Frank Lloyd Wright and Our Attitude toward Nature

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Part 1. The Ancient Greeks and the Formation of Western Civilization's Attitude toward Nature

Western Civilization was born with the Ancient Greeks beginning in approximately the eighth century B.C.E. To them the West is indebted for its artistic, literary, and philosophical traditions; for mathematics, geometry, and science; and for basic values such as humanism, individualism, and democracy. The Ancient Greeks not only laid the foundations for our civilization, but also shaped our understanding of what it means to be 'civilized.' Part of this understanding involves the Western world's relationship with nature.

Ancient Greeks' Mastery over Their Environment: City-states and Agricultural Territory

A major characteristic of the Ancient Greek world is the existence of city-states (such as Athens and Sparta). (1) The formation of city-states begins in approximately the eighth century B.C.E., a period which generally marks the end of the Greeks' shift from a nomadic to a pastoral and finally to a more settled agricultural society. (2) Politically, the city-states were small, self-ruling entities. (3) Geographically, the city-states were comprised of urban centers surrounded by agricultural territories. (4)

Greek Literature: Homer

The Western literary tradition largely begins with Homer, whose Iliad and Odyssey are generally believed to date back to the eighth-century B.C.E., and thus the same period that saw the birth of the Greek city-states. (5) The Odyssey records the story of the Greek hero Odysseus' quest, after the Trojan War, to return home to Ithaca, an island between mainland Greece and the West Greek lands of South Italy and Sicily, which the Greeks had already begun to colonize in the eighth century. In Book 9, "New Coasts and Poseidon's Son," believed to be set in Sicily, (6) Odysseus states:

   In the next land we found were Kyklopes (Cyclopses),
   giants, louts, without a law to bless them.
   In ignorance leaving the fruitage of the earth in mystery
   to the immortal gods, they neither plow
   nor sow by hand, nor till the ground,....
   Kyklopes have no muster and no meeting, ...
   but each one dwells in his own mountain cave
   dealing out rough justice to wife and child ...
      (lines 110-120, trans. R. Fitzgerald)

While the cyclopses are of course mythical, this particular description may reveal the Greeks' attitude towards the indigenous Sicilian and Italic tribes they encountered as they established their colonies and set up new city-states. Homer's description of the "other"--as lawless, as not practicing agriculture, as existing outside of a social order--simultaneously and by contrast provides a description of the Greek "self"--as law-abiding, as practicing agriculture, as existing within a social order. Mastering the land, mastering human behavior, and 'coming out of the cave' are all linked. Those who do not do so are "ignorant." Here, Homer has already set forth a dualistic worldview of civilized versus barbarian, (7) whereby being civilized is associated with taming the wild and controlling our physical environment. It is no accident that the Cyclops Polyphemos whom Odysseus encounters is the son of Poseidon, god of the sea and of earthquakes, while Odysseus himself is protected by Athena, goddess of wisdom and of civilization. (8)

While Poseidon is considered one of the Olympian deities along with Athena, this pitting of Athena against Poseidon, present already in Homer, foretells the evolution of Greek religion and thought: away from nature deities and toward more philosophical and abstract understandings of the divine, until, by the time of Plato, and especially by the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the natural and supernatural or spiritual realms would be completely divorced. (9) The dualistic worldview would be reinforced by Judeo-Christian beliefs. The Greeks' attitude of humans' domination over nature would gain support from the Bible, where, in Genesis (1:26), God says, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. …