of man" is man as we know him. In Greek, this usage is particularly common in the accusative (e.g., , Eur. fr. 495.41 Nauck2). Remarkably, in the very first occurrence of phusis in Greek, which is, in fact, the only instance of it in Homer, in the passage on the molu which Hermes gives to Odysseus to help him against the bewitchment of Circe (Od. 10.303), the word is used in roughly that way: "Hermes," Odysseus says, "showed me its phusis." This is virtually the same as saying: "Hermes showed it to me."5 True, in the next line, the phusis is glossed with references to the blackness of its root and its blossom-like appearance. Apparently the deictic move prompts further clarification. At that level, "form," or "essence," or "constitution," would be appropriate translations. A number of scholars, including most notably Diskin Clay in his wonderful book on Lucretius and Epicurus, have argued that phusis, in its beginnings, designates birth, growth, and origins, a proposition which Heidegger, in his Introduction to Metaphysics, had also advanced for his own purposes.6 I prefer to go along with the common view that the translation of phusis (and natura) as "birth" is a specific, ad hoc etymological sounding taken by [End Page 100] Empedocles and by Lucretius in the proem of De rerum natura, itself heavily indebted to Empedocles. "Birth" is, generally speaking, a distinctly marginal aspect of the reach of "phusis."7

From the very start, it seems, the term phusis covers a wealth of significances: from the bare sufficiency of "essence" or "being" through the condition of normalcy opposed to civilization and corruption, and the collective mass of physical phenomena (rerum natura), to the powerful resonance of a personified agency that governs the world. The first widely to personify Nature are the Hippocratics, where phusis takes on the role of a...


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