21L.449 | Spring 2002 | Undergraduate

End of Nature


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

This subject offers a broad survey of texts (both literary and philosophical) drawn from the Western tradition and selected to trace the growth of ideas about nature and the natural environment of mankind. The term nature in this context has to do with the varying ways in which the physical world has been conceived as the habitation of mankind, a source of imperatives for the collective organization and conduct of human life. In this sense, nature is less the object of complex scientific investigation than the object of individual experience and direct observation. Using the term “nature” in this sense, we can say that modern reference to “the environment” owes much to three ideas about the relation of mankind to nature. In the first of these, which harks back to ancient medical theories and notions about weather, geographical nature was seen as a neutral agency affecting or transforming agent of mankind’s character and institutions. In the second, which derives from religious and classical sources in the Western tradition, the earth was designed as a fit environment for mankind or, at the least, as adequately suited for its abode, and civic or political life was taken to be consonant with the natural world. In the third, which also makes its appearance in the ancient world but becomes important only much later, nature and mankind are regarded as antagonists, and one must conquer the other or be subjugated by it.

The argument underlying this subject is that notions in the Western tradition about the relation of culture to the natural environment have been imbued with these three ideas, sometimes alternatively, sometimes in combination, and that the history of ideas about nature is a history of the varying emphases placed upon them, rather than a progress or succession in which one of these ideas triumphs upon a predecessor. The purpose of the subject is to acquaint the student with some of the classic texts embodying these ideas and to show their contemporary relevance.

A series of complex issues will run throughout this subject and are best exemplified by the following series of questions: What is the overall character of the natural world? Is it orderly and self-adjusting or random and unstable? If nature is orderly, is mankind part of the natural community or an exile from it? If unnatural, can mankind have ethical responsibilities to anything with which it is not in communal relationship? (Do mountains have rights?) If ethical, is mankind’s relation to planet earth one (a) of stewardship and care, (b) of partnership and mutual dependence, (c) of management for exploitation, or (d) of mutual hostility and destruction? Or does mankind relate to planet earth as colonists to an alien world? Our conflicting ideas about the natural environment will be exemplified in poetry, in narrative fiction, and in discursive arguments from the renaissance to the present, but the subject also admits a brief examination of the views of Aristotle and the summation of the Stoic view expressed in the second part of Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods.

The subject begins with the first chapter of Genesis and the second blessing on mankind after the Flood, which are read during the first meeting of the class and then discussed. The first assignment is E. M. Forster’s early work of science fiction, “The Machine Stops”, which depicts a human environment that is wholly man-made and subject to engineering control. After these initial readings, which are meant to serve as the jumping-off point for general discussion, the syllabus will begin with works from the Early Modern period, range through the next three centuries, and end with some consideration of the contemporary theme of “the end of nature”, that is, sense that of a proper relation between nature and mankind has been lost in modern industrial culture. Among authors read will be Aristotle, Defoe, David Hume, Rousseau, Wordsworth, Thoreau, Darwin, H. G. Wells and William Faulkner.

Course Format

The subject meets twice a week for two one-and-a-half sessions. Each session begins with a lecture of varying length, but changes over early into general discussion. Active participation in discussion is essential to the life of the class and the force and cogency of students’ remarks will have a marked influence on grades. Readings will total approximately seventy-five pages a week, sometimes more, sometimes less. Much of the grade will also depend upon the quality of the three written assignments required by the course, and spaced fairly evenly over the term: the papers will total twenty pages in entirety, two papers running to at least six pages each and a final paper running to at least eight pages. The papers will each deal with some aspect of the readings and discussion; topics may be invented by the students but an extensive list of suggested topics will be circulated two weeks in advance of each paper’s due date for those students who require it. The first of these papers will be rewritten upon its return and resubmitted in a form complaint with corrections made by the instruction on the pages of the first version. The second paper may be treated in the same way, depending upon the instructor’s judgment. The subject will also offer students opportunity for oral expression by reason of (a) its discussion format and (b) a division into groups of two or three students (depending upon enrollment), each of which will make two fifteen-minute presentations of materials conducive to the discussion of a given assignment, following the model of such presentations offered by the instructor at the outset of the term. There will be no final examination.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2002