This brief essay will examine and compare the functions of the term “Nature” in two different texts by two prominent thinkers in the history of Western society: Dante Alighieri and Sir Philip Sidney.
In his text “The Banquet,” Dante Alighieri mentions the term “Nature” profusely. Here is a quote from Chapter I in which Dante integrates this term a couple of times as part of his effort to explain how to interpret his works:
“Hence, as the Philosopher says in the first book of the Physics, Nature desires that we proceed in due order in our search for knowledge, that is, by proceeding from that which we know well to that which we know not so well; so I say that Nature desires it, inasmuch as this way to knowledge is innate in us.”
In this segment, Dante relates to “Nature” as a sort of omnipotent being who, by its own mere desire, can dictate the way humans are capable of thinking and their limitations. Since Dante was a devout Christian, this all-powerful being can only be associated with the one divine entity he believed in, God. For Dante, God and nature are one; God created nature, God controls nature and God is Nature. Therefore, it is God who desires that humans will think in a particular type – in this case, understand the text in its literal meaning first and consequently in all the other ways later.
A subsequent thinker who incorporated the term “Nature” in his works is Sir Philip Sidney. The following quote is from Sidney’s text “An Apology for Poetry“:
“[S]o as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done.”
Sidney discusses here how the poet is the only one who can embellish and add additional aspects to those of the female personified being, Nature. While other professionals can only work within the limitations of nature, the poet is not restrained to such borders and can access other imaginary terrains. For Sidney, Nature is more associated with science and the natural elements of Earth, rather than metaphysical or divine entities.
The difference between the two thinkers in their relation to nature can illustrate one of the main contrasts in the periods in which each one had lived. Dante was living during the end of the Middle Ages and the burgeoning of the Renaissance in Italy; in this period, God was still at the center of all things, and therefore, nature was naturally associated with Him. On the other hand, Sidney was living during a period in which the Renaissance was already prevalent in most of Western Europe and sprouting in England as well; a cultural era that praised and extolled science, and thus nature was generally associated with it.
Hence, the two thinkers relate to nature in the same respectfully revered manner yet ascribe to it completely different systems of belief.