The idea that human creativity and innovation is in conflict with the natural order of things is a common trope in Greek and Roman literatureby Charlotte Higgins / June 7, 2020 / Leave a comment
Is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19? The contention among some specialists in the field is that humanity’s spoliation of the environment creates the conditions for new diseases to thrive, and viruses to leap from animals to people. A column in the New York Times put it this way: “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts.”
There has been anxiety about humans’ intervention in nature for thousands of years, and it’s notable, if depressing, how little effect it has had on the way our species behaves. The idea that human creativity and innovation is in conflict with the natural order of things is a common trope in Greek and Roman literature.
The seeds of this thinking find beautiful expression in a famous choral ode in Sophocles’ 5th-century BC play Antigone, which contains the famous line (in Frank Nisetich’s translation): “none is more wonderful, more terrible than man.” (In Greek, it must be said, this is niftier, because the ideas of “wonderful” and “terrible” are contained in a single word, deinos.) The ode goes on to describe how people have brilliantly learned how to fish and hunt, to domesticate animals, to build ships, and to establish cities. The whole thing might be a triumphant hymn of praise to human progress, but it isn’t: it leaves a disquieting aftertaste. People, concludes the ode, are as likely to use this ingenuity for evil as for good.
I’ve been struck in recent years by how easy it is to read parts of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—the Roman writer’s 1st-century AD poem about mythical transformations—through an environmental lens. Take the story of Phaethon. The young boy is brought up by his mother on a remote island; his father is the sun god Helios, who passes high overhead every day in his chariot but never pauses. Phaethon bugs his mother to give him proof that this distant deity really is his father, until, exasperated, she tells her son to visit him in his palace. Phaethon extracts a promise from his father that he…