Civilisation and Its Discontents without Freud

Michael York
Bath Spa University College


The struggle in today’s world is to learn to walk gently while on this planet earth. How might we change our prevailing attitudes toward the world and come to see her as something to be cherished and celebrated rather than simply raped and abused? In this process we must also ask how is it that we have come to think of nature as something alien? Perhaps in understanding the historical and philosophical underpinnings to western society, we might find ways in which we can begin to unravel the approaching nightmare of lost and insufficient resources to sustain the human race as an integral and interdependent part of the cosmic cycle in its terrestrial manifestation.

Karl Marx condemned capitalism’s reduction of nature simply to the status of a tool. By treating nature as merely a means to continued survival, Marx argues that humanity becomes alienated from that of which we are a part. Moreover, since nature functions within us as well, we also become alienated from our own bodies. The more integrative position might be traced to both the Stoics and Spinoza – both of whom regarded nature as an all-inclusive system from which there was nothing beyond. In other words, for them, nature included humanity, finitude and God or the supernatural.

Contemporary pagan nature religion follows in the Stoic and possibly Spinozan traditions inasmuch as it sees nature as an all-inclusive phenomenon – one that includes Donga-type activisms and academic activity. Theologically, contemporary pagan nature religion ranges between immanental pantheism and immanental-transcendental panentheism. Nature is either the godhead or part of the godhead but not something inferior, of lesser value and simply something to be used for the exclusive benefit of mankind.

Consequently, the Stoic-Spinozan-nature religion position does not – and ultimately cannot – separate humanity from the natural world. While not necessarily overlapping with Marxism, contemporary paganism seeks to reverse human alienation from nature. The question that remains in this context, then, is what is culture? Does it necessarily preclude humanity from a natural state of grace?

The first acts of civilisation involve the use of tools, the domestication of fire and the construction of dwellings (Freud, 1991:278). If we reflect upon it for a moment, we can certainly see that our control over fire has, perhaps more than anything else, come in the long run to separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Nevertheless, almost equally as important is the human propensity to symbolise and eventually to develop written language, and this too appears to make us different from the rest of the natural world. It is also this last which appears to constitute the heart of culture – and a culture that in some fundamental respects distinguishes us from the other life forms of our planet and their respective organised associations.

But then too, human civilisation is also intimately related to the development of agriculture and the reality of food surplus. This last is so fundamental that it connects with that very platform upon which our religious sensitivities and reflections develop. Religion is any practice and belief that is constructed upon understandings of the reality and value of matter and spirit and humanity’s connection to them. Religion is at least a form of culture – if the two terms are not simply interchangeable in the first place. We derive our term `culture’ from the Romans – specifically from the past participle (cultus) of the verb colere which signifies `to till (the earth)’ but also `to worship’. In other words, the etymology behind the very word culture suggests the root connection between religion, culture and working with the earth.

If, however, western concepts and understandings take their origin in the pagan civilisations of Europe and beyond, it is primarily the infusion and overlay of biblical tradition that has allowed and prompted both civilised culture and the human race’s subsequent disconnection from the natural world. The defining articulation of this rupture is the Freudian notion that civilisation is that which protects humans from nature. As Freud sees it, the individual “can only defend [himself/herself] by some kind of turning away from … the dreaded external world,” or, perhaps even `better’, by collectively and “with the help of … science, going over to the attack against nature and subjecting her to the human will” (Freud, 1991:265). In other words, in the face of the uncertainties and terrors forthcoming from `raw’ nature, we have two options: hide from it or subdue it.

But Freud takes this even one step further, and in this he is again doubtlessly being influenced by the west’s heritage of Judaeo-Christian thought. He argues that as we each become a “member of the human community” in which “one is working with all for the good of all” (ibid.), nature becomes not only something to be tamed but also a resource for exploitation. If there is any truth to this assertion, Freud could not – or at least did not – foresee in the march of civilisation in which nature is possibly becoming conquered, the late twentieth/early twenty-first century reality of industrial pollution and technological short sightedness. As a contemporary - rather than Freudian - awareness increasingly indicates, nature in her form as an ecologically balanced and sustainable earth is being destroyed.

If there is a single impetus behind the current emergence of contemporary `nature religion’ as a distinct spirituality, it must be due to the increasing perception of a `loss of nature’ as well as of a planet capable of supporting a rich diversity of life including the human. While some have laudably involved themselves in front-line eco-warrior activities, equally important is the development of public awareness. Inasmuch as religion is not simply an ivory-tower pursuit but is instead that which locates the basic values and meanings toward which life is directed, the current contest between culture and nature involves a religious dimension.

Underlying the various spiritual options that include both Abrahamic and Galactean theologies, there are two fundamental themes of which the various world religions as well as the new religious movements are essentially variations. I designate these basic orientations as the gnostic and the pagan. The former denies the world or its value. It seeks escape or release. Theravada Buddhism, for instance, actually accepts the reality of the physical but nevertheless sees no value in it. Like the more purely transcendental faiths of Gnosticism, spiritual Christianity and Vedantic Hinduism, it still seeks emancipation from what it understands as material attachment and tangible imprisonment.

By contrast, the pagan understanding involves a continual engagement with the world. It does not necessarily deny the transcendental, but it recognises the earth as mother and foundational origin for all activity – including any exploration into the immaterial. Pagan engagement with the world often includes a belief in reincarnation. From the pagan perspective, one comes back to the world not for the purposes of eliminating karma but because the world is a desirable place to be. Consequently, the pagan preoccupation to maintain the world is only `natural’. Pagans wish to make the earth suitable as something to which to come back.

However, inasmuch as Freud understands civilisation as humanity’s effort to protect itself from nature, he is still expressing the world’s dominant religious impulse by which we seek to free ourselves from nature – even to deny its existence. Paganism, in contrast, embraces a different – perhaps minority but certainly older – understanding of civilisation. As I have already mentioned, the term `culture’ derives from the notion of `tilling as worship’, and in this implied Neolithic shift toward human intervention in the production and survival processes, culture need not represent a rupture from the natural but rather a development from it. In other words, culture may be recognised as an extension of nature. At the same time, keeping in mind the origins of the term or concept of culture, each of the planet’s various cultures may be understood as basically a form of collective prayer. If this is more obvious with religious cultures or religions themselves, all culture essentially involves subliminal articulations of communal wishing. Consequently, from the nature religion perspective, cultural prayer or wishing is a ubiquitous, universal and natural development apart from the question of whether there is really anything to which or to whom to pray. In this sense, and in contrast to the Freudian position, nature and culture are not antagonistic opposites.

The emerging popular religiosities of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries increasingly position themselves against the Freudian civilisation thesis. As a collective prayer, nature religion/culture constitutes a denial of Freud’s argument that the discontents of civilisation arise from the frustration to our natural instincts that it is causing. Instead, nature religionists tend to see that the discontents increasingly perceivable today rest more with the sterilisation of nature that civilisation is alleged to be causing. For Freud, civilisation was understood not only as a protector against nature but also as a regulator of inter-human relations. It involves a renunciation of instinct, a conflict of the individual’s erotic interests and a suppression of man’s fundamental aggressive nature. In all these, it operates through fostering a sense of guilt. For Freud (1991:319), fear of both authority and the superego is what gives rise to guilt. The superego is understood as internalised aggressiveness. But if we strip away the Freudian notion of guilt and discontent as by-products of civilisation, the social contract need not be a source of human unhappiness. In the contemporary challenge to restore a natural ecological balance, the `enemy’ is becoming less targeted as civilisation itself but as the form of corporate multinational capitalism that civilisation has come to assume.

Consequently, nature religion presupposes a radically different position from both traditional Judaeo-Christian orientation and Freudian rational scepticism. It considers nature as real and not an illusion. And it denies that nature and culture are in some kind of intractable opposition. Humanity becomes re-recognised as part of nature and not its controller or dominator. Inasmuch as it understands nature itself to be divine, contemporary nature religion embraces an affirmation of physical spirituality. In this, and throughout its many different expressions – whether Wicca, Druidry, the road-protest camps, Dragon’s `eco-magick’, or, in America, Reclaiming, Circle or the Covenant of the Goddess, the various nature religiosities of the west may be seen as descendents of – and even attempts to restore – the spiritual understanding understood in the west’s Indo-European heritage.

The ancestral world-view imagined the gods as emerging in opposition to the sterility of the cosmic void. Against the pre-singularity of empty chaos, the universe/multiverse wished to see itself. The physical cosmos is the reflex of primordial will. It in turn becomes the `mother’ of the gods – including humanity. Our ancestors understood this maternal matrix as the earth itself/herself. The pre-existent void against which the matter-energy-mind-spirit continuum evolves, though non-existent, becomes an operative in subsequent cosmic/terrestrial evolution. The ancients saw it as insidious, annihilative and sterile. In contemporary terms, it might be understood as entropy and reductionism. Ironically, the acronym of `operative non-existence’ is ONE.

The gods, by contrast, represent the polarity of existence. They are not just the forces of light and sweetness but comprehend the dark and destructive as well. The gods, in opposition to the asurian ONE or cosmic nothingness, are both the positive and negative, male and female, spirit and matter, light and darkness. They are creative and destructive – like the Hindu god Shiva. And these polarities of `binary existence’ (acronym BE) align in ever shifting and new combinations. Divine being, as understood by our Indo-European linguistic ancestors, and in opposition to the asurian nothingness of sterile unity, represents the endless evolution of multiplicity and diversity. And it is this very understanding of the constantly evolving cycle of the eternal return and creative progression that underlies the rationale and efforts of contemporary western nature religion and its affinities with pagan sister religiosities throughout the world in indigenous and non-Indo-European cultures.

While nature may nonetheless be perceived as ambivalent in that incarnation involves the undeniable laws of pain, shame and loss, the interplay of any Weltschmerz and joie de vivre is understood as cyclic from any nature religion perspective. It is this promise of the eternal return that nature affirms that allows the nature religionist to celebrate and legitimate inevitable suffering as of limited duration. The uniqueness of contemporary nature religion, however, appears to be the shift it fosters from humanity as central concern to its replacement by nature. The invariable argument now is that the earth will survive even if mankind were not.  Consequently, nature religion may be viewed as a contemporary reaction to perceptions of our planet being under threat that seeks to reclaim and affirm the ideal of physical spirituality. The task of which it appears to become increasingly conscious is to revere the terrestrial eco-sphere as a sacred embodiment that is fully commensurate with cultural flowering.

In Great Britain, this awareness is becoming a cultural phenomenon in general and not one that is merely confined to those who strictly identify as nature religionists. An expression of this changing collective consciousness occurred when Prince Charles’ called for “a sacred stewardship of the earth” in his BBC Radio Four address on the 10th of May, 2000. Despite the Prince’s framing of his radio talk in a more traditional understanding of a “sacred trust between mankind and our Creator,” he deplored “the prevailing approach which seeks to reduce the natural world to a mechanical system.” He declared his wish for a science of understanding to replace the science of manipulation in which the existence of the sacred becomes simply a nuisance. Seeing science as a part of nature and not something that is opposed to it, Charles urged that “We need to rediscover a reverence for the natural world and to understand the reciprocity between God, man and creation.” Though his language is different, the sentiment expressed here is that of nature religion. Since “the earth is unique, and we have a duty to care for it, … we must restore the balance between the intuitive and the rational scientific mind.” The reverence and reciprocity that the Prince seeks must be established upon “humility, wonder and awe over our place in the natural order.”

The emergent spirituality expressed by Prince Charles and others within the social mainstream increasingly resonate with the nature religiosity that has long been articulated by Dragon and various pagan understandings. There is a denial of the civilisation and nature opposition. Culture is to be situated within the natural and not as something antagonistic to it. In facing the shifting imperatives behind human survival, we can do no harm in understanding culture in its original sense as cultivation – even reverent cultivation. This could, in fact, be the only viable solution for our endangered planet. Freud (1991:262) himself refers to Voltaire and how “he ends Candide with advice to cultivate one’s garden.” But rather than consider this as a deflection from the pains, disappointments and impossibilities of life, as did Voltaire, the emergent perspective in today’s world is to regard our planet as itself an enticing and glorious garden that waits to be cultivated. In the art, science and religion of gardening, civilisation and the magic of nature can be combined in ways to promote sustainable development. This could results in a `culture of nature’ in place of a culture-nature antagonism.