The Butterfly Hunter, Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885)
John Muir’s concrete descriptions often had no need of words like “beauty,” or “divine,” or “God”; but such language is frequent enough to indicate a pervasive dimension in his aesthetic experience. Muir’s expressions of delight in nature, the dominant emotion of his life, convey one thought above all: beauty is divine. He was a man in love with the Creator, and his spirituality was religious, liberated, and good-humored.
Muir’s quest as a young man was to find God in nature, and that quest was fulfilled in Yosemite during the summer of 1869. “Looking back through the stillness and romantic enchanting beauty and peace of the camp grove, this June seems the greatest of all the months of my life, the most truly, divinely free, boundless like eternity, immortal. Everything in it seems equally divine—one smooth, pure, wild glow of Heaven’s love, never to be blotted or blurred by anything past or to come.” Muir summed up a July day filled to the brim. “A fruitful day, without measured beginning or ending. A terrestrial eternity. A gift of good God.” “In my life of lonely wanderings I was pushed and pulled on and on through everything by unwavering never-ending love of God’s earth plans and works, and eternal, immortal, all embracing Beauty . . . .” Already here beauty is portrayed as possessing some of the qualities of God. “One bird, a thrush, embroidered the silence with cheery notes, making the solitude familiar and sweet, while the solemn monotone of the stream sifting through the woods seemed like the very voice of God, humanized, terrestrialized, and entering one’s heart as to a home prepared for it.”
Despite the glories of Muir’s eloquence, we do not want to be swept along in an unthinking way. A sober assessment of the difficulties of accurate empathy between humans, let alone between humans and animals or between humans and God, may lead us to reassess Muir’s uncritical confidence in voicing the expressiveness of things. Nevertheless, the difficulties of accurate empathy challenge us to understand better; they do not force us to conclude there are no feelings at all in animals and no feelings in God analogous to our own. When we detect a divine, artistic touch in creation, we may legitimately allow ourselves to give voice to what we feel. But we do well to remember that our interpretations help create our religious experience.
Muir was no theologian, but his experiences suggest that the mission of beauty is to overcome a sense of separation of the physical from the spiritual. Faith opens the door to experiencing beauty in nature as divine. Divine beauty is what we rejoicingly feel in physical harmony. The physical is fact. Harmony is thought, idea. Beauty is spiritual value, a quality of God, a relationship with creation initiated by God. Stated separately, they may seem unlikely ingredients in a united experience. But if human experience is an arena where nature, human mind, and divine spirit are accelerated into relation, then beauty is a reality dynamically linking the creature with the Creator. Beauty is dipolar: one pole is the source, the nature of the eternal God, and the other pole is the illuminated or dark harmonies of ever-changing nature. Muir’s religious life enabled him to rise to spiritual experience once the harmony showed forth, and his communion with God in the wilderness was more or less continuous.
The conclusion suggested by John Muir’s life and writing is that our intuition of beauty attaches not to any single definable or indefinable quality; rather our intuition of beauty recognizes the harmony of integrated material, intellectual, and spiritual reality. What we see before us and appreciate intellectually is physical harmony; what we feel in the soul is beauty coming from the Creator. Wholehearted engagement of all the levels of the personality enables us to unify these components of experience, and the intuition of beauty courses through our being.
The feeling that most directly expresses our intuition of divine beauty is joy. Muir discovered part of what it means to be human: “I think that one of the properties of that compound which we call man is that when exposed to the rays of mountain beauty it glows with joy.”
Please share experiences and reflections with us.