Episode 20: The Sphere of Nature

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One criticism that is sometimes leveled against Idealists is that they are neglectful of the physical world.  Nature has, in fact, often been described as part of the spiritual problem, starting with Plato’s Divided Line; not the ultimate illusion of reflection, but that which is reflected, still unreal in its own way.  As with Aristophanes’ caricature of Socrates in The CloudsIdealists are often seen as having their heads in, well, the clouds, without notice of or concern with the “real world.”  And it is true that pretty much all of the philosophers whom we’ve studied in this series lived in cities–Athens, Rome, Florence, London–and the world of nature does not play a large role in their writing.

The Medici Estate at Careggi near Florence

The Medici Estate at Careggi near Florence

At the same time, there is a long tradition of the retreat, if you will; of a place outside the city, more in touch with the natural world, a place of refuge and quiet which provides an environment amenable to the study of philosophy.  Plato had his Academy in a grove of olive trees outside Athens, Plotinus his Campania, and Ficino his Careggi.  Whether made explicit or not, they appreciated the renewing properties of nature while recognizing its limitations.

The connection does become explicit as Idealism moves into England and then America.  Beginning, perhaps, with Wordsworth, there is a shift in the view of nature as something connected to a state of mind, something that can evoke thoughts and feelings when experienced and also when recollected.  Remembering some beautiful scene from nature can help to bring one to that “inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude….”

This theme of nature as a metaphor for the mind is elaborated upon clearly by Emerson in Nature, his first published work.  To pick one passage, more or less at random:

Emerson, "Nature," (1836)

Title page of "Nature," (1836) published by Emerson anonymously

In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.

Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight, does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both. It is necessary to use these pleasures with great temperance. For, nature is not always tricked in holiday attire, but the same scene which yesterday breathed perfume and glittered as for the frolic of the nymphs, is overspread with melancholy today. Nature always wears the colors of the spirit. To a man laboring under calamity, the heat of his own fire hath sadness in it. Then, there is a kind of contempt of the landscape felt by him who has just lost by death a dear friend. The sky is less grand as it shuts down over less worth in the population.  (Nature, Chapter 1)

This view is noteworthy because the prevailing attitude was that of nature as a vast warehouse of raw materials to be exploited or a hostile force to be conquered.  Nature was an “it,” an “out there.”  When they looked at trees, men saw timber; when they looked at the landscape they saw farmfields.  But just as the fate of their bodies was tied to nature, so was that of the mind: it brought about and reinforced the sense of duality, of alienation and materialism.

It’s been said that the modern environmental movement was born on July 4, 1845, the day that Henry David Thoreau² took up residence in his cabin on Walden Pond. From this experience he produced his most famous work, although it was not published until almost ten years later, by which time he had again become a town-dweller.   But both his “experiment” and the telling of it were unique in American letters at the time, and its place in them has grown greatly over time.  It remains a manifesto for simple, non-materialistic living.   He shared with Emerson the feeling of connection to nature: made of the same material, the same intelligence.

Title page of "Walden," 1854

Title page of "Walden," 1854

The indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature,–of sun and wind and rain, of summer and winter, — such health, such cheer, they afford forever! and such sympathy have they ever with our race, that all Nature would be affected, and the sun’s brightness fade, and the winds would sigh humanely, and the clouds rain tears, and the woods shed their leaves and put on mourning in midsummer, if any man should ever for a just cause grieve. Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?  (Walden, “Solitude”)

This shift in viewpoint was made practical in the next generation in the person of John Muir, who was born in Scotland in 1838, two years after Emerson’s Nature was published.  He moved to America with his family when he was 11, and became as free a spirit as Thoreau ever was, living for a number of years in the Yosemite Valley.  Emerson and Thoreau were inspirations to him, and he describes his meeting Emerson in 1871 this way:

During my first years in the Sierra I was ever calling on everyone within reach to admire them (the forests of conifers), but I found no one half warm enough until Emerson came.  I had read his essays, and felt sure that of all men he would best interpret the sayings of these noble mountains and trees.  Nor was my faith weakened when I met him in Yosemite.  He seemed as serene as a Sequoia, his head in empyrean; and forgetting his age, plans, duties, ties of every sort, I proposed an immeasurable camping trip back in the heart of the mountains.  He seemed anxious to go, but considerately mentioned his party.³

He acknowledges that Emerson was “too near the sundown of his life” at 68 (Muir was

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir in Yosemite, 1906

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir in Yosemite, 1906

33), and no doubt already exhibiting some of the dementia that would worsen until his death some 10 years later.  But the baton had been passed–he says, “Emerson was still with me in spirit, though I never again saw him in the flesh.  He sent books and wrote, cheering me on; advised me not to stay too long in solitude.”  Of course Muir, the archetypal mountain man, would go on to become the prototypical environmental lobbyist, advocating for the natural world through the intrigues of Washington DC, resulting in the formation of the National Park Service.

There is of course a kind of irony–or justice perhaps–in the fact that the reverence for the wild shown by Emerson, Thoreau and Muir (as well as many others) lives on because of their writing and publishing–one of the most civilized of human pursuits.  All were voracious readers and prolific writers, and felt the need to share their experiences of solitude with the world.  They all wrote movingly of the beauty of nature and the experience of a “transcendent” force when in its presence.

But my own feeling is that there is a subtle but profound difference in tone between Emerson and the others.  They all see “God in Nature,” in its lawfulness, beauty, and power, but to my ear Thoreau and Muir still see it as something “out there,” still something separate, upon which they rely for an experience of beauty and harmony.  Take away Nature and they are rather lost.  In her essay Emerson and Thoreau as American Prophets of Eco-wisdom, Anne Woodlief says of Thoreau, “On the most transcendental level, though, he turned to nature for a beauty and harmony, even a civilized humanity, which he often found lacking in ordinary life, cherishing nature’s ‘eternal health’ and ‘perfect confidence.’ Yet even in these moments he noted that he ‘had seen into paradisaic regions’ where he had ‘hardly a foothold.'”  Compare this with Emerson’s remark that, “Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight, does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both.”  There is not a separate beauty in the natural world; there is one beauty that permeates both the creation and man.  Seeing the landscape “….man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.”

This is, I submit, the beauty of the Good, the one true nature of us all, and recalls the teaching of Diotima from The Symposium:

He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love, and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he comes toward the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty (and this, Socrates, is the final cause of all our former toils)—a nature which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning; secondly, not fair in one point of view and foul in another, or at one time or in one relation or at one place fair, at another time or in another relation or at another place foul, as if fair to some and foul to others, or in the likeness of a face or hands or any other part of the bodily frame, or in any form of speech or knowledge, or existing in any other being, as for example, in an animal, or in heaven, or in earth, or in any other place; but beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things.”

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹Aristophanes has Socrates say, “I have to suspend my brain and mingle the subtle essence of my mind with this air, which is of the like nature, in order clearly to penetrate the things of heaven. I should have discovered nothing, had I remained on the ground to consider from below the things that are above; for the earth by its force attracts the sap of the mind to itself.  It’s just the same with the watercress.”

²Regarding the pronunciation of Thoreau’s name, I offer this from the walden.org website, which corresponds to my own experience of how the Concordians pronounce it still: A note on pronouncing the name Thoreau: in determining the way in which to pronounce his name, it seems best to bow to the authority of those who knew the Thoreau Family well. Edward Emerson, the son of Ralph Waldo Emerson, is very clear. In a letter to Dr. Loring Holmes Dodd, October 11, 1918, he wrote: “We always called my friend Thó-row, the h sounded, and accent on the first syllable.” [The Goddard Biblio Log, Spring 1973, p. 7]

³John Muir, Forests of Yosemite Park, from John Muir: Nature Writings, The Library of America, 1997, p. 786