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The Logos of Nature

by Julian David

Part 1 of 2

Nature is supremely capable of looking after itself. This 'Logos of Nature' is at the heart of Heraclitus' philosophy. Aristotle called it that which produces itself by rising out of itself


 Le Coeur a ses raisons que La Raison ne connait point.
 – Pascal
The Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the Crown;
The Lion beat the Unicorn all around the Town. 
– English Nursery Rhyme

The Lion and the Unicorn are heraldic supporters of the Royal Coat of Arms. They are holding up the shield, and represent the ideal for the state: power and love together. But they are opposites, and when they fight it is completely unequal. The nature of the Unicorn is deeply mysterious. He has no great teeth and claws; he doesn’t even exist. He is a mythical animal, sometimes glimpsed in the woods, but fading back into the shadows before you have really seen him. The Lion is power. There’s no fading away from him, and no doubt about what he means, either. Yet here we have both holding up the shield together. And though Love is the least understood word in the English language, it is also the most used. Sometimes even the Lion thinks it is the only thing that matters.

The whole question is in a state of great confusion—inevitable because our thinking was bent sideways by the impact, twenty-five centuries ago, of Logic. The founding premise of Aristotle’s Logic was that opposites exclude each other. This made it an impossible language for understanding a world in which opposites need each other—and the life-principle itself is in their mingling. 

Two Kinds of Being
Now Aristotle knew this perfectly well, since he loved Nature, spent a great deal of time studying it, and recognized that a completely different principle governed it to that of the inorganic world. All philosophy is concerned with the nature of Being (in Greek, to on; from which we derive ontology). Early in his Nature studies, Aristotle distinguished between two kinds of being. The first, tekne onta, was ‘produced by human planning and execution.’ The second, that of Nature, he called physei-ontathat which produces itself by rising out of itself.

What depths are contained in that simple everyday description! It is what any child recognizes when he puts a seed into a jar of earth and watches it grow. He can see and feel what is happening, for it is the very process of creation.  But he cannot think it, although at school he is expected to be able to think things. Even when he grows up, he will still not be able to think this one. He may put it out of his mind and await a universal scientific theory that will shine a light even into this darkest corner of Being. But if he doesn’t put it out of his mind, the mystery will lie increasingly heavy upon him. James Lovelock, who gave us the Gaia hypothesis, was one such. Another was the logical philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who said:
The mystical is not how the world is, but that it is.

The ‘mystical’ he spoke of is that darkness from which, in Aristotle’s thinking, the things of Nature come; it is the ‘self’ from which they arise, located somehow in the seed or rhizome. The mystery cults of Greece were drawn by this darkness. Others saw it also in the whole of visible Nature as epiphania  (the showing-outwards of the mystery).

Aristotle’s logic became the basis of medieval Christianity, and later of the scientific world that followed it, but his work on Nature sank out of sight. Logic yielded great power on the inorganic levels of matter, but it did not touch the living; and the culture had no motive to do so. Christianity dismissed Nature as firmly as Socrates himself, when he told Phaedo that "Nature cannot teach me anything". Indeed, Nature for Christianity was ‘in original sin,’ a primal rebellion against God. Since the nature of God was Logic (as Aquinas assured them), Nature was also in rebellion against logic. Why should anyone want to learn from her? Far better, as Socrates told his pupil, to get a good training in mathematical logic. 

The pupil took notice, right up into our own time. The Romans, after all, had declared homo homini lupus: “Man is a wolf to man”. And at the beginning of the twentieth century, Freud confirmed that without the inhibitions of culture, men would reveal themselves as ‘savage beasts to whom the thought of sparing their own kind was alien.’ 

We knew nothing of Nature, and didn’t want to know, although we were increasingly up against the peril of our own aggression. We knew nothing of men (which would be psychology) or wolves (which would be ethology). Our supposedly empirical culture was thoroughly un-empirical with respect to living Nature, and it is easy to see why. The inorganic world was obedient and predictable—the same experiment could be repeated time after time and yield the same result. As soon as there was life in the picture however, nothing was predictable any more. The living world was a wilderness of the ‘illogical’.

Rediscovering Nature’s Logos
When Konrad Lorenz’s studies of animal behaviour appeared in the 1950s, they showed Nature to be supremely capable of looking after itself, by following a logic of its own. This was the first time we knew that in a battle between wolves, the loser need only bare his most vulnerable part, his throat, for the winner to be mysteriously inhibited from harming him. Precedence was thereby established in the pack, which didn’t lose a wolf. Here was a natural rationality far more subtle than anything that human logic could produce. It displayed a survival instinct quite beyond anything our logic could comprehend, for it was deeper than the individual and deeper than the species—as deep as the whole living system of which it was a part. Herein lies a deep psychological principle we find in the whole of Nature, and the Earth as revealed by the Gaia hypothesis. It implies that a profound change is needed in our human experience of the survival instinct. For like the dominant wolf, we must now emotionally reconcile the opposites of competition and cooperation within ourselves, in order to ensure the survival of our kind and our whole living world.

Man is evidently the most destructive beast on the planet because he has stepped out of the carapace of what is instinctually known, in which even predator-species and their prey know that the other is necessary to themselves. A herd of antelope can graze peacefully within sight of the lion’s feast because they know he has had one of them and is safe for a while. And the lion responds, on his part, by not killing more than he needs. The keys to understanding all of Nature’s behaviour are its instinctually known limits. 

Before the development of the life sciences (ethology, ecology, psychology and the rest) in the middle of the most destructive century in human history, living Nature had been hidden behind a screen of our own imaginings, in which the principal elements were ‘original sin’ on the one hand, and raw chaos (until humans organize it) on the other. Such was the strength of our conformity that it took a brave man like Darwin to act as if the screen didn’t exist and simply look. 

→ Go to Part 2


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