Thursday, May 03, 2012

Gratitude Toward Nature: A Brief Sketch and Defense

Part of a work in progress:

To learn from nature is to have our own lives enriched. In this way, the lessons of nature benefit us—nature, as it were, does us good. And this good comes to us free of charge, as a gift. One might say that we pay in the currency of time, we must pay for these lessons with patience, but the practice of attention and the silencing of the self so that others may speak is itself a benefit rather than a cost. The “price” of learning from the natural world is simply the price of cultivating intellectual and moral virtue. Thus, we not only learn from nature in a first-order sense, but also learn how to learn. And what is the proper response to these gifts but gratitude? Some will ask: “But who shall we thank?” But I do not see why it is inappropriate that we simply direct our sense of thankfulness to the tree, or the mountain, or the bird, or the sea. If it is not incoherent to feel gratitude toward a deceased family member who leaves us a fortune, then the problem cannot be that nature cannot say, “You’re welcome.” Neither can our loved ones who have passed. Some will say: “But nature has no intention to teach us.” But this is often true of the people from whom we learn, whose accomplishments or efforts or ideas inspire and improve us, though they do not know who we are or that we even exist. If their example benefits us enough, we are nonetheless filled with gratitude, and no one would find it strange if we thanked a stranger for the good they have unintentionally contributed to our own life.


  1. A train of thought partly set in motion by your post on above on the patience of the privileged. Reading this immediately after that, I was reminded me of Aldous Huxley's essay "Wordsworth in the Tropics", where he suggests that adoration of nature (of the kind characteristic of art and literature such as Wordsworth's nature poetry) is only possible where nature has already been overpowered and colonised:

    "The Wordsworthian adoration of Nature has two principal defects. The first [...] is that it is only possible in a country where Nature has been nearly or quite enslaved to man. The second is that it is only possible for those who are prepared to falsify their immediate intuitions of Nature. For Nature, even in the temperate zone, is always alien and inhuman, and occasionally diabolic. [...] A few months in the jungle would have convinced him that the diversity and utter strangeness of Nature are at least as real and significant as its intellectually discovered unity. Nor would he have felt so certain, in the damp and stifling darkness, among the leeches and the malevolently tangled rattans, of the divinely anglican character of that fundamental unity. He would have learned once more to treat Nature naturally, as he treated it in his youth; to react to it spontaneously, loving where love was the appropriate emotion, fearing, hating, fighting whenever Nature presented itself to his intuition as being, not merely strange, but hostile, inhumanly evil. [...] Europe is so well gardened that it resembles a work of art, a scientific theory, a neat metaphysical system. Man has recreated Europe in his own image. Its tamed and temperate Nature confirmed Wordsworth in his philosophizings."

    What would be your response to the suggestion that gratitude towards nature is itself a sign that we're living in a historically late and quite "unnatural" stage in the history of mankind's relationship with nature? Or that human progress is largely a matter of increasing ingratitude towards nature, of saying "no thanks" to nature more and more - since what else is our ever-increasing ability to cope with diseases, earthquakes, fires, and similar phenomena of nature but a form of such ingratitude?

    Also, regarding "no one would find it strange if we thanked a stranger for the good they have unintentionally contributed to our own life" - I would. Indeed, I have actually been on the receiving end of such thanks sometimes, and each time I have felt distinctly awkward about receiving them. (Compare my autobiographical remark on the patience post.)

  2. Many thanks for the reference, Tommi. I have indeed tried to keep this point in mind as I write on these matters, in part by keeping in mind the violence and pestilence that is part of "nature," too. Hopefully, I'll have a draft to post soon and you can show me we're I've failed to be fully mindful. On the other hand, it seems that some aspects of the natural world have always inspired awe, reverence, aesthetic appreciation, and so forth, ranging from the sun and the moon, to the mountains and the oceans, to the varied colors and brilliance of flora and fauna. But yes, "nature" is a mixed bag. As for a response to your hypothetical objection, one approach would be to look at the early animistic religious traditions, and sort through the mixture of fear and worship of nature, and my bet is that there would be some amount of "gratitude" sufficient to refute the suggestion you put forward. One place to look would be the Native American traditions.

    On your last point: fair enough. It would be awkward, I suppose, because it's not always clear what you could say in response. Would you nevertheless agree that no one would find it strange if a person felt gratitude toward a stranger from whom they had learned something, been inspired, etc.?

  3. Your point about animistic religion is good. I will now read the draft which I see you've posted in my absence.

    And yes, I would agree that merely felt gratitude would not be awkward in that situation. Asking that as a separate question brings into view a very useful distinction.