Saturday, December 31, 2016

It’s Perfectly Natural

Montaigne remarked in his essay on a monstrous child (II.30) that nothing produced by nature can be reproached for being unnatural.
Nous appelons contre nature, ce qui advient contre le coustume: rien n’est que selon elle, quel qu’il soit. 
We call unaccustomed events unnatural: but everything follows nature, no matter what it is.
He got the idea from Cicero, who had said something similar about a pregnant mule (De divinatione II.22). The thought is: if we’re horrified by something unusual or barbaric, the one thing we can’t accuse it of is being unnatural. If we think at first that it’s outside of nature, the only conclusion to draw is that nature is wider than we thought.

The logic is tautological as it’s unshakeable, and it’s not even worth pointing out that Montaigne’s argument proves exactly nothing. It’s interesting, though, to ask what impels a man’s mind to formulate a thought like this. We certainly see this particular observation everywhere, whether in direct quotation (e.g. Gide’s Corydon) or in spirit.

It is deployed most of all as an excuse for human folly: It’s not difficult to list behaviors that get defended on the sole grounds that they’re just another part of nature. Sodomy is the classic, but also think of adultery, nudity, masturbation, anger, gluttony, laziness, squid-eating, and zoophilia. Find me a guilt-ridden teenager, and I’ll find you the pamphlet that tells him it’s perfectly natural to feel or do what he does.

I think that this is usually an attempt to overcome shame of one kind or another. More specifically, by appealing to nature, we relieve ourselves of responsibility for our character. We don’t have to say, “such and such are my reasons for doing this”; or even “I am like this but I wish I were like that.” We can simply say, “I am what I am,” and dismiss gnawing guilt in an instant.

If your behavior is natural, then against all the glares and mutterings of a solemn priest, you have the warm approval of Mother Nature. She asks for nothing and allows everything. Her permission is an indulgentia plenaria perpetua offered for free to all souls that ask for it. If a child hits a baseball into a car window, he expects to be scolded and forced to pay for it by his mother. Natural man has a far more lenient parent.

It is worth remembering, of course, that merely being a child of nature is not enough to redeem a creature from its own wickedness – or even from its ugliness. That's because being natural puts you in dodgy company. Nature is more tolerant than any liberal New Yorker. She takes everyone under her roof, whether they’re men, women, blacks, whites, gays, cattle-rustlers, murderers, bears, cuttlefish, or Londoners. Robert Mugabe is as much her son as Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Viva, viva la libertà!
Nature can give birth to human beings and that’s it. Therefore, the most we can ever say about her is “she exists”. She cannot condemn her children, and because of that she cannot exonerate them either.

That means that if you want to press a moral case, you’d better find better grounds for it than nature. If you want to argue that polygamy or homosexuality is fine because it’s a part of human natural history, then you should be prepared to endorse gouging out an infidel’s tongue on the same grounds. By the same token, if you defend your own actions by saying “it’s only natural”, you share a dock with Jack the Ripper. In order to show your own innocence, you have to get there by proving his as well.

Good for Montaigne for pointing out that everything is natural. Pressed to its logical conclusion, his observation means only that ‘natural vs. unnatural’ is useless as a measure of behavior, of beauty or of character. Being natural is a participation medal for existing; it confers no relative justification.

Snake eating a living frog
— Nature is Scary (@NatureisScary) 6 December 2016

 ^ (It’s perfectly natural. Remember, you are the snake, not the frog.)

We, not nature, are the only ones who can pass judgment on human beings. Morality means imposing humane standards on our lives, regardless of what nature has made those lives into. It’s childish to give up responsibility for making these judgments. If we resign our authority to nature, then we’re shrugging our shoulders in indifference to gruesome sin. Rape and torture, after all, are as natural to humankind as sneezing.

So good, we’ve put away the argument from nature. Silly as it was, it was only ever devised because of a real psychological problem. If we can’t banish shame by calling our behaviour natural, we need to find some other way of coming to terms with it. Some people feel a tolerable amount of shame, and some feel it intensely, but one way or another every human life is bitten by little worms of secret guilt. Putting aside the casuistic trick of appealing to nature, there are three ways to cure ourselves.

Shamelessness is one way. That amounts to completely overturning the standards of behavior that you had previously been bound to.

This is the secret to “Christian freedom.” When God shows Peter a squirming bag of unclean animals, Peter refuses to eat them, protesting that nothing unclean hath at any time entered my mouth. God replies: What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. In other words, a Christian can gaily flout the bonds of old morality without trembling for fear that he’s crossed the will of heaven. A glance at the medieval literature (say, the Song of Roland) reveals how far this principle was carried by bloodthirsty Christians eager to glut their swords on unbelievers.

Shamelessness can take non-religious forms too. To Nietzsche, by uncovering the historical origins of morality, you can overcome the sickening shame that would usually go along with rejecting Christian pity. At the end of Lolita, for another example, Humbert decides that after committing murder and bringing a girl to ruin – well, screw it, why not drive on the left side of the road?

The risk of this approach is obvious. Shamelessness makes you deaf to reproof, which is fine if you’re being reproved by stupid people, but dangerous if, like most people, you’re susceptible to be seduced into evil under the guise of freedom.

Stupefaction is the other usual method of quenching conscience. Drink yourself blind, and what few shameful memories you retain will be covered over in the warm waters of friendly feeling. Tolstoy pointed this out in an essay of 1890. “Why do men stupefy themselves?” he asked. The answer:
People drink and smoke, not casually, not from dullness, not to cheer themselves up, not because it is pleasant, but in order to drown the voice of conscience in themselves. … Life does not accord with conscience, so conscience is made to bend to life.
This might not be exactly right – sin might not, in fact, be why most people drink. It is nevertheless one good reason. Stupefaction is a potent antidote to shame, so it's natural for the shame-eaten to distill it purer and purer until the spirit is completely extracted. Death, as Judas learned, is this perfect form: it is a final escape from remorse.

Apart from shamelessness and self-destruction, there is only one safe way to be freed from shame. It is to do nothing that is shameful. Then you won’t need sly tricks of logic, nor a leap into the abyss, nor even strong drink to let yourself loose.

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