The Aesthetic Impact of the Garden of Eden

The Aesthetic Impact of the Garden of Eden

David Fenner


No garden in the history of the world has had a greater impact on gardens and gardening than the Garden of Eden, as expressed in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions, regardless of whether the Garden of Eden ever existed. Yet, given evidence in the texts of the stories of Eden of its unchanging nature, and given that all gardens are naturally dynamic, Eden does not qualify to be a true garden. In addition to the story’s impact on gardens and gardening, Eden is aesthetically impactful because it is from appreciation of the story as a morality tale that we get our second argument that Eden had to be perfect and, if perfect, essentially unchanging. The unchanging nature of Eden is necessary to the instructional impact of the story as a morality tale, an impact dependent on its literary properties.

Key Words
dynamism; environmental aesthetics; garden; gardens; philosophy of gardens


1. Introduction

The scholarly literature on the philosophy of gardens, with either dedicated or ancillary focus on the aesthetics of gardens, is nascent relative to the focus that many other aesthetic forms and artforms have received. In 1993, Mara Miller published her book, The Garden as an Art.[1] This was the first book-length project focused on the philosophy of gardens since Kant and Hegel wrestled with the aesthetic character of gardens.[2] Since that time, Stephanie Ross, Rory Stuart, Marc Treib, David Cooper, Francois Berthier (translated by Graham Parkes), Michael Lee, and Damon Young have published books focused on garden meaning, garden criticism, and garden theory in general.[3] In addition, a wonderful anthology edited by Dan O’Brien came out, inclusive of articles by Miller and, notably, Isis Brook.[4] While there are other names that appropriately might be added, the list remains relatively small.[5]

This paper is meant to add, albeit modestly, to that literature and to bring a bit more attention to the aesthetic consideration of gardens. It may seem ironic to contribute to a contemporary expansion of garden discourse by discussing one of the oldest depictions of a garden, the Garden of Eden, as described in both the Torah and the Quran. But there are lessons about gardens as aesthetic objects that may be learned from thinking about Eden, lessons made possible because of contemporary conversations in the philosophy of gardens.

Eden’s aesthetic impact is paradoxical. On the one hand, Eden is the quintessential expression of “the garden” (as a kind) in the West. On the other, Eden possesses features that, while important, perhaps crucial, to the story as a literary work, disqualifies it from being a true garden.

2. Eden’s influence on gardens and gardening

No garden in the history of the world has had a greater impact on gardens and gardening than the Garden of Eden, as expressed in the Jewish and, as a consequent, in the Christian and Islamic religions. While it might initially seem wiser to qualify such a claim by saying “in the history of the West,” the impact of the story of Eden has exerted a deeper and more pervasive influence on the nature of gardens than any other single garden, fabled or historic. This is the case whether Eden was ever an actual place at an actual time. There are gardens that are almost as famous – the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon – and there are very old gardens in the East that have exerted great influence on the unfolding history of gardens there, such as the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) gardens in Suzhou or the karesansui garden attributed to Sōami (1472-1523) at the Ryōan-ji temple complex in Kyoto, and even the historically and aesthetically powerful garden of scholar Wang Wei (d. 443), influential through his poetry and copies of his painted handscroll, but these are relatively recent compared to Eden. We can safely conclude that no garden has rivaled Eden in its influence. It is responsible for what we might term “Edenic Culture.” Eighteenth-century English garden writer Horace Walpole argued that every culture has designed a Garden of Eden in its own image.[6]

Western gardens as idealized. Gardeners across the world tirelessly work to create ideal states of their gardens, where what should be in bloom is vibrant and full, weeds are absent, things meant to look natural seem untouched, and things meant to look architectural exhibit perfect shapes. These states infrequently materialize, at least in those situations where care is not overwhelmingly present. Yet it does not dampen gardeners’ aspirations toward that ideal state. While one explanation for the drive to garden perfection may be purely aesthetic in nature – that we are drawn to perfection of order in all our aesthetic endeavors – such an explanation may be amplified for Western gardeners by understanding the influence in the West of Edenic Culture, where we hold the Garden of Eden as the standard against which we imagine all gardens not only should be measured but can be. Eden is continuously and unfailingly perfect.

Hunt introduces a way to conceptualize gardens based on the progression from wilderness to farmed land to gardens. Wilderness, untouched or wild land he refers to as “First Nature,” agriculture as “Second Nature,” and gardens as “Third Nature.” He adapts this model from two theorists working in the mid-1500s, Bartolomeo Taegio and Jacopo Bonfadio.[7]

Gardens now take their place as a third nature in a scale or hierarchy of human intervention into the physical world: gardens become more sophisticated, more deliberate, and more complex in their mixture of culture and nature than agricultural land, which is a large part of Cicero’s “second nature.” By implication, the first nature becomes for Bonfadio the territory of unmediated nature, what today we might (provisionally and awkwardly) call wilderness.[8]

Eden is the ultimate expression, for those living in contexts informed by Abrahamic religions, of Third Nature. Hunt’s model highlights the idea that Eden was not meant as an agricultural place. According to the story, it was from Third Nature to Second Nature that Adam and Eve were banished. Eden was a place to be appreciated as “more sophisticated, more deliberate, more complex” than simply a basis for the growing of sustenance: “The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.” That Eden was meant for aesthetic appreciation in addition to being “good for food” contributes to the level of idealization we seek in our gardens in the West, and it may be why for a garden to be a true garden, it is common, perhaps even necessary, that it engage us aesthetically and that we judge its value at least partly in aesthetic terms.

While it might be argued that if we take the Eden story metaphorically to portray the shift from the hunter-gather stage of humans’ connection with the land to the agrarian stage, it is from First Nature to Second Nature (or to Second Nature as the result of Adam’s and Eve’s “post-Garden” efforts) that they were banished. However, as I hope will be clear by the end of the paper, Eden is more properly characterized as Third Nature, as a perfect habitat, one that rewarded aesthetic contemplation as well as supporting survival, designed and created, according to the story, by a perfect God who informed it with divine sophistication and intentionality.

The romanticization of “virginal” land. Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, American landscape architect Jens Jensen, British landscape architect Capability Brown, and those who worked in the English “Picturesque” garden style (William Gilpin, William Kent, Richard Payne Knight, Uvedale Price, Humphry Repton, and John Ruskin) all venerated untouched land. Landscape architects who worked under this influence took pains to make their designs look continuous with untouched land, which, on reflection, may seem odd given that a garden differs from untouched land specifically because it is designed. According to Hunt, “By insisting on naturalistic design, landscape architects run the risk of effacing themselves and their art… the necessary medium of nature must not be allowed wholly to subdue the evidence that it is itself being imitated.”[9] Eden is the archetype of untouched land – that is, untouched by the hands of humans, not God. Even after Adam and Eve take residence, Eden remains in its original pure state. Instead of being “red in tooth and claw,” Eden is perfectly benign and nurturing in all respects. Attraction begets veneration; if untouched nature is Eden made present again, that attraction is perfected.

Islamic gardens as supremely formal. The most iconic style of Islamic garden is the “Charbagh.” The Charbagh represents paradise. Roger Paden explains the connection between the Garden of Eden and paradise.

The Hortus conclusus [was] a garden style common during the late Middle Ages with high walls surrounding a relatively small area. This garden was the direct descendent of earlier, more practical gardens, such as kitchen and “physic” gardens. “Hortus conclusus” means “enclosed garden,” but since both its component terms refer to enclosed spaces, the name seems a bit redundant. This redundancy, however, only serves to emphasize the connection between this type of garden and the idea of “paradise,” a term derived from an old Persian word, “pairidaeza,” a word formed from two roots, “paire” (around) and “diz” (to form) and usually referring to walled royal gardens. Through this notion of “enclosure,” Horti conclusi are twice linked to the idea of paradise, the earliest earthly example of which was the Garden of Eden.[10]

The Islamic approach to the Garden of Eden was virtually Platonic, in the sense that the earthly Garden into which Adam was placed was an instantiation of the perfect state of paradise of a heavenly Garden. As such, the Islamic garden has a very prescribed form. Mohammadsharif Shadidi, et al., describe the Iranian garden, such as the Fin garden in Kashan, as a square divided into smaller squares, with trees of particular lifespans and characters planted in the midst of each square, so that “the Iranian garden comes in harmony with cosmic rules…”[11] Persian/Iranian Gardens and the Mughal Gardens that followed in India are easily identified, as the rules for their construction are so clear and prescriptive.

Botanical gardens as edenic. Isis Brook writes: “In the early botanical gardens, we see an attempt to recreate the Garden of Eden, which would, of course, have been an ordered world.”[12] Botanical gardens are known for their collections, with diversity and breadth being the measure of their value as collections. What the proverbial Noah and his ark achieved with animals, Eden is meant to have achieved with both animals and plants. While the Hebrew scripture might give rise to thinking of Eden as an arboretum and comprehensive zoological collection, Eden continues to stand as the ideal of the botanical collection, something creators of botanical gardens attempt to replicate as they create new collections with an eye toward their diversity and comprehensiveness.

The historic influence of the Eden story is important, first, to understand the power and importance of the story and, second, to understand that the story’s influence was not merely connected to its moral lessons or to its place in creation mythology but also to its influence over the nature of garden design, garden maintenance, and garden appreciation.

In answering the question, “what is the aesthetic impact of the Garden of Eden?,” we have our first answer here, namely that Eden has been the preeminent model of garden design and the model for aesthetic appreciation of gardens in those cultures where the story flourished. The second answer requires more discussion about the features of Eden that we find in the stories in Genesis and the Quran. It is partly from these texts that we find Eden possessed aspects that disqualify it from being a real garden. These aspects, as we will see, are important to the Eden story’s character as a morality tale, a character that is literary – and so aesthetic – in essence.

3. Eden was not a true garden

Garden dynamism. The literature dealing with the philosophy of gardens, specifically as that literature deals with whether and how a garden can be aesthetically appreciated, strongly focuses on the dynamism endemic to gardens. It does so because this dynamism sets the object of focus – the garden – apart from other, more canonical, art objects and aesthetic objects. While there are dynamic art objects – dances, plays, symphonies, operas, really any and all performances – and what is experienced aesthetically changes throughout the course of the performance, the performance is still bound in time and so dynamically “closed.”[13] Literature and film may also be thought of as dynamic, existing through the space of time in which a reading takes place or a film is viewed; these too are dynamically closed. While the aesthetic features of a performance or the experience of reading a novel may change performance to performance, reading to reading, the aesthetic character of a single experience of an object of this sort is stable to that experience, and, in complement, the aesthetic character of the collective object – of Moby Dick as a novel or Tosca as an opera – has properties derived from scripts, scores, and the like that render all instances sufficiently similar to all appropriately bear the same name and be recognized as instances of a single kind. More to the point, one can appropriately claim to have experienced Moby Dick after having read the novel or to have experienced Tosca after having seen and heard the opera.

Performances, literature, and the like have starts and stops and, as aesthetic objects, they exist during a set period of (experienced) time and in a(n experienced) defined space. Gardens exist within defined spaces, too, although sometimes that space is too large to experience as a single visual field, and some gardens, such as Japanese tea gardens, are designed specifically to occasion visual discoveries as garden visitors make their way through the garden. But all gardens are dynamically “open” and do not have time periods in which it may be said that THE experience of THE garden was bound or occurred. AN experience of a garden occurs within the time boundaries of a visit, of course, but even if one has visited every corner of the garden, unless one’s visit to the garden commences with the garden’s origin and ends with the garden’s eventual demise, a span presumably lasting many years if not centuries, one cannot say that one fully has experienced that garden. Change is constant, and gardens constantly change in both small and large ways.

The dynamism of a garden extends to all its natural elements and properties. As a garden can be seen, heard, smelled, felt, and even, on occasion, tasted, all the features of a garden that provide such sensory engagement are each in a state of flux. As Miller notes, “Nothing is more obvious in a garden than change.”[14] Furthermore, “[t]he better we know a garden, the more fully this tension between the present and the future versions asserts itself, to the point where the gardener himself is likely to lose all satisfaction with present beauties in his awareness of the possibilities to unfold in the future…”[15]

Let’s now turn to think about the stories of the Garden of Eden, keeping in mind the importance of dynamism to gardens.

The Hebrew and Islamic accounts of Eden. The story of Eden was written as early as 500 BCE in the Hebrew scripture, in the book we commonly know as Genesis (in Hebrew, Bereshit).[16]

Chapter Two: 8 Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground — trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 10 A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. 11 The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold… 13 The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” … 19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

Chapter Three: 17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” … 21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. 22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”[17]

The Quranic version:

Second Surah: 21. O people! Worship your Lord who created you and those before you, that you may attain piety. 22. He who made the earth a habitat for you, and the sky a structure, and sends water down from the sky, and brings out fruits thereby, as a sustenance for you…. 25. And give good news to those who believe and do righteous deeds; that they will have gardens beneath which rivers flow. Whenever they are provided with fruit therefrom as sustenance, they will say, “This is what we were provided with before,” and they will be given the like of it…. 35. We said, “O Adam, inhabit the Garden, you and your spouse, and eat from it freely as you please, but do not approach this tree, lest you become wrongdoers. 36. But Satan caused them to slip from it, and caused them to depart the state they were in…”[18]

The Quranic version of the story is certainly briefer than the Hebrew version, and we get a briefer characterization of the Garden, but the moral core of the story is the same: If they eat of the forbidden tree, they are doomed, and then, of course, they do eat. One of the interesting elements of the Quranic story is the line, “Whenever they are provided with fruit therefrom as sustenance, they will say, ‘This is what we were provided with before’, and they will be given the like of it…” This line suggests not only that the garden was growing and so replenishing the food that was gathered and consumed by Adam and Eve, but that it was doing so in predictable ways, as we would expect of nature. More on this point below.

By way of exploring the aesthetic impact of Eden, I offer two arguments for the contention that Eden was not dynamic in the way we typically think of nature. The first argument is textual, in the sense that the evidence for the claim comes from taking the texts at face value. The second argument is also textual, broadly speaking, but the evidence for the claim that Eden was not dynamic is literary in character. That is, the evidence is based on understanding the purpose of the story as a morality tale.

Eden as unchanging. From this line in Genesis, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it,” one might assume that Eden was a garden that did indeed change, given the need for Adam to “work it and take care of it.” But given that the threat of expulsion from Eden was expressed as “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground…,” it seems reasonable to imagine that what work Eden required was minimal. The only task explicitly assigned by God to Adam was the naming of the animals, and the Quran limits that even further to Adam simply learning the names of the animals. Plucking fruit from trees requires little in the way of work; coaxing food from ground plants requires a great deal. So, it is difficult to see to what Adam’s working and taking care of Eden might have amounted.

Certainly Eden involved some change. Adam, Eve, and the animals moved through it; they removed fruit from the trees; and so forth. This is seen in both the Genesis account and the Quranic account. But the dynamism of nature suggests that the place would have changed in ways that, over time, would render the defining properties of the place different. Trees and plants would grow and die, seeds would sprout, and the contours of the place would look and be different from how the place began. This is the sort of dynamism discussed in the section above.

Perhaps the best clue within the story that Eden was not dynamic in this way is the expulsion itself. If Eden were a natural space, then it seems God could have simply removed the trees – the two important trees and the trees from which Adam and Eve were plucking ordinary fruit – and the humans could have proceeded to farm the land where Eden originally stood. But this does not happen. Instead, the humans are expelled, and their expulsion is sealed by God placing at the east side of Eden – presumably the entrance – an angel with a “flaming sword flashing back and forth.”

The text explicitly says the Tree of Life remained. That there was a Tree of Life is yet another clue to the unchanging character of Eden. Through partaking from the Tree of Life, Adam and Eve were meant to live forever. In the absence of the sin of breaking God’s command, there was no reason they should die; the Tree of Life was explicitly the mechanism for their physical immortality. So thinking of Adam and Eve as part of the natural components of Eden, even they apparently were meant to stay in a physically uncorrupted state. They were not meant to change, and indeed the question of children only entered the picture after the expulsion.

If the Garden of Eden is unchanging, why call it a “garden” in the first place? There are several possible answers to this question, all of them, of course, speculative, as only the writers of the scriptural stories know their own motives and reasons.

  • First, if the story is meant to mirror the move from gatherer to farmer, then it is natural to think of the gathering phase as one rich with resources. A garden full of fruit-bearing trees is an obvious setting.

  • Second, as these stories were written within contexts of proximity to deserts, a garden involving four rivers – noteworthy in both the Hebrew and Islamic versions – where resource, shade, and a cool climate are the results of the garden-arboretum seem an easy idealization of a perfect place.

  • Third, the Hebrew characterization of Eden as a garden came after not only the creation but the literary description and later the pictorial representation of other gardens, notably the Sumerian ones noted in the Gilgamesh tale (originally written around 2000 BCE), and Egyptian and Greek gardens. The earliest record of a garden layout we have comes from an Egyptian tomb from around 2000 BCE.[19] The earliest pictorial depiction of a garden appeared around 1400 BCE, in an Egyptian tomb painting.[20] Both the Iliad and the Odyssey, written between 800-700 BCE, contain a number of references to gardens.[21] It is not beyond possibility that all these descriptions were known to the writers of Genesis. By the time of Genesis’ final compilation, it is possible that gardens had already become recognizable icons of ideal places.

  • Fourth, the distinctions between “First Nature” and “Third Nature” that Hunt introduces are recent inventions. Before the introduction of this distinction, it may have occurred to no one that there was any stark dividing line between an area that was generally wild, while aesthetically pleasant and navigable for the sake of gathering food, and one that was deliberately and carefully designed, as Hunt describes Third Nature. The one thing that seemed historically, and even etymologically, necessary for a garden to be a garden was that it be enclosed, and there is no question that the proverbial Eden met this criterion; Eden’s enclosure is necessary to the stories about it. For these reasons and likely others, it was perfectly natural to refer to Eden as a garden.

4. Eden as literature

In light of the natural dynamism of gardens and the textual evidence that Eden, as its writers described it, did not change in the way we would expect a garden to, it is reasonable to conclude that the Garden of Eden was not a true garden. In other words, the object described in the Abrahamic scriptural literature – called the “Garden” of Eden, having the influence it has had over Western garden design and appreciation – could not have been a garden if gardens are dynamic. Understanding why the Eden story is constructed as it was allows us to understand further why Eden was not a garden.

Even those who regard Eden as an actual place at the dawn of humanity still understand that the story of Eden is meant to convey truths and insights. The story is meant to be purposeful as instruction, and the way it achieves this end, ironically, is by not being a true garden. The fact that the Garden of Eden does not change allows for appreciation of Eden in ways that normal gardens may not be able to accommodate. These ways include a more easy or straightforward aesthetic appreciation that, in turn, allow Eden to be regarded in ways that more closely align with the ways in which we commonly appreciate artforms like literature.

Taken as a metaphor meant to convey truths about the character of morality and obedience, about morality and knowledge, and about the relation of humans to God, the story’s instruction depends on (1) the narrative of the law given by God, (2) the temptation, (3) the fall, (4) the discoveries (by the humans and by God), and (5) the expulsion. It is a story, like all coherent stories, with a beginning, middle, and end, and the end, for the sake of the instruction the story is meant to offer, includes a moral denouement. Moral consequences follow moral infraction. The consequences must include a proper rejoinder to the infraction, and given the stakes involved – the first sin, the commencement of original sin – the penalty must be stark and seen to be stark. The pain of childbearing is a good example of this. The expulsion, of course, is the other immediate consequence, and while the claim that Adam got off much easier than Eve is quite understandable, the consequence of expulsion must be taken to have the appropriate level of gravity to match the violation for which punishment is deserved. This dynamic only works if the expulsion is not from the working of one kind of land to the working of another but rather from one kind of existence to another, such as from gatherer to toiler. And that difference, to be a punishment befitting the crime, must be from a state of great value to something very different from that state. Eden, to play its proper role in the moral equation, must be seen to be of the highest value as a context of existence. For Christians, the stakes are even higher, as the Eden story figures into the Christological justification and need for redemption from original sin.

In addition, Eden must also be perfect for the sake of the story’s dramaturgical power and resonance. The instruction meant to be gleaned from hearing or reading the story is not merely about cognitively assenting to the correctness of the observation that the punishment fit the crime. The instruction only becomes effective if those hearing or reading it feel the gravity of the punishment and then adopt not merely the belief but the attitude that the justice served was fair but also very grave and highly impactful. Without being moved by the story, those who hear or read it will not have learned what the story seeks to teach. Again, this is best achieved if the reader/hearer understands Eden to have been not only perfect as a place but the perfect place for Adam and Eve.

Were the Garden of Eden a true garden, one that experienced the sort of change that is partly definitive of being a garden, we would expect its virtues as a garden to wax and wane; its aesthetic virtues, certainly, but perhaps more fundamentally, its value as a context for the survival of its inhabitants. Plants would die; animals would die; and competition among species for food, water, and reproduction would lead to territoriality and conflict. Those plants important to Adam and Eve’s survival would have to be protected, and some degree of horticultural husbandry beyond merely collecting fruit and the like would be required. A true garden requires maintenance, and, as every gardener knows, sometimes that maintenance involves sweat, aches, and pains. Eden being a true garden would have made it much more like the agricultural existence to which Adam and Eve were banished. If Eden were a true garden, the banishment might not have registered as much of a punishment; that is, the story of the banishment would have been a story of punishment following transgression, but it would have scarcely had the dramaturgical power to inspire the sort of fear in hearers and readers that would have effectively conveyed the moral lesson and discouraged disobeying God’s commands, even those that might seem mysterious, such as eating a particular fruit from a particular tree.

This lack of power would also infect the story were it more simply about humans moving from being hunter-gatherers to taking up an agrarian life. While we may read this anthropology back into the story, Eden’s inclusion in the Abrahamic scriptures is not about the recording of historical fact. It is about lessons to be learned; and so the particulars of the story are shaped in such a way that its didactic aims are preeminent.

If we take the Eden story to be purpose-driven in its aim to be instructional, then the story becomes more than history, if it ever was. It becomes literature. The story itself, not the historical particulars of an ancient garden, becomes the focus.

Eden’s perfection is part of the data of the story. It motivates the understanding of the consequences of disobedience, the depth of gravity of the situation, and the introduction of original sin. The perfection of Eden as a garden, or as a pseudo-garden if you like, has to do with the content of the literary object. But the perfection of Eden is also part of the virtues of the story as a work of moral instruction, which is to say, the perfection of Eden is part of what binds the story together and what provides for its coherence, its internal unity, and its power – a power, as we saw at the top of this paper, that is extraordinarily pervasive and perennial.

5. The Aesthetic Impact of Eden

The Eden story has been aesthetically impactful in two important ways. First, the story has inspired what I describe as Edenic Culture, inclusive of extensive influence on how we think about gardens, gardening, and the relationship of humans with nature. This impact may be characterized as aesthetic insofar as Edenic Culture has influenced how we understand gardens as having aesthetic dimensions, that is, features appreciated from an aesthetic point of view that focuses firstly on their perceptual qualities and that judges their merits, at least at times, from this perspective. This impact is a matter of historical fact.[22]

Second, Eden is aesthetically impactful because it is from appreciation of the story of Eden as a morality tale that we get our second argument that Eden had to be perfect and, if perfect, essentially unchanging. The unchanging nature of Eden is necessary to the dramaturgical character of the morality tale, that is, necessary to the instructional impact of the story as a morality tale, an impact dependent on its literary properties.

What is fascinating is the paradoxical nature of the aesthetic impact of Eden. On the one hand, Eden has been and continues to be highly influential on gardens and gardening. On the other hand, Eden has been highly influential as a morality tale, with the power of the story dependent on literary features that, in turn, are dependent on Eden not being a true garden. It would make little sense to say that the story of Eden ought only to have an aesthetic impact as a morality tale and that its impact on gardens and gardening has been misguided. Without arguing whether, on balance, the story has had a positive or a negative effect on gardens and gardening, the fact remains that it has had a substantial effect. The paradox is that the dual effect of Eden’s influence on both gardens and “moral cosmogony” came about because it needed to be something that it could not be: a garden and not a garden.[23]


David Fenner

David Fenner is Professor of Philosophy and Art at the University of North Florida. He currently focuses on the aesthetics of gardens and aesthetic education; in the past, he focused on subjective, contextual, and ethical matters in aesthetics.

Published on March 24, 2022.

Cite this article: David Fenner, “The Aesthetic Impact of the Garden of Eden,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 20 (2022), [accessed date].


[1] Mara Miller, The Garden as an Art (New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993).

[2] G. W. F. Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1975) was originally written and compiled between 1818-1835. Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment (Indianapolis, IL: Hackett, 1987), was originally published in 1790. Before Miller’s book, Andrew Wear published “The Garden as a Fine Art” (British Journal of Aesthetics 20:4,1980). While there were other publications concerning environmental aesthetics before Miller’s work, they did not focus explicitly (or at all) on gardens.

[3] Stephanie Ross, What Gardens Mean (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Francois Berthier, in Graham Parkes (translator and editor), Reading Zen in the Rocks: The Japanese Dry Landscape Garden (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000); John Dixon Hunt, Greater Perfections: The Practice of Garden Theory (London, UK: Thames and Hudson, 2000); David E. Cooper, A Philosophy of Gardens (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008); Marc Treib, Meaning in Landscape Architecture and Gardens (New York, NY: Routledge, 2011); Rory Stuart, What Are Gardens For? (London, UK: Franklin Lincoln Limited, 2012); Michael G. Lee, The German “Mittelweg”: Garden Theory and Philosophy in the Time of Kant (New York, NY: Routledge, 2013); and Damon Young, Philosophy in the Garden (Minneapolis, MN: Scribe Publications, 2020). I am including Hunt on this list, although he has made it clear he does not think of himself as a philosopher. Stuart, Treib, and Lee, incidentally, do not principally identify as philosophers, but it is difficult to see them not contributing to garden philosophy in the books cited here.

[4] Dan O’Brien (ed.), Gardening – Philosophy for Everyone: Cultivating Wisdom (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

[5] Roger Paden should be among the list of prominent garden philosophers: “A Defense of the Picturesque,” Environmental Philosophy 10:2 (2013), 1-21; “Picturesque Landscape Painting and Environmental Aesthetics,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 49:2 (2015), 39-61.

“The Ethical Function of Landscape Architecture,” Environmental Philosophy 15:2 (2018), 139-158.

[6] Hunt, 208.

[7] Hunt, 32.

[8] Hunt, 34.

[9] Hunt, 103 and 115.

[10] Roger Paden, “The Ethical Function of Landscape Architecture,” 149.

[11] Mohammadsharif Shadidi, Mohamad Reza Bemanian, Nina Almasifar and Hanie Okhovat, “A Study on Cultural and Environmental Basics at Formal Elements of Persian Gardens (before & after Islam),” Asian Culture and History 2:2 (2010), 137.

[12] Isis Brook, “Wildness in the English Garden Tradition: A Reassessment of the Picturesque from Environmental Philosophy,” Ethics and the Environment 13:1 (2008), 107.

[13] David Fenner, “Environmental Aesthetics and the Dynamic Object,” Ethics and the Environment 11:1 (2006), 1-19.

[14] Mara Miller, “Time and Temporality in the Garden,” in Dan O’Brien (ed.), Gardening – Philosophy for Everyone: Cultivating Wisdom (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 178. See also Ismay Barwell and John Powell, “Gardens, Music, and Time,” in Dan O’Brien (ed.), Gardening – Philosophy for Everyone: Cultivating Wisdom (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 135-147.

[15] Miller, The Garden as an Art, 116.

[16] Biblical scholars believe Genesis was written as a compilation of three or four original sources and the final compilation was written sometime after the Babylonian exile (starting shortly after 600 BCE), during the Persian rule over Judah, which began in 539 BCE and continued until the Greeks entered the picture in 331/332 BCE. A date of 500 BCE puts the final compilation toward the start of the Persian period.

[17] From the New International Version translation of the Bible.

[18] Translated by Talal Itani.

[19] Penelope Hobhouse, Plants in Garden History (London, UK: Pavilion, 1992), 11.

[20] Tom Turner, Garden History: Philosophy and Design 2000 BC to 2000 AD (New York, NY: Spon Press, 2005), 43.

[21] As we see, for instance, in Books 8 and 21 of the Iliad and Book 7 of the Odyssey.

[22] I take it as a matter of fact that Eden has inspired aesthetic appreciation both as a garden paragon and as literature; I do not claim that either of these is in error. The story’s impact on gardens and gardening endures, even if Eden were not a true garden, just as the impact on shaping lives to be moral may be occasioned by religious figures who may not have actually lived or been as they were recorded to have been. The only normative claim I wish to make is that Eden could not have been a true garden.

[23] My thanks to referees for this journal who helped make this paper much better.