On Nature and Natural Law

Note 4: Hegel's Nature/Culture Dialectic. 3/3/99

Throughout the entire history of Western metaphysics the dichotomy, dialectic, or differential between nature and culture has played a significant role in the articulation of the primary elements responsible for the development of the dominant class's ruling ideology. Since Europe has always considered itself to be the most advanced civilization on the face of the earth, conferring grace in retrospect on the other cultures that gave rise to its own perfection (Rome, Athens, Jerusalem, Cairo), it has never been shy about singling itself out as the standard against which all other lesser cultures should be measured. At the same time, of course, Europe also uses itself as a measure of how far (wo)man has progressed from or beyond a state in which he/she has any meaningful relationship to the natural world. Culture, by definition, excludes the possibility that people remain connected in meaningful ways to any aspect of the natural environment. If a civilized person finds him/herself in a position where actual rain falls on his/her uncovered head, that unfortunate individual turns immediately to cursing God because he/she left the comfort of physical estrangement from nature without remembering to carry an umbrella. The more vehement the curse, one might argue, the more civilized that person has become.

The idea, furthermore, that a civilized person could live his/her life in nature, without availing him/herself of the comforts and conveniences provided by culture, is an idea so bizarre that few people ever imagine the possibility that such a life could happen except in the case of extreme misfortune and catastrophe. To argue that people who live in nature are anything other than primitive, savage brutes who cannot appreciate the value of the good life, is to betray the very foundations upon which Europe has built its self-image of civil nobility and sublime conviviality. The good life, after all, is safe, clean, brightly lighted, calm and rational, a place always preeminently predictable. Nature, on the other hand, is always dirty, unkempt, alternatively light and dark, turbulent, wild, irrational, a place wholly unpredictable.

Slavoj Zizek, in The Sublime Object of Ideology (New York: Verso, 1989), argues from the point of view of Hegel's perception of (wo)man's freedom of choice that

"Human nature 'in itself'--in its abstraction from culture--is indeed 'innocent', but as soon as the form of spirit begins to reign, as soon as we enter culture, man becomes, so to speak, retroactively responsible for his own nature, for his most 'natural' passions and instincts. 'Culture' consists not only in transforming nature, in conferring on it spiritual form: human nature itself, as soon as it is put in relation to culture, changes into its own opposite--what was a moment ago spontaneous innocence becomes retroactively pure Evil." (219)

"Human nature in its abstraction from culture" is a concept so difficult to comprehend that I, personally, do not know how to begin to appropriate the sense that statement is supposed to make. What exactly is meant by "human nature" in this context that makes it possible for everyone who hears or reads the phrase to appropriate and share an instant consensus in the application of a list of characteristics which define it? One answer to that question lies in the notion expressed here that the "natural" aspects of human reality, the real "passions and instincts," as it were, have always been recognized as brutish and uncivilized forces that account for man's universal sin and degradation. Clearly Zizek and Hegel are both referring to the brutish side of (wo)man's nature in this context.

What makes this essentialist and universalist position even more problematic, more troublesome, is the notion that anything even remotely connected to "human" can be evaluated or constituted in "abstraction from culture." One must remember, of course, that we are dealing here with Hegel, or at least Zizek's impressions of Hegel, and that fact carries us into the context of nineteenth century rationalism that spent the better part of its day abstracting virtually everything from everything else in an effort to get to the bottom of the well of the essence of what it means to be or do anything at all. The particular becomes irrelevant in the this kind of pursuit because the actual, material reality of any single thing or being is just as likely to prove the exception to the universalist's rule as it is to confirm his/her generality. This forces the essentialist to look at everything in the abstract since one cannot risk being contradicted by any particular case or example.

The statement, then, that a person can be changed into his/her opposite simply by being "put in relation to culture," that some kind of spiritual force exists in society that transforms "human nature" in the abstract from "innocence" to "pure Evil" just because that nature is suddenly (?) related in some vague way to culture, seems to pile one absurdity on top of another. In the first place, how exactly does one go about abstracting the very nature of human being from culture? Is there a machine some where, in a factory say, that takes a person's body and soul in hand and removes it from culture, extracts its essence from the social relationships that supposedly constituted its identity in the first place? As this extraction takes place, then, the human being is reduced to a state of innocence from which he/she can then begin moving back toward the state of "pure Evil." Or does this process begin to work on the innocent human being from the day of his/her birth and reach some critical mass of transformation at the age of six months, two years, the onset of puberty, etc.?

If this state of human innocence exists, apart from all relationship to culture, how is the person brought into relation to that which transforms him/her into a pure state of "Evil?" Is there an agency in the government that is responsible for seeing to it that every individual in a given culture is brought to the dock, as it were, and reclothed from sheep to wolf? Or does this process occur in every case simply on its own initiative. If contact with one's own culture does that to human beings, transforms them from innocence to pure evil, it seems that a prudent course to follow would be to avoid at all costs any and every social contact that one could have with and in that homegrown, native culture or environment. If human culture is that essentially destructive of the good, perhaps it would be better if people were raised by wolves. Another possibility, of course, if culture really does that to people, would be to destroy or annihilate the culture that is responsible for the transformation and thus prevent human beings from becoming "pure Evil." Apparently, however, since I have never heard of programs designed to eradicate one's own culture, especially in Eurocentric communities, becoming "pure Evil" is not necessarily perceived as a bad thing. Perhaps for the common good it is best that everyone be converted into some form or another of "pure Evil."

Turning this discussion away from the level of abstraction in which it seems to exist might be useful in uncovering some more sensible way to relate to it. A man in New Orleans, Louisiana, has recently attempted to force the Catholic Church to rescind its ritual of baptism which was performed, as it were, against his will and without his consent when he was two weeks old. The Church has refused so far to unbaptize the man. A spokesperson for the arch-diocese of New Orleans, a male of course, was recently on local television explaining why the Church was unable to reverse the "effects" its ritual had wrought on the man even if it had been performed against his will. On the one hand, according to the spokesperson, baptism places an indelible mark on the recipient's soul, a mark which cannot be removed under any circumstances. On the other hand, the ritual welcomes the individual into the corporate body of the Church and the Church then becomes essentially powerless to reverse that action of bringing a person into relation with the community of believers. To do so, according to the Church, would be the same as returning that person to a state of original sin, since baptism removes a person from the fallen state in which he/she passed at birth on account of being human in the first place. The Chruch cannot annul baptism because it would be sinful for it to return a person to a fallen state after that person has already been rescued from it.

I have emphasized the issue of will, of free choice, here because Zizek's comments are offered in the context of Hegel's perception of free will and choice, on the one hand, and because the Catholic Church, historically, has resorted to the practice of forced baptism against heathens and infidels whenever it found itself in a position of power in any social or political context where the Other was unable to defend against Christian coercion, on the other. While the case in New Orleans is being conducted in an atmosphere of civility, there have been occasions where the force, and resistance to it, were anything but civil. There have been occasions, for instance, when the people who were the objects of the Church's desire, engaged in acts of ritual suicide to avoid being forced to submit to Christian baptism.

Geoffrey Chaucer, in the Man of Law's Tale in his Canterbury pilgrimage, for instance, retells a story about the long-suffering trials and tribulations of his romantic heroine Constance, who was forced against her will by her father, the Emperor of Rome, to marry the infidel Sultan of Syria. In the course of the marriage negotiations, in which the Church and all the civil authority of the medieval world became involved, a circumstance occurring in the story because marriage was a sacrament of the Church like baptism, and because marriage in the Middle Ages was as much a political act meant to create alliances among families and nations as it ever was a personal or social one, the Sultan agreed that he and all his baronage would convert to Christianity and submit to the ritual of baptism and thereby be taken into the corporate body of the Church.

The Sultan's mother, the arch-villain in Chaucer's version of the story, and in the tradition that brought it forward to his appropriation as well, calls her supporters together in a kind of cabinet meeting of power brokers and movers and shakers in Syria's Islamic state to inform them that she and they will pretend to accept Christian baptism, which she says is easy enough to do because a little water never hurt anyone anyway, and that they will, at just the right moment, strike out at everyone who has betrayed Mohammed and the Islamic religion by converting to Christianity. Her argument for rejecting Christian baptism is worth repeating here because it foregrounds a fourteenth century perception of Christian doctrine from the undisguised point of view of the Other, the heathen, the infidel, even if the account may be nothing more than Chaucer's fabrication of what that perception might have been. How Chaucer might have come to be familiar with Islamic objections to forced conversion and baptism is a question difficult, even impossible, to answer and, while it is nearly impossible to assert that Chaucer simply invented the Sultanesse's response to coercion, since invention was not a valued aspect of literary composition at the time, he may have done exactly that in this particular instance. The Sultanesse's speech, which follows, does not appear in any of the sources Chaucer could have used in the redaction of Constance's story for the Man of Law:

"Lordes," quod she, "ye knowen everichon,

How that my sone in point is for to lete [abandon]

The hooly lawes of our Alkaron [Koran],

Yeven by Goddes message Makomete [Mohammed].

But oon avow to grete God I heete [promise],

The lyf shal rather out of my body sterte [be driven]

Or Makometes lawe out of myn herte!


"What sholde us tyden of this newe lawe

But thraldom to oure bodies and penance,

And afterward in helle to be drawe,

For we reneyed [renounce] Mahoun oure creance [belief]?" (II.329-340)

Several points are significant in this passage. Chaucer verges on heresy here because it was heretical in the fourteenth century to suggest that infidels, Islamic people, possessed a book, like the Bible, that contained the revealed word of God. The Sultanesse makes that claim here in her reference to the Koran. She also claims that Islamic people will be condemned to hell if they renounce their belief in the law of the Koran, if they betray or renounce Mohammed. Any suggestion that Islam has the innate power to condemn anyone to hell for breaking faith with its laws and traditions, especially when that claim is made in Western Europe during Chaucer's lifetime, would be taken by the Church as a supreme falsehood and anyone making that claim would be suitably punished at the stake. Chaucer probably escaped such treatment because the Man of Law, immediately following this passage, delivers one of the most virulent anti-feminist, anti-Islamic diatribes ever to appear in Western literature. That response to the Sultanesse's argument would have satisfied any ecclesiastical court investigating Chaucer's possible heresy at the time. No record of such a proceeding exists, of course, and I do not mean to suggest that Chaucer was ever scrutinized by the Church for such crimes.

The Sultanesse's plan is very simple: at the marriage feast, after everyone has celebrated themselves into a state of passive stupor, her supporters will enter the hall and murder everyone who has converted to Christianity, thus ridding the realm of the threat and stain placed on it by the betrayal of the laws of Islam. She murders her own son as well, of course, and that act constitutes the ritual suicide that was performed by non-Christians as a means of avoiding forced conversion to Christianity. In actual cases, the parents first murdered their children before killing themselves. Chaucer's retelling of this traditional response to Christian coercion is tailored to serve the issues of the dominant ideology to which he belonged and adhered, so the story takes the side of Christian hegemony against the rebellious and purely evil actions of the Other.

When the Romans are told about the murders of the newly baptized Christians in Syria, an army is sent to take vengeance against the infidels. Constance herself is cast adrift in an open boat and eventually makes her way to England where she falls afoul of a second evil mother-in-law. The infidels are punished with suitable ferocity by the Christian army. The Sultanesse was captured, burned alive, then hacked to pieces for the crime of attempting to protect her people against the corrupting influence of the spread of Christian belief into her realm. In the context of the fourteenth century this story has a kind of ironical twist at its center. In 1396, at the battle of Nicopolis, a united Christian army was annihilated on the field when its leaders decided to attack a fortified Turkish (Ottoman) army heavily defended by archers. In medieval warfare, as the French learned at Crecy (1346), even a relatively small army can defeat a much larger force if archers can be brought to bear against the attacking forces of the enemy. The Christian army simply ignored that lesson and Eastern Europe was lost to the expansion of the Ottoman empire as a result. This same issue plays heavily today in the conflicts raging in the Balkans because the Islamic people the Serbs (Eastern Orthodox Christian) are killing in Bosnia and Kosovo are people whose ancestors entered the area under the Turkish empire that came into power in the region after the battle of Nicopolis. The irony in Chaucer's story is that Christian armies in the fourteenth century could not, and never did, exact revenge against the infidels anywhere in the Islamic world.

The Sultanesse's question to her supporters, "What sholde us tyden of this newe lawe/ But thraldom to our bodies and penance," is the point this note on Hegel's perception of (wo)man's natural "passions and instincts" has always been meant to reach. The spokesperson for the archdiocese of New Orleans got it exactly backwards--baptism in the Christian religion, according to Chaucer's Sultanesse, does not remove the soul from original sin, rather the indelible mark that is placed on the soul is original sin itself. When an innocent person is brought into the corporate body of the Church through the ritual of baptism, he/she is stamped with the indelible mark and stain of original sin ("thraldom to oure bodies") which must then be expiated continuously through confession, contrition, and "penance." That is the entire point of the Sultanesse's resistance to the forced conversion of her people to Christianity. When she refuses to accept the terms of that coercion, like millions of other heathens and infidels the world over who have refused to become part of Christianity's pathological perception of human reality, she is burned at the stake and hacked to pieces by the avenging army of the Prince of Peace. Go figure. When good Christians and true begin singing "Onward Christian Soldiers," people of color, people not inclined to becoming cannibalistic in order to save their souls from the original sin of being natural, head for the hills, run for cover, and hide their children from the monsters who are on the loose. We know what that hymn signifies, even if the people singing it do not recognize the truth it conceals.

What Hegel and Zizek are really talking about, of course, is that baptism into the belief system of the Christian faith, in the context of Western European logocentric discourse, is the act that condemns an otherwise innocent person to a lifetime of living in a pure state of evil. Being initiated against one's will into the pathological cult of original sin is the worst thing that can happen to a two week old child. The Church does it to infants because, when it delays the ritual until a person is aware of the consequences, it would be forced again to resort to murdering those who refuse to accept the terms of its own insanity. Christian hegemony depends on there being no dissenters from its views because the thing it fears the most is a single rational voice raised in opposition to the death and destruction it spreads throughout the world for the sake of satisfying its own intractable greed for material possessions. The Western hemisphere was lost to that greed. Entire continents have been ravaged because of the spread of its anti-human disease.

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