“The Universal Quest for Harmony and Unity”
Part I: Unity with Nature
- Nature and the Idea of a Man-Made World (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995),
p. 92 - 120.
Things that accord in tone vibrate together. Things that have affinity in their inmost natures seek one another.
— R. Wilhelm and C. F. Baynes, trans., The I Ching, or Book of Changes (Princeton University Press, 1977)
When Fu Xi governed everything under the sky, he looked upward and admired the splendid designs in the heavens, and looking down he observed the structure of the earth. He noted the elegance of the shapes of birds and animals and the balanced variety of their territories. He studied his own body and the distant realities and afterwards invented the eight trigrams in order to be able to reveal the transformations of nature and understand the essence of things.
— As quoted in Nature…, p. 235
Ancient peoples likely thought of themselves as audacious when they successfully changed nature to suit their own purposes— agriculture, settlement, the damming of a stream to produce a lake, burning a woods or grassland to flush out animals. If nature is enchanted, if there are spirits in the rocks and trees, in creatures and in the winds, then those spirits must be appeased or their permission secured. If one acts without consent of the spirits, disaster may ensue. One purpose of myth is to instill either practical or moral habits, or both.
Myths that involve harmony and disharmony abound in ancient and so-called primitive societies. They usually involve the story of someone who disregarded nature or the gods or spirits and suffered consequences of epic proportions. In reality there are plenty of circumstances where human societies went against nature, either because they couldn’t have predicted the consequences of their actions, or because they were unable to affect a political means to mediate between the needs for certain resources and the sustainability of those resources.
- Certain Pacific and Aegean islanders logging off their land until it eroded away, eliminating not only their timber, but their topsoil through subsequent erosion so they could no longer grow timber, and often, crops for food as well. Sometimes they survived anyway because of access to the sea (fishing) or trade routes.
- The failure of parts of the Fertile Crescent is an example of accidental destruction of an ecosystem. After a millennia or more, their ingenious system of agricultural canals gradually saturated the soils with salts, to the extent that the land no longer could support the populations that had flourished there, and the world’s first urban civilization ebbed away, leaving a desert in its place.
Can you name some recent examples of these two: i.e., lack of political ability to manage resources, or accidental destruction to a natural system because the relationship between cause and effect could not be easily discerned?
- Type 1: oil and gas depletion; the effects of industrial chemicals in the water supply; elimination of rain forest for its timber and to create grazing land; continued production of hydro-carbons that create global warming even though we now know what is happening.
- Type 2: This is always speculative with regard to present practices! We can only assume, based on recent experience, that technologically advanced practices may produce unintended and unpredictable consequences such as the hole in the ozone layer, the pollution of aquifers, acid rain, the “Love Canal” phenomenon (correlation between industrial toxins and cancer rates).
While we aren’t disposed so much to myths as analogies to remind us of the possible consequences of our actions, might an overriding concept of “harmony” act as a paradigm? Or is that too inhibiting to what we regard as “progress”?
Here are some examples from the past:
- Musical harmonics from Pythagoras (described in today’s reading): He brought numbers and geometry together with music and empirical evidence to demonstrate that seemingly disparate events were all part of a greater unity—in essence, a cosmology.
- “The Vitruvian Man,” or “Universal Man” (described in detail in today’s reading) was not meant to represent the perfect body, but rather, the human body as paradigm for balanced form, the way of nature—harmony (from Vitruvius: symmatria).
- He (in Chinese) or Wa (in Japanese): Confucianism, which came to Japan from China after the 6th century (though with lesser impact than Buddhism), emphasized harmony among heaven, nature, and human society. It emphasized each person's social role and contribution to the social fabric. In Japan, this could be seen to square with Shinto in some respects. Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan; from its spiritual perspective, it regards nature as inhabited by spirits known as kami.
What tends to serve the function of myths of harmony for us today; i.e., what might be the equivalent in today’s positivist- inspired world?
- Current growing movement among Christian sects to embrace “environmentalism” based on the idea that God charges humankind with stewardship of the natural world (“His Creation”).
- Movies and novels that provide dramatization of ultimate disaster etc. (?) [Are these today’s parables, trying to do what myths once did, or are they just entertainment?].
- Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth" and recent films about the life of penguins and, more recently, the lives of polar bears.
Unity, harmony, and beauty are often parts of the same idea. The desire to ensure the built environment is unified (a unity of diversity—i.e., a “natural” consistency within itself) and is consistent with nature or the cosmos within which it resides, has often led to seeing nature as a direct paradigm.
There are many ways to assess the appropriate relationship between the man-made and nature. It may be scientific such as measuring the carbon footprint of a human setting, be it urban or rural; or it may reflect a humanist notion of evolution of the man-made in nature; or it may relate to an implicit belief in a “perfect” harmony between the man-made and nature; or a combination of any of these, and perhaps, many more. Ultimately, each of us must ask ourselves what is our own idea of what is the perfect harmony between nature and man-made things.
"An alternative idea of wild nature as a source of human existence is gaining a public hearing. This idea questions the long-entrenched civilized-primitive dichotomy, a bifurcation grounded in an assumption that the human story lies in our triumph over a hostile nature. The idea of nature as the source of human existence, rather than a mere re-source to fuel the economy, is the outcome of the second scientific revolution, initiated in the nineteenth century by Charles Darwin and Rudolf Clausis."
—Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1991), p. 1
Note biologist E. O. Wilson’s Consilience: He argues the “two worlds” of humanism and science are not mutually exclusive, but necessary for a complete understanding. Humanistic truths and scientific truths. This is, in his words, a return to “the Enlightenment Project.”
For Renaissance architects, the achievement of harmony, unity, and beauty, was accomplished by means of two approaches to the design of architecture:
- translation of the “Vitruvian Man” into harmonic geometries for architecture, and
- recognition that the evolution of architecture, demonstrated by the myth of the primitive hut (again, from Vitruvius) provided for ‘perfection’ achieved through thousands of years of refinement by means of trial and error.
(This week’s reading discusses no. 1. in detail; a later reading will address no. 2 in detail but you should be prepared to speculate on it during the seminar session).
"We must . . . conclude that the harmonic perfection of the geometrical scheme [for a building] represents an absolute value, independent of our subjective and transitory perception. And it [can be shown] that for Alberti—as for other Renaissance artists—this man-created harmony was a visible echo of a celestial and universally valid harmony."
—Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, 4th ed. (London: Academy Editions, 1988), p. 18.
Harmonic geometries, as applied to architecture, not only squared visual proportions with cosmic universalities—or so it was believed—but aided in the very practical task of putting a building together—so that columns, walls, and openings maintained a structural logic, and functional requirements such as how rooms were to be used or how circulation was disposed, were coordinated. That is, unity of the parts through a common geometric matrix (referred to by Alberti as linneamente). (See illustrations in this week’s reading.)
- Compare the views of Rome and Osaka and discuss the environmental and humanistic impact of each. Is the evaluation of one distinctly positive and the other negative, or do you consider them mixed in certain areas of evaluation?
- Describe a mind-set, or ethos, or myth-as-paradigm that may give focus and direction as we address problems caused by industrialization and the spread of urbanism (i.e., “sprawl”). Either select one that is currently applied, or suggest one that you believe is emerging and that you believe will be effective.