Ecosophy: New Philosophy, Ethics of Care, a New Humanism, or a mere Reinvention of the Wheel already discovered?

“Much more than a simple ecology, ecosophy is a wisdom-spirituality of the earth. The new balance is not so much between man and the Earth, but between matter and spirit, between spatio-temporality and consciousness. Ecosophy is not simply a science of the earth (ecology) and even wisdom on earth, but the wisdom of the earth itself that occurs when a man knows how to listen with love.”--Raimon Pannikar

In ancient Greece, the word cosmos designated nature’s grand universe; the organizational pattern of the universe as our greatest context as well as the organizational pattern inherent in human society. This relatedness of nature and society in harmony with each other also held for the human mind or psyche that is preoccupied with them, so all three - universal nature, human society, and individual psyche/mind - were seen as embedded levels of our complete world, and all three were based on the same organizational principles and laws of operation or conduct.

In this truly cosmic model, the Greeks believed that if we knew how the greater cosmos was organized, we would know how to organize our smaller human cosmos, the world of the polis or Plato’s Republic, for the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. The greater cosmos came out of chaos, which was not seen as the disorder conjured up by that word, but as the unpatterned no-thing-ness of the universal source, the infinite potential (more as in today’s chaos theory) within which all arises. Thus, the matter of how cosmos-as-order arose and functions was of supreme importance for the Greeks.

To create a harmonious human cosmos within nature’s greater cosmos, the Greeks believed that the human mind and emotions would have to be trained to function by the principles of harmonious cosmic organization. Epic poems, ancient Greek drama, and eventually even logic and metaphysics were all teaching tools. Dramas about terrible tragedies wove together the levels of cosmos in order to teach people democracy - what difficult or horrific situations could befall people, what decisions had to be made, what consequences must be dealt with when bad decisions were made individually or collectively, how cosmic influences moved between levels. Comedy taught similar lessons by spoofing how people actually behaved in order to promote better behavior, as in Aristophanes’ plays Lysistrata wherein women scheme to make peace when men fail to do so.

Another familiar ancient Greek word, philosophy, etymologically meant love of wisdom (philo = love; sophia = wisdom) and was used to designate the pursuit of wisdom by studying the natural world for guidance in human affairs. This was especially true for the pre-Socratics who at times are called the cosmologists, before Socrates began the searching for wisdom interiorly within the human conscience and initiated ethics as a branch of philosophy. The cosmologists assumed that the study of nature would reveal patterns of relationships applicable to human society - patterns that would help people organize and conduct their own lives, the lives of their families and their society wisely. There was destiny in the stars, hence the importance of astrology. Thus, philosophy, from the outset, encompassed what later was designated as natural science, the term ‘science’ coming into use only in the Middle Ages.

The Greeks were aware that understanding nature, including our own human nature, would help us live on Earth more intelligently and peacefully. To know one’s nature is to know how to live in harmony. Sadly, science abandoned that mission when philosophy became an independent field of knowledge while the systematic study of nature became ‘science,’ from the Latin scientia, a word implying knowledge, and the analytical separation or division of things into parts to understand them. The dichotomy began in the 17th century with Francis Bacon and signals the arrival of the modern sensibility, or perhaps a better term would be “insensibility” toward nature, which to put it mildly is nothing short than that of a rapist toward a woman whom he wants to control and exploit.

With the arrival of such a dichotomy, wisdom, which was part of the original understanding of science disappears or is relegated to philosophy understood esoterically as a very broad pursuit in its own right, based on thinking instead of experimentation or other formal scientific research. Meanwhile, within science the Greek notion that studying nature can bring wisdom in the running of human affairs was simply neglected and even lost.

Enter Ecosophy, often called deep ecology, which usually presents itself as something brand new, a new philosophy, a new Renaissance spurred by the ecological crisis of our times and able to save human-kind from its self-destructive tendencies.

Now, given the relationship to nature that the ancient Greeks explored as above argued, the question arises: is ecosophy, this latest modern synthesis of scientific ecology and philosophy, merely a reinventing of the wheel, the wheel already discovered by the ancient Greeks? The answer, I am afraid, has to be both yes and no, which may sound like an evasion or a paradox. But let me explain. The answer is yes in the sense of what we in modern times have regretfully forgotten about our cultural origins; as in so many other fields of knowledge disproportionately influenced by modern deterministic-mechanistic science, we, especially those of us committed to a positivistic approach to the apprehension of reality, continue to conclude that ancient philosophy too is a passé, long superseded anachronism, with some latent cultural-historical value, to be sure, but practically useless to solve our pragmatic ecological problems, the sooner disposed, the better. Within this line of thinking, modern science divorced from philosophy must at all costs have the last word, because it is the latest of human developments; what arrives at the end of a process, evolutionary or otherwise, has to be the best because it is the latest and most modern and most progressive; and progress, after all, is all but inevitable and unstoppable. This of course is positivism with a vengeance, which continues to be taken for granted by so many knowledgeable intelligent persons; but is it reasonable? Let’s briefly explore this assumption. When we do we also find out that the answer is not only yes but also no.

For a while, since Descartes’ rationalistic philosophy came into being announcing modernity in the 17th century, we have assumed that the universe is a great machine. And yet, lately our astronauts, who have seen the Earth from far above it, are speaking of an Earth that feels very much alive to them. From a rather depressing scientific story of a non-living material universe accidentally giving rise to all within it, and devoid of meaning or purpose, those astronauts as well as many notable physicists are beginning to enunciate a brand new more hopeful and visionary story strangely resembling that of the ancient Greeks: that the universe is more like a great thought than a great machine and that we are, in some way, its conscious co-creators, active responsible agents for a living Earth, not mere fatalistic victims of our destiny as consumers of stuff. “In the beginning was the Word” may be just as good, just as reasonable, if not better, than “in the beginning there was a big bang which began the process of entropy and final dissolution.”

I said “a new story” purposefully. In Italian the word “storia” the way a Vico interprets it, has two meanings: it can designate a myth, as well as well as history documented by humans about events effecting their existence. Few would disagree that we humans always have been, from time immemorial, and probably always will be, storytellers. Whether we create our stories from the revelations of religions or the researches of science, or the inspirations of great artists and writers or the experiences of our own very personal lives, we live by the stories we believe and tell to ourselves and others. As Thomas Berry, walking in the footsteps of Giambattista Vico and Teilhard de Chardin, one of the authors of the word ‘ecology,’ said quite cogently: “We cannot tell the human story without telling the Earth’s story.”

Vico, Jung and Campbell discovered that certain archetypes of mythology were held in common by many ancient cultures. Of course the story most often referred to as the quintessential “Hero’s Journey” is that of Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey. Campbell intimates that such a myth or story is incomplete. What happens to Ithaca after Ulysses’ return and heroic challenge of his wife’s suitors? Does the island, having returned to order and stability, become a sustainable resources’ society thriving in peaceful prosperity? We are not told; we need to fill the gap. It has been noted by some eco-sophists that Darwin’s evolution story is like the youthful adventures of Ulysses which now needs to be replaced by another adventure with the goal of building a mature ecologically stable society. Progress cannot be stopped. And this, of course, is positivistic.

Alas, in our modern positivistic world obsessed with explaining how the universe works but wholly disinterested in its ultimate meaning and destiny, story seems to have lost its vital importance. We have assumed since Descartes, since the empiricists and the positivists, since Darwin, that science alone could lead us to the truth, as story never did or could. We misguidedly thought that myths were mere fairy tale story for children or ignoramuses and then doubled up on that assumption by declaring the story of Jesus of Nazareth and his resurrection just another ethnic Hebrew myth comparable to the myth of Atlas or Thor. We assumed a reality independent of humans - a material-mechanistic (lately morphed into a cybernetic) universe that could be studied objectively without the human interfering in it in any way. In more poetical terms, we banished the gods and we declared the lord of the Universe dead.

When however, physicists discovered that all the universe was composed of energy waves and that every instance of our human reality was a wave function collapsed from sheer probability by a conscious observer, they were slightly surprised and everything began to change. That discovery meant that our world is produced in our consciousness and that language, to put it in Heideggerian terms, is the house of Being; that the Kantian phenomenon includes human consciousness- that realities are not fixed scenarios in which we grope our way about, but ever-changing creations we ourselves ‘bring forth’ both individually and collectively through our beliefs and actions. In other words, a universe more like a great thought than like a great machine appears; one that is more like a storytelling universe we make up as we go than like a stable physical reality in which we grope our way about. A universe more likely to be found in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel than in Galileo’s scientific astronomy. Of course the hard-nosed positivist will continue to insist that such is the delusion of people unable to bear the brutal reality revealed by a material mechanistic universe.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with my oculist, who in attempting to explain to me the incredible complexity of the human eye (and non-human animal’s eye too), blurted out the following: only a fool can think that this kind of complexity simply came about by sheer chance. He then agreed with my observation that the ancient Greeks might have well had it on target all along by postulating a nous, or a Cosmic Mind or Cosmic Intelligence behind the purpose (telos) and orderliness exhibited by the cosmos.

Indeed, it takes time for the new scientific stories of a conscious living universe and Earth to percolate. But philosophers of science such at Thomas Kuhn have by now made it clear that science can only give us useful hypotheses, not truths. Even the ever-more-obsolete scientific beliefs and findings told us a story, and a very powerful story at that. It told us we lived in a one-way universe beginning with a Big Bang and running down ever since like a battery depleted in the process of powering all the random collisions that gave us galaxies and our world. Some of those collisions, we were told, brought about certain molecules that sprung rather magically to life, but life - so the (largely Darwinian) story goes - became a struggle for survival in fierce competition before the running-down tide called ‘entropy’ eventually sweeps all life away.

This was a tragically misleading story. We abandoned community, cooperation and solidarity, as proclaimed by great religions of the world, to individualism, social Darwinism and greedy competitive selfishness a la Ayn Rand, and turned our human civilization into a capitalistic, competitive ‘Get what you can, while you can’ globalized shopping mall. Some now call it “globalization” whose main feature is that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We have been frantically chopping down, drilling, digging and scraping up Earth’s ‘resources’ as if - or rather, because - we expected no tomorrow. We have literally put ourselves into the Sixth Great Extinction and are the first of Earth’s species to create such disaster. Only Earth’s very first creatures, her most ancient bacteria, came close to our destructiveness, causing both global hunger and global pollution in turn. They found a solution, we have not yet by transforming themselves into cells.

Primeval bacteria, our deep ecologists tell us, had Earth to themselves for almost two billion years - fully half of all biological evolution, and crossed a the tipping point which led to evolving the evolution of the nucleated cell as a giant bacterial cooperative. These cells, being new on Earth, then went through their own competitive youth for a billion years until they crossed point into full fledged maturity by evolving multi-celled creatures, to wit Humanity which in turn crossed another tipping point when tribes built the first cities collectively as centers of worship and trade that we are only now discovering in South America, Africa, Asia and Europe.

These city cooperatives too have been experiencing their own youth as cities became the centers for competitive empire-building over thousands of years up to national and now corporate empires. We have at last reached a new tipping point where enmities are more expensive in all respects than friendly collaboration, where planetary limits of exploiting nature have been reached. Will we have the courage and the wisdom to cross it?

There is cause for optimism in this regard. Just as everything seemed hopeless, we suddenly have a cause for new hope. In such a sense the answer to our initial question continues to be no: what is going on is not a mere imitation or a reinvention of the wheel of ancient Greece; it is only that if we do not know the history of ancient Greece; there is something added, just as the Renaissance was not just a reinvention or imitation of the wheel of ancient Greece, there was an added value which was unknown to the Greeks: Christianity and the good news that this God was immanent within the universe and participates in its history. That changes the meaning of the story. We are slowly discovering that rather than wait for saviors to save us, we may have the power to save ourselves. How are we to do it? By first changing our story. From cogs within the wheels of a mechanized industrialized world, satirized so masterfully by Charlie Chaplin in one of his silent movies, we have developed a technology—the Internet—that is able to give us the capacity for collaboration and genuine communication. Now we can all save ourselves; not one at a time but together as a human species. We seem to have finally intuited that there is something hopelessly immature about the competing and fighting and grabbing going on at the highest levels of human society. Some have called it Capitalism and have added that it is the best economic system ever devised by man. Reality does not bear that out.

But the call to humanity goes on. Community as a concept, finally having lost the taint of its association with communism and its political agenda of world domination, is in wonderful revival as local self-sufficiency and sustainability become very human and very practical goals in an uncertain world. Caring and sharing are replacing competing and grabbing, in no small measure due to the increasing empowerment of women, who have always held these values and are promoting an ethics of care, care for the Earth who is the mother of us all, as St. Francis so wonderfully expressed in Italian literature’s first poem “The Canticle of the Creatures.” Indeed, many see this as a final growing-up and maturity of humanity. We can be thankful for this new Renaissance, so to speak, to the likes of St. Francis of Assisi, Da Vinci (who conceived of no dichotomy between science and art), Vico, de Chardin, Berry, Sparenberg, Capra, Kuhn, Pannikar, not to speak of the various founders of ecosophy such as Ness and Eisler.

That wisdom expressed by those visionaries, is inherent in the nearly four billion years of Earth’s evolution. Species after species, from the most ancient bacteria to us, have gone through a maturation cycle from individuation and fierce competition to mature collaboration and peaceful interdependence. The maturation tipping point in this cycle occurs when species reach the point where it is more energy efficient - thus, less costly and more truly economic - to feed and otherwise collaborate with their enemies than to kill them off. But the process is not inevitable, for if it were, then we would be determined robots devoid of free will.

A final caveat is in order here: we need to be careful not to characterize this positive hopeful trend called ecosophy deterministic and inevitable or we shall fall once again in the trap of the narcissistic, idolatrous worship of “inevitable progress.” Man’s freedom needs to be preserved and protected because it is part of his identity. Without self-knowledge, as Socrates reminded us, no way forward is possible. We shall not know what are the ethical imperative consonant to human nature. The maturity brought about by time and experience is important but there is also decrepitude to consider. To refuse to change in the name of a pseudo-conservatism, deluding oneself that immobility insures order and stability, is to forget that immobility can also be a sign of decay and death. There is a kind of democracy in the cemetery: they are all equally dead and immovable.

Mark Twain tells a story of his 18 years old daughter thinking of him as the most stupid man in the world, but by the time she was 25, she was surprised at how much “the old man” had learned and matured in seven short years. What Twain is driving at is that the one who had changed was not him but his daughter. She had matured, of course, but she had also acquired wisdom or she would have continued to think of her father as the most stupid man in the world, no matter how many years passed. Wisdom can be an eternal idea but as Plato put it, nobody can be a genuine philosopher before the age of 50.

It is to be fervently hoped that human-kind has matured enough to realize that Ecosophy can not only unite our separate categories of economics, ecology, finance, politics and governance, but can also wonderfully unite science and spirituality, secularity and religion, and thus be the harbinger of human values into the entire human enterprise; as such it also represents a new humanism on the horizon. This new humanism cannot even be imagined till we have at least an inkling of the old humanism of the 14th century.

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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