Even imagining such an outcome as mastering nature already bespeaks a certain stance of a human being toward everything around him. That stance might be a result of some reflection or perhaps, rather, little more than an assertion of radical independence: "Let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name" (Gen. 11:4). Conceiving and promoting a program to master nature goes even further. That suggests the intervention of some projectors with a pronounced philosophic cast of mind. It is to such individuals that the contributors to this volume direct their readers' attention. In this preface, I consider a different point of departure, one inspired by Wordsworth.
It was long held in the field of human embryology that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Might some analogous "recapitulation" take place in the moral awakening of an individual? Poets, mythmakers, and others have repeatedly tried to reimagine or recover our earliest awareness of the larger world in which we find ourselves. Just as surely as a newborn's physical gestation continues long after it has been delivered from its mother's womb, so too may its psychic awareness be compared to a universe that expands, or at least alters, over time. At first, an infant passing into childhood is enveloped by a world of wonders.
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
—Wordsworth, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," 1-5
Later, while most of the earth still lay in profound darkness at night, a biped could raise its head and stand in awe of the display in a cloudless sky.
The heavens declare the glory of God,
And the firmament showeth his handiwork.
Yet this same Psalmist who is struck by the pettiness of man in the context of this cosmic spectacle and is led to wonder that God would even be "mindful" of him (Ps. 8:3-4) is all the more grateful for God's investing man with "dominion."
Thou hast made him to have dominion over the works of thy hands;
Thou hast put all things under his feet.
This assertion is, perhaps, a fair inference from the passage in Genesis where God brings every beast of the field and every fowl of the air for Adam's inspection—"to see what he would call them; and whatsoever the man would call every living creature, that was the name thereof" (Gen. 2:19). Does the very act of naming imply mastery? Yet Adam and Eve were and remained herbivores. It was not until God's covenant with Noah after the Flood that man was authorized to view every living thing on the earth, in the air, and in the seas as fair game, as a potential meal. Now it could rightly be said that "the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon . . . every moving thing that liveth" (Gen. 9:2-3). Here is mastery indeed; but in promising plenitude and exhibiting divine beneficence, there is little to suggest that man's relation to the physical, natural world is determinedly adversarial. Milton's primal pair, bearing new curses, might have been somewhat consoled anticipating some such future upon being expelled from Eden.
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon:
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way.
—Paradise Lost, XII. 645-649
We are pleased to believe that we will be well provided for in our necessities by Mother Nature.
This commonplace of children's books of yesteryear is both quaint and unsustainable in the face of further life experience. The frequency of plagues, floods, droughts, and other natural disasters suggests powerfully one of two thoughts: either that such sudden vicissitudes had to do with our shortcomings and backsliding—a doctrine propounded in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and much invoked by Congregationalist ministers in Massachusetts Bay Colony even beyond the seventeenth century—or that man cannot rely, dare not rely on the presumed goodness of a caring mother. Man has to act for himself and reshape nature to serve his needs—and, later, his wants.
Here is the proclamation of a new declaration of independence from earlier beliefs. A new stance toward the natural world as a whole is being proposed, one that promises relief from pain and want and misery. Not only had a far-seeing elite to be persuaded that this was not pie in the sky, but an attainable goal well within reach, if only we set our minds to the task. Equally important was the broad campaign to persuade mankind at large that this was a project worthy of their support and eager anticipation. In raising popular expectations of greater longevity, comfort, and health, the seventeenth-century projectors of this concerted effort to bring nature to heel succeeded in replacing one poetic vision with another. The magnitude of their actual success in matters of longevity, comfort, and health has effectively left that earlier vision by now both largely unnoticed and unmissed.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
—Wordsworth, "The World Is Too Much with Us," 1-4