Duty to Nature

Index to this series

This is a synthesis of some ideas from a recent spate of posts in this blog. A theme is the question of why we do what we do, and whether what we do to Nature in particular—how we think of Nature—can change.

Farhang Mehr, The Zoroastrian Tradition, cover with image of Zarathustra

How we think of Nature already has changed, historically. In ancient Greece, Nature like us had purposes: rocks, to fall down; fire, to fly up; planets, to revolve about the earth. Later, Nature respected laws, again like us, in the ideal at least: now revolving about the sun, the planets obeyed Kepler’s laws; gasses obeyed the gas laws. These days, as we may have duties to one another, why should not planets and plants have duties? More importantly, why should we not have duties to them?

Garden of fire temple, Yazd, Iran, September, 2012

Garden of fire temple, Yazd, Iran, September, 2012

It may be that the ancient Persians perceived such duties. Herodotus says of the Persians (I.138),

ἐς ποταμὸν δὲ οὔτε ἐνουρέουσι οὔτε ἐμπτύουσι, οὐ χεῖρας ἐναπονίζονται, οὐδὲ ἄλλον οὐδένα περιορῶσι, ἀλλὰ σέβονται ποταμοὺς μάλιστα.

In a river they neither urinate nor spit; nor do they wash their hands or allow anybody else to do so; but they revere rivers greatly.

It might be good if we had this reverence. But what does it mean exactly? The passage above was brought to my attention by a book called The Zoroastrian Tradition: An Introduction to the Ancient Wisdom of Zarathustra (Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 2003). Though the book was published in California, it so happens that I bought it in 2012 in Iran, in the city of Yazd, where I also visited the Zoroastrian fire temple.

Fire temple, Yazd, Iran, September 2012

Fire temple, Yazd, Iran, September 2012

According to Farhang Mehr, author of The Zoroastrian Tradition,

The first part of the statement [of Herodotus above] consists of a set of facts concerning certain acts from which Persians abstained. The second part contains an expression of opinion which does not present the relevant Zoroastrian belief in its proper perspective. It was not the respect for the river, per se, but the pollution of water that concerned the Persians, no matter where the water happened to be. Water, like other elements of nature—air, soil and fire—should be kept diligently clean. This is a prescribed religious, as well as secular duty. It is not surprising that Zoroastrianism is labeled the first environmentalist religion [citation omitted]. In Zoroastrianism, matter and nature are as good as mind and soul. They are not evil and should be preserved and cared for.

This then might be taken as my theme: care for Nature.

Amir Chakhmaq Tekyeh, Yazd, Iran, September, 2012 (a shop inside the brightest portal sold Zoroastrian books like Mehr's)

Amir Chakhmaq Tekyeh, Yazd, Iran, September, 2012 (a shop inside the brightest portal sold Zoroastrian books like Mehr’s)

Why though do we do what we in fact do? Collingwood takes up the question in New Leviathan, his final effort, written as a contribution to Britain’s war against Nazi Germany. The book has four parts: “Man, Society, Civilization,” and “Barbarism.” I recently completed a project of working through the first of these parts, chapter by chapter, on this blog.

Three years ago, after about eight chapters (there are 23 in Part I), I had let the project lapse. I took it up again, inspired partly by a fellow called Brian E. Denton, who is working through War and Peace this year, writing about it every day, chapter by chapter, on Medium. I am motivated also by having in the White House a man who at least puts on a good show of being a barbarian. Collingwood’s barbarians though—the Saracens, the Albigensian heretics, the Turks, and the Germans—are a threat because of their competence.

I do feel as if I have reached some new understanding from my reading of Collingwood now. This is what I want to talk about here. It has to do with the distinction between right and duty: between doing something because a rule tells us to, and doing it because it is an obligation.

It seems we expect things in the world to do what they do for the same kinds of reasons that we do; thus if we explain our own behavior in “regularian” terms, terms of rule and law, then perhaps our natural science is likely to be the kind that is done today, when laws are sought that govern planets and particles.

If we understand our own behavior in terms of duty, then we are going to understand other people in proper historical terms, according to Collingwood’s understanding of what history should be. People who can act dutifully are unique independent individuals, and proper history treats them as such. History is what was needed for dealing with the wars of the twentieth century; regularian natural science was good only for providing the material means of waging the wars.

Collingwood omits to mention the possibility of a “dutiful” natural science, a science that treats everything in the universe as a free agent, at least potentially. Ancient Greek science was utilitarian: things had ends. But a duty is not an end, or not simply an end. In his first book, Religion and Philosophy (1916), Collingwood does conclude that every event in the universe must be considered as an act of will. But then, as he says in An Essay on Metaphysics (1940), the philosopher’s job is not to tell the scientist what to do; it is rather to help the scientist figure out what he is doing. Thus arises Collingwood’s analysis whereby ancient science was utilitarian, while modern science has become regularian.

Such a change is not made consciously: it happens, and then we can look back and see that it happened. I can only suggest that it might be good if we understood ourselves as having a duty, not only to one another, but to Nature. It will not ultimately be useful or right to burn all of our underground fossil fuel; but this understanding alone may not be enough to prevent the burning from happening.

Collingwood derives his sense of duty from Christianity. In Harper’s for December 2016, I read of a professional conservationist called Stephen Blackmer who had been agnostic until he heard a voice. He went to divinity school and became an Episcopal priest. Now his church is 106 acres of forest in New Hampshire. In his services, he pours out some of the communion wine as a libation to the earth. I don’t think this is the kind of Paganism that Collingwood decries in New Leviathan; for reasons I have been sketching out, I hope it is something more.

I return then to my opening question: Why do we do what we do? For whatever reason, Collingwood does not mention an ambiguity. The question can be understood in either of two ways (if not more):

How do we justify what we do?

Why do we fail to do what we ought?

Collingwood’s question is Question One. However, Question Two does contain an answer to Question One. The justification for doing something is that we ought to do it.

“Ought” is the original past tense of “owe,” whose past participle was “own.” The last ultimately became a verb on its own, having the meaning that “owe” had originally. Thus “to owe” once meant simply “to have”; then the meaning became refined, so that now it is “to have as a duty.” Here “duty,” or rather its parent word “due,” has been taken from Latin, via French, precisely to refer to something owed.

In Collingwood’s view, if we can say of something that we do it because we ought to, or because it is our duty—if we can say this, and say it truly, then nothing more need be said.

Such is not the case, if we say it is right to do something. This is not a complete explanation of what we do. Etymologically speaking again, being right means satisfying a rule. A right line is a straight line, a line that matches the edge of a ruler. A right angle fits a carpenter’s square. But our own actions are not like lines or angles. Nothing that we do ever exactly fits a rule. No rule explains every last detail of what we do.

It is moreover a fact of life that rules conflict, even good rules. It is good not to lie, and it is good not to let people be carried off for deportation. Which rule are you going to follow? For Collingwood, writing in 1942, the enemy country had produced philosophers who preferred the first rule, always. This was not good.

Why is duty, or owing, a better explanation than rightness for what we do? As Collingwood says in An Autobiography (1939), the important thing is not what people say, but what they mean. After graduating from St John’s College, I paid off my student debt because I owed it; but I can hardly mean this to be a complete explanation for why I continued to make payments on my loan, even after returning to school as a graduate student.

I had been out of college long enough for loan payments to become due. I had been making these payments. In graduate school, I didn’t feel like figuring out how to defer them. This may have been a sin against the ghost of Benjamin Franklin, who preached,

Remember, that credit is money. If a man lets his money lie in my hands after it is due, he gives me the interest, or so much as I can make of it during that time. This amounts to a considerable sum where a man has good and large credit, and makes good use of it.

Remember, that money is of the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. . .

The quotation is made in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Routledge, 1992, pp. 14–5), by Max Weber, who comments:

Truly what is here preached is not simply a means of making one’s way in the world, but a peculiar ethic. The infraction of its rules is treated not as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty.

As far as I know, the federal government paid the interest on my loan while I was an undergraduate. If the government would have paid while I was in graduate school, then I lost any interest on the money that I used to pay off my loan. This money came from the salary I received as a teaching assistant. The residue was more than enough to cover my simple needs. Thus I did not mind making the loan payments. I was paying what I owed; I was doing my duty to the bank and the government. And yet, at the same time, it seems I failed in my duty to myself and the spirit of Capitalism.

Have I just shown that the concept of duty is not so simple as Collingwood suggests? I don’t think so. There ought to be a formula that completely explains what one does. Collingwood thinks “It is my duty” is a better formula than “It is right.” I think he is onto something. Following rules is better than nothing; but ultimately it is not enough. The way you engage with your spouse, for example is not simply a way that agrees with the rules for engaging with spouses. It depends on who she is and who you both are together.

Before the talk by Timothy Garton Ash at Bosphorus University on February 16—a talk that a wrote about in “Freedom to Listen”—I bought a coffee from the tiny cafe that fits under a stairway on Bosphorus University South Campus. The cafe is down the narrow passage, open at the top, formed by a building and a retaining wall. There is just enough room for a chair and a queue of customers. When I joined the queue, the young woman who had just bought her coffee asked if she could sit in the chair and smoke a cigarette. The barista said she could: there was no rule against it. I pointed out the smoke would come to those of us in the queue. The woman acknowledged my point, and she moved the chair away. Her smoke still came to me; but I didn’t have much longer to wait to have an espresso pulled.

It is good that the young smoker tried to respect the official rules about smoking. I hope she will think more about why such rules ought to be respected—if indeed they should. If you would not fart among other people, you should not smoke among them either, even under an open sky.

The Turkish government is at war with smokers, banning their essential activity from more and more places. If the war gives me cleaner air, that is a benefit. Both of my grandfathers; my mother’s brother and his wife; my mother’s best friend, who was also my friend; and finally (so far) my wife’s mother: all died from smoking. I will still say that these persons had a right to smoke. Smoking is a pleasure, and one that I have enjoyed; but like sex, though for a different reason, it is a pleasure that ought not to be enjoyed in public, among strangers, at least if they are too closely packed—as at a protest demonstration, or in a queue at a cafe. If smokers can learn to obey rules about where smoking is not allowed, this can be counted as progress: from a naturalized Turkish citizen (originally British), I hear that such progress has not been made in Greece. But what smokers really should learn is not to look for no-smoking signs, but to look out for people who may be annoyed by smoking: people who may be as unwilling to breathe smoke as the smokers themselves would be unwilling to step in piles of dog shit.

The guards who sit in the vestibule of our university building feel free to smoke in the evening, when they think everybody has gone. My spouse and I may in fact not have gone; and then we have to exit through a cloud of smoke. We used to point out the infraction of the no-smoking rule, and the guards would then sheepishly put out their cigarettes. They never got the point that the damage had already been done. Extinguishing a cigarette is not like covering up one’s nakedness; the offensiveness is still all around, in the air.

Here in Turkey, I have developed the idea that Islam combines the worst aspects of Judaism and Christianity: the legalism or regularianism of the one, and the evangelism of the other. Muslims think there ought to be rules for everything, and everybody ought to follow the rules. On the tragic side, people in Turkey have been beaten up for smoking or snacking in public during Ramadan. On the comic side, there was a recent scare that Istanbul’s booming hair-transplant business might be compromised by a fatwa, whereby hair transplants could be declared an unacceptable form of vanity.

When I say Muslims think there ought to be rules, really I have to qualify this as referring to “doctrinaire” Muslims. There is nothing that distinguishes a Muslim as such from anybody else. Here it seems I disagree with the Trump adviser called Sebastian Gorka, described in the Washington Post from his time teaching at “the College of International Security Affairs (CISA), a new Pentagon-funded school that was still working toward accreditation”:

His fellow professors would challenge his contention that the Koran’s violent passages are the primary driver of terrorism.

“There’s crazy stuff in the Bible, too,” said David Ucko, who taught alongside Gorka for three years at CISA.

Gorka countered that the argument misrepresents Christianity, and he cited the Crusades, which are often invoked as a war against Islam. “The fact is that none of what happened in the Crusades can be justified by the message of Jesus Christ on the cross taking all of our sins upon himself,” he said in an interview. “It’s just not possible. . . . If a crusader killed a woman and child or a heathen, that cannot be theologically justified and therefore it’s wrong and it’s a sin.”

Islam’s martial passages and intermingling of faith and politics makes it different, Gorka said. “If you are pro-fundamentalist in interpretation,” he said, “you have a lot of argumentation on your side.”

I think Gorka is pulling the “no true Scotsman” fallacy here, adjusting the definition of Christianity as needed to make it favorable to his argument. Say the Crusaders were sinners, fine; but they didn’t think they were sinners.

Jesus said in Luke 22: 36, “he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.” You can argue from context that he didn’t mean we should all go buy semiautomatic weapons; but apparently there are Christians who do think he did mean this. An example is the person (apparently called “David P in SC”) who assembled photographs of Pope Francis and a winking Jesus statue with the following text:

“Gun makers are hypocrites if they call themselves Christians!”—Pope Francis

“Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.”—Jesus

Check-mate, commie Pope!

PS. Cain killed Abel with a rock. Evil lives in man’s heart, not in his tools.

If people are bent on violence, and they have a religion, they are going to be able to use that religion to justify their violence. Even Buddhists can do this. If people want peace, their religion will support them in this too.

I can allow that Islam may have suffered from being created, almost from the beginning, as the state religion of a growing empire. Christianity had three centuries to develop its ideas before achieving state power. But I have to agree with what I understand to be the message of C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle: If you are going to believe in the universal God of Christianity, then you have got to believe that this God has ways of reaching everybody, even those who are nominal adherents of an enemy religion.

In an article called simply “Narnia,” I mentioned Lewis’s fictional example of Emeth. By some accounts, a living Emeth might be Mustafa Akyol, a devout Turkish Muslim who has now published a book he calls The Islamic Jesus. By his own account, Akyol wrote the book after reading the New Testament that had been handed to him by a Christian proselytizer on the streets of Istanbul.

I think Akyol does continue to reject—or to fail to understand—what Collingwood sees in Religion and Philosophy as “the central doctrine of Christianity”:

the taking-up of humanity into God which is called the Incarnation or the Atonement, according as the emphasis is laid on God’s self-expression through humanity or man’s redemption through the spirit of God.

In the New York Times recently, Akyol had a nice article called “What Jesus Can Teach Today’s Muslims,” comparing today’s Muslims with Jews under Roman domination. He traces the idea to Toynbee, who unfortunately, like most modern Muslim reformers, overlooked the alternative to both the Zealots (like today’s Wahhabis) and the Herodians (today’s Kemalists): Jesus.

A notable exception was Muhammad Abduh, one of the pioneers of Islamic modernism in the late 19th century. Abduh, a pious Egyptian scholar, thought that the Muslim world had lost the tolerance and openness of early Islam and had been suffocated by a dogmatic, rigid tradition. When he read the New Testament, he was impressed. As a Muslim, he did not agree with the Christian theology about Jesus, but he still was moved by Jesus’s teachings, which were relevant to a problem Abduh observed in the Muslim world. It was the problem of “being frozen on the literal meaning of the law,” he wrote, and thus failing to “understanding [sic] the purpose of the law.”

It certainly is a problem, “being frozen on the literal meaning of the law.” If one is going to agree with Jesus’s emphasis on “understanding the purpose of the law,” while at the same time rejecting Christian theology, then, as I tweeted:

This is not a criticism as such, but an observation.

Rules may be good, as far as they go; but they are not enough. I can criticize Islam for being to concerned with formal satisfaction of rules as a way to get into heaven; but I do not wish to give support to critics like Sebastian Gorka, who, according to the Post, has never lived in a Muslim country. Such a handicap does not disqualify him from forming opinions; but he could be more circumspect.

To return to Collingwood, as I said earlier, his notion of duty is connected to his notion of Christianity. It is possible for a person A to incur a debt, which is subsequently assumed by B, but actually discharged by C.

The importance of this case in the history of the European conception of duty will appear if we call A Adam, B the believer, and C Christ.

Modern natural science is our way of looking at the world as if it obeyed laws. History is our way of looking at the world as if it had duties:

The consciousness of duty means thinking of myself as an individual or unique agent, in an individual or unique situation, doing the individual or unique action which I have to do because it is the only one I can. To think historically is to explore a world consisting of things other than myself, each of them an individual or unique agent, in an individual or unique situation, doing an individual or unique action which he has to do because, charactered and circumstanced as he is, he can do no other.

Again, Collingwood seems to miss something here in his final book, something that he suggested in his first book. In New Leviathan, concerning history, Collingwood concludes:

It is in the world of history, not in the world of Nature, that man finds the central problems he has to solve. For twentieth-century thought the problems of history are the central problems: those of Nature, however interesting they may be, are only peripheral.

He said history was looking at the world as consisting of individuals. Here he seems to mean individual human beings; but in Religion and Philosophy he said those individuals had to constitute everything, including Nature.

And isn’t this what we need now: a conception of duty to Nature? Again, I am not talking about a revival of Paganism, which Collingwood dismissed as a use of free will to reject free will. The ancients knew there was free will, but—according to Collingwood—they did not recognize that freedom was achieved by conquering the passions. I don’t know that Socrates is an exception: conquering passions is not the same as rising above them. Nonetheless, Collingwood’s doctrine of free will

is fundamental to at least three, if not four, major religions: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity, with its offshoot Mohammedanism. . .

In modern Europe the doctrine that freedom results from the conquest of passion is popularly associated with Christianity, and the denial of that doctrine (a denial in many ways tempting) is popularly called ‘paganism’.

But a modern European ‘pagan’ is not maintaining any view that was maintained before the coming of Christianity. What he is maintaining is an escapist fantasy, or a group of escapist fantasies.

Its essence is a proposal to abandon freedom, both practical, in the shape of an organized life, and theoretical, in the shape of a scientific life; and to do so deliberately, by a voluntary exchange of this contemptible Christian world for a better pagan world.

An inconsistent proposal, because the act of abandoning freedom is to be a free act, and the act of choosing the world which you think better is to be an act of choice. In brief: the proposal is to decide on a life from which decision shall be excluded.

Here, decision is to be understood as more than simply doing what you prefer.

Davies, Paganism: A VSI (cover)

Seeking some scholarly confirmation or recognition of Collingwood’s ideas, I read Paganism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2011), by Owen Davies; but unfortunately the book says little of philosophy. It does serve as a reminder that Paganism has historically been defined by those who are opposed to it.

Meanwhile, I read the Harper’s article, by Fred Bahnson, about the fellow called Stephen Blackmer, who might be onto something that is not mere Paganism in Collingwood’s sense, though it reveres Nature.

As I said, a voice told Blackmer that he was to be a priest. However,

not until he arrived at divinity school, two years later, did he actually read the Bible. As a child, he’d read a few chapters of Genesis and heard the Christmas story. When he finally sat down and read the story to which he had committed his life, he was struck by how often the biblical writers engaged the very subject he’d spent his career studying: the land. The places in which the narrative occurred—mountaintops, hillsides, lakeshores, gardens—were not just stages on which the human story played out; they were actors in the story itself. He came to love the Psalms, and the frequency with which the psalmist used metaphors of nature, especially trees. In Psalm 92 the righteous ones “flourish like the palm tree. They are planted in the house of the Lord…In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap.” In other Psalms the trees of the fields clap their hands, shout for joy. When humans sing praises, they do the same thing. Nature is not inert. It was a revelatory idea.

In the Gospels, Blackmer found the most intriguing examples of divine encounter in nature. He kept noticing what he called “throwaway lines”: after Jesus had “dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray” (Matthew [14: 23]), or “He would withdraw to deserted places and pray” (Luke). Sometimes Jesus went to a garden. Or a lakeshore. Or the Judean desert. The location varied, but the pattern was evident throughout the Gospels. Jesus went to the temple “to teach and to raise a ruckus,” but when he needed to pray Jesus fled to the countryside, to places unmediated by both temples and the religious authorities that governed them. Blackmer came to believe that direct contact with God is religion’s raison d’être, but one that’s often lacking in church. Of course one can experience God in a building, he concedes. But for at least some people, especially at this moment in history, there needs to be a practice of going into the wilderness to pray. And if one lives in New England, the obvious place to do that is the woods.

As rules may be good, as far as they go, so would it be good if more of us had at least Blackmer’s sense of Nature.


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