May 14, 2003

The Idea of Wilderness

I am reading a book called The Idea of Wilderness by Max Oelschlaeger (1991, Yale Univ Press). Max spends a chapter on "Ancient Mediterranian Ideas", but I jumped straight from the paleo and neolithic to his discussion of the Modern. In making that jump it seems that one of his main points is that the earliest humans did not seperate themselves from the wild, but saw themselves as part of the natural cycles. While he doesn't say so explicitly, part of the cycle image is also a sense that our linear or forward notion of progress was absent from earliest human cultures.

Jumping to the Modern as I did I missed alot of transition but here is what I have gleaned about the difference (remember this is what I think Max thinks and I am still early on in the book...):
  • Christianity has a dominate the Earth element to it. How that manifests has evolved but it has been an important part of the development of Western thinking about the relationship between humans and nature. In general though it requires that humans understand and dominate nature to know God or to return to a state of grace.
  • Within the Modern there is an important split between nature-as-machine and nature-as-organism. This split is presented as an evolution from organismic to mechanistic and Oelschlaeger traces its origins back to Galileo. In part Galileo's use of the telescope introduced science as measurement and nature as the thing to be measured.
  • Of course a crucial element of the Modern is that humans stand outside of Nature. Even the romantic poets stood outside. They longed to get back in and they looked to Modernity to return them to the Garden.
  • The nature-as-machine metaphor is traced back to Descartes and his mind / body split.
  • The finalization of the split between civilization and wilderness is laid at Adam Smith's feet.
    Wealth of Nations represents the realization of Merlin's dream: the base and valueless could not, with the facility of natural science and industrial technology, be transformed into a Heaven on earth. Consumption, and its never-ending growth, is the summum bonum of the Wealth of Nations, an ideal yet living today in the relentless pursuit of economic development. Through legerdemain, Smith transformed the first world from which humankiind came into a standing reserve - a nature of significance only within a human matrix of judgment, devoid of intrinsic value. (p.94)
  • The machine vs organism view continues to be important. In the machine causal relationships are linear and direct. In the organism they can be non-linear and complex.
More on this soon...