To be natural, in Shakespeare’s use of the word, has two meanings, which can help illuminate one of the basic confusions under which many people are labouring in the world of education.
In his masterful analysis of the intellectual roots of our educational crisis, The Schools We Need, E D Hirsch defines one of the key foundational ideas of progressive education as ‘naturalism’: the belief that children will learn naturally if they are only left alone to do so.
As with all of the key progressive ideas, the proximate philosophical cause of this delusion is Romanticism and its elevation of the child to something sacred and holy, which the artificial constraints of society only corrupt.
But in Shakespeare, a ‘natural’ child is one who exists outside the usual codes of conduct governing civilised behaviour. When Edmund, the illegitimate child of the Duke of Gloucester in King Lear, declares ‘Nature, be thou my goddess’, he is placing himself outside all moral constraints, and declaring that he will act purely out of self-interest. The result is that he plots against his half brother, colludes in the torture and humiliation of his father, dallies with both of Lear’s treacherous older daughters, and orders the execution of Lear’s youngest daughter Cordelia, the embodiment of purity and innocence. In other words, following nature means abandoning civilised behaviour and looking after number one; it means following the lust for power and sex. Edmund certainly has ‘semen in the blood’, to use Nietzsche’s words. He is Shakespeare’s horrifying (but also fascinating) depiction of what happens when we reject all moral rules and follow our passions.
At the same time, Edmund’s behaviour, particularly towards his father, is described as ‘unnatural’. This is the other primary meaning of ‘natural’ in Shakespeare, and it is a reference to natural law, a concept familiar to every generation since Socrates, until it was obscured by our modern relativism. Natural law refers to standards of human behaviour that can be rationally derived from observations of human nature. It dictates, for example, that children should honour and obey their parents, because they owe them life itself. Even in adulthood, once obedience is no longer required, respect always is. Rationally, it is clear that there is no way we can ever repay our parents for the gift of life. We can never be even with them.
In the second sense of ‘natural’, I am very much in favour of my pupils acting naturally. It all depends on what we mean by it. Do we mean descending to the level of beasts and abandoning reason, or do we mean acting according to the full dignity of a rational human person?