Negotiating a Truce With Nature
My original intention was to write a review on a very interesting documentary titled Damnation on dam-building in the US and how dozens of dams that were built in previous centuries are now being dismantled due to environmental concerns. It’s presented from the nature activist and Native American perspectives. The near-extinction of several salmon species, and the huge expenses and efforts that are required to stop their extinction are accentuated. Overall, I think this was an important perspective and enjoyed learning this part of our history.
Right after this documentary, I watched another one titled Leave it to Beavers, on how beavers have changed their environment … for the good. How they create oases of life even in the desert and preserve habitats for other creatures, how they coexist with other rodents within their dens peacefully and share food sources during the winter, and how they’re fluffy and adorable smart creatures who form life-long bonds with their families.
I thought: how interesting that when beavers follow their instinct, they build good dams and when humans follow theirs they build bad dams. Is it the profit motive, or perhaps the need for hydroelectricity that corrupts our dam-building projects and turns them against nature?
The Spanish word for a dam is represa. One of the themes that stand out in both documentaries is the way in which our relationship with our rivers reflects our relationship with nature as a whole: our environmental awareness and how we see our place in nature finds expression in our construction of dams, in this idea of repressing the waters, repressing nature, keeping nature under control because we know better than nature. This, when taken to extremes, can result in great environmental devastation, but we must admit it can also provide civilization with great advantages at times.
We must not force Nature but persuade her. – Vatican Saying 21
One of the researchers from Canada conducted an experiment, which reminded me of how Epicureanism teaches that nature leads us to what’s best for us and accentuates the importance of heeding our faculties: he left a recording of running water near the site where one of the beavers lived, as part of efforts to manipulate beaver behavior so that their building projects won’t interfere with Canada’s roads and other man-made infrastructure. The noise of running water produced an instinctive drive in the beaver to build a dam exactly in the location where the researcher wanted the dam built.
The moral of the story is that, whereas in the past we hunted beavers down and considered them as threats to our architectural projects, we are now learning that it’s not only possible to live with them, but also good for nature and for other species. We are learning that we can gently persuade their natural faculties and achieve an effect such that no mutual harm will come between us.
Naturalness as a Virtue
The highest good is like water. Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive. It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.
- Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8
Water and its yielding properties often awaken our reactions to Mother Nature. Many river Goddesses are revered in India, most notably the Ganges and Saraswati rivers which bear the names of important deities. Ganges is believed to be a great purifier of karma. The African Venus, Oshun, gives her name to a river in West Africa and is believed to have come into creation “to refresh and sweeten” the lives of living creatures. Aphrodite was also born of the ocean and is adorned with the most pleasing attributes. Why nature is often personified as female is an interesting question. Maybe it’s because of the shared root of the words mother (Latin “mater“) and matter? Maybe this is because life originated in the waters of our early planet, or because the womb is moist? Even the Roman poet Lucretius started his exposé of materialist philosophy with an invocation of Venus.
We are told in the Tao Te Ching that part of water’s virtuous quality lies in the way in which it does not strive. Other elements have yang (masculine, active) attributes and are virtuous and effective when they strive with aggression, but not water. It is yin (feminine, passive) and works best by yielding.
This Epicurean idea that nature is best persuaded gently rather than by force is mirrored in Taoist philosophy, which teaches that the will must be in harmony with the nature of things and even makes ziran one of its central virtues, which most often translates into naturalness (zìrán; literally, “self-such“). In Taoism, naturalness is seen as the original state of all things, perhaps in the same way that Epicureans discern between cultural corruption and (uncorrupt) good-seeking, pleasure-seeking nature. Naturalness is associated with spontaneity and creativity, and with simply being oneself without deception or calculation.
Naturalness is cultivated by spending time in nature, living a healthy lifestyle, and by Zen (mindfulness) meditation. Ancestor reverence is also practiced by many religious Taoists, since it is the path of least resistance in the development of piety. Filial piety is one of the most natural expressions of virtue because of the familiarity of our loved ones. Also, in the martial arts, naturalness has to do with yielding movements used during battle to allow the offender to hurt himself and get tired: there are specific fighting techniques attached to this virtue.
Many other things which are perceived as achieving their perfection through non-resistance are seen as good and pleasant. You may have noticed the imagery of incompleteness and natural beauty which is prevalent in Eastern art: a bonsai tree dancing with the wind. A running current of water. Uncut wood. An uncarved block. There’s a natural, relaxed beauty and perfection in these things just as they are, without resistance, without manipulation.
Taoists are naturalist philosophers who believe that a human being, as a natural being and as a singular expression of nature, can also achieve this virtue of authenticity and simplicity, this naturalness or ziran, with little effort. To paraphrase Philodemus, “the good is easy to attain” if we go with the flow. Naturalness accentuates the ease with which virtue can be acquired if we gently persuade nature instead of forcing her.
Taoism emerged within the context, and in contrast to, Confucianism. This other school of Chinese philosophy places emphasis on ritual and etiquette, and is therefore perceived by Taoists as quite repressive of nature, sacrificing naturalness in the altar of formality, ritual, and deference. It represents culture whereas Taoism celebrates nature.
Although Epicurus’ instructions to follow the laws and customs of the state and of larger society resonates with Confucian formality and conformity to some extent, ultimately his lathe biosas (live unknown) teaching resonates more with Taoist belief in wu-wei (non-action, or non-resistence).
And so, this virtue of naturalness seems completely at home in Epicureanism, where virtue is defined as the means to pleasure and happiness. Can a man be at ease and achieve ataraxia while alienated from his natural self? It is clear that our teachers appeal to the natural state of things and to the nature of things as an ultimate authority, and even cite the newborn baby’s natural state as an example of why the pleasure and pain principles are irresistible.
I must also note that this naturalness that Taoists refer to is different from naturalism–an “-ism” most often understood as opposed to the belief in the supernatural. Naturalness is a positive human value, a real value and quality that leads to authenticity, creativity and efficiency.