A connection that has recurred throughout this course is that of “nature” to spirituality. Coates, too, references this many times throughout his philosophical musings in Nature. Now, it must be briefly mentioned that Coates is a prodigious quoter of intellectuals both past and present, so it is often difficult or confusing to determine his position on whatever he is discussing. This serves as a disclaimer if I accidentally quote something out of context. Returning to the subject of nature and mysticism, Coates documents this supposed or actual relationship, often dichotomous, since the Classical Era. With regard to the Greeks, he writes that “Greek deities were overwhelmingly nature based… correspondence between the domain of the gods and the world of nature encouraged the belief that the natural world and its parts were sanctified” (Coates 30). Though Coates goes on to investigate the ways in which this eco-spirituality did not entail environmental attitudes among the ancients, paganism still retains the image of a more natural, environmentally inclined faith. Indeed, many modern neo-pagans tend to be environmentalists and seem to have adopted their resurrected faiths as a consequence of some deeply held affinity for the Earth. This is often coupled with a rejection of the Christian religion, which is perceived as mandating the supremacy of man over all else.
Naturally, no pun intended, it’s worth mentioning that the pagan philosophers propagated ideas that run counter to this notion of a historic, ecological religion. Plato valued the soul over the material world, and Aristotle promoted humankind as resting at the top of the hierarchy of beings. Despite their pre-Christian worldview, these philosophers were beloved by the educated medieval class. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is their ideas of man’s supremacy that outlasted their religion, no matter how unevenly it protected the environment. Despite this, the symbolism and iconism of paganism survived the promulgation of Christianity. However, it was inverted, which I would haphazardly attribute to the shift from polytheism to monotheism. Rather, it was necessary to recontextualize this symbolism within the confines of a singular transcendent deity. Much as the forces of the sky were once represented by Zeus, the Middle Ages used nature to signify elements of Christianity. Coates writes that “The pelican was reputed to feed its young on its own blood, a trait taken to be symbolic of Christ giving life to mankind through his blood” (Coates 60). Zeus represents and has power over a facet of nature. Conversely, the pelican, a facet of nature, is subordinated to the new god, Christ, whom has total dominion over the pelican. With Zeus, it is difficult to tell whether he symbolizes the sky or the sky symbolizes him. In the case of the pelican, the answer is much clearer.
Though Coates doesn’t address any of these points, he arguably documents how this process continues, even as nature evolves from its medieval symbolism phase. Instead, the figures of the Renaissance and Enlightenment enact a fascinating reversal: nature ceases to be the symbol and starts to be the symbolized. This is indicated by the treatment of the natural world as a knowable, deterministic machine. Quoting Johannes Kepler, Coates states “My aim is to show that the celestial machine is to be likened not to a divine organism but rather to clockwork” (Coates 71). Thus, nature becomes symbolized by or likened to a machine. Although still subordinate to the Christian god, this variant of nature is well on its way to secularization. Indeed, the transmogrification of nature as symbol to the symbolized removes it of any spiritual element. The symbol of nature or its disparate factors previously referred to a divine power, but in this era, nature became an end to be referred to in its own right. The sacred is slowly banished to the penumbras of the human conception of the natural world due to humanity’s developing phenomenal and symbolic comprehension of it.
Scientists have acquired evidence that a certain species of octopus, octopus tetricus, actually builds so-called “cities” in the ocean. These “cities” are described as artificial reefs comprised of clam and scallop shells, which were fashioned into dens for the octopuses to occupy. Apparently, however, these octopuses are quite quarrelsome, for they will frequently try to evict their neighbors from their respective dens.