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a Philosophy of Gardens

a Philosophy of Gardens

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Published by: OUUJK on Mar 22, 2012
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Our ‘fundamental question’, concerning the significance ofgardens,
ramified, I urged in Chapter 1, into that ofthe relation ofgardens to
the good life. One main reason why gardens and garden-practices
matter to people is because they are appreciated as conducive to the
good life. By these three words, I explained, I do not mean what
thelottery winner probably does when, champagne glass in hand,
he announces ‘Now I can really live the good life!’—a hedonistic life
packed with the pleasures and fun that money can buy. (But nor do
Iexclude pleasure and fun from the good life.) Nor, as I also explained,
do the words refer to the life ofspecifically moral goodness. (But
nor, ofcourse, do I exclude moral goodness from the good life.)
In Chapter 1, I suggested that one reason for the relative neglect
ofthe garden by modern philosophy was a more general neglect of
the good life and its ingredients. This suggestion might strike anyone
familiar with the febrile activity going on in the branch ofphilosophy
known as Ethics as a peculiar one. How can Ethics be accused of
neglecting the good life? To explain my point, it is helpful to look at
the first, or at any rate second, work ofphilosophy in whose title the
term ‘Ethics’ appeared, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. A primary con-
cern ofthat work is what the Greeks called eudaimonia, sometimes
translated as ‘happiness’, but better rendered as ‘human flourishing
or well-being’. For Aristotle, the term refers to the final purpose, or
telos, ofhuman beings, to the one thing desired or aimed at only for
its own sake (1999: 1097b). An intimately related concern ofthe book
is with ethikai aretai, sometimes translated ‘moral or ethical virtues’,
but more literally ‘excellences ofcharacter’. For Aristotle, the human
good, eudaimonia, is, at least in large part, an ‘activity ofthe soul

inaccord with virtue’ (1999: 1098a). The good life, that is, is partly
constituted by its manifesting excellences or virtues ofcharacter,
which Aristotle describes as dispositions towards appropriate ways,
not only ofacting, but ofjudging and feeling. A later classical author
goes further: eudaimonia‘consists in living in accordance with virtue’
(Stobaeus, in Long and Sedley 1987:394).
Modern readers ofAristotle, noting the word ‘Ethics’ in his title,
often find themselves puzzled by some ofthe things that he says—
and omits to say—in the book. For a start, some ofhis virtues do not
seem to be moral or ethical ones at all: for example, friendship. We
don’t think ofourselves as morally obliged to have friends, nice as it
may be to have them. Again, some ofhis virtues have little or nothing
to do with how we should treat other people: they are ‘self-regarding’
ones, like the self-esteem ofthe ‘great-souled’ man. Or consider, in
this connection, the central Epicurean virtue ofataraxia, the tran-
quillity ofthe person liberated from sensual needs and intellectual
anxiety. Finally, there is scant discussion in Aristotle and later
Greek writers ofduties and rights, and ofthe principles or rules
which should determine our actions.
What puzzles Aristotle’s readers is that, in these respects, the main
concerns ofthe Nicomachean Ethicsare very different from those of
modern works ofEthics: for in these, it is precisely an emphasis on
rights, ‘other-regarding’ duties, and principles ofmoral conduct,
that dominates. The puzzle disappears once it is recognized that
‘ethical’ refers to something different and narrower in modern dis-
course: no longer to what pertains, quite generally, to ‘character’ and
its ‘excellences’, but to the sphere ofprinciple, right, and obligation.
Doubtless there have been many factors at work in the history of
ideas and, indeed, ofpolitical life which explain this shift in the very
conception ofmorality, but one is particularly germane to the con-
cerns ofthis chapter. Perhaps as part and parcel ofthe modern
predilection for individual ‘autonomy’, there has developed in
theWestern tradition what Joel Kupperman calls a ‘compartmental-
ization ofhuman life’, a ‘division between two spheres ofone’s
life’—‘on-duty’ and ‘off-duty’ (1999: 153–5). This is the division,

Gardens and the Good Life


roughly, between a person’s ‘public’, ‘civic’, or ‘professional’ life,
subject to moral rules and considerations ofduty, and a person’s
more ‘private’ life, whose conduct is a matter ofindividual ‘choice’
or ‘preference’. Such a division, Kupperman points out, was alien to
earlier traditions, including the Greek and Buddhist ones in which,
for example, the virtue ofataraxiaor equanimity was to be cultivated
in all areas oflife, even the most private.
As a result ofthis compartmentalization and other factors
responsible for a narrowed-down understanding ofthe ethical, the
tendency is for Ethics or Moral Philosophy no longer to concern
itselfwith what falls outside the ‘on-duty’ sphere oflife. Its primary
concern is no longer with the quality ofone’s ‘life as a whole’—the
‘point ofentry for [Greek] ethical reflection’, as Julia Annas puts it
(1993: ch. 1)—but with what is done at ‘on-duty’ moments. Providing
no rights are violated, no moral principles broken, then what people
do in their dining-room, bedroom, or garden is nobody else’s moral
business: ethical considerations do not apply. The glutton, satyr, or
plastic trees enthusiast may not be someone whose taste or ‘life-
style’ we admire—but taste or life-style, not morality, is what it’s
amatter of.

A related result is that reflection on excellences or virtues of
character—ones which may indeed inform one’s life as a whole—is
no longer centre stage in Moral Philosophy. What essentially mat-
ters is whether, in practice, people honour their obligations and act
according to moral rules, not what their ‘dispositions’ are. The great
moral philosophers ofmodernity, like Kant and David Hume, have
not, ofcourse, ignored the virtues. But for them, they are ofsec-
ondary and only instrumental importance: dispositions which it is
prudent to encourage ifpeople are to come to do what is morally
required ofthem—promote social utility, in Hume’s case, or act out
ofa sense ofduty, in Kant’s.
I share with champions ofrecent ‘Virtue Ethics’ the sense that the
atrophy in ‘mainstream’ Ethics ofreflection on the good life—on
the virtues constitutive ofa flourishing human life ‘as a whole’—is
amatter for regret. By ‘omitt[ing] a whole aspect of[earlier] moral


Gardens and the Good Life

thinking’, contemporary Ethics has failed to ‘engage’ with a host of
practical, everyday concerns, and for that reason is liable to appear
‘barren’ to many people (Annas 1993: 455). At any rate, in the next
section, I want to reflect on the virtues—the ethikai aretai—to whose
cultivation and manifestation gardens and garden-practices are
conducive. In doing so, and in thereby reflecting on the place of
gardens and garden-practices in the good life, I am recalling an
earlier, but still surviving, tradition ofgarden writing. From Pliny
through Addison to J. C. Loudon (the nineteenth-century cham-
pion ofthe ‘small garden’ for ordinary people) and Roy Strong,
aprominent theme has been the garden’s contribution to what the
first ofthose authors called ‘a good life and a genuine one’. For the
most part, my emphasis will not be upon the specifically moralvirtues,
in the narrow modern sense, to which the garden is conducive. Still,
no discussion ofthe garden’s virtues would be complete that did not
respond to the moral criticisms ofthe garden which have been
raised by, among others, some environmental ethicists. Ifthese are
well-taken, the garden is more a harbinger ofmoral vices than a
theatre for the exercise ofthe virtues. Such criticisms are the topic
ofthe last section ofthe chapter.
Should I not, before proceeding, tell my readers what I take the
good life actually to be? Ifthe virtues are dispositions ofcharacter
that contribute to the good life, how are we to recognize asvirtues
the dispositions which garden-practices may promote without first
being told what that good life consists in? Later, I shall offer some
remarks on the nature ofthe good life, but there is no necessity to
make these in advance ofdiscussing the garden’s virtues. This is
because it is not unreasonable to assume a considerable consensus
both on some ofthe constituents ofthe good life and on some ofthe
virtues conducive to that life. Few people would deny that a capacity
to enjoy beauty, say, or to exercise the imagination are aspects ofa
flourishing human life, and few would deny, therefore, that dispos-
itions which promote such capacities are desirable.
I suspect that the impatient demand for an account ofthe
goodlife ahead ofidentifying the virtues ofthe garden betrays

Gardens and the Good Life


a misunderstanding ofthe relationship between virtues and the
good life. It betrays, in effect, the view that the virtues are merely a
means to the end result ofleading the good life, rather as physical
exercise is a means to a well-toned physique. But this is not at all
how the Greeks envisaged the relationship. Eudaimoniais not some
end state—a state ofmind, say—that, as it happens, results from
virtuous behaviour; rather, the eudaimonic life is inseparable from
the exercise ofvirtue. This is why, for the Stoics, as reported by
Plutarch, ‘living viciously is identical to living unhappily’ (Long and
Sedley 1987: 396). The good life, one might say, is partly or wholly
constituted by the virtues. Ifso, there can be no question offirst
spelling out the nature ofthe good life and only then proceeding to
identify the virtues, for no substantial account ofthe good life could
be given that does not already invoke the virtues. Having invoked
them, one may indeed reflect on how, quite, the virtues are integral
to the good life—on why, in effect, we regard them as virtues. And
Ishall, as mentioned, be engaging in reflection ofthis kind: but the
proper time for this is after, not before, we have identified some
virtues ofthe garden.

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