The Nature-Civilisation Relationship 自然与人文关系

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In the West, science and religion are often understood as conceptual systems that developed from Greek science through the Middle Ages to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Russell, 1945; Jardine, 2009). Throughout this period, natural phenomena were described in statements and propositions, creating a system of logic where proof and scientific knowledge was established through the proper, immediate, or true cause for a fact or effect. In Aristotelian terms (yà lǐ shì duō dé zhéxué, 亚里士多德哲学), true knowledge came from principles, definitions, or hypotheses that could explain phenomena, prove conclusions and predict events.

By the second century, as Christianity was spreading over the Roman Empire, religious organisations were trying to find ways to explain the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Even though the search to prove that a God created the physical universe, living beings and Adam within six days continues to be a “scene of historical, literary, theological and scientific battles” (Hummel, 1986, 175b), early theologians chose to borrow from pagan or Aristotelian natural philosophies. As a result, once Christianity became dominant in Western culture, Aristotelian logic and cosmology had been integrated to create a Christianized Aristotelian worldview (jīdū jiàoyì huà xià yà lǐsī duō dé shìjièguān, 基督教义化下亚里斯多德世界观 (Hsu, 2005).


Image: The Christian Aristotelian Cosmos: An Earth-Centred Universe. Retrieved March 24, 2017 from here. The diagram shows how the Earth sits motionless at the centre of the universe, while the outer sphere, the Primum Mobile, is assumed to revolve over a 24-hour period.

For Freya Matthews (2016) however, Western ideas about science and religion that are thought to be the hallmark of civilisation, modernity and progress are actually more problematic that they seem (see also Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature). Unlike hunter gatherer societies that followed context-dependent and relational modes of existence, the principles of logic in Western thought separated life-worlds from nature. The replacement of nature with fixed, built and human-designed environments reinforced a view deeply rooted in some Judeo-Christian teachings*. That is, that humans possess far greater worth and rights than other creatures, and are entitled to consume and exploit nature at the expense of other species (Lundmark, 1998; Kremmerer, 1999; Lo, 2016).

This mind set, which continues to justify the subjugation of nature by civilisation usually for immediate or short-term gain, has become a serious issue for many Chinese writers that have commented on consumerism, overpopulation and environmental degradation in China (see for example Wong, 2006 and Zhang et al., 2010). In his recent paper on science and Confucianism, Professor Hsu Kuang-Tai from the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan states that the potential to look for alternative mind sets that are available in Chinese thought could lead to research agendas that examine how Taoism and Confucianism could be used to replace unsustainable cultures that are contributing to global climate instability.

Confucius & Environ

Image: Confucianism & Environment. Retrieved March 24, 2017 from here. For some scholars such as Li (2003), it would be mistaken to regard Confucian tradition as purely humanistic. Through various interpretations, it could be argued that Confucianism promotes environmental ethics through its inclusiveness of Heaven, Earth and Humanity in the traditional Chinese trinity. Maintaining good relations between the natural world and society is therefore crucial to promoting ultimate harmony.

With a history of inventing paper, gunpowder, the compass, and technologies like iron and steel smelting, some proponents note that Chinese science could offer a solution to global problems. Hsu highlights that this might mean looking to the natural philosophy of qi (氮), where everything, including heaven, earth and all beings are composed of a fundamental substance that constantly moves and constitutes everything that we see. Part of this universal dynamic is ren qi (人氮) or qi issued from human beings. However, whereas “bad qi” (li qi, 诊氝) produced by humans, was thought to bring disasters into the world, there also exist positive relations between politics, ethics and nature.

“Good politics must follow the natural order of the seasons and provide benefits for the people. This is the positive Confucian belief in the intimate relation between politics, ethics, and nature” (Hsu, 2016, 92).

In that case, disputing Levenson’s (1965) claim that modern science cannot develop from a traditional Confucian society, further research needs to determine the extent to which Confucianism could be one of the many frameworks that has the potential to restore the relationship between ecology and society.


*While some Christian institutions contest this claim (see the Vatican’s 2015 Encyclical letter here), the idea that humans are made “in the image of God” and are blessed to “rule over” other species is found in Genesis 1:27-28, according to the New American Standard Bible.

2 thoughts on “The Nature-Civilisation Relationship 自然与人文关系

    jimwes said:
    March 27, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    Duty of Care? What Is a Christian’s Responsibility Toward the Rest of Creation?


      cicko8 responded:
      March 27, 2017 at 11:24 pm

      Thanks for the link. You are right in pointing out that Christianity is recognising that it needs to reinforce the importance of responsibility towards the environment as part of a believer’s duty towards God. However, for a long time in history this was not the case.


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