One of US
Symposium “The future of European culture and the awakening of intelligence”, Paris, Luxembourg Palace, Medici room, 23rd February 2019
The deconstruction of nature: an anthropological crisis
I would like to introduce the aim of my talk with reference to The Iliad. As we are discussing European culture and the awakening of intelligence, I feel that this reference is a rather apt one. The passage in question takes place at a time when the Greeks are in a difficult position, they are being threatened by furious attacks from Troy led by Hector. It is all they can do to stand their ground. Homer describes the scene in the following way “they stood firmly as a wall, a vast sheer cliff facing the foam flecked sea, unshaken by howling gales and towering breakers beating against them1″. Why do I quote this passage? Because it symbolises the way in which human beings are capable of perceiving and understanding themselves. On one hand, man constantly projects himself onto the world and this leads them, in this example, to interpreting the immobility of the rock, against which the waves are constantly beating, as being a resistance opposing the waves. Men find it necessary, without even realising that they are doing it, to project themselves onto the rock, to feel its immobility as a way of “standing firm”. However, on the other hand, it is the image of the immobile rock facing the waves which enables man to understand and express how he himself behaves when he is faced by the attack of an enemy army. We could, of course, say that “Homer is a poet and as such he expressed himself with metaphors”. But consider this, how could we possibly describe the Greek resistance in the face of the Trojans if we were to do away with all the metaphors? It may, perhaps, be achievable if we were diligent. However, on one hand the result would be far less “eloquent” than Homer’s tale and on the other, our efforts to eliminate the metaphors in place of concepts would only give rise, in the end, to creating deception, because metaphors are to be found in the very origins of concepts. Nietzsche captured it perfectly when he stated that “The concept, which is as bony, four-square, and transposable as a die – is nevertheless merely the residue of a metaphor” 2.
1 Canto XV, v. 618-621.
2 Friedrich Nietzsche, “Truth and lies in a nonmoral sense” (1873), § 1, in
Le Livre du philosophe. Études théorétiques, bilingual ed. trad. Angèle K. Marietti, Aubier-Flammarion, 1969,
- 185 (highlighted).
What should we take from this? That the way in which man is aware of himself and his own behaviour is deeply compatible with the way in which he perceives and interprets nature. The recently deceased Robert Spaemann placed great importance on this point, the fact that the way in which we see nature and the way in which we think about ourselves actually go hand in hand. The immediate consequence: the appearance of modern science. An appearance which has unbalanced our relationship with nature, it has also, at the same time, altered the way in which men understand themselves.
I am obliged to keep this reflection and its content short, acknowledging only in passing my debt, on this point among many others, to Rémi Brague, particularly as regards his book titled The Wisdom of the World3. In short, the ancient world and the medieval world were fundamentally composed of heterogeneous elements. However, this cohabitation between said heterogeneous elements was far from a simple heaping together, nor was it complete chaos. Quite the opposite, it formed a cosmos, taking the principle definition of the word, a well ordered whole, a harmony. The key to penetrating this order was through analogy, which caused the different stratum of the being to fit together without merging but resonating off one another. Where man was concerned, he found his place by inserting himself into this gigantic analogical network which made up the cosmos, to his own convenience, following his own essence.
Modern thought conceives the world as something fundamentally homogeneous. The emblematic event which marked the transition from ancient thinking to modern-day thinking was the advent of the Copernicus system. A system which erased the ontological borders, which provided such structure to analogical thinking, between terrestrial and celestial worlds. Modern-day thinking takes the stance that Earth is just another planet among all the others, and that the universe in its whole is formed by elements of the same type which obey the same laws, elements and laws which science strives to bring to light.
In order to measure the difference between ancient and modern science, it is good to pause for a moment to consider the word “Physics”. This word stems from the Greek verb phuo, from the infinitive phuein, which in its transitive form means “to bear”, “to grow” and, in its intransitive form, “to come into being”, “to grow” or “to push”. We translate phusis as nature. This is justified as in Latin, natura is derived from the verb nascor, “be born” – “nature” and “nativity” come from the same root. Aristotle writes, in his book Physics “of all things, some are from nature (phusei), whereas others are from other causes. From nature are every sort of animal and their parts, and also the plants and simple bodies such as the earth, fire, air and water. For these and all things like them are said to be from nature4″. We see in this presentation of the objects of physics, and this is a fundamental point, that living beings come first, and inanimate objects only come later. It is from the living that all nature is conceived.
3 La Sagesse du monde (1999), Le Livre de Poche, col. “Biblio essais”, 2002.
4 Aristotle, Physics, book II, 192b.
What is happening with modern-day science? We are aware of Galileo’s allegation that the universe is written in mathematical language. From this understanding, the science led by Galileo consists of revealing the mathematicalness with which the universe is supposedly written from one extreme to the other. Ancient physics is determined by its object, phusis. Modern physics is, foremostly, determined by what it aims to obtain, the mathematicalness (in the broad meaning of the term) and by the methods which need to be followed in achieve this. Moreover, it is this that divided modern science. Ideally, everything should be mathematicised. In practice, the inability to understand everything mathematically justifies the existence, together with physics, of other natural sciences, where totally mathematical ideology falls short, such as chemistry and biology. However, the frame continues to be mathematical, as it is this same frame which governs the division of the sciences. Aristotle’s physics, parting from life, was struggling where the inanimate was concerned. Modern science is the opposite, as it parts from the inanimate, not due to principle, but rather because that is where mathematicalness can provide a relief, it is life which poses a difficulty here. With this inability to “mechanise” life completely, we invest a great deal of effort into mechanising and “chemicalising” the greatest number of elements possible within the living. The observation made by Françoise Jacob, half a century ago, is today more valid than ever, “We no longer question life in laboratories today. We no longer aim to define its limits. […] It is the algorithms of the living world that now interest biology” 5.
I have stressed from the beginning the relationship between the way in which men understand nature and the way in which they understand themselves. What consequences does the modern way of understanding nature carry for men? It is necessary to determine two moments. In principle, the objectivation-neutralisation of nature will provoke, comparatively, an dramatic amplification of human singularity. As the world becomes homogeneous, a space where the material moves according to universal laws, the divide between this homogeneous world and the human being, between extended substance and thinking substance, radicalises. The human being is no longer an unusual (truly unusual) being among other unusual beings, it is the only one which is truly singular, through being the only one possessing interiority. In the world, human conscience is as though it were insularised.
At the centre of a cosmos, man had to use his understanding to perform his role harmoniously, in a homogeneous and morally neutral universe, no place is assigned and one’s will can be followed with no restrictions. Not only is the transformation of the world permitted, but it also assumes the traits of a mission. For both the ancient and medieval, technology, on prolonging works of nature and even perfecting some, must have helped men to adequately perform their role within the cosmos, or the creation. For the modern, this technology is what is going to enable them to model at will their existence in a world which is nothing more than raw material, a world with no definition of its own with which to reach a compromise. The deployment
5 La Logique du vivant. Une histoire de l’hérédité, Gallimard, col. “Bibl. des sciences humaines”, 1970, pgs. 320-321.
of technology not only fails to find any assets which it may receive and respect, but it also supposes a moral shift, turning back on itself, as though it were a vector of good which must insert itself into a world devoid of good. As written by Rémi Brague “Neither the ancient nor the modern were ignorant of technology. […] however, [its] results were not considered to be something which offered an asset exceeding its level of usefulness and convenience. Instead, for the modern, to revolt against nature is to revolt against bad and spread good. In this way, technological production includes as an asset the force of moral practice”6.
Consequently, in the beginning, there is man, freed from scruples and inconvenient reflexions, striving to increase the power they excise in order to become maestros and masters of nature. They do, of course, obtain many benefits. Nevertheless, all coins have a flip side, and so we reach the second moment in the movement, persecuted by malice and blindness, we are driven to our ruin.
The principal cause of our ruin is the devastation of nature. To confirm this, it is enough to have retained a minimal degree of sensitivity towards the world. However, modern times have cast doubt over evidence offered by our senses, it is now necessary to produce “indicators” to verify observation. We have plenty of options from which to choose. One among many being that, currently humanity produces more residue than erosion produces sediment. Another, from the beginning of the 70s, being that humanity consumes more renewable resources than they regenerate. We call Earth Overshoot Day or Ecological Debt Day the date, ever nearer, in which humanity has already consumed its natural annual capital, in 2018, this date was 1st August. We are already living five out of twelve months on credit. It does not exclude that, under such pressure, what we now know as “ecosystems” will experience a rapid and massive collapse this century, one comparable in magnitude to the mass extinctions that Earth has suffered in the past, but in those days it was over a scale of millions of years. According to a recent WWF report, all species of vertebrate animals have undergone a decrease in numbers of more than half their number over the last forty years. We find ourselves in an entirely new situation. In his Theogony, Hesiod spoke of “broad-breasted Earth, ever the firm seat of all living beings” 7. Today, technological activism has reached such a point as to threaten the very conditions which we need to live. To coin a phrase by Hans Jonas, nature is today in a state of “critical vulnerability”, “a vulnerability unsuspected before it began to show itself in damage already done” 8.
6 La Sagesse du monde, op. cit., pg. 306.
7 Théogonie, v. 117.
8 Le Principe responsabilité (1979), trad. Jean Greisch, Flammarion, col. “Champs”, 1998, pg. 31.
That said, I have but dealt with one side of our difficulties, that one where the majority of those who call themselves ecologists take stand. The other side is related to that which I mentioned at the beginning, that men need, in order to better understand themselves, to reflect on the non-human, this being on one hand, the divine, and on the other, nature. The desperately poor concept of nature which has become established over several centuries allows it to be subject, to its detriment, to all possible and imaginable types of intervention. However, in addition to the fact that said interventions are wreaking havoc, men, by virtue of this link between understanding nature and understanding themselves, inevitably end up finding themselves trapped and smothered by the very way in which they view that which surrounds them. “The reigning of man” over a neutralised nature could only therefore, in principle, be transitory, with the sovereign destined to become dissolved in that which over which it reigns, the manipulator to become the object of his own manipulations. In a world purged of its purpose, one reduced to becoming a mere deposit providing resources used to serve human objectives, these objectives in turn become dissolved, to be more exact, the only remaining objective is the ever increasing deployment of resources, resources of which humans begin to form a part. In 1951, Heidegger wrote, “Since man is the most important raw material, one must reckon with the fact that some day factories will be built for the artificial breeding of human material”9. This day seems to be drawing ever closer.
From this point of view, the transhumanist ideology which is gradually invading public space is everything but a mere product of circumstance, an unexpected and teratological offspring stemming from the convergence of nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, information technology and cognitive sciences. It is in fact the culmination of a certain logic, the response against humans in the way that they treat nature beyond their own self. If we can understand this, then we can also understand that aiming to oppose transhumanism with the sanctification of man is an inadequate and desperate response, desperate because it is inadequate. What is in fact needed, is to advance towards a “kind” understanding of nature, an understanding which is not at the service of a “doing”, but instead one which helps man to understand his status in the Whole world.
I have said a kind understanding of nature. Is that not precisely what is being sought today through “animalism”, this trend which criticises so harshly the anthropocentrism of the moral and of rights, and which militates for a principle of equal consideration of rights to be applied to individuals, regardless of the species to which they belong? Nothing is “kinder” to nature, a priori, than this attitude. Except for the fact that if kindness to animals prohibits them from being thought of as machines at our disposal, it therefor also requires that they are seen for what they in fact are, in other words, as something which undoubtedly is not as “human beings like us”. On the other hand, basing the respect that
9 “Dépassement de la métaphysique”, in Essais et Conférences (1954), trad. André Préau, Paris, Gallimard, col. “Tel”, 1980, pg. 110.
we owe to animals on questioning the singularity of humans is highly contradictory. In fact, it seems to be a human singularity to worry about the destiny of other species. In actual fact, rejection of all violence against animals not only reflects the sympathy they feel for them, but also derives from the antipathy they feel towards their own animality, a trait which involves not living on air and light alone, but requiring other more consistent nourishment, one obtained from substances from other animals. Deep down, animalists and transhumanists are destined to understand one another, both hate meat. I will just add in passing that those who believe that by not consuming any animal product they avoid violence towards animals, reveal their ignorance of agriculture which involves a continuous battle against the surplus of animals. However, let us continue.
Saint Agustin defined virtue as an ordo amoris10, an order in which each object receives its corresponding type and degree of love. And this type and degree of appropriate love for animals is what Peguy tried to understand when he wrote that “man has the duty of primogeniture towards animals, since animals are adolescent souls” 11. This formula indicates what may, in nature, be a hierarchical rather than despotic dominance. In his review on Peguy’s thoughts, Hans Urs von Balthasar points out that the way he refers to animals is more important than we think as, he affirms, “it is by way of the animal kingdom that we are constantly able to evaluate anew whether a philosophy is capable of comprehending, not only the material and the spiritual, but also the intermediate life forms existing between the two”12. Those intermediate forms of life which modernity has proven to be so ill-equipped to deal with. In his Encyclopaedia, in the article “Encyclopaedia”, Diderot expresses the following programmatic observations, “man is the sole element from which to begin and to which everything must be reduced”. I would not wish to be guilty, in the eyes of the Enlightenment, of the same ingratitude that this trend demonstrated towards its predecessors. However, inheriting its legacy also means being mindful of that which the Enlightenment did not know how to think correctly. The world is formed by relationships, and it is madness to think that balanced relationships can be established by taking only one element into consideration; the human element. As time passes, the kingdom of man is generating a general sense of estrangement, one preluding a general collapse. After the afore quoted words of Diderot, he then adds, “Aside from my existence and the happiness of peers, what is the importance of the rest of nature to me?” For the reasons which I have attempted to explain here, it is of great importance.
10 La Cité de Dieu, XV, 22.
11 Marcel. Premier dialogue de la cité harmonieuse (1898), in Œuvres en prose complètes, ed. Robert Burac, 3 vol., Gallimard, col. “Bibl. de la Pléiade”, 1987-1992, t. I, pg. 56.
12 La Gloire et la Croix. II. Styles. Les aspects esthétiques de la Révélation, 2 vol., trad. Robert Givord y Hélène Bourboulon, Aubier, 1968-1972, t. II, “De saint Jean de la Croix à Péguy”, pág. 85, nota 55.