Once the whole Persion army had crossed over into Europe, they were just setting off on their journey when a really extraordinary thing happened: a horse gave birth to a hare. Xerxes dismissed it as insignificant, though its meaning was transparent. It meant that although Xerxes would walk tall and proud on his way to attack Greece, he would return to his starting point running for his life. (7.57; translated by Robin Waterfield)
When it comes to insightful analysis, it just doesn't get any better than that, not even in The Nation or Mother Jones. In particular, I like the idea that the "meaning" of this event "was transparent." That foolish old Xerxes! What a moron! Why, anybody could see what that meant!
We no longer live in a culture that finds that sort of meaning in the apparently random events of daily life. (We don't see horses giving birth to hares, either--or at least I've never seen it happen. But if I did, at least now I would know what it meant.) We chuckle at passages like this because we view the natural world in a completely different way. The forces of nature are governed by regularities that are themselves part of nature, that is, the world operates in a strictly naturalistic way. We no longer have any room for the supernatural. In some potted courses on the history of philosophy and science, one is often told that this is precisely what constitutes the line of demarcation between proto-science or proto-philosophy and the non-scientific and non-philosophical literature that preceded it: reductionistic and naturalistic, as opposed to supernaturalistic, explanations of natural events. Herodotus was born in 485 B.C., well after the rise of naturalism in the sixth century, but of course it can take a while for these things to catch on. After all, there are still folks who read their horoscope every day. I know I do.
Our view of what's natural, however, has been shaped by forces that are not always benign. We've all heard the pseudo-distinction between what's "natural" and what's "man-made", as though human beings are not themselves a part of nature. A man-made object is no less "natural" than a bird-made object like a nest, but we like to forget about that when we want to either (a) congratulate ourselves on how much smarter we are than birds or (b) complain about how human beings are messing up an environment that really belongs to birds, or that they somehow aren't really a part of at all, or are taking up too much of, or something equally incoherent. So on one misuse of the concept of "the natural" human beings are excluded in a bizarre and arbitrary way from the natural order. Going in the other direction we're told (as I've discussed in many other posts) that everything in nature--including human beings, this time--is reducible to nothing other than the material building blocks of the natural world. That is, on this misuse of "nature" we are required to be materialists and, if we are materialists, the only sensible epistemology to adopt is an empiricist one.
According to both of these misuses of "nature" there can be no real "meaning" in anything "natural". In the first case, where human beings are somehow not really a part of the rest of nature, there can be no real meaning because all meaning is nothing more than human convention, and anything that looks like meaning in nature is nothing more than the projection of human sentimentality onto otherwise meaningless objects. In the second, reductionistis case, there can be no meaning in nature because there's no real meaning anywhere--even human beings are ultimately deterministically driven automatons who enjoy only an illusion of free will.
There are, of course, variations on these themes, and one finds all sorts of positions staked out in between the extremes that I've limned. One position that is less well-staked out than it might be is a roughly Aristotelian one, where "the natural" is understood to include anything and everything that has "a nature." Unlike the full-blown materialistic naturalism of the sciences, on this view not everything in nature need be understood to have a nature. The particular members of a natural kind may be so understood on two grounds. First, they develop in certain predictable ways, growing from early to later forms in accordance with well-understood principles of ontology. Second, they are able to produce new instantiations of their own kind in a way that mere artifacts and other "natural" material entities cannot. If I take a few skin cells from my arm and clone them up, I will get a new Mini Me, but sadly I cannot scrape some paint from my colleague's BMW and try to grow myself a nice new car in my garage. In Aristotle's lingo, there is something of my form that is literally present in my matter in a way that is quite different from the way in which a BMW, or a television set, or a desk, has a kind of form in its matter.
What one is to make of this conception of form is a matter of interpretation. I have suggested in other posts that, for the Christian, there is a certain kind of interpretation that is more congenial than others--an interpretation that sees the created order as itself manifesting something of God's design in one way or another. This interpretation does not admit of clandestine messages being passed on by means of equine parturition, but it does admit of finding a deeper meaning in the structure of nature itself than the bare materialist can possibly perceive. When discussing this kind of interpretation with a non-believer one runs up against a kind of inability to see, something that is impossible to overcome simply by means of dialectic alone and, hence, something that cannot be addressed adequately by philosophy. I'm sometimes reminded, in these contexts, of a "debate" shown on Nightline many years ago between William F. Buckley, who had just written a book about sailing, and a blind man, who was going to try to circumnavigate the world on his own in a sailboat. Buckley claimed that it simply isn't possible for the blind man to experience sailing in the way that a sighted man can experience it, and the blind man objected on the grounds--quite common back then--that Buckley was somehow trying to "discriminate" against the blind. It seems that the beauty of a sunset over the ocean was not the only thing he couldn't see. So, to, when trying to put the ineffable into words one finds that a non-believer must shake his head at you, because he cannot grasp what you're talking about. Talking about God with the unbeliever is like talking about color with a man born blind. He may be able to form some sort of conceptual content that he believes can be correlated with the idea, but he will never be able to know what the believer knows. Nor can he grasp the meaning that the believer can grasp, and that is why, for him, the universe is a meaningless and purposeless place.