From Romantic Aesthetics to Environmental Ethics: Rethinking the Role of Natural Aesthetics in Ecocritical Discourse
Zambianchi, Patrick D.
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This dissertation questions the growing tendency in contemporary ecocriticism to regard the Romantic concept of nature as antithetical to a modern system of environmental ethics. By emphasizing the inherent interconnectedness between human and non-human organisms, most ecocritics overlook the fact that a genuine appreciation for the natural world can only be obtained through the mediation of aesthetic concepts and artistic devices (such as a refined style, lyrical tone, and diction) that are prevalent in the Romantic theory of nature. In this study, I focus on selected works by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and William Wordsworth, in order to examine the relation between late eighteenth-century ideas of nature, aesthetics and ethics, and illustrate the specific contribution of natural aesthetics to the formation of ethics. I argue that the Romantics' theorization of nature aimed at constituting an ethical system that was significantly secularized, and rivaled the capitalistic values that fueled the rapidly expanding process of modernization. With this project, I hope to reorient ongoing ecocritical debates by offering an alternative reading of Romantic aesthetics and its implicit purposes. In particular, by foregrounding the ethical project that lies at the core of the Romantic theorization of nature - and which incudes in its realm of concern non-human organisms as well as the environment - I contend that the Romantic concept of nature has advanced the development of modern environmentalism, and that it may play a prominent role in establishing a better environmental order of the future. Chapter one profiles Rousseau as one of the earliest proponents of the green movement by shedding light on the pre-environmental sensibility that informs much of his theoretical work, such as the Discourse on Inequality and the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts. Chapter two examines Rousseau's literary production - including Julie, Or the New Heloise and The Reveries of the Solitary Walker - where his views of the natural environment are articulated by means of literary techniques and aesthetic criteria from which they cannot be divorced. This points to the inextricable connection between our ideas of the environment and the field of aesthetics, which constitutes a fundamental premise in the Romantic conception of nature. Chapter three is dedicated to a study of Kant's Critique of the Power of Judgment and the "Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals," that illustrates the formal similarities between aesthetic activity and morality and stresses the importance of natural aesthetics to the establishment of ethical frameworks. In chapter four, I discuss Wordsworth's treatment of affect as a distinctive component of his ethical theory as outlined in the "Essay on Morals," Lyrical Ballads and the Prelude. By highlighting the compelling ethical values and the pre-environmental implications of Romantic aesthetics, I show that modern environmental ethics has been greatly influenced by the Romantic concept of nature, and that the solution to a better natural order might have been with us for more than two hundred years