In Prospect

Autumn 1996

Matthew Arnold once wrote a blistering poem with the prosy title "To an Independent Preacher Who Preached That We Should Be ’In Harmony With Nature.’" Nonsense, Arnold growled: man has everything that nature has, and more—"And in that more lie all his hopes of good." Nature is cruel; man is merciful. Nature is implacable; man has a conscience. "Man must begin, know this, where Nature ends," Arnold declared. As for the hapless clergyman: "Fool, if thou canst not pass her, rest her slave!"

Imagine what he’d say to one of today’s environmental zealots, blathering that man has despoiled nature’s perfection with his cities, his highways, and his industry! Fool, he’d intone, where do you think the, spectacles came from that allow you to see, the asthma inhaler that lets you breathe, the electricity that you command like a genie in a bottle? Where would you be without the laws that protect you and the policemen who enforce them? And without such human artifacts as morals and philosophy, art and science, what do you think the very contents of your soul would be? As many a sage has written, all that is most distinctively human about mankind doesn’t come from raw nature but is the product of man’s own collective effort in civilization. Of all the works of man, wrote one philosopher, surely the greatest is Man himself.

Not much less great is the city, that man-made work of art in which humanity reaches its fullest development. Is it not extraordinary that today we seem to have lost the city-building energy and ambition that impelled our forebears to create such magnificent structures as Rockefeller Center or the George Washington Bridge? David Gelernter’s "The Immorality of Environmentalism" on page 14 tackles this question with Arnoldian power. We now have a virtual religion of environmentalism, whose basic belief about nature, in the words of Bishop Heber’s famous hymn, is that "every prospect pleases, And only man is vile." Such beliefs have made us incapable—to take only one example—of getting a sunken highway built along the Hudson River for almost a quarter of a century for fear of disturbing the striped bass believed to breed among the shore’s rotting piers. More important, a high spiritual cost attaches to this anti-humanistic claptrap, Gelernter shows. It runs counter to the deepest tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and it saps us of the confidence we need to achieve worthwhile things.

The belief that we should be in harmony with a nature that is benign and innocent often has the corollary that human nature is also benign and innocent, that men are good until corrupted by all the sophisticated chicanery that comes with those creations of man: society, private property, and inequality. As Peter Reinharz argues in "Why Teen Thugs Get Away With Murder" (page 43), that belief undergirds New York’s juvenile justice system, with catastrophic results. To the leaders of the New York State Assembly, who maintain the system, teen criminals, like all children, aren’t far removed from mankind’s original innocence, and a few months in the country is likely to restore 15-year-old violent felons to that happy state. Fools! Arnold would reply: human nature is mere appetite and will; it requires civilization to give it a conscience and make it human rather than savage. But trusting in this fantasy of primitive innocence, New York releases violent teens within months and then is surprised by their 86 percent recidivism rate.

David Garrard Lowe’s mesmerizing article on architect Richard Morris Hunt on page 74 reminds us of the days when New Yorkers first learned to build a city with sublime confidence—in an architecture so civilized, rather than "in harmony with nature," that it looks positively French. Hunt’s most lasting New York legacy is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a perfect emblem of all that man has achieved to make himself Man. Yet on top of the four great pairs of columns that soar above Fifth Avenue are huge piles of stone blocks, meant by the architect to be statuary groups of the great ages of art—but never carved. What a marvelous affirmation it would be that we’re still capable of great city-building if some modern Medici would have them sculpted according to Hunt’s original design.