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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Nature, as norm, is the idea that “nature” and “natu-
ral” in one or more of their many senses set the stand-
ard for the good life, both of the individual and of
society. The words themselves have at least sixty-six
senses, distinguished by A. O. Lovejoy, and each of
them has been the basis for praise and dispraise. But
the multivalence of the word “nature” comes out very
clearly when we think of some of those ideas to which
it is antithetical: the supernatural, art, custom, the
post-primitive as contrasted with the primitive. The
natural is held by some to be better than the artificial,
the customary, the contemporary. Of these four terms,
only the supernatural is usually considered to be better
than the natural.

When the natural is opposed to the supernatural,
the latter in ancient and medieval times was believed
to be inherently better than the former. Along with
the notion of gods and angels, went the connotation
of spirituality, immortality, ideality, immutability, all


of which in the minds of many authors implied moral
and aesthetic superiority. The Greeks, for instance,
used the words, “the Immortals,” as a synonym for the
gods and each of the Olympian gods, though not the
demigods, nymphs, and local divinities, was charac-
terized by some outstanding quality—wisdom, military
bravery, artistry, beauty—which was his or her “na-
ture,” in the sense of fundamental quality. When the
pagan gods became Christian demons, clearly admira-
tion for them turned to horror and there was no longer
any possibility of equating the supernatural exclusively
with the good.

The natural meanwhile was the material, in the sense
of the tangible, the perceptible, the “real” in the pop-
ular sense of that term. It was probably Plato more
than any other individual who removed the real from
the material world to the world of ideals, by pointing
out that the ideals (universals, Forms) were immutable,
eternal, or timeless, whereas the so-called real things
(particulars) were constantly changing and obviously
temporal. Just why value was associated with the
timeless and immutable has never been explained, if
indeed any explanation of it is possible. The association
seems to be spontaneous and it is probable that value
and duration form a couple which seems to many men
to require no explanation. For in the dominant tradi-
tion of European philosophy change is to be lamented
and the Sage will reject the mutable in his search for
the permanent. His search, like Faust's, will end when
he can say, Verweile doch du bist so schön!

Meanwhile it had become clear to such Greek phi-
losophers as Heraclitus, Empedocles, and perhaps the
Pythagoreans, that though nature as the perceptual
world did indeed change, it changed in accordance
with fixed, universal, and rational laws. This made itself
felt even outside the circle of science, where both the
Greeks and the Romans relied on omens as a basis for
decisions both military and civil. The augur must have
believed that certain signs in, for instance, the liver
of an animal that had just been sacrificed, were infalli-
ble portents of the future. The fixity of natural law
was transferred to the supernatural and just as the law
which explained the transformations of fire in Heracli-
tus was immutable, so was that binding the omen to
its reference. But the idea of the pervasiveness of
immutable law was also seen in some Greek tragedies
where a decision of the protagonist leads to an inevita-
ble consequence.

This too, like everything else, was modified by
Christianity. The best evidence of the supernatural,
according to some exegetes, was the violation of fixed
law. Not only did Jesus raise the dead, but so did some
of the Apostles and later the saints. Whereas the pagans
had identified the immutable with the divine, the
Christians maintained that one proof of divinity was
the ability to break the immutability of the laws of
nature and to accomplish the impossible, the adynaton.
God Himself was immutable but at the same time He
was omnipotent. In fact the fixed laws of nature, ac-
cording to Newton in the General Scholium of the
Principia, were an edict promulgated by God. Yet He
was able and apparently willing to break the immuta-
ble laws which He had issued. Consequently Christian
writers now emphasized the regularity of the super-
natural decrees and at other times their intermittence.

From the cosmic point of view the nature in which
we all live is the sublunary world, a world of change,
corruption, diversity. It is in the superlunary world that
the everlasting, the incorruptible, the unified is to be
found. This fact attracted the admiration for the time-
less into astrology, and in the Renaissance a man like
Pico della Mirandola, in his Heptaplus, argued that
man's “real” nature was to be found in his identification
with some parts of the superlunary world, and by
“real” here he meant “spiritual” or that which responds
to the divine. Man's nature in Christian writings is
peculiar in that it is halfway between that of the angels
and that of the beasts. In one sense of the word “na-
ture” man is akin to the animals; in another he is only
a little lower than the angels. He is consequently in
a paradoxical situation. If he was to be a good Chris-
tian, he would turn against his animal nature and
cultivate his angelic nature. Hence he was likely to
look down upon the “life according to nature” as it
was interpreted in the pagan tradition.

In Greece of the fourth century B.C. the great con-
trast was that between nature and custom. “Nature”
in this context meant the world unmodified by man.
To the Christian this was interpreted as the world
freshly created and, as far as human life was concerned,
man before the Fall. Custom thus became that which
was added to nature and hence if one was to live a
life in accordance with nature, one would have to
abandon everything that human intelligence had in-
vented or discovered. The followers of Diogenes of
Sinope, the Cynics, were the most extreme believers
in such a program. Houses, clothing, cooked foods,
social organization were not natural and hence Dioge-
nes lived in a wine jar, wrapped a single strip of cloth
around his body in lieu of fur, feathers, or scales, lapped
up water like a dog, and withdrew from all social
duties. The behavior of the Cynics, though not their
motivation, was taken over by the solitary monks, and
the tradition of rejecting social claims and the pleasures
of civilization is still alive in certain areas in the twen-
tieth century.

In the United States an approach to Cynical isolation
and self-dependence could be seen in Thoreau, though


he was never completely consistent in this respect. In
American fiction Leatherstocking might exemplify the
rejection of tradition, society, and dependence on
others. Life in the primeval forests seemed the life
according to nature, though, unlike Diogenes, Leather-
stocking had weapons with which to kill his game
and knew how to light a fire. Diogenes is said to have
eaten his food raw.

To live the life according to nature demanded a
knowledge of just what nature was. One technique of
finding out was to look for those standards which did
not vary from people to people and could thus be
called universal. This gave rise to the idea of something
called “human nature.” In antiquity this was specially
emphasized by the Stoics, who were so convinced of
the “rightness” of that which is universal that they even
identified the true with that which is universally be-
lieved. The consensus gentium is truth as rooted in
human nature. It developed into the medieval notion
of the lumen naturale, the “natural light.” It reap-
peared in Descartes, and was analogous to Pascal's
heart which had reasons which the reason knew not,
and was found again in Rousseau's “Profession of Faith
of the Savoyard Vicar.” In the Scottish philosophy of
Thomas Reid it was called common sense and was
taken over in Restoration France by Royer-Collard and
Jouffroy. Its interest for us is that it was implanted
in the human mind, as the innate ideas were, and was
thus a stock of thoughts known by all men “by nature.”

Many such ideas were mathematical or logical but
some, such as the ideas of God or of right and wrong
were ethical and religious. There could therefore be
a religion and an ethics independent of Revelation, a
Natural religion. In the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries in the works of such men as Lord Herbert
of Cherbury, Toland, Shaftesbury, Voltaire, and Rous-
seau were to be discovered the sources of this natural
religion which in Lord Herbert was based on the inner
light, in Shaftesbury on sentiment, in Voltaire on
reasoning, and in Rousseau on “the heart.” Along with
these elaborated philosophical doctrines there devel-
oped, particularly after the Reformation, a variety of
religious sects to which the testimony of the natural
light was omnicompetent.

But the inferences drawn from this type of innate
knowledge were very different from one another. The
one point of similarity in these views lay in their
authors' denying the need for authority other than an
individual's own private means of information. One
might say that all of these men believed in God but
each had his own God. Presumably no indoctrination
was necessary. One simply relied on his own form of
illumination. One knew “naturally.” To some this
knowledge was the voice of God; to others it was
human nature made articulate. As a source of knowl-
edge it was analogous to C. G. Jung's conception of
the archetypal knowledge which emerges from the
“collective unconscious” into the individual's mind.

The basic distinction here is that between nature and
art, where art means those concerns in which the
human being consciously and deliberately changes the
raw material of experience. To one who prefers nature
to art all learning, all education, and, to a man like
Rousseau, in his Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts,
all intellectual constructions whatsoever, should be
rejected. Just as Diogenes turned to the animals for
his exemplars, so the anti-intellectualist relies on some
power which he will probably call instinct to guide
him. The beasts follow nature; why should not man
do the same? The difficulty was to find a human being
whose nature was as yet unspoiled by art. The closest
approach to the natural man was the savage “whose
untutored mind”

Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
His soul proud Science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk or milky way;
Yet simple nature to his hope has giv'n,
Behind the cloud-topped hill, an
humbler Heav'n,...

(Pope, Essay on Man, Book I, lines 90-95).

“Proud Science” in these verses of Pope is exemplified
by astronomy, an idea that goes back to Socrates.

That the savage had an idea of a God and a code
of ethics was corroborated by some explorers. But it
was the European essayist, the Greek ruminating on
Anacharsis, or the Roman like Seneca, criticizing the
luxury of his contemporaries and exclaiming, “That was
a happy age when there were no architects and no
builders,” who created the Noble Savage. This mythical
natural man seems to have arisen in Scythia, but soon
appeared in various other exotic countries and imagi-
nary habitats. The land of the Hyperboreans is a good
example of the latter, and various islands of the
Atlantic, both real and imaginary, of the former. A
distinction must be made, however, between people
like East Indians and the Chinese, who were exotic
but far from savage, and the inhabitants of the West
Indies or Polynesia, who were supposedly living in “a
state of nature.” Both types of people were highly
admired for one reason or the other but what one might
call exoticism is very different from primitivism. The
Noble Savage might have virtues like those of the
Spartan, who could do without the comforts of civili-
zation, or those of the Sybarite to whom Mother Na-
ture had freely given the delights of food, love, and
leisure. The savage, however, was not the only model
for the natural life.


We have already mentioned the animals. By the
middle of the sixteenth century a new candidate ap-
peared, the child. Cicero had called the child a specu-
lum naturae,
a mirror of nature, and in the Gospel
of Matthew (18:3) Christ was reported to have said,
“... except ye be converted, and become as little
children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of
heaven.” These phrases became a double root for the
cult of childhood as the paradigm of the natural human
being. It was obvious that the child was innocent of
art, at least at birth, but it was impossible to find a
child who had preserved the innocence of the newly
born. This seemed to be understood by most writers.
Yet, oddly enough, even the infant Jesus was not never-
enced until the beginning of the Renaissance, roughly
the fourteenth century. But, perhaps because of the
charm of infancy, perhaps because the Renaissance was
thought of as a time of rejuvenation, the child began
to take on an air of authority as the period drew to
a close.

With the coming of Protestantism the inner light
came into its own and no one had the power to deprive
anyone of its possession. Childhood in its purity and
innocence became a symbol of the soul who has innate
knowledge, as if in Wordsworth's words he had just
come from Heaven. By the nineteenth century the
child had become recognized as the source of all con-
genital, almost magical, wisdom. One sees such chil-
dren in some of the novels of Dickens, but perhaps
the best example is little Effie in Silas Marner. By the
twentieth century, which Ellen Key, the famous
feminist, called “the century of the child,” the children
had become the heroes of novels. Novels were even
written for children and no less an artist than Henry
James had written some from the child's point of view.
By the middle of the century, however, children had
lost something of their glamor and some authors, of
whom William Golding is typical, were able to portray
them in their naked depravity.

If searchers for the natural man did not find him
in either the savage or the child, he was likely to turn
to the peasant. The cult of the peasant has yet to be
fully studied. By a man like Michelet he is seen as the
embodiment of the nation. In Wordsworth even his
plain speech is adopted for poetic use, though Words-
worth omitted his oddities of grammar and pronun-
ciation. Innate honesty, sincerity, simplicity, were the
peasant's outstanding virtues and only a few writers,
of whom Zola is a good example, undertook to divest
him of such trappings. The intimacy with nature, in
the sense of the “unspoiled” landscape, was believed
to give him superiority over both the country gentle-
man and the urban dweller. Wordsworth again is our
best example of the man who thinks that “One impulse
from a vernal wood may teach [you] more of man,/
of moral evil and of good, than all the sages can.” But
when Wordsworth wrote these lines in “The Tables
Turned,” he was in such a decidedly anti-intellectual-
istic mood that he was willing to toss away his books
to listen to the linnet's song. The peasant did not have
to sacrifice his books, for he owned none and could
“let Nature be [his] teacher.” Just what one learned
from the linnet and the throstle was never disclosed
by Wordsworth but that was probably because their
lessons were ineffable, like the Beatific Vision.

The admiration for the out-of-doors was fully ex-
pressed in landscape painting. Though occasional
landscapes had been painted as early as Giorgione and
later by Salvator Rosa, Claude, and Gainsborough, they
usually contained human figures also, bandits, shep-
herds, nymphs, carters, or, as in Watteau and Pater,
ladies and gentlemen dancing or at similar pastimes.
The nineteenth century saw the landscape without
figures come into its own. The cause of this relatively
new theme is unknown. It may have been a reaction
from the spread of industrialism and a nostalgia for
rural scenery but, whatever its source, it did express
a love for nature in the sense of the environment
untouched by man. When people in the nineteenth
century spoke of nature, they usually meant nonhuman
nature. This comes out brilliantly in such an essay as
Emerson's “Nature.” The touch of the vernal wood is
here expanded to include the hills, the streams, and
the meadows, and it is interesting to observe that
Emerson never seems to include a human being as part
of nature. In poetry it had been the custom to address
some bird or other animal, or in the case of Emerson
some flower and derive from looking at it some moral
lesson. Thus Emerson seeing the rhodora also saw “that
beauty is its own excuse for being,” and Bryant seeing
a water fowl was induced to pray that God would guide
him as He guided the bird. But in the later nineteenth
century the spectacle of untouched nature sufficed not
only for painters but also for poets. Like the Imagists,
they wanted “no deep thoughts.”

Observation detached from theological and ethical
preoccupations had made its start in the work of a man
like Galileo, though like everyone else he had his
predecessors. In Newton's Principia the theorems sim-
ply state what happens and, as is commonly known,
the purpose of all this is not mentioned. Science as
it developed from the seventeenth to the twentieth
century became more and more a precise description
of events limited by the methodological rules of exper-
imentation and inference. The ideal was complete
objectivity and, as far as possible, the elimination of
the human equation.

One of the meanings of “nature” which has had


increasing vogue is the individual's special disposition,
constitution, bent, or temperament. Just as people
spoke of human nature as the special character of the
whole human race, so they spoke of an individual's
nature which might in certain cases be different from
that of most other people. The result was twofold: first,
some writers urged men to be true to the common
nature of their fellowmen; second, that in the words
of Polonius they must above all be true to themselves.
Along with this went the feeling that people who were
true to themselves and disdained the common traits
of human nature, were guilty of Adam's sin of pride
(superbia), that their individuality was abnormal, as it
obviously was by definition, and monstrous because
unnatural. On the other hand those whom we might
call individualists felt that conformity to the general
human nature was abnegation, self-destruction, psychic
suicide. The second point of view gained wide approval
in the early nineteenth century as part of the romantic
program. Deviance from the statistical norm was
rooted in individuality. Peter was bound to be more
or less different from Paul and this could not be

But besides such innate differences, there were ac-
quired tastes and manners. The romanticist not only
accepted, as he had to, the innate peculiarities but
added to them ways of accentuating his individuality.
Such ways might be no more than wearing a red waist-
coat or, as in the aesthetic movement, carrying a lily
or sunflower in one's hand. Such manners were trivial.
But on a more serious plane, whereas up to the middle
of the twentieth century homosexual relations were
called crimes against nature, after that time they were
called deviance and the matter was dropped. Again,
whereas in educational situations the child had been
taught to be true to the school spirit in costume,
speech, and general behavior, later the school boasted
of encouraging self-expression and individuality. So up
to the romantic period one could find manuals of
painting, analogous to Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum
(1715), in which the rules for “historical” painting,
portraiture, and landscape were outlined; after that
period the rules, perspective, “correct” drawing, color
harmony, were gradually abandoned until in the second
quarter of the twentieth century some artists, both
pictorial and musical, expressed themselves so freely
that they let chance determine their work. Instead of
art's being an imitation of nature, it became an expres-
sion of an individual's nature. It is worth noting that
the adjective “creative” became a eulogistic term,
entailing novelty and above all individuality.

Nature in the sense of the whole physical world was
sometimes thought of as the height of regularity, but
at other times as irregular, and people who took nature
as their model emphasized now the one now the other
of these aspects. The pre-Socratic scientists, like their
modern analogues, based their research on the assump-
tion that nature is regular in all its changes and that
universal laws can be framed to express that regularity.
This tradition, broken by the importance given to
miracles, obtained for centuries and still obtains in
scientific circles. Also, the “geometry” of nature was
used as the basis and vindication of rational ethics and
neo-classical aesthetics. The good man had a consistent
character and his acts were based on reason. One of
the evils of the passionate life was precisely its inco-
herence and unreliability. In art, as John Dennis wrote
in 1704, “the work of every reasonable creature must
derive its beauty from regularity, for Reason is rule
and order” (Lovejoy, “The Chinese Origin of a Ro-
manticism,” Essays..., p. 99).

In accordance with this men turned to Greek archi-
tecture for exemplars of perfect beauty and for two
centuries the Greek temple was reproduced in
churches, schools, banks, and even houses. But as A. O.
Lovejoy showed in his essay, “The Chinese Origin
of a Romanticism,” the winds of doctrine shifted their
orientation in the eighteenth century and admiration
for irregularity became the mode. The taste for Gothic
architecture, the unfinished and sometimes ruined state
of which concealed its original regularity, the goût
the picturesque, were all blended together and
by the nineteenth century produced the man whose
passions, and particularly the passion of love, became
the paradigm. Lord Byron and other windblown poets
and painters were typical instances. The most extreme
case found voice in Lucinde in the phrase, “longing
for the sake of longing.” The legend of Don Juan was
interpreted as the soul's search for the ideal which by
its very nature eludes him. As late as Auguste Renoir
(1884) we find a painter writing that great artists are
“... careful to proceed like nature. They are always
respectful pupils, and are on their guard never to
transgress [her] fundamental law of irregularity”
(Gauss, pp. 36f.). These two notions of nature subsisted
side by side and have remained equally popular.

There was, however, a possible basis for recon-
ciliation in the astrological thesis that perfect regular-
ity existed in the superlunary world and disorder in
the sublunary. That the upper heavens were incor-
ruptible is a belief that goes back to Aristotle at least,
and however the word “incorruptible” is defined, it
must qualify something that is beyond the perceptible
limits of spatial vision. For all about us is change, birth,
decay, and death. The idea that what comes into being
inevitably comes to an end is pronounced in Plato's


Timaeus, the cosmological Bible of the first twelve
Christian centuries. Thus on the authority of the two
most influential scientists it could be asserted that the
universe or nature in the grandest sense of the word
was twofold, one part being immutable and divine, the
other subject to decay and human. The person who
reflected on this was not likely to preach that men
should live in accordance with the laws of the sublu-
nary world even though it was his only habitat. His
problem was to find some escape from it, and he found
his escape in religion. The classic ascent to the incor-
ruptible world was through the Mystic Way, the closest
approach to which was of course virtue.

It was a common postulate up to the seventeenth
century that nothing would change of its own accord.
If then the sublunary world was in a constant state
of change, there must be some active cause producing
this effect. This cause was also called Nature, personi-
fied in the Middle Ages as the Goddess Natura, “queen
of the mundane region.” The cause of all sublunary
change became in the later Middle Ages, in the Roman
de la Rose,
the sponsor of what might be called the
marital state of nature, anticipated in the verse of
Lucretius (Book V, line 962), et Venus in silvis iungebat
corpora amantum,
“and in the woods Venus united the
bodies of lovers.” There was then a minimum of two
Natures, one an active force which determined what
changes were to take place, and one a passive object
of that force. The former was called as early as the
twelfth century, according to W. Windelband, natura
and the latter natura naturata. But the dis-
tinction, though not the terms, was made by John
Scotus Erigena in the ninth century when he spoke
of that which creates and is uncreated as contrasted
with that which is uncreating and created. In Nicholas
of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, and Spinoza, the two natures
were fused in God.

To feel the presence of natura naturans is at the
heart of romantic nature-worship. It was perhaps in
a spirit akin to Wordsworth's that the ancients saw
nymphs in springs and trees and even in the ocean as
Shakespeare found tongues in trees, books in the run-
ning brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.
The animation of the landscape led to the pathetic
fallacy, pretty well avoided by the middle of the twen-
tieth century. This might have led to the recognition
of man's being himself a part of the natural world and
that all his traits, even when abnormal, are to be
attributed to nature. Such a point of view became more
and more acceptable in the second half of the twentieth
century when adjectival expressions derived from “na-
ture” seem to have lost their eulogistic tone. The thesis
that everything men do is natural could easily be
defended if the unnatural were to be defined statis-
tically. The normative use of “natural” and “nature”
would then disappear and only their descriptive mean-
ings would remain.


For the sixty-six senses of “nature” and its derivatives
see A. O. Lovejoy and G. Boas, Primitivism and Related
Ideas in Antiquity
(Baltimore, 1935), appendix, pp. 447-56,
and A. O. Lovejoy, “Nature as Aesthetic Norm,” in Essays
in the History of Ideas
(Baltimore, 1948), pp. 69-78. For
the admiration of the childlike, see G. Boas, The Cult of
Studies of the Warburg Institute, 29 (London,
1966). For William Wordsworth's admiration of the peasant,
see especially his preface to Lyrical Ballads. Auguste Renoir
on the irregularity of nature can be most conveniently found
in C. E. Gauss, The Aesthetic Theories of French Artists
(Baltimore, 1949), pp. 36f. For the origin of natura naturans
see W. Windelband, A History of Philosophy, trans. James
H. Tufts (New York, 1893), pp. 336, 338, 368, 409. In addition
to these works, one should consult also the bibliographies
under articles “Primitivism” and “Theriophily.” The Roman
de la Rose
exists in a variety of editions. It should be
supplemented by the De planctu naturae of Alain of Lille
(Alanus de Insulis) in Migne, Patrologia Latina, Vol. 210.


[See also Cosmology; Cycles; Cynicism; Law, Natural;
Naturalism in Art; Newton on Method; Pre-Platonic Con-
ceptions; Primitivism;