Chapter 6: Spiritual Anthropologies II: Ecofeminism, Iris Murdoch, and Other Reflections on the Human Situation

6.4 Western Roots of Aggression

Arguably, the division of society and departure from compassion and feeling extends back to Plato’s division of the world into “spirit”and “matter” (Griffin, 1980). Loren Wilkinson and his colleagues point out that Platonic views of nature often contain references to contemptus mundi, or contempt for the world (Wilkinson, 1991). Through the belief that the proper relationship between humans and the natural world was full of tension and fighting for survival,[1] both spiritual connection to nature and an ethic of care that extended beyond nature to other humans was lost (Wilkinson, 1991). Prior to this, the first signs of patriarchal dominance emerged among ancient humans of the Neolithic Era, as the desire to have ownership over herds replaced the practice of sharing resources, and having more children was seen as an advantage to manage these commodities (“The History of Patriarchy,” 2015). In many early societies, women too were seen as commodities, and had virtually no rights.

In addition to misogynistic undertones (such as Aristotle’s explicit statement that women are inferior beings,) the development of a Western philosophy that lacked women’s perspectives entirely created a rationalistic, dichotomist mentality among cultures, and led to thinking of ”the self” and ”the other” as separate (Provencher, 2013).  The development of ethics in Western culture was therefore driven by a notion of “us versus them,” and the prioritization of “the self” over “the other,” with the ultimate other being the natural world (Provencher, 2013). The Western mentality of “us versus them” has contributed to numerous injustices, including the separation of humans from nature, and women and other marginalized groups being labeled as inferior.

This trajectory of Western philosophy ultimately led to worship of reason that permeated all other aspects of thought, overriding feelings, senses, and intuition. These ideals created a societal foundation that labeled the sensitive as weak, shaping a lack of respect for the natural world. The Epicurean view of nature, which arose during Aristotle and Plato’s time, argued that nature is nothing more than atoms, and no greater purpose exists (Wilkinson, 1991). This theory reasons that since no deeper meaning exists, the goal of human life is to live as comfortably as possible, with no ethic of care towards the other, and with a focus on the self (Wilkinson, 1991).

In many ways, this ideal permeates modern scientific conceptions of nature as economic resources which must be extracted for human purposes only. Through the Protestant Reformation and acquisition of ‘virgin lands’ in ‘the New World,’ the conviction arose that man had a sacred right to exploit ‘the other,’ which they saw as nature, indigenous peoples, and women. This exploitation of natural resources resulted in an economic stimulus, as Western colonizers realized that the most wealth could be attained by alteration of the land. As a result, an ideology of exploitation of others was passed down through generations (Glacken, 1967). In response, the vision of many ecofeminists is the merging of “the self” and “the other” as one, not unlike the idea of “unselfing,” as described by Niebuhr and Loy, but inclusive of all members of society and nature. Essentially, the inclusion of “the other” can be interpreted as the inclusion of all aspects of nature as valuable, as in Aldo Leopold’s ecocentric ethics (Leopold, 1966) as a counterforce to the Western backdrop of dominance and aggression.

The rise of the enlightenment and emphasis on rationalism bolstered black-and-white-thinking: the domination of facts over feeling and duty over love. This is tragic, because as many social theorists emphasize, love, more than duty, is what motivates a change in human consciousness. Through the rise of industrialization and consumerism, the separatist tradition of individualism and masculinity has continued to permeate collective actions, leading to overall dissatisfaction among men and the mistreatment of women, minorities, and the planet. The combined critiques of Susan Faludi, Carol Gilligan, and other researchers, in addition to an assessment of aggressive Western philosophy, exposes patterns that underlie overly dominating aspects of American culture. A society that worships power, and views emotional sensitivity to others as incompatible with this power, is bound to remain in a cycle of domination.

  1. No doubt humans have always had to work to survive, but the notion of fighting nature, which is the source of our material sustenance, evokes a curious opposition to our source of support


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Religion and Environmental Values in America by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.