Beauty is that quality of certain sights and sounds which appeals to us and draws us back to look or listen again in appreciative contemplation. There are many different kinds of beauty. There is the human beauty which plays a large role in sexual attraction, the beauty which men see in women, and women in men. Then there is the kind of beauty which human beings create in art. The arrangement of words in a poem and of notes in a symphony are examples of this kind of beauty as are the amphitheatres and temples of ancient Greece, the cathedrals of medieval Europe, the porcelain of the Song and Ming Dynasties in China, and the sculptures and paintings of the Renaissance masters.
Then there is what is often called natural beauty – the beauty of the world around us. This is the beauty that we will be considering in this essay and we will start by noting that there are different meanings attached to the word “natural” which correspond to the radically different ways of thinking about natural beauty which exist today.
The different meanings of the word “natural” are actually different meanings of the word “nature”, for natural is an adjective that derives its meaning from a source noun by attributing the qualities of that source noun to that which it is modifying. When we say that something is “natural” we mean that in some sense it is by, of, or from nature.
The word nature is derived from the Latin word for “give birth” and its earliest English usage reflects an important concept in classical philosophy. It was originally used to refer to something’s essence, to the qualities and traits which make that something what it is and not something else. We still use the word nature in this sense today. If we say that something is a certain way “by nature” then we mean that it could not be different and still be itself.
It is from this meaning of nature that the concept of the “natural sciences” was originally derived. Today we often use the word science to refer to the natural sciences but originally the term science was used to refer to organized knowledge of all sorts. When qualified by the adjective natural, it referred to the pursuit of knowledge of how everything in the physical world works. This was because people who pursued this kind of science were trying to discover the nature of everything they observed in the world around them.
This usage, however, led to a change in the meaning of the word nature. It came to mean “that which natural scientists study”, i.e., the physical world. From this it developed a narrower sense of “living organisms in the physical world”. Very recently it took on the meaning of “everything in the physical world, especially the living organisms, except mankind”.
The difference between the oldest meaning of nature as something’s “essential qualities” and the most recent meaning of nature as “everything except mankind” is reflected in the different ways in which people think of natural beauty today. This becomes clear when we ask the question: Does beauty have to be untouched by the hand of man in order to be natural?
Those who answer this question with a “yes” are using the word “natural” in accordance with the more recent meaning of “nature”. Those who answer the question with “no” are using the word “natural” in its classical sense.
Now let me state out front that I am one of those who would answer the question “no”. To that I would add that it is this understanding of “nature” and “natural” as excluding mankind and his influence that is precisely what is wrong with the environmentalist or “Green” movement at its worst.
In saying that I do not mean to suggest that humans are incapable of acting in ways which can have a negative effect upon their world and its beauty. Of course we are, we do it all the time. Human activity can mar natural beauty severely. Human activity can also enhance that beauty, however, and the idea that we have a responsibility, in choosing our behavior, to take our impact upon the appearance of our world into consideration and select behavior that enhances rather than mars that appearance, is environmentalism at its best.
We will return to that momentarily. Before doing so, I should note that natural beauty is a fairly recent subject of serious thought. The Athenian philosophers talked and wrote about beauty but they did not have the beauty of streams and fields, forests and meadows, in mind when they did so. They wrote about the beauty of human beings, the erotic love it inspires, and the higher ideal Beauty which it is an earthly image of.
The 19th Century German historian Jacob Burckhardt describes how the natural world came to be considered an object of beauty in the Italian Renaissance:
The Italians are the first among modern peoples by whom the outward world was seen and felt as something beautiful. (1)
Burckhardt believed that the ability to see the beauty in the world around us is “always the result of a long and complicated development”. He went on to summarize the history of the way people thought about the natural world – its beauty entered into the arts and poetry of the ancient world only after they had covered everything else, the Germanic peoples had a reverence for nature which they abandoned when they accepted the Christian faith, until finally around 1200 “at the height of the Middle Ages, a genuine hearty enjoyment of the external world was again in existence…which gives evidence of the sympathy felt with all the simple phenomena of nature—spring with its flowers, the green fields and the woods”. (2)
All of that, however, Burckhardt maintained, was “foreground without perspective”. It was in the writings of Dante and Petrarch that he saw the birth of modern serious contemplation of natural beauty. Of Dante he wrote:
Not only does he awaken in us by a few vigorous lines the sense of the morning air and the trembling light on the distant ocean, or of the grandeur of the storm-beaten forest, but he makes the ascent of lofty peaks, with the only possible object of enjoying the view—the first man, perhaps, since the days of antiquity who did so. (3)
Dante and Petrarch were poets, of course, writing at the dawn of an era in which the systematic pursuit of knowledge would be divided up into numerous specialized fields. It was much later that Alexander Baumgarten took the Greek word for “feeling” or “sensitivity” and from it coined the term aesthetics to refer to the philosophy of beauty, art, and taste. It was in the 18th Century that Baumgarten coined this term and Roger Scruton – himself a philosopher who specialized in the field of aesthetics – tells us that:
When, during the course of the eighteenth century, philosophers and writers began to turn their attention to the subject of beauty, it was not art or people but nature and landscape that dominated their thinking. (4)
This did not last long. Two chapters later Scruton begins his discussion of artistic beauty by telling us how in the 19th Century “the topic of art came to replace that of natural beauty as the core subject-matter of aesthetics”. (5) If natural beauty was bumped by art from the centre to the periphery of aesthetics in the 19th Century, however, it also came to be included within the context of an entirely different discussion, that of environmentalism.
Environmentalism is neither a science nor a branch of philosophy. It is an ideology and the political movement that speaks for that ideology. It purports to be based upon and informed by science, particularly the science of ecology (6), but as with all movements that make this claim it is questionable to what extent it allows scientific findings to influence its ideology rather than bending the science to fit its ideology.
Environmentalism started as a reaction against industrialization. Industrialization began a couple of centuries ago when modern science was applied to methods of producing material goods, and ways of producing goods in large quantities in short periods of time were developed. Industrialization brought many blessings to mankind – material goods became plentiful and more affordable, items previously considered to be luxury goods became more widely available, work hours were decreased and leisure time increased.
These blessings did not come without a price, however. There was a negative side to the industrialization process. The large scale production of material goods meant that the raw materials from which these goods were produced were being used up on a larger, faster scale as well. The production of usable goods from raw materials also results in byproducts which are often unusable and discarded as waste. The enhanced production of goods meant that waste was produced on a larger scale as well. Industrialized production required machinery which consumed energy resources on a larger scale than ever before and which produced smoke on a much larger scale than ever before as well.
The increase in the speed and scale with which we consume resources was a potential problem because of the danger that we would use up those resources faster than we could replace them, or, in the case of resources that cannot be renewed, that we would use them up altogether and be stuck without an alternative. The increase in the production of waste was a more concrete problem because that waste needed to go somewhere and many methods of disposing of it resulted in pollution of streams, ditches, fields, oceans, the underground water supply, and the atmosphere.
It was in order to address these problems that environmentalism was born. Originally, environmentalism had the good of human beings at heart. The concern that resources were being used up too fast was a concern that a tremendous amount of human misery would be produced when the resources are no longer sufficient to sustain the human population. The concern that the large scale production of industrial waste was creating pollution was a concern that human beings would be drinking tainted water, breathing polluted air, and would be living in an environment contaminated by pollutants.
One thing that stands out about these concerns is that they are intrinsically conservative in nature. This is even reflected in the name for the branch of environmentalism that addresses the question of resources. That branch is called conservationism a term derived from the same root as the word conservative. Those who dismiss these concerns, on the other hand, by affirming their faith that science and technology will always find an answer, are affirming a belief in progress. (7)
In North America, however, opposition to environmentalism is mostly found among those who identify themselves as conservatives and support of environmentalism is mostly found among those who identify themselves as progressives. This can partly be explained by the fact that many North American conservatives are really liberals. There is more to it than that however. (8) Environmentalism has changed from being a concern for the environment for the sake of mankind which needs that environment to being a concern for the environment for its own sake in which mankind is regarded as an enemy.
This brings us back to the meaning of nature and the question of whether natural beauty must be beauty that is untouched by man.
The topic of natural beauty inevitably became part of the environmentalist discussion because it is by definition the beauty of man’s environment. When we talk about pollution’s harmful effects upon the environment we usually think first about how waste products released into water or the air can make sick or kill the people and other animals who drink the water and breathe the air. Pollution can also harm the environment by marring its beauty and producing ugliness.
We recognize this immediately when we think about the kind of pollution we call littering. A lawn, garden, public park, or even a ditch beside a road, looks terrible when it is covered by empty potato chip bags, cigarette packages, and beer and soda pop cans.
Some people might be inclined to think that this is the most trivial of environmentalist concerns. The depletion of resources and the poisoning of others are matters which pose direct threats to human beings. It might annoy us if the appearance of our surroundings is marred by pollution but this does not threaten our existence. Are we not constantly told that outward appearances are superficial, trivial matters that only shallow people concern themselves with?
Cultural warnings against judging by outward appearances, however, pertain to how we regard other people not how we think about our environment. The idea behind them is that we should not allow a person’s appearance to overrule his character. And while it is true that other concerns might be of greater importance this does not make concern for the appearance of the world around us a trivial matter. Try and imagine living in a world where everything we regard as beautiful has disappeared and been replaced by something ugly. The thought of living in such a world should be sufficient to convince us that environmental beauty is anything but trivial.
We are able to appreciate beauty in ourselves, in art, and in the world around us because this ability is part of our nature as human beings. Our human nature also manifests itself in the universal human activity of attempting to make our personal appearances, the appearance of our homes, and the appearance of our arts and crafts, as pleasing to the eye as possible. In both of these aspects of human nature can be seen a tremendous human need for beauty. (9)
It is this human need for beauty which makes natural or environmental beauty something which we should try to conserve along with natural resources. To conserve something is to preserve it for the future by being careful not to waste it in the present. To conserve things we have inherited from past generations – our civilization, our culture, our laws and rights, our art, our resources, our environment – for future generations is to behave responsibly by taking a long view of things in which we rank our long term good higher than our immediate short term good. To take this view, requires that we think of ourselves primarily as communities or societies and only secondarily as individuals, for individuals have only brief lifespans in comparison with the multigenerational life of a community or society. It also requires that we cultivate and practice the virtue of temperance or self-control, of keeping our desires and passions subject to our reason, itself subject to the good of the community reflected in its laws.
These attitudes and behaviors are consistent with pre-modern classical and Christian thought. They are at odds with modern thought, however. Liberalism, the predominant ideology of the modern age, consists of unfettered individualism which insists upon the primacy of the individual over the community. The classical idea of governing our passions is the polar opposite of the message of “indulge yourself”, “express yourself”, and “if it feels good do it” that is found everywhere today. It should come as no surprise to us, then, that the idea of conserving our natural resources and the beauty of our environment finds itself at odds with modern utilitarianism and pragmatism.
It is unfortunate, therefore, that the movement which has concerned itself with the conservation of environmental beauty and natural resources, has aligned itself, not with the classical and Christian pre-modern traditions of Western civilization, but with the radical forces dedicated to their destruction. The result of this mismatched alliance has been that the environmentalist cause has been twisted and its very understanding of nature and natural beauty has been warped.
At some point the environmentalist movement began to lay the blame for the problems created by industrialization at the feet of Christianity. In Genesis 1:26-29, God creates man and gives him dominion over the earth and all living things therein. Environmentalists pointed to this passage and identified it as the source of industrialism’s use of science and technology to exert man’s will over the natural world, and therefore of industrial depletion of resources and massive production of waste and pollution.
Having placed the blame on Christianity for the industrial threat to our ecosystem, environmentalism then adopted a worldview in which nature was elevated to the level of the divine. In some cases this was very literal as some environmentalists turned to a naturalistic, neopagan religion, in which nature or the earth was worshipped as a goddess. These were the radical fringe of the movement – most environmentalists did not go this far but they insisted that we adopt an attitude of reverence towards nature of the kind that the Abrahamic faiths teach should be reserved for God
This was a reversal of the positions held by man and the rest of the physical world in the hierarchy of Creation in Christianity. One of its effects was to remove mankind from “nature” in the thinking of the environmentalists. In Christian doctrine, God created man in His own image, gave man dominion over the natural world within which He placed man. Man’s vice-regal dominion over Creation was to be exercised from within Creation. To elevate nature above man the environmentalists had to separate nature from man.
The concept of a nature which is separate from and does not include man is a false concept, a distorted concept and this has in turn distorted the way those who hold this concept view mankind. (10) Wendell Berry comments on the unnaturalness of this dichotomous view of man and nature:
The defenders of nature and wilderness – like their enemies the defenders of the industrial economy – sometimes sound as if the natural and the human were two separate estates, radically different and radically divided. The defenders of nature and wilderness sometimes seem to feel that they must oppose any human encroachment whatsoever, just as the industrialists often apparently feel that they must make the human encroachment absolute or, as they say, “complete the conquest of nature.” But there is danger in this opposition, and it can be best dealt with by realizing that these pure and separate categories are pure ideas and do not otherwise exist. (11)
Berry goes on to say that it is not good for human beings to live for very long in either “pure nature”, i.e., wilderness unshaped by man, or in “a condition that is purely human”, i.e., completely artificial or man-made. (12) He then explains that:
People cannot live apart from nature, that is the first principle of the conservationists. And yet, people cannot live in nature without changing it. But this is true of all creatures; they depend upon nature, and they change it. What we call nature is, in a sense, the sum of the changes made by all the various creatures and natural forces in their intricate actions and influences upon each other and upon their places. (13)
This is not an endorsement of industrialism, of which the agrarian Berry is a fierce critic, but it displays an understanding of the relationship between man and nature which is sorely lacking among most contemporary environmentalist critics of industrial activity.
If it is a mistake to divide “man” and “nature” into separate categories then the answer to our question about natural beauty must be no, that the condition of being unshaped or untouched by the hand of man cannot be the sine qua non of natural beauty.
Common sense would tell us this as well. A world in which cities of concrete and steel, roads of asphalt, advertising billboards, and landfills have completely hidden from view any trace of what it looked like prior to these things would be a world suffering from a beauty deficiency. But so would be a world consisting entirely of wilderness. It is no insult to creation or to its Creator to say that human activity can enhance a landscape and make it more pleasing to the eye than it was before. Since God placed man in this world, and gave him the ability to affect its appearance, it was clearly part of His intention that human activity would have just this effect.
We see this in the way in which well maintained lawns have a more refined beauty than wild grass that grows long and goes to seed, and in the way hedges which are trimmed and trees which are pruned of their dead branches have an elegant beauty that has been enhanced beyond that of the raw forest.
This is not to say that all parts of nature can be improved by mankind in this way. The world is a vast place with a wide variety of different views which respond to the influence of man in different ways. Some are best left as close to the way we found them as possible, others would seem incomplete without evidence of the presence and activity of mankind.
If God’s creation of man in His own image and placing him in the world with dominion over it included the intention that human activity which alters the appearance of creation would enhance and improve its beauty, then the free will that He gave to man, which created the potential for man to abuse his gifts and sin against his Creator, included the potential of man to mar and ruin the beauty of creation as well. Man, as the Scriptures tell and as can be seen everywhere we look, fell into sin and evidence that his sin has included the abuse of his creative abilities to distort and mar the beauty of creation is abundant.
This has been especially true in modern times. Large highways, paved with asphalt, do not complement their surroundings the way older country roads do. Large cities, in which urban dwellers can live their entire lives without seeing the beauty of the countryside, or even the beauty of a star filled heaven at night, do not blend into the country which surrounds them in the way smaller towns and villages do. The vast landfills needed to accommodate the waste of modern, industrial, urban living, are among the many eyesores which scar the beauty of the land as a result of modernization.
The modernization which produced these things does not flow out of the belief that God gave man dominion over creation. It comes rather from the belief that man must seize dominion over creation for himself by forcing creation to bend to his will rather than receive dominion over creation as a gift from the hand of his Creator. This unleashing of the human will to power is what we were left with when Christian faith began to wane in the modern age.
The desire to conserve the beauty of the world for future generations is a natural and a noble desire. It results only in folly, however, when those who posses that desire blame the Christian faith for the problems of industrialization, separate man from nature, deifying nature and demonizing man (14), and place their faith in government and international bureaucracies.
(1) Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (London: Phaidon Press, 1944, 1960), p. 178. This is the translation by S. G. C. Middlemore which first appeared in two volumes in 1878. The German original was published in 1860.
(3) Ibid, p. 179.
(4) Roger Scruton, Beauty, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, 2011), p. 49.
(5) Ibid., p. 82.
(6) Ecology is the branch of biology which studies how living things interact with each other in a common environment. The term ecology was coined in the 19th Century to refer to this discipline. It comes from the Greek word word oikos. Oikos literally refers to a house, but the meaning that crosses over into “ecology” is “place where you dwell, surroundings”. The word economy is ultimately derived from the same root, but the Greek compound oikonomia was already in existence in ancient times to refer to “the administration of household affairs”.
(7) Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress (Toronto: House of Anansi, 2004) which consists of his Massey Lectures for that year, is a work of doomsday scare-mongering which nevertheless correctly identifies the correlation between a belief in progress and an irresponsible attitude towards the conservation of resources.
(8) The environmentalist movement has to a large degree embraced socialism, an economic system based upon the rejection of private property. Conservatives and liberals – by liberals I mean “classical liberals” - both believe strongly in private property, and hence cannot accept socialism. Environmentalists should not be so quick to reject private property either. One environmentalist, the late Garrett J. Hardin, who was professor of human ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, (and also a conservative Republican), argued in a number of essays and books, that resources which are privately owned, are better maintained and conserved, than those which are treated as common resources. This has been observably true since ancient times. Other reasons why conservatives are suspicious of the environmentalist movement are its belief in, reliance upon, and support of government and international bureaucracies who interfere in people’s lives from afar, and its increasingly addiction to alarmist rhetoric and doomsday scenarios, such as the supposed “global warming” crisis. These are good reasons to be wary of the environmentalist movement, but not to reject its basic idea that earth’s natural resources and beauty are something we should conserve for future generations to enjoy.
(9) Roger Scruton, in the chapter on natural beauty in his book cited above, points to Immanuel Kant, who argued that beauty was a proper subject for philosophy because taste, the ability to appreciate beauty, was a human universal. This made natural beauty the primary object of taste, because all human beings can appreciate it, whereas appreciation for the arts is more limited. Scruton also discusses those, such as the Marxists, who held an opposing view, but he himself is quite sympathetic to Kant on this point.
(10) Environmentalism has allied itself, for example, with what Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death”, and environmentalists have frequently spoken of the propagation of the human species in extremely derogatory terms.
(11) Wendell Berry, Home Economics, (New York: North Point Press, 1987), p. 6. This is the first paragraph of an essay entitled “Getting Along with Nature”, which is the second of the fourteen essays which this book consists of.
(12) I can think of some people who would probably disagree with the second assertion but they are not good advertisements for their position because it arises out of the kind of perpetual immaturity that results from being completely immersed in technology all one’s life.
(13) Berry, op. cit., p. 7.
(14) Note, as Berry did in the first quotation above, that the environmentalists and those who see dominion over nature as something man must seize for himself, although each others enemies, have this separation of man and nature as their common ground.
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