We Escape Nature at Our Own Peril Because Nature Is Our Home, Research Time, 22/07/2013

Philosophy as a discipline has always existed in the shadow of Greece. No matter how hard some of us (not many) have tried to make a new start, or at least to leave this shadow in the past, the ancient Greek heritage is inescapable.

A contemporary interpretation
of the Greek god Hermes.
I consider myself a rarity that I don’t think ancient Greece is all that. Yes, it was remarkable. But contemporary humanity is so far from the cultural, historical, and physical problems that faced Periclean Greece that the well of inspiration is simply dry. Philosophy is the only discipline left in the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences that still embraces a significant portion of its Greek heritage. I know people who legitimately believe that the works of Aristotle contain all the important answers about the nature of the universe. Yes, the Aristotle of the geocentric cosmology, teleological biology, and separating the world into those suited to be citizens and those suited to be slaves. Aristotle. You aren’t about to find an Aristotelian physicist employed at a research university.

I say this because I’ve started the chapter of Hegel’s Philosophy of History where he explores the Greek national spirit from the period of the city-states through its subsumption in the Roman Empire. And once again, Hegel is fascinating and unnerving. Greek culture, he says, was the first movement of humanity beyond nature. Indeed, Greek national spirit no longer conceives of humanity as natural, but as a blend of the material and the divine. And this divinity of humanity is separate from nature.

Hegel takes this as a sign of progress, and perhaps it was. However, progress is defined not by where you will eventually go, but from where you have just been. Progress is a matter of improving yourself in the present from an inferior state in the recent past. Ancient Greece was the birthplace of modern humanism, on the Hegelian picture. I find that a sensible thesis, and an illuminating idea. 

Yet today, humanity faces a problem whose conditions were constituted by this Greek revolution in our civilization’s self-conception. It’s the global ecological crisis, about which I’ve written my other major philosophical project. The conception of humanity as separate from nature, or on some accounts and interpretations as having overcome nature, is a formidable problem for the contemporary world. If the Greeks progressed by stepping away from nature, then humanity (or if I want to be specific about location, the Terrans) has to develop a self-conception by which we are embedded in nature again. Perhaps it would be good to keep some of the divinity Hegel describes in the Greek self-concept (though I’m not fully sure yet what all the details of this divinity concept includes). But if the civilization that descended from ancient Greece carried the humanist concept of our species as beyond nature, then the civilization that descends from twenty-first century Earth must reforge our conception of humanity as natural. Progress may first have been in humanism. But progress now is in ecology.

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