The Dark Path to Beauty
In this department of Environmental Prospect we are exploring a theory of values, based mainly on the work of literary critic Frederick Turner, that we believe has important implications for environmental thinking and practice and so, ultimately, for the future of our planet.
- That the experience of value begins not with simple delight in nature, relationships or the experiences of beauty, mystery or meaning, but with the darker aspects of experience, crucially, for Turner, shame—that is, not guilt, which is the response of the conscience to moral transgression, but the response of the self to its awareness of and dependence on an others-than-itself, beginning with the body itself.
- That ritual and, more broadly, the fine arts, or what I have called the technologies of the imagination, provide the tools we need to deal with this troubling aspect of experience in a productive way, passing, as Turner writes, through shame to beauty.
Beauty, for Turner, is the value of values, the foundation of the complex of transcendent values such as community and meaning that underlie the behavior on which, successful societies have understood, the world—or at least the environment—really does depend.
To introduce this idea, we can do no better than turn to the “climate change” scene in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
We are aware that these are in some ways challenging ideas. But there are at least three reasons for taking them seriously:
- They take seriously the fact that, as self-conscious creatures, humans experience the world as something they are both part of and, troublingly, apart from. This is a commonplace for the arts and humanities, and quite plausibly the real “root of our environmental crisis”. At the same time, it identifies the shame that is inherent in self-consciousness as not only natural, but an essential natural resource—the raw material for the creation of the values that underlie the behavior on which the human environment depends. Our environmental thinkers, however, have generally either overlooked or downplayed it. And we believe this is a serious, indeed debilitating, weakness in environmental thinking.
- They connect this realization with practice, proposing something we can actually do about changing—or creating—the values that underlie behavior other than talking about them, refining our ideas about them, and recommending them to others.
- By the same token they are testable through observations and experiments in the context of value-creating activities ranging from restoration and other forms of land management to education, commerce and the practice of law and medicine.
We believe this is worth checking out. And that’s what we are doing here.
Key references for the theory of values we are exploring include:
- Frederick Turner, Beauty: The Value of Values (Virginia, 1991)
- James Hans The Origins of the Gods (SUNY, 1991)
- William R. Jordan III, The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature (California, 2003). (Find Liam Heneghan’s reflections on this book in the “LA Review“.
- Contributing Editors
- Foundations of Conduct: A theory of values and its implications for environmentalism “Environmental Ethics,” 34 (3) 291-312, Fall, 2012
As our conversation proceeds, we will be developing a bibliography and annotated theology of readings, both of which will be available here.