To justify a new political reality, and forge and new institutional entity, Jefferson drew directly on the thought of the English philosopher John Locke predicating liberty, and self-determination on the natural state of human beings (laws of nature). The reference to Nature’s God was a deist, non-revelatory, predication that the natural state of human beings is something not endowed by the state but is an integral aspect of the created human person. However, the predication of natural law was not necessarily contingent on the existence of God. As Leslie Thiele writes in his article “Human Rights at the end of Nature", “Thomas Hobbes and the seventeenth-century Dutch republican Hugo Grotius (2012: 4) famously maintained that natural law would remain valid, “even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness: that there is no God, or that the affairs of men are of no concern to Him.” Grotius made no effort to defend this novel claim. And along with Hobbes, John Locke, and the Founding Fathers, he maintained that natural law supported the moral dictates of Christianity”. The foundational principle of the Enlightenment era was “nature”, and it was this principle that buttressed revelation and religion and not the other way around. As evidence of the power of nature and natural reason, the egalitarian, and even secularist, thought of Locke was, with the American revolutionaries, now being manifested in the birth of an entire country. But, Jefferson correctly intuited that one cannot reside without the other and his inclusion of “Nature’s God” was inspired.
The Jeffersonian “Law of Nature and Nature’s God” carry with them compelling and poetic flourishes that adds to their moral imperative irrespective of whether one believes in God or not. However, as “nature’s God” (or “God” as spiritual force binding us together in some fashion) becomes more contested so too does the concept of “nature” as a transcendent principle residing in matter.
This brings me to the phenomenon of the environmental movement which is increasingly taking on the trappings of a quasi-religious movement with politicians and media figures dutifully acknowledging the threat it poses and seeking prophets to point the way to salvation. As Madeline Grant writes concerning the Greta Thunberg phenomenon, quite apart from her message and the crowds accompanying her “is their quasi-religious reverence. She is portrayed as a child-prophet, a modern-day Joan of Arc in her ability to inspire a movement. Senior broadcasters call her “Greta” as though they enjoyed a direct connection with the teenager.” San Francisco unveils public frescoes with her image painted in iconographic detail.
The effect of this popular devotion is the galvanizing of a political consensus with respect to climate change and the environment. The debate around the science of climate change has been around for decades. The “Greta” phenomenon points to the next stage of the movement as it stirs the passions and begins to seep into the consciousness of the public. We are not, as human beings, pace the rationalists and positivists, driven by science and empirical reasoning. Emotion, feeling, and passion are outgrowths and drivers for political change. And as Hume thought, foundational in our decision making.
Popular movements, especially, when accompanied by religious fervour are always in need of careful, and respectful discernment. Clearly the environment is important and it is now taking center stage as the paradigmatic locus for all manner of political conversation.
I am a fan of Ivan Illich and am in the process of reading up on his notion of conviviality as a principle that can support “harmony with the natural world and with each other” - see Henry Eyres article on conviviality. From what I have read of Illich’s “conviviality”, it seems like a solid principle that can help navigate our new environmental politics by addressing head on our addiction to consumption. There is a certain asceticism required but it is not just individual asceticism but corporate asceticism that “limits to the size and structure of institutions, countering what he called radical monopoly”. More on lllich and conviviality to come in the near future!