Recently some friends and I enjoyed a visit to a garden originally built as a spiritual retreat by a former Buddhist monk. We toured the garden with some pleasure in the mild soft light of a late summer evening, wandering along twisting paths between clipped shrubs, and crossing stone bridges over trickling water; all through a naturally landscaped garden closely allied to the Japanese style, but fitted with style into a gently rolling Lincolnshire landscape.
Then afterwards we sat in a small room decorated with many eclectic souvenirs of the owners wide travels, and took tea with the gardens creator. The whole evening formed a truly pleasant couple of hours, spent in a garden that was infused with the owners gentle enthusiasm, and teasing humour. “I expect those the best scones you ever tasted ?” “I expect you would like the recipe ?” “Well I am not telling you.”
Then later in a quiet and cheerful tone, he patiently took the trouble to explain his personal philosophy to us. Especially how it informed both his gardening, and the spiritual services that he offered people to earn his living.
We heard chiefly about his belief, that happiness for humans could only be achieved mainly if they could regaining their intimacy with nature, and how most of the worlds sorrows stem from our loss of contact with the natural world. A sad divorce, which most such philosophies generally believe took place at sometime after the advent of so called civilisation. Before which, it is general supposed by people who share the view, the human race lived in an earthly paradise, in a state of prefect harmony with all that surrounded them.
These are of course not new ideas, in fact they have an incredibly long, but perhaps slightly less than respectable history. While the first idea that most of our human misfortune stems from our separation from nature, may be true. The reason for it, whether we had a choice, if it is mitigated and its timing are questionable, but even the the idea of those possible falsehoods are not new either. In fact I strongly suspect that there are two basic thoughts, the Golden Age versus the Progressive, which are among the commonest of all the fundamental philosophical themes, and which seem to weave their way repeatedly in and out of human history over centuries.
It is sometimes thought that the idea of the earthly paradise in the distant past, and also with it the related concept of the noble savage, begins with Rousseau and the romantic movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, it takes but a tiny amount of effort spent, to find basically the same framework of ideas, in both medieval and classical literature, perhaps five hundred and two thousand or more years earlier. I suspect it of being a completely timeless theme in human culture. What however Rousseau and the romantic movement undeniably did, at least for the first time in modern times, was to promote the idea with real vigour and conviction, and to make it a major part of serious political, social and philosophical debate, for at least a little while anyway.
But only for a while, because strong convictions bring equally strong reactions, and very soon many people were seriously asking if such an earthly paradise could ever have really existed. Certainly by the middle of the nineteenth century, many people were asking for the evidence. Pointing out that wherever modern explorers encountered primitive peoples, then there seemed to be little evidence that their lives were in anyway idyllic. Where, it was asked, were the traces and remnants of this lost perfection that you should expect to find if it had ever existed ? So that by the middle of the nineteenth century it seems the contrary view, of civilization as an escape form the harsh brutality of early primitive life was in complete assent. People living before, or outside, the world of modern civilization, lived nasty short unpleasant lives it was believed, made even worse by the mass ignorance that only modern technological civilization could counter.
However, naturally the cycle of history turned yet again. In the twentieth century with the decline of the western imperial ideal, and the rise of relativism, those views themselves came in turn to be despised. It was said that, tribal peoples living close to nature had been viewed in the nineteenth century only from too narrow a perspective, by eyes conditioned to regard everything through the filters of western values, which were falsely regarded as inherently superior. Moreover people who did live less technological lives closer to wild nature, had often been studied by the Victorians it was said, only after they and their worlds had already been damaged, by contact with both the sins and the doubtful gifts of the western industrial world. These ideas gained more strength with the rise of the “green” and “organic” movements, which were all too eager to confirm these prejudices, since they seemed to support their own world view, that western technology was inherently damaging.
Yet it in the late twentieth century it seemed that ideas change yet again and many questioned the idea of an early idyll; a least on the grounds that primitive people were supposed to have little impact on their environment and caused no really significant damage to the world. And if these new revisionists were to be believed, it seemed that there is much evidence that tribal people often did quite a lot of harm to their environment. Though of course this does not necessarily mean that they were unhappy while they did so.
And now in the twenty first century there comes in the wake of that, a new view that perhaps the agricultural revolution did cause a decline in human happiness, and that people slowly drifted into it in search of short term gains, with out fully understanding the long term losses which would result.
The fashions in social thought pass in ever changing cycles, endlessly turning back on themselves and self contradicting in flickering patterns. So that in the end any view you may wish to hold on a subject, may find all the support you could want, if you dig deep enough. Yet I think that in the flickering strobe light beam of history, some dark outline of the truth may just stand out and make itself visible. Somewhere between the progressive idealist, who can never believe that there is anything but forward progress and continued improvement, and the ultra conservative, who in the end comes to deny the worth of all progress, lies a true story of human history. Which does not begin or end in any form of earthly paradise, but which may be sophisticated enough to admit that history must include the existence of both some gains and some costs, at every stage, and also the idea of mitigated losses.
In the end the real loss as we depart from simple intimacy with nature, is not a dream-flower paradise set in the misty past, but the wisdom that comes from being able to stand outside of ourselves, and see those selves from natures perspective. Foremost among which views is science. Is it any wonder then that it raises the hackles on many who have invested in human culture, to have the alternative view that study of nature can offer real value, set before them all the time. And what is gained by establishing once more our contact with nature and studying it, is not always a new paradise either; but, perhaps hopefully, a much greater ability to appreciate what we have right now, as we are enabled to hone our senses on the medium of nature for which they were after all first evolved.
But at last having filled our minds with rich thought, and refreshed our selves on herbal teas, the creator of the garden proposed that we should now view the garden once more, but this time by lamp light. Going quickly out, he soon began to light one at a time his many candles, each contained in delicate lanterns hanging from his numerous trees. So we drifted quietly through a world of glimmer, while he went about his work at a little distance. With the sheen off the water reflecting on bright leaves themselves overlying deep shadows, while the paper lanterns flickered in the cooling night air. All the beauty of nature seemed enhanced perfectly by the produce of human ingenuity and industry. Nothing is ever that simple.
What can a rural gardener even a monk say of the great utilities that rule so much of human life, often to such a poor effect. Well only this, to observe that the one thing that seems often to be most lacking especially in the ever more urbanized world is a little appreciation of, and faith in human nature, indeed in nature at all. Ultimately even I, would never claim that a closer engagement with nature alone, by anyone, or by the many, is going cure all of the worlds ills, but I would claim that it is perhaps one of the most important things we can do, and the most underrated.
I grew to maturity during an era when the great ideologies of left and right wing, were still treated with great respect by many people, even among the well educated. Though it has to be said this is in is in many ways really just a condemnation of our systems of education, at least of their ability to impart wisdom. For even by my early youth in the nineteen sixties and seventies, any moderately open minded person, should have been easily able to see through the huge and false pretensions of benevolence presented by these ideologies. Indeed even the reduction of all political thought to no more than a simple left to right spectrum, is in itself, such a gross over simplification, that you would imagine the work of tyrants and deceivers would be clearly visible in it, for most people to see. There is nothing that tyrants and all other such people love quite so much as deliberate excessive reductionism, enabling them to play on one of our greatest natural weakness, that of indolence, or laziness, and especially our unwillingness to address problems, in fear that they may be difficult and therefore require some further effort thought from us. And it is by manipulating this failing of ours the worlds tyrants, manage to make us comply happily, in our own deception. Wise was the man who said that. The world is full of people who would rather die than make the effort to think.
Human thought potentially is of course a vast multi-dimensional arena stretching in every direction imaginable. At the very least, it is useful to see that the so called spectrum itself, is in fact a circle turning back upon itself, so that the extreme ends eventually meet, bound with a barbed wire knot; Because at those ends the promoters of all the political extremes comply in one thing, which is their antipathy to the human race, especially where its nature conflicts, as it always must, with their ideology. And this is born inevitably out of their excessive faith in their own simplified and essentially lazy ideologies, because all ideologies must always be oversimplified compared with the richness and complexity of human life which can never be reduced sufficiently to fit with the requirements of over simplification and easy answers.
Although the denial of humanity is a common element found on both political extremes, the two sides did none the less, take part in a long and bitter, but entirely spurious, debate over which method could best be used to enforce the submission of humanity to the needs of politics. In particular, the long and totally futile nature versus nurture issue. The left of course favouring the nurture side of the argument and the right the side of genetic determinism. Both however were quite united, in one sense, in that both were indulging in essentially the same practise, of attempting to find simple easy answers to complex problems. I am not going to attempt to prove that a real human being is in fact a complex mixture of both nature and nurture, with the two weaving together in a myriad of of tangled ways, almost impossible to sort out.. Firstly because, I am at least a prepared to recognize that I do not have the qualifications for such an enterprise, and that I must therefore, leave it to the readers common sense, to realize that something as complex as a person could hardly be the product of anything less. But also because in the end the historical outcome gave its own proof, in that both sides failed completely. The history, especially of the twentieth century, is well known, how the right attempted to use all manner of methods derived from eugenics, and the left a whole plethora of thought manipulation. The end results however were exactly the same in both cases. Firstly a small amount of fake success, then increasing desperation, panic, and finally the last resorts of, imprisonment, starving, torture, and ultimately murder on a grand scale.
While there were certainly many reasons why all of this occurred, but I am certain that one of the main causes was, no more than a lazy addiction to the idea of simple answers. Accompanied perhaps by the desperate need of those who sized power with little democratic mandate, to justify their positions by providing quick, cheap, and ready answers to complex problems. Without even being willing to make the effort needed to understand the complexities of the things being dealt with, let alone the challenge of finding real answers. Would not even a small awareness of the complexities of nature if properly understood, unburden anyone of the delusion ?
In the end the wider problem was not just a issue of the denial of human nature, but even more it was a problem of the denial of nature as a whole. The childish fear that what is difficult and unknowable is somehow dangerous and threatening. And this is where the simple act of engagement with a wider and closer nature answers so well; for it inevitably teaches at least two things. Firstly that the world is truly complex beyond real study, and secondly that what is difficult to understand is not always frightening but may merely be, wise and deep.
For example, let me tell you a sad story, in this case from the political left, though a thousand similar could no doubt be found on both sides. Forgive me if you have heard it before, but I choose it because it is less well known than the tales of Gulags and Concentration Camps. . There was once a man called Lysenko, and this man gained a piece of wonderful good fortune, at least for him. At that time the Soviet Union was eager to promote as many of its citizens as it could from the lower ranks, in order to prove, that it and it alone could provide the greatest levels of social mobility. But this had to be done rapidly because the Soviet Union was in competition with other ideologues. Inevitably this meant that in the haste for reform and proof of reform, many people were were pushed into roles to which they were basically unsuited. One of these was Lysenko, who found himself recruited along with many others like him into the Soviet Unions plant breeding programme. He was soon promoted on the basis that he was the most promising of a bad lot, and he was given responsibility for an experiment, which involved testing peas as a winter rather than as a summer crop. As it happened the winter in which he carried out this experiment proved to be exceptionally mild, and by shear luck he scored what appeared to be a great success. And it did lead to his one real discovery, of vernalization.
This was just what his political masters wished to hear, as with war looming, and following several political and economic upheavals, times were hard and desperate, so any way of increasing food production was a golden gift. Lysenko therefore became a star almost overnight, and moved rapidly up the ladder of promotion. Unfortunately his first success could not be repeated, and attempts to do so only made the agricultural economy weaker yet.
But by then Lysenko had moved on, and he soon became responsible for experiments on a large scale. This meant that however badly, things went overall, there was bound to be some farm or field somewhere in the huge areas over which Lysenko could now perform his experiments, where good if not truly remarkable results were obtained. This meant that Lysenko could cherry pick, just report these good results to his political masters, and ignore the bad ones, thereby achieving a remarkable success nearly every time. And what did his political masters know of crops or science, they had no contact with any of that.
When people raised doubts Lysenko with complete contempt, simply reported them to his political masters as traitors, which inevitably resulted in the usual imprisonments and deaths. Naturally, none of the political class questioned anything he might do, as he was the one person who was giving them the agricultural successes they desperately needed, at least according to his own reports, which were of course the only ones they saw. And as times got worse their despair got deeper, and they clung ever closer to their delusions about Lysenko. This was, you should know, a political regime whose leaders, at that time Stalin, quite deliberately avoided visiting the countryside, in order to avoid seeing at first hand the plight of the people. Yet he was a man who has always been regarded by history as an exceptionally tough, callous, and determined. Tough enough to fill whole regions with dead humans it is true, yet presumably not tough enough to view a field of equally dead peas at first hand.
Eventually as millions starved, more may have died of starvation than in the second world war, criticism began to reach Lysenko even from abroad. Lysenko simply responded by using his now enormous authority, to declare all foreign science false and misguided. This was of course, especially as the so called cold war deepened, just the sort of thing that the political class wished to hear, and so his prestige grew even greater without any seeming limit. However inevitably beyond the sphere of his personal influence, the world was moving on, and real progress was being made. In the end Lysenko was forced to make ever more and more extreme claims. Finally being pushed into a corner where in order to maintain his claims he was forced to denying the truth of many perfectly good scientific advances, holding his country back in a kind of intellectual dark age. Personally denying even such basic science as genetics, and even the physical existence of D. N. A., which occurred it is said even in the face of some being shown to him in a jar.
History also however also moves on, and in the end time shatters most if not all illusions, Lysenko is now famous as a tragic clown figure, for being perhaps the greatest charlatan of all time, with a reputation as a man who may well have done more harm to his science, his people, his fellows, and his country, not to mention several other countries, than any other in history. Yet while all of this took place, were there not, a million or more people standing in barren fields, who saw a the straight forward objective truth before their own eyes.
Ultimately the point that I am trying to make here is perhaps the same as Voltaire's. “I think that we had better tend to our garden.” Not as it is sometimes perceived as a retreat from life but, in fact as an engagement with life, real life, and not by tending vegetables only, but by this means tending to our minds. Certainly you will not stop a future holocaust by merely sniffing the flowers. But it is well to be aware that, if we should ever become a society which is completely divorced from nature, then all that we can ever know will be the subjective and selected truths fed to us by others, the only sort of information human culture provides, and we will have no other perspective from which to judge them or gain any sense of proportion, while nature is perhaps the only thing in our lives that will not bend to lies. Even Trofim Lysenko could not alter nature, though he could bend the government of the worlds largest nation, and it most ruthless dictatorship any way he wanted.
In the end to be a true humanitarian it is necessary to be not merely a humanist, but also to some degree a cultural and political sceptic as well. Nor, do I think, is it possible in any way to truly understand or appreciate human nature, without a wider understanding and appreciation of the whole of nature, science if you like.
For though they are often seen, as merely two different, but equal world views. There is, none the less, a complete separation between ideologies of any sort, whether of politics or religion, and the alternate world view of pragmatism. The first, however well intentioned can never be an intelligent route which ends in wisdom, however good and glorious it may seem. Because in the final counting up, only the pragmatist approaches the world with the humility that it rightly should to be shown.
And because it does so, pragmatism will always ask for a little more effort from the mind, nor will it ever consider the effort to be too much, it will always recognize that in the face of the world and all its complexities, a greater effort of thought should always to be preferred to a lesser one. For true intelligences consist for the most part not in metal gymnastics, but more simply in putting the work in. The mind is no better cultivated without effort than is any other garden. Yet in the end behind every ideology lies, as its principal motivation, a seeking for easy or ready made answers, preferably given to us by someone else, for simple formulas that can be applied without thought to cover all requirements, and for avoiding the need for decisions worked out with care to suit each case. And behind all of those motivations lies nothing more than the lurking, cringing, time wasting, callus, and prevaricating lazy gene, backed up by the conditioning reassurances of those whose interests are served by our not thinking too much. Of course yes, to qualify, in a completely pragmatic way, it is good that we should have at least the “lazy gene” in many ways, because sometimes nothing is worse than wasted effort, or a destructive if well intentioned excess of business, vandalising all before it, and it is against these things is the “lazy gene” may have a truly useful role to play. But let me ask you this, at the last, do you really wish that it alone, should rule your thoughts, govern your mind, and set the limits to your understanding ? Then find the time and effort to understand nature, the one thing that won't bend to your lies, answer your prayers or tell you that you are the most important thing in the universe.