D.G Charlton, despite being a historian of the history of French art was invited to give a series of Gifford Lectures at St Andrews, 1982-83. Despite initially admitting that as a historian, his lectures are something of an anomaly when compared to the philosophers and theologians before him, Charlton’s lectures, collected here into a single volume, are an invaluable resource into the intellectual development of the modern age. The natural is an area of thought whose depth and significance may well have been underappreciated before the arrival of this text.
The principal concern of Charlton’s work is the multiplicity of meaning within the term ‘natural.’ As an art historian, Charlton identifies an artistic shift in how the natural word was perceived and expressed in art. New appreciations of the sublime, landscapes and pastoral beauty and even the wilderness of mountains and storms became much more commonplace. What had shifted, Charlton argues, is the collective cultural understanding of what ‘nature’ and the ‘natural’ truly were. In a time of great intellectual upheaval and change, Charlton argues that the understanding of nature shifted away from the classically Christian notion that, whilst the Earth ‘displayed the glory of the Lord’ it was also fundamentally fallen into corruption because of man’s own fall (an attitude particularly notable among the Reformers and Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.) Whilst the Enlightenment saw many thinkers and artists turned to the natural and natural sensibilities against Christianity (for example both Diderot and d’Holbach are mentioned) the shift in how the natural was perceived is not as simple as the atheist/Christian binary might claim. It would also be a mistake to suppose a similar binary between reason and feeling, as Charlton amply demonstrates. Frequently, the natural was incorporated into Christian thinking about the human subject and the world around them as to re-approach the natural is necessarily to re-approach the understanding of ‘natural man.’
Strikingly, it is argued frequently throughout the period Charlton considers that ‘natural man’ can only achieve happiness or morality when living in harmony with the natural world. This ‘extensive re-evaluation of the world and of human life’ has formed much of modern societies outlook on art and culture, and most tellingly, certainly provides for the genesis of European Romanticism as a whole. Drawing extensively from French examples, Charlton recognises the relative lateness this shift occurs in France (British art’s interest in the pastoral begins around the 1720s yet not until the 1760s does the same occur in France). To be critical one could argue that Charlton’s position amounts to nothing more than pushing the beginnings of Romanticism further back, yet his subtle analysis and deep engagement with European culture, art, philosophy and history makes his study far richer and more compelling than simply a reductive expansion of Romanticism, giving fresh bearing to historical work on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.