Driving Out Nature with a Fork

By Thomas Storck
September 7, 2018

There is a line from the Roman poet Horace, that you can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but still she will come back (naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret). Though this might seem like an obvious fact, something forced upon our notice every time we have to mow the grass or weed the garden, it seems to be one of the facts most difficult for human beings to accept, for to admit that we are subject to nature is to admit that we are not sovereign, in fact, that we are not gods. We are mere creatures who have limits and must learn to live within them.

This is pretty obvious when we look at what mankind has done to the planet earth. With a hubris perhaps never equaled previously we have poured all sorts of chemicals and other pollutants into the air and water, burned fossil fuels with abandon, created mountains of waste, and expected that all would be well. We could do anything we wanted, live in any way we wanted, and there would be no consequences. Any recognition of the fragility or integrity of the world of natural things in which God has graciously placed us was forgotten. And in some circles, anyone who brings this up is treated as either a dupe or a conscious agent and purveyor of an anti-Christian environmentalism.

There are others, however, others who fully acknowledge the fragility of the natural world and man's ruthless exploitation of it. But, sad to say, among these there is often an equal blindness as to the futility of trying to thrust out nature with a fork. I am speaking of the strange attitude toward our own human nature, specifically toward our bodies, that has pretty much conquered the elites of the Western world in the last fifty years.

When I was a teenager, in the late 1960s, there was a vague feeling in the air that our bodies and our sexuality had often been undervalued previously, that human beings were more than simply minds or thinking machines. And I think that this feeling was to a great extent justified, that the course of Western civilization and its attitude toward nature starting with Descartes, Bacon and the whole scientific revolution had produced a tendency to downplay the reality and significance of our bodies.

But lo and behold, what a change came in just a few years! From a cry for giving the human body its due, we almost immediately began to ignore the very structure and meaning of that body, with its rather obvious orientation of the two sexes toward one another, as society began to accept same-sex desires and relations as healthy and natural. Then a couple decades later, we embraced the even more absurd notion that the mind, which had been scorned for its tyranny over the body, could dictate to that body dangerous and extensive mutilations and ongoing chemical treatments designed to enslave it to whatever fancies or feelings one has about being stuck in the wrong kind of body. I am not by this intending to disparage the real suffering that any individuals experience when they feel that they are imprisoned in a body of the wrong sex. But it is precisely this notion that the body is a prison, a mere casing for the real me, that is so questionable.

It is certainly the very opposite of the inchoate but fundamentally correct idea that the body is an integral part of the human person that was one of the real insights of the 1960s, not a cage, still less a prison, in which we temporarily find ourselves. The nature of the human body is almost always clear and definite. It is a real thing whose qualities we can hardly deny. We know that the human mind, on the other hand, is capable of suffering all sorts of pathologies which disconnect us from reality. One would think that instead of casually and ruthlessly mutilating the work of nature we would investigate how it is possible for someone to feel such a dissociation from such an essential part of his being. But no, we drive nature out with a fork, and thereafter, for the rest of one's life, the inventions of the chemical laboratory are employed in trying to make sure that nature does not return. We have embraced in an utterly grotesque manner Descartes' idea of man as simply mind and the body as mere extended lifeless matter.

I know that very few of those who see no problem in our treatment of the natural environment or of those who proclaim that the mind should be able to act as a tyrant to the body will recognize in themselves the flaws which they so readily perceive in the other. But nonetheless it is true that the same hubris, the same refusal to accept limits, the same disdain for anything that thwarts the human will fuels them both. The same hiss of the serpent, "you will be like God," has been heard by each of them. The fact that there are two such groups violently opposed to each other only underscores the continued success of that same serpent's policy of divide and conquer.

The only solution, of course, is submission to God, submission to reality the way he created it, including to the human nature which is our most immediate point of contact with reality. The modern project of limitless human expansion, both outside of ourselves and within ourselves, is fundamentally a rejection of that reality which we did not create and thus cannot really control. The embrace of humility is its cure, humility which at bottom is an acceptance of what isand a refusal to distort it in obedience to the fancies and fantasies of our minds and wills.

We have tried driving out nature with a fork. It is a costly project and one that cannot succeed for long. But it can do a lot of damage in the meantime. Can we come to our senses before we have damaged both ourselves and everything around us beyond repair? There is a hymn I remember from my childhood which begins, "Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways." It is advice well worth heeding.