The Enlightenment, Natural Theology, and Romantic Nature 

Ideas about nature first started to change in the late 1700s and more clearly in the 1800s. 
Europeans began to admire (from a distance) the wilderness in North America and a few Americans who lived in cities picked up this idea (actually settlers on the frontier still saw wilderness simply as something to be conquered). 

Both the Enlightenment and the people who reacted against it (Romantics) developed more positive views of wilderness.  The idea that wilderness was good was spreading, but it took several different forms.

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement in the 18th century.  The scientific revolution got people excited that we can understand the world through science.  This led to an emphasis on finding better ways of doing things, instead of tradition.  This was very influential on the American revolution and the constitution.
alchemical illustration--scholar
                measuring humans
New ways of seeing nature resulted from the enlightenment, in three rather contradictory ways.
Where did this new idea--Natural Theology--come from?
  • Science started out in conflict with religion at the time of the scientific revolution
    • Galileo was the first to use experiment to gain scientific knowledge--can show by an experiment that Aristotle is wrong--experience trumps authority
    • Copernicus published the theory that the earth goes around the sun, fifty years later Galileo found evidence to support it
    • got in trouble with church over whether the Copernican theory contradicted the bible
    • "Tell it out among the nations: "The LORD is King!
      he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved;"  (Psalm 96:10)

    • Galileo tried to explain another passage, in which God told the sun to stand still (Joshua 10:12-14) in order to make the day longer.  But if the length of the day is caused by the earth's rotation then telling the sun to stand still won't make the day longer.  Galileo explained that God was telling the sun to stand still so both sun and earth would stop rotating. 
    • Galileo got in trouble for coming up with his own interpretation of the Bible
    • first Galileo forbidden to teach the Copernican theory, then confined to house arrest and required to abjure the theory
    • is the source of truth authority (Bible and teachings of church) or experience (experiment)
  • despite these early conflicts between science and religion, as science became more and more successful, people began to look for ways to put the two together
  • the development of science made people more interested in nature and showed the natural world to be complex and impressive
  • this led to the idea that studying science was a way to admire the handiwork of God
  • one argument they used is if you discover a watch the best explanation is that there must be a watchmaker (William Paley)
  • more emphasis on the idea that we learn more about God by studying the wonderful things he created--these people tended to believe that the more science they studied the better Christians they would be
  • Hitchcock (gravestone below) was a professor of geology (and then president) of Amherst College and a Congregationalist minister
  • believed that everything he could learn as a scientist would support his religious beliefs
  • people believed they could come closer to God both by reading the Bible and by knowing better the glorious works of the creator--the book of nature as it was before human beings tamed it
gravestone of Edward

Romanticism: A literary and artistic movement that encouraged an interest in the strange, remote, solitary, and mysterious, instead of wanting to make the world as well-ordered as possible.  
English romanticism
Romanticism was a fad--not many people believed it fully

but Romantics popularized several ideas that were more widely influential
Europeans admired American scenery before Americans did.  Romantics gave everybody new words to use to describe their experience of nature.

Copying European ideas, a few Americans began to write of wilderness as beautiful.   This was new--it seems obvious to us but people really hadn't written about it that way before.

Art promoted this way of seeing nature:
Niagra Falls
Thomas Chambers: Niagara Falls (c. 1835)

This page written and copyright Pamela E. Mack
last updated 2/17/10
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