September 19, 2017

In praise of the “seely spider” (long version)

A review of Nature’s Web: an exploration of ecological thinking, by Peter Marshall. Simon and Schuster, London 1992.

This version is unpublished, however a shorter version appeared in The Ecologist Vol. 23 No. 3, May–June 1993.


It is beginning to dawn on people, Peter Marshall tells us, that

“what is wrong is not really our present industrial practices, but industrialism itself . . . what is wrong is nothing less than the way we see and act in the world.”

In other words, we need a new ecological world-view and a new associated cultural behaviour pattern. Marshall undoubtedly makes an important contribution to their development by tracing the history of ecological ideas as they were expressed in the main religious, philosophical and scientific movements of the historical era.

Peter Marshall devotes the first quarter of his book to determining the ecological content of mainstream religions such as Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, the religion of Ancient Egypt, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, together with that of the animistic religions of the Greeks, Romans and the American Indians. The chapter on Taoism is particularly well documented. He sees it as being, above all, a religion of nature, as for that matter, was early Vedic Hinduism. This section on Hellenic religion contains a wealth of valuable quotes. Thus, Zeno of Cythium, the founder of Stoicism, saw

“the goal of life, as life in accordance with nature, or in other words, in accordance with our own human nature as well as that of the universe, a life in which we refrain from every action forbidden by the law common to all things, that is to say, the right reason which pervades all things, and is identical with Zeus, Lord Ruler of all that is.”

The author, like Lynn White before him, considers that “many of the ecological ills of modern civilisation may be traced to the Judao-Christian tradition”. He sees this tradition as anthropocentric, patriarchal and of course, as separating “man from nature, spirit from matter and soul from body”.

He admits, however, that there is a strong ecological undercurrent in the Christian tradition, which he traces with considerable skill and knowledge, accentuating the works of St. Benedict of Murcia – whom he sees as the patron saint of conservation – St. Bernard of Clairvaux – the founder of the Knights Templar – and, of course, St. Francis of Assisi, who is now the patron saint of ecology.

Interesting sections are also devoted to Maister Eckhart. He notes interesting enough, how Archbishop William Temple, a the beginning of this century, tried to formulate a philosophy of religion that did not separate God from the creation and create an unbridgeable gap between man and other animals:

“The treatment of the earth by man the exploiter is not only impudent, it is sacrilegious. We are unlikely to correct our hideous mistakes in this realm unless we recover the mystical sense of our one-ness with nature. Many people think this is fantastic. I think it is fundamental to our sanity.”

In his chapter on North American Indians, the author notes the extraordinary community spirit of the Hopis of New Mexico. He tells how Senator Henry L. Dawes realised that they could not be civilised unless that spirit were radically undermined. Among them, the Senator admitted, “there is no selfishness”, and “selfishness is at the bottom of civilisation”. For this reason their community spirit had to be undermined and to do so, the Senator introduced the General Allotment Act, which turned their community lands into private plots – but the Hopi would have none of it and insisted on maintaining their co-operative ways.

In spite of this, the author is not really sold on tribal cultures. The tribal societies, he notes, are warlike and intolerant of people of different blood. Women are not given equal voice and male elders generally rule. There are often ruling elites. I personally am not impressed by these criticisms. I do not believe that we can judge such societies in terms of their ability to conform to Western liberal ideals.

The second part of this book traces the development of scientific and philosophical ideas within our western civilisation. The first chapter deals with the relevance of Alchemy to ecological thought. The author then traces the development of modern science, accentuating the extent to which its underlying ideas, as formulated by Bacon, could not have been more anti-ecological.

Consider that for Bacon, the virtuous man should seek “victory over his nature” and “alter and subdue nature” which Bacon saw as “incomplete and corrupt”. He even accused his contemporaries of contemplating and reverencing nature “more than is fit”. Bacon foresaw many of the latter developments of science; he glorified scientific experiments on living animals and anticipated genetic engineering. Blake declared that “Bacon’s philosophy has ruin’d England”. And as Marshall notes, “One might add that it has ruined the earth itself”.

If one can incriminate Bacon, so can one incriminate Descartes, who is usually taken to be the originator of the mechanistic view of the living world. If an animal is a machine, then Descartes is quite right in telling us that if one squeals, when cut with a knife, this does not mean that it feels pain.

“When a wagon wheel grates, it cannot be said to be in pain; it merely needs oiling. The cry of a beaten dog is therefore no different to the sound of an organ when its stops’ levers are moved. To nail a dog to a table, like Vesalius, and dissect it alive to study the circulation of the blood is therefore not different from dismantling a clock, and it is misguided sentiment to commiserate with the victim. Animals do not belong to our moral community and are not worthy of moral consideration.”

Thomas Hobbes and Galileo are subjected to equally critical treatment. The author sees Hobbes as standing at

“the very antithesis of an ecological sensibility with his mechanical view of nature and man, his nightmarish depiction of the state of nature, his celebration of power, and his artificial and absolute state.”

the chapter on the “philosophical counter-revolution” is also enlightening. Marshall trades the little known contribution of Giordano Bruno to ecological thought as well as that of Montaigne. Both seem to have variously questioned the very principle of improving nature – a principle that is clearly critical to the world-view of science.

“There is no reason [that] art should gaine the point of honour of our great and puissant mother nature. We have so much by our inventions surcharged the beauties and riches of her workes that we have altogether overchoaked her: yet where ever puritie shineth, she makes our vaine and frivolous enterprises wonderfully ashamed. . . All our endevour or wit, cannot so much as reach to represent the next of the least birdlet, its contexture, beautie, profit and use no more the work of the seely spider.”

Montaigne rejected man’s effort to separate himself from the rest of nature.

“Presumption is our natural and original disease, tis by the same vanity of imagination that (man) equals himself to God, attributes to himself divine qualities and withdraws and separates himself from the crowd of other creatures.”

He condemned man’s “imaginary sovereignty” over these other creatures even in so far as to commend that trees and plants be treated with “humanity”. Interestingly enough, the famous French 16th century potter, Bernard Palissy, also shard Montaigne’s views. He was particularly outspoken in condemning the destructive agricultural methods which were apparently already coming into vogue:

“I tell you that there is no art in the world which requires more philosophy than agriculture, and I say that if agriculture is carried on without philosophy, it amounts to a daily violation of the earth and the things it produces; and I marvel that the earth and its products do not cry for vengeance on certain murderers, ignorant and ungrateful, who every day do nothing but waste and ruin the trees and plants without any consideration.”

The section on Spinoza’s philosophy is also illuminating, as is that on John Ray and Natural Theology. The section on the Earl of Shaftesbury is even more enlightening. I had only heard of Shaftesbury in connection with factory reform, but he was, apparently, a philosopher, who was highly opposed to the reductionist and mechanistic philosophy of the scientific revolution. He wrote,

“All things in this world are united for as the branch is united with the tree, so is the tree as immediately with the earth, air, and water which feed it.”

To him it was an article of faith that “divine Nature” formed “the great and general one of the world”. When we take something to be evil, he considered, “it is largely because of failure to see it as part of the whole”.

Marshall describes the reaction against the modern world by a number of French philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Among them was Guillaume de Forgny who was particularly impressed by the life of Australian Aborigines. Another was Diderot, the editor of the famous Encyclopaedie, who felt that the lifestyle of the Tahitians was superior to that of civilised man.

Another, of course, was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote: “it was iron and corn which first civilised men, and grew inhumanity”. His attack on the principle of private land-ownership which was unknown in the natural world, is worth quoting:

“The first man, who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘this is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes or filling in the ditch, and crying to his fellows: ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody’.”

Part Three is very much a continuation of Part Two. It contains two very valuable chapters on the Romantics. Their importance cannot be exaggerated. Coleridge, Blake, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and Goethe were true ecologists, far more discerning than their scientific counterparts. The importance of Blake in the history of ecological thought has been stressed in great detail by Theodore Roszak in Where the Wasteland Ends. The importance of Wordsworth is accentuated by Donald Worster’s Nature’s Economy and by many others.

Marshall particularly accentuates the importance of Coleridge, who criticised Newton and his successors for their materialism and their view of mind as essentially passive – “a lazy looker-on on an external world” rather than as inherently creative. Coleridge also understood that objective rational thought is an illusion. Man is necessarily emotional – for him “deep thinking is only possible by a man of deep feeling”. He also criticised Newton and his successors for seeing the world as “an immense heap of little things”. For him,

“the mind aches to behold and know something great, something one and indivisible.”

Marshall sees Coleridge, “more than any other British thinker”, as clearing the ground for an ecological philosophy.

A particularly interesting chapter is that on the Utopian or anarchist thinkers, a subject that Marshall knows particularly well (see his book Demanding the Impossible: history of anarchism, Fontana Press, 1992). As he notes, they “helped shape the green vision of decentralised and self-governing communities in harmony with nature”. The chapter contains valuable sections on William Godwin, Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin and William Morris.

Proudhon, Marshall notes, was particularly horrified by modern man’s attitude to the soil:

“Men no longer love the soil. Landowners sell it, lease it, divide it into shares, prostitute it, bargain with it and treat it as an object of speculation. Farmers torture it, violate it, exhaust it and sacrifice it with their impatient desire for gain. They never become one with it.”

Like Gandhi, he saw the ideal society as organised into a federation of self-governing communities. He believed in natural order as did the Taoists and also William Godwin. “Anarchy is order”, he wrote. It was the State that created disorder. Kropotkin saw things in much the same way. Nature he regarded as “the first ethical teacher of man” whom he thought as naturally social and moral. A commune should provide the basis of society which should be not more than a web or

“an interwoven network, composed of an infinite variety of groups and federations of all sizes and degrees, local, regional, national and international – temporary or more or less permanent – for all possible purposes.”

The next chapters in Part Three, deal with the contribution of 19th and 20th century science and philosophy to the ecological world-view.

The chapter on Darwin accentuates the positive contribution of that great man’s thinking to the ecological world-view – but there is little on its very negative contribution.

The chapter on the development of ecology as an academic discipline is also relatively weak. There is little on the organismic or holistic ecology, that developed in academia in the first 30 years or so of this century, or on the way it has been perverted to make it conform with the scientific world-view – as is so well documented by Donald Worster in his Nature’s Economy.

The chapter on the prophets of wilderness such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold – “the philosophers of the earth” as Marshall refers to them, is excellent, though perhaps a little short. On the other hand, their contribution has been described at great length in a number of other works, such as Max Oelschlaeger’s The Idea of Wilderness. The same can be said for the chapters on the new science and the resurrection of Gaia.

In the last chapter, “Ecotopia revisited”, Marshall summarises his personal views. He accepts our present desperate situation: “Nothing short of a fundamental change in consciousness within society can prevent us from careering towards ecocide”. The solution must reside in the development of a “decentralised society of self-managing communities” which he sees as resembling “a web, with interwoven strands” rather than a pyramid.

The cell of such a living society, for Marshall, would be the “affinity group” – or a “voluntary association of free individuals formed by those of common interests and purposes”. He seems to prefer this to the extended family. Indeed, like many western thinkers today, he is suspicious of the family, which he associates with tyranny and sexual discrimination.

Of course, I cannot agree with him. For me, the community, by its very nature, can only be an association of extended families. However, in the West at least, we no longer have the extended family – even the unstable nuclear family is under siege – whereas we do have affinity groups; and it may well be that by creating those conditions that make possible the emergence of affinity groups as “fundamental organising units of society” as he proposes, that we will also be creating the conditions in which the extended family and the community can re-emerge.

Marshall accentuates a democracy that will have to be direct and participatory and would control economic activities occurring within it. His ecological society would apply the principles of “ecocentric impartiality” with a minimum of other creatures and natural communities whose needs would “be given precedence over non-vital human needs”.

The Economy would be decentralised and as self-sufficient and self-reliant as possible, drawing on local materials and plants. Agriculture would be organic “and attempts to govern evolution would be dispensed with”. There would be a new relationship with the land – “a land ethic of partnership and co-operation”. Industry would also be decentralised, work places being re-organised on the principle of self-management. This ecological society would necessarily be imbued with “an ecological sensibility” in which man will see himself as an integral part of his community, society, species and of the wider community of beings.

This encyclopaedic work is above all a history of ecological thought and hence of the development of an ecological world-view. Its value, to those already acquainted with the literature, is that it provides a detailed description of a number of important strands in the history of ecological though, which have been largely ignored by the principal authors in this field. It is also clear, well written, highly documented and deserves to be a standard work for use in our schools and universities.

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