Nature, Naturally

C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words (2.1) – Natura

By far the commonest native meaning of natura is something like sort, kind, quality, or character. When you ask, in our modern idiom, what something ‘is like’, you are asking for its natura. When you want to tell a man the natura of anything you describe the thing. In nineteenth-century English the word ‘description’ itself (‘I do not associate with persons of that description’) is often an exact synonym for natura. Caesar sent scouts to find out qualis esset natura montis, what the hill was like, what sort of a hill it was. Quintilian speaks of a man ingenii naturâ praestantem (XII, 1), outstanding by the quality of his mind. Cicero’s title De Natura Deorum could be translated ‘What the gods are like’.

It will be noticed that whereas Caesar wanted to know the (doubtless unique) character of a particular hill, Cicero wrote about the common character of all gods, and Horace can speak of humana natura, the character common to all men. There is a logical distinction here, but linguistically the two usages are the same. A class or species has a natura, and so has a particular or an individual.

It is not always possible, or necessary, to decide whether the idea of the species or that of the particular is uppermost. Cicero says that ‘omnis natura strives to preserve itself’. It makes little difference whether we render omnis natura ‘every class or species’ or ‘every kind (of thing)’, hence ‘a thing of whatever kind’, and hence almost ‘everything’.

Those who wish to go further back will notice that natura shares a common base with nasci (to be born); with the noun natus (birth); with natio (not only a race or nation but the name of the birth-goddess); or even that natura itself can mean the sexual organs—a sense formerly born by English nature, but apparently restricted to the female. It is risky to try to build precise semantic bridges, but there is obviously some idea of a thing’s natura as its original or ‘innate’ character.

If we look forward, the road is clear. This sense of natura, though soon to be threatened by vast semantic growths of another origin, has shown astonishing persistence and is still as current a sense as any other for English nature. Every day we speak about ‘the nature of the case’ (or of the soil, the animal, the problem).

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