Man And Nature

Many thinkers of the present day pride themselves upon the

growth of what they call the naturalistic spirit. What do they

mean by this? They mean that the older ways of interpreting

nature, animistic or supernatural, are being supplanted by

explanations founded on knowledge of physical facts and

"natural" laws. And, up to a point, there are but few natural

mystics who will not concur in their feelings of satisfaction t

ignorance and superstition are disappearing in rough proportion

as exact knowledge advances. At any rate, in this study, the

more solid conclusions of science will be freely and gladly

accepted. The very idea of a conflict between Science and

Natural Mysticism is to be mercilessly scouted.

But this concurrence must be conditional. Tait, for example,

was scornful of any form of animism. He wrote thus: "The

Pygmalions of modern days do not require to beseech Aphrodite

to animate the world for them. Like the savage with his Totem,

they have themselves already attributed life to it. 'It comes,'

as Helmholtz says, 'to the same thing as Schopenhauer's

metaphysics. The stars are to love and hate one another, feel

pleasure and displeasure, and to try to move in a way

corresponding to these feelings.' The latest phase of this

peculiar non-science tells us that all matter is alive; or at least

that it contains the 'promise and potency' (whatever these may be)

'of all terrestrial life.' All this probably originated in the very

simple manner already hinted at; viz., in the confusion of terms

constructed for application to thinking beings only, with others

applicable only to brute matter, and a blind following of this

confusion to its necessarily preposterous consequences. So

much for the attempts to introduce into science an element

altogether incompatible with the fundamental conditions of its


This is vigorous! But how does the matter now stand? Since

Tait wrote his invective, many physicists of at least equal rank

with himself, and with some undreamt-of discoveries to the

good, have subscribed to the views which he so trenchantly

condemns. As for the metaphysicians, there are but few of the

first flight who do not conceive of consciousness as the ultimate

form of existence. Again, the reference to the Pygmalion myth

implies the view that mythology was a mere empty product of

untutored fancy and imaginative subjectivism. Here also he is

out of harmony with the spirit now pervading the science of

religion and the comparative study of early modes of belief. It

will be well to devote some chapters to a survey of the problems

thus suggested, and to preface them by an enquiry, on general

lines, into man's relation to nature.

We shall best come to grips with the real issue by fastening on

Tait's "brute matter." For the words contain a whole philosophy.

On the one hand, matter, inert, lifeless: on the other hand, spirit,

living, supersensuous: between the two, and linking the two,

man, a spirit in a body. Along with this there generally goes a

dogma of special creations, though it may perhaps be held that

such a dogma is not essential to the distinction between the two

realms thus sharply sundered. It is at once obvious that, starting

from such premisses, Tait's invective is largely justified. For if

matter is inert, brute, dead--it certainly seems preposterous to

speak of its having within it the potency of life--using "life" as a

synonym for living organisms, including man. The nature-mystic

is overwhelmed with Homeric laughter.

But the whole trend of scientific investigation and speculation is

increasingly away from this crude and violent dualism. The

relation of soul to body is still a burning question, but does not

at all preclude a belief that matter is one mode of the

manifestation of spirit. Indeed, it is hard to understand how

upholders of the disappearing doctrine would ever bring

themselves to maintain, even on their own premisses, that any

creation of the Supreme Spirit could be "brute"--that is, inert

and irrational! Regarded from the new view-point, all is what

may, for present purposes, be called spiritual. And when man

appeared upon the globe, he was not something introduced from

without, different from and alien to the world of matter, but

merely the outcome of a more intense activity of the same

forces as were at work from the first and in the whole--in brief,

a higher manifestation of the life which is the ultimate Ground

of all modes of existence. There are not two different realms,

that of brute matter and living spirit; but various planes, or

grades, of life and consciousness. Leibniz had the beautiful and

profound idea that life has three modes on earth--it sleeps in

plants, it dreams in animals, and it wakes in man. Modern

thought is expanding, universalising, this idea.

Man's relation to nature, in the light of this newer doctrine, thus

becomes sufficiently clear. He is not an interloper, but an

integral part of a whole. He is the highest outcome (so far as our

world of sense is concerned) of a vast upward movement. Nay,

modern science links him on to other worlds and other aeons.

Cosmic evolution is "all of a piece," so to speak, and man takes

his own special place in an ordered whole. The process is slow,

measured by the standard of human life. Countless ages have

lapsed to bring us and our world to its present degree of

conscious life. Countless ages are yet to elapse. What shall be

the end--the goal? Who can tell? Judging by what we know, it

would seem simplest to say that the trend of the evolutionary

process is towards the increase of internal spontaneity and

consciously formed and prosecuted purpose. In his "Songs

before Sunrise," Swinburne calls this spontaneity "freedom."

"Freedom we call it, for holier

Name of the soul's there is none;

Surelier it labours, if slowlier,

Than the metres of star and of sun;

Slowlier than life unto breath,

Surelier than time unto death,

It moves till its labour is done."

The nature-mystic, then, is bound to reject the "brute" matter

doctrine just as decidedly as the doctrine of the unconditioned

Absolute. Each, in its own way, robs nature of its true glory and

significance. Nature, for him, is living: and that, not indirectly

as a "living garment" (to quote Goethe's Time Spirit) of another

Reality, but as itself a living part of that Reality--a genuine,

primary manifestation of the ultimate Ground. And man is an

integral living part of living nature.

There is another aspect of this "brute" matter doctrine which

leads to the same conclusions. If matter be held to possess no

other properties than those known to the physicist, it might be

possible to account for what may be termed the utilitarian side

of human development, social and individualistic. Nature makes

demands upon man's energies and capacities before she will

yield him food and shelter, and his material requirements

generally. The enormously important and far-reaching range of

facts here brought to view have largely determined the

chequered course of industrial and social evolution. But even

so, weighty reservations must be made. There is the element of

rationality (implicit in external phenomena) which has

responded to the workings of human reason. There are the

manifestations of something deeper than physics in the

operations of so-called natural laws, and all the moral

influences those laws have brought to bear on man's higher

development. There is the significant fact that as the resources

of civilisation have increased, the pressure of the utilitarian

relation has relaxed.

According fullest credit, however, to the influence of the purely

"physical" properties of nature, has man no other relation to his

external environment than the utilitarian? The moral influence

has been just suggested; the exploitation of this rich vein has for

some time past engaged the attention of evolutionary moralists.

Our more immediate concern is with the aesthetic influences.

And in nature there is beauty as well as utility. Nor is the beauty

a by-product of utility; it exists on its own account, and asserts

itself in its own right. As Emerson puts it--"it is its own excuse

for being." As another writer puts it--"in the beauty which we

see around us in nature's face, we have felt the smile of a

spiritual Being, as we feel the smile of our friend adding light

and lustre to his countenance." Yes, nature is beautiful and man

knows it. How great the number and variety of the emotions and

intuitions that beauty can stir and foster will be seen in detail


But beauty is not the only agent in moulding and developing

man's character. Nature, as will be shown, is a manifestation of

immanent ideas which touch life at every point. Ugliness, for

example, has its place as well as beauty, and will be dealt with

in due course. So with ideas of life and death, of power and

weakness, of hope and despondency--these and a thousand

others, immanent in external phenomena, have stimulated the

powerful imaginations of the infant race, and still maintain their

magic to move the sensitive soul. The wonderful mythological

systems of the past enshrine science, philosophy, and poetry--

and they were prompted by physical phenomena. The philosophy

and poetry of the present are still largely dependent

on the same phenomena. So it will be to the end.

That the revelation of Reality is a partial one--that the highest

summits are veiled in mists--this is freely granted. But the very

fact constitutes in itself a special charm. If what we see is so

wonderful, what must that be which is behind!