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The Enlightenment
The Enlightenment

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7 The Enlightenment and nature

The sublime was potentially subversive of the Enlightenment mindset, which focused mainly on the power of human intelligence to grasp and explain the natural world, and indeed to discover natural causes of phenomena previously considered supernatural. There were, for example, frequent attempts to demystify the ‘miracles’ narrated in the Bible, since the violation of the laws of nature which a miracle implied was a physical impossibility and a contradiction in terms. The Marquis de Sade was appealing to an established Enlightenment mentality when he declared that there was no need to look beyond the physical world of nature (including human physiological needs), to the spiritual, in order to explain human behaviour. Hume had already popularised the notion that human beings can be understood purely as creations of nature. Enlightenment science and technology sought to open up to scrutiny and harness the power of all aspects of the natural world, while landscape painters and garden designers attempted to prune, beautify and frame nature in ways that emphasised the human capacity to control it. Nature was regarded as an object of investigation rather than a force or attraction in its own right.

When Samuel Johnson visited Scotland with his companion and biographer James Boswell in 1773, he recorded his impressions in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.

Exercise 6

Read the following passage on the Highland mountains from Johnson's Journey. How would you describe his attitude towards mountainous regions? In answering this question, it will be helpful to identify key words that betray the emotional colour of Johnson's response.

Of the hills many may be called, with Homer's Ida, abundant in springs, but few can deserve the epithet which he bestows upon Pelion, by waving their leaves. They exhibit very little variety, being almost wholly covered with dark heath, and even that seems to be checked in its growth. What is not heath is nakedness, a little diversified by now and then a stream rushing down the steep. An eye accustomed to flowery pastures and waving harvests, is astonished and repelled by this wide extent of hopeless sterility. The appearance is that of matter incapable of form or usefulness, dismissed by Nature from her care, and disinherited of her favours, left in its original elemental state, or quickened only with one sullen power of useless vegetation.

It will very readily occur, that this uniformity of barrenness can afford very little amusement to the traveller; that it is easy to sit at home and conceive rocks, and heath, and waterfalls; and that these journeys are useless labours, which neither impregnate the imagination, nor enlarge the understanding. It is true, that of far the greater part of things, we must content ourselves with such knowledge as description may exhibit, or analogy supply; but it is true, likewise, that these ideas are always incomplete, and that, at least, till we have compared them with realities, we do not know them to be just. As we see more, we become possessed of more certainties, and consequently gain more principles of reasoning, and found a wider basis of analogy.

Regions mountainous and wild, thinly inhabited, and little cultivated, make a great part of the earth, and he that has never seen them, must live unacquainted with much of the face of nature, and with one of the great scenes of human existence.

(Greene, 1986, pp. 611–12)


‘Hopeless sterility’, ‘repelled’, ‘disinherited’, ‘uniformity of barrenness’: these terms betray Johnson's personal aversion to mountains, particularly those stripped bare of vegetation. Although he sees them as among the ‘great scenes of human existence’ (no doubt because of their significance and scale, which as dutiful empirical reasoners we need to see and confirm for ourselves), they emerge as natural features to be shunned by those seeking ‘amusement’ (objects of interest).

Let's pause a moment to consider what Johnson is saying and his mode of delivery, his style. Johnson is the archetypal voice of the Enlightenment. Note the prose: poised, balanced, eloquent, dignified, ‘Augustan’ indeed, combining classical learning (the italicised quotations from Homer) with close observation, and drawing broad, balanced conclusions. The mountains themselves, he says, are of inherently little interest to the thinking man, and from the aesthetic point of view the Scottish mountains, far from overwhelming by their ‘sublimity’, are particularly unattractive, arid and monotonous. The Highlands, not being amenable to agriculture, also lack ‘usefulness’. Johnson's is the view of the city dweller, conscious of the interdependence of productive labour and civilised society (the word ‘civilised’ derives from ‘city’).

Summary point: to the enlightened, wild nature was often a source of discomfort rather than a stimulus to the imagination.

Wild nature, whether in the Highlands or the Alps (the passage of which was considered an unpleasant obstacle on the Grand Tour to Italy), was to be shunned or brought under control. (Napoleon, who crossed the Alps several times on his early campaigns, was as emperor to build mountain passes to facilitate communication with the Italian parts of his ‘French empire’.) The late eighteenth-century fashion for picturesque landscape art and sketching discussed by William Gilpin in his Observations on … the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland (1786) and Uvedale Price's (1747–1829) Essays on the Picturesque, as compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful (1794) recommended a judicious selection and arrangement of landscape motifs so that the viewer's eye would be led into the middle distance of a picture and encounter a painted scene in an ordered way. Mountains were often safely relegated to the background. Once again, the emphasis was on control of nature and on the pre-eminence of the human perspective or viewpoint.

In other respects, however, the Enlightenment placed nature in the foreground. In the last section we saw how nature or naturalism became increasingly important to artists. In the same way, nature became increasingly recognised as a guide or force in moral matters. Once thinkers were removed from contemplation of its raw or real state (in, for example, the form of wild landscapes), they elevated its virtues and often overlooked its defects. The most renowned advocate of natural simplicity was Rousseau, who in his Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750) and his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754), as well as in Emile (1762), promoted the idea of natural simplicity and the primitive as a corrective to corrupting wealth and sophistication. (‘Discourses’ were, like ‘Enquiries’ and ‘Dialogues’, an established type of Enlightenment rational enquiry.) Although Rousseau did not believe that human society should revert to a crude primitive state, he did attempt to promote the virtues of a simpler life close to nature, and used the idea of the ‘primitive’ to highlight the deficiencies of contemporary society and point the way to reform. Finding much contemporary culture morally corrupt, he advocated a regenerated culture very different from that of the Parisian salons frequented by the philosophes (see Figure 3). For most Enlightenment thinkers sociability was central to their mission to share ideas, extend knowledge and engage in debate. Rousseau was initially a part of these enlightened social circles, sharing a common background in salon, coffee house, club, academy or learned society, where conversation and ideas flowed freely. Later, however, and partly as the result of arguments born of his own sense of alienation, he distanced himself and began to feel that truth was more likely to emerge from solitary reflection or imaginative reverie, and from the country rather than the city. In his novels (and also in an opera which he composed called Le Devin du village – The Village Soothsayer) he highlighted the virtues of simple people in communion with nature and their own hearts.

If the interest in nature expressed by most Enlightenment thinkers was less intense than Rousseau's, it is nevertheless true that all of them used the word ‘nature’ in a polemical sense, to highlight by contrasting with nature whatever they saw as unjust, unnatural and harmful in their own society and culture. Thus there was frequent appeal, in the Encyclopédie and elsewhere, to ‘natural law’, ‘natural rights’ and ‘natural equality’. In many of these pronouncements use of the term ‘nature’ was highly questionable in that it was based on assumptions about how the world and its inhabitants might have been before the rot had set in, and before the establishment of specific social, moral and political structures. In moral, social and political matters, ‘nature’ represented an ideal state of affairs towards which we should strive.

Summary point: Enlightenment thinkers regarded nature (in the sense of the physical, observable world) as an object of study and wild nature as a force to be controlled. However, in many theoretical contexts (for example, aesthetic and moral matters) they often saw it as an authoritative guide or ideal, and deferred to it in a polemical, reformist spirit intended to highlight contemporary injustices and errors.