The Charge Of Anthropomorphism

There are many thinkers who are ready to acknowledge that the

contemplation of nature leads to various kinds of emotional and

aesthetic experience, but who at the same time deny that the

results of such contemplation have any other than a subjective

character; they argue that the validity of the results evaporates,

so to speak, with the mood which brought them into being.

Myths, for example, from this point of view are
"simply the

objectification of subjective impulses"; and modern sympathy

with nature is aesthetic feeling which "breaks free of the fetters

laid upon it by mythological thought, constantly to create at its

own sovereign pleasure myths which pass with the passing of

the end that they have served and give place to other fancies."

This "subjective" doctrine will meet us often, and will call for

various answers. Let it now be considered in its most general

and formidable shape, that to which Wundt has given weighty

support in his treatise on the "Facts of the Moral Life." The

sentences quoted just above are from those sections of this work

which deal with man's aesthetic relation to nature; and it is with

their teaching on the subject that this chapter will be chiefly


Here is a statement which raises a clear issue. The influence of

nature, says Wundt, is not immutable. "The same mountains and

rivers and forests lie before the modern European that lay

before his ancestors thousands of years ago; but the effect

which they produce is very different. In this change there is

reflected a change in man's _aesthetic_ view of the world, itself

connected with a change in his moral apprehension of life."

Now every word of this passage may be welcomed by the

nature-mystic without his thereby yielding his contention that

mountains and rivers and forests have a definite and immanent

objective significance of their own. The phenomena of sunrise

and sunset, which lay before our European ancestors thousands

of years ago, are the same as those which present themselves to

the modern astronomer, and yet how differently interpreted!

Does the difference imply that the early observer had no

objective facts before him, and that modern astronomy has

advanced to a freedom which enables it to frame hypotheses at

its sovereign will? Such a conclusion is just possible as we

meditate on the mutability of many scientific concepts! Still, the

conclusion would be regarded as somewhat violent. But if it is

allowed that in the latter case, the basis of objective fact gives

continuity to the development of astronomic lore, why should

the same privilege not be accorded to the objective element

in the continuity of mystical lore? As knowledge grows,

interpretations become more adequate to the objective facts, but

it does not negate them. And Wundt himself allows that "it is

from the mythological form of the feeling (for nature), which

reaches back to the first beginnings of human civilisation, that

the aesthetic feeling for nature with which we are ourselves

familiar has been slowly and gradually evolved." How could

such continuity be secured without some basis in the world of


And the basis in fact is surely easy of discovery. Man is not a

solitary being, suspended between earth and heaven. On the

contrary, he is related to all below him and all that is above him

by ties which enter into the very fibre of his being. He is

himself a child of nature, nurtured on the bosom of Mother

Earth and raising his eyes to the height of the Empyrean.

Evolution, whatever it may be, is a cosmic process--and man is

a link in a chain, or rather, a living member of a living universe.

For an evolutionist to argue man's relation to his physical

environment to be external in its physical aspects would be

deemed arrant folly. Is it less foolish for an evolutionist to

isolate man's emotions, feelings, and thoughts?

"In proportion" (says Wundt) "as nature lost her immediate and

living reality" (by the passing of mythology) "did the human

mind possess itself of her, to find its own subjective states

reflected in her features." Much obviously turns on the

implications of the word "reflected." We are led to hope much

when he speaks of "the kinship of the emotions set up by certain

phenomena of nature with moods arising from within"--but he

empties his statement of mystic meaning by adding, "at the

mind's own instance." "Nature" (says Auerbach in plainer

terms)" has no moods, they belong to man alone." Tennyson

gives expression to this view (not on his own behalf!):

"all the phantom, Nature, stands,

With all the music in her tone

A hollow echo of my own--

A hollow form with empty hands."

But surely all this negation of moods in nature, this

determination to empty natural phenomena of all definite

human significance, is invalidated by one very simple

consideration. There must be _some_ correspondence between

cause and effect. When certain moods are stimulated by certain

physical phenomena, there must be _some_ sort of real

causation. It is not _any_ scene that can harmonise with or

foster _any_ mood. The range of variety in the effects produced

by mountains, rivers, sunsets, and the rest, is admittedly great,

but it is not chaotic. The nature-mystic admits variety, nay,

rejoices in it, but he postulates an equivalent variety of

influences immanent in the phenomena. Of course Auerbach is

right if by mood in nature he means an experience similar to

that of the human observer: but he is wrong if he implies that

the mood is wholly a subjective creation, and that the object, or

group of objects, which stimulates the mood has no quality or

power which corresponds to, or is essentially connected with,

the mood.

Turner's famous "Fighting Temeraire" combines into an

exquisite whole a group of human moods and natural phenomena.

Was his choice of phenomena determined by purely subjective

considerations? A veteran warship is being towed by a

little steamer to her last berth. The human interest is

intense. The problem is to give it a fitting and noble setting.

Study the nature-setting which the artist has chosen for his

theme--the wealth of glowing, but gently subdued colour--the

sun setting, like the old ship, in mellow glory--the crescent

moon that speaks of the birth of a new economic era--the cool

mists stealing up, precursors of the night when work is done--

how marvellously all these tone with the general sentiment.

Shall it be maintained that they are arbitrary conventions, mere

fanciful products of the association of ideas? Armed with triple

brass must be the breast of the critic who could uphold such a

view. For the common heart of humanity repudiates it, and

intuitively feels that in such a picture there is more than a

display of artistic skill embodying subtle symbols--it feels that

there is a blending of elements which share a common spiritual


The same conclusion is reached when the matter is brought to

the test of science and philosophy. Science, in its own domain,

is every whit as anthropomorphic as Nature Mysticism--and

inevitably so if it is to exist at all; for it rests upon the

assumption that the behaviour of external objects is in harmony

with the workings of human reason. In other words, it postulates

a vital relationship between man's inner nature and the inner

nature of his material environment. Human reason goes out into

nature expecting to find there something akin to itself, and is

not disappointed of its hope. Man's conceptions of this kinship

were at first, like all his other conceptions, crude and confused;

but as his experience widened and ripened, his outlook became

more adequate to the infinite complexity and variety of the

phenomena with which he has to deal. And throughout, both in

the lower and in the higher stages of intellectual development,

the same truth unchangingly asserts itself, that man is a

microcosm. His reason proves it by finding itself in the

macrocosm. And what holds good of the imperfect and recently

developed rational faculties holds good even more substantially

of the fundamental instincts and emotions, and of intuitions and

spiritual promptings.

The scientist of a materialistic bent may here object that as the

sphere of human knowledge extends it becomes increasingly

evident that all the operations in the universe are under the sway

of inexorable laws. The issues thus raised are obviously too

large to be discussed at any length in the present context. But

two observations of a general character will serve to indicate

that there are weighty counter-considerations. The first is that

the human heart rebels against the conception of a mechanically

determined universe while conceiving itself a product of, or

integral part of, that universe. That is to say, we reject the

strange theory of a mechanical universe rebelling against itself!

Some of the inexorable laws must, to say the least, be of a very

different character from that which the scientist postulates! The

second consideration is almost a corollary of the first, but also

occupies new ground. These "laws" which are so indefatigably

hurled at us--what are they? Who can say? Even in their

simplest manifestations they pass out of our ken. The most

fundamental of them all, from the scientific point of view--the

law of the conservation of energy--is now being openly

questioned. Much more is there uncertainty as to the laws of

life, and the obscure trends and impulses grouped under the

head of evolution. So strongly does the stream of criticism bear

upon the foundations of the house of the physical scientist, that

the old temptation to hasty, and sometimes arrogant, dogmatism

is rapidly disappearing. The knowledge of "laws" still leaves,

and ever will leave, ample breathing room for the poet, the

artist, the nature-mystic, and the soul that loves.

There is, however, another aspect of the charge of

anthropomorphism--one which is more difficult to deal with

because it affects at times the nature-mystic himself. In

attempting to deal with it, it will be well to let representative

thinkers put their own case. Jefferies, for example, writes thus:

"There is nothing human in nature. The earth, though loved so

dearly, would let me perish on the ground, and neither bring

forth food nor water. Burning in the sky, the great sun, of whose

company I have been so fond, would merely burn on and make

no motion to assist me. . . . As for the sea, it offers us salt water

which we cannot drink. The trees care nothing for us; the hill I

visited so often in days gone by has not missed me. . . . There is

nothing human in the whole round of nature. All nature, all the

universe that we can see, is absolutely indifferent to us, and

except to us human life is of no more value than grass."

Now what does the charge, as thus stated, really amount to?

There is no implication that nature is hostile, as some (perhaps

including Huxley) would have us think. There is simply a

feeling that nature is remote from human modes of experience,

indifferent to human interests. And it would be puerile to

dispute the rightness of this impression so long as the standpoint

of the individual human being is adopted. The individual man is

a centre of self-consciousness in a peculiar sense. He has

numberless and interminable particular wants, hopes, fears,

pleasures, pains. Whereas, the infra-human objects in nature

have not attained to his particular mode of consciousness: theirs

differs from his in degree, perchance in kind. A tree, a cloud, a

mountain, a wave--these cannot enter into what we call

"personal" relations with each other or with human beings. But

this is not to say that they may not possess a consciousness,

which though different from man's consciousness, is yet akin to

it and linked to it. Nay, the nature-mystic's experiences, as well

as the metaphysician's speculations, declare that the linking

up must be regarded as a fact. And when we examine more

carefully what Jefferies says, we find that he in no way disputes

this fact. How could it be, with his vivid sense of communion

with forms of being still more remote from the human than the

sea-monsters he names? What oppressed him was a feeling of

strangeness. In other words, nature was "remote" for him

because he felt he did not understand it well enough.

Further discussion of the important issues thus raised will be

postponed until certain forms of modern animism come under

review. One or two preliminary observations, however, will be in

place at this earlier stage. It is wise, for example, not to forget

the limitations of our knowledge. A platitude! Yes--but one

which even the greatest thinkers are apt to lose sight of, with

consequent tendency to hasty generalisation and undue neglect

of deep-seated instincts and intuitions. The discovery of some

new cosmic law may change the whole face of nature, and set in

a new light its apparent remoteness or indifference. Again, as

has just been shown, natural phenomena are in definite

relationship to human reason. They are comprehensible--

therefore not alien. By their aid we can organise our conduct,

and even our ideals--therefore they are factors in our

self-realisation. Thus, underlying their seeming indifference,

it is possible even now to trace their beneficent influences

in the evolutionary process. And since they embody reason, beauty,

and goodness, we can afford to await in patience the solution of

many problems which trouble us, and surrender ourselves

trustfully to the calm, resistless forces which are weaving the

web of cosmic destinies.

A fine example of the trustful attitude is found in an article of

Lord Dunraven's describing his life in the woods of New

Brunswick: "The earth sleeps. A silence that can be felt has

fallen over the woods. The stars begin to fade. A softer and

stronger light wells up and flows over the scene as the broad

moon slowly floats above the tree tops. . . . The tree trunks

stand out distinct in the lessening gloom; the dark pine boughs

overhead seem to stoop caressingly towards you. Amid a

stillness that is terrifying, man is not afraid. Surrounded by a

majesty that is appalling, he shrinks not nor is he dismayed. In a

scene of utter loneliness he feels himself not to be alone. A

sense of companionship, a sensation of satisfaction, creep over

him. He feels at one with Nature, at rest in her strong protecting


There is no need, then, to be afraid of a charge ofanthropomorphism,

if only our conceptions of nature do not lag behind our

clear knowledge of its forms and forces. Man, being what

he is, is, of course, compelled to think as man and to speak

as man; he cannot jump off his own shadow. But since he is

himself part and parcel of the cosmos, his thinking and speaking

are _within_, not external to, the material cosmos. So

completely is he within, that his knowledge of himself comes to

him only by seeing himself reflected in the greater whole. And

thus, provided we are true to the highest principles we have

attained, we shall be safer when we look out on nature with the

analogy of human agency in our mind, than when we regard its

course as alien and indifferent. In other words, Nature is not

merely an AEolian harp which re-echoes tones given out by the

human soul--though that would be much!--but an indispensable

agent in producing them. The action is reciprocal, just because

man and his external world interpenetrate at every point, and are

united organically in a common life.