Western cultural attitudes

Introduction Click here
Development of Western cultural attitudes towards landscape Click here
Classical influence Click here
Teleological influence Click here
Nature lovers Click here
Post-Darwin period Click here
Summary and conclusions Click here
References Click here


In this theme, the influence of culture upon the perception of landscape quality is examined. It moves beyond the individual’s perception of landscape to that of culture. Culture is the glue that cements an individual into a society. A given culture’s norms in turn help to shape individual attitudes, beliefs and preferences. This is not the place to examine in depth the influence of culture on the individual, rather it is accepted as axiomatic that individual aesthetic preferences are influenced by the culture in which they live. In this theme, the focus is mainly on Western culture. The Aesthetics of Traditional Societies theme examines several non-Western cultures view of landscape.

In order to provide structure to the vast subject of the influence of culture, a thematic approach is adopted. It commences by examining the two dominant influences on Western culture’s attitude to landscape, classicism and teleology. While the unifying thread is the influence of culture on landscape perception, in complementary themes, this is examined in three specific areas:

1. the dramatic reversal of attitudes towards mountains that commenced in the late seventeenth century
2.  the portrayal of landscape in art
3.  the development of designed gardens which can represent idealized landscapes

Western culture comprises those nations in Europe, North America, Australasia and certain other countries which broadly reflect common cultural traits – the rule of law and equality under the law, democratic government institutions, the freedom of the individual, capitalist economies, advanced use and development of technology, widely available educational, health and social services, as well as a shared heritage of the Judeo-Christian religions, art, music, literature, and other pursuits. Most of these ideas and institutions derived from Europe.

While this assessment perhaps ignores the influence of the United States on democratic processes and the influence of both the United States and Japan on economic structures, nevertheless in the broad sense, Europe provided the seedbed of ideas and pressures which gave rise to many of the characteristics of Western culture, in particular, the development of its philosophy, laws, governments and institutions, mathematics, sciences, the arts, and technologies.

While Western culture may be thought of as a dominant paradigm in the world today, past centuries have seen the dominance of other cultures including the Chinese, Arabian, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Roman. Today’s Western culture represents a merging of key characteristics among a number of countries that share a common heritage.

With foundations in ancient Greece and Rome, Europe fused the diverse cultures of the Mediterranean, central and northern European countries. The concept of beauty, later embraced by the broader term of aesthetics, has been of interest to Western culture since the time of the ancient Greeks. In the following sections, the development of this concept is explored through a cultural perspective.


The Western approach to the aesthetic qualities of landscape has been fashioned by various strands of influence. Classical Hellenistic and Roman influences re-emerged again during the Renaissance and later periods. And from Christian theology developed the teleological view or natural theology of nature and landscape that together with the classical influence, dominated until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Teleology is the search for final causes in relation to design or purpose in nature.

The eighteenth century saw immense speculation about aesthetics in Europe, resulting in major changes resulting in cultural attitudes to aesthetic objects. The nineteenth century was the great age of aesthetic theory, when German philosophy dominated on the Continent and in England. Darwinian evolutionary theory created a new perspective of nature and landscape, undermining the teleological influence and greatly expanding the search for understanding physical phenomena in every field of science. And finally, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen these many strands combine in a synthesis of influences, added to by new strands including the appreciation of wilderness and of the environment in a non-utilitarian sense.

Addressing cultural attitudes from an early twenty-first century perspective in a post-Darwinian era, it is difficult to comprehend the total revolution that has occurred over the past 150 years, from that which previously dominated. In terms of landscape, prior to Darwin, the two great strands were:

  • Classical ideals of design, reflected in part by the idea of a past Golden Age of antiquity which man sought to recreate in his country gardens and parks and which were reflected in negative attitudes to mountainous scenery;
  • In the Christian era, the powerful influence of the teleological view of nature and landscape.

During contemporary times, these strands have tended to be demoted to the level of myths, explained away as symbolic analogies or treated simply as fairy-tales (Hunter, 1985) yet until the end of the nineteenth century, they largely shaped Western cultural image of nature and landscape.

Contemporary attitudes towards landscapes are no longer informed by a classical or teleological view. On the one hand, this releases a freedom from the fetters that these created but, on the other hand, their absence has created a vacuum of an underlying value system on which the aesthetics of landscapes could be based.


Arcadia – the Golden Age

The Golden Age refers to a legendary time prior to the world of classical Greece and Rome, which was inhabited by people and by creatures which were half human and half animal who lived happily off the fruits of a bountiful earth in a pre-agricultural existence. Life was simple with no human effort required to gain food, a period of happy shepherding and innate soil fertility (Glacken, 1967). People of the Golden Age possessed physical and moral superiority, and the soil fertility was so great that agriculture was unnecessary. The myth of the Golden Age was a period in which man lived on the fruits of the earth, peacefully, piously and with primitive simplicity (Clark, 1976).

The Greek poet Hesiod in the eighth century BC defined five stages in man’s history starting with the Golden Age followed by the silver and bronze ages, then an age of demigods, and finally the then-current iron age. The idea that initial perfection had been replaced by hardship and human degeneration contributed to the veneration of the Golden Age. Hesiod’s poem described the era thus:

“for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.” (Hesiod, Works and Days)

free-ebooks.gr Athens National Museum                       Hesiod

Hesiod’s theme was perpetuated by later writers, including Seneca, Ovid, Varro and Virgil. For Ovid, the Golden Age was a period before man had changed the environment:

“The earth herself, without compulsion, untouched by hoe or plowshare, of herself gave all things needful… Anon, the earth untilled, brought forth her stores of grain, and the fields, though unfallowed, grew white with the heavy, bearded wheat. Streams of milk and streams of sweet nectar flowed, and yellow honey was distilled from the verdant oak” (Ovid, Metamorphoses).

The Greeks esteemed beauty, they valued the beauty of youth, of beauty in a person or a god, as beauty was a sign of perfection (Lister, 1973).

Arcadia, located in the central Peloponnese in southern Greece, is a wild and mountainous region that, according to legend was peopled by nymphs and satyrs, shepherds and herdsmen, living and loving in a life of innocent simplicity (Hunter, 1985). Contrary to contemporary usage in which Arcadia conveys an idealized rural environment – the Shorter Oxford defines it as the ideal region of rural felicity; ideally rural or rustic – the real Arcadia was a difficult area from which to wrest a living. With mountains rising above 2000 meters, the climate was cool and because of the hardness of life, music was introduced out of necessity to tame and soften the hardness of the soul through education (Polybius, quoted by Glacken, 1967). Pan, the patron saint of pastoral poets and the god of idealized wild nature, had his abode in Arcadia.

WikimediaCommons The image of Arcadia: Thomas Cole, 1836. The Course of Empire, The Arcadian or Pastoral State
hikenow.net The reality of Arcadia in central Peloponnese

The Grecian Golden Age and Arcadia have parallels in the Judeo-Christian doctrine of paradise and also relate closely to the creation of gardens and parks. During the first Christian millennium, theologians reconciled the Christian Eden with the Arcadian Golden Age (Shepard, 1967). The Garden of Eden, from which God banished Adam and Eve, can be seen also as a picture of a former Golden Age:

“Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river watering the garden flowed from Eden, and from there it divided; it had four streams.” (Genesis, 2: 8 – 10).

WikimediaCommons Thomas Cole, The Garden of Eden, 1828

The term paradise, which became synonymous with the Garden of Eden, derives from the Persian word pairidaeza that means an enclosed park. Similarly, the word Eden derives from the Babylonian edina, meaning a field or park. The Judeo-Christian account of the early origins of humans closely parallels that of the Grecian Golden Age. Both are centered in garden-like environments and involve people in mostly play and little work, both are harmonious places in which people can feel completely at home, and both are places to which, in subsequent ages, people have longed to return.

In the Biblical account, Adam was commanded by God to till and keep the Garden of Eden but as with life in the Golden Age, this does not appear to have been an onerous task. However, following his disobedience to God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God cast Adam and Eve from the garden with these words:

“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground,
Since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3: 17 – 19).

Thus while the Golden Age was followed by progressive degeneration to lesser levels of contentment, Eden was followed by immediate banishment to a harsh world from which one had to seek a living by the “sweat of the brow”. The contrast in landscapes, from bountiful beauty and ease to an ugly landscape requiring hard work, could not be more marked.

Describing the site that would later be Rome, Virgil pictured it in terms of the Golden Age:

“These woods were once the home of indigenous fauns and nymphs, and of men who have sprung from hardwood oaks, who had no settled way of life, no civilisation; ploughing, the forming of communal reserves, and economy were unknown – they lived on the produce of trees and the hard-won fare of the hunter.” (Virgil, The Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid)

The fertility of the soil was considered greatest when it was least interfered with by man; with interference through plowing and cropping came the loss of soil and loss of fertility thus requiring greater exertion and effort to gain a living. The necessity of hard work and a longing for the ease of the idealized Golden Age continues its influence to the present day.

In time, certainly by the Renaissance, Arcadia and the Golden Age had fused into a single concept of a peaceful pastoral setting with large trees, contented livestock and demigods playing in the glades. The creation of the English country estates in the seventeenth and eighteenth century modeled much of their imagery on Arcadia.


From the Renaissance through to the end of the nineteenth century, the classical influence exerted a very significant effect upon Western culture, including its attitudes to landscape. The classical influence derived both from the image of the former Golden Age, the Arcadia of antiquity, and also from the ancient writers and poets. The classical influence is also termed classicism.

Classicism derived its inspiration from the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. The word “classicism” derived from classici, which was the name given in Rome to citizens of the first rank.

The attributes of classicism cover:

“An aesthetic tendency characterized by a sense of proportion, by a balanced and stable composition, by a search for formal harmony and by understatement; imitation of ancient writers; aversion to the exceptional; well-nigh exclusive interest in psychological and moral analysis; control of sensitivity and imagination …” (Secretan, 1973)

Classicism is characterized by “serene beauty, taste, restraint, order and clarity” a concern with the ideal in form and content, a clarity of subject matter and style, simplicity and understatement (Greenhalgh, 1978). Horace pronounced the famous aphorism ut pictura poesis, “as is painting, so is poetry,” thereby linking the two disciplines and justifying art. The close links between poetry and painting were apparent in England from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.

Claude_Lorrain Landscape_with_Dancing_Figures Comp
WikimediaCommons A classical scene: Claude Lorraine, Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, 1648

Goodness, Truth and Beauty, the ancient triad, were invisible ideals that influenced humankind. In its temples, statues and poetry, ancient Greece was regarded as the pinnacle of perfection, of perfect proportion and balance and of goodness, truth and beauty. These qualities of ideal beauty, perfect equilibrium and harmony infused classicism into Western cultural attitudes towards landscapes.

The Roman Emperor Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD) came to epitomize the classical ideal. His name applied to the Augustan Age and the Augustan Idea meaning the ideal of classicism from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. His Emperorship was characterized by relative peace, order, security, and a republican form of government with Augustus as Emperor but refusing the dictatorship (Erskine-Hill, 1983). Though certainly not without his faults, Augustus ended the civil wars and strengthened the power of Rome. An early historian described him as: the man the world needed, and may claim to have been one of the greatest servants of the human race (Erskine-Hill, 1983).

Museo Capitolino of Rome  Bust of Emperor Augustus

Being the Emperor who ordered the census at the time of Christ’s birth permanently linked Augustus to Christian literature including the patristic writers of the early church, Dante in the fourteenth century and in Christian plays such as the Chester Cycle. During the period of the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, various English monarchs were likened to Augustus. The comparison stemmed from the passionate desire to see, within the framework of a Christian monarchy, a better life and a higher level of civilization in Britain. The refusal by Thomas Cromwell in the seventeenth century to accept the crown also led to him being compared with Augustus.

Platonism, the key philosophy that permeated through to the modern world, delighted in the variety and beauty of the visible and temporal world but yearned for the invisible and eternal world beyond. The influence of Platonism ceased following closure of the Athenian schools in 529 AD by the Emperor Justinian until its rediscovery in the Renaissance in the fifteenth century. The Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages as they were called during the Renaissance, saw Europe permeated by the influence of the antique (Greenhalgh, 1978). Classicism was relevant to both the secular and Church powers. The monasteries founded in Italy and Switzerland in the seventh century became centers of classical learning and repositories of Latin manuscripts.

The Renaissance saw a rediscovery of the classical origins of European culture, a searching for the ancient texts and their translation and preparation of commentaries. In Florence, the Platonic Academy was established whose members regarded themselves as the modern form of Plato’s Academy. By the later fifteenth century, the Academy had made Plato’s personality a cult object. Marsilio Ficino played a leading role in translating Plato’s works and by the time he died in 1499, most of the important literary works of antiquity had been made available to Italy and Europe in Latin translations. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the classicism that had been birthed in the Renaissance in Italy had spread across Europe in the form of neo-classicism (i.e. new or revived classicism). This took with it an educational system based on Latin and Greek, together with the common cultural heritage of ancient history, mythology and wisdom (Secretan, 1973).

I. Sailko Villa de Careggi, The Florentine Platonic Academy

Classicism peaked in France between 1660 and 1680. In Germany, classicism emerged in the second half of the seventeenth century as a reaction against the Baroque and drew its inspiration more from Greece, resulting in a tempering of Germany’s harder self by the luminous humanity of Hellas. (Secretan, 1973). From about 1690, the name Augustan Age, the period of classicism, was applied to English culture. Throughout the period from 1690 to the early 1800s, the term “Augustan,” a synonym for classicism, was used positively (Erskine-Hill, 1983).

The imperative, Follow Nature, was one of the “battle cries” of classicism and the imitation of nature was one of its hallmarks, imitation in the sense of typifying or drawing characters based on nature.

John Dryden
enotes.com        John Dryden

Classical writers such as John Dryden had a preference for order, a love of the ancients, a large stock of mythological and pagan relics, rationality and much elegance. Other classical writers including the poet, Alexander Pope, the supreme Augustan classic and Samuel Johnson, another Augustan who wrote about the role of fantasy, the function of repression, the desire to forget, the wish to avoid reality predated Freudian psychoanalytical concepts by several centuries. Important to the classical mode were reason, judgement and wit, the idea that nature, truth and beauty were irrevocably linked, and a connection between good taste and good morals.

The far-reaching influence of a classical education in seventeenth – eighteenth century England was apparent in the comment by a clergyman, Reverend Richard Warner (1801), viewing blazing iron-works on the banks of the River Wye: We saw Virgil’s description realized, and the interior of Etna, the forges of the Cyclops, and their fearful employment, immediately occurred to us.

Science Museum Blazing iron works: Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, Coalbrookdale ironworks, 1801

Until the end of the eighteenth century, England’s focus was on Rome, but with more translations of the Greek classics and growing interest in Greek philosophy and architecture, the focus of classicism shifted sharply from Rome to Greece. This has been described as a romantic, even Byronic gesture (Crook, in Clarke, 1989). The eighteenth century has been described as the Homer’s century (Turner, in Clarke, 1989) and Hellenism had a profound influence during the nineteenth century Victorian era. Greek religion, mythology and philosophy were widely studied.

“Public schools” existed in England for many centuries and the classics – Greek and Latin, dominated their syllabus. Public education is of more recent origin, having commenced in England in the mid-nineteenth century. To the modern mind, the emphasis given to the classics at schools seems incredible. Not only were students required to learn Greek and Latin but also to study the classical literature in their original language. During the nineteenth century, classicism spread to the wider middle classes, empowered by the industrial revolution to gain an education.

While mathematics and science were of growing importance, a wide-ranging report on education in 1875 found that out of a 35-hour teaching week, 6 hours each were given over to science and mathematics and the remaining 23 hours devoted to Greek and Latin! (Bowen, in Clarke, 1989). To join the Indian Civil Service, a knowledge of Greek and Latin was worth twice as many points in the competitive examination as French, German or the local Sanskrit.

By the end of the nineteenth century, forces in society were moving education away from classicism. Education was based more fully on the three “R’s” (i.e. ‘riting, reading, ‘rithmetic), whilst commerce and industrialization resulted in changed priorities in which the classics had little relevance, and modern foreign languages assumed greater importance than Greek and Latin (Kandel, 1967). The expanding British Empire made society more aware of other cultures. The First World War saw romanticism and classicism die on the battlefields of Flanders (Bowen, in Clarke, 1989) although the Third Reich brewed up a crazy mixture of classicism and German folk-art (Greenhalgh, 1978).

Nevertheless, traces of classicism live on. For example, in the far off Antipodes, Deborah Edwards traced its influence in the work of Australian artists such as Lionel Lindsay, Norman Lindsay, Rupert Bunny, and Mervyn Napier Waller (1893-1972), whose painting The Pastoral Pursuits of Australia in the Art Gallery of South Australia is strongly classical, complete with Corinthian columns! The classical influence continues to be strong in architecture (e.g. the National Library of Australia in Canberra) and recent years have seen strong classical lines in modern buildings (e.g. see Stern, 1988).

Mervyn Napier Waller, 1927. The Pastoral Pursuits of Australia
pinterest.com   Mervyn Napier Waller, 1927. The Pastoral Pursuits of Australia  A strong classical influence is evident


Clarence Glacken 1909-1989
Clarence Glacken, 1909-89

The second great theme that influenced Western attitudes to nature in general and landscape in particular was its Judeo-Christian roots, especially the concept of creation being designed by God, being an expression of God and a proof of His existence. The Genesis account of creation underlay the teleological view of nature and landscape.

Teleology is the doctrine of final causes, particularly as related to the evidence for design or purpose in nature and is used interchangeably with the terms ‘natural theology’ and ‘physico-theology’, these latter terms are theologies founded upon the facts of nature and the evidence of design found therein. The unity and harmony that are apparent in the world led inexorably to the idea of a purposefulness of creation. Final causes: having regard to end or purpose. (Shorter Oxford).

The author is particularly indebted in this section to Clarence Glacken’s monumental study Traces on the Rhodian Shore – Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century (1967). Among its themes, Glacken examined the idea of the earth as a purposefully made creation.

Grecian Gods and Nature

Cultures other than Judaic and Christian have viewed nature not only as created by gods, but inhabited by them as well. The Judeo-Christian view was strict on this point; God created the heavens and earth, but God was not in it; the Creator but not the creation is to be worshiped. In contrast, many other cultures worshiped nature, which is known as pantheism in which the creator and the creation are indistinguishable.

While many cultures could be examined in this regard, the Greeks are particularly relevant given their importance to Western culture and that the Greek’s pagan beliefs gave way to Christianity. Xenophon (427 – 355 BC) in his Memorabilia advocated the existence of a god based on the proof of physiology, the cosmic order and of the earth as a fit environment, saying to Socrates (469 – 399 BC):

“… you will realize the truth of what I say if, instead of waiting for the gods to appear to you in bodily presence, you are content to praise and worship them because you see their works” (Xenophon, Memorabilia, 4.3.15).

Plato’s (427 – 347 BC) concept of the artisan deity accorded closely with the Greek’s admiration for artisans of metal and gems and their ability to produce something of beauty and utility from raw materials. Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) believed that, just as artisans have an end purpose in mind for their work, so a final cause, or the Good, is more fully present in the works of Nature than in the works of Art. Applying this to animals, Aristotle advocated the study of all animals because:

“in not one of them is Nature or Beauty lacking. I add “Beauty”, because in the works of Nature purpose and not accident is predominant; and the purpose or end for the sake of which those works have been contracted or formed has its place among what is beautiful” (Glacken, 1967).

Aristotle, along with many other thinkers since, did not define the purpose of nature, arguing that it is not a conscious agent; it is the vital force present in all living things. The purpose is thus an unconscious one in nature, but Aristotle was content with this. Later, Christian thinkers were to see God as supplying the purpose and design lacking in Aristotle’s argument.

Stoic writers saw the beauty of the earth around them and believed that it could not have been created for animals and plants alone but rather for man who partakes of the divine and the gods themselves (Glacken, 1967).  Panaetius (born 185 BC) built on the Stoic belief that a creative primeval force is responsible for the world’s beauty and purposefulness. He saw in the Greek landscape;with its alternation of land and sea, its innumerable islands, its contrasts between the lovely shores and the steep mountains and the rough cliffs, and the variety of plant and animal life existing in this landscape, joy in the beauty of the earth, a parallel to the splendour of the cosmos, a perfection which derived from the work of a purposefully creative nature.

The Lucretian-Epicurean view was less flattering; given the wickedness and stupidity of man and the imperfections apparent in the world, how is it possible to conceive that the earth was made for man? Without the notion of a benevolent Mother Nature, they believed that man established his place in the world through dint of effort and by imitating natural processes – Men by their struggles add to what is already provided by nature.

Clearly to the Greeks, nature was god-designed to provide man with a suitable environment; there was both wonderment at the beauties of nature and a utilitarian purpose contained within it.

Cicero did not believe that “this most beautiful and adorn’d World” could have been produced simply by the fortuitous arrangement of atoms (Nicolson, 1959).

Biblical Basis of Judeo-Christian View

The Biblical basis for the Judeo-Christian view is found in the following passages (The Holy Bible New International Version, Biblica Inc, 2011, is used for scriptural references)

Genesis 1:26-29

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, over the livestock, over all the earth,and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created man in his own image…

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food”.

Psalm 8: 6-7

You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet.

All flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the sea.

Psalm 19:1

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Psalm 65: 11-13

You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance.

The grasslands of the wilderness overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness.

The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing.

Psalm 104: 24

How many are your works, Lord!  In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

Romans 1: 20

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without any excuse. 

The Western attitude to nature and landscape can be directly attributed in a large measure to these and related passages. They establish:

    • The design of creation by God: particularly the Genesis account – Psalm 104:24 and Romans 1:20;
    • Creation as God’s handiwork – the artisan deity concept – Psalm 19:1;
    • The discovery of wisdom in God’s creation (Psalm 104:24) provided a bridge between faith and science, in this way, one obtains knowledge of nature and a deeper understanding of the works of God (Glacken, 1967);
  • Creation as an expression of God – his “invisible qualities” – Romans 1:20;
  • God’s bounteous provision for man and the beauties of creation – Psalm 65:11-13. The Psalms particularly dwell on the beauty of creation;
  • The rulership of man over creation – the Genesis account and Psalm 8:6. Glacken refers to man’s power as vice-regent of God on earth. Man did not earn his rulership; it was thrust upon him.
  • God the creator is to be worshiped, not the creation – Romans 1:20. There are many such Biblical injunctions that marked a contrast to the pagan religions.

The brevity of the Genesis account of creation, together with the references to nature in the Psalms and elsewhere, led to the development of the hexameral literature; i.e. that concerned with the six days of creation. This started with the early Church Fathers, Philo, St Basil and St Ambrose, was magnificently expressed in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and was a major focus of the physico-theology writers of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries as they sought to explain the characteristics of nature and to understand God through linking biology, geology and geography with the Biblical account of creation. Glacken refers to this literature as a vast curiosity and irrelevancy and there is much in it that is spurious and pseudo-science.

The influence of the Biblical account on Western culture has been summarized thus:

“The Judeo-Christian conceptions of God and of the order of nature were often combined by the early Church Fathers with both the classical argument of design and the idea of an artisan-deity or demiurge, creating a conception of the habitable world of such force, persuasiveness, and resiliency that it could endure as an acceptable interpretation of life, nature, and the earth to the vast majority of peoples in the Western world until the sixth decade of the nineteenth century” (Glacken, 1967).

Darwin’s The Origin of Species, which was published in 1859 marked the demise of the teleological influence.

Majorie Hope Nicolson puts this era into perspective:

“is difficult today, in an age when social, economic, and international problems are paramount, to think ourselves back to a time when these were of far less importance than theological issues. We are so much more intent upon what man has made of man than upon what God originally made of him, so much more concerned with what man may make of Nature than with the Nature originally created by God, that once-burning issues seem trivial (Nicolson, 1959).

Patristic Period to End of Middle Ages

The Patristic Period (literally the Church Fathers) from the first to the sixth centuries through to the end of the Middle Ages in about 1500 was the formative period for Western culture. This was a period of major cathedral building over a 300-year span, of powerful monasteries, of clearing the forests for farming and, with relevance to landscape, of a growing appreciation of and love for the beauties of nature and landscape. It was a period of substantial environmental change, resulting in wide-scale forest clearance, land drainage and the development of cultivation and farming across areas of Europe. It saw north-western Europe grow in population and power, balancing that of the Mediterranean.

During the Patristic period, the physico-theological arguments of the Greeks and Romans were adopted and absorbed by Christian theology. They wrote of God as an artisan deity who not only made things according to his plan but who, unlike a human artisan, created the materials as well, and, as St Augustine noted, “working invisibly, effects visible results.” (Augustine, City of God and Christian Doctrine).

The Patristic period through to the end of the Middle Ages put into effect the Biblical injunction and mandate to fill the earth and subdue it.

St Basil of Caesarea
oca.org   St Basil of Caesarea

While God created the materials, humans fash-ioned them to their purposes – a tree to provide shade and shelter, timber for a house and its furniture, wood for a fire, and limbs for bows and other weaponry. The earth is more beautiful than it was at creation: it is a nature, improved by the art of man with divine approval and intention (Glacken, 1967). St Basil of Caesarea (331 – 379) compared the unfinished with the finished earth:

“for the proper and natural adornment of the earth is its completion: corn waving in the valleys – meadows green with grass and rich with many coloured flowers – fertile glades and hilltops shaded by forests” (St Basil of Caesarea, The Six Days of Creation).

Basil saw the landscapes of his own day … (as) adornments and completions, like God’s furnishings.

Wikipedia               Ambrose of Milan

Ambrose (340 – 397) drew heavily on Basil’s work and also classical writings, particularly Virgil. On natural beauty, he wrote that just as embroidery follows the weaving, God created first and adorned later. God was responsible for both. In 384 AD, Ambrose wrote that the world was much more beautiful now than when it was created:

“Formerly, the earth did not know how to be worked for her fruits. Later when the careful farmer began to rule the fields and to clothe the shapeless soil with vines, she put away her wild dispositions, being softened by domestic cultivation” (Ambrose, Letter 18).

Augustine (354 – 430) contributed an immense wealth of ideas and originality of thought. His basic approach was summarized by Glacken thus:

“The earth and earthly things are to be spurned when we compare them with the greater glories of the City of God, but neither are life on earth and the beauties of nature to be despised because they are on a lower order in the scale of being or because they represent an order inferior to the Divine Order. The earth, life on earth, the beauties of nature, are also creations of God.”

Antonio Rodríguez Saint_AugustineC
WikimediaCommons            Antonio Rodríguez (1636 – 1691), Saint Augustine

Augustine, in extolling the beauty, grace and utility of the creation, extolled the Creator:

“Ask the loveliness of the earth, ask the loveliness of the sea, ask the loveliness of the wide airy spaces, ask the loveliness of the sky, ask the order of the stars, … ask the living things which move in the waters, which tarry on the land, which fly in the air…ask all these things, and they will all answer thee, Lo, see we are lovely. Their loveliness is their confession. And these lovely but mutable things, who has made them, save Beauty immutable?” (City of God).

Augustine wrote: beauty is a proportion of parts, together with an agreeableness of color, thus paraphrasing what Cicero and other classical sources had said. Beauty was also associated with utility – that which did the work well. It was associated mainly with living things such as women, flowers and birds rather than scenery. Beauty also tended to be small scale rather than large. Both classical and Christian writers saw aesthetics as subordinate to ethics (Nicolson, 1959).

Reason underlay Augustine’s sense of beauty. In Divine Providence and the Problem of Evil, he wrote, From this stage, reason advanced to the province of the eyes. And scanning the earth and the heavens, it realized that nothing pleased it but beauty; and in beauty, design; and in design, dimensions; and in dimensions, number. Symmetry pleases because it is beautiful, and it is beautiful because the parts are like and are brought by a certain bond to a single harmony. The classical influence is apparent in these comments.

During the following centuries, monasteries became established in Europe and played a major role in transforming the landscape. Mark, a monk at Monte Cassino in Italy about 560 AD, described the transformation of the nearby hillsides:

“Lest men should tire who seek thy high abode
Winds round its sides a gently-sloping road.
Yet justly does the mountain honour thee,
For thou hast made it rich and fair to see.
Its barren sides by thee are gardens made,
Its naked rocks with fruitful vineyards laid,
The crags admire a crop and fruit not theirs,
The wild wood now a bounteous harvest bears…”

Wikipedia   Monte Cassino

Many other monasteries throughout Europe repeated the changes achieved here, transforming extensive tracts of land to agriculture through clearing the forests, draining the marshes, even diverting rivers.

The Church Fathers regarded nature as a book to provide further substantiation of the revealed word. And unlike the printed word which only the rich could afford, nature was a book that all could read. The Church Fathers also strove to link nature with scriptural texts and for symbolism such as the selection of a monastery cloister site in the shape of the Greek letter delta (D), which symbolized the Trinity. Paradise was regarded as an ideal landscape.

The idea of God being revealed in creation was developed by Erigena John Scotus or John the Scot (815 – 877):

“for whatever He knows He creates, and what He creates derives from Himself. Accordingly, the whole creation is a process of divine revelation, with each being an aspect, finite and limited, of God’s own nature.”

Thus every aspect reveals the character of God but is not god itself, which would be pantheistic.

Bernard of Clairvaux
stbernardstulsa.org          Bernard of Clairvaux

St Bernard of Clairvaux (1091 – 1153) wrote that natural beauty is acceptable providing it was associated with God and his works. He said: Believe me, you will find more lessons in the woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you what no teacher permits you to hear (Epistola CVI, sect. 2). The development of the abbey at Clairvaux changed the landscape from a wilderness to one that was more useful, more charming and more beautiful. The abbey was situated in a valley with grain and vines growing nearby –each of them offers to the eye a beautiful sight, and supplies a needful support for the inmates.

Bernard wrote of the charm of the area:

“The smiling countenance of the earth is painted with varying colours, the blooming verdure (i.e. fresh green) of spring satisfies the eyes, and its sweet odour salutes the nostrils. … In this way, while I am charmed without by the sweet influence of the beauty of the country, I have not less delight within in reflecting on the mysteries which are hidden beneath it” (Glacken, 1967).

Giotto, Legend of St FrancisPS
pinterest.com Giotto, Legend of St Francis, Sermon to the birds, 1297-99

The delight with which St Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226) communed with nature is well known, perhaps less well known is that he followed rapturously and most literally the exhortation of Romans 1:20, i.e. of understanding God’s invisible power and divine nature from the creation. In St Francis, living nature attains a dignity and holiness far removed from the crude utilitarian conceptions of the believers in design (Glacken, 1967).

About this time, St Vincent of Beauvais wrote:

“I am moved with spiritual sweetness towards the creator and ruler of this world when I behold the magnitude and beauty and performance of his creation” (Speculum Majus).

Victor Grigas      Horse chestnut leaves on column in Rheims Cathedral

This was the era of cathedral building. There are close parallels between the form of the northern deciduous forests and the nave of the Gothic cathedral (Shepard, 1967). The tall cathedral columns symbolized the trunks, their spreading arms the branches, and the giant windows filtering light like leaves in a tall forest. The carvings of leaves on structural members and walls furthered the imagery. Thus a Gothic cathedral can be seen as a metamorphosis of the broad-leaved forest into stone (Hunter, 1985).

Albert the Great (1193 – 1280), a Dominican monk, walked throughout the length and breadth of Europe. The beauties of the earth were to Albert more than symbols, its apparent order more than a simple illustration of design.The designed earth is holy as it is God’s creation (Glacken, 1967). Albert observed that human effort improved on nature – domesticated plants gave better fruit, grains and vegetables were larger, softer and better tasting under cultivation.


Thomas-AquinasCIn about 1259, St Thomas Aquinas (1226 – 1274) wrote Summa Contra Gentiles, which some considered to be the most important and cogent discussion of natural theology to emerge in the Middle Ages. Aquinas brought together the order, planning, design and beauty of nature in a more rigorous form.

Aquinas saw that God had provided for orderly processes of nature; leaves, for example, were so arranged that they protect the fruit of the plant. Therefore, Aquinas argued, the natural agent tends toward what is better, and it is much more evident that the intelligent agent does so. Hence, every agent intends the good when it acts. Glacken added, The synthesis now expresses the goodness, the order, and the beauty of nature.

The major preoccupation of theologians in the Middle Ages was creation:

“the continuously visible creation on earth, as one constantly sees in the naturalistic, symbolic, and allegorical writings… This long discussion of creation and its meaning in the formative period of Western civilization intensified interest in unity and harmony in nature, in physical and moral evil, in intermediate agencies between God and the world of daily life, be they secondary causes or … nature personifications…” (Glacken, 1967).

While theological issues were important, so too were practical issues associated with establishing agriculture – issues such as sowing, grafting, plant breeding and animal husbandry. The period saw a shift from one in which theological ideas of man as a modifier of nature dominated to one in which these ideas are the result of experience, by ecclesiastic and lay alike, in the exploitation of natural resources (Glacken, 1967).

Renaissance to the late seventeenth century

With its intense interest in classical sources, the Renaissance combined a love of scenery with its historical associations, seeing in the fusion the beauties of landscape altered and unaltered by man (Glacken, 1967).

In Icon Animorum (1614), John Barclay described the natural and man-made beauty of the scene along the River Thames from Greenwich Hill, asserting it to be most beautiful in England and possibly in all Europe. It was “soe faire a variety, and the industry (as it were) of Nature, displaying her riches.” Barclay believed that variety of beauty and monotony was needed as any beauty would “glut and weary” the viewer unless it was beautified with contraries, and change of endowments, to refresh continually the wearied beholder with unexpected novelties.

pinterest.com     John Constable. View from Greenwich Hill (The Admiral’s House) (1820-1825)

The discovery of the New World together with the immense scientific discoveries by Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Boyle and others during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries increased interest in the designed earth, the findings being interpreted as providing further evidence of God’s providence. Many scientists wrote about final causes: Newton’s was grounded in the order, beauty and motion of the heavens rather than the order of nature on earth, and Robert Boyle wrote of design both in the whole of creation and in the detailed aspects of plants and animals.

The writings of this period indicated a conflict, according to Glacken, between a mechanical and an organic view of nature. The former saw the individual parts acting according to known laws, the whole being the sum of the parts and their interaction. The organic approach saw the whole as existing, perhaps in the mind of an artisan before the parts – the design of the whole explains the actions of the parts. The organic approach is based on teleology – the idea of God as the divine artisan fashioning nature according to His will permeate much of the writing of the time.

The mechanical view emphasized secondary causes and eliminated final causes. The mechanical view gained credence with the prestige of mathematics; the earth was seen as a great machine and the harmonies of nature could only be understood by studying this underlying mechanical order. The appreciation of the beauties of nature and of its interrelationships, however, would not have derived from a mechanical approach.

Wikipedia               Rene Descartes

In his seminal work: Discourse on Method for Properly Guiding the Reason and Finding Truth in the Sciences (1637), the French philosopher, Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) argued in favor of reason as the basis of truth. While acknowledging God to be the First Cause, from there on he ignored God in explaining physical phenomenon. He advocated a goal of attaining control over nature through his scientific method and the application of science. Descartes established four rules for rational thinking:

  1. Never accept anything as true until it is patently so (rule of evidence);
  2. Divide the subject matter into as many components as possible (rule of analysis);
  3. Proceed from the simple to the complex (rule of synthesis);
  4. Revise thoroughly, lest anything be omitted (rule of control).

The influence of Descartes was subtle and ubiquitous (Secretan, 1973) and grew over the following centuries. The “Cartesian shears” which separated “what is out there” from “what is in here” (i.e. nature from mind), resulted ultimately in the emergence of the subjective view of aesthetic quality. Instead of seeing aesthetic quality as an inherent quality of a physical object such as a landscape, the distinction of mind and nature paved the way for people to understand that their aesthetic preferences derived from their own subjective feelings.

Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677) opposed teleology on the basis that it was pure speculation and assumed that all of nature served mankind. He did not attribute to nature either beauty or ugliness, arguing that these were simply products of human imagination, an early subjective approach to aesthetics.

The seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries saw enormous growth of scientific knowledge, against which physico-theology assumed a lesser standing. It drew on the findings of geographical exploration in providing new examples, and it gained a greater appreciation of interrelationships in nature.

An eminent lawyer and Chief Justice, Sir Matthew Hale, in The Primitive Origination of Mankind (1677), wrote a masterly exposition of Christian belief regarding man’s dominion over nature based on the Genesis account, including:

“And hereby Man was invested with power, authority, right, dominion, trust and care …to preserve the face of the Earth in beauty, usefulness, and fruitfulness. And surely … it was not below the Wisdom and Goodness or God to create the very Vegetable Nature, and to render the Earth more beautiful and useful by it ….”

Hale saw man’s role as to control nature for the earth’s sake and for his own.

Baron Gottfried von Leibniz (1646 – 1716) saw the creation as increasing one’s admiration for the beauty of divine works – the general beauty and perfection of the works of God. An ardent supporter of final causes, Leibniz saw man as finishing the work of God.

Richard BentleyPS
Wikipedia     Richard Bentley

In 1692, Richard Bentley (1662 – 1742), the most eminent English classical scholar of the age delivered eight sermons, A Confutation of Atheism. Bentley considered that the order and beauty of the systematic parts of the world, their discernible ends and final causes, … (a) ‘meliority (i.e. superiority) above what was necessary to be,’ show, he says, an intelligent benign agent. More than most, Bentley emphasized the beauty of nature and the asymmetry of nature. He did not find an irregular feature such as a landform less beautiful than a regular or symmetrical one:

“All pulchritude (a Middle English term for beauty) is relative; and all bodies are truly and physically beautiful under all possible shapes and proportions, that are good in their kind, that are fit for their proper uses and ends of their natures.”

Glacken believed that physico-theology was always more successful and persisted longer in the life sciences because of the abundance of opportunities for finding evidence of final causes, including in the observation of organic growth, in the relationship of plant and animal life to one another and to their habitats, in plant and animal communities, in the pattern of distribution of organic life throughout the earth.

The scientific discoveries of the late seventeenth century saw tremendous growth in human understanding of the cosmos, and with this, God had grown with his universe: the Deity of the later seventeenth century was grander, vaster, more majestic than before, expressing Himself in unnumbered worlds (Nicolson, 1959).

Isaac Newton’s, Philosophie Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), published in 1687, was not only able to explain the physical phenomenon but, with mathematics, could predict their behavior under differing conditions. It was one of the most influential books of all time and established order, proportion and regularity as universal principles. The poet, Alexander Pope wrote the famous epitaph:

“Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said, “Let Newton be” and all was light.”

WikimediaCommons  Isaac Newton, 1689

Newton opposed the mechanistic view of the universe saying, Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done (Westfall, 1994).

This late seventeenth century period saw a tremendous burgeoning of physico-theology through publication of four “remarkable” books in England (Glacken, 1967):

  • Burnet’s Telluris Theoria Sacra (1681, translated from Latin in 1684 as the Sacred Theory of Earth)
  • Woodward’s An Essay Towards a Natural History of the Earth, and Terrestrial Bodies, especially Minerals … (1695)
  • Whiston’s New Theory of the Earth (1696)
  • Keill’s Examination of Dr Burnet’s Theory (1698)

These were very widely read at the time, several being translated into other languages.

Thomas Burnet’s book together with Milton’s Paradise Lost, were the two most widely read theodicies of the early eighteenth century, some ranking them on a plane with Plato, Cicero and Milton (Nicolson, 1959). Theodicies are works which seek vindication of divine attributes  (Shorter Oxford).

Burnet argued, Science and Scripture are not enemies but friends, one complementing the other. Burnet divided the earth’s history into three periods, the past (antediluvian), present (postdiluvian), and a future period similar to the first. His former antediluvian period was contemporary with the classical Golden Age, a paradise with a perpetual equinox because he said, the earth did not tilt on its axis. The issue of the earth tilting on its axis provided much fare for the physico-theologians as it created the seasons and variations in climate across the earth, a diversity of conditions that favored humans. Newton, though a teleologist, did not believe the inclination of the earth on its axis proved the existence of God. The Golden Age ended with the Flood. The postdiluvian world was unpleasant, unfruitful and nature was hard and niggardly. The future earth would occur after fire destroyed the postdiluvian earth.

Burnet and many others of his time believed that there were no mountains at the time of the earth’s creation, in the antediluvian period, but that they appeared with the Fall of Man and reflected the fallen state of the world. He had much to say about mountains.

Woodward used fossil evidence to show that the relief of the present postdiluvian world was similar to the antediluvian world. He also disputed Burnet’s claim that the earth is a pile of ‘Ruines and Rubbish’ whose mountains have not the ‘least foot-steps of Art or Counsel,’ a globe which is a ‘rude Lump,’ a ‘little dirty Planet,’ that he would grant it neither order or beauty (Glacken, 1967). Woodward considered that the earth contains many areas that are indeed extremely charming and agreeable. The aesthetic quality of natural beauty was seen as another proof of the wisdom of God.

macroevolution.net   John Ray

Glacken regarded John Ray’s The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation (1691), which went through twelve editions, as the best natural theology ever written. Drawing on Psalm 104:24 (i.e. How many are your works, O Lord!  In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures), Ray presented the most comprehensive pre-evolutionary vision of the earth and its plants and animals, together with their interrelationships and extolled their diversity and variety. His view was positive and optimistic: the earth was a place of beauty and usefulness whose powers do not decline with age as do the plants and animals it supports and whose climate and relief are not evidence of ruin but rather of beauty and order.

In reaction to Burnet’s dismal view, Ray wrote of the beauty of nature:

“How variously is the Surface of this Earth distinguish’d into Hills, and Valleys, and Plains, and high Mountains, affording pleasant Prospects? How curiously cloath’d and adorn’d with the grateful Verdure of Herbs and stately Trees, either dispers’d and scatter’d singly, or as it were assembled in Woods and Groves, and all these beautified and illustrated with elegant Flowers and Fruits…”

Ray’s ideal saw man improving on nature – the beautiful village resting in well-tilled fields. Ray believed that God enjoyed the aesthetics of the earth:

“(God) delights in the Beauty of his Creation, and is well pleased with the Industry of Man, in adorning the Earth with beautiful Cities and Castles; with pleasant Villages and Country-Houses, with regular Gardens and Orchards, and Plantations of all Sorts of Shrubs and Herbs … with Shady Woods and Groves, and walks set Rows of elegant Trees, with Pastures cloathed with Flocks, and Valleys cover’d with Corn, and Meadows burthened with Grass…”

flickr.com William Derham
www4.ncsu.edu     Title page to Derham’s book, 1716

Reverend William Derham, a friend of Ray, was the author of Physico-Theology: or, A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, from His Works of Creation (1713). Derham’s book became the most influential work in this field in the early eighteenth century. Like Ray, he emphasized the earth’s utility and beauty. The earth was orderly and well-planned with nothing wanting, nothing redundant or frivolous, nothing botching or ill-made…

Both Ray and Derham wrote of the significance of organic interrelationships evident on the earth and in this they preceded modern writers on the balance of nature and the web of life.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, building on Descartes’ thesis, modern ideas of humanity as a controller of nature became more prominent. While the teleological arguments of design continued there was more penetrating criticism of final causes from philosophers, especially Hume and Kant, and the teleological view of nature was transformed into philosophical and theological support for the natural histories of the eighteenth century.

While science advanced, lending support to the mechanical view of nature, which could be described mathematically, teleology continued to exert a significant influence on the earth and life sciences and in geography from the seventeenth through to the nineteenth centuries. The development of the microscope and telescope revealed an order and purpose in nature not previously seen and provided further support for physico-theology.

Consult the genius of the place, wrote the poet Alexander Pope. Genius Loci was quickly recognized to be Divine, reinforcing the natural theological view, and poems and literature followed, referring to the Divine presence in the place (Hussey, 1927). In The Moralists (1709), Shaftesbury wrote, your Genius, the Genius of the Place, and the GREAT GENIUS have at last prevail’d (Thacker, 1979). Shaftesbury considered aesthetics to involve Nature’s genuine Order’, the ideal form and harmony of things existing ‘before the Fall’ (Hussey, 1927).

Linnaeus’s celebrated lecture Oeconomy of Nature in 1749 recognized design and emphasized environmental influences in the distribution of living organisms including humans. Interestingly he justified the earth’s topography on aesthetic as well as utilitarian grounds; that it is pleasing to the eye and it increases the surface area of the earth.

Comte de Buffon
Wikipedia        Comte de Buffon

Count Buffon, whom Glacken placed in the front rank of eighteenth century naturalists, rejected final causes in the study of nature, believing that nature should be studied for itself. Influenced by Descartes, Buffon’s De la nature, Premier Vue (1764) defined nature in terms of a system of laws established by God for the existence of things. 

Aesthetic improvement, according to Buffon, came from the hand of man: Wild nature is hideous and dying; it is I, I alone, who can make it agreeable and living. He went on to advocate drying out the marshes to make their stagnant waters flow in brooks and canals, clearing out the thickets and the old forests and, in their place, making pastures and arable fields so that a new nature can come forth from our hands. Buffon’s ideal nature is one that is well cared for, ordered, a little too well raked, embellished with decorations (Glacken, 1967).

Voltaire was sympathetic with final causes and wrote on the subject in the Dictionnaire Philosophique (1768). He saw nature as a work of art, both revealing a sense of purpose, with beauty in nature suggestive of final causes. He made particular mention of the beauty and utility of the mountains-rivers-plains triad.

Opponents of Teleology

Hume and Kant led the arguments against the teleological school. David Hume (1711 – 1776), the Scottish philosopher, presented his arguments via dialogues between Cleanthes and Philo, enabling him to argue a point back and forth. Cleanthes was the conventional, Philo the innovator. Cleanthes described the world as a machine whose intricately adjusted and accurately fitted parts work well together. Philo argued that the analogy of a machine is remote:

“The further we push our researches of this kind (i.e. microscopy) we are still led to infer the universal cause of all to be vastly different from mankind, or from any object of human experience and observation.”

Rebutting the artisan concept, Hume argued that any artisan becomes skilled through trial and error, through countless mistakes, corrections and changes. Are we to suggest, Hume asked, that God learnt how to construct a world through such methods, that many worlds “might have been botched and bungled, throughout an eternity, in the art of world-making?

The Prussian philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), addressed teleology in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and more particularly, in the “Critique of Teleological Judgement” in part II of Critique of Judgement. (1790). Kant built on and synthesized aesthetic ideas that had developed during the eighteenth century and is generally acknowledged to have “welded their fragments together so as to create a truly philosophical system, bringing order out of the chaos which then existed (Monk, 1935). Central to Kant’s philosophy of aesthetics was his finding that an object’s character lay in the judging mind rather than in the object judged. His was a subjective rather than objective approach (See the Philosophy of Aesthetics theme for an in-depth examination of Kant’s aesthetics).

Kant tore away the examples of final causes and, almost regretfully, found that the teleological proofs must be rejected. Addressing the commonly used analogy of nature as a machine, such as a watch, Kant pointed out that the maker of the watch lies outside it, a cog of the watch cannot reproduce or repair itself. However nature organizes itself, the organization of nature has nothing analogous to any causality known to us thus disposing of the artisan analogy.

Interestingly, Kant took an objective position when addressing beauty in nature that is contrary to the subjective position he developed elsewhere in his Critique of Judgement:

“We may regard it as a favor that nature has extended to us, that besides giving us what is useful it has dispensed beauty and charms in such abundance, and for this we may love it, just as we view it with respect because of its immensity, and feel ourselves ennobled by such contemplation – just as if nature had erected and decorated its splendid stage with this precise purpose in its mind” (emphasis added).

Kant argued that the earth’s topography, far from being evidence of design, is merely the result of its geological history. Glacken summarized Kant’s contribution as a “harvesting of thoughts spanning more than two thousand years.”

Nature Lovers

As well as the arguments of philosophers, opposition to physico-theology came from another source, the development of an almost pantheistic love of nature. This movement, led by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) has had a profound effect on Western attitudes to nature, providing among other things, one of the foundations of the conservation movement.

Biese (1905) suggested that Rousseau’s influence was so revolutionary and original that in a sense, the world’s history began again with him. Born in Switzerland, Rousseau grew up on Lake Geneva and loved to roam the countryside. On such a ramble in 1728, he wrote of how the high mountains unfolded themselves majestically before my eyes. In 1765, he lived for two months on St Peter Island on the Lake of Bienne, a relatively insignificant Swiss lake, north-west of Berne. According to Clark, on the island, Rousseauhad an experience so intense that one can almost say it caused a revolution in human feeling (Clark, 1969).

“I often sat down to dream at leisure in sunny, lonely nooks … to gaze at the superb ravishing panorama of the lake and its shores … When evening fell, I came down from the higher parts of the mountains and sat by the shore in some hidden spot, and there the sound of the waves and the movements of the water, making me oblivious of all other distractions, would plunge me into delicious reverie. The ebb and flow of the water, and the sound of it … came to the aid of those inner movements of the mind which reverie destroys and sufficed me pleasantly conscious of existence without the trouble of thinking …” (Biese, 1905).

Filled with the reverie of the lapping waves, Rousseau “became completely at one with nature, lost all consciousness of an independent self, all painful memories of the past or anxieties about the future” (Clark, 1969). In 1761, Rousseau published La Nouvelle Héloise which overflow(ed) with Rousseau’s raptures about the Lake of Geneva (Biese, 1905). The book made three points: firstly, that the purpose of one’s inner consciousness was to allow feelings in the heart, secondly, the worth of solitude –all noble passions are formed in solitude,and thirdly, the love of romantic landscapes, described for the first time in glowing terms.


St Peters Island

hermetic.com  Wolfgang von Goethe

Rousseau’s feeling for nature had a profound effect on European thought, and was expressed tangibly by the upsurge in tourism to places such as Chamonix, by climbers ascending Mont Blanc and other peaks, by a delight in Robinson Crusoe type solitude, by the more sensitive descriptions of other cultures in both scientific and artistic terms, and in the appreciation of foreign landscapes found during world explorations.

The love for nature was, however, imbued with a heavy sentimentality that cast a melancholy shadow over it. It was the genius of Goethe who freed and purified the love for nature from this morbidity.

“Goethe focussed all the rays of feeling for Nature which had found lyrical expression before him, and purged taste, beginning with his own, of its unnatural and sickly elements” (Biese, 1905).

While other poets wrote of nature almost in the third person, as one remote and insincere in expression, Goethe wrote from an inner sensibility. It was said of him that Nature wished to know what she looked like, and so she created Goethe (Biese, 1905). Unlike Rousseau, who saw nature as a painter, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe saw nature as a poet. While Rousseau remained a deist, Goethe ultimately became more of a pantheist. An example of the quality of his writing is from Werther, a book of his youth:

“When the lovely valley teems with vapour around me, and the meridian sun strikes the upper surface of the impenetrable foliage of my trees, and but a few stray gleams steal into the inner sanctuary, then I throw myself down in the tall grass by the trickling stream; and as I lie close to the earth, a thousand unknown plants discover themselves in me. When I hear the buzz of the little world among the stalks, and grow familiar with the countless indescribable forms of the insects and flies, then I feel the presence of the Almighty who formed us in His own image, …”

Later in life, Goethe’s scientific objectivity took over – the student of Nature supplanted the lover (Biese, 1905). Yet his feelings for nature became pantheistic, and this linked his scientific and poetic impulses:

“This pantheism marked an epoch in the history of feeling. For Goethe not only transformed the unreal feeling of his day into real, described scenery, and inspired it with human feeling, and deciphered the beauty of the Alps, as no one else had done, Rousseau not excepted; but he also brought knowledge of Nature into harmony with feeling for her, and with his wonderfully receptive and constructive mind so studied the earlier centuries, that he gathered out all that was valuable in their feeling (Biese, 1905).

Goethe objected to the teleological view of nature because it relied on analogy, which, in scientific terms, is unsatisfactory.

w wordsworth
poets.org      William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) was brought up around the Lakes in Cumberland, and, like Rousseau and Goethe, developed a deep sensitivity to and delight in nature. As a poet of the first rank, Wordsworth sought to write on the complexity of what happens when eye and object meet: The delicate interplay between perception and imagination could nowhere be more intricate than in the representation of a natural scene, transmuted and recollected in the ordering form of Wordsworth’s poetic language (de Man, 1984). A deeply religious man, Wordsworth sought in nature a closeness to the Reality, although Biese considered his theism contained an undeniable, though hidden, pantheism (Biese, 1905).

In the poem, Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth confessed in a characteristic way:

“Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all –I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,”

Wordsworth sought nature’s aesthetic pleasures because they provided him with a basis for a religious interpretation of nature.

Rousseau, Goethe, Wordsworth and other nature poets and writers such as Byron, Scott and Shelley transformed the way in which Europeans viewed nature. Coming with the enlightenment their pantheism, universal love, sympathy with Nature in all her forms, was the base of feeling (Biese, 1905).

Post-Darwin Period

Charles Darwin

With the decline of physico-theology at the end of the eighteenth century, the definition and influence of laws influencing nature took precedence.

The criticisms of the teleological argument in the eighteenth century, particularly by Hume questioning the artisan analogy and by Kant postulating that the way nature is organized does not imply causality, paved the way for the revolution in thought which occurred in the nineteenth century, particularly as a result of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Hume and Kant showed that concepts of nature are constructs of the human mind – the modern day equivalent is that of the ecosystem. Far from being the bountiful mother of design, which had conventionally be held to be true, Hume had shown nature to be niggardly – a term which came into common parlance in the nineteenth century under Darwin and Malthus. The eighteenth century, the century of Kant, Rousseau, Voltaire, was the age of enlightenment and of Revolution. It was a period that broke with the conventions of the classics and of the Bible.

The end of the eighteenth century also established humanity as significant modifiers of nature, the dimensions of which would await George Marsh’s Man and Nature, or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Actions (1864) and others in the nineteenth century. Glacken noted in conclusion:

“the idea of a designed earth, whether created for man or for all life with man at the apex of a chain of being, has been one of the great attempts in Western civilization, before the theory of evolution and modern ecological theories emerging from it, to create a holistic concept of nature, to bring within its scope as many phenomena as possible in order to demonstrate a unity which was the achievement of an artisan-creator.”

Beauty in nature, Glacken asserted, brings man closer to the “heartbeats of the creation.”

Glacken also noted that, over 2,300 years of Western civilization, virtually every great thinker had something to say about teleology. Over this span, he identified five main periods of history during which the teleological ideas took on shape and life:

  • The Hellenistic period and the Hellenised Roman period that followed; favoured by a common language (Greek) and understanding the unity of nature; the contributions of the Greek philosophers were immense;
  • The early Christian period with the writings of Basil and Ambrose, culminating in Augustine, who integrated Classical and Christian ideas of design;
  • The twelfth – thirteenth centuries through the contributions of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas and associated with the construction of the cathedrals;
  • The late seventeenth – early eighteenth centuries, drawing from the immense scientific discoveries of the time and reinterpreting the scriptural basis afresh through the eyes of Burnet, Ray and Derham;
  • The remainder of the eighteenth century with the work by Buffon, Linnaeus and Voltaire and the contrary arguments of Hume and Kant.

The following centuries have been characterized, as far as Western culture is concerned, by industrialization of economies, specialization of talents, and secularization of beliefs. In an urban-based rather than rural society, increasingly technological in orientation, society’s roots in nature have until recent decades been seen as irrelevant. Knowledge of physico-theology, the debates which have raged in the past and the hair-splitting of philosophers have been largely forgotten, consigned to the irrelevancy of history. Yet these comprise part of the foundations of Western culture, explaining not only who we are but also how we became who we are

Having examined the classical and teleological foundations of Western culture, complementary themes trace the development of cultural attitudes towards landscape in the development of the Western attitudes towards mountain landscapes, the depiction of landscape in Western art and the development of designed gardens. These three areas – mountains, landscape art, and parks and gardens – illustrate from a cultural perspective the emergence of present-day perceptions of landscape.


The purpose of this theme has been to examine the influence of culture upon the perception of landscape quality. In particular, it has focused upon Western cultural attitudes with a particular interest in the development of these in England. The vastness of the subject, even when confined to providing an overview of the subject as it applies to England, has necessitated this limited approach. The time frame of this review has been largely the last two millennia.

Table 1 summarizes the significant findings from the classical and teleological foundations.

Table 1 Summary of Significant Findings: Classical & Teleological Foundations   

Table 1

The two broad influences upon Western cultural attitudes to landscape up to the current century were classicism, the influence of the antiquity of Greece and Rome, and the teleological view that the physical environment is an expression of God and a proof of His existence.

These two influences are not independent. It is apparent in the attitudes to mountains, for example, that both classicism, with its emphasis on the regularity and restraint of form, together with the teleological abhorrence of mountains, combined to define Western antipathy towards mountains through to the end of the seventeenth century. It was not that these factors ceased to have later influence, rather that there arose a new paradigm, the sublime, which provided a new way of looking at mountains (see Mountain theme).

As Western culture emerged from medieval times, teleology exerted a dominant influence. The rebirth or rediscovery of classicism during the Renaissance brought the classical influence to the fore, as expressed in architecture, painting and sculpture. Over the following centuries these two influences, classicism and teleology, proceeded in parallel, both exerting significant influence over the culture of the time.


Ambrose (337-397), Letter 18.
Augustine, 426, City of God and Christian doctrine.

St Thomas Aquinas, 1260 – 64, Summa Contra Gentiles.
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St Basil of Caesarea, The Six days of Creation.
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St Bernard of Clairvaux, Epistola CVI, sect. 2.
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Buffon, 1764. De la nature, Premier Vue.
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Linnaeus, 1749. Oeconomy of Nature.
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Marsh, G., 1864. Man and Nature, or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Actions. C. Scribner, New York.
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Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso), Metamorphoses.
Ray, J., 1691. The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation.

Rousseau, J-J., 1761. La Nouvelle Héloise: Julie, or the new Eloise: Letters of Two Lovers, Inhabitants of a Small Town at the Foot of the Alps.
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Xenophon, Memorabilia.