Culture

The Natural And The Artificial

The dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in 2005 in London. i i

hide captionThe dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in 2005 in London.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
The dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in 2005 in London.

The dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in 2005 in London.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

When Charles II looked up at the dome of St Paul's Cathedral in London, then newly completed by the architect Christopher Wren, he is said to have remarked that what he saw was awful and artificial. What he meant was that he felt awe in the face of this achievement of human artifice.

Both these words — "awful" and "artificial" — have changed their meaning, or acquired new meanings. When we say something is awful (as opposed to awesome), we now mean that it is really bad. And when we say that something is artificial, what we are likely to mean is not that it is man-made, but that it is somehow fake, or inauthentic. A person who is artificial is someone who pretends to be something she is not and is, therefore, untrustworthy. The problem with artificial food is not that it is the product of artifice, but that, in some sense, it only masquerades as food.

As with artificial so with natural. Organic food is not any less the product of human artifice than any other style of food. But it is felt to be, somehow, more valuable, more real, whether justifiably or not. Corresponding to the two senses of "artificial," then, the word "natural" has two semantic poles: at one end there is the idea of things as they are apart from human action, intervention or artifice; at the other there is the idea of the good and the genuine and the authentic.

The first notion of natural is an ontological one. Something is natural if it is as it is apart from us. The second notion is something like an aesthetic or even an ethical one. To be natural, in this second sense, is to be good, pure, genuine, authentic, healthful. We say a person is natural when she is without artifice and pretense, when she is straight forward and on the up and up.

But it is clear that these meanings are connected. Somehow we have come to feel that the effects of human action are suspect; things are better as they are on their own before we intervene.

Why is this? Is this suspicion of what humans do and what they make something new?

I won't try to answer this now, but I will make one observation: very little of our environment is truly natural in the first sense above. Water may be, but the water we drink has been purified and filtered and comes from taps or bottles. We think of vegetables and meats as natural, in the relevant sense, but of course they are not. Like bread, butter, wine and tobacco, we have cultivated and so, in a sense, designed these products of our agriculture. Even wild fish comes to our tables only thanks to the industry of those who catch it in remote waters and keep it on ice as it makes its way through the world's markets to our kitchens.

But, more importantly, we ourselves are no longer natural, if we ever were. We require clothing, cooked food and heat just to survive. Our digestive systems have evolved to eat foods — such as milk — only available to us thanks to the cultural practice of the domestication of animals. Like other species, we adapt ourselves to environments that are, to some extent, of our own making. And this is to say nothing of the way language, literacy, urbanization and all the rest, alter what it means to be a human today.

If to be natural is to be authentic, then it seems that our way of living — which is tool-based and technologic by nature — calls our own authenticity into question.


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