This chapter concerns attitudes to nature in the period before 1500 CE
. With the exception of one allusion to ancient China and one to ancient India, it is concerned with Western cultures, broadly enough interpreted to include the rise of Islam and its spread into much of the Middle East, and beyond that to the lands once conquered by Alexander, such as Iran and Afghanistan. Yet it primarily focuses on the Greeks and the Romans, on the Old and New Testaments, on early Christianity and on Europe in the Middle Ages. For these were the periods and the cultures from which many more recent attitudes have derived, as becomes clear in Chapter 2
, which depicts the early modern period of Europe.
While the predominant ancient stance was that humanity can and should be in control of nature, it was from the Greeks, in particular, that we have received, on the one hand, belief in human stewardship of the natural world (a belief to which Christianity later contributed: see Chapter 2
), and, on the other, belief in the world as a living being, an ancient theme echoed many centuries later in James Lovelock’s theory of Gaia (see Chapter 8
). Greeks such as Empedocles and Romans such as Lucretius were among early adherents of speculative versions of the theory of evolution by natural selection, more recently supported with empirical evidence and a different conceptual scheme by Charles Darwin (see Chapter 3
); this theory has in turn fostered a new ecological awareness (see Chapter 4
Thus, while some readers may prefer to turn to the chapters about Darwin and environmental thought in the subsequent period, it may be rewarding to review first the beliefs and theories of the ancient and medieval worlds. These are the focus of the current chapter.
Greeks and Romans
This section concerns the ancient worlds of the Greeks and the Romans – the period from 700 BCE to the Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century CE. (The Homeric poems, which may have attained their current form around 700 BCE, bear many traces of earlier thought and practice, but are not considered here.) The thousand years under consideration nourished beliefs, attitudes and practices of immense diversity, and embodied a large variety of attitudes to nature, the land and the natural environment. No claim is made to anything like comprehensive coverage here. Instead, I have selected certain prominent, significant and contrasting claims and statements, whether in prose or verse, in song, drama or philosophy. (As we shall see, some of these were overlapping categories, with much drama and much philosophy expressed in poetic form.) Some have been selected because of their later influence, whether ultimately misleading, like Empedocles’ belief in four basic elements, or far-sighted, like his belief in a kind of natural selection (albeit without any recognizable belief in adaptation). Predominantly, however, ancient writers must be allowed to speak for themselves, and ancient practices, however questionable, to receive attention, if only because they supply the context of related thinking and protests, both contemporary and subsequent.
Hesiod and Virgil
All ancient civilizations were agrarian, observes J. Donald Hughes (1994: 131), and dependent on agriculture and the soil. (Some, however, could remember a nomadic past.) So it is not surprising that the fifth-century BCE tragedian Sophocles wrote of Earth as the greatest of the gods, from whom the other gods were descended (Antigone, 338–41; Hughes 1994: 130). There are many other passages of the fifth-century tragedians celebrating the Earth as universal Mother, despite recognition of Zeus as the supreme deity.
Nor is it surprising that one of the earliest surviving poems in the Greek language is the poetic guide to farmers (of several centuries earlier than Sophocles) on how to scratch a living from the soil of Boeotia (central Greece), Hesiod’s Works and Days (around 700 BCE). Hesiod encourages farmers to plough diligently and thus garner enough of a harvest to survive the winter without needing to beg from neighbours. His world is one of small-scale farming and peasant proprietors, albeit also one where much of the hard work is done by slaves.
Hesiod thus became the father of didactic verse, poetry intended to teach a message. This was accomplished in hexameters, the same rhythm as that of the Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, with their heroic themes. But there is nothing heroic about Works and Days; Hesiod is aware of living in an Age of Iron, in which the Earth has greatly degenerated from the golden age when ‘the fruitful field bare fruit abundantly and without stint’ (Works and Days, 117–18, 176–7; Hughes 1994: 130). Such belief in decline, both in nature and in human nature, was widespread in the ancient world, although, as we shall see, there were some significant exceptions.
Nearly seven hundred years later, the Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BCE) wrote another didactic poem to foster farming, again in hexameters, but this time in Latin, the Georgics. Virgil lived in an age of farms both large and small, and of large armies. He was an influential supporter of (and propagandist for) the first Emperor, Augustus, who ruled the Roman world, which extended to almost all the shores of the Mediterranean and half of Europe (but not yet Britain). Virgil’s poem is elegantly written and reflects patriotic pride in the beauty of the Italian landscape; it was written as much for poets as for farmers, although some in our own day have attempted to implement his precepts (presented in his final book) for bee-keeping.
As Peter Coates (a historian of attitudes to nature since ancient times) has written, Virgil’s poem extols ‘the husbandman’s self-reliance, celebrating honest, open-air toil as man’s … pursuit’ (1998: 35), though not, as Coates declares, humanity’s original pursuit, as there had been a previous age of plenty, when all needs had been met without effort (an echo of Hesiod’s golden age). Virgil explains that Jupiter, the Roman equivalent of Zeus and father of farming, did not want the human path to be easy, but sought to stimulate human skill and effort through introducing a hostile environment, inhabited with dangerous creatures like snakes and wolves, in which humans had to earn their livelihoods (Georgics I: 122–46).
Despite exceptions, most ancient writers accepted the rightness of human control of nature. For Virgil, though, human control was limited, and the human relation to the land served as a means of building human character. Yet others adopted a sunnier view of nature than Virgil; thus, in his Natural History (77 CE), Pliny the Elder, who wrote about agriculture voluminously (in prose), ‘celebrated nature as a storehouse’ (Coates 1998: 28), fit for humans to mine, till and domesticate. Sadly (and perhaps ironically), he was killed by the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in 79 CE.
Hesiod and Virgil represent different ages, the first an age of small-scale agriculture and small Greek states, albeit ones spread around much of the Eastern Mediterranean, and the second an age of large-scale farming and large empires, and with much greater literacy and a much larger city-based reading public. Their shared role of briefing farmers showed that the problems of deriving a living from the land persisted. Yet while with Hesiod the struggle was pursued in bitter earnest, Virgil wrote with greater consciousness of the beauty of landscape, but with little or no sense that preserving it might become a problem. Many centuries later, Virgil became a source of inspiration for the eighteenth-century naturalist Gilbert White of Selborne (see Chapter 2
) (Worster 1985 : 27–8).
It is time for philosophy to enter the story. During the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, philosophy arose among the Greeks of Miletus in Asia Minor, and spread to the Greek colonists of Italy and Sicily. Several wrote tracts on the true or underlying nature of nature. For present purposes, our focus will be on the Sicilian Greek, Empedocles of Acragas (c. 490–430 BCE), not because he was the most profound of the Greek philosophers, but because of his unique contributions, centrally relevant to how we should understand nature.
Empedocles was probably a Pythagorean (or follower of Pythagoras), believing in reincarnation, and in the possibility of returning as an animal. This may be why he advocated vegetarianism (Coates 1998: 33), a minority stance in the ancient world, but one followed much later by some of the Neoplatonists. The possibility of humans being transformed into animals was later to be explored by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE) in his Metamorphoses (a work of great influence in the Renaissance period). In faraway China it was also developed in the late fourth century BCE by Zhuangzi, who imagines a fish being transformed into a giant bird, to the amazement of smaller creatures. Zhuangzi’s aim was to show us how different from our own the perspective of the large bird would be, and thus how we can be liberated from our habitual, narrow human perspectives (Hourdequin 2015: 82–3). I am not suggesting any influence from the Pythagoreans of the West to the Daoists of China (or vice versa), or from or to either school to or from the Jains of sixth-century India who also taught respect for all creatures, but rather that all three of these schools of thought can open up the possibility of transcending perspectives focused on human beings alone.
We would, however, be mistaken if (with Hughes) we trace environmentalism back to the ancient Pythagoreans, whose stance was an ascetic, dualistic and ritualistic one, and for whom there is no evidence of belief in the vulnerability of species, conservation or concern for sustainability. Nor (come to that) should we credit the ancient legend that Empedocles died by casting himself into the crater of Mount Etna, despite Matthew Arnold’s poem depicting his death in this manner.
Perhaps Empedocles’ most original contribution was his theory of the evolution of living creatures by a kind of natural selection. At one stage, he held, all kinds of monstrosities came into being, alongside the ancestors of surviving creatures, but the monsters did not prove viable, and thus the range of species was winnowed down to those that survive today. Aristotle later poured scorn on this theory, although Epicurus (fourth to third centuries BCE) adopted a revised form of it. Much later still, Charles Darwin acknowledged Empedocles as a predecessor for his different but related theory; indeed, Darwin wrote of Empedocles: ‘We see here the principle of natural selection shadowed forth’ (Burrow 1985: 53). Empedocles combined this theory with belief in the kinship of human beings and (other) animals, a belief seldom recaptured until the time of Darwin.
Empedocles also devised the theory that everything is made of the four elements, earth, air, fire and water, his solution to the problem of finding something permanent that underlies change. This theory was enthusiastically adopted by Aristotle, and in consequence was held in high favour until the atomic theory was gradually adopted instead by seventeenth-century scientists. Atomism itself was put forward by Democritus of Abdera (fifth century BCE
), and adopted in the later ancient world by Epicurus and his followers; but the authority of Aristotle overshadowed it for two thousand years. The four-element theory could be seen as a false start; but it remained an important contribution to people’s understanding of nature for centuries to come. Understanding historical attitudes to nature cannot be limited to successful theories, as if ancient people were trying to anticipate modern findings; that approach is prone instead to mischaracterize the past, and to underestimate its distinctiveness. Nevertheless, Empedocles’ speculative theory of evolution by natural selection was eventually found to be partially (and almost accidentally) on target by nineteenth- and twentieth-century scientists (see Chapter 3
Greek medicine: Hippocrates and ‘Airs, Waters, Places’
Hippocrates of Cos (c. 460–c. 375 BCE) was one of the founders of ancient medicine, and travelled around the islands of the Aegean sea, teaching medical students. For present purposes, his most relevant tract was ‘Airs, Waters, Places’, which seeks to trace the influence of seasons, winds, waters and climates on both human health and human temperaments and cultures. This tract can be seen as prefiguring the late twentieth-century subject of bio-climatology, and has recently been hailed by Anthony Capon (in an address at Cardiff University) as an ancient anticipation of modern ecological studies.
I am not suggesting that ‘Airs, Waters, Places’ exercis...