The Four Loves – Chapter 2 (Part 2: “Love of nature”)
Continuing my notes on The Four Loves, this is the first of two posts which continue my summary of Chapter 2 (“Likings and Loves for the subhuman”). In this post we will be looking at the section which Lewis devotes to the love of nature.
1. Some people have a special love of nature
For some people, perhaps especially for Englishmen and Russians, what we call “the love of nature” is a permanent and serious sentiment. I mean here that love of nature which cannot be adequately classified simply as an instance of our love for beauty.
(a) This is more than simply an appreciation of beauty
Of course many natural objects – trees, flowers and animals – are beautiful.
(i) Either of individual objects…
But the nature-lovers whom I have in mind are not very much concerned with individual beautiful objects of that sort. The man who is distracts them. An enthusiastic botanist is for them a dreadful companion on a ramble. He is always stopping to draw their attention to particulars. N
(ii) …or of vistas
or are they looking for “views” or landscapes. Wordsworth, their spokesman, strongly deprecates this. It leads to “a comparison of scene with scene”, makes you “pamper” yourself with “meagre novelties of colour and proportion”.
(b) For these lovers of nature, it is about the “Spirit” of the place
While you are busying yourself with this critical and discriminating activity you lose what really matters – the “moods of time and season”, the “spirit” of the place. And of course Wordsworth is right. That is why, if you love nature in his fashion, a landscape painter is (out of doors) an even worse companion than a botanist. It is the “moods” or the “spirit” that matter.
(c) Which is why beauty itself per se is the focus
Nature-lovers want to receive as fully as possible whatever nature, at each particular time and place, is, so to speak, saying. The obvious richness, grace and harmony of some scenes are no more precious to them than the grimness, bleakness, terror, monotony, or “visionary dreariness” of others. The featureless itself gets from them a willing response. It is one more word uttered by nature. They lay themselves bare to the sheer quality of every countryside every hour of the day. They want to absorb it into themselves, to be coloured through and through by it.
2. While previously praised, this love of nature is now subjected to debunking
This experience, like so many others, after being lauded to the skies in the Nineteenth Century, has been debunked by the moderns.
(a) Flowers don’t really enjoy the air
And one must certainly concede to the debunkers that Wordsworth…when he was… talking about [nature] as a philosopher (or philosophaster*), said some very silly things. It is silly…to believe that flowers enjoy the air they breathe
* A charlatan philosopher.
(b) We don’t learn moral philosophy from nature
Nor have many people been taught moral philosophy by an “impulse from a vernal wood”.
(i) If we did, Wordsworth might not approve of the lesson
If they were, it would not necessarily be the sort of moral philosophy Wordsworth would have approved. It might be that of ruthless competition. For some moderns I think it is. They love nature in so far as, for them, she calls to “the dark gods in the blood”; not although, but because, sex and hunger and sheer power there operate without pity or shame.
(ii) Nature will teach you whatever lesson you have decided to learn
If you take nature as a teacher she will teach you exactly the lessons you had already decided to learn; this is only another way of saying that nature does not teach…. While we are actually subjected to them, the “moods” and “spirits” of nature point no morals.
(c) Nature speaks, but speaks simply
Overwhelming gaiety, insupportable grandeur, sombre desolation are flung at you. Make what you can of them, if you must make at all. The only imperative that nature utters is, “Look. Listen. Attend.” The fact that this imperative is so often misinterpreted and sets people making theologies and pantheologies* and antitheologies** – all of which can be debunked – does not really touch the central experience itself.
* A system of theology embracing all religions
** A belief system that runs counter to theology
(d) From nature we receive images…
What nature-lovers – whether they are Wordsworthians or people with “dark gods in their blood” – get from nature is an iconography*, a language of images. I do not mean simply visual images; it is the “moods” or “spirits” themselves – the powerful expositions of terror, gloom, jocundity, cruelty, lust, innocence, purity – that are the images. In them each man can clothe his own belief.
* Pictorial representation of subject, such as icons in religious art
(e) …but we should get our theology and philosophy elsewhere.
We must learn our theology or philosophy elsewhere (not surprisingly, we often learn them from theologians and philosophers). But when I speak of “clothing” our belief in such images I do not mean anything like using nature for similes or metaphors in the manner of the poets. Indeed I might have said “filling” or “incarnating” rather than clothing. Many people – I am one myself – would never, but for what nature does to us, have had any content to put into the words we must use in confessing our faith. Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and of infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word glory a meaning for me. I still do not know where else I could have found one. I do not see how the “fear” of God could have ever meant to me anything but the lowest prudential efforts to be safe, if I had never seen certain ominous ravines and unapproachable crags. And if nature had never awakened certain longings in me, huge areas of what I can now mean by the “love” of God would never, so far as I can see, have existed. Of course the fact that a Christian can so use nature is not even the beginning of a proof that Christianity is true. Those suffering from Dark Gods can equally use her (I suppose) for their creed. That is precisely the point. Nature does not teach. A true philosophy may sometimes validate an experience of nature; an experience of nature cannot validate a philosophy. Nature will not verify any theological or metaphysical proposition (or not in the manner we are now considering); she will help to show what it means. And not, on the Christian premises, by accident. The created glory may be expected to give us hints of the uncreated; for the one is derived from the other and in same fashion reflects it. In some fashion. But not perhaps in so direct and simple a fashion as we at first might suppose. For of course all the facts stressed by nature-lovers of the other school are facts too; there are worms in the belly as well as primroses in the wood. Try to reconcile them, or to show that they don’t really need reconciliation, and you are turning from direct experience of nature – our present subject – to metaphysics or theodicy* or something of that sort. That may be a sensible thing to do; but I think it should be kept distinct from the love of nature.
* A defense of God’s existence and goodness, even when faced with the existence of evil.
(f) Nature will only take us so far
While we are on that level, while we are still claiming to speak of what nature has directly “said” to us, we must stick to it. We have seen an image of glory. We must not try to find a direct path through it and beyond it to an increasing knowledge of God. The path peters out almost at once. Terrors and mysteries, the whole depth of God’s counsels and the whole tangle of the history of the universe, choke it. We can’t get through; not that way. We must make a detour – leave the hills and woods and go back to our studies, to church, to our Bibles, to our knees. Otherwise the love of nature is beginning to turn into a nature religion. And then, even if it does not lead us to the Dark Gods, it will lead us to a great deal of nonsense.
3. This leaves us in the best of situations
(a) We don’t have to be a debunker
But we need not surrender the love of nature – chastened and limited as I have suggested – to the debunkers. Nature cannot satisfy the desires she arouses nor answer theological questions nor sanctify us. Our real journey to God involves constantly turning our backs on her; passing from the dawn-lit fields into some poky little church, or (it might be) going to work. in an East End parish.
(b) …and yet the love of nature is better preserved in us
But the love of her has been a valuable and, for some people, an indispensable initiation. I need not say “has been”. For in fact those who allow no more than this to the love of nature seem to be those who retain it. This is what one should expect. This love, when it sets up as a religion, is beginning to be a god – therefore to be a demon. And demons never keep their promises. Nature “dies on” those who try to live for a love of nature. Coleridge ended by being insensible to her; Wordsworth, by lamenting that the glory had passed away. Say your prayers in a garden early, ignoring steadfastly the dew, the birds and the flowers, and you will come away overwhelmed by its freshness and joy; go there in order to be overwhelmed and, after a certain age, nine times out of ten nothing will happen to you.
1. Do you recognize Jack’s descriptions of those who love nature?
2. What does Jack think about Nature as a teacher? Can we find God there? What does nature give us?
3. What happens when love of nature goes wrong?
4. According to Lewis, what is the mark of the true Nature lover?
5. Lewis makes the assertion that it’s possible to be strengthened by the past without either being deceived or puffed up. Do you agree?
C.S. Lewis Doodle