Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Passion for Nature

Worster frames his narrative in a surprising way, as an exemplary tale about the rise of liberal democracy. For authority he cites Alexis de Tocqueville’s "Democracy in America”: “In a seldom-noticed chapter of the book, Tocqueville noted that the liberal democratic revolution seemed to encourage a strong feeling for nature. Its philosophical tendency, he wrote, is to tear down the traditional doctrines of Christianity and put in their place a new religion of nature, or what he called ‘pantheism.’"

I liked Worster's book on John Wesley Powell and he certainly seems like the writer to update our biographical understanding of John Muir, although the reviewer, John Wilson, said the book could be a bit dry at times.


  1. I haven't found it dry so far -- although it is detailed. But then I am a Worster groupie.

    And yes, Worster does an interesting job tracing Muir's father's religious thinking, which was off the beaten path, alongside Wordsworth and others, to Muir's development and love of nature as his own sort of religion. I found that fascinating.

    There are also interesting discussions of "liberal." If I can find it, I'll post his definition.

  2. I think I will order this book. Looking forward to more of your comments, av.

  3. Maybe this book will sustain us until another more interesting book comes along and/or Robert recovers.

    I think you'll enjoy it. Worster is a really good writer and apparently he worked on this book for years.

    I mentioned our readings to a member of my dissertation committee and he showed some interest -- one of those younger colleagues I mentioned. These guys are so over committed as it is, but he would be a great addition here if we ever find a book he'd be interested in reading with us. He's an environmental historian from Yale, and brilliant. This is his first book, which is fascinating:

    (I think he likes Faulkner, though.)

  4. From Worster:

    "That [conservation] movement's deepest cultural origins lie in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century revolution that introduced modern liberal democratic ideals, including the quest for human rights, personal liberty, and social equality. The movement did not stop with the concept of social justice but continued on toward the rediscovery of nature, the appreciation of wildness, the vision of a green society...."

    [We live in an age of liberal principles, Muir once wrote, but not liberal enough to acknowledge and mourn the death of a bear as he did. Worster continues:]

    "What did he mean by 'liberal principles'? He did not seem to have in mind any formal philosophy, nor liberalism confined to politics or economics. What he meant was closer to this definition of liberalism from the Oxford English Dictionary: 'Free from bigotry or unreasonable prejudice in favor of traditional opinions or established institutions; open to the reception of new ideas or proposals of reform.' Particularly he was thinking of liberal ideas in ethics and religion that were challenging orthodox notions of salvation for the few, of innate human corruption, and of a fallen world. Early on he began to strive for a more positive, hopeful view of human nature, along with a more positive view of nature...."

    [Because he wrote that in relation to a bear, and the ability of the human race to accept Christianity and gain admission into the "Anglo Saxon heaven above," I think Worster misses that Muir was really commenting on the shared creation of all animals -- that we haven't yet reached that "liberal" state where we see our shared creation. But this natural progression of liberalism and environmentalism is one of his themes for sure.]