Masters and Possessors of Nature

“An infinity of devices.” René Descartes uses that strikingly prescient phrase writing in 1637 about the possibility of human beings using their scientific knowledge of the world to improve their lives (“Masters and Possessors of Nature,” CUA Primer, page 54).  Descartes talks about about this possibility as making ourselves “as it were, masters and possessors of nature.” The phrase “masters and possessors of nature” should certainly grab our attention. What does it mean to master nature or to possess nature? However, that more subtle little phrase “as it were” (“comme,” in French, which can be translated into English as “like”) is also worth considering. Is Descartes himself wrestling with just how to express this idea in words? Are there times when it is good for human beings to master nature? Are there times when it isn’t? If human beings themselves are part of nature and have a nature of their own, is there something paradoxical about the idea of mastering nature? (C. S. Lewis explores this last question and others in his excellent book The Abolition of Man.)

Photo: “Devices” by Rachel Lovinger is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Schola Eburuoh says:

    I believe that “mastering nature” can have both positive and negative affects on human wellbeing.
    In this passage Descartes hints at the fact that controlling nature can be used for the public good (“health”). Medicine can and has been created through nature to cure illnesses. On the other hand, this manipulation of nature has also led to addiction of such medications.
    In a broader sense, much of nature has been used to create products such as cell phones, laptops and many other electronic devices that open the door to addictive social media sites which have been used for bullying and spreading negativity. To also dispute this statement, these devices have allowed us to communicate with others from all over the world and learn about different cultures and communities without having to travel.
    Even Descartes says that, with the bit of physics he has learned, he could not keep his own discoveries “hidden away.” I believe this to mean that, no matter what comes of these new discoveries, they will not subside. Nature has brought us many inventions in favor of a ceaselessly advancing world regardless of its positive or negative effects.

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