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  • From Sacrifice to Gift: Aesthetic and Moral Aspects of the Experience of Awe for the Natural Environment

Writing about the ethics and aesthetics of the natural environment, authors like Berleant, Plumwood, Becker, Gschwandtner, Brady, and Scruton share a number of insights with historians of religions (Mauss, Otto, Eliade) over the connection between humanity and nature. These insights are the attention given to human awe in the face of majestic landscapes, a distinctive agency operating through nature’s intentionalities, the sacred character given to this agency of nature, and a feeling of guilt for human destiny diverging from nature’s path or for trespassing the limits humanly imposed that separate the space of artificial human dwelling from natural environment. I argue that reflecting on the awe of the archaic human mind, in the form of both tremendous fear and positive fascination for the mystery of nature, has potential for a contemporary aesthetic and ethical perspective of a symbiotic approach regarding nature’s fate in the context of a human technological destiny.

1. Introduction

The multiple aesthetic representations of the sacred throughout our troubled human history account for the variety of the ways the sacred has been appropriated as a regulatory moral and civilizing force by groups and large communities of peoples. Nature has always been part of the everyday life of human beings, and the natural environment has been perceived as a [End Page 18] medium for the manifestation of the sacred and as a source of moral behavior. Because of this, humans developed a peculiar relationship with nature, imbued with both fear and fascination, which Bernard Williams has called “promethean fear,” “a fear of taking too lightly or inconsiderately our relations to nature,” with the potential of nourishing “our sense of restraint in the face of nature.”1 While this attitude of restraint still persists, at least in the form of aesthetic awe on beholding the marvelous formation, over millennia, of mountains, caves, canyons, glaciers, and the like, it has largely been surpassed by the contemporary thrills presented by the latest pieces of technology. As Christina M. Gschwandtner informs us, in the nineteenth century, “some people covered their eyes when they had to travel through the Alps since their lack of geometry was perceived as ugly.”2 Thus, in spite of the long Western tradition of landscape painting, a competing spirit of technological modernity seems to have inaugurated an ever-widening existential separation from nature of humanity’s aspirations for an ordered human life and meaningful destiny.

The following argument is intended to contribute to the debates between anthropocentric and nonanthropocentric perspectives regarding nature’s place in a world where human settling and consumption impact negatively on nature’s wild splendor. The point of departure is found in Arnold Berleant’s reflection on the sacred character of the beauty of nature and his call for an awareness of human guilt for spoiling nature’s sacred dignity through a negative use of technology. I add to Berleant’s reflection the view that technology has determined a competing spirit of human-centered sacredness, which aspires to place humanity in a position that nature’s agency cannot reach. This change of the place of humanity’s technological destiny from within or under to above nature’s agency has reintroduced the influence of the archaic human inclination to sacrifice, but this time it is nature that is seen as owing sacrifices to humanity. I argue that the reflection on the aesthetic connections between humanity and nature, and especially on awe as fascination before nature’s beauty, has the potential to counter the sacrifice approach with a symbiotic one. The symbiotic approach emphasizes humanity’s humility before nature’s sacred beauty and encourages use of technology and the creative potential of humanity to cultivate a gift-making relationship, where nature’s resources are appreciated as gifts and where our future technological destiny cannot be conceived outside a symbiotic relationship with the natural environment.

2. Berleant’s Environmental Aesthetics, the Sacredness of the World and the Sacrifice Approach

In the twentieth century, the historian of religions Mircea Eliade observed that, although the “modern Occidental experiences a certain uneasiness [End Page 19] before many manifestations of the sacred,” nature was no longer experienced by the modern Western mind as a possible channel for these manifestations, since the contemporary Westerner “finds it difficult to accept the fact that, for many human beings, the sacred can be manifested in stones or trees, for example.”3 Nevertheless, “for those who have a religious experience all nature is capable of revealing itself as cosmic sacrality.”4 This is particularly possible because human spiritual engagement with nature may experience a phenomenon that Eliade calls “hierophany,” defined as “the act of manifestation of the sacred,” where “something sacred shows itself to us.”5 Although not directly concerned with the religious dimension of the manifestation of the sacred in nature, Berleant describes the particular features of contemporary environmental aesthetics in terms that echo Eliade’s view on hierophany and also Rudolf Otto’s description of the sacred as mysterium tremendum et fascinans:

The ultimate limitlessness of nature comes from the recognition that the cognitive relation with things is not the exclusive relation or even the highest one we can achieve. The proper response to nature in this sense is awe, not just from its magnitude and power, but from the mystery that, as in a work of art, is part of the essential poetry of the natural world. . . . And terror is the appropriate response to a natural process that exceeds our power and confronts us with overwhelming force as the ultimate consequence of a scientific technology where humans have become the inescapable victims of their own actions.6

By mysterium tremendum et fascinans, Otto understood a phenomenon that both terrorizes and attracts the person experiencing it.7 Berleant further adds that, on the occasions when aesthetic appreciation “dominates” the change of perspective in the aesthetic appreciation of nature, from “objectifying” nature to “perceiving the environment from within,” there are several features of the aesthetic experience that reinforce the “qualitative character of our experience,” such as “sensory acuteness,” “a perceptual unity of nature and human,” “immediacy and directness,” and “a congruity of awareness, understanding, and involvement” mixed with “awe and humility.”8 By focusing on the unmediated character of the aesthetic experience and on the connection between reverent and audacious attitudes toward the encounter with natural phenomena, Berleant situates the aesthetics of the environment in the immediate vicinity of the religious sacred.

Moreover, Berleant depicts the natural environment as emanating a force confronting and overwhelming not only the natural but also the technological power of humankind. He argues that this overwhelming manifestation of nature over human power is nothing but the “ultimate consequence” of an inappropriate use of technology. The meaning of Berleant’s assertion that “humans have become the inescapable victims of their own actions” based largely on technological advancements might be elucidated from René [End Page 20] Dubos’s essay “Man and His Environment: Adaptations and Interactions,” which Berleant cites in a footnote: “modern man increasingly falls victim to chronic disorders resulting from his ways of life, and . . . technological achievements may not contribute significantly to his happiness.”9 What makes Berleant’s argument more poignant than that of Dubos is the specific emphasis on the manifestation of nature as a direct reaction to the influences wrought on her by human scientific technology and the suggestion of a certain human guilt over the transition (in which technology has played a major role) of humanity’s social life from within to without nature.

This approach reintroduces a dimension that remains intimately connected with the archaic idea of human guilt for destroying a part of nature, or an entity, in order to create an orderly human habitat: the sacrifice, which is deemed a “periodical return” to ensure the “continuity of natural life,”10 or at least a life conceived as naturally suitable for a humanity immersed in nature. Moreover, in the idea of the sacrifice, the sacrificer himself becomes the victim.11 If in most cultures this unity of the victim and the sacrificer is invested with positive value, since it is a condition for the creation or the renovation of the humanly ordered universe,12 Berleant sees it as negative, since the technological power of humanity does not only excise the human species out of nature but also proves itself destructive for the natural environment. However, this does not eliminate the idea of the sacrifice to be offered as a ransom appeasing the wrath of the agency that reveals itself via an overwhelming power. In other words, the price to be paid by humanity is to fall victim to the terror brought about by the agency of a nature whose stability has been troubled by human technological intentionality, but indirectly the ultimate cause of the chronic disorders of the physical or the social body remain human beings themselves. While not completely borrowing the religious model of the sacredness of nature, Berleant’s aesthetic perspective on the natural environment nevertheless advances toward a closely related model. This model still proclaims, based on the same archaic roots as the religious one, a dimension of sacredness not affected by human religious intentionality but that reveals an independent sacred agency in nature.

3. The Natural Sacredness of the World and the Technological Sacredness of Humanity

The sacred (sacer) means etymologically to be “set off, restricted,” an area that would be off limits for those of the profane world.13 Gerhold K. Becker appreciates that “a biocentric ethics of respect” incorporates “an aesthetic conception of nature that gives due recognition to its beauty and non-instrumental worth” by virtue of a perspective based on the religious and etymological conception of the sacred.14 Becker points out that, “for a biocentric ethics of respect, human encroachment on nature and even more so [End Page 21] its exploitation and destruction breaks down this final taboo and destroys the last remnants of the holy in a secular world.” The ultimate consequences of this breaking down of the “final taboo” (that is, what has been considered as “sacred,” or “restricted”) are identifiable in an attitude of total objectification and commoditization of nature by human beings: “nothing remains that would be off limits and, in principle, everything is at our disposal, including our genome and our own species nature.”15 Nevertheless, Becker criticizes the biocentric advancement toward a perspective that he calls “the re-enchantment of nature and its divinization without transcendence” and that he assimilates with Hobbes’s idea of a “mortal god”: “Even in the case that nature were to be installed in God’s place it would remain a ‘mortal god’ (Thomas Hobbes) whose fate is entirely in the hands of humanity.”16

My aim here is not to produce a defense of the biocentric perspective, since I also maintain that human agency has an important role in the future destiny of nature as intimately connected with the destiny of humanity. Nevertheless, I argue that the nonanthropocentric perspective that attributes a distinctive agency to nature does not specifically emphasize the claim that nature should “be installed in God’s place,” as Becker understands it. Rather, the nonanthropocentric view assumes that nature’s agency should not be overlooked in the name of a human freedom from any form of religious sacredness, a freedom to endlessly manipulate nature technologically according to pragmatic and economic ends. Even in the Middle Ages, Francis of Assisi did not overshadow nature’s distinctive agency by his insight into the awe of religious sacredness. Roger D. Sorrell argues that Francis’s choice to emphasize nature’s agency by using phrases like “brother Sun,” “sister Moon,” and “Sister, Mother Earth” did not strike his medieval readers as “un-Christian” or “pantheistic”; in contrast, “to us it is unusual to see creation envisioned in an active rather than a passive, abstract, objectified sense (‘the laws of nature’).”17 This insight shows that, in times of religious sensitivity against heresy, Francis of Assisi not only distinguished but also made compatible two kinds of sacredness: the divine and nature. Therefore, a contemporary theoretical advancement toward a clearer focus on nature’s agency and human awe when faced with nature’s sacredness, as distinguished from divine sacredness, would not install nature in “God’s place.” It would more clearly contribute to a human cultural and intellectual acknowledgment of the nature’s distinctive place, that she has always had since the beginning of time.

In this respect, I would like to expand the reflection on the connection between sacredness and the relationship between humankind and nature, drawing on arguments of environmentalists about nature’s agency and non-human intentionality. As we have seen above, the term sacred (sacer) refers not only to a positive acknowledgment of a series of extraordinary qualities that make a place or a being the medium for hierophany, but also to a sense [End Page 22] of fear of entering in contact with something that is off limits. Eliade emphasizes that the sacred, if experienced instantly, without proper preparation, presents itself as “kratophany,” that aspect of hierophany that is a genuine “manifestation of power”18 and exults the fear in the feeling of veneration:

It is dangerous to come near any defiled or consecrated object in a profane state—without, that is, the proper ritual preparation. What is called taboo—from a Polynesian word that the ethnologists have taken over—means just that: it is the fact of things’, or places’, or persons’, being cut off, or “forbidden,” because contact with them is dangerous. Generally speaking, any object, action or person which either has naturally, or acquires by some shift of ontological level, force of a nature more or less uncertain, is, or becomes, taboo.19

The technological age reveals humanity’s attempt to make a shift in its ontological status by declaring itself untouchable by nature. Because of this separation from nature of its urbanized and technological destiny, humankind strengthens its “sacred” fate by focusing (as much as the technology allows it) on the dimension that renders it untouchable by nature: eradicating diseases, preventing natural disasters, and even assuring the sustainability of nature’s economic exploitation. Nevertheless, nature’s agency often transgresses the boundaries set by humans through phenomena like earthquakes, floods, storms, diseases, and predation whose sudden emergence into the secure environment of humanly constructed reality appears as a defilement of the “sacred” character of the human being.

The insight of Val Plumwood, who escaped from the jaws of a crocodile in 1985, is edificatory:

As a human being, I was so much more than food. It was a denial of, an insult to all I was to reduce me to food. . . . With indignation as well as disbelief, I rejected this event. It was an illusion! It was not only unjust but unreal! It couldn’t be happening. After much later reflection, I came to see that there was another way to look at it. There was illusion alright, but it was the other way around. It was the world of “normal experience” that was the illusion, and the newly disclosed brute world in which I was prey was, in fact, the unsuspected reality, or at least a crucial part of it.20

Plumwood recalls that, during the hours of coping with her wounds after her escape, part of her struggle to stay alive and maximize her chances to be found by a rescue team consisted in “shouting for mercy from the sky, apologizing to the angry crocodile,” repenting to the place “for the fault of my intrusion.”21 On the way to hospital, she strongly opposed the rescue team’s plans to try to shoot a crocodile the next day: “I was the intruder, and no good purpose could be served by random revenge.”22 Environmental thought thus focuses on the enduring value of nature’s “sacred” status as [End Page 23] an agent of creation, regeneration, and protection of the natural ecosystems from intruders. If we have set ourselves apart from nature, this does not mean that nature should be reduced to dirt, devoid of any personality and meaning, and exploited until exhaustion. Before nature’s power to directly affect human destiny, despite modern increase of human power through technology, the act by which the human being has set himself apart from nature rather appears as a decree of the human imagination. Under the impression of the awesome artifacts of technology, humanity tends to forget the awe that reveals instantly our sheer vulnerability before nature.

By virtue of her “sacred” character, nature has been increasingly perceived in environmental thought not only as a medium for human intentionality but as a source of nonhuman intentionality. Plumwood herself has characterized this view as “weak panpsychism.”23 This recalls the relation of the archaic human with nature considered as a source of a distinctive intentionality. Drawing on Jean-Luc Marion’s philosophy, Gschwandtner talks about the hermeneutic possibilities of applying Marion’s conception of a “saturated phenomenon” to the phenomena of the natural realities.24 Marion’s understanding of a “saturated phenomenon” is an event that does not originate in human intentionality but in “its own counter-intentionality”25 and that “presses urgently on the gaze more than the gaze presses toward it.”26 Gschwandtner emphasizes that Marion finds this kind of event “overwhelming and bedazzling”; that is why, during its manifestation, “all our usual categories of experience” prove insufficient for thorough analysis of what is happening.27 As I have already mentioned, Otto opened the bidimensional reflection on archaic humanity’s attitude of awe in the face of the manifestation of the sacred: the equal importance of the terror or the struggle for survival that makes us retreat and the fascination and will to knowledge that pushes us forward and deeper into the mysterious phenomenon that presents itself to us.28

4. The Symbiosis Approach and the Aesthetic Origins of Morality

If the mystery of sacred phenomena were exhausted by the dimension of terror unleashed over the human mind, the relationship between humankind and the sacred, be it divine or natural, would amount to human efforts either to appease the wrath of the nonhuman intentionality by sacrifices or annihilate it by a preventive strike (by destroying all the means and vessels by which the nonhuman intentionality has been observed to have manifested in the past). Nevertheless, the other dimension of human awe before the sacred, that of fascination, has operated fully in the history of religion. This dimension is responsible for human advance into the mystery and appropriating, for humanity’s spiritual development, insights that even today seem [End Page 24] rather to have what Otto and Eliade have called a “numinous” (that is, otherworldly) character.29 The development of ideas like beauty, faith, and moral value in human culture seems to have benefitted heavily from the fascination of the human mind on the occasion of these encounters with nonhuman agency. Eliade emphasizes, for instance, the “numinous character” of the decorated caves of the Palaeolithic parietal art, which reveal human fascination for a natural environment that humanity was trying to emulate in order to enter into contact with intentionalities beyond human reach.30 Appropriating the likeness of animals by dressing in the skins of the hunted, together with postures of instrument playing and dancing, represents a leitmotif of Palaeolithic art.31 These are highly symbolic representations through which the fascination aspect of human awe in contact with the otherworldly was preserved by the archaic artist and used as means of ritually creating the premises for the repetition of the awe-full events.

In the appropriation of what was perceived by archaic humanity as fascinating in nature, aesthetic expressivity has played a crucial role. The travail of the human mind to advance toward forms of expression that would transcend the immediacy of bodily urges in favor of perennial values owes much to this awe-evoking aesthetic expressivity. The awe-full events, the aesthetic attempts to reiterate the conditions for their reappearance, and the willingness of the archaic mind to model one’s personality to make it worthy of the encounter represent as many fountains of moral relationships not only with numinous intentionalities but also with the intentionalities of fellow human beings. In his reflection on the aesthetic origins of morality, David Bentley Hart refuses to accept that human need for the moral good comes only as a privatio mali, that is, only as a negation of the “substantial suffering” that humankind finds in the world and observes in relations with fellow human beings.32 Hart maintains that the source of morality remains the fascination for the beauty of the world and the other’s body. He intricately links beauty, which he defines as “the sudden splendor of otherness” with wonder, to argue that they both have a positive impact in modeling human intentionality toward moral ends: “It is beauty and wonder that bring intention up short and prevent it from traversing the distance of being in indifference. . . . What startles and provokes is glory, in which one finds a coincidence of strangeness and recognition. Often, seeing the color of another’s eyes is the beginning of ‘responsibility.”33 Nevertheless, Hart admits the frailty of beauty, even when enjoined with fascination, as a fountain for human morality, since “it is one’s consent to behold and be beholden to another (anything less reduces the other to nothing).”34 That is why he believes that the “Utopian or eschatological” strengthens moral desire in order to bring it to the path of “the hope of reciprocity.”35

In the context of the reflection on the archaic human’s deep attachment to nature, the “Utopian or eschatological” Hart talks about can be identified [End Page 25] in human awe’s fascination for the sacred character of the world, a fascination that connects images of beauty with the development of higher ideas and values. As Eliade notes, there is a “unique spiritual foundation of the various cultural styles,” where an image becomes “an ‘opening out’ into the transcendent.”36 It is only by virtue of this intimate connection with the sacredness of beauty that “the Images which precede and inform cultures remain eternally alive and universally accessible.”37 The imitation of the majesty of nature has thus led to a strengthening of the prehistoric human mind around “limit situations”38 where, as Hart asserts, the “strangeness and recognition” of the beauty encountered both in nature and in the other lead to attitudes of “enough humility to be awestruck by the beauty of another” and of “hope for reciprocity.”39 And because “one needs its otherness to taste of” the beauty of another,40 this precludes the mere devouring of the beautiful one and institutes a relationship of admiration and responsibility for protecting the beauty’s frailty.

Modern landscape art did not abandon the connection of the archaic parietal artist’s intentionality with the sacred intentionalities of the world. Being the fruit of human capacity for representation and imagination, landscape painting still functions as a buffer between the original awe-full hierophany of the sacredness of a place and human ordinary perceptions and as windows open toward humanity’s self-transcendence. As Roger Scruton points out, in the work of art “something is being revealed to me, and I am being made to stand still and absorb it.”41 Scruton believes that “throughout the nineteenth century artists, poets, and composers were in this way exploring and imploring the face of nature eager for a direct and I-to-I encounter.”42

By introducing the concept of “ampliative imagination,” Emily Brady emphasizes the putting together of the capacity for representation and the capacity for imagination in human creative possibilities and suggests a perspective that comes close to those of Eliade, Hart, and Scruton: “Where ampliative imagination leads to the discovery of an aesthetic truth, I call this imaginative activity revelatory.”43 She goes as far as arguing that the aesthetic engagement with landscape may even amount to bringing about “a kind of truth or knowledge about the world” and that this knowledge may appropriately be called a “revelation in the nonreligious sense.”44 Brady’s argument contributes to the perspective that stresses the positive manifestations of the sacred dimension of the natural landscape and exhorts elevating the status of the dignity of nature, as an equal partner with humanity, to an objective truth, even if this truth has been subjectively constructed by the human creative mind.

It is, thus, the landscape artist’s merit (and, by extension the merit of contemporary documentary footage) of instituting the work of art or the image as an interface protecting the viewer from the unexpected effects of awe as a direct contact with nature’s sacredness. At the same time, the painting or [End Page 26] the digital image urge toward moving away from the kratophany of the majesty of nature toward a positive fascination and will to knowledge about nonhuman intentionalities in order to protect their beauty and frailty. Both landscape art and landscape images appear thus as creative gestures of translation of the awe-full into what can be constructively appropriated by humanity, thus as an attempt toward perpetuating a symbiotic relationship with nature’s intentionalities by taking them as witnesses of humanity’s spiritual growth, not merely the material.

5. Toward a Gift-Making Reciprocal Relationship between Humanity and Nature

Over millennia of mapping specific human paths, alongside animal paths, at the core of nature’s ecosystemic processes, it became second nature to humanity to feel awe, to feel both frightened and fascinated, in the face of the marvelous displays of sounds, colors, shapes, relations, or ineffable results of eras of geological or biological transformations. Humankind identified all these processes as “sacred.” This “tendency” to “live as much as possible in the sacred” is “perfectly understandable,” according to Eliade, since “the sacred is saturated with being.”45 The thirst for being has been manifested mainly in two approaches through which the archaic human attempted to connect with and interpret the mysterious discourse of nature’s intentionalities: sacrifice and symbiosis. One of the enduring characteristics of sacrifice has been to symbolize not only an attempt to obtain the protection of non-human intentionalities, but also to reassert the essential human dependence of the agency of nature. Scruton gives the example of Abraham’s intent to sacrifice Isaac (or Ishmael in the Islamic tradition) and asserts that the example reveals “a fundamental religious truth,” which is that “being is not an accident but a gift.”46 In other words, sacrifice helped human beings to better understand their symbiotic relationship with nature and accept their lives as gifts.

What I am proposing is an enlargement of the dimension of gift-making to better reflect the symbiosis approach in the context of a nonreligious sacredness of nature. If the sacrifice itself was also a confirmation of the symbiosis between humanity and nature, the sacrifice approach has also led to a domination of nature by the human ambition to replace God’s sacredness with human sacredness. Thus, the human thirst for domination that infected the sacrifice approach reduced nature’s sacred character, which no longer was seen as dependent on a transcendent being (God), but on human technological capacities. A gift-making relationship between humanity and nature, based as much as possible on the symbiosis approach and less on the sacrifice approach, would reassert nature’s sacred character as preceding and engendering human consciousness. A symbiosis-inspired gift made [End Page 27] to nature would thus avoid making a gift of whatever human beings would consider primarily valuable for themselves and only by extension valuable for nature. Examples of these include the ever-shrinking dimensions of parks within cities or that of natural parks motivated by economic interests and the arguments citing the willingness to restore nature after the exploitation has ended.

A simple parallel coexistence of humanity and nature suggests that, in the age of ever-expanding human artificial environments, human and natural destinies intersect only occasionally and almost always require a sacrifice: that of nature’s beauty or ecological balance or that of human safety when taking the risk of exploring or exploiting nature. Natural disasters, especially those provoked by human exploitive intentionality, are interpreted commemoratively as kinds of sacrifices, as they may reclaim both human and animal lives and threaten the stability of certain habitats. Nevertheless, other kinds of events that are interpreted as gratuitous sacrifices requested unilaterally by nature, like diseases or unprovoked natural disasters, appear as unacceptable for a human conscience educated in the light of the idea of the human body’s sacredness to nature. A gift-making relationship based on the symbiotic approach would take human life as a gift of the sacred dimension of nature. If human life is sacred, that is because human bodily life is nature’s life: nourishing or healing the human body would only be fully meaningful as a way to nourish and heal and within the context of nourishing and healing nature herself. If we are to follow Malthusian theory, nature keeps population growth in check to maintain a balance over ecosystems,47 in which case, finding ways of better accommodating growing populations in a symbiotic relationship with nature might decrease nature’s wrath to fabricate diseases too sophisticated for the human technological capacity for healing ourselves. A gift-making attitude rooted in a symbiotic approach would contribute to what might be called a relation of “pro-existence”:48 if the human body is nature and if healing and protecting the sacredness of the human body involves the healing and protecting of nature, then the existence of humanity can never be disconnected from the processes of nature, and the progress of human knowledge and technology is to be directed primarily “for” nature and through nature toward human well-being, rather than toward nature through individual well-being.

One of the great challenges surrounding the ideal of a pro-existential relationship between humanity and nature and the adopting by humanity of a gift-making attitude based on a symbiosis approach, remains the risk of objectifying nature through human intentionality, even when involved in gift-making. Scruton, for instance, believes that, in the aesthetic experience, “the world looks back at me with my eyes.”49 The problematic aspect thus remains the human interpretation of the gift, together with the attitude of protecting only the aesthetic aspects of nature that accord with [End Page 28] anthropocentric expectations about beauty. This leads us to the debate over conservation of natural beauty. Williams sees the human attempt to preserve nature as a “paradox,” since preserving wilderness “is not in our power”50 because, in his view, “a nature preserved by us is no longer a nature that is simply not controlled. A natural park is not nature, but a park; a wilderness that is preserved is a definite, delimited, wilderness.”51 Eric Katz also believes that “once we inject our intentional designs into a natural system, we no longer have a natural system.”52 Katz opposes “restoration policy,” an attitude that “looks backward,” as “technological restoration” is still based on an “anthropocentric worldview.”53 He thus defends a forward-looking “preservationist policy, based on nonanthropocentrism”: “It sees a natural area or species and asks what can be done in the future to preserve it.”54 Although he admits that there is “some truth” to the view of restoring “damaged ecosystems and habitats,” Katz fears that “the adoption of a policy of repair and restoration” might appear as “an acknowledgement that humanity has the license to manipulate and control the natural world.”55

The aesthetic perspective seems to confirm and even extend the problematic aspect of objectifying nature by humanity. Tiziana Andina, for instance, reminds us that, according to institutional artifactualist aesthetic theories, a natural object can sometimes be transformed in a human artifact “by way of a pure and simple fiat” or by a change of its context or by the way human intentionality may impact on its artistic status.56 One of the central arguments regarding the transformation of nature in an intentional object is illustrated by the example of a person’s discovery of a “stump of wood on a beach” and the act of taking it home and placing it in a special position according to human perception of beauty. With the mere fact of taking the piece of wood out of its natural context, which is also amplified by the change of its orientation according to human intentionality, the question arises whether it then becomes a human artifact.57 If this is applied to large areas of natural parks, the borders of which are continuously subject to change generated by human decree guided by economic concerns, then indeed the nature trapped within those ever-shrinking limits incurs the risk of being objectified. I argue that the way out of this predicament is first to acknowledge that, even when enclosed with virtual or actual fences, nature is no less sacred and then to advance toward a symbiotic relationship with nature.

First of all, one should not forget that, if nature is objectified by human intentionality, humans themselves are objectified as well by nature’s intentionalities. Plumwood’s experience of being prey illustrates the case of a human being removed by nature from her social and cultural context where she was “so much more than food” to be simply objectified according to the intentionalities of nonhuman entities. I do not include this argument to legitimize any right of humans to subdue or exploit nature but simply to [End Page 29] point out that nature’s agency over human beings is very much operational. This agency should be acknowledged not only in a negative way (fighting to overcome nature, or at least to retaliate, like the rescuers of Plumwood wanting to shoot a crocodile) but also in a positive humble attitude of remaining in awe of the fact that potentially any natural being (humanity included) is just part of the natural food chain and at the same time so much more (not only for human aesthetic, economic, or environmental purposes, but part of the sacred character of nature).

Second, since humanity is nature, advancing on the path of a symbiotic relationship may open up a new perspective of human individual and communal destiny embedded in nature’s destiny. Throughout the histories of religion and of the environment, there are concrete examples of individuals living in areas dominated by untamed intentionalities of nature and still becoming fellows of wild animals, thus ceasing to be perceived by nature as intruders. It is encouraging that, within only a few years’ life, a person (a hermit or an environmentalist living in the wild) may become receptive to the fascinating sacredness of nature (in either a religious or nonreligious way), thus becoming able to overcome millennia of human tremor at the sound or sight of nature’s manifestations. Adopting a culture of symbiosis and a gift-making reciprocal relationship with nature may contribute to significant advancements in reconciling human and nonhuman agencies, at not only the individual but also community level. As Elizabeth Swanstrom argues, technology like digital images and interactive exploration of natural habitats has a formative role in developing human acknowledgment of the existence of a peculiar type of intentionality in the nonhuman world.58 Moreover, Robert S. Fudge argues that scientific knowledge in general may play a significant role, alongside Brady’s aesthetic “ampliative imagination,” for an enhanced aesthetic appreciation of natural environment that sometimes may look “unscenic.”59 Human science and technology may thus become not only a factor in proclaiming humanity taboo for nature but also an instrument of finding creative ways of building entire cities as humanely created ecosystems that would not chase nature out but would rather educate human sensibility to a symbiotic relationship with nature. Returning the gift of life and resources received from nature implies both an attitude of awe for nature’s beauty and inherent value and human spiritual and material capabilities to coherently add the human voice alongside nonhuman voices as part of the drama of nature’s destiny on the stage of our home planet.

6. Conclusions

Starting with Berleant’s characterization of the aesthetics of the natural environment in terms evoking the human experience of sacred reality, I [End Page 30] emphasized Berleant’s concern about humanity’s awe of the potentially vengeful agency of nature determined by the use of technology toward exploitive goals. I have argued that Berleant’s view reiterates both the dimension of a sacredness of nature and human guilt for changing the natural environment with artificially created milieux and for transforming nature in a site of search for raw materials. Berleant’s juxtaposition of human guilt before nature and of the latter’s sacredness brings the ethical commitment to nature in environmental aesthetics close to the view developed in the history of religions about the archaic conscience that human separation from nature has initiated a human destiny divergent from nature’s path, with potential clashes with nature’s intentionalities, the wrath of which can only be appeased by sacrifices. I find similarities between Berleant’s suggestion and the views of other environmental thinkers, like Becker, Plum-wood, Gschwandtner, and Brady. I agree with Berleant in asserting a sacred character of nature, and I further distinguish nature’s sacredness from the artificial sacredness in which humanity has invested technological powers. In contrast with Becker, I maintain that humanity’s investment in the idea of nature’s sacredness did not aim toward establishing nature in the place of God, but rather in usurping God’s place for the profit of humanity, that is, for dominion over nature. Thus, this artificial sacredness has led the sacrifice approach to the limit, in transforming the idea of sacrifice as a necessary ransom offered by humankind to nature into the approach of a sacred humanity requiring nature’s resources as a necessary price for letting nature be. Moreover, even this aspect of letting nature be is further complicated by the involvement of anthropocentric intentionality in environmental thinking.

To challenge the sacrifice approach, I then altered the emphasis from the negative aspect of the sacrifice as ransom to the positive aspect of the sacrifice as a gift, a view already maintained in contemporary thought by Scruton. I also found that Otto’s and Eliade’s emphasis on fascination in the archaic human mind for the beauty of nature represents a further step in linking the idea of the gifts endowed by nature with a symbiosis approach. I argued that an environmental ethics that takes as a model the symbiotic relationship intimately involving humanity and nature may go beyond the opposition of anthropocentrism and nonanthropocentrism. The fascination for nature’s beauty and the desire to appropriate the sacred dimension of beauty give the positive meaning of the moral relationship between humanity and nature, and also among human beings, rather than a relationship of dependence expressed through sacrifices as a price to be paid to be left alone, an approach that ultimately leads to humanity’s wish for the overturn of the domination of nature or the gods. To strengthen the link between the aesthetic perception of nature and the ethical relationship with the environment, I have nuanced Hart’s argument regarding the feeling of mixed [End Page 31] “strangeness and recognition” at the encounter with the beauty of the other. I have argued that perception of beauty alone does not necessarily lead to a positive moral relationship with the environment or with other fellows, since beauty may simply be devoured or totally subjected to a human intentionality of comfort and individual well-being. The feeling that forms the medium of positive encounter between beauty in nature or in the other is awe, thus perceiving beauty as sacred and perennial despite its frailty. It is awe, especially in its positive dimension of fascination for the beauty of the environment and for fellow human and nonhuman entities, that propels the conversion of mere natural feeling into moral culture.

In the last section of my essay, I focused on the debates over either restoration or preservation policies regarding the natural environment, which seem to be amplified by the aesthetic perspective since, as Katz and Williams suggest, a simple aesthetic “fiat” may transform a large wild area into a human artifact. I have argued that the role of aesthetic reasons, sometimes aided by scientifically informed “ampliative imagination,” together with the acknowledgment of the sacred status of nature, are essential for promoting the symbiosis approach in the guise of a gift-making relationship between humanity and nature. This gift-making perspective conflates both anthropocentric and nonanthropocentric views, in recognizing that the human intentionality that modifies nature is a reality and in aiming at rendering justice to the nonanthropocentric view by acknowledging both nature’s independence from any human-centered project and its role in human flourishing. The challenge ahead consists in a use of all the creative powers of humanity, aesthetic imagination and technological opportunities included, to better acknowledge the independent and sacred status of nature’s agency and to advance on the path of symbiosis between humankind and nature in order to return to nature the gifts she has bestowed on us.

Ionut Untea

Ionut Untea is a research professor in the Department of Philosophy and Science at Southeast University, Nanjing. He has previously taught at the University of La Rochelle and was a postdoctoral fellow of the Foundation for Interreligious and Inter-cultural Research and Dialogue at the University of Geneva. He obtained his doctorate in 2013 at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. He authored several articles focusing on the intersections between aesthetics, ethics, religion, and political thought in modern and contemporary times.


1. Bernard Williams, Making Sense of Humanity and Other Philosophical Papers, 1982– 1993 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 239.

2. Christina M. Gschwandtner, “Might Nature Be Interpreted as a ‘Saturated Phenomenon’?,” in Interpreting Nature: The Emerging Field of Environmental Hermeneutics, ed. Forrest Clingerman, Brian Treanor, Martin Drenthen, and David Utsler (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), 93.

3. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York: Harcourt, 1959), 11–12.

4. Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, 12.

5. Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, 11.

6. Arnold Berleant, The Aesthetics of Environment (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 169–70.

7. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958), 140.

8. Berleant, The Aesthetics of Environment, 169–70.

9. Berleant, The Aesthetics of Environment, 197n25; René Dubos, “Man and His Environment: Adaptations and Interactions,” in The Fitness of Man’s Environment, Smithsonian Annual 2 (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 234–35.

10. Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 74.

11. Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1975), 24. See also Marilyn McCord Adams, Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 242.

12. Hubert and Mauss, Sacrifice, 72; Eliade, Rites and Symbols, 24; Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, Volume 1: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 5; Mircea Eliade, The Forge and the Crucible (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 31–33.

13. Gerhold K. Becker, “Je Suis le Grand Tout: Respect for Nature in the Age of Environmental Responsibility,” in Environmental Ethics: Intercultural Perspectives, ed. King-Tak Ip (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009), 37.

14. Becker, “Je Suis le Grand Tout,” 37–38.

15. Becker, “Je Suis le Grand Tout,” 37.

16. Becker, “Je Suis le Grand Tout,” 38.

17. Roger D. Sorrell, St. Francis of Assisi and Nature: Tradition and Innovation in Western Christian Attitudes toward the Environment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 117.

18. Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1958), 14.

19. Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, 15.

20. Val Plumwood, The Eye of the Crocodile (Canberra: Australian National University E Press, 2012), 12.

21. Val Plumwood, “Human Vulnerability and the Experience of Being Prey,” Quadrant 29, no. 3 (1995): 32.

22. Val Plumwood, “Prey to a Crocodile,” AISLING Magazine, issue 30: Bealtaine, 2002,, accessed September 7, 2019.

23. Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London: Routledge, 1993), 133; Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (London: Routledge, 2002), 178.

24. Gschwandtner, “Might Nature Be Interpreted,” 91.

25. Jean-Luc Marion, In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), 113; Gschwandtner, “Might Nature Be Interpreted,” 84.

26. Jean-Luc Marion, Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 159; Gschwandtner, “Might Nature Be Interpreted,” 83.

27. Gschwandtner, “Might Nature Be Interpreted,” 83.

28. Otto, Idea of the Holy, 140.

29. Otto, Idea of the Holy, 5; Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, 9–10.

30. Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, 1:16–17.

31. Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, 1:18.

32. David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 83, emphasis in original.

33. Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, 84.

34. Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, 84.

35. Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, 84.

36. Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1961), 174.

37. Eliade, Images and Symbols, 173.

38. Eliade, Images and Symbols, 174.

39. Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, 83–84.

40. Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, 84.

41. Roger Scruton, The Soul of the World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 139.

42. Scruton, The Soul of the World.

43. Emily Brady, “Imagination and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56, no. 2 (1998): 144, emphasis in original.

44. Brady, “Imagination and the Aesthetic.”

45. Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, 12.

46. Scruton, Soul of the World, 181.

47. Edmund N. Santurri, “Theodicy and Social Policy in Malthus’ Thought,” Journal of the History of Ideas 43, no. 2 (1982): 318.

48. Udo Middelmann, Pro-Existence: The Place of Man in the Circle of Reality (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012).

49. Scruton, Soul of the World, 139.

50. Williams, Making Sense of Humanity, 240.

51. Williams, Making Sense of Humanity, 240.

52. Eric Katz, “Convergence and Ecological Restoration: A Counterexample,” in Nature in Common? Environmental Ethics and the Contested Foundations of Environmental Policy, ed. Ben A. Minteer (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009), 192.

53. Katz, “Convergence and Ecological Restoration,” 193.

54. Katz, “Convergence and Ecological Restoration,” 193.

55. Katz, “Convergence and Ecological Restoration,” 194.

56. Tiziana Andina, The Philosophy of Art: The Question of Definition from Hegel to Post-Dantian Theories (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 69–73.

57. Andina, The Philosophy of Art, 69–70.

58. Elizabeth Swanstrom, Animal, Vegetable, DIGITAL: Experiments in New Media Aesthetics and Environmental Poetics (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2016), 85, 111, 115.

59. Robert S. Fudge, “Imagination and the Science-Based Aesthetic Appreciation of Unscenic Nature,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 59, no. 3 (2001): 282.

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