Arcadianism is the ideal of a simple rural life
in close harmony with nature. The word derives from a
mountainous region in ancient Greece called Arcady, whose
inhabitants supposedly dwelt in an Eden-like state of innocence, at
peace with the earth and its creatures. The Arcadian tradition is
an environmental vision of modern times, which has contributed to
the growth of an ecological ethic of coexistence rather than
domination of the natural world. Although is has often been a
naive surrender to nostalgia, the emphasis is upon humility rather
than self assertion, living as part, of rather than in a state of
superiority to, nature.
In their classification of the natural world,
Europeans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries expressed the
same attitude to plants as they did to animals, with a rigid
distinction between useful 'crops' and useless 'weeds'. To the
progressive farmer, a weed was and still is, the vegetable
equivalent of vermin, to be hacked down, uprooted, poisoned and
burned. The hierarchy of plants paralleled human society, with the
noble oak at the top and the lowly buttercup at the bottom. Weeds
and nettles were like the common people, unwanted and springing up
A more neutral attitude was adopted by the early
scientists, who recognized that even weeds and wild plants might be
useful. Apothecaries had always believed that many neglected wild
plants were valuable medically. Early botanists and naturalists
allowed nothing to be weeds in their attempt at 'objective'
classification and located wild plants as well as domestic ones.
From the seventeenth century scientists began to study nature in
its own right.
In zoology, the distinction between wild and tame
was also abandoned. Some scientists even recognised that all
systems of classification are man-made devices to order the world.
While attempting to draw up a neutral taxonomy, they criticised the
vulgar error that birds, beasts and plants could respond
sympathetically to human beings.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century with
the growth of a Romantic sensibility, a new attitude to plants
developed which went beyond the neutral. Weeds and wild plants
began to be appreciated for themselves and for their success in
escaping man's rapacious hand. John Clare devoted many poems to the
beauty of plants that farmers hated: ragwort, yarrow, rushes,
thistles, poppies in the corn. The Romantics preferred the common
wild flowers to cultivated blooms, the violet which grew and died
by the brook unseen by man to the rose above the cottage door.
While most people continued to see the natural world largely in
terms of its potential use, the Romantic poets and travellers went
to the opposite extreme of the scientists' objectivity, giving way
to the 'pathetic fallacy' and seeing in nature a reflection of
their own moods and feelings.
Gilbert White's much-loved Natural History of
Selborne (1789) reflects this new benign attitude to nature,
advocating a simple life in peaceful coexistence with other
organisms. As a 'philosopher' this curate and naturalist was intent
on recording 'the life and conversation of animals' in his parish
but it proved one of the most important early contributions to
field ecology. He was particularly struck by the way 'Nature is a
great economist' for 'she converts the recreation of one animal to
the support of another!' The smallest organism is important to the
overall harmony in the economy of nature. 'Earthworms,' he
observed, 'though in appearance a small and despicable link in the
chain of nature, yet if lost would make a lamentable chasm. But
White still believed that Nature required a helping hand to
eradicate obnoxious insects from her economy and to improve her
stock for human benefit.
Despite the biblical justification for man's
dominion over nature in the Judaeo- Christian tradition, the good
Christian could find passages which reminded him to be lenient in
his rule. One should not only turn the other cheek, but help the
ass of one's enemy when it lay under its burden (Exodus 23:5;
Deuteronomy 25:4). Animals, like humans, should be allowed to rest
on the Sabbath (Exodus 23:5). Above all, 'a righteous man regardeth
the life of his beast' (Proverbs 12:10). But these isolated
examples of putting down the rod did not challenge the overwhelming
sense of dominion that Christians felt over the rest of nature.
Cruelty was condemned not because the victims suffered but because
it was felt that those who torture animals would end up torturing
their fellows. 'If any passage in holy scriptures seems to forbid
us to be cruel to brute animals,' Aquinas asserted confidently,
'that is either . . . lest through being cruel to animals one
becomes cruel to human beings or because injury to an animal leads
to the temporal hurt of man.'
In the seventeenth century a few writers in the
Christian tradition began to question man's alleged sovereignty
over other creatures. The Cambridge Platonist Henry More thought
that creatures were made 'to enjoy themselves', as did the
naturalist John Ray. Sir Matthew Hale argued that cruelty to beasts
was 'tyranny', 'breach of trust' and injustice. A strict
interpretation of the Christian doctrine of stewardship made it
difficult to condone killing animals for sport. Samuel Pepys for
one thought animal sport provided 'a very rude and nasty pleasure'.
Even if animals had been created for man's sake, as Genesis taught,
that did not provide grounds for ill- treating them.
Philosophy in this case came to the support of
the feelings. The creation could not be considered solely for man's
use since it was increasingly difficult to believe that nature had
an end at all. Greek teleology was abandoned for a purposeless
world. Francis Bacon and Descartes had rejected the notion of final
causes in natural history, while for Spinoza all final causes were
human inventions. David Hume in his Dialogues concerning Natural
Religion (published in 1779) described 'a blind nature,
impregnated with a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth
from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and
abortive children'. Even Kant in his Critique of Teleological
Judgment (1790) was unable to find 'any being capable of laying
claim to the distinction of being the final end of creation'.
The shift in consciousness was so great in the
eighteenth century that by 1769 the English naturalist Edward
Bancroft considered that the 'arrogance of humanity' had created
the delusion that the whole of animate nature had been created
solely for its use. By the end of the century, the new sensibility
towards the creation became increasingly apparent. Animals were no
longer brutes or beasts, or even fellow creatures, but companions
and even brothers. In a burst of revolutionary fervour, Coleridge
extended the notion of fraternity from the human sphere to the
animal world, and to 'A Young Ass' - 'Poor little Foal of an
oppressed race!' - exclaimed: 'I hail thee Brother.'' Blake,
for whom everything that lived was holy, found a fellow in the
Byron not only condemned capital punishment but
attacked angling as that 'solitary vice'. He took to task the
author of The Compleat Angler (which had, since its first
publication in 1653, by 1800 gone into nearly four hundred editions
or separate reissues).
Wordsworth had a moral repulsion toward the
mechanistic point of view. He felt that something had been
left out, and that what had been left out comprised everything that
was most important. His works celebrated such passing moments
in a personal Arcady of communication with the spirits of a general
life force that gave all nature coherence.