Was Homer a naturalist?

No, I’m not asking whether Homer was a systematic observer of nature, or whether they believed in supernatural beings. I’m asking a more fundamental question: was “nature” part of Homer’s way of looking at the world? (By “Homer” I mean, of course, the collection of persons who created the epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey).

Let me contextualize the question with this pair of books:

James Redfield’s Nature and Culture in the Iliad appeared in 1975. One of its main aims, the one its title signals, was to study Homeric epic in an anthropological way, which at that time meant (at least for the group of French and francophile classicists to which Redfield belonged along with Jean-Pierre Vernant, Froma Zeitlin, and others) in the manner of Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Philippe Descola, author of Beyond Nature and Culture (2005), completed his doctoral work under the (apparently very hands-off) direction of Lévi-Strauss. His work represents an important new wave in anthropology, one that may be seen as anthropology’s manifestation of a broader “ecological turn” in the humanities and social sciences. This lecture is a nice introduction to his work, with a focus on its ecological aspects:

One of the main arguments of Beyond Nature and Culture is that the concepts of “nature” and “culture” that we (more on this “we” momentarily) take for granted only make sense within a certain kind of ontological schema. An “ontological schema” is a set of basic assumptions about the different kinds of beings that exist. So, for example, one ontological schema may assume the existence of one God, another that of multiple gods, while another does not allow for the existence of any such being(s). The term “naturalism” is often used to refer to the latter sort of schema. However, Descola defines it quite differently.

Descola’s goal in Beyond Nature and Culture is nothing less than to classify all of the ontological schemata used by humans, and what’s more, to do so in a way that does not assume the validity or invalidity of any particular schema. The first thing to say about this is that it belies Redfield’s claim, in a preface to the 1994 expanded edition of Nature and Culture in the Iliad, that in the two decades since his book first appeared, anthropology had become “not about meaning but power, not about classification but about appropriation”, and that Lévi-Strauss was “one of the last major theorists still in the tradition of the Enlightenment.”

Surely a classification of all the world’s ontological schemata is a project in the tradition of the Enlightenment.

Perhaps put off by the political battles that engulfed anthropology in the 1980’s, Redfield gave up on the field too soon. It so happens that 1994 was also the year in which an English translation of Descola’s first book (first published in French in 1986), In the Society of Nature: A Native Ecology in Amazonia, appeared. (You can see from this title that he has not yet gone “beyond nature and culture” but is already headed in that direction.)

The second thing to say is that while Descola’s desire for impartiality is nothing new, this is a quality with many different kinds and degrees. Ethnography written by missionaries is of course bound to be partial, given that the primary aim of a missionary is ministry, not observation: to change people, not to study them. But “missionary ethnography” varies considerably in its degree of partiality, some missionaries being far more sensitive and sympathetic than others to the “old ways” of the people to whom they would minister. Scientists tend to rate their own impartiality much higher than that of missionaries, the main reason being that they, adhering to what Star Trek named the Prime Directive, aim not to change the people they study; on the contrary, they often work to conserve at least the conditions under which those people can continue to live as they are if they so desire. (So don’t say that anthropologists aren’t conservative.) However, they are no more impartial than missionaries insofar as they believe that their own ways and means of knowing the world have certain clear advantages over those of the people they describe ethnographically.

Descola recognizes that pure impartiality is unattainable, so he does not seek it. His ambition to go “beyond nature and culture” is more limited: he wants to reconsider whether these concepts are useful for analyzing all peoples, as anthropologists had always assumed (along with most classicists and many literary scholars), or only some. It is certainly useful in the case of people who themselves use such a pair of opposing concepts, and Descola assumes that his readers fall into this category. His “we”, then, is not currently beyond nature and culture must go there (by making the effort–and I can’t say it’s a small one–to read his book). People who use the nature/culture distinction he calls naturalists. He claims that there have been many people, and still are a few, who are not naturalists; these he classifies as animists, totemists, or analogists. Let’s look briefly at how he defines each of these categories.

Crucial to Descola’s system is the concept of “identification”. Here is how he introduces and defines it: “Identification extends beyond the Freudian sense of an emotional link with some object and beyond a classificatory judgment that makes it possible to recognize the distinctive character of that object. It covers a more general schema by means of which I can establish differences and resemblances between myself and other existing entities by inferring analogies and contrasts between the appearance, behavior, and properties that I ascribe to myself and those that I ascribe to them” (112). He further states that the basic mechanism of identification is this: humans “specify indeterminate objects [i.e., anything not one’s own self] by either ascribing to them or denying them an “interiority” and a “physicality” similar to those that I attribute to myself.” Anticipating the knee-jerk reaction that he is simply replacing one binary (nature/culture) with another (interiority/physicality), he adds that “this distinction between a level of interiority and one of physicality is not simply an ethnocentric projection of the Western opposition drawn between the mind and the body. Rather, it is a distinction that all civilizations about which we have learned something from ethnography and history have, in their own fashion, objectivized” (116).

Consider, then, a face-to-face encounter between a human and, let’s say, a deer. How the deer will view the human is a question I must set aside for now. How will the human view the deer? Descola’s system generates four distinct possibilities through an exhaustive series of logical transformations of the basic elements, which are interiority/physicality and similar/dissimilar. So, for example, the human might regard the deer as having a similar interiority (a human-like sentience, a soul, or whatever that human calls their own interiority) but a different physicality; such a human would be classified as an animist. Or the human might regard the deer as having a similar physicality (it is, like humans, also made of earth, fire, air, and water; or of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and so on) but a different interiority; such a human would be classified as a naturalist. Here is a chart with all four categories:

The top of page 233 of Philippe Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture, translated by Janet Lloyd, University of Chicago Press, 2013.

For the naturalist, then, “nature” names the physicality that humans share with plants, animals, and all nonhumans except any “supernatural” entities that the naturalist regards as existing, such as deities, angels, etc.; while “culture” (along with “society”) names the systems of communication that arise because of the interiority humans share with other humans and supernatural entities. For a naturalist, deer belong to nature and to the disciplines of biology, zoology, and the natural sciences generally, whereas human imaginative expressions related to deer (paintings, songs, ideas, etc.) belong to culture and the various disciplines that constitute the humanities. An animist, however, simply doesn’t think or act in accordance with this kind of distinction.

So, was Homer a naturalist? Redfield’s book, having Nature and Culture in its title, would seem to assume that the answer is “yes”. Redfield often makes stark claims that assume these categories operate always, in all times and places, in the same way. For example, “Nature is that which continues, whether we would have it so or not; nature endures our makings and unmakings and persists. Nature, thus defined, is that which is common to all men at all times and places; while cultures vary, nature is invariable. Every culture, further, is, in some special way, a relation to this common nature, and it is this common term which makes it possible to compare the most diverse cultures with one another” (170).

Nothing could be clearer. Yet when he turns from vatic pronouncements like these to analyzing Homer, the waters muddy considerably, for “it is also true […] that each culture has its own nature–its own, not as it is, but as it is stated to be” (170). Descola points out that when scholars use the language of nature and culture where it doesn’t fit, its inappropriateness is betrayed by the paradoxical expressions to which they must resort, such as Lévi-Strauss’s description of “certain totemic organizations as presenting ‘a socio-natural image that is unique but fragmented'” (237). Now consider this passage from Redfield:

Page 171 of James Redfield’s Nature and Culture in the Iliad, Expanded Edition, Duke University Press, 1994.

He recognizes that the terms of analysis are poorly suited to the material to be analyzed, so he tries to compensate by piling up paradoxes.

What happens if we look at Redfield’s Homeric material using Descola’s analytic framework? Consider this sentence: “Both winds and rivers in Homer are persons, so that their menos is like the menos of gods, men, or animals.” We can understand the personhood of winds and rivers as an identification of them as having an interiority similar to that of humans. And we can understand the sharing of menos, given that menos is “both somatic and psychic”, as a recognition of similar physicality. In Descola’s scheme, similar interiorities and similar physicalities defines the category of totemism. However, in the case of Homer–unlike in most totemist cultures–the interiorities and physicalities are not so much the same as similar but slightly different. This corresponds to the category of analogism.

So the answer is no: Homer was not a naturalist.

Homer was an analogist.

Published by drsamuelc

Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo

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