Nature- Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times Chapt 1-5

This book offers the class a further insight into the many possible definitions and connotations the term ‘Nature’ portrays and possesses and has given me further perspective about this term since our first discussion about ‘wilderness’ and nature. Coates highlights this central theme time and again in his accounts of the various historical and modern perspectives of ‘nature’, and its influence on Western attitudes and perceptions through time.

His book begins by mentioning the essential juxtaposition of nature and culture and documents this divide and its conceptions through history. He highlights the conception of nature into stages and documents the controversies such a classification has entailed since the beginning of recorded time. He goes on to mention the Greco-Roman ideologies of nature and its personification “Natura” as a classical divergence in philosophy between nature and culture. Coates mentions the many uses the term ‘nature’ has implied to different groups in different times and throughout the historical chronology of the book common themes of idealization, allure, fear, uncertainty, preservation and timelessness each in their varied spectrum’s of importance due to the underlying social ideals of the people at the time. Coates mentions this in his’ role of ideas’ in the first chapter of the book. He also brings about the notion of an ever evolving nature and contrasts this to the Western notions of the timelessness of ‘nature’ thereby also raising an important question “If nature is ever evolving, is there any point in trying to maintain this ‘stasis’ that much of modern society is attempting, and if so has this conscious effort only become necessary now due to mankind’s rapid  population growth in the last few centuries?”

An example of Greco-Roman divinity towards idyllic 'Nature'

‘The similarities between the philosophical and scientific pursuits of the ancients and our modern society. Many historical references about the ancients and their interaction and philosophical notions towards nature are discussed and correlations between these ancient civilizations and our own modern ecological worries can be clearly made. Coates mentions how much like in our modern times epidemics due to manipulation of nature such as Mad Cow Disease, can be traced back to Roman times and mass lead poisoning due to cultural modifications and societal processes. It leads us to an important question, “To what extent is harnessing and modifying nature acceptable, and who should be in charge of such regulation?”

Next in the Coates chronology of ‘Nature’ he mentions the middle ages and highlights both the artistic and scientific evidence towards mans cultivation, elevation and ultimate separation from nature and its influences on the conception of ‘Nature’ ever since. It is interesting to see the influence of nature in Christianity in this times and the many dichotomies that this ideological adoption has into mainstream Western culture and perceptions of God, man and nature. Coates highlights the evidence towards mans first patterns of over-consumption leading to altered perceptions of environments due to humanistic  transformations of much of what was previously deemed untouched ‘nature’. “Was this actually a clear change in events and of the human perception of ‘Nature’ or just another progression in its evolution?”

Next Coates shifts his attention towards the modern world and the age of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment era focusing on scholarly and scientific attributes of Newton and Descartes emphasizing mankinds further movement away from its ‘natural’ surroundings and its attempts to encapsulate nature in its social world-view thereby giving man control over his surroundings. The question one could ask is whether “Man actually took control or did he alter his surroundings completely thereby alienating himself from his place in the ‘natural world’?”

Pueblo Native American irrigation system

Lastly Coates mentions how ‘nature’ has been viewed in the new world and focuses on the colonization of the Americas as well as some non-Western attitudes towards ‘nature’ and its evolution through and after the colonial era. A view of the ‘European man’ capturing and converting the environment is narrated and then paralleled to the use of the America’s by indigenous populations. Interestingly much scientific evidence about Native American utilization and alteration of land and ‘nature’ is now coming up that points towards ancient uses and modifications towards nature and highlights the circular pattern of human evolution through time and its interactions, and meta-physical associations with ‘Nature’.

This book was unlike the first two we read in a number of ways. It was far more scholarly and referenced and offered the class its first academically inclined read. In my opinion the first part of the book does a good job of encompassing the overarching definition of nature, both physically and in historical human perceptions ranging from art to poetry to science to faith. The chronological focus of the first few chapters introduces the reader to the goal of the text and narrates a history of ‘nature’ since ancient time allowing the reader to form a clear background about the subject as well as draw parallels between different times and places thereby allowing a complete understanding of the complexity of the term and its various societal and historical representations.

This importance of Coates avenue of choice and its representations on human culture in the West is aptly portrayed in his statement about the formation of the United States, “Nature was a vital cohesive force in a country that lacked the glue of ethnic, religious and racial homogeneity”. This statement along with America’s age old notions and connections with nature since Fredrick Turner’s frontier hypothesis shows the place ‘nature’ truly has in our humanistic world-view and its over-arching importance in culture and society throughout time. “is this frontier that ‘naturalizes’ the American still exist? And if there is no ‘Americanism’ to be gained from nature anymore does this mark yet another evolution of the concept of ‘nature’ in the human psyche or a radical shift in human psyche unlike ever before?”

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