Sunday, June 12, 2011

Uncanny wolves, disenchantment, killing to eat

Two moments in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac capture a seed of today’s environmental imagination. One is among the best-known passages of the book, an edited recounting of the young Leopold’s shooting a family of wolves, part of his job as an agent of federal forests policy in New Mexico. He described reaching the dying wolf-mother in time to see “a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” a revelation that “there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain.” This passage has become so archetypal that its image, A Fierce Green Fire, has provided the title for a history of the environmental movement. The second, lesser-known passage takes place along Mexico’s Gavilan River, where Leopold describes an elusive “music in these hills, by no means audible to all.” To hear even a few notes of it, he recommends, one must “sit quietly and listen for a wolf to howl, and think hard of everything you have seen and tried to understand. Then you may hear it – a vast pulsing harmony – its score inscribed on a thousand hills, its notes the lives and deaths of plants and animals, its rhythms spanning the second and centuries.”

Each passage is in some ways a conventional picture of nature’s majesty, the undaunted spirit of the wolf and the harmony of the cosmos. The more I reflect on them, though, the more I think the power of these passages lies in how Leopold, the observer, responds to the moment. The key act in each passage is the powerless to know, the failure to understand, what he confronts. Leopold wrote of watching the wolf die, “I realized then, and have known ever since” the moment’s lesson; but the lesson was “known only to her and the mountain.” This is not some sloppy inconsistency. What he realizes is that he does not know, and cannot know the meaning of the wolf’s existence as another living thing, one that sees the world from behind its eyes as surely as Leopold does through his. The lesson is a negative one: the arrogant policy he has been carrying out, to eliminate predators and drive up the game population, is not one he can follow. This policy is arrogant ecologically, because it presumes that people can easily grasp and manage the relations of species and land health – an idea experience shows to be spurious. It is also arrogant morally, because it disregards the “fierce green fire”; but what that fire is, why the wolf’s life commands respect, Leopold does not try to say. His mind is stilled before this question, before even asking it in a way that would invite an answer.

The passage from the Gavilan pivots on a meditative exercise: to “think hard of everything you have seen and tried to understand.” Tried is the pivotal word in this pivotal passage. Leopold does not even suggest the point is to catalog those things the reader has understood, but instead to call up, and amplify and expand by repetition, a certain posture of mind: inquisitive, pressing forward, but in some unyielding way baffled. The intuition of harmonies spanning time, space, and the cycles of life is not a sudden triumph of understanding, but a consummation of bafflement so complete that it becomes a kind of vision. It brings to mind the mystical moment in Walden when Thoreau, sensing time and memory collapsing into an instantaneous joy, reports, “I can almost say, Walden, is it you?” There is no strict accounting for this sense of mutual recognition between a man’s mind and a fragment of the natural world that suddenly comes to stand for a spirit in the whole.

That is why it seems to me that the word for these encounters is uncanny. It also seems to me that we should try to understand their uncanniness, if we want a clearer view of how the natural world moves (some of) us today. This is an aesthetic question: it concerns how certain perceptions affect us, and what these effects reveal about the mind that is moved and the world that moves it. Aesthetics has a special place in environmental imagination: experiencing beauty or sublimity is a way of knowing the value of nature. People have not been led to believe that in nature’s value through a series of argued-for propositions, as much as they have begun from a felt sense that aesthetic experience discloses value, then tried to account for that experience.

The providential view of North America, the design for a continental garden, had the beautiful as its aesthetic touchstone. “The beauty of the world,” as the Great Awakening evangelist and theologian Jonathan Edwards put it, was formed of regularity, symmetry, all that bespoke by analogy the orderly mind of God and the benevolent harmony of perfected hearts. For slightly later heads less fixated on sin and salvation, beauty was the sign of usefulness: the balance and motion of a well-designed tool, the play of forces in a stable government, and the gentle slopes and rich yield of a fertile landscape all moved the mind to comfortable pleasure. The increasingly secular account of beauty was a major change, but one within a deep continuity: Edwards made the beauty of useful forms central to God’s analogies, and in both its evangelical and its secular forms, the theory of beauty drew attention to all the ways that human beings are at home in the world. Beauty lay in those things that served human happiness and security. It is no wonder that beauty should be the aesthetic of the garden.

The romantic view of North America, as we have seen, had its own aesthetic touchstone in sublimity. The most extreme and spectacular places in nature elicited corresponding qualities in the human mind: elevation, awe, a kind of reverence. For those who hewed closely to Kant’s theory of the sublime, the meaning of this feeling was a reminder of our freedom, evidenced in the play between the instinctual reaction of terror in the face of vast, impersonal, and threatening nature, and the rational response of willed steadiness, an object lesson in the power to rise above natural impulse. In less rigorous versions, this idea underwrote a general sense that sublime places put the visitor in touch with a higher self, whatever the mix of religious and psychological doctrines that spelled it out. A similar but less idealistic account of sublimity came from Edmund Burke, who saw sublime sensation as, in effect, a rush: the sensation of fear, say, at a cliff’s edge, combined with knowledge of being in fact safe from threat. In either version, sublimity emphasized that nature ran beyond our understanding and power to guide it, but also that the human mind was fundamentally separate and independent from nature, defining itself by contrast with the natural world and the power to transcend it. Pilgrimages to the high Sierra were not a way “back to nature,” so to speak, but rather chances to hone consciousness in the face of nature’s inhuman aesthetic drama.

When Sigmund Freud turned to the uncanny in 1919, he recognized that it was a minor and eccentric aesthetic topic, mostly involved in understanding the eerie charm of certain science fiction and fairy tales. Psychologist Ernst Jentsch, who had come to the topic earlier, had described uncanniness as the unsettling effect of being unsure whether some creature – a mechanical doll, for instance – is a human being or an automaton. Freud both deepened and extended the idea. Uncanniness, he argued, describes the resurgence of animism, the belief in an intelligent, intentional, and enchanted world, where inhuman objects may have feelings and wishes, and our thoughts have can have the same power as acts. Science fiction had revived animism with robotic technology, but the well it tapped was older and deeper. Freud argued that in the uncanny experience, we returned, fleetingly, to the child’s enchanted world, and also to an earlier stage of civilization, when spirits, animals with feelings and intentions, and the magical effects of thoughts were not fantasies but everyday concerns, not private indulgences but public affairs. As individuals and as a civilization we had learned to put aside these perceptions in the name of reason, sacrificing them to a clear-eyed view of our situation and mastery of our circumstances. Their return was frightening but also enchanting, a license to be children again as the garden-walls around our carefully cultivated maturity briefly dissolved, and the animate wild slipped in.

To be clear, Freud found nothing charming in this. He was a servant of reason in an age drunk on unreason and charging romantically into some of history’s worst atrocities. His mission was not to celebrate obscurantism and magic, but to bring them into the light, where they could no longer cast their spells on the naive. He was not, however, one of those dogmatic rationalists who think that the answer to superstition is more geometry. Instead, he saw the power of the uncanny as a product of our continued investment in those things we have had to put aside, or bury, to become adults – as individuals and, as most Europeans of Freud’s time saw it, as a civilization. He illustrated this point through a quirk of the German language: the word Freud took for uncanny, unheimlich, or not-home-like, was a negation of heimlich, home-like, familiar, natural. A family gathering, a homeplace, a familiar landscape, a walled garden or other enclave: these were heimlich. What was unheimlich was eerie, alien, haunted, sinister – the ghosts, fairies, changelings, and dark things that lurked about and infiltrated such a place. Hence the core examples of the uncanny, the hints of other, not always friendly consciousness in a world not quite tamed to human purposes.

So far, so clear. The heimlich is close to the beautiful, the garden aesthetic, and the uncanny slips in to haunt it. Here, though, Freud found in language the key to a characteristic point. Heimlich had a spectrum of meanings, which began from the images of familiarity and moved decisively toward hints of the hidden, secret, shameful, and mysterious. The term could refer to secret liaisons, to private bodily functions, to a hint that something haunted lay just below a scene of tranquility – a cellar beneath the house, a shadow in the garden. For parallels in English, consider how “intimate” can mean a warm familial or friendly embrace or the more fraught territory of sex, how “private” denotes both the property of the home and backyard and the genitals, or – for a slightly older example – how privy chamber can refer to both the innermost sanctum of authority and to a toilet. The uncanny appeared in the outside world, Freud argued, because it was answering – or expressing – what was repressed inside – in the mind, the home, and a rational and sanitary civilization. The sense of an enchanted world, today, takes its power from the persistence of what we have had to disown in disenchanting the world.

For Freud, the psycho-sexual examples were more fundamental than the ones residing in the natural world: genitals and childhood terrors are real, after all – though sometimes disowned – while ghosts are not, and our thoughts do not – of themselves – make things happen. The victims of maturity and rationality, in his view, were mainly human instincts and appetites, which fleetingly reasserted themselves in the magical intimations of uncanniness. The uncanny, on this account, is a dreamlike state in which our rigorously enforced sense of reality breaks down and we revisit older mental states: time circles back on itself in repetition, the world sends us secret messages, the dead speak and walk, and we are haunted by spectral beings, like the imaginary ones who seemed real to us in deadly serious childhood games.

There is another way of seeing uncanniness, which highlights something that did not interest Freud: the real things outside the literal garden wall. It is, after all, true that the world is full of consciousness that is like yet unlike our own, and patterned by reality that we only partly understand, and which does not exist for our instruction or convenience. American nationhood was founded on the systematic denial of these facts, in the Puritan and evangelical “analogies” that made nature a storehouse of moral lessons and the providential story about a natural world created for us to labor on and make fruitful. These, you might say, were our ideological and imaginative garden walls. Along with these ideas, early Americans waged a kind of war on whatever violated the story. They hacked and sawed the forests until they could not any longer, and then they burnt them. They pursued the wolf, the animal they saw as nemesis to a settled, responsible, and productive life, with the relentlessness of total warfare, as if to ensure that whatever waywardness it represented would never stalk the continent again. Often enough they battled in themselves whatever was not industrious and rational – the qualities, according to John Locke, of those who deserved the earth. And the imagined alliances between hostile forces outside and subversive ones within, as when Thomas Morton – at least in the minds of his Plymouth neighbors – completed a circuit connected wild Indians, impious servants, and the animist spirit of paganism, all on the untamed ground of the New World. It was to evoke the felling of a pagan temple that the pilgrims, after their cleaning fire, renamed Morton’s Merrymount Mount Dagon.

It was partly because of these linked enmities and suppressions – total warfare outside and counter-insurgency within – that nature, particularly wild nature, could take on the enormous symbolic force it had for John Muir and his disciples. It was symbolic in the specific and strong sense that it could put people in touch with the reality, the source of energy and insight that it represented. Recall the metaphor of sublime landscapes such as Yosemite Valley as spiritual antennae, rebroadcasting signals from a higher consciousness. As Charles Taylor puts it, in the Romantic celebration of strong feeling, the children of a systematically repressive culture felt as if they had recovered a lost continent. That recovery came with a new relation to a landscape in part because the useless, extreme, and disorderly places on that terrain had been as reviled and hard-driven as similar elements in human personality. It was in this sense that Freud’s contemporary and fellow tragic rationalist, Max Weber, understood the nature cults that sprang up in Germany in the early twentieth century. If they were indirect ways of getting access to rich kinds of human community and experience, then he could given them a qualified respect – qualified by their tendency to make a fetish of nature. If, on the other hand, the outdoor enthusiasts really believed they were finding something in nature that gave their lives meaning, then they were making a dishonorable intellectual sacrifice, squandering the legacy of Western rationality in sentimental projection and papier-mache myth-making.

That legacy, as both Freud and Weber understood it, had produced disenchantment. Indeed, it required it, by driving a decisive wedge between scientific knowledge of the world, on the one hand, and the human hunger for meaning and direction, on the other. On this understanding, the enchantment of the natural world had been, always and only, an attempt to deal with human matters. Magic was a failed version of practical science, a gambit to secure good crops and avoid vicissitudes of weather and disease. Other aspects of animism were projections onto animals, or spirits embodied in nature, of our thwarted wishes and longed-for powers, and desires so disruptive that we mainly concealed them even from ourselves. Enlightenment reclaimed human powers for human beings. It also confronted us with our limitations and perversions. These were the complicated, difficult gains that nature’s fetishists hungered to surrender.

But what if this were not the only true story about enchantment and disenchantment? What if there were another version of what it meant to live in a world thick with inhuman intelligence and meaning, and so another version of what it would mean to reclaim a human estate from superstitious fear – a version that did not entail the stark choice between a spiritually mute world and one echoing with our own self-indulgent demands? It seems to me that there is such a version, that it constitutes a kind of counter-tradition that is distinct from both providential and romantic paths to self-assurance, and that the uncanny is its expression today. In a great study of the animist culture of the Athabascan people of Alaska, Richard Nelson describes a worldview that falls into neither the pathos of magic-drenched enchantment nor the austerity of thinking humans alone on earth. Instead, this hunting people understood themselves as engaged in constant negotiation with other species, and even rivers and landforms, that was on the one hand intensely practical, and on the other hand presupposed the intelligence and sensitivity of these non-human entities. A hunter should not offend the animals, not because they are divine, as if one were offending God, but for the same mix of practical and moral reasons that discourage us from offending other people: it is better to avoid insult, both because it is gratuitous hurt and because it invites counter-insult and a withholding of help that we need, or may need later. Human society is a constant dance of solicitude and indifference, generosity and exploitation, that may come unavoidably with interdependence that is both material (we need one another to live and flourish) and moral (we need one another to be who we are and wish to be). In the Athabascan worldview that Nelson describes, relations between humans and other species have the same character, their practical and moral dimensions impossible to pull apart.

This version of an enchanted worldview emphasizes the presence in the world of many non-human minds and forms of order, and the intuition that we owe them some kind of acknowledgement and consideration. If we start with this idea, then disenchantment would not have to mean denying it outright, but instead making it, in ways, more subtle and difficult by recognizing that these other minds are deeply different from ours, that we cannot be sure of their content or attitude, and that what they mean for us, morally and practically, is something of a mystery. But the intelligences themselves, and the puzzle of their meaning, these would persist. This is consistent with the spirit of Montaigne, captured in his formula that humans are not above nature, whether as the lieutenants of God, with dominion over earth, or as the austere, solitary heroes of Weber’s tragic rationalism; but neither are they below it, seeking instruction in how to live from other forms of life, or from ecological patterns. Instead, we are a distinctive part of it, a part distinctive in that it thinks, and in how it thinks – how we think: in our articulate self-consciousness and the reflexive problems (Who am I? What should I do? What will help me to decide?) that it generates.

On this version of disenchantment, both of the epochal human emancipations, from fear and from need, swept too broadly, launching a kind of warfare against the enchanted world, as against human vulnerability to nature’s terrible vicissitudes. The emancipation from need did its work, conquering a continent, hand in hand with providentialism, that massive modern theory of nature enchanted with a single idea: progress toward wealth and higher forms of political freedom. The emancipation from fear, the secularizing disenchantment of the natural world, took the providential view as its last target, though the outcome this struggle is still an open question, at least in the United States. Although disenchantment was a war on fantasy in the name of a realistic human freedom, it fostered, paradoxically, its own fantasy. This is the fantasy that the world contains no minds but our own. Closely related is the idea any meaning must be of a recognizably human kind. If these things are true, then any apprehension of meaning in non-human things, presumably without minds like ours, such as Leopold’s epiphany face to face with the dying wolf, must be either a purely human thing or rank sentimental projection. But to see the matter this way means misunderstanding Leopold: he does not say that in the Gila National Forest he met a mind like his own, which told him what to do. He says that he met another mind of some kind, another focal point of life, and that it was utterly strange to him, describable only by a kind of metaphor, and that when he relt his responsibility for its dying, he disowned his part in an obsessive war that was then in its last stages. The uncanny, then, marks a recovery, a faltering, candidly uncertain, but still exhilarating entrance into a second naivete, one that is necessarily very different from the original naivete of the enchanted world that our enlightening ancestors laid to waste long ago.

Like other versions of environmental imagination, the uncanny has a material and technological setting: it not just an option in a menu of mental attitudes. By way of comparison, sublimity depends on practical mastery over nature’s sources of terror. To experience the sublime, it must be true that you can observe the overwhelming face of indifferent nature quite confident that you will sleep that night in a safe place and return the next day to an industrious and rational life. John Locke’s theory of the universal garden could become a touchstone only for a people with the means to reshape a continent. In this way, it is importantly different from the embattled gardens of the medieval monasteries. Those “Jerusalems in anticipation” were not built in the belief that nature would be generally redeemed by human effort. Instead, they awaited divine redemption like signal fires built for hoped-for rescuers. Uncanniness, even more than sublimity, arises in a world that we have mastered, so that its independence of us, the presence of inhuman forces that are not just backdrop but break into the foreground of our action and awareness, can surprise and unsettle us. It also responds to a key event in ecological consciousness: the paradox in which growing knowledge of nature discloses the limits of that same knowledge, and mastery reaches the point where, as with nuclear power, toxic pollution, or climate change, our powers slip from our hands and give us over to a kind of man-made fate. These changes can produce a second skepticism, an attitude that stands to the classical and Renaissance skepticism of a Montaigne as the second naivete of the uncanny stands to the original naivete of the enchanted world. We might see the ethical meaning of this second skepticism as a version of the precautionary principle: that we should presume against acts that might do serious and irreversible harm, even if we think the chance of that harm is slight.

What would a practical ethics or environmental law look like that took the uncanny seriously? One way to begin addressing this question is to consider which facts about the natural world we have persistently ignored and suppressed, and how those return to surprise us. Then we might use of the surprise by finding a way to acknowledge more generally what it expresses. Consider first our ways of dividing the land. The first, providential-republican generation of land law set the country west of the original colonies on a grid shaped for handoff to productive private owners. The benefits of this strategy were real, as measured by its economic goals, on land whose fertility matched the scale of yeoman ownership. In more arid lands to the west, it produced – again by its own measures – the irony of failed, blown-out, drought-stricken homesteads that never became homes. This land policy also stood against any thought that the land might contain other kinds of values. And so it produced land-use that steadily erased other values, an invisible warfare against whatever could not be eaten, used for shelter, or sold. It also underwrote explicit warfare against whatever stood in the way of such use, licensing destruction that ranged from Tocqueville’s settlers’ clearings to the forest infernos of the Upper Midwest to the extermination campaign against the wolf. The uncanny attends moments in which we relinquish some of this mastery.

Consider killing an animal you intend to eat. In one sense, this is a simple exercise of mastery, and no doubt it has seemed that to many. As best I can tell, this was the spirit in which the traditional farmers and hunters that I grew up near approached their killing: as an act strictly matter-of-fact and even routine, whose meaning they would not have taken as a question, except as a matter of getting food or sport. I suspect it was because of this attitude that many rural people, including many that I grew up around, were quite willing to give to give up home-grown and hunted meat and raw milk when industrial sources appeared instead. If our dominion over nature is beyond question, then the difference between home production and the industrial sort is just an economic one. It was the rare American farmer who did not take this attitude from the middle of the twentieth century forward.

It can be a different thing, though, to kill uncertain about what this act means. Does it eliminate it a center of consciousness and awareness, the focal point of a world, as each person is the center of a version of the world? Is it, if so, a world we can imagine our way into, or so different that it lies beyond all but the most groping comparisons? Barry Lopez once admirably imagined the sensory world of the narwhal, whose landscape is almost purely acoustic, a soundscape, so that a shock of noise disrupts it like a sonic boom but also, simultaneously, like a blinding flash of light, and like an earthquake the bends the horizon itself. A world full of such events would be radically different from ours, even apart from questions that are closer to imponderable: the kinds of memories, intentions, fears, and attachments that such an animal might have, and what consciousness these could compose. What is it that blinks out when we kill? What is the meaning of the rippling resistance of the animal’s muscles, the screams we hear as terror and pain? To know what is gone, we would have to know what had been there. That question, with all its obscurity, is what the uncanny confronts us with. An industrial food system completes this obscuring by shielding us from the questions. Alertness to the uncanny re-opens us to them, to the surprise of our own unsettlement, our ignorance of what this act is, and our disturbance at it, which we do not know how to weigh. If we want to be confronted with the question, it helps to step outside of a food system that conceals it from us.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Philip Freneau and Romantic Nature in the Early Republic

Freneau, an adamant republican, served on a revolutionary privateer and as a Jeffersonian newspaper editor, and never tired of shouting down the aristocracies and tyrannies of old Europe. He was also the first American Romantic poet, and the gap in environmental imagination that separates him from Davies and Edwards, let alone Edwards’ puritan predecessors, was profound. In another sense, though, Freneau only found a new and more fitting idiom for a national project that was turning decisively to continental conquest and settlement.

Freneau’s work gives a sense of where nature stood in the literary and popular imagination of the early republic. His poetry has three major themes. First is the fierce, sometimes bloody-minded republicanism of a Jeffersonian who supported Tom Paine and the French Revolution. Kings for him were “source of discord, patrons of all wrong [who]/On blood and murder have been fed too long…/The curse, the scourge, the ruin of our race …/Who made this globe the residence of slaves.” He urged, “haste the period that shall crush them all.” One of the pleasures of reading Freneau – and the pleasures are not mainly literary – is being reminded of the unabashed radicalism, even the republican utopianism, of the American Revolution. He mocked monarchists as idolators and slaves to their own superstition and fear, and voiced every confidence that Reason sided with the American cause. Independent America, he promised in the midst of the Revoluion, would enjoy “a second golden reign,” an unfallen empire of peace and freedom.

His Nature, mistress of Reason, was the unfailing ally of republican freedom, and kings were usurpers against her. The essential unity and harmony of nature is Freneau’s second great theme. Freneau’s material nature was a Deist creation, uniform in its laws, with no miracles or “special providence” to excite superstition: “All, nature made, in reason’s sight, is order all, and all is right.” This nature taught, by innate inclination, “the path of right, fair virtue’s way” of liberty, equality, and peace. This natural religion, he wrote, “deals not curses on mankind,/Or dooms them to perpetual grief,/If from its aid no joys they find,/It damns them not for unbelief;/Upon a more exalted plan/Creatress nature dealt with man.” Freneau rejected, as of a piece, the curses and threats of priestcraft and the promises of divine favoritism: both were, in Jefferson’s well-remembered phrase, forms of tyranny over the mind of man. The “more exalted plan,” which was in line with constitutional drafter James Wilson’s moral-sense theory, was that of natural solidarity among free and equal individuals, and when republicans had finally driven superstition from the human mind, “Then persecution will retreat/And man’s religion be complete.” Freneau, though sounding Deist themes, had also adopted notes of neo-pagan humanism, complete with his “Creatress Nature,” the only non-human actor in a poem on “Religion” in which God makes no appearance. In other poems, he adopted the view that the soul was mortal, which he shared with Epicurus and Hobbes, and which seems to have had, for him as them, the radical consequence that this world is humanity’s only home. This meant, on the one hand, relinquishing any hope of eternal pleasure and reward in the next life, and, on the other, accepting the freedom, and responsibility, to create the only possible “golden age” in this world.

The North American continent figured centrally in Freneau’s story, for it was humanity’s last great opportunity, a chance to reclaim Roman and British freedom – and on the grandest scale yet, one that might become universal. In his poem “On the Emigration to America and People the Western Country,” written very early in the period of independence, Freneau forecast new discoveries in political freedom and human happiness: “a future age…/Whose genius may the world engage,/Whose deeds may over death prevail,/And happier systems bring to view,/Than all the eastern sages knew.” Even if “over death prevail” has only the figurative sense of winning immortality through historical renown, it replaces heavenly immortality with earthly greatness. The promise of “happier systems” aims to overcome all previous political philosophy by way of the actual experiments of a free people.

The setting of this sublunary millennial promise was a continent made rich by labor and knowledge, where settlers would “tame the soil, and plant the arts.” In the heart of the nature imagery of this poem, human effort redirects the vast but useless energy of the living landscape, the “savage stream” of the Ohio and “princely flood” of the Mississippi, surging through a country where “forests bloomed but to decay.” Now that power would be turned to use and wealth: the soil would feed new nations, and, as for the rivers, long the lifeblood of “a darksome wood … unnoticed,” now “commerce plans new freights for thee.” This image – the material basis of a new chapter in human freedom – is the poetry behind that telling promise in Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address, that Americans’ “chosen country” contains “room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation” – at last, time and world enough for an “empire of liberty” to enter history.

Freneau’s third theme presents a striking contrast to republican freedom and nature’s rational order. This is his sentimental and aesthetic attachment to the wild and primitive aspects of the natural world – the same aspects that, in his other poems, are to be subsumed under the progress of reason and freedom, both fulfilling Nature’s ideal design. These notes in his poems suggest that there is something incomplete in the plan of rational freedom, something charismatic, even essential, in the primitive. As he put it, reflecting on the charm of an “Indian Burying Ground,” in the presence of myth “Reason’s self shall bow the knee/To shadows and delusions here.” It is telling that Freneau uses the image of political or religious submission, the same that he savages when it is addressed to priests or kings: the same impulse, to kneel to power and mystery, wins a kind of respect from him when it responds instead to enchanted nature – or, more exactly, to an image of another, more primitive people’s idea of enchanted nature. Here, a kind of sentimental and aestheticized submission is a safe and decent way to acknowledge the irrational in ourselves.

Elsewhere, Freneau cultivated attention to natural objects with an interest that was more aesthetic and sentimental than spiritual and metaphysical. A poem on a wild honeysuckle admired the beauty of a flower concealed out of sight in the deep woods, and found its charm in the same cyclical, unproductive isolation that he had called on Americans to overcome in the continent’s woods and rivers. Like the puritans before him, Freneau emphasized the short life of the flower, but, unlike them, the Classically inclined Unitarian drew no moral or theological conclusion for human conduct. The flower’s brief existence, like its isolation, was part of the aesthetic appeal of the lovely, useless, sentimental, and tragic – the same qualities that drew Freneau, like his fellow Romantics in England and Europe, to write poems on ruins and on death by tuberculosis. His attraction to the primitive also led him to a well-rehearsed theme from Virgil’s Eclogues, the peace of the rural retreat in contrast to the corruptions of urbanity and power, a conceit that sometimes led him to the implausible suggestion that American villages and forests were populated by pipe-playing shepherds. Lacking real peasants (who were amply accessible to, say, Wordsworth) and without much capacity or inclination to convey the texture of labor or its effect on the human body, the republican Freneau in these poems inadvertently resembles Marie Antoinette playing shepherd. He was more interesting when he placed a wild, but seemingly white, natural man in the American forest. Freneau’s Jack Straw, named for the semi-mythical leader of England’s 1389 Peasant Revolt, is neither a pioneer nor a shepherd, but a wild creature himself, who washes with sand, has no tools but a hammer and axe, successfully courts his love with tobacco, and, in his simple state, finds no reason to envy the King of Britain his comfort and pomp. While he is not a political creature in terms, he would no doubt be a patriot given the chance, and Freneau’s poem invites more urban patriots to identify their secret selves with Jack Straw. He falls in the line of England’s mythic and sentimental “greenwood liberties,” the identification of simple, virtuous freedom with an ungoverned forest existence – familiar most famously in Robin Hood, who rebelled against tyrannical Nottingham officials but pledged his loyalty to just kings and timeless English liberty. To William Bradford of Plymouth, both these legendary men might have seemed “lords of misrule,” as he termed the outcast Thomas Morton. No doubt Bradford would have regarded Freneau’s approach to nature as a “school of atheism” and his politics as both anarchic and atheistic.

Freneau stood near the outer edge of his American culture, in both his muscular republican politics and his keen interest in nature. The place of nature in his outlook, though, displays limits that were much more widely shared. Appreciation of natural beauty was genuine and not necessarily religious or moralized. Freneau’s political muse, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia that the state’s arched-stone “natural bridge” was “the most sublime of nature’s works,” where “the rapture of the spectator is really indescribable!” Jefferson accurately used sublime for a natural phenomenon that overwhelmed the mind, drawing pleasure from extremes of discomfort and threat: “If the view from the top be painful and intolerable, that from the bottom is delightful in an equal extreme. It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime to be felt beyond what they are here.” He purchased the bridge and a 153-acre surrounding tract, and sometimes reflected on building there a Romantic version of Freneau’s idyllic rural retreat, a “little hermitage” where he could spend part of the year. Such sentiments were not peculiar to the forward-looking and Europhilic Jefferson. Timothy Dwight, the conservative minister, Yale president, and arch-opponent of what he styled French-Revolutionary atheism and anarchy, could hardly have been farther from Freneau and Jefferson in his vision of the young country; but when he wrote on his Travels in New England and New York, he explained that he dedicated some pages to scenery because it was what readers wanted: “not a small number of readers are delighted with landscapes, and their taste is as reasonably consulted … by a writer, as that of graver minds. When I hear so many individuals converse on the scenes of nature of with so much pleasure, I … believe that, wherever justice done to such scenes in a book, it will be read by them with some degree of the same pleasure.” Making good on his promise, he wrote later of New England’s variety of “immense ranges, bold spurs, and solitary eminences … delightful succession of sublimity and grandeur.” The beauty of more modest and hospitable landscape forms and gracious useful waterways was interspersed with the grand and sublime, so that “The variety, which Milton informs us Earth has derived from Heaven ‘Of pleasure situate in hill and dale’ is nowhere more extensively found.” The land was endless inspiration for those aesthetes who sought it: “Neither the poet nor the painter can here be ever at a loss for scenery to employ the pen or the pencil.” Much the same notes of appreciation, then, sounded from both poles of American public life.

Appreciation of the American landscape united these figures, otherwise so far apart, but it did so as an aesthetic and sentimental delectation, a pleasure for the drawing room or, perhaps, the solitary ramble or the retreat at the end of a period of public service. Romantic nature was present in the early republic, marking a break from the Puritan imagination, where nature, when not brutally practical, was fiercely moral and allegorical. Its presence, though, did not bespeak an essential force, a challenge to established order, or even a reflection on the moral costs of the providential garden that public language portrayed the continent as being. That would come later, when an aesthetic plaything became a polemical weapon, and the landscape of holiday the setting for a new kind of conversion.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Fragment on Monks, Puritans, Misrule, Jurists, Gardenerss

In the stories and images of medieval Europe, the natural world frequently appears as a green muchness, a sea of trees, perhaps with hills and mountains in the receding distance, a shadowed, disorderly region with little geometry and less geography. A knight might leave one castle hewn from the forest and pick up his narrative at the next one, with no clear sense of the passage between them. Visual art was intensely concerned with the walled garden, a refined space where the elements of the natural world might be symbolically represented – a fountain, a stone, a rose – under the ordering human eye and hand. This was in marked contrast to classical Roman landscape description and painting, which historians have described as having the villa, rather than the castle, as its paradigm: an interior space opening onto a worked landscape, with keen interest in inside and outside and a feel for their continuity.

There have been many sweeping interpretations of the classical and medieval views of nature. No doubt most are too sweeping: the more one looks at any time, the more its complexity and variety come to resemble one’s own. In this book, anyway, European experience figures mainly as backdrop to American themes. Nonetheless, some things are both sweeping and true.

There is something archetypal about the wall that separates castle, garden, or city from the terrain around it, especially from forest. Gilgamesh, often called the first hero of Western literature, is the builder of the walls of Uruk, and his first exploit is to slay the guardian forest demon of Cedar Mountain and retrieve the precious timber to his people. Rome rose from forest, and its wolf-suckled founders, Romulus and Remus, were said to be scions of the Sylvia, or woodlands, family, by their mother, Rhea Sylvia. The city, on the human side of the wall, was the space where our law governed: the Greek polis, source of polity and political, and Latin civitas, site of civilization, civility, and the whole public world of civic life. Outside the wall lay necessary natural wealth such as timber, and also, in mythic time, the dark origins of humanity, sometimes recoverable through a wild vitality that civilized people needed but could not quite control: medieval knights went berserk in the forest, acquiring great power but wreaking destruction that the castles and gardens could not have contained.

There was also material reality behind this contrast between classical Rome and medieval Europe. The Romans conquered and governed their landscape, at home and in their many colonies. The mastery that their civil engineering and agriculture embodied went along with their language and legal writ: the Roman roads, law, and tongue drew together the parts of an empire. This ordering power seemed to free what one critic has called “the landlord’s eye,” an appreciative, even admiring contemplation of a fruitful terrain. After Rome fell, sheep grazed in the Coliseum, trees grew up through the roads, and in much of northern Europe living standards, technology, and public order collapsed and took centuries to recover. It is rather as if the triumphal version of North American settlement were run in reverse, with wild nature reclaiming ground and overthrowing human control, in a war of natural chaos against human order.

The images of war and chaos in nature are extreme, but they are likely true to the experience of those who watched their civilization collapse. Although nature is deeply ordered, it is mainly indifferent or hostile to the aims of human order, and so, when it rules, it works as a disruptor, like oak roots overturning the flagstone of an imperial road. As for war, it is a contest over whose law will govern a landscape, and a people can be at war with natural forces over this question, much as two nations or empires can be. The gardens and castles of medieval Europe were walled, fortified, the architecture of an embattled world that achieved its order where it could keep encroaching wilderness at bay. The openness of the Roman villa partook of an imperial peace in the conflict with nature, while medieval Europe’s obsessive walls bespoke continued struggle.

Within and around the walls of their monasteries, medieval monks transformed wilderness into garden, an activity that was at once practical and a symbol of spiritual cultivation and God’s ultimate dominion over a fallen earth. Clarence Glacken recounts a description of twelfth-century Cistercians’ forest clearing in northern Germany, a picture that calls to mind Tocqueville’s pioneers:
In one hand [the abbot] had a wooden cross, in the other a vessel of holy water. When he arrived in the center of the woods, he planted the cross in the earth, took possession of this untouched piece of earth in the name of Jesus Christ, sprinkled holy water around the area, and finally grasped an axe to cut away some shrubs. The small clearing made by the abbot was the starting point for the monks’ work. One work group (incisores) cut down the trees, a second (exstirpatores) took out the trunks, a third (incensores) burnt up the roots, boughs, and the undergrowth.

The purpose of this conversion of the landscape, Glacken explains, was to create what St. Bernard called

a Jerusalem in anticipation, a place of waiting and desire, or preparation for that holy city…. The cloister is a true paradise, and the surrounding countryside shares in its dignity…. A wild spot, not hallowed by prayer and asceticism and which is not the scene of any spiritual life is, as it were, in the state of original sin. But once it has become fertile and purposeful, it takes on the utmost significance.

Jean Leclercq explains the meaning of this clearing, “rites are performed that symbolically repeat the act of Creation: the uncultivated zone is first ‘cosmicized,’ then inhabited.” The monastic clearing embodied and gathered the surrounding landscape in two joined qualities: human devotion to God and nature’s ordering under human mastery. Cultivation was also a kind of reclamation, restoring the harmonies among humanity, nature, and divinity. In some of the theologies that surrounded this activity, human labor drew nature toward its right purpose, as a participant in a more felicitous Creation.

These points cast suggestive light on the attitude to nature that powered early-modern developments. Charles Taylor has argued that modern life cannot be understood apart from our distinctive conception of the self, of what it means, and how it feels, to be a person. He suggests that our extraordinary orderliness and self-discipline, our knack for self-denial in pursuit of greater gain, our whole triumph of reason over impulse and appetite, is the result of monastic practices’ being generalized across the population by religious and social reformers. Self-scrutiny, self-interpretation, labor governed by a clock: in the medieval world, these disciplines belonged to a particular order of society, the monks (and may have been neglected as often as they were observed, even there), who took pastoral responsibility for the piety of all. A series of reforms changed this. The Protestant Reformation, which abolished monasteries, opened the bible to all, and drastically diminished the intermediary role of church hierarchy in favor of ultimate individual responsibility for devotion, was central; but pietistic reform movements within Catholicism had sought to increase lay devotion for centuries before Luther. There was also a broader pressure toward “civility,” the cultivation of one’s own character for more peaceful and congenial relations to others. As the early-modern period developed, religious and social goals borrowed force from political economy: the rising states of Europe goaded one another to develop armies, and domestic economies to finance those armies, meaning greater discipline, both economic and martial, than was common in the medieval world.

Taylor describes “the core image” of this reform as “taming raw nature.” Although that phrase refers to human nature, he also argues that a changing view of the natural world was important to these developments. To this point, I agree with him. I think, though, that the change he describes is too simple. He portrays the modern world’s view of nature as the product of pure disenchantment, born of theologians, philosophers, and lay devotees driving the saints, spirits, and sacred places from the world. All that remains is mute matter, open to our manipulation, with no meaning, value, or purpose beyond what we world-masters harness it to do. Taylor traces this development to a web of sources, prominently medieval nominalists, who denied that natural objects had essences (like the “plastic principle” and “vegetative soul” beloved of Henry More and Ralph Cudworth) in order to secure God’s sole dominion over the world, and Rene Descartes, whose philosophy centered thought and action in a radically isolated human mind. The end-point of this portrayal is a humanity standing above and sharply apart from nature, regarding the material world in terms of our own purposes, and manipulating it to satisfy them, limited only by our technical capacity and, perhaps, our duties to one another and to God. We have no responsibility to inert nature, and can have no intelligence with it: we learn from it only how to put it to use.

There is certainly something to this. The modern world was built by people who inhabited a less diversely and pervasively enchanted universe than their ancestors, and we today, in turn, are still more disenchanted. This story of nature’s disenchantment, too, is canonical, and it has been told with many heroes and anti-heroes, including Protestantism, capitalism, science, rationality itself, and, indeed, Christianity writ large. Taylor’s broad version of the story, which weaves in strands from others, is vividly recognizable in, say, Hobbes, and in Francis Bacon, the English prophet of mastering nature scientifically to serve human needs.

Not all was disenchantment, though. Much as laypeople took on apostolic personal discipline that had been reserved to monks, turning salvation into a broader practice of self-civilizing, so the sacral deforestation and planting of the monasteries became a widely shared mission: to make the world a garden. This mission, moreover, kept some of the theological trappings of its monastic predecessors, sometimes in secularized form, sometimes directly invoking divine design. North American continental settlement ran on the idea, so explicit in Locke, that nature was made to flourish under human labor, that our clearing and planting completed it and made it the world we were meant to inhabit. After nature’s tense medieval siege of the castles and gardens, after the monastic forays to re-enact Creation with axes and fire, the walls came down and human order re-took wild nature, reversing the epochal defeat of Rome. North America took the full force of this redemptive idea of settlement. The zeal and furor of the drive westward had this idea as part of its inner life, and a half-secularized form provided the public rhetoric of that mission to “reclaim the wilderness.”

My argument is a response to a familiar story, in which we modern humans spend several centuries stripping nature of the accumulated “enchantments” that our religion, storytelling, and metaphysical speculation have layered on it. This task leaves us facing what Matthew Arnold, in a poetic meditation on disenchantment, called “The naked shingles of the world,” the structure of matter laid bare. We moved from a richly interpreted nature to one freed of moral and anthropomorphic interpretation – and, ironically, for this very reason, laid open to any projects we choose to visit on it, in an utterly anthropocentric world. I am arguing that, contrary to this story, early Americans continued to infuse nature with meaning and purpose, treating the land not as an inert object, but as a collaborator in a national project that was itself in harmony with natural law and divine design. American nature has always been shaped by disputes about politics, the conditions and character of freedom, and the legitimacy, success, or failure of the national project. The Romantics, Progressives, and ecologists who dissented from aspects of the dominant and founding American story, and enlisted nature in their dissents, were working in line with this habit, one might say tradition, of intensively interpreting nature as part of political and moral conflict.

Consider a set-piece of such an argument, a mild but telling example from the early years of the independent United States. James Wilson, the Scottish-born founder and constitutional architect, gave used a 1788 Independence Day address to contrast the era of ancient Roman liberty, when “smiling harvests bore testimony to the bountiful boons of liberty,” with the present Mediterranean: “Waste and barrenness appear … in all their hideous forms …. With double tyranny the land is cursed.” Double tyranny referred to the combination of political despotism and Catholicism, a pair of yokes on the minds and action of the people.

But if history had seen great decline, it had also entered an era of revival. In republican North America, free Rome was reborn ecologically as well as politically: Wilson concluded with an “enrapturing prospect … Placid husbandry walks in front, attended by the venerable plough. Lowing herds adorn our vallies; bleating flocks spread over our hills; verdant meadows, enamelled pastures, yellow harvests, bending orchards, rise in rapid succession from east to west.” The language here is self-consciously neo-classical, and evokes the pastoral vistas of a strong and secure state, entirely unlike the castles and gardens of the medieval imagination, with their besieging forests. Under republican government, the new continent would flourish as a garden.

A fruitful landscape bespoke both freedom and prosperity. In some ways, this is a familiar story. It is well known that early Americans linked the prospects of republican freedom to the plenitude of the frontier. Thomas Jefferson argued in his first inaugural address that the United States could avoid the crowded cities and political tyranny that had shaped European history, thanks to an open continent with enough land to hold a thousand generations of settlers. In Eric Foner’s formulation, free land was the condition for a nation of free men, because it made possible widespread and expanding ownership, giving everyone (in theory) the chance to become a proprietor. The social ideal of small-scale ownership helped, in turn, to establish an ideal of personal dignity, free labor, in which manual and other productive work was revalued from a mark of low status to an egalitarian emblem of personal worth. The frontier made this ideal a widely shared prospect, and, in rhetoric and to considerable degree in fact, the property-building activity of small-scale labor made the frontier.

What is easy to overlook in this familiar story is how fully its partisans enlisted a vision of American nature to support it. A free people was also a productive people, and nature answered success with fruitfulness. Political rhetoric knitted together freedom and prosperity in an image of the ideal American landscape – and its opposite, an infertile landscape of tyranny. A sort of summation-by-diorama of a metaphysical theory, this landscape rhetoric portrayed the fruits of collaboration between human effort and natural design. Such images served as exhortation and reassurance, by portraying nature as the unfailing helpmate of its human inhabitants, and also as warning, by rendering vividly the bad consequences of departing from right use of the natural world.

Wilson is particularly interesting on these themes because his work suggests a divergence between American environmental ideas and those of the rest of the English-speaking world. A student of Scottish Enlightenment thought, Wilson followed Francis Hutcheson in affirming a “moral sense,” an innate power to tell right from wrong, and “sociability,” a natural affinity, even love, for one’s fellow man. The law, which Wilson both lectured on as a teacher and practiced at the highest level as a constitutional draftsman, was for him an expression of the innate sense of fairness, equality, and human solidarity. Progress, in Wilson’s account, was the natural logic of history, and it emerged as commerce and communication tied distant people ever closer together in more complex webs of mutuality: as the moral sense became less clouded by ignorance, tyranny, and parochialism, all peoples would tend toward peace and republican democracy. Wilson aimed his arguments at, among others, Epicurus and Hobbes, who had also been Hutcheson’s targets. He claimed – accurately – that Hobbes’s skepticism, his denying that an inherent moral sense could produce agreement on right and wrong, was essentially linked to Hobbes’s claim that sovereign governments enjoyed nearly unlimited power. A revolutionary and a constitutionalist, and thus intensely interested in the theoretical bases of limited government, Wilson believed that moral-sense theory grounded a consensus on justice that a people could appeal to in resisting tyranny and establishing their own, new constitutional order.
To this point, Wilson seems a particularly learned and systematic instance of a widespread intellectual style in the early United States: commercial republicanism, which borrowed from the Scots the idea that commercial society expressed the natural sentiments of “self-interest properly understood” and created a limited but real form of solidarity, and from the republican tradition of revolution and limited government an idea of the American political enterprise. Neither of these inheritances necessarily implies a keen interest in the natural world. The Scottish tradition, especially, marked a sharp turn away from understanding people in light of their place in nature and toward moral and social theory grounded entirely in human nature, the study of people as social and sentimental beings.

In the United States, though, even so Scottish a figure as Wilson made nature an important part of his argument. The development of the continent was so central to the American project that there was no ignoring it, and, indeed, it lent imaginative as well as practical help to the republican attitude. Wilson enlisted nature as an enthusiastic participant, achieving its progressive and intended form through the same development that perfected human nature and political society. For both, development turned the inward potential into the realized reality. Drawing a single line from cosmic order to the moral sense, Wilson argued, “Order, proportion, and fitness pervade the universe. Around us, we see, within us, we feel, above us, we admire, a rule from which a deviation can not, or should not, or will not be made.” Order, proportion, and fitness were aesthetic and moral qualities all at once, and, Wilson contended in a discussion of beauty, their aesthetic and moral properties were essentially linked. Thus, for instance, admiration of feminine beauty was, in reality, a response to the female virtues that it bespoke, for “complexion and shape will not supply the place of the higher orders of beauty.” Aesthetic response was thus an exercise of the moral sense, spontaneously admiring virtue. So, for Wilson, moral development inspired “in every beholder possessed of sensibility and taste, an effect far more pleasing, and far more lasting, than can be produced by the prettiest piece of uninformed nature.” Wilson’s American landscape was fertile because free people worked it. The land was beautiful because fertility came from order, proportion, and fitness, in the people’s use of it. These were the aesthetic qualities of a land’s fertility and a people’s freedom alike. The rebirth of Rome in North America was beautiful, for beauty was the eye’s tribute to the continent’s development, which was, inseparably, a project of both material and moral perfection.
What we see here is an American trajectory that is distinctive but not exceptional. Wilson was working very much within a broader North Atlantic conversation about morality, liberty, and progress. The North American continent, though, was a distinctive setting for those North Atlantic themes, and provided occasions for Americans to inflect them in local ways. In particular, American thought and public language maintained an important role for ideas about nature itself as a collaborator in the drama of continental clearing and nation-building.

Another telling example comes from James Kent, another of the most important jurists of the early republic, somewhat younger than Wilson and also more conservative. (Kent was a late supporter of property requirements for voting, while Wilson’s moral-sense optimism encouraged him to early support for universal male suffrage.) Kent was New York’s chancellor, lecturer in law at Columbia, and author of the influential Commentaries on American Law. Kent took up the topic of “the foundation of title to land” in the United States a short time after Chief Justice John Marshall had addressed the same issue in Johnson v. M’Intosh, a case holding that Native American land claims enjoyed only qualified recognition under United States law, and that the federal government (and only the federal government) could wipe out those claims and transfer the land to white settlers. In his opinion, Marshall explicitly sidestepped issues of “abstract justice,” such as the claim that farmers enjoyed a natural right to expropriate the lands of nomadic hunters. Instead, he reasoned from the positive law, as manifest in the customs of Europe’s colonial powers and the early United States, with some emphasis on the reliance interest of Americans who had settled the continent deep into the Midwest.

After recounting the essentials of Marshall’s reasoning, Kent stepped squarely into the issue that the Court had avoided, arguing that “abstract justice,” or natural law, did in fact support European expropriation. Kent first argued that the continent was in effect legally empty, devoid of any claims that a mature legal system like that of the United States had to respect. Agreeing with Locke that property rights arose from developing the land, Kent contended that “[e]rratic tribes” of “hunters” could not acquire lasting title because their transient occupation gave them only “the loose and frail, if not absurd title of wandering savages.” Moreover, Native Americans had not just failed to establish property rights: by not joining those Locke had called the industrious and rational, they had failed in their basic human duties. According to Kent, this “immense continent” was “evidently designed by Providence to be subdued and cultivated, and to become the residence of civilized nations.” Kent embraced “the true principles of natural law” expounded by Emmerich de Vattel, who had “observed, that the cultivation of the soil was an obligation imposed by nature upon mankind.” The continent might not be literally empty, but it was devoid of its normative use, which was imparted by God and discernible by natural reason: to be fruitful and support extensive settlement. Native American occupation not only failed to establish property rights, but also violated the duty to cultivate the land. For Indians to resist settlement would be “usurp more territory than they can subdue,” an act of unjust exclusion.

Although this theory had roots in the thought of Hugo Grotius and John Locke, the theorists of American settlement were not in the grip of a monolithic idea. Rather, they were wielding one strand of a legal tradition to create a specific legal and political culture, one that helped to justify a settler-driven “empire of liberty” that aimed to extend its population and political principles across the continent. The natural-law idea that the North America was legally empty and so there for the taking was much less influential in England and colonial North America than in the Revolutionary period and the early United States, when westward settlement became a national preoccupation. Both William Blackstone and Adam Smith, for instance, saw American expropriation as opportunistic and unjust. In the young United States, though, as legal theory increasingly embraced the idea of a natural-law claim to the continent, both popular and elite discussion more and more portrayed Native American land use as vagrant and irregular. This description, too, was a change from earlier recognition that many indigenous peoples did cultivate and permanently occupy their lands. It took interpretive effort to recast North America as an empty land, and that effort was both theoretical and descriptive.

This view of the continent was not monolithic even in its heyday: some colonists and citizens of the early republic defended Native American claims to ownership (sometimes in defense of their own putative purchases from indigenous occupants), and the federal government’s practice was to take title to Indian land through the form of voluntary transactions, not by the Vattelian natural-rights claim that Kent endorsed. The doctrine of Johnson v. M’Intosh was a hybrid, assigning Native Americans a usufructuary right to occupy and use their traditional lands, which fell well short of ownership. Nonetheless, such halfway positions were routinely hedged around with assertions that Native American land use amounted to profligate waste of a continent. There was widespread and basic agreement with the thrust of John Quincy Adams’s rhetorical question:

Shall the lordly savage … forbid the wilderness to blossom like a rose? Shall he forbid the oaks of the forest to fall before the axe of industry, and to rise again, transformed into the habitations of ease and elegance? Shall he doom an immense region of the world to perpetual desolation … [and] the fields and the valleys which a beneficent God has formed to teem with the life of innumerable multitudes, be condemned to everlasting barrenness?

The continent belonged to those who could make it bloom. The justification for their claim was multifarious, but never far from its heart was an idea about nature itself: that it was made to collaborate in human progress, as we were made to develop it for our needs.

[A Trajectory of pre-Revolutionary American writings]
There seems to have been no time when European settlers in North America were not looking to the new continent for moral lessons as well as practical benefit. The canonical Puritan response to New England has come to be Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford’s description of the new land as “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men,” suggesting a people surrounded by violent chaos whose elements they could hardly see clearly enough to differentiate. A fuller and, in many ways, a more recognizable picture emerges in the journals of John Winthrop, long-serving governor of the neighboring Massachusetts Bay Colony. The nature that Winthrop describes is always available for moralized interpretation. For instance, he reports, on July 8 of 1632,

a great combat between a mouse and a snake, and after a long fight, the mouse prevailed and killed the snake: the Pastor of Boston Mr. Wilsson a very sincere holy man hearing of it, gave this interpretation, that, the snake was the devil, the mouse was a poor contemptible people which God had brought hither, which should overcome Satan and dispossess him of his kingdom. Upon the same occasion he told the governor that before he was resolved to come into this country, he dreamed he was here, and that he saw a church arise out of the earth, which grew up and became a marvelous goodly church.

It was, then, a world of signs, in which there was no reason to assume that a mouse wad just a mouse, and where the struggle with which the natural world is rife calls to mind the spiritual struggle that was the ultimate concern of human life as they understood it. Similarly, Winthrop frequently encounters with nature’s uncontrollable forces, especially the sea, as governed by “God’s special providence,” a specific and intentional divine act through natural phenomena. Special providence carried shipwrecked sailors through dangerous rocks in the winter of 1630-31, though it not save them from their legs’ freezing in the water, from which they had to be cut out. When some servants of one Moody of Roxbury drowned while gathering oysters, “it was an evident judgment of God upon them, for they were wicked persons,” and one, in particular, had recently declared that he would rather swelter in hell than serve his master.

Nature frequently, even ordinarily expressed God’s wishes and judgments. Thus in 1727, when an exceptionally hot summer was followed by an earthquake that Cotton Mather described as “a horrid rumbling like the sound of many coaches together, driving on the paved stones with a most awful trembling of the earth,” it was entirely natural for Thomas Prince, the Harvard-educated minister of Boston’s Old South Church, to remind his parishioners,

With God is most terrible majesty; and when he has a mind to show it, he can easily and in a moment do it in such an astonishing manner as to affright the hardiest creature. He can put all nature, even the great and inanimate parts of the world into such a commotion, as to make us see in a most sensible manner, the terrifying actings of his powerful presence, and excite the highest and most awful reverence of him. He can make the heavy and dull earth to tremble, as if it felt the force of those awakened passions that should rise in our minds at the appearance of God, and as if it were moved with the fear of its present destruction. The everlasting mountains are scattered, and the perpetual hills bow down before him.

The seeming permanence of the earth, its apparent stability, was always and everywhere subject to God’s sudden action, when even “everlasting” landscapes were suddenly revealed as transient. This violence was a type, an emblem, of the fear and reverence that should constantly disrupt complacency, pride, any sense of personal security. Our transience was nearer and more palpable than the mountains’, our vulnerability more complete. Prince drew out this lesson from the earthquake:

Let us then … bear in our minds a lively sense of our continual danger. Let our flesh still tremble for fear of God; and let us be ever afraid of His judgments. Let us stand in the greatest awe of this most glorious being, and not sin against him. He is always present, and same holy, mighty, and terrible, as he appears in the most hideous earthquake….

It hardly needs saying that this is the antithesis of disenchantment, and precisely the mood that Epicureans like Hobbes and Montaigne hoped to drive out of the world – the sense of living forever under judgment, made tangible and violent in the action of a natural world whose physical threats were also affronts to any psychic security in the human estate.

That is not to say that ordinary New Englanders lived in a stereotypically magical world, one so full of meaning and judgment as to nullify regularity and make practical action futile. That stereotype rests on quite a false contrast between an enchanted apprehension of the natural world, on the one hand, and practicality on the other. Quite apart from Max Weber (uncharacteristically) simplistic description of magic as a primitive attempt at scientific control of nature, it is simply true that, until very recently, the natural world pressed so pervasively on human activity that an intense practical concern with it was necessary to survival. John Winthrop’s journals are full of reports on the patterns of tides, winds, and weather, intense concerns for coastal colonists in a marginal climate. A journey up a local river was more likely to inspire reflections on access to fur markets than efforts to divine God’s message from the weather, and a season when worms rather archetypally beset the colonists’ corn draws no religious interpretation from Winthrop. His comments on wolves’ slaughter of calves are notably matter-of-fact – and the regularity of these attacks is a reminder of how fragile the conceit of human sovereignty over the rest of Creation must have seemed.

What comes through above all in Winthrop’s journals is a vivid sense of the discipline required of a people who believed themselves besieged simultaneously by physical nature, whose onslaughts they often took stoically (when a 15-year-old boy had his brains dashed by a tree he was felling in mid-winter, his father responded with “prayer, and much patience and honor”), and by sin, which frequently appeared through sensual irruptions. A snake figured the devil, and a prominent settler who had neighbors in to drink and ended up in bed with someone else’s wife had to be resettled elsewhere. Discipline was more severe for the less prominent. On June 14 of 1631, a servant was whipped, lost his ears, and was then executed for “foul scandalous invective against our churches and government.” The pious pressed the same disciplinary scrutiny against themselves: Winthrop reported in late winter of 1634 on a young man who became consumed by awareness of his sinfulness – manifested in blasphemous thoughts that he could not control, whose content Winthrop did not record – and mourned and languished for months, disconsolate, before finding relief in a renewal of faith. The outbreak of sin – with its promise of providential punishment – could come anywhere, at any time, in a settlement besieged from outside and menaced by blasphemy and disloyalty within, in the lower orders of the community or the sudden stumbling of an individual soul.

Much of this was general to the pious Protestantism of the North Atlantic, but the American setting presented a special threat: an alliance between the forces of the wilderness outside the community and of sin inside. Winthrop reported, without much elaboration, that Thomas Morton, a settler under the Plymouth Colony’s jurisdiction but not a puritan, was imprisoned until he could be returned to England, and his house burnt down. He had run an alehouse that catered to Indians and, it was alleged, set up a maypole. William Bradford added much more texture to this hint of paganism (which, for the puritans, was never far beneath the surface of the rural Anglicanism in which Morton had been raised). He wrote,

Morton became lord of misrule, and maintained (as it were) a school of Atheism…. They also set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing about it for many days together, inviting the Indian women, for their consorts, dancing and frisking together (like so many fairies, or furies, rather) and worse practices. As if they had anew revived and celebrated the feasts of the Roman goddess Flora or the beastly practices of the mad Bacchinalians.

Morton’s conduct was, in today’s cliché, a perfect storm of forces antithetical to the discipline of the puritan settlement. Bradford and Winthrop agreed that he had armed the Indians with guns, an equalizing act of commerce that threatened serious consequences for the settlers. Bradford also complained that his festivals at the place he called Merry-Mount, “as if this jollity would have lasted ever,” would leave settlers throughout the region able to “keep no servants, for Morton would entertain any, how vile soever, and all the scum of the country, or any discontents, would flock to him from all places.” The especially severe discipline that the colony visited on its servants could collapse, Bradford feared, if rebellious laborers could form their own community, and “if this nest was not broken … they should stand in more fear of their lives and goods … from this wicked and debased crew, than from the savages themselves.” Thoroughly entwined with the threats of native attacks and social insurrection was the spiritual rebellion of a revived paganism, a “school of atheism” and ritualized sexual license, conducted with heathens and, according to Bradford, in the spirit of the most carnal and chaotic aspects of classical paganism. When they burnt Morton’s house, the colony’s governors treated his expulsion as something like a scourge of the “nest,” which they re-named Mount Dagon, after a biblical god of the Philistines, whose temple Samson destroyed as his last act, and whose image (in a different temple) was overthrown and dismembered by exposure to the Ark of Jehovah. This land itself, full of Bradford’s “wild beasts and wild men,” threatened to align itself with the forces most hostile to puritan order. The rechristening of Merry-Mount makes a striking contrast with medieval monks’ clearing the deep forests for monasteries, re-enacting Creation by a hallowing destruction. Instead, Mount Dagon stood as a reminder of the continuing struggle between the discipline of the colonies and the wild lands outside, whose forces could align themselves with the impulses to misrule within.

Whatever the facts of his conduct at Merry-Mount, Thomas Morton seems to have been most of all a set-piece for some colonists’ fear that the wild land they had entered would sustain a “lord of misrule” and revival of paganism. His self-exculpating and self-promoting New English Canaan, written after his return to England, denies selling liquor to the Indians (though he acknowledged that a trader could do well in that market), a claim one may doubt; but there is no reason to doubt his commitment to the widely shared project of making the new continent a fruitful garden. Set between an anthropology of native Americans (ranging from wild claims that their languages derive from Latin and Greek with an insightful account of the ecological effects of their practice of burning undergrowth, and generally stressing their goodwill and capacity for civilization) and a Falstaff-like account of his expulsion from Merry-Mount (in which he belittled his “separatist” tormentors as superstitious and trivial clowns, “Limbos” led by the hapless and self-righteous “Captain Shrimp”), the heart of the book is a paean to the commercial promise of the continent. Every species is canvassed for its worth as a “commodity” and many receive a speculative cash-value. In an epigraphic poem, Morton described his proposal for more extensive colonization and development as a chance for “art and industry” to call forth the wealth of nature, which waited “Like a fair virgin, longing to be sped/And meet her lover in a nuptial bed … being most fortunate/When most enjoyed: so would our Canaan [North America] be/If well employed by art and industry/Whose offspring now/shows that her fruitful womb/Not being enjoyed, is like a glorious tomb/Admired things producing which there die/And lie fast bound in dark obscurity.” The language is the lusty imagery of the Renaissance, hostile in spirit to Bradford and Winthrop, but the call to complete the natural world by settlement and development places Morton squarely among John Locke’s “industrious and rational.” It should not be surprising that even such a subversive figure fell into that camp: it was the universal camp.

Jonathan Edwards, the towering figure of the Great Awakening, the religious revival that swept the colonies in the second third of the eighteenth century, was a half-generation younger than Thomas Prince of the Old South Church and the Earthquake Sermon, though he died five months earlier to the day, on March 22, 1758. Edwards saw in the patterns of nature an instructive, if pale, reflection of the spiritual meaning God had infused into all existence. Edwards was committed the doctrine of predestination, that some were saved and the rest not and that salvation lay entirely outside human will or action. Nonetheless, his vision of the disposition of the will was anything but passive. He recommended “a spirit of consent to being,” and wrote that “spiritual beauty” resided in love for all that is, “consent and union with being in general.” Benevolence to mankind was essential to this “propensity of heart” – a point where Edwards agreed with the humanitarians of the Enlightenement – but its truth and authority lay in its flowing from “consent to being” and thus “relation to God, in the creature beloved.” The harmony or fitness among things that this attitude implied made it an aesthetic as well as a moral principle, and the “beauty” that Edwards identified in moral relations had analogy in the physical world, wherever one found “a mutual consent and agreement of different things … regularity, order, uniformity, symmetry, proportion, harmony.” Edwards’ examples ranged from geometry and architecture to music living nature, and he agreed with Francis Hutcheson that “the more there are of different mutually agreeing things, the greater is the beauty.” Thus “in the mutual correspondences of a beautiful plant” or the physical laws of the universe, the human mind was adapted to perceived beauty because “therein is some image of the consent of mind, of the different members of a society or system of intelligent beings, sweetly united in a benevolent agreement of heart.” The universe was thus a kind of sermon, and each thing within it, properly viewed, a fragment of its text.

Not all of nature’s lessons resolved immediately into perfect consent and universal love. The sermon contained many specific bans and exhortations. As Edwards wrote, “it pleases God to observe analogy in his works … and especially to establish inferior things with analogy to superior.” Thus, though plants and animals ranked below humans in Creation, they might present parables that showed us how to live. [Examples from Edwards’ writing.]

Edwards’ teaching about nature was consistent with the use of nature in the poems of his junior and successor in Princeton’s presidency, Samuel Davies, who died at 37, a few years into his presidency. Davies’ poems, very early examples of intentionally aesthetic use of nature in American writing, are thoroughly didactic in the analogical manner that Edwards found so pleasing to God. Flowers, with their brief beauty, are lessons for youth in the swift coming of age and death. The seasons conspire to remind us that everything earthly passes, and what brings us joy down here will soon be cold and wasted. Nature bespeaks God’s design and authority, and reproaches any “wretch that dare refuse to love” its creator. It is appropriate to appreciate, even delight in the living world, but not for itself; rather, nature is admirable because it points to its author.

[Do we need to include a few fragments?]
Davies was no otherworldly metaphysician: active in Virginia politics and a great advocate of religious toleration, he is said to have taught the revolutionary rhetorician Patrick Henry what an orator should be. Compare the didactic, heaven-indicating “nature” of his poems, though, with the role the natural world fills in the poetry of Philip Freneau, another man of affairs, the “Poet of the American Revolution,” who entered Princeton when James Madison was a student, in what would have been the tenth year of Davies’ university presidency, had he lived. (The older poet, who died very young, would not yet have been fifty.) Freneau, an adamant republican, served on a revolutionary privateer and as a Jeffersonian newspaper editor, and never tired of shouting down the aristocracies and tyrannies of old Europe. He was also the first American Romantic poet, and the gap in environmental imagination that separates him from Davies and Edwards, let alone Edwards’ puritan predecessors, was profound. In another sense, though, Freneau only found a new and more fitting idiom for a national project that was turning decisively to continental conquest and settlement.

Hobbe's Centaur

Michel de Montaigne and Thomas Hobbes make a superficially unlikely pairing. Montaigne, a minor French nobleman and literary immortal, invented the essay in its modern form and is a hero of the skeptical, sensual, anti-systematic humanism that takes the essay as its model for living: a series of reflective experiments, sallies into circumstance, that weigh opinion against experience on the imperfect scale of human judgment. Montaigne boasted, or confessed – that it was hard to say which was part of his art – that he took himself as his topic, and turned to old books for exercise, not knowledge. He wrote candidly about his sexual appetites, his pleasures and the waning of his powers; about his agonizing kidney stones, the habits of his bowels, and his soft-hearted hatred of cruelty. Although he took as his motto a skeptic’s question – What do I know? – and wrote with a self-irony that kept that motto always in view, he left us a devastating attack on European atrocities in the Americas, and a finely sympathetic portrait of indigenous American societies. His essays inspired such anti-systematic writers as Emerson, Thoreau, and Nietzsche, and a recent book on his thought is titled, quite appropriately, How to Live – for Montaigne, the necessary question, but one with no single answer.

Hobbes was born in 1588, four years before Montaigne’s death, and famously joked that, as a child of the year the Spanish Armada menaced England, he was born a twin of Fear. If the joke seems as grandiose as it is grimly elegant, that is Hobbes. He was among the very first systematic political philosophers in a line stretching to the present: deriving a theory of politics from an account of knowledge and human interests, he made arguments about language, law, and the nature of obligation that remain vital in professional philosophy. Because he attributed nearly absolute power to government, and made arguments that seemed to invite atheism (even as they stopped short of embracing that stance), he was long the dark shadow of modern thought, a haunting nemesis whom his successors could not escape. It seems certain that no study of Hobbes’s thought will be called How to Live.

Yet the two, taken together, show the coherence of an early-modern project that they shared: the emancipation from fear, which was also emancipation from a certain way of experiencing nature. This may seem wrong: Hobbes, as his quip acknowledges, was a philosopher of fear, revivalist of the pessimistic motto that “man is a wolf to man” and author of a political theory motivated by escape from a natural life both unpleasant and brief. Hobbes, though, was an educator of fear, concerned above all to distinguish those unpleasant things that humans had reason to avoid from those terrors and panics that were only projections of human feeling onto the mutable canvas of the natural world. He and Montaigne shared the view that people were, mainly, victims of their own minds, of the persistent and predictable misfires of intelligence. Motivated to preserve ourselves and satisfy our own desires, struggling to understand, predict, and control the natural forces that bore down on us from all sides, and always alert to threats from one another, people created fantasy worlds, systems of authority and meaning, realms of good and evil, which had no basis in reality, and which they nonetheless tried, tragically, to inhabit. These mistakes were the great source of dissatisfaction and self-hatred in personal life – a great concern for Montaigne – and of sectarian violence in politics, which motivated both men’s thought.

Between Montaigne’s birth, in 1533, and Hobbes’s death, in 1679, the two saw much of the European wars of religion, the battles between Catholics and Protestants, and among Protestant sects, in which Europeans turned Western Christendom from a kind of coherent civilization into a slaughterhouse and, frequently, recast politics into a kind of demonology, trading bloody-minded speculation about who in power might be Beelzebub or the Whore of Babylon. These wars had the same force for thinking about social, political, and religious order as the World Wars and genocides of the twentieth century had for thought about peace and progress. Familiar certainties came to seem like dangerous complacency, and new ideas, or at least serious reconstruction, now seemed necessary. Both men felt the wars of their times personally. Montaigne served as a diplomat, apparently trusted by Catholic and Protestant alike, and once saw his house and family seat invaded in the chaos and opportunism of war. Horror at the savagery of religious violence was a compass-point of his writings, which are a kind of therapeutic search for the origin of this violence and a technique to drain its power. Hobbes went into exile in France with the court of the crypto-Catholic Charles II after Parliamentary forces, with the strong support of Protestant radicals, executed Charles I and established a republic. The royalists’ violent reaction to the secular tendencies of Leviathan, today his best-known work in the English-speaking world, sent him back to England in 1651, and for the rest of his long life he was actually or prospectively harried by a mixture of religious and political persecution. His joke about fear was bleakly self-ironic: circumstance pressed a frightened life on him.

Both thinkers took aim at the sources of gratuitous, avoidable fear, the ways that people became dangerous to themselves and one another. This meant, in a curious way, that both men were enemies of imagination, the mind’s inventive habit of ascribing meaning to nature’s patterns, and the creative capacity to rework experience into speculative myths or theological inquiry. Although such speculation was an utterly predictable, perhaps nearly unavoidable expression of human intelligence, if taken seriously it led always to trouble, and too often to violence.
Both Hobbes and Montaigne offered to renovate the human predicament by understanding it in a new way. Both cleared the ground for their work by comprehensively dismantling the conceits of human knowledge. Skeptical arguments, to the effect that people could know very little, and that most putative knowledge was delusion, were well established in elite humanist circles, and both thinkers put them to extensive use. Montaigne asked how people could claim to know the meaning of such terms as honor, or beauty, when history and modern cultural diversity showed the many inconsistent meanings those ideas had borne, or to know anything about the nature of the universe, when philosophers and theologians had rehearsed the same arguments for millennia without settling much of anything. Hobbes devastatingly defined religion as “fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed,” and superstition as the same fear, only “imagined from tales” that were publicly disapproved (L 42). Our religious theories, and theories of the universe, came first from “anxiety,” our restless questing in the dark to understand a daunting world, and, second, from our habit of speculating outward from what we could know to what we could not – a God behind the world, to whom we then assigned a hodge-podge of qualities (L 75-76). Montaigne judged that “we have strangely overpaid” for our “fine reason” (358). Our capacity for reflection made us “slaves of hope … for shadows and vain images that fancy dangles before them – which hasten and prolong their flight the more they are pursued,” and made us miserable, for “He who fears he will suffer, already suffers from his fear” (840). In their demolitions of epistemic conceit, Montaigne described experience as perched on the dung-heap where reason voided its waste, and Hobbes sketched the most unsentimental and pessimistic portrait ever of the natural human condition.

For all their attacks on the paradoxes of hubristic speculation, both were interested in applying reason to a most radical project: the divinization of human beings. Hobbes opened Leviathan by comparing the voluntary creation of a commonwealth, “an artificial man … of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defense it was intended,” with “that Fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.” The point was not lost on Hobbes’s bitter enemies, such as the naturalist and theologian John Ray, who argued that “whatever agent can introduce a form into indisposed matter … must be superior to any natural one, not to say omnipotent.” Montaigne ended his Essays with an approving quote from Plutarch, with which, he claimed, the Athenians had welcome Pompey into their city: “You are as much a god as you will own/That you are nothing but a man alone,” and with this gloss: “It is an absolute perfection, and virtually divine to know how to enjoy our being rightfully.” For Hobbes, because religious doctrines and ideas of legitimacy and justice had no basis in knowable fact, and so were unavoidably human creations, people had to create and consent to an arbiter of such disputes, the artificial man whose artificial principles brought order as surely as God’s principles ordered the natural world. Skepticism’s lessons in what we could not know – the mind of God, as it were, or the moral order of nature – showed us what we must instead deliberately construct, and so by taking responsibility for our ignorance, we could overcome and create a political order to preserve us from fearsome conflict over irresolvable disputes. Montaigne’s conclusions had a different flavor, for they really were about “how to live,” not how to approach government, but he, too, argued that a clear understanding of the human situation helped us organize our lives to reduce the unnecessary suffering we caused ourselves and one another. Divinization is a metaphor – perhaps a hubristic one – for a better understanding of human limits and powers: the gods that either formula helps us to be are only the least frightened, least self-deceived, and most aware humans that we can become.

To achieve this newly calibrated relation between the human and the divine, and to bridge the present human reality and the ideal human potential, both Montaigne and Hobbes believed it necessary to drain the natural world of a rich reserve of imagination that people had imparted to it. Theirs was in many respects what we would call a magical universe, one deeply imbued with meanings that bore, morally and practically, on human life. This idea found expression in philosophical and theological arguments that divine design was manifest in the creation, and that nature, properly interpreted, contained instructions for political and social life: for instance, the alleged hierarchy among species corresponded to the hierarchy among men, with kings divinely appointed to rule their realms as lions ruled the savannah and eagles the sky. More colloquially, subjects might ascribe a drought or crop failure to the misbehavior or infertility of a ruler, or expect to see discord at court reflected in unharmonious cosmic events, such as a comet’s disruption of the usual night sky. An entire folk culture of magic underlay and interacted with all of this: peasants and tradesmen planted and harvested by the phases of the moon, sought to avoid evil omens, suspected ill-favored neighbors of withcraft, and propitiated fairies and other not-quite-empirical beings. Two premises united these various strata of magical civilization. First, epistemically, there was a constant mutual intelligence between human beings and the natural world. Its events were significant for us: thunder might be a judgment from an angry God, the distribution of species a lesson for political order. Conversely, our feelings and actions could affect nature, not directly, as with the axe and plough, but because hatred could blight a planting or sick a cow. Second, aesthetically, nature’s patterns, apparent to the eye, meant something: what struck us as order or disorder, nobility (eagle) or baseness (toad) was a moral fact. All these phenomena were involved in a web of nerves, one might say, that connected human and non-human in a single, terrifically complex, and always meaningful logic.

Both thinkers laid into this worldview, Montaigne with characteristic skeptical irony, Hobbes with a logician’s vigor and the acid of a man who hated tyranny over the mind. Hobbes insisted on a sharp division, not a continuity, between the human mind and the rest of the world: empirical events affected the mind through sensory data, but we had to work with the mental impressions that data gave us, without direct knowledge of the world, and certainly without moral or aesthetic meaning. The world was matter in motion and nothing more, and it had its effect by bumping up against the mind, which must also be a material phenomenon, and which lent events an interpretation. Hobbes roundly mocked the Aristotelian idea that objects in the world communicated with the mind through “intelligible species,” signals establishing an apprehending link between the two, rather than by “fancy, cause … by the pressure, that is, by the motion, of external things on upon our eyes, ears, and other organs.” For Hobbes, witches, spirits, and fairies were archetypes of mere fancy, nonsensical images confected of stray sense-data and projected back onto the world, then animated by anxiety, speculation, and the vain attempt to control the world by understanding it. Attempts to anoint political authority with theology were nothing but exploitation of these fears, most notably in the abhorred Catholic Church. (Hobbes had his sympathies in the religious wars; so did Montaigne, who tended to identify fanaticism with Protestants.) In his little-read but essential fourth book of Leviathan, on “The Kingdom of Darkness,” Hobbes spends some pages detailing the parallels between the storied kingdom of the fairies and the earthly magisterium of the Roman Church. Both, for example, enchant young children and steal them from their parents, rob the cream of the land in offerings from frightened peasants, and – here is the point – are fundamentally the fictional projections of frightened minds, as they take their authority entirely from “fancy.” Priests exist, of course, and fairies do not, but neither would exercise any power over the unfrightened mind. In a world washed with clear light, fairies would prove to be swamp gas and illusions, priests exploitative or deluded men, and, in a sense, both would cease to exist. Rulers would still govern, but their legitimate power would rest on the rational consent of the ruled, not any claim to divine or magical support.

Montaigne’s longest essay, the “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” was a subtle, complex, and finally devastating engagement with the kind of natural theology that often justified political rule in the sixteenth century. Sebond was a Spaniard who sought to combat the threat of skepticism by arguing that God’s plan for moral and political order could be inferred from the order of nature. Montaigne, the skeptic, could hardly have been a less obvious candidate to vindicate Sebond’s project. Montaigne, though, was also a loyal son, and his father asked him to translate and [give an account of] Sebond’s arguments. That account, the “Apology,” gently lays waste to Sebond’s arguments while, in fine skeptical style, also demonstrating that human reason is so impotent that Sebond’s opponents have no stronger claim on the conscientious mind than their target has. As Montaigne left it, systematic reflection on the natural world could provide no instruction on how people should live or whom they should obey. Indeed, such presumptuous speculation was preposterous, the “natural and original malady” of a creature lacking even self-knowledge and self-control, which nonetheless “in his imagination … goes planting himself above the circle of the moon, and bringing the sky down beneath his feet. It is by the vanity of the same imagination that he … picks himself out and separates himself from the horde of other creatures, carves out their shares to his fellows and companions the animals, and distributes among them such portions of faculties and powers as he sees fit.” Natural theology was, for Montaigne as for Hobbes, a fruitless and ridiculous game of the imagination. This was the lesson of the skepticism that the two shared.
Montaigne, though, reserved a different place for relations to nature than Hobbes, who wanted simply to see nature’s claims neutralized so that relations among humans could proceed without interference from an anthropomorphic and myth-making imagination. To him, nature seemed part of the therapy that philosophy could offer to the presumptuous and speculative mind. Montaigne’s skepticism, like Hobbes’s, was ethical at the root, epistemic in the branch: where Hobbes attacked spurious claims to authority, Montaigne hated cruelty above all. He identified the roots of cruelty in blindness to the humanity of others. This was the vice, for instance, of Spanish conquerors in the Americas, who persuaded themselves that those they harmed were mere “barbarians,” unintelligible and not part of the same moral world as European Christians. In fact, Montaigne insisted, it was precisely the conquerors’ willful blindness to the morally intelligible experience and suffering of these fellow humans that was barbaric. Barbarian was a key term for Montaigne’s moral analysis because it originated in the ancient Greeks’ term for those whose language they could not understand, which they transliterated as it struck their ear – the rude and repetitive nonsense syllables bar, bar. The failure was, of course, the Greeks’ to realize that they had not understood, rather than the “barbarians”’ to make themselves understood in Greek. Thus the moral failing, the barbaric act, was to believe in barbarians at all, for that meant shutting others out of the scope of your moral sympathy and effort to understand, while pretending they were just beyond understanding.
Thus the phrasing was significant when Montaigne wrote, in his great final essay, Experience, “The most barbarous of our maladies is to despise our being.” Part of the source of cruelty lay in denying aspects of one’s own natural humanity, which produced, or at least encouraged, violence toward the same qualities in others. Those who “want to get out of themselves and escape from the man” are caught in “madness: instead of changing into angels, they change into beasts.” Some, he observed, were “disgusted” with bodily pleasures, but this was “savage stupidity.” Montaigne’s pairings of terms are revealing: those who reject the human, the sensual and emotional aspects of bodily being do not ascend to a higher plane: instead, they are thrown down to the lower rung of madness, savagery, and bestiality. The idea of disgust is important here: revulsion from part of one’s self, whether in one’s own person or shown back to one in a “barbarian,” can inspire a reaction of cruelty, a wish to rub it out, which ironically makes the would-be angel a savage beast.
It might seem that Montaigne praised embracing animal nature, and certainly he did urge affectionate cultivation of the bodily nature that we share, as the story goes, with beasts but not with angels. He insisted, though, in a formula taken from Lucretius, that “We are neither above nor below the rest” of the world’s creatures. To say that we are not above the rest is to say that we cannot have the purely rational or purely virtuous spirits of disembodied beings – nor even know what that would be, except through the paradoxically debasing rejection of what we are, since “man can[not] raise himself above himself and humanity; for he can see only with his own eyes, and seize only with his own grasp.” To say that we are not below the rest is to avoid an equal and opposite reaction, disgust at our rational nature, or, as Montaigne and Hobbes might put it, at our incorrigible imagination. Just as fantasies of angelic nature cannot show bodily creatures how to live, so there is no escaping the peculiar troubles and pleasures of self-conscious, speculative, language-using creatures by finding a model in the rest of nature. Imagination must be a source of pleasure alongside the body, wrote Montaigne, who described himself as “meditat[ing] on any satisfaction,” not letting his “senses pilfer it,” but “bring[ing] my soul into it … not to lose herself but to find herself.” The great use of consciousness was to bring it more fully and attentively into those things that were closest to one’s self, to fill in the moment with distinctly human awareness: “When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep; yes, and when I walk alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents … I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.”

The close connection between Montaigne’s great themes, cruelty and humanity’s place in the world, finds expression in his essay on “Cruelty.” There he reports that the religious wars have given him “incredible examples” of cruel conduct, “souls so monstrous that they would commit murder for the mere pleasure of it; hack and cut off other men’s limbs; sharpen their wits to invest unaccustomed torments and new forms of death.” He concludes that meditation, though, with a reflection on the relations between human and animals, arguing that there is a single thread of cruelty, linking cruel treatment of animals to that of other human beings. There was kinship, he argued, between our attitudes to animals and our attitudes to other persons, and in approaching animals, we should take a middle way. We should not, on the one hand, make gods of them. On the other hand, we should “resign that imaginary kingship that people give us over the other creatures.” Neither placing ourselves below an idealized nature nor elevating ourselves presumptuously over an abject creation, we should seek to show “a certain respect” and follow “a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants…. There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation.” If a part of the antidote to cruelty was not to despise our own being, that involved acknowledging our involvement with other living things, embracing that but not seeking to dissolve into it. It was just the kind of irony Montaigne wished his readers to own and live out that the claim of kinship with the animals came in that uniquely human production, a book of reflection upon one’s self. When he wrote, “To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books,” on p. 850 of the monumental Essays, he did not mean to imply that, as a man, he should have found a shorter or less articulate way to that conclusion. A humane approach to our place in nature, connected with a humane attitude to other people, could only arise by human means, including the same passions and imagination that so often led is to cruelty, self-deceit, and myth-making.

The Epicurean Background and the Reaction [Hobbes’s Centaur]

In describing how the mind assembles images of non-existent things, Hobbes gave the example of a centaur, an imaginary beast created by joining sense-impressions of men (from the waist up) and horses (backward from the base of the neck. The example comes from Epicurus, the Athenian philosopher who whom Hobbes agreed that the world is matter in motion, nothing more. Montaigne, whose first language was Latin, peppered his essays with Roman epigrams, many from Lucretius, to the effect that the world is ever-changing, and the mind forever caught in fear of imagined death and suffering, fear that obscures the present reality. Lucretius, a Roman of the first century C.E., wrote his didactic poem, On the Nature of Things, all that survives from him, as a restatement of Epicurus’ philosophy. It was long the major point of European access to Epicurus, whose work was not available in Latin until [ ]. Both could be dangerous allies. Church leaders accused them of subversive atheism, and St. Jerome concocted a slanderous biography in which Lucretius, driven mad by a love potion, composed his poem in rare episodes of lucidity. Hobbes’s enemies in seventeenth-century England habitually linked him with Epicurus and the two with atheism.
Epicurus and Lucretius, his Roman acolyte, were speculative physicists, theorists of the stuff and structure of the universe. The passion they excited among both admirers and enemies, though, lay in their real significance: as theorists and practitioners of human freedom. Their physics implied a purely material world with no room for either a soul that survived death or gods that concerned themselves with human affairs. This life was the only life, and all things in it, we included, were of the same material nature. Because people failed to see this, they were cruelly hounded by phantasms of their own creation, and lived in unnecessary fear. Thunder, a favorite example for Lucretius, seemed to the frightened mind to be the voice of an angry god, threatening to avenge some human sin. The days and nights of this short life were shadowed and haunted by fear of suffering in an afterlife that would never come. Lucretius used religio for the false beliefs he combated, translated as religion, but also having the specific Latin sense of that which ties down, or oppresses. Even the double sense of religio fits Hobbes, in particular, who described false and oppressive interpretation, in “The Kingdom of Darkness,” as a net that the mind from ideas, which had to be carefully and systematically untangled by philosophy.

Epicurus and Lucretius took aim at unnecessary self-oppression and sought ways that a clear view of nature, knowledge, and the mind could help self-emancipation. They believed that, once the mind had let loose of its tormenting phantasms and faced the world as it was, men could concentrate on the real satisfactions of finite life: for them these were friendship and reflection above all, but the general idea is that the goods of this life must be the highest human goods, for they are the only ones – the focus on present pleasures that remains associated with the term “Epicurean.” Understanding our situation accurately, we could live undividedly on what Lucretius called “these shores of light,” his word for the only life we have.

Hobbes and Montaigne took up these themes and drew from them a set of implications. First, much suffering, that of the unquiet mind but also the violence of religious and civil wars and imperial conquest, had roots in a confused relation to our place in the world: loyalty, even subservience, to vague or empty ideas that we invented in the first place, and contempt for our own finite, imperfect, and concrete existence. Second, although the roots of these self-imposed disabilities lay deep in our nature as thinking, language-using beings, we could overcome them to some degree, which meant there was vastly more scope for human freedom and satisfaction than the present moment showed. Although human powers could be self-ensnaring, they could also be self-freeing. The bases for pessimism and for radical optimism were laced together in the same human qualities. Third, untangling our mental bonds required an unillusioned view of the physical world, which meant driving out of it all intelligible essences, metaphysical purposes, divine prescription, omens, spirits, and immortal souls – the inheritance of metaphysics, religion, and popular magic. They labored to clear the vantage of the mind, which, without impingement from these meaning-laden forces, could reflect clearly on its own processes and stance to a disenchanted natural world.
Of course, there is a lot of difference between Hobbes and Montaigne. The Englishman was a systematic political philosopher with a theory of individual rights and sovereign legitimacy. The mayor of Bordeaux, who lived a lifetime earlier, was an episodic explorer of the texture of experience, who mistrusted all systems, quite unlike Hobbes, who sought to replace flawed systems with perfected alternatives. Montaigne’s work aimed at clarifying the self-understanding of individuals, Hobbes’s at recasting political authority to purge it of spurious claims based in the abused and frightened imagination. Their difference, though, highlights their deep commonality: both were participants in the rediscovery and renewal of a project of self-emancipation from self-imposed mental bonds.

In the seventeenth century and beginning of the eighteenth, a reaction against this project arose from several directions. Its loyalists consolidated an anti-Epicurean front that they also styled anti-atheist and anti-Hobbes. Some were philosophers, some natural scientists, and many took an intense interest in “natural theology,” what we today would call the argument of intelligent design. At least one, besides writing the typically titled Rational Discourse on the True Religion, was a man of letters, botanist, and student of English forestry. This was John Evelyn, best remembered for Sylva, a study of his island’s trees and their care and abuse, whose blend of practical science and vitalism led Thoreau to quote him in the famous passage of Walden describing the Concord hermit’s bean-field: “the earth, especially if fresh, has a certain magnetism in it, by which it attracts the salt, power, or virtue (call it ether) which gives it life, and is the logic of all the labor and stir we keep about it, to contain us.” The spirit of that passage, which attracted Thoreau, is typical of the intellectual mood that Evelyn shared with a movement in his time: a revival of the idea that nature contained forces and meanings, which humans interacted with and which bespoke divine design and contained lessons for our lives.

A distinct note of political and philosophical reaction animated this philosophical change. Although Hobbes wrote Leviathan as a supporter of the exiled Charles II and attacked the appeals that the King’s enemies made to divine authority, his “atheistical” doctrine came to be associated generally with hubristic disruption of settled order. The unifying commitment of his work was that humanity must escape its self-imposed immaturity and grow up into responsibility for its own choices and creations – whether systems of ideas or systems of political authority. Thus Hobbes’s atomism came to mean atheism, and atheism the disruption of all settled authority. When John Evelyn sat down to author A Rational Account of the True Religion, following the restoration of Charles II to the throne, he began his preface with a description of the age that made the book necessary: authority had collapsed. A king had been executed by process of law (“murdered” as Evelyn put it), bishops and priests denounced, and a proliferation of sects, each claiming a version of truth, displaced “the old Christian [religion], which taught men obedience to princes, reverence to antiquity, order and discipline in the Church.” In this time, “[f]undamental laws and establishments [were] subverted” and, with human judgment unleashed from authority, “’there was no king in Israel, but every one did what was right in his own eyes.’” The result had been a “rebellious and disobedient people” who behaved “maliciously and wantonly” in deposing their king and setting themselves up as rulers. These events, Evelyn suggested, at once made atheism more plausible and were themselves inspired by the doctrines of Hobbes and his philosophical fellow-travelers, such as Baruch Spinoza, who all aimed at “making religion a mere figment and … discarding all natural justice, goodness, and charity, and resolve it into brutish force.”

Evelyn claimed that these world-disrupting atheists had deified nature by making it (stripped of traditional divinity) the only source of moral guidance. They would have replied that they revealed the need for people to make their own free judgments, without super-human guidance. That Evelyn took their arguments as he did suggests that it was impossible for him seriously to imagine moral guidance apart from God. He therefore proposed a different sort of deification from what he thought the “atheists” had achieved: to show divine intelligence at every point in the natural order. We might not understand every aspect of providence, but

Though the pregnant clouds dissolve in the most seemingly unnecessary places, they may be the … originals of those rivers … which flow from those eminences to refresh the valleys, and give drink … both to man and beast. In a word, there is not silliest fly, or worm that crawls, not any grain of seed which falls, and becomes lost and scattered on the ground, but is for the food or help of some creature, at some time or other necessary for us; so as there is nothing made for nothing … but such ungrateful creatures, who blaspheme upon these accounts, and from their shallow reasonings.
The most abject, vile, and trivial things in nature are admirable, and those creatures which we reckon most defective, the most curious, and completely accommodated to their several functions. Indeed, some are noxious poisons, yet become antidotes; one fierce animal devours another, lest the wild beasts should increase upon us.

Evelyn’s account of the world’s complex and paradoxical design suggests that all things in nature are admirable, not straightforwardly, but because “the beauty of the world consists not in its separated parts, (which seem imperfect) but united, its order, economy, and concurrence to the end; which shows it to be the work of a wise and voluntary Agent.” “The world,” wrote Evelyn, “is a poem – the most perfect and consummate piece that ever was made.” To consider nature, then, was to be brought into communion with divine intelligence, which was manifest in the subtle weave of the world’s disparate and not always pleasing phenomena. It was in this light that Evelyn made himself a student of England’s forests, the uses of the trees, and the need to husband them properly, which he believed the Parliament and Protectorate had badly failed to do.

Simon Schama has observed that Evelyn saw the destruction of royal forests following the King’s execution and establishment of a republic as a symptom of anarchy, a world turned upside-down. Indeed, Evelyn’s lamenting the recent disorder seems to have been not mere rhetoric to gin up interest in his attack on atheism, but a candid report of his experience. His diaries, which span the years of civil war and restoration, are full of violent reactions to the killing of the king, the presumptuous rhetoric of the rebels, and, in particular, the loss of elite and traditional control over religious interpretation. He reported, in a telling entry from the early winter of 1653, “Going this day to our church, I was surprizd to see a mechanic step up. I was resolv’d yet to stay and see what he would make of it.” A commoner’s preaching in [a previously Anglican] service was already a kind of insurrection, typical of an egalitarian era when prophecies abounded. Worse was what followed: “His text was from 2 Sam. Ch. 23, v. 20: And Benaiah went downe also and slew a lion in the midst of a pit in time of snow. The purport was that no danger was to be thought when God call’d for shedding of blood, inferring that now they were called to destroy temporal governments … so dangerous a crisis were things grown to.” The same anarchic religious interpretation that brought calls for continued rebellion into Evelyn’s home church showed up in the ungoverned ranting of Quakers (“a new sect of dangerous principles who show no respect to any magistrate or other and seem a melancholy proud sort”), a general invasion of the churches by “sectaries of all sorts, blasphemous and ignorant mechanics usurping the pulpits,” Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell’s “riding in triumph thro the City,” on Ash Wednesday “in contradiction to all custom and decency,” and “how the women began to paint themselves, formerly a most ignominious thing and us’d only by prostitutes.” There was much order to be restored, much divine instruction for the order of nature to convey.

Evelyn’s keenly appreciative sketchings of nature, so different in tone from his denunciations of religious, political, and social unrest, were not just the pastoral musings of a disaffected conservative. He cited among his influences the philosopher Ralph Cudworth, and Cudworth, along with his Cambridge colleague and contemporary, Henry More, labored mightily to refute Hobbes’s revival of classical atheism and provide a new, or revived, picture of God’s role in nature, a picture that filled and comforted Evelyn’s mind and those of many more after him. Cudworth’s sweepingly titled True Intellectual System of the Universe suffered a Casaubon problem: like George Eliot’s ever-blocked scholar, whose projected Key to All Mythologies exhausted itself in a delta of notes, he wanted to account for everything – in his case, to show by exhaustive scholarship and argument both that true atheism was conceptually impossible and that the impossible ambition to be an atheist was very rare, at least before his own metaphysically besieged time. In the one volume he produced of an anticipated three, Cudworth devoted a tract’s worth of pages to a careful restatement of the positions of Hobbes, Epicurus, and Lucretius, ranged under the heading “atomic atheism.” If his characterization was sometimes polemical, it was also remarkable in a certain gift for sympathetic restatement. For instance,

[T]hey, who first introduced the belief of a Deity and religion … deserved very ill of all mankind, because they did thereby infinitely debase and depress men’s spirits under a servile fear… There can be no comfortable and happy living, without banishing from our mind the belief of these two things, of a Deity, and soul’s immortality…. It was therefore a noble and heroical exploit of Democritus and Epicurus … who, seeing the world thus oppressed under the grievous yoke of religion, the fear of a Deity, and punishment after death … did manfully encounter that affrightful spectre … of a providential deity; and by clear philosophical reasons, chase it away, and banish it quite out of the world….

Cudworth’s talent for sympathetic reconstruction spurred suspicion that he had pressed too far into atheist arguments and gone over to the other side. Besides his Casaubon problem, the disheartening effect of these rumors discouraged him from continuing his great work. The rumors also suggest the light in which contemporaries viewed the alleged atheism of Hobbes: as anathema, but also enormously seductive to anyone who breathed too deeply of it. Why else would the man who, as much as anyone, devoted his life to answering Hobbes have been suspected of secretly joining “the monster of Malmsbury”?

Cudworth’s lasting influence lies in the formula he developed to account for God’s place in nature – not a new idea in the world, but influential at a pivotal time, so that it became a widely shared sense for more than a century. This was the idea that nature’s “economy,” which John Evelyn so admiringly described, was moved from within by a living energy which expressed divine intelligence, what Cudworth called a “plastic force.” Cudworth’s own language suggested the aptness of Evelyn’s comparing the world to a poem, except that the poem’s author should not be imagined as inscribing it from outside. Instead, “Nature is art as it were incorporated and embodied in matter, which doth not act upon it from without mechanically, but from within vitally and magically.” Only this force gave Hobbes’s “matter in motion” its form or, for that matter, its motion. As Cudworth wrote, using the Greek, “if there be physis, then there must be nous: where the world follow a pattern, a mind must lie behind and infuse it.

Cudworth’s colleague, Henry More (whose thinking aligned so closely with the other man’s that Cudworth feared More’s proposed work would make his own superfluous), showed in his Platonick Song of the Soul how the resistance to political disorder and wish to elevate the human estate joined in this project. In this allegorical work, More described the political significance of a purely materialist view of humanity, which put the species on the same plain as other animals, with no admixture of spirit. In his imagined “Beirah,” city of beasts, there was “no truth of justice,” but only “false polity that into tyranny would quickly wend” if it were not restrained by “stern fear.” There, More wrote,

Democracy/Is not but a large hungry tyrant-train:/Oppression from the poor is an all-sweeping rain./A sweeping torrent that beats down the corn,/And wastes the oxen’s labor, head-long throws/The tallest trees up by the root torn,/Its raging force in all the land it shows…. Such is the out-rage of Democracy,/When fearless it doth rule in Beirah.

Democracy was, for More, the political principle of brute appetite, coupled with the animal equality of creatures whose relations were not shaped by divine principle. His reference to “stern fear” as the only principle of order for such creatures seems to be a swipe at Hobbes, and does he implication that the State of Nature persists in Beirah: “There’s no society in Beirah/But beastlike grazing in one pasture ground./No love but of the animated clay…” – that is, love only for one another as the animate matter we are (and all we are) in the materialist view. After the violence, experiments, and radical doubts of the English Civil War, political order seemed to need firmer shape than this – ideally, a frame made in a divinely informed human nature, not the free choices of a humanity freed from divine oversight, such as Epicurus and his revivalists might have produced.

These thinkers had some impulse to restore every haunted and enchanted place that their atheist opponents would have cleansed. John Evelyn reversed the Epicurean formula, claiming in a kind of philosophical taunt that even atheists must sometimes fear thunder. Henry More, to the embarrassment of some of his admirers, wrote on the reality of witches and ghosts, which he sometimes seemed to see as standing or falling with the immortal soul. The main direction, though, was the one Cudworth laid out, and which Evelyn already followed in his theological writing. As we have already seen, this was to see divinity in the whole design of nature, particularly its service to human well-being, and in the vital, or “plastic” principle that gave the spark of life to matter.

John Ray, a founding English naturalist and fellow of the Royal Society, exemplified this approach. Ray was at Cambridge with More and Cudworth, and he cited the latter as having refuted Epicurus’ atheism. His approach to nature, though, was more experimental and empirical, a systematic version of the rambling, cataloguing research that John Evelyn conducted. He worked on scientific taxonomy, particularly that of plants, and studied the motion of sap within trees. He was a founder of the tradition of lay naturalists that carried forward to Charles Darwin, and he had in common with Darwin and many others between them an intense curiosity about humanity’s place within nature, and the meaning of that place.

For Ray, the workings of nature were a grand apologia, proof of God’s existence and justification of his ways to man. Divinity suffused nature through the “subordinate ministry” of the “plastic principle,” the vital force that gave matter its order and motion, carrying out God’s design. The cycle of water, the distribution of minerals in the earth, the blend of hills and plains in the world’s landscapes, and the shape of the human body all bespoke God’s design for human convenience: to know nature was to appreciate our place within it, its solicitude for us, and to be weaned away from the atheistic conceits of Epicurus and Hobbes.

The lesson was one of appreciation, but not complacency. As Locke has urged that God intended the world for the useful and rational, Ray discerned an activist agenda for humanity. The presence of metal ores in the earth showed that we were meant to transform nature with technology and work. Otherwise, Ray wrote (again in line with Locke), we would be left to a “barbarous and sordid life [of which] the Indians in the Northern part of America are a clear demonstration.” Gold and silver, so physically convenient for coin-making, were evidence that God intended us to use money, so that the rewards of wealth would inspire us to life ourselves above “brutal Nature” and “rend[er] all and every one mutually useful and serviceable.” So it was only by labor and innovation that human beings achieved what the rest of the Creation enjoyed naturally: “mutual subserviency to each other, and unanimous conspiring to promote and carry on the public good.” Other living things, even those as humble and, in some cases, superficially pernicious as insects, carried out a twofold role just by being. On the one hand, they fulfilled a place in divine design. On the other hand, their existence enabled them “to partake themselves of his overflowing goodness, and to enjoy their own beings.”

For humans, by contrast, their “brutal Nature” was a threat to joining properly in divine design. They participated in the Creation by transforming it. This transformation was a kind of perfection, an improvement marked by its contrast with the “barbarous and sordid” lives of those peoples who had not overcome “brutal Nature.” But this mastery over nature, even the antagonistic relation in which “brutal Nature” posed a constant threat, was not the negation of nature that Locke ironically called the key to perfect freedom. Nature taught “mutual subserviency” and ultimate subservience to God. It dealt harshly with rebels, as Ray pointedly observed in his justification of noxious insects: they were God’s shock troops, like those of a ruler, pernicious in themselves but “necessary, either to suppress rebellions, or punish rebels, or other disorderly and vicious persons, and keep the world in quiet.” Those who deserved and should expect the greatest punishment, now or in the afterlife, were those

rebels … who have made it their business to banish Him out of the world, who is the great creator and governor of it; to undermine his being, and eradicate all notions of him out of their own and other men’s minds; to provoke his creatures and vassals to a contempt of him, a flighting of his fear and worship, as being such imaginary chimeras as are fit only to keep fools in awe. Certainly all this is the highest provocation that any man can be capable of, so it shall be punished with the surest vengeance.

The great and terrible rebels, therefore, were those who misused their distinctively human powers of voice, reason, and technical mastery, not to complete creation by participating lawfully within it, but to clear the world of God and, implicitly, assume his place as lawgiver and meaning-maker. These were the “atheists” that Ray wrote against, and whose arguments be believed nature itself refuted, if only we saw nature in the light of right reason. The trick, though, was to avoid, simultaneously, symmetrical dangers: falling into “brutal Nature,” the instinct that honored God in animals but was sin and debasement in humans; or rising hubristically above it on the wings of reason, as the rebel atheists had done.

With Ray, we have come to a world resembling that of Tocqueville’s Lockean settlers. Nature is at once a hostile force and a harmonious design that is theirs to complete. Nature’s God – a term that would appear in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence – was a subtle gardener, a craftsman who put natural forces and, above all, living things into a complex relation of interdependence. The human role in this order was also a gardener’s: to put the creation on a path of improvement. Although each thing was perfect in itself, it was naturally imperfect, even threatening, in relation to human needs. Meeting those needs was a part of the divine design, but a part that would not be consummated without intelligent human labor – the special quality of the industrious and rational. So, to be in harmony with the design revealed by creation, humans must struggle against it, in external nature and in themselves. Their reward would be a higher fruitfulness than unaided nature could have yielded – materially and spiritually alike. The cost would be a kind of constant warfare to maintain both material and spiritual mastery – and, at the same time, to deny the purer form of mastery that Epicurean atheism promised. Nature was a Restorationist commonwealth, harmonious on the surface, but subtly exacting in the sacrifices it demanded, both in labor expended and in ambition forgone.