“As darkness settled over the small German town of Jena in the late winter of 1798, large groups of young men rushed to the town university’s biggest auditorium to listen to their new philosophy professor. They jostled for seats, took out ink and quills and waited. At the lectern, a young man lit two candles and the students saw him bathed in light.
There is a “secret bond connecting our mind with nature,” the professor, Friedrich Schelling, told the students. His idea, that the self and nature are in fact identical, was as simple as it was radical. He explained this by pointing to the moment when the self becomes aware of the world around it.
“At the first moment, when I am conscious of the external world, the consciousness of my self is there as well,” he said, “and vice versa — at my first moment of self-awareness, the real world rises up before me.” Instead of dividing the world into mind and matter, as many philosophers had done for centuries, the young professor told his students that everything was one. It was an idea that would change the way humans think about themselves and nature.
To me it seems that we sometimes forget that we’re part of nature — physically of course, but also emotionally and psychologically — and this insight is missing from our current climate debates. As a historian, I have looked at the relationship between humankind and nature, and I believe that Schelling’s philosophy of oneness might provide a foundation on which to anchor the fight for our climate and our survival.”
David Lindsay: Great essay, and comments. Here are two of many:
Indigenous populations understood our relationship with nature, but Western societies took the Bible’s call for man to have “dominion” over nature literally. We didn’t respect it. But the so-called primitive cultures saw a spirit in life in all things, and themselves as part of it. It took philosophy too long to figure out these pre-Christians, as well as the Native American populations today, had it right.
Many of the comments to this article voice complaints that Mr. Wulf did not mention an appropriate Bible passage, or Buddhist or Hindu scripts, or indigenous practices, or earlier philosophers like Spinoza when speaking of Schelling’s proposal concerning the unity of each of us in nature. But Mr. Wulf wasn’t writing about all of history and all religious and cultural ideas. He wrote about how Schelling provided a contrast with the predominant ideas of the the of the Enlightenment and the early science that was developed at that time. He was concerned with the foundations of modern attitudes and Schelling’s response against that. The modern era began with the proposal that nature is inert and mechanical, and Schelling was responding to that modern attitude. Ancient religions clearly were not responses to modernity, and thus were unmentioned. Ideas have to be invented over and over. Many, if not most, of them are invented again and again in the day dreams of children, who later forget them when the adult world seems uninterested. For Mr. Wulf to write about how this one German philosopher stood in opposition to the modern attitude that separates us from the rest of nature did not require him to write about every antecedent to modern thought. Many comments seem to be offended by Mr. Wulf writing what they already believe in, which is that we are not separate from nature. Chill. No need to fight with someone with whom you agree.