Nature Speaks: Medieval Literature and Aristotelian Philosophy

Nature Speaks: Medieval Literature and Aristotelian Philosophy

Nature Speaks: Medieval Literature and Aristotelian Philosophy

Nature Speaks: Medieval Literature and Aristotelian Philosophy


What does it mean to speak for nature? Contemporary environmental critics warn that giving a voice to nonhuman nature reduces it to a mere echo of our own needs and desires; they caution that it is a perverse form of anthropocentrism. And yet nature's voice proved a powerful and durable ethical tool for premodern writers, many of whom used it to explore what it meant to be an embodied creature or to ask whether human experience is independent of the natural world in which it is forged.

The history of the late medieval period can be retold as the story of how nature gained an authoritative voice only to lose it again at the onset of modernity. This distinctive voice, Kellie Robertson argues, emerged from a novel historical confluence of physics and fiction-writing. Natural philosophers and poets shared a language for talking about physical inclination, the inherent desire to pursue the good that was found in all things living and nonliving. Moreover, both natural philosophers and poets believed that representing the visible world was a problem of morality rather than mere description. Based on readings of academic commentaries and scientific treatises as well as popular allegorical poetry, Nature Speaks contends that controversy over Aristotle's natural philosophy gave birth to a philosophical poetics that sought to understand the extent to which the human will was necessarily determined by the same forces that shaped the rest of the material world.

Modern disciplinary divisions have largely discouraged shared imaginative responses to this problem among the contemporary sciences and humanities. Robertson demonstrates that this earlier worldview can offer an alternative model of human-nonhuman complementarity, one premised neither on compulsory human exceptionalism nor on the simple reduction of one category to the other. Most important, Nature Speaks assesses what is gained and what is lost when nature's voice goes silent.


This book brings together two subjects that are generally kept apart, both in popular thought and by academic disciplines: love and physics. They are usually imagined as “non- overlapping magisteria,” to repurpose a phrase coined by the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Each occupies its own sphere and is assumed to obey different laws. Love concerns the human; physics the nonhuman, from subatomic particles to the motions of the universe. This distinction rests on an even deeper assumption about the division between, on the one hand, the ineffable flux of conscious inner life and, on the other, a world of material objects existing somewhere “out there.” Theoretical segregation is reinforced on the level of praxis, since research and expertise in these fields are certified by a far- flung group of professionals: physicists, astronomers, and topological mathematicians as opposed to fiction writers, psychologists, and the operators of online dating services.

Yet for medieval writers, both popular and academic, these domains not only overlapped, but they were also thought to operate according to the same principles. Nature Speaks argues that for a significant group of writers popular in late medieval England—Geoffrey Chaucer being only the most well- known today—natural philosophy and the academic controversies it generated were not just a source of learned allusion but also the most obvious place to look when trying, as writers must, to transform the world into words. Unlike today’s largely mathematical discipline, medieval natural philosophy—what we call “physics”—was primarily a textual endeavor; like medieval poetry, it was a set of interpretive practices that sought to divide up the material world, making it more amenable to human view. Medieval poets and natural philosophers thus shared a vocabulary and, more important, an orienting set of questions about . . .

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