“If a man’s crop is spoiled on the threshing-floor, the rain did not fall for the sake of this…
It is plain then that nature is a cause, a cause that operates for a purpose.”
Aristotle, Physics

The other day at dinner my sister-in-law offered an interesting reflection: there are at least two things in life that are simply outside of our power—the march of time, and the weather.

Weather really is remarkable in a number of ways—its beauty, its power to nourish, and its power to destroy. But perhaps especially in its changeability and unpredictability.

We have tried to make forecasting weather into a science. While we can be grateful for what meteorology is able to do, we are also very familiar with its limitations. And in any case, predicting weather certainly does not amount to determining or controlling it.

Learning to live with weather is a daily aspect of human life. What will the weather be like later today? Or tomorrow or this weekend? Or in two months when we have a wedding…with an outdoor reception on our front lawn…?

How many times have our hopes or plans been dashed by inclement weather. It can tempt us to think that there is an arbitrary power behind weather—one that can never quite be trusted.

Aristotle’s philosophical reflection on rain is remarkable. He always has an eye for order and purposiveness in the natural world. Indeed, in his mind any other view of nature is simply failing to see what is there. The fact that rain nourishes the earth and causes things to grow is anything but accidental; it is a prime instance of intentionality in nature.

Some will accuse Aristotle of anthropomorphizing, of assigning to nature a beneficence it does not have, or of seeing in the natural world only what he wanted to see in it. But there is a good case that this later accusation applies more to his detractors than it does to him.

Given what to Aristotle is the obvious teleology, or purposiveness, of rain, he wonders aloud: but what about when the rain falls on your harvested grain and ruins it? In his brief treatment he reaffirms his basic insight: clearly, the rain did not fall for the sake of ruining your grain, as this is not the usual effect of rain. Nevertheless, it certainly did ruin it.

I think that implied in Aristotle’s whole approach is a further insight. That in the usual working of nature ‘accidents’ do happen is actually not a design flaw. Somehow it is part of a deeper ordering. How can we not notice—especially at this time of year!—the astounding, intricate and ever-surprising ways that the purposiveness of natural things interact and interweave?

The person who learns to find meaning in the surprising twists and turns of the natural world is neither a stoic enduring misfortune, nor an eternal optimist closing his eyes to reality. It is a person rather who has learned how to see, and who is now able to receive the more subtle gifts of nature—such as the gift of weather.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher.


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