Philip Freneau, “On the Religion of Nature”

28 Sep

Based on the title, you might think this a rewrite of Taylor’s “On a Wasp,” so much does the sentiment seem to echo Puritan investigations of nature to understand God. But as an Enlightenment subject, Freneau has a different perspective, of course, which is almost Deist. Which given the period, makes a kind of sense.

In essence, the religion that we find in nature is, well, Nature itself, with a capital N. There is no Christian God here, at least not one that I recognize. So though nature guides us in moral paths (“her early sway inclines the tender  mind to take the path of right, fair virtue’s way”), it is not a Christian morality it teaches, if the pronoun shift to female wasn’t obvious enough. This religion “leads to no mysterious ends,” and “Religion, such as nature taught with all Divine perfection suits,” which seems a pretty clear renunciation of the need for an outside God: nature is enough. (See also: “All… can make their Heaven below.”) There is a quality at once Edenic and Schoolmarmish that maybe reminds us of the promise of America as we sometimes imagine it, but which is clearly at odds with how the Puritans saw it.

Freneau, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn, offers up this Nature as a replacement for all existing belief systems, and also is a kind of substitute for culture, which is coprrupted by “Sophists” with their “vain disputes.” It might be this odd element, of a turning away from culture, that connects this poem most strongly with Freneau’s other poems, in the way that it suggests a dis-satisfaction with the status quo.

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