The Role of Nature in John Muir's Conception of the Good Life.

Randy R. Larsen (2011)

Aristotle says our best moral guidance comes from considering the lives of exemplary individuals. I explore John Muir, as an exemplar of environmental virtue, and consider the role of Nature in his conception of the good life. I argue his conception consists of a web of virtue including various goods, values, and virtues. I suggest three virtues are cardinal: attentiveness, gratitude and reverence. I explore how Muir cultivated these virtues in Nature. I argue Muir sought freedom from a popular conception of the good life, grounded in the gilded age values of money and materialism, and was sensitive to the harms these brought to both Nature and individuals. I show that Muir was particularly aware of the effects of what he called the vice of over-industry. I argue Muir was willing to suffer extreme loneliness in order to cultivate his conception of the good life in Nature. I show that he struggled, especially in his thirties, to find a balance between freedom and community. I show how in Nature Muir cultivated attentiveness to both his intuition and the observable world and I explore the relationship between them. I show that his rejection of anthropocentrism was based, in part, on his observations as a fully-engaged scientist. I argue attentiveness lead Muir to view wild animals as exemplars. He was especially drawn to the skill, beauty and true instinct of wild mountain sheep. I explore the relationship between gratitude and celebration and Muir's exuberant expressions of ecstasy. I argue that while many of his friends remained stoic, his observation of the celebration of Stickeen, a small black dog, lead him to important insights into the commonality of all “our fellow mortals.” I make the case that Muir was most grateful for beauty as expressed in natural harmony. I distinguish gratitude from appreciation and thankfulness by suggesting gratitude implies reciprocity, as in a debt of gratitude, and that Muir's environmental activism was motivated by wanting to reciprocate his gratitude for Nature. I also posit that through this activism Muir found increased meaning in his life; thus reflecting the nature of a truly reciprocal relationship. I argue Paul Woodruff's framing of the term reverence offers an important environmental virtue because it positions processors as learning the limits and potentialities of their power and wisdom. Knowing one is neither all-powerful nor helpless is an essential environmental virtue because it steers clear of both apathy and hubris. I argue neither apathy nor hubris is an appropriate response to our current environmental crisis. I show how Muir was able to cultivate reverence through wild adventure. I conclude by speculating on how President Obama's Deepwater Horizon Oil Disaster Commission might have been affected if John Muir were a member the commission.

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