On 24 August 410 Alaric and his Visigoth forces sacked Rome. After this calamity, as often happens following such disasters, Roman pagan elites looked for someone to blame. Some settled on Christianity. In the previous four centuries, Rome had turned Christian. That religion had made Rome weak and vulnerable to the attacks like those carried out by Alaric.
In response to the charges levied by the pagan elites, Augustine wrote The City of God. But he did not limit himself to defending the Church against her accusers. He also set out to draw Roman elites to a truer understanding of themselves and their society.
To do this, he had to enter into their immediate concerns, and then, show them a richer picture of history and reality that would help them understand the disaster that befell them and their Empire. This led him to a thorough examination of Roman laws, customs, history, religious experience, virtues, vices, philosophy, and theology. Having examined them, he could argue that Rome fell under the weight of her own vices and not due to Christian behaviour.
To the contrary, if the Romans were to fully embrace God and the cosmos that he created, they might discover the real defects in their personal and social lives and correct them in a way that would lead to what we now call long-term sustainability.
While there might not be an Alaric who threatens to sack the major city of one of the powerful nations in the contemporary world, Western elites are concerned with an impeding potential disaster, the ecological disaster. And, while they are not exactly blaming Christians for the ecological disaster, they are looking for some one or some thing to blame. At the very least, they are looking for a cause so that they can prevent the impending disaster.
If we were to apply Augustine’s method to the potential ecological disaster, we would set out to examine the history, customs, religious experience, virtues, vices, philosophy, and theology of humanity over the past 500 to 1,000 years. In short, we would take seriously the immediate concerns of those concerned about ecology, but we would also put those concerns into what is a richer context, to help our contemporaries better understand the moral dimension that lies behind the so-called ecological crisis.
By doing this, we would inevitably have to discuss the moral crisis that lurks behind, and is very much related to, the apparent environmental crisis.
By entering into and trying to understand so as to purify the desires that led to the concerns of the Romans, Augustine adapted the approach common to philosophers of the ancient world such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who tried to help their two respective societies and generations not to simply think of themselves in sophistical, materialist, or naturalist terms alone, but to also consider their circumstances in the light of transcendent realities: the soul, being, and Cosmos.
Understood in this light, they could see their disasters as being the fruit of long-term bad habits or vices, personal and societal injustices, and a lack of effort on behalf of the elites to truly commit themselves to the joyful pursuit of the true, the good, the beautiful and unity.
The solutions to their problems needed to be hunted down and applied once the individuals and society as a whole came to better understand the principles of man and society in the light of God and the Cosmos that He created.
Of course, the person concerned about ecology is concerned about nature. He might even imagine that a better society would imitate better the rhythms of nature. Speaking to him with the help of Augustine, we would point out to him that at the root of the ecological crisis is another kind of naturalism, one that allows man to pursue his selfish desires at the expense of God’s created order.
We have learned from those who first gave us the science of philosophy that the Cosmos consists of the ordered and harmonious system that makes up the human environment. It implies order as opposed to chaos. When we notice chaos, or disasters, at least one variable to consider is the way in which human behaviour, which chooses to act for good or for evil, has led to that chaos, or in part, been responsible for it. The implication is that humans can change their behaviour. They can change their habits, laws, or education to reduce chaos and introduce order into their environment.
Any vision of the person and cosmos that only identifies a limited number of variables when trying to explain the causes of potential disasters will fail to limit the disharmony that they see. This is the danger of many of those committed to thinking about the ecological or other human problems through the lenses provided by various forms of naturalism and materialism. Theories with a reduced understanding of nature, freedom, authority, the human person, the nature of politics, economics, what is a city, what is a nation, what is the purpose of food, or what is the purpose of a number of other human activities will usually end up not applying reason to solve problems.
As they will fail to use reason to understand and solve problems in the light of cosmos, they will usually resort to wilful solutions that over the long term will further introduce more chaos into the human environment. Or, they will open the way for even more wilful ways of thinking and acting to assert themselves in the various spheres of human activity.
Man, in as much as he is part of the cosmos, and in as much as he is responsive to his true nature, pursues the noblest things within the context of a social structure that is formed by education, laws, and customs that are in turn shaped by advertising, media, film, music, and leaders from the worlds of politics, military, entertainment, business, and education. This is the environment that needs to be better understood to explain the true ecology of the human person.
Almost every field of human endeavour in the contemporary West, knowingly or not, has shaped itself in the light of a more or less limited understanding of cosmos, a materialistic naturalism. If one goes beneath the surface, one senses a desire for freedom from the moral order and, ultimately, freedom from God.
The milder versions of naturalism will promote freedom in seemingly harmless ways. For example, they will start by claiming allegiance to morality in all areas except for economics. In economics, man follows his selfish instincts, and capitalism is the science of economics that enables good to come out of man following his selfish instincts.
But, following one’s selfish instincts is not necessarily good for humans or for their environment. We have many examples from history that show it was in the interest of a self-interested capitalist to hire children and pay them pennies to work in his factory. But, this was not good for the children. It was also in his self-interest to dump waste into the river, but this was not good for the city in which thousands or millions lived and relied on the water to drink every day.
In addition to these obvious historical examples, we also can see that these milder versions of naturalism have unforeseen, but logical consequences. They open the door for more aggressive versions of naturalism that openly promote the will to power or the war of all against all. In the 19th Century, violent materialist revolutionaries followed the first generation of self-interested capitalists, claiming that they were simply taking the principles of self-interest to their logical extreme. Socialists could use force to limit the power of the capitalists in the face of the real harm that the industrialists had inflicted on the population.
From a certain standpoint, none of this is surprising. Plato showed in Book VIII of his Republic that there is a natural trajectory from self-interested money making, to pleasure seeking, and to power seeking tyranny. As soon as man sets out on a naturalism in which he pursues his self interest at the expense of any authoritative claim to limit his self interest, he is setting on a course that will ultimately destroy himself, society, and his environment.
The ultimate problem with the ecological movement, then, is not its concern with the environment. Its ultimate problem is its materialistic naturalism. It is another strain of the many materialistic naturalism that we have seen from the time of the Sophists in Ancient Greek to our own day. The problem with these forms of naturalism is that they reject the authority of God over man’s behaviour. Instead, they seek forms of power to control man’s behaviour in what they perceive as the most important interest of the day.
In some cases, the most important interest of the day is money, in others, it is pleasure, in others, it is power. Now, it is the environment.
As Augustine would have reminded his fellow Romans, we would remind our fellow environmentalists, the true way to regulate the environment is to recognize that God is the creator of the Cosmos as well as the moral order required to enable man to act in harmony with the Cosmos. Once man recognizes this order and sets out to live in harmony with it, he will be able to prevent or repair the harm that he has done to his environment.
Jeffrey Langan is a philosopher who has taught at Notre Dame University and is now doing post-doctoral work in Italy.