Teresa Stolarskyj

Reflections on culture and society

To each their own: Nature in the lives of Rousseau, the Utopians, and Werther

Nature, as a theme is, universal. Less universal is the relationship between it and the humans who revel in it, rely on it, are overcome by it; for these are personal and are not bound by an assigned logic. Nature makes space for romance and pragmatism alike, accommodating and influencing individuals according to their need. Vastly different interactions with, and conceptions of, nature are seen in Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker, More’s Utopia, and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, whose protagonists view nature through ecocentric, anthropocentric, and egocentric lenses, respectively.

The ecocentric Rousseau views nature as a conduit to a divine place, providing solace and escape in its meditative and unadulterated beauty. The anthropocentric Utopians view nature as ripe for cultivation and mastery in support of human and social benefit. They are concerned more with its material than spiritual provisions. Finally, Werther’s egocentric view finds that nature varies according to his mental state. So self-involved is he as to confuse nature’s state for his own – or his own for nature’s. His pure disconnection from nature allows nature to take an allegorical place in his narrative.

Rousseau’s reveries allow the romantic dreamer to transcend his worldly concerns through communion with nature. Nature is the conduit that allows him to access Rousseau to a deeply peaceful, meditative state, where he finds and accepts himself by way of forgetting himself. Its distractions allow him to abandon the pain of his peers’ rejection and to set aside the anxieties of daily life. He takes solace in its mysteries and engages intellectually in its minutia, discovering in it a sanctity, a meditative space, and a conduit to the ecstasy of simply being.

The Island of Saint-Pierre is revered by Rousseau as a uniquely happy place. Revealing his emotional torments, Rousseau wishes it were his “lifelong prison,” a kind of gilded cage where he can life out his days in harmony with nature, rejected as he feels by society. The island is remote and wild, free from judgment, opinions, and expectations. He can submit to daydreams and reveries, to “drink deeply of the beauty of nature.”[1]

That he drinks deeply is apt, for water proves an especially powerful tonic, drawn as he is to it daily. Whether the sound of babbling brook or the lapping of waves on the lake, the sound of water is soothing, “driving all other agitation from my soul.”[2] Its hypnotic effect delivers Rousseau to a meditative state where his thoughts arise and simply pass away, causing him no troubles. It is as if his concerns are expunged by the water and carried off along its current. It is a kind of cleansing that, as he allows his anxieties to wash away, reveals a deep peace within.

So deep is the serenity that Rousseau is barely recalled to himself by the sound which compels him to return home. Likewise, it is only the fall of night which rouses him to return from his boat-bound drifting. Reclining under the stars, Rousseau cedes control to the current, unconcerned with his destination and perhaps soothed by the rocking of the water, as if a babe in a rocking-crib. He finds here a sweeter pleasure than any he has known, perhaps for the opportunity to trust nature and to let go of his concerns. It is not quite a baptism, for he merely sits on the surface of the water, but it reflects a temporary metanoia, ended only when darkness falls. Indeed, as night falls, Rousseau returns to reality, and those personal concerns which lurk in the shadows of his mind can again take up their haunting mantle.

His stay at the island-prison ends, but Rousseau finds further solace in the study of botany. While this provides him another experience of nature’s meditative and healing properties, he ironically laments the study of plants as medicine, for it reduces nature to a component and thus destroys its charms. Rousseau demands an untouched purity in order to revel suitably in earth’s “garments,” but perhaps this reflects a refusal in himself to examine his constituent parts. He, too, would like to be accepted just as he presents himself; to undertake any closer, critical look represents the possibility destroying his sense of wholeness.

Nature is not without its hidden dangers and secrets, however, and while it can heal, it can equally harm. Rousseau finds himself enjoying poisonous berries, before being warned by a companion. Perhaps this reflects his willingness, and ability, to accept noxious parts of himself. Rousseau is seemingly unharmed by the berries, just as he cannot seem to fathom the parts of himself which may strike others as poisonous.

Perhaps he need not concern himself with the thoughts of others, for observing and describing botanical minutia is for Rousseau as if convening with a sacred field of endless friends. Their eternal beauty leads Rousseau to “a blissful state of self-abandonment,” to feeling oneness with it, and to the simple but profound knowledge of being. His botanical reveries, like his time immersing in the feel and sound of Saint-Pierre’s waters, allow him to forget himself, and to be soothed both spiritually and intellectually.

To Rousseau, nature is a conduit to that sacred moment of simply existing, free of the future and past, desire or pain, and filled entirely with the simple and miraculous awareness of being, revealing a God-like self-sufficiency inside that moment and every moment. Fifteen years after departing Saint-Pierre, and after concluding his botanical studies, he returns to each “on the wings of imagination,” to relive his reveries and revisit the solace they provide.

If Rousseau is an ecocentric demanding the purity of nature for its proper enjoyment, then More’s Utopians are his pragmatic, anthropocentric counterparts. Nature, for Utopians, is aesthetically enjoyable but not spiritually transcendent. Rather, it serves their material needs, through manipulation and cultivation. Where Rousseau revels in the nature at its surface, Utopians re-shape its surfaces to their own ends. Nature is a tool, and the artifice is less important than the objective it serves.

The island of Utopia itself is artificial, created for defensive reasons from a peninsula. Its surrounds are impassable to all but those who understand the rock formations below the water’s surface. Danger lurks below the surface, but perhaps Rousseau understood this in his opposition to upending what the surface presents. As much as it effectively keeps invaders out, Utopia at the same time appears as a moat-bound fortress which keeps residents in.

The town of Amaurot’s built form is designed to further limit the freedom of movement. A river flanks one side of the town, and while a waterway is traditionally a means of transporting goods and people, in Utopia, it is suggested as a defensive fortification. Rather than the water bringing solace as it did Rousseau, it prevents passage and stands as a barrier. The town’s remaining sides are fortified by high, thick walls, and deep, bramble-filled ditches. Just as the island is surrounded by a moat and hostile to outsiders, so the town appears a fortress surrounded by a dry moat. Where Rousseau longed for the Island of Saint-Pierre to be his lifelong prison, so Amaurot appears to imprison its inhabitants, even if its fortifications are meant to protect them.

Utopians’ safety is thus provided for, and restricted mobility may be the price. This abets the practice of agriculture, however, with sufficient labour for everyone’s basic needs to be met without exploitation or excruciating toil. Everyone participates in agriculture and is therefore intrinsically connected to the earth and to their food source. Families work in concert over two-year turns on the farm, ensuring incoming workers are skilled and no cultivation errors result. No one hungers, and no one suffers. Even animals are respected, with oxen sparing horses the heavy work to which they are better suited. When no longer fit for the field, the ox is repurposed for the plate. No part of the animal is wasted, just as no use of the earth is excessive.

Rousseau would be pained by the manipulation of nature for the profit of humans in Utopia, but survival is a practical matter. Yet, while the Utopians use nature to meet their needs, they take no more than they require. Bound by virtue rather than laws, they aim to live in accordance with nature, seeking pleasure in that which is good and honest, bound by reason and sense.[3] It is natural and good to be satisfied, and it is likewise natural and good to help advance the satisfaction of others. In this there is an inherent upper limit on consumption.

In Utopia, nature exists to provide material shelter and sustenance for humans; there is little said about its spiritual or aesthetic value. Still, if the Utopians live according to nature, experiencing reasonable pleasure by it and fostering the pleasure of others, then Werther is the Utopians’ anathema. Werther is pathetic fallacy embodied, evidenced by the alignment of the states of nature with Werther’s states of mind. When he is happy, nature is joyous; when he is tormented, nature is wild and dark.

For Werther, nature is not an externality. It does not provide a source of spiritual healing of physical nourishment. Rather, he is so caught up in the storms of his mind that he can only perceive nature as an extension of himself.

Early in Werther’s letters he speaks of the “precious balm” of the countryside and solace for his disquiet heart.[4] Yet this is not synonymous with Rousseau’s reveries: Werther takes joy in nature when he is happy, while Rousseau finds happiness in retreating to nature. Still, Werther delights in Wahlhiem’s natural features, where views from atop the hill reveal the scope of the valley, and where he especially delights in two “wide-spreading”[5] lime trees. It is as though Werther glimpses his destiny, before descending into his own engulfing chasm and taking final repose under the town’s lime trees.

While Utopians accept that rules must be followed in correctly harvesting the gifts of nature, Werther perceives rules as artificial, an affront to natural gifts which, ironically, inhibits art and stifle the potential for one’s innate genius. Civility and artistry are, to Werther, irreconcilable. Civil men divert and dam a river that threatens to burst its banks, but Werther is attracted to that dangerous potential of the breach. And while he will “shake and astonish [their] souls,”[6] it will neither be through his art or through alignment with nature.

Werther, in wanting to embrace a pure experience of his nature, in contrast to Rousseau’s wanting to experience the purity of nature, comes to paradoxically define himself by an un-natural act devoid of art. His descent toward suicide is peppered with foreshadowing, as nature becomes ever-more foreboding. Lightning strikes as Lotte tells Werther of Albert, a first blow to his romantic heart. His art fails him as he is unable to sketch Lotte’s face. Instead, he becomes increasingly obsessed with her, fostering an unnatural relationship with Albert to be near a woman he cannot have.

Werther teases Albert with the idea of his suicide by Albert’s pistol, an action which bookends the more desperate part of Werther’s decline, and as his perception of his world darken and dim. He retreats further into his troubled mind, longing to bleed himself like a certain breed of horses. Yet he speaks not of temporary relief, but of “a freedom that will last for ever.”[7]

When his attempt to work at a job and move on in life fails, Werther returns to Wahlheim. Like he himself, the town has changed for the worse. Under the linden tree, he learns from his friend that her baby died, and her husband fell ill. She gives him apples, perhaps symbolic of Eve in the Garden of Eden, marking their mutual personal destruction. As the autumn leaves yellow around him, so Werther too feels himself wilting.

The perception of himself in his autumn may be a flight of Werther’s imagination, but it is certain that the walnut trees under which he and Lotte took repose with the pastor have been chopped down. Werther is furious at the discovery, cursing the new pastor’s wife for this act. Concerned only with his experience and perception of the place, Werther is insensible that she may have had her justifications. Their absence is a stark reminder that his relationship with Lotte cannot be realized – cannot even be lingered upon. Allegorically, the walnut tree represents wisdom and discernment in navigating “times of challenge, loss and misfortune,” [8]  and here Werther is losing his.

That the walnut trees are gone when the new pastoral family arrives underscores the fleetingness of life and inevitability of change, for change is an aspect of nature. Werther’s folly is hanging on to a fixed moment in time, and his failure to allow for the agency, opinions, and wisdom of others commingling, however messily, with his own.

Further mirroring Werther’s loss of sense, he encounters a man mentally deranged by fever, searching for flowers for his “sweetheart.” Ironically, that man’s love for Lotte drove him to the madhouse, where oblivion proved his happiest hour. He emerges incapacitated, unable to function in reality, a fate that mirrors Werther’s.

The editor who overtakes the telling of Werther’s story writes that, “grievance and unhappiness rooted deeper and deeper in Werther’s soul, intertwined there ever more tightly” until it overtook his being, like a vine that grows on a host tree and eventually destroys it for its own greedy sake. Deep roots are difficult to extract; weeds spring back where their roots are not properly pulled. Werther seems to have become a weed in Lotte and Albert’s relationship, springing up furiously where he ought not, threatening to choke their beautiful garden.

Werther finds the murdered farmhand’s body reposed under the leafless, frosty lime trees, further foreshadowing Werther’s barren fate. Beneath the stark, frozen limes, showing little of the warmth or colour of Rousseau’s so-called garments of the earth, is where Werther asks for, and takes, his final repose. The lime is the tree of lovers in German folklore.[9] Here, Werther is not buried with his love, but is at peace in the company of his prevailing fantasies of her, entombed by the trees which represent that for which he so longed. Finally, Werther finds peace in nature as it accepts his body and gives rest to his soul.

In Rousseau and Werther, two romantic character cleave to extreme relationships between themselves and nature, the first insisting on its purity, removed from human interest and influence, as a conduit for escape and meditation. Here, he is able to discover deep self-acceptance. The latter is so removed from nature as to be unable to anchor or find peace in it until his lifeless body is literally in the earth and can no longer run away from its reality. For Werther, nature serves as an allegory for his happy and troubled states alike. His detachment, and perhaps delusion, mean he cannot access from nature the kind of happiness Rousseau does, and so he revels in fantasy.

Utopia presents a kind of Aristotelian “middle way” with nature. Anthropomorphic though they are, the Utopians are also pragmatic and conscious. They harvest enough for sustenance and manipulate nature sufficiently for their defense. Every citizen engages with it, learns to grow crops, has access to common pleasure-gardens. Though nature does not appear to be a spiritual encounter, it is no less a pleasant one, equally and for all.


Goethe, Johann F. The Sorrows of Young Werther. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2012.

More, Sir Thomas. Utopia. Dover Thrift Editions: Mineola, New York: 1997.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Reveries of the Solitary Walker. Penguin Classics: London, 2004.

Image copyright T. Stokes, 2016.

[1] Rousseau, 81

[2] Rousseau, 85

[3] More, 49

[4] Goethe, 6.

[5] Goethe, 11.

[6] Goethe 13.

[7] Goethe, 63.

[8]  https://treespiritwisdom.com/tree-spirit-wisdom/walnut-tree-symbolism/

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lime_tree_in_culture and https://souls-whispers.com/about-the-essences/linden-tree-spring/

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