About The Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura)

The ancient philosophers sought to understand the order of the world by comprehending the nature of things. All things that exist have a nature and an essence, and they move and act according to their nature for a fixed purpose. This nature originates at birth and comes from God, not man or society. For example, the nature of a flower inclines it to the light, the nature of a dog directs it to chase a rabbit, the nature of man seeks to know truth and to do good. Planets move in their orbits, water rushes down mountains, and fire travels upward. The nature of things is not random or aimless, erratic motion with no rhyme or reason.

In Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, the teacher Lady Philosophy leads her student Boethius to philosophical knowledge or wisdom by leading his mind to grasp the self-evident truths about the nature of things he has forgotten. Fortune’s nature is fickle and unpredictable; God’s nature is eternal and changeless; man’s nature is rational and godlike, capable of knowing the truth and ordering the passions. If all of Being is endowed with a nature that gives identity, direction, and purpose to its existence, it follows, then, that man and woman also have a God-given nature that orients them in the world as male and female, father and mother.

creationDante in The Divine Comedy incorporates this fundamental truth of classical philosophy common to Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, and St. Thomas. When Dante is ascending the heavenly spheres of Paradise, he finds astonishment in the speed of his travel and asks Beatrice his guide for an explanation. She responds, “No more amazement should it bring to you/ that you ascend, than if a mountain stream should tumble rushing to the plains below.” Man’s human, rational nature is intended to stand erect, behold the stars and heavens, and know and contemplate God. Man by nature is oriented toward the Beatific Vision, not designed for death and damnation.

The crisis in truth in an age of ideology begins with the rejection of classical wisdom. Man misunderstands the meaning of life, marriage and sexuality in the age of “the dictatorship of relativism” when he attacks the normative meaning of “nature” as used in ancient philosophy. In Orwell’s 1984, O’Brien indoctrinates and tortures Winston by subverting all the time-honored truths he holds dear: “We control life, Winston, at all levels. You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable.” According to O’Brien, man possesses no inherent human nature possessing dignity, a godlike image, a love of truth, inalienable rights, or an immortal soul. When the agents of the state like O’Brien or the members of Big Brother’s Party deconstruct the meaning of “nature” in its classical sense, they attribute new meanings to old realities by redefining words in accord with their ideological agenda. Political enemies who are assassinated are “vaporized” or become “unpersons” when they mysteriously disappear. If man has no God-given nature or status as person, then of course human life is not sacred, human beings have no inestimable value, and persons do not possess inviolable rights. When the Party and the dictator reinvent, redefine, or “create human nature” as O’Brien asserts, then man replaces God and Nature as the supreme authority.

Today, the child in the womb does not have a human nature or the status of personhood that gives it dignity and worth. The human body does not have an intrinsic male or female nature ordered to procreation but is merely an instrument to manipulate for gratification or experimentation devoid of any relationship to children or any ideal of chastity. Marriage does not have a nature dictated by the union of man and woman to found a family and care for the young but evolves to accommodate new definitions and purposes of marriage such as the social status, economic advantages, or the emotional comfort of adults. The family does not have a nature based on the complementarity of a father and a mother but, like human nature, the body, or marriage, is “infinitely malleable” as O’Brien contends. The language of the United Nations refers to families as having a new status, “a plurality of forms” to accommodate all the arbitrary living arrangements of adults from cohabiting couples to same-sex unions.

The structure of reality loses all intelligibility when the classical notion of “nature” is abandoned as a useless idea. If nothing has a fixed, inherent, God-given nature, then nothing truly “is” in any permanent, meaningful sense, and no universal knowledge exists as conforming to self-evident truths, eternal laws, first principles, or final causes. In the words of the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Everything is subjective, mutable, tentative, interchangeable, unknowable—except the doctrines promulgated by Thought Control. Winston Smith, the protagonist in 1984, struggles to maintain his sanity by insisting that 2+2=4, water is wet, and rocks are hard despite the propaganda and indoctrination that deny the evidence of the senses and the logic of the mind. In his struggle to stay alive or to stay human, Winston chooses truth over survival and proclaims, “Sanity is not statistical.” Rebelling against the state’s totalitarianism by invoking common sense, the testimony of his eyes and ears, and the proven truths of the past, Winston resists ideology and appeals to reason, nature, and the accumulated experience of the human race: “The obvious, the silly, and the true had to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change.”

If the classical notion of the nature of things collapses in modern thought, then the idea of final cause, purpose, or end also lose their meaning. What is man’s end or the purpose of human life? What is the intention that underlies the meaning of marriage? What is the significance of a man’s body and a woman’s body and the reason for human fertility? When political and academic discourse scorn the given, inscribed nature of things as an outdated, useless concept, then it permits social experimentation and encourages the perversion of things for purposes never intended or designed by Nature or God so that the terms “normal” and “normative” lose their definition. If fair is foul and foul is fair, then man is woman and woman is man, good is evil and evil is good, homosexual is heterosexual and heterosexual is homosexual, 2+2=4 and 2+2=5, water is wet and water is dry, stones are hard and stones are soft, God is the state and the state is God, and truths are lies and lies are truth.

To ignore or deny the intrinsic nature of created things ordained by the wisdom of God’s Divine Providence for the common good of the human race leads not only to relativism (truth changes) and skepticism (truth is unknowable) but also to nihilism (“a tale told/ By an idiot full of sound and fury, /Signifying nothing” in Macbeth’s words) and perversion—the corruption of everything good, true, or beautiful for the sake of a brave, new world created in the image of man to manipulate, exploit, and reinvent for utilitarian reasons and narrow self-interest with no accountability. To deconstruct an intelligible, ordered universe, a God-given human nature, the meaning of person, the purpose of family, and the language of the body is to reduce Creation to Chaos and the Void and let darkness overcome the light.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
Articles by Mitchell:

  • Dan

    The way we perceive things is too abstract; we are unable to see the picture as a whole. In this particular matter, good and evil share the same origin, however we prefer to keep them completely isolated from one another, yet always failing in the attempt to do so. In the very attempt to define our nature in a philosophical way, we are denying the true nature of things.

    The chaotic times we live in are proof that human nature is complex and that its main purpose is to empower the individual rather than to benefit the whole species. Good and Evil seem irrelevant in a quest for the survival of the self-empowered human being. That seems to be our plain, practical, crude, everyday “nature”.

  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Is human nature all that complex, or do we make it more complicated than it really is? Do not all persons have the same nature–the human nature that desires happiness and justice, the human nature that seeks to know and learn, the human nature that longs to love and be loved, the human nature that seeks purpose and meaning in human life? Granted that human beings suffer many emotional, mental, and moral problems in their various struggles, this fact does not undermine the reality of a oneness that all men and women share as members of a family governed by one God, one Church, and one moral law.

  • Ralph Coelho

    points; 1. Man and woman also have a God-given nature that orients them in the
    world as male and female, father and mother. 2, rejection of classical wisdom.
    Man misunderstands the meaning of life, marriage and sexuality. The Code of
    Hammurabi predates organised religion and establishes this truth of man’s nature.
    3. To ignore or deny the intrinsic nature of created things ordained by the
    wisdom of God’s Divine Providence for the common good of the human race.

    I compare it with sci-fi based on denying laws
    of gravity or the laws of thermodynamics. Scientists acknowledge established
    laws and then find if there are ways to achieve what they want by examining the
    source of those laws more thoroughly. Advances in electronics have been so
    enormous because they were able to do this. One person said that if they had
    been able to do something similar with thermodynamics than we would be able to
    drive around the earth in a teaspoon of gas. Something similar has happened with
    exploring the energy stored in an atom.