The Missing Link Between Spirit and Nature
Originally published November 12, 2001 for USC Writing 140. Updated December 6, 2001.
It is common for people to associate with nature a sense of spirituality. For many, this spiritual connection with nature can be measured in terms of the satisfaction received from the environment in which they exist (Easterbrook 117). Take, for example, the comparison of a traditional pet, the dog, and an electronic cyberdog currently manufactured by Sony Electronics. While both aim to provide their respective owner with companionship, the owner of the cyberdog does not experience the same sense of sharing an intimate relationship with his pet. Some might suggest this is due to the cyberdog’s lack of soul, an attribute increasing numbers of environmentalists apply to the natural world. People often apply the concept of soul to themselves as well. For many, it is the soul that gives a person his or her true identity, that identity lost when the soul passes from the body at death leaving only an empty shell in its place. In the context of environment, soul thus may be thought of as the possession of unique characteristics brought about by a random evolution of genetic material.
Nature, generally defined as that part of the environment uninfluenced by the impact of the human race, is seen by many environmentalists as being stripped of its soul whenever human intervention influences natural development (Easterbrook 107) When the above definition of soul is applied to nature, the generalization that such intervention has the effect of removing nature’s soul begins to make sense. As environment is deconstructed by humans and then reassembled through logic and engineering, such as when Sony Electronics distilled an organic dog into its key physical components then modeled those components repeatedly from synthetic materials, the randomness inherent in nature is removed, only a physical reference to the natural remaining in its place.
Once again considering the aforementioned spiritual connection humans associate with their environment, it becomes plausible to suggest such a link results from the perception that both share a common trait, the possession of soul. If this is the case, it is possible that the seemingly invisible link between people and nature is not truly intangible, but rather obscured by the passage of time. The demonstration that, at some point in their shared history, the natural and human souls were united would serve as a basis for the modern idea that without nature’s presence humanity is incomplete. One such era can be identified in the history of religious development. If one traces back to the origins of religious thought and the first encounters between human society and the natural world, a link between humanity and nature may be discovered in one of their oldest shared resources, the cave.
Greek Mythology, as recorded by Homer and later Classical historians, and the metaphor of the cave that developed along with it, provide one of the earliest sources of insight into the relationship between humanity and nature. For the Ancient Greeks, mythology served to explain both historical occurrences and religious beliefs. Interpreted by classical writers as the place of origin for the human race, caves were of important significance. Humanity was said to have struggled to rise out of the cavernous earth into freedom above its surface. A movement from darkness to light and from low to high, often associated with the transition to the mortal realm (Weinberg 17). As such, the relationship between people and caves was seen to be divided into two umbrella categories. The first, and most dominant category considered the cave a negative construction, while the second placed the cave in the position of nurturer.
Those among the Ancient Greeks sharing the negative view, believed the cave to be the domain of lower beings than themselves. Among these individuals, the external world was seen as an intellectual realm, while the cave was considered analogous to a veil engulfing those within its confines in a shroud of ignorance (Weinberg 19). Many myths exemplify this interpretation of the cave, the Odyssey, the tale of Dido and Aeneas, and the story of the Minotaur among them. In the Odyssey, numerous caves were present, many seemingly benign at first impression. One such example is Calypso’s cavern which was described by Homer as a domain modern readers might associate with the Judeo-Christian idea of Eden. Had Odysseus chosen to reside with Calypso in her grotto, she would have bestowed upon him unlimited pleasure and eternal youth, much as God offered Adam and Eve in Western tradition (Weinberg 22). However, Odysseus thrived on living an active, adventurous life. Thus, confinement to a cave would have taken from him that which brought his life meaning. Confinement would have trapped Odysseus in an eternal death sealed off from the truth of the external world (Weinberg 24).
In many myths, the cave served as a metaphor for either entrapment or death at the hands of the gods and their monsters (Weinberg 102). In the myth of Dido and Aeneas, for example, the goddesses Juno and Venus, relied upon a mountain cave as the key element in their plot to thwart the founding of Rome. Their goal was to bring about a violent storm that would cause Dido and Aeneas to seek refuge together in a mountain cavern where they might fall in love with one another. Once love had touched the hearts of the travelers, the goddesses hoped they might never desire to leave the mountain, instead choosing to forego the harshness of the external world for the eternal bliss offered by the cave (Weinberg 64).
The minority view of the cavern, as interpreted by the writers of Ancient Greece, was that of a nurturing cave (Weinberg 116). Once again, the Odyssey contains examples of such metaphoric caverns. One, the Naiad’s cave, standing out as symbolic of rejuvenation and healing. It is from this cave that Odysseus arose revived after he returned to Ithaca amid a violent series of events encountered throughout the course of the Odyssey (Weinberg 37). Two additional roles were also filled by the nurturing cave. The first was the role of protector, as is referenced in the myth of Zeus, the ruler of the Greek gods, who was reputed to have been raised in a cavern during his youth (Weinberg 116). The final role filled by the nurturing cavern was that of the cave as a source of knowledge. Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi is one of the more notable examples of this variant (Weinberg 114).
Like the Ancient Greek Religion, many other belief structures evolved to incorporate references to the cave as a religious symbol. One example of this phenomena is the religion of Buddhism. Not only was Buddhism one of the earliest religions to embrace the cave, but it is also currently the primary religion that continues to do so. In Buddhism, monks, called lamas, have developed the practice of retreating to caves in order to live a secluded life. As hermits, the lamas exist in the caves of Tibet in solitary shelter, closed off from the outside world in an attempt to achieve spiritual purity (Selbie 267). The practice of seeking hermitage in caves gradually spread into Egypt, Syria, and even as far as Europe shortly after the supposed resurrection of Christ and the beginning of the Christian era (Selbie 267).
Although not directly inclusive of cave mythology in religious teachings, Judaism is tied to caves through the mythology associated with its origins. Serving as the link between Judaism and cave mythology is the biblical character of Abraham, an individual considered to be the first practicing Jew. Records show that Abraham participated in cave burial ceremonies, and he is recorded to have purchased the cave of Machpelah for the purpose of holding his family’s remains. It is hypothesized that burial sites such as Abraham’s may have helped, indirectly, to mold the religious meaning of the cave. If common people originally traveled to caves in order to honor the graves of their ideological leaders, such as Abraham, caves would have eventually transformed from burial sites to settings of religious festival. The focus of prayer made in such a cavern gradually shifting over time from the specific remembrance of a sacred individual to a more generalized celebration of the religion practiced by that individual, thereby creating a natural cavern temple (Selbie 269).
Sharing an even more direct link to classical interpretations of the cave is Christianity, a religion that developed in competition with the mystery religion of Mithras and thus shares many of its symbols. Established in Greece and Rome by the first century A.D., the cult of Mithras was originated in Persia. The religion was centered around a god, named Mithras, who was recorded to have been born from rock. Mithras went on to give the world its form, conquer the sun, and finally steal the cosmic bull who, in its sacrifice at the hands of Mithras, brought animal life to the Earth (Weinberg 147). The Mithras story drew upon earlier mythology, incorporating prior religious thought. Mithras, like Zeus, was born from the Earth, he, like Apollo, controlled the sun, and like Hercules, Mithras was challenged with the theft of a bull (Weinberg 147, 154). The birth of Mithras from rock parallels the birth of Jesus, in Christian tradition. It is believed by many religious historians that Jesus was birthed in a manger located within a cavern near the village of Bethlehem (Weinberg 153). Furthermore, the crucified Christ was buried in a cavern and resurrected from its confines to take his place in heaven. The concept of divine birth from a cave once again serves to tie a relatively young religion, Christianity, to the mythology of preceding religions.
The tracing of religion’s evolution from its earliest beginnings to its most modern incarnation now complete, it has been shown that the cave does, in fact, link the entities of nature and humanity. Having arrived at this conclusion, it is now vital to explore ways in which the realization of such a link might affect the future relationship of human beings with their environment. As with people’s initial search for environmental truth in religion, it is once again possible to turn to the cave for inspiration when considering this new question by examining one of the most influential, and essentially non-religious, works associated with caverns, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
Found in his essay, The Republic, the allegory Plato recorded is a written transcription of Socrates’ teachings which attempted to replace the mythology of Homer, considered the standard of Grecian knowledge, with a more scientific explanation of society (Weinberg 37). The allegory personified Greek society as a group of men chained to the inner-depths of a cavern. Their range of sight limited to the walls in front of them, the men were able to see only shadows of the surrounding world, cast by a blazing fire at their backs. Socrates mused that, should one of the captives be released from bondage and venture to the outside world, he would be initially blinded by the truth, having lived only in darkness. Exposure to the light would leave the liberated man literally enlightened and he would likely desire to return into the cave to free his companions. However, upon returning to the depths, the new philosopher would be once again blinded, this time by the extreme darkness. Those still chained within the cave would, confused by their companion’s blindness, fear “outside” knowledge and thus be apt to kill anyone seeking knowledge of the terrestrial world.
Plato’s allegory was originally recorded as a comment on political leadership. As such, it is necessary to alter the context of its key symbols, the chained captives, liberated man, cave, fire, and terrestrial world, in such a manner that they are applicable to the environment. For Plato, the cave symbolized blissful ignorance. Those chained to the cavern wall believed that the shadows they saw were representative of a valid existence in the cave, for they knew no other alternative (Plato 254). Plato and Socrates believed this state of existence to be naive and primal. The parallel condition in the modern world, in the context of the environment, is the concept of nature as a thing to be conquered by human kind. The chains holding society captive represent the hundreds of years in which people have grown to fear and struggle against the environment. The corollary of the blazing fire is the body of knowledge which has amassed to show that the environment is tied to the spiritual and therefore deserves recognition rights. Though not impacted to unprecedented levels by humans, the environment is in need of assistance (Easterbrook 45). The cave represents the various barriers that stand between society and its ability to reach the ideal state of symbiosis with nature represented, in turn, by the assent to the terrestrial world. As Plato’s allegory suggests, before society can move from bondage to the realm of enlightenment is necessary to identify the modern counterpart of the liberated man.
Easterbrook suggests in chapter seven of A Moment on Earth that the liberated man of modern society has already been set into action. Citing as an example the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, at which a clause alluding to the existence of natural rights was added to international legislation, Easterbrook implies that the liberated man of modern society will not be a man in the literal sense, but rather in metaphor. A phrase has served as the liberated man in the past as well, for instance during the Helsinki Summit of 1975. The phrase “human rights” was incorporated into international law for the first time in a treaty reached at the Summit and the simple inclusion of that phrase is credited as a key motivator encouraging the fall of the Soviet-bloc in 1989 (105). In addition to inclusion in political policy, religious organizations, such as the National Council of Churches in the United States, have been incorporating the concept of natural rights into current religious philosophy for a number of years. Environmental pollution has even been included upon the list of top spiritual crises the church hopes to address. Prayers have also begun to be incorporate the environment, bringing it into church services in an attempt to further emphasize the need for conservation (132-133).
With a liberated man metaphorically identified in phrase “natural rights” and currently in the process of testing the waters of knowledge and truth outside of society’s cave, only one symbol from Plato’s allegory remains undefined, the fettered captives. As in Plato’s time, the captives are representative of society as a whole. When the Republic was written, the captives were considered by Socrates to be chained to a religious explanation of life that undermined the potential of the Greek city-state. Socrates saw the outside world as a preferable realm of knowledge based on philosophical study rather than faith, a vision that has held humanity captive for centuries since. In the Republic, the greatest inhibitor of society’s advancement from the cave was shown to be its tendency to destroy those contributing original, even seemingly radical ideas. The concept of a spiritual environment, an environment having rights and possibly even a soul, is such an idea.
Though it runs contrary to Socrates and scientific bias, if humanity is to advance from its current position in the cave, the possibility that such a spiritual nature exists must be accepted. To refuse to do so, ignores the warning of Plato’s allegory and assumes the world we inhabit to be free of unfound knowledge. If humanity continues unquestioningly along its current path, viewing itself as able to re-engineer nature without consequence as did Sony with their robotic pet, then it runs the risk of destroying its oldest companion by stripping nature of its soul. Instead, people must approach nature as if it were another human being. Society must begin to reintegrate the natural into its modern developments. Many avenues for accomplishing this task exist, none requiring that humanity cease to progress. Rather, it is vital that innovations continue to arise while the search for expanded knowledge moves forward so that technologies such as water recycling, pollution free energy, and high yield agriculture develop allowing people to coexist with their environment in the limited space both share. Only together can humanity and nature climb from the depths of the cave yet one step closer to the external world of enlightenment.
Easterbrook, Gregg. A Moment on the Earth. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
Plato. The Republic. Trans. B. Jowett. New York: Modern Library, 1982.
Selbie, John A. “Caves.” Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Ed. James Hastings. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951.
Weinberg, Florence M. The Cave: the evolution of a metaphoric field from Home to Ariosto. Ed. Guy Mermier. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1986. Vol. 4 of Studies in the Humanities. 5 vols. 1986.