Having Dominion: Genesis and the Mastery of Nature

Date of this Version

March 2006

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Details

Harrison, Peter (2006) Having Dominion: Genesis and the Mastery of Nature is a chapter in Environmental Stewardship: Critical Perspectives - Past and Present, Berry, R.J. (ed), T & T Clark International, Continuum Imprint, London, 2006, Chapter 1, pp. 17-30.
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2006 HERDC submission


The aim is to explore the ways in which the Genesis narratives were understood in the mediaeval and early modern West with a view to identifying the kinds of attitudes and behaviours that these texts actually promoted. As will become apparent, it is fairly clear that the biblical imperative 'have dominion' did in fact play a significant role in promoting an active and manipulative engagement with the natural world, particularly during the seventeenth century. At this time, it provided legitimation for the new science and for the mastery of nature that this science promised. By the same token, the intention behind this energetic engagement with nature, then understood in the light of the Fall, was to restore the earth to its prelapsarian perfection. Control of the natural world was thus sought in order to perfect, rather than exploit, nature. What this means is that the two apparently conflicting characterizations 'despot' and 'steward' turn out to be twin aspects of the same role. As for the purported anthropocentric emphasis of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, this is probably far less significant than has often been imagined, for it was precisely during the period when large-scale attempts to master the natural world were under way that anthropocentric attitudes began to wane. In light of this, there is a need to revise commonly held views about the religious origins of Western attitudes towards nature, and to reassess the historical significance of the categories 'despot' and 'steward'.

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This document has been peer reviewed.