Man, Nature, and Philosophers; or Environmental World History to 1800.

A general overview is often the least rewarding type of history to read. In an effort to tell the reader everything and justify the importance of an all encompassing version of the past the general overview becomes a polemical, whiggish history or it sinks into endless detail and repetition of conclusions that leave the reader dazed and racing for the back cover just to be done with the book. Occasionally a general overview manages to not become a tale of progress or get so bogged down in detail it is work to try to figure out what is so important about it. These general overviews do exist, but the are not very common. I do not enjoy general histories, world histories, or any history that tries to the definitive work, but they are unavoidable when reading for comps. You have to take the good along with the repetitive because they are all part of understanding the historiography and not everything that has shaped a field is beautifully written and engaging. Some of it is dated and you have to read it because everyone else in your field had to read it. When the time comes you will make the next batch of grad students suffer through it too because that dated general overview is important. Right now the never-ending general overview making me crazy is Glacken’s 1967 tome Traces on the Rhodian Shore. It attempts to trace nature and culture in western thought from the ancient world through the 18th century and every religious thinker, philosopher, and intellectual cited as representative of environmental thought in their age, reminds me of why I chose modern history.

Most history written from source material pre-dating the modern era is elitist history because the surviving material comes largely the small literate portion of the population who were often men of religion or wealth (or both) and are not representative popular culture outside their segment of the population. This is the root of my problem with Glacken – all his sources are from the elite or are taken directly from religious books making the environmental ideas he presents accurate as theory and what informed the intellectual culture. Through these sources he is able to present various ideas about nature and culture from ancient times through 1800, though it quickly becomes apparent that all the new ideas are recycled from earlier times made stronger by improved methods of scientific enquiry and distillation of ideas through the centuries. The focus of the work is to show that before 1800 all ideas about man and nature revolved around three ideas; earth is divinely created for the benefit of man, climate determines physical and mental qualities, and the purpose of man on earth is to improve and bring order to nature. When the only sources used are from religious books and philosophers this is the logical conclusion, but it reflects only what the educated elite of European societies saw when looking at the natural world around them. It is nearly impossible to know who the majority of the population thought of the relationship between man and nature for this period because that part of the population did not leave written records for libraries and archives. In this way the Glacken’s narrative is constrained by the sources he could access and the understanding of how to use source material that dominated pre-cultural turn North American history (though this work could be considered early cultural turn history).

As an exercise in intellectual history Traces on the Rhodian Shore is an excellent example of how to chase big ideas over many centuries. The evolution of ideas on creation, final cause, and the superiority of man by the great thinkers (mostly philosophers) becomes more important that the observations and comments they made directly addressing the natural world around them. It presents a world where humans seem detached from nature despite the majority of the populating living closer to the land, and potentially knowing their environments more intimately than any post-industrial scientist could. Glacken’s conclusion that the 19th century caused a new paradigm for understanding the relationship between man and nature is dead on, but it is something he can only hint at because his interest ends when the great industrial transformation of the earth begins.

Good thing Donald Worster published Nature’s Economy in 1975 and addressed the reordering of our understanding of the environment that came with the emergence of earth sciences like ecology.

Oh because this book gave me flash backs to writing a paper on whigs and world history my song pick is Muse “Thoughts of a Dying Atheist” and “Supermassive Black Hole.”

About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
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1 Response to Man, Nature, and Philosophers; or Environmental World History to 1800.

  1. sean says:

    Geez–did you have to use such a small font? Well, I vaguely remember Traces bugging my eyes out as well. Good rant in any case…not much to add (or subtract) here.

    Well, maybe one–and it is more of a general existential-like comment on literature concerned with the history of ideas but one nonetheless worth noting: It seems to me that compartmentalizing this book as "elite" history implies that there is a way to get at the (in my words) "popular" sort. Yet you rightly point out that, "It is nearly impossible to know wh[at] the majority of the population thought of the relationship between man and nature for this period because that part of the population did not leave written records for libraries and archives."

    By raising the "equity flag", are we doing the 'nature' of historical inquiry any favours? Or is this handwringing a way of exorcising the "demon baggage" that our own privileged position as graduate students–yes, we ARE privilieged–brings to the table? If there is an elite history (and there is), one would be remiss in affixing the "non-" to the word (I am always troubled when people label history "non-fiction"). As for the tendency to apply the "masses" moniker, well it may seem more benign but what is stopping one from pointing out that the term is used largely by the elite? Aren't we still showing a slight of hand when we use such words?

    I prefer to interpret Glacken's work through the optics of a historian who worked with what he had as opposed to a scholar who was "constrained" by what he didn't. Ideas are slippery, slidy, things…grasped in one moment, slipping away the next.

    Great way to keep sane Lauren! 175 (give or take) to go…


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