Like many pet owners, I frequently talk to my dog, in a language she doesn’t understand, offering reasons she cannot appreciate, to try to get her to behave in ways that may or may not benefit her, but certainly would benefit me.
“Scully,” I say, “can you please just wait quietly for like ten minutes, until this episode is over, and then we’ll go for a walk?” My pleas are about as successful as you’d imagine they would be.
A few hundred years before I adopted a dog who ignores my attempts at reason, there was a prolific and impressive philosopher named Margaret Cavendish, whose writing spanned a number of different genres: essays, treatises, plays, fiction, poetry. Around seven years ago during a talk by Deborah Boyle, I learned about one of my now-favorite poems, which I usually tell people about by calling it “a reverse Giving Tree“. It is a poem consisting of a conversation between an oak tree and a man cutting the oak tree down, fittingly titled: “A Dialogue between an Oake, and a Man cutting him downe“
But here, Poore Oake, thou liv’st in Ignorance,
And never seek’st thy Knowledge to advance.
I’le cut the downe, ’cause Knowledge thou maist gaine,
Shalt be a Ship, to traffick on the MaineA Dialogue between an Oake, and a Man cutting him downe.
The poem begins with the tree asking, more or less, “hey, what’s the big idea, you chopping at me with that axe?” and then ultimately, consists of the man repeatedly attempting to sell the tree on the upside of being chopped down and converted to lumber, over the trees stable, unwavering, fairly straightforward and clear avowals that it, in fact, prefers not to be lumber.
When I heard about this poem, it quickly fell into the category of things I just couldn’t shut up about. I looked it up, I posted about it on my facebook page, I still use the flimsiest pretexts to bring it up. It’s a very gripping idea, to me. So much so that I usually focus entirely on the part where the tree is explaining how silly the “but wouldn’t you love to be a boat” pitch is, and don’t really attend to the end of the poem, where Cavendish tries to articulate some sort of summary statement about humans and what makes us unique.
There’s a lot of obvious stuff going on in the poem, even if you don’t have much background on Cavendish or the time period. The tree is making the case for the utility of the nature without industry/artifice, i.e. nature as it is (provides shade, fruit, etc.), while the man is trying to make the case for the improvements possible with ingenuity and labor (build a boat, see the world). The anthropomorphic twist, where the sales pitches are being made either to the tree or by the tree adds a dimension to it beyond just “is nature better as it is, or can we improve it”, by drawing our focus away from assuming the value has to be value for us. And knowing a bit about Cavendish (like her criticisms of sort of progress being pursued by the esteemed scientists of her day) or thinking about how it relates to the historical context, can certainly enrich or deepen our understanding of what’s going on.
But the close of the poem has the oak claim the advantage of contentment (something that was considered to be what we might call the “victory condition” in a variety of classical ethical theories: your goal was to attain a stable sort of contentment), and this is conceded by the man. The rest of creation gets to be content, because, being merely sensory beings, they lack the (divine) ambition of curiosity. As I am reading the last exchange with the oak, Cavendish seems to be suggesting, through the man’s closing dialogue, that our rational minds are discontented because we seek to fully understand nature, which is a, more or less, insurmountable task. Our rational minds will not rest until we understand things completely, like gods, but since this is impossible, we are, basically, fundamentally, built to be discontent inquirers.