Introduction II.C:

5. Power Over & Possession of Nature

  1. Mechanical Appropriation of Nature
  2. Cartesian Clarity
  3. Empiricism vs. Male Reason

a.    Mechanical Appropriation of Nature

According to the mechanical philosophy, matter is completely inert, and so Nature does not deserve any special consideration or reverence, and certainly one should not view it with awe like a goddess.  As Descartes remarked, "Know that by nature I do not understand some goddess or some other sort of imaginary power.  I employ the word to signify matter itself."  Further, mankind should have no compunction in appropriating Nature (including any plants or animals) for their purposes or in mastering it by mechanical means.  Since matter is merely soulless stuff, there need be no limits to the exploitation of Nature, and Boyle said, "the veneration, wherewith men are imbued for what they call nature, has been a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior creatures of God."  Descartes promised that, through his philosophy, we would become "masters and possessors of nature."

Now, the magical philosophy also promised control over the material world, but it was restrained by its reverence for Nature.  In common with the Aristotelian philosophers, they believed that knowledge of nature, in the context of a just social order, would help to free humanity from misery and to ensure peace and plenty, in cooperation with nature, for all, but humankind was viewed as just one part among many in the cosmic organism.  The mechanical philosophy, however, shifted man's primary relation to Nature, from the reverent contemplation, appreciation, and cooperation of the other two philosophies, to limitless domination and exploitation.

Further, according to the mechanical philosophy, the mastery of nature requires only mechanical operations — fundamentally just putting objects together or separating them — and makes no use of occult properties or ceremonies, nor risks demonic involvement.  Therefore, the church had no objection to the appropriation of nature by mechanical means.

b.    Cartesian Clarity

Cartesian philosophers contrasted the clarity of their conceptions and principles with complex symbolism of magical philosophy, since according to mechanical philosophy everything in nature not involving the human mind could be reduced to size, shape, and motion, to mechanisms easy to visualize concretely.  Cartesian clarity put Hermeticism at a disadvantage, discrediting its philosophy and indirectly undermining the social and religious ideas with which it was associated.

Their mechanistic philosophers claimed that there are no ultimate mysteries in nature, which is fundamentally comprehensible; awe and reverence are misplaced.  In this way the Cartesians exorcised the spirits from nature and disenchanted the world.

c.    Empiricism vs. Male Reason

We have seen that the mechanical philosophy has an implicit values system, at least from a theological perspective.  Matter is inert, nonliving, and fundamentally worthless; the immaterial mind, the faculty of reason, is the supreme value, for it is the immortal part of the soul.  Thus the mechanical philosophy was supposed to be discovered by cold, hard reason (remember Descartes' "I think therefore I am"?), which for profound psychological, as well as social, reasons has been considered masculine (Hillman, Myth. Anal., Pt. 3 ).  Further, in the emerging capitalist societies of early modern Europe, abstract reason was considered the province, primarily, of privileged, well-educated males.  For example, the Cartesian-Catholic philosopher Malebranche (1638–1715) argued that only men's brains have the "vigor and reach necessary to penetrate to the core of things."  (Again, man's superiority over woman – and domination of feminine Nature — was justified by his ability to "penetrate"!)  Indeed, some Cartesian philosophers suggested that women, and even most men, should be considered soulless automata (like animals), due to their apparent lack of intellectual capacity.

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Last updated: 2005-01-13.