Learning to Die in The Course of Empire: Thomas Cole and the Anthropocene

In many Romance languages, the words for story and history are the same, suggesting a strong link between the two denotations. For Hayden White, historian and literary critic, the way we organize history is through narrative (The Historical Text as Literary Artifact). Depending on the perspective, a history can be labeled as a comedy or tragedy. Thomas Cole’s five-part series, The Course of Empire, appears to portray the history of human’s interaction with nature as a tragic narrative, illustrating the rise and fall of civilization. Although painted at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Cole’s prophetic series provides a new perspective on the tragedy of the Anthropocene. In this modern era where the death of our civilization looms as an inevitability, The Course of Empire offers a look into our near future, where mankind’s footprint on the earth is no more than ruins buried under the healing hand of time. Looking at Cole’s series through the lens of climate change gives modern viewers an opportunity to learn how to die in the Anthropocene and provides an example of how the humanities can help turn our hearts toward environmental stewardship.

Before discussing Cole’s series, it is helpful to understand the meaning and consequences of the Anthropocene. Clive Hamilton and his co-writers, authors of The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis, provide three definitions of the Anthropocene: (1) the interval in geologic history proceeding the Holocene, (2) a shift in the Earth characterized by several different systems, such as sea-level rise and species extinction, and (3) mankind’s influence on the geo- and biologic landscape, or as Hamilton puts it, “The cumulative impact of civilization” (2–3). These definitions imply that humans have become as much a geological influence on the planet as, if not more than, forces such as volcanic activity and plate tectonics. Hamilton also points out that these definitions suggest that “human inhabitants of our planet will face, in a time lapse of just a few decades, global environmental shifts of an unprecedented scale and speed” (4). These environmental shifts will usher in dangerous consequences; the threats we face shake the foundation upon which we live—figuratively and literally. NASA’s website on global warming lists the various effects of climate change: shrinking glaciers, intense heat waves, more frequent droughts, stronger hurricanes, rising sea levels, etc. Although some consequences can be viewed as more positive changes (e.g., longer growing seasons), the negative effects overshadow the beneficial ones. The earth is in crisis.

It is true that these consequences will take decades to reach their full effect, which is one of various reasons behind why many people do not prioritize environmental stewardship. However, according to the head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, “Global climate change is the greatest threat the United States faces, more dangerous than terrorism, Chinese hackers, and North Korean nuclear missiles” (qtd. in Scranton 14). Instead of thinking of the effects of climate change as something distant and detached from us, we should perceive the threats, as environmental theorist Rob Nixon phrases, as a “slow violence,” which “occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space” (2). Using his coined phrase, Nixon poses a question: “How can we convert into image and narrative the disasters that are slow moving and long in the making, disasters that are anonymous and that star nobody, disasters that are attritional and of indifferent interest to the sensation-driven technologies of our image world?” (3). Similarly, Aldo Leopold claims that “we can be ethical only toward what we see” (qtd. in Scranton 14). The effects of climate change are invisible to many people, especially those who do not suffer from poverty (those in third-world countries are directly and negatively affected by the changing climate). These dilemmas leave environmentalists asking a central question: How can we get people to care about something that does not immediately or severely affect them?

This question captures one of the philosophical challenges we face as humans in the Anthropocene. Roy Scranton—environmental theorist, stoicist, and humanist—believes that the greatest challenge for us is “understanding that this civilization is already dead” (23). Although this realization may seem depressing, Scranton poses that learning to die in the Anthropocene can be a great benefit to mankind and to earth. As a soldier, Scranton understands first-hand what it means to picture one’s death to the point of detachment. Only after he envisioned the myriad of potential deaths before him could he continue with his work sanely, a practice that echoes Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s teachings in his eighteenth-century Samurai code, the Hagakure, where he writes, “The Way of the Samurai is found in death” (4). Contemplating death to a point where one already believes oneself to be dead resembles death itself. Scranton writes, “Study and contemplation draw our soul out of us to some extent and keep it busy outside the body which is a sort of apprenticeship and semblance of death” (91). This pondering allows us to practice our own death, enabling us to prepare for the only inevitable outcome of our lives—the end of our earthly existence.

Only by imagining the worst that could happen to us collectively, the destruction of civilization, will we find the courage to change the way we live. Scranton posits that the only way humanity can survive the Anthropocene is to recognize and accept the end of our current civilization. We have outgrown the way we conduct our existence; burning fossil fuels, clearing land for agriculture, and capitalistic industry have crippled us to a point where we will be unable to live the way we do for much longer (“The Consequences of Climate Change”). For Scranton, there is no other choice for us but to “[let] go of this particular way of life and its ideas of identity, freedom, success, and progress” (24). The very discourse of our time has to change, the epistemes must shift, and our definition of humanity needs to be revised. Scranton calls for an upheaval of our current perceptions of our existence:

In order for us to adapt to this strange new world, we’re going to need more than scientific reports and military policy. We’re going to need new ideas. We’re going to need new myths and new stories, a new conceptual understanding of reality, and a new relationship to the deep polyglot traditions of human culture that carbon-based capitalism has vitiated through commodification and assimilation. Over and against capitalism, we will need a new vision of who “we” are. We need a new humanism—a newly philosophical humanism, undergirded by renewed attention to the humanities. (19)

So how would Scranton have us change the discourse of humanity? Through the humanities, which is an appropriate term that simultaneously alludes to the human race collectively and also the “learning or literature concerned with human culture, especially literature, history, art, music, and philosophy” (Dictionary.com). Through the humanities, humanity will find survival. The humanities allow us to enter into the emotional realm of history, inserting ourselves into the art, immersing ourselves in it, and obtaining new thoughts and perspectives as a result of our sacred experience with it. Because we understand history as a narrative, as White would argue, it is essential that we find works of art that present a story to us so that we can better connect with it. The Course of Empire illustrates history in a five-part chronicle, so it enables us to contemplate the tragic historical narrative that is not only in the paintings but also in our own future. This specific narrative provides us with a template to understand the human experience, and the humanities are the key to doing so more fully. With this gained understanding, we will be more able and willing to adapt to a world affected by climate change.

Cole’s The Course of Empire stands as an excellent example of a product of the humanities that allows us to learn how to die in the Anthropocene. The sequence illustrates the rise and fall of mankind. The first panel, “The Savage State,” depicts a stormy, forested scene. Clouds swirl sublimely around a mountain lit with the light of dawn. Humans are sparsely scattered throughout the trees and are dressed in clothing reminiscent of Native American skins and furs. The second panel, “The Arcadian or Pastoral State,” echoes the idealized landscapes of the European Romantics. A structure alluding to Stonehenge rests to the right of the same mountain from the previous panel. The trees have thinned out and have been replaced with agricultural land. Shepherds herd sheep, and women watch as their children play. It is an idealized scene. The next panel, “The Consummation of Empire” introduces a dramatic change to the landscape. Although the peak of the mountain is still visible, all of the natural landscape has been replaced with a white-marble city. Pleasure-seeking crowds flock among the classical architecture. At a shallow glance, this panel appears to exude progress and riches—the exceptionalism of civilization. However, a closer look reveals the immorality of civilization: sexual immodesty and gluttony are apparent in every corner. The next panel, “Destruction,” introduces the dark, smoky clouds and highlights the dangers of corruption. The once-white city is blackened from the ashes of burning buildings, women and children are killed, and armies clash, leaving only rubble behind. This utter destruction is calmed in the final panel, “Desolation,” where humanity exists only as a footprint on the landscape. This is the only panel that does not include human beings. All that remains from the last panel are a handful of picturesque ruins. The sun sets on two birds, and the mountain reemerges as a prominent feature. Nature covers the crumbled civilization; it looks peaceful—almost like a blanket of snow. The wounds that civilization inflicted upon the landscape are in the process of healing, and mankind’s harmful footprint is fading away. For the first time since the second panel, nature is more prominently displayed than civilization.

After viewing this panel, some may ask: “What narrative from history is this?” Instead of thinking of the series as a replication of the past, it is more useful to think of it as an allegory for the future. By placing ourselves into this series, we are more able to answer theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty’s summons: “We have to insert ourselves into a future ‘without us’ in order to be able to visualize it” (197–198). To harken back to Scranton, in order to learn how to die in the Anthropocene, we have to picture ourselves in the final panel where humanity does not survive. Again, we are able to place ourselves into a historical narrative that we can easily comprehend. Because the fifth panel shows no sign of living humans, only their aging ruins, we can follow Chakrabarty’s advice to see ourselves in a future “without us,” which is destined to happen. With this concept of humanity’s self-destruction as an unavoidable event in mind, Cole’s series becomes a prophetic journey for viewers to come to terms with the end of civilization. The title itself suggests that this destruction is not an accidental occurrence, but rather an inevitable end that is the result of human action. The word course stems from the Old French cors, which meant “run, running, flow of a river” (Online Etymology Dictionary). Just as sure as a river flows, civilization will come to an end. One major difficulty the world is facing in the fight against climate change is indifference; even with sufficient scientific understanding, many are unwilling to do anything about it. But Scranton’s call to action through learning to die in the Anthropocene opens up an entirely new door to responsiveness. Perhaps once people insert themselves into a humanless future, they will find a new motivation behind adapting to a changing climate.

Before exploring the nuances of what the series teaches us about death, it is helpful to discuss Cole’s relationship with nature. As an American painter living in the first half of the nineteenth century, Cole was well acquainted with the beauty and sacredness of nature. Cole enjoyed a widespread admiration as a Hudson River School artist, which was based “not only on his ability as a painter but also on his high ethical standards and deep religious feelings” (Huth 46). These ethical standards were captured in his treatment of nature in his artwork. His early pieces focused on the sublimity of natural landscapes (e.g., “Landscape with Tree Trunks” or “The Clove, Catskills”). However, his later work experienced a shift in theme. He began producing paintings with Biblical subjects, such as “St. John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness” or “The Garden of Eden.” Even with this difference in focus, Cole’s paintings still celebrated nature’s sacredness. Cole’s minister, Louis Noble, described Cole as “a youthful romantic in spiritual communion with nature” (qtd. in Miller). Cole’s relationship with nature was inspired by William Wordsworth’s philosophies. Biographer Angela L. Miller notes that this “intense communion with nature derived from Wordsworth’s religious and moral idealism was expressed in every one of Cole’s paintings,” including The Course of Empire (Miller). Therefore, it is not a stretch to analyze the series through an environmental lens.

Cole’s beliefs about nature were not limited to only views about himself; his paintings reflect his deep consideration about all of humanity’s relationship with the earth. His comprehension of our destructive influence on the world around us may have come to light during Cole’s first seventeen years in Lancashire, England, which had been an industrialized town since the eighteenth century. When Cole and his family moved to Steubenville, Ohio, via Philadelphia in 1820, he was very much aware of the great contrast between urbanized England and rural America. Miller comments, “To a greater extent than his American contemporaries, therefore, Cole sensed the fragility of the American wilderness, threatened by settlement and industry.” Cole’s heightened sense of human impact on nature is visible not only in his artwork (e.g., “The Oxbow on the Connecticut River”) but also in his poetry. In a poem titled “On seeing that a favorite tree of the Author’s had been cut down,” Cole writes, “Destroying man! What demon urg’d the speed / Of thine unpitying axe?” (lines 4–5). The term “destroying man” seems to be a pattern among Cole’s poetry and paintings, including The Course of Empire. The theme continues in his poem “Lament of the Forest” (originally titled “Complaint of the Forest,” but later altered by William Cullen Bryant), where Cole gives a voice to the trees and allows them to speak out about their woes from mankind’s interference (Marks 94). Cole’s writing about mankind and nature suggests that he sees human beings as a destructive force that through their own immorality and unethical perceptions of nature devastate the very landscape that sustains them.

Cole’s ideas about man’s destructive tendencies are prominently featured in The Course of Empire, which makes it a perfect candidate for Scranton’s theory of learning to die through the humanities. Jessica Friedlander, author of “Mastering the Hudson: A Study of Thomas Cole’s Lasting Impression on the Hudson River Valley,” discusses Cole’s anxieties about industry:

During the commission of one of his most famous works, called The Course of Empire, Cole expressed his concern with the frailty of nature and humankind’s insatiable thirst for industrial growth—a terrifying monster whose only interest with the natural world was to crush it. (76)

Cole’s concerns are expressed through the painting’s narrative. The first two panels, “The Savage State” and “The Arcadian or Pastoral State” depict a close human-nature relationship. People directly depend on the land. In the first painting, the most prominent human being is a hunter with a bow. A small teepee village is located on the right side of the frame, and is so small and seemingly insignificant that it creates a non-duality with its surroundings—almost as if it is just another part of the landscape. At first glance, this painting appears nothing more than a dramatic landscape; it isn’t until one takes a closer look that people are even visible. In the second painting, the human impact is more apparent, but the relationship between man and nature is still very intimate; they still live off the land directly. However, the first hint of moral corruption is evident in the boy in the bottom of the frame, who is drawing a stick figure with a sword—a symbol of the looming violence. The remainder of the allegory illustrates mankind’s detachment from nature. In “The Consummation of Empire,” the only parts of nature visible are distant mountain peaks and potted plants. This taming of nature reflects man’s control and vast influence over nature. They have replaced forests with marble, so to speak, and, as the fourth panel suggests, will suffer from the consequences. Cole seems to be drawing a connection between human excess and greed and distancing from nature, which prophetically illustrates our modern capitalistic society. A closer and more limited relationship with nature would mean a smaller economy, proving that sustainable environmentalism and capitalism cannot easily coexist. The final painting highlights the peace that comes once human corruption is eliminated. The weather has returned to its calm state; the smoke from the destructive fires has cleared. Nature becomes the driving force in the landscape once again. Vines creep up ruined columns and birds build their lives in a nest upon crumbling marble. The corruption is removed, and all that remains is nature’s soothing hand.

The narrative in The Course of Empire seems to indicate that Cole relates immorality with destruction, specifically that our lack of ethics will be our end. The classical architecture is analogous to the historical rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Miller writes, “The implied analogy with ancient Rome reflected Cole’s growing disillusionment with America’s cultural arrogance and what he felt was its unwitting re-enactment of previous historical cycles.” By drawing a parallel between modern times and the Roman Empire, Cole is again highlighting the inevitable nature of civilization’s destruction. Miller also notes how Cole draws upon various works of art that highlight other apocalyptic events, for example, “The Fifth Plague of Egypt” by Joseph Mallord William Turner. In the era of climate change, we can view Cole’s series as a warning against the cycle we are currently in: poisoning the environment from which we draw our livelihoods and lives. This cycle of civilization’s destruction present in the painting is paired well with Cole’s 1838 poem “On the Frore Shadow of Yon Mountain-steep”:

On the frore shadow of yon mountain-steep
I gaze remembering every tender dye
Of Summer and of Autumn, rich and deep,
The joyous forest’s gorgeous pride, and sigh
That the soft seasons speed so swiftly away
And Winter lingers with unkind delay—
I gaze; but not as once ‘twas mine to gaze
With heart too full of youthful hope for gloom
Ere those Belov’d Ones we did gently place
Within the confines of the Silent Tomb—
Since then the seasons wear a sadder hue
And Evening’s golden tints are faded too—

The first line mirrors the repeating image of the mountain in the series that silently watches the course of civilization take place. We as viewers are also “on the frore shadow of yon mountain steep,” watching the natural course play out. The poem also reflects the paintings by introducing a temporal element; while the poem travels from summer to winter, the painting presents dawn to dusk. Both summer and dawn signify life, while winter and dusk are symbolic of death—an inevitable course for all living things. Cole then speaks of “Belov’d ones” who were placed in a “Silent Tomb,” which seems to mirror the fourth panel, “Destruction,” where war and violence incite death. His final line in this poem aligns with the final panel, which is lit with the “evening’s golden tints.” But his final phrase “And Evening’s golden tints are faded too—” implies that the loss of humanity is a tragic one; however, in The Course of Empire, the end of civilization is presented as peaceful and picturesque. A soft light bathes the battered landscape, and everything appears to be contentedly still.

Cole’s portrayal of mankind’s elimination in “Desolation” draws some interesting implications about the Anthropocene. For Cole, the narrative of civilization’s self destruction is not necessarily tragic at all. If Cole were to witness our self-destruction today—meaning our harmful impact on the environment that will eventually and ironically harm us—he may mourn it, but he might also see it as just another chapter in the natural course of humanity. In his poem “Lines Written after a Walk on [a] Beautiful Morning in November,” Cole reveals his beliefs about transience and how death is just a natural part of the cycle: “So quickly fly / All beauteous things, we gaze and love—they die. / . . . Transient is the sun; / But earth rejoices as his course is run—” (lines 108–113). Note how Cole uses the word course—the same word he uses in the title of his five-part series. Cole’s beliefs about death are given a second witness in his poem “On seeing that a favorite tree of the Author’s had been cut down”: “But death sometimes leaves hope” (line 12). These poems supplement the fifth panel: humanity is gone, but the earth rejoices nonetheless. Nature and time will heal the wounds we have created.

Some radical environmentalists may approach climate change’s effects on human life in the same way that Cole seems to approach his series: that nature is better off without mankind. However, most environmental theorists do not share such extreme views but rather invite a more harmonious and self-aware co-existence with the earth. Scranton’s theories call for adaptation through accepting that we are already on an unavoidable course that will—not might—lead to our ruin. Although we are somewhere between the third and fourth panels, Scranton would have us imagine ourselves in the fifth panel, “Desolation.” Until we can insert ourselves into a situation where we no longer exist, we will not have the ability or motivation to survive in the Anthropocene. Scranton writes, “We are humanity. We are the dead” (94). Pondering products of the humanities, such as Cole’s The Course of Empire, that provide a window into our desolate future allows us to practice our death. Practicing death enables us to adapt to our changing environment. Even if some people witness their inevitable destruction and turn to apathy, perhaps this approach to the Anthropocene through the humanities will inspire others to respond to the call to action. Because climate change is such a large and complex problem, there is no one solution to ensuring everyone’s participation in helping the environment. But does that mean that we should not pursue Scranton’s advice? Even if it means only a handful of people respond positively, we should still act upon Scranton’s invitation, because every point counts when it comes to surviving climate change. The same argument exists in other environmental acts like recycling. If even just one person recycles, he or she is making a difference.

Both Cole and Scranton seem to be urging us to recognize our position on the inevitable course of civilization that stops for no one. This cycle happens on global and local settings. Each panel from Cole’s series is evident around the world; some areas are in “The Savage State” while others are in “Desolation.” Globally, however, we are closer to the end of the cycle than we think, and it is time that we envision the end so we can survive it. Scranton writes, “Accepting the truth of our end is the beginning of wisdom” (90). Perhaps we can begin a new cycle, accepting truth and beginning wisdom, and perhaps this new cycle will be our salvation. Although Cole’s paintings and Scranton’s theories suggest that we may never escape the course of civilization’s rise and fall in the Anthropocene, we can still find refuge among the humanities.



Works Cited

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35.2 (2008): 197-222. Web.

Cole, Thomas. The Course of EmpireMuseum Collections, New York Historical Society Museum and Library, New York City, 1835, www.nyhistory.org/exhibit/course-empire. Accessed 3 June 2017.

Cole, Thomas. “Thomas Cole’s Poetry.” Thomas Cole’s Poetry. The University of Virginia Library. 1825. Web. 17 May 2017. <http://xtf.lib.virginia.edu/xtf/view?docId=chadwyck_ap%2FuvaGenText%2Ftei%2Fchap_AM1181.xml&chunk.id=d3&toc.id=d3&brand=default>.

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Friedlander, Jessica. “Mastering the Hudson: A Study of Thomas Cole and His Lasting Impression on the Hudson River Valley.” The Hudson River Valley Review, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 73–81. www.hudsonrivervalley.org/review/rvw_thomas_cole. Accessed 1 June 2017.

Hamilton, Clive, Christophe Bonneuil, and Francois Gemenne. The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2015. Print.

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Huth, Hans. Nature and the American: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes. Berkeley and Loss Angeles, CA, University of California Press, 1957.

Marks, Alfred H. “Thomas Cole as Poet.” The Hudson River Valley Review, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 73–81., pp. 92–96. www.hudsonrivervalley.org/review/pdfs/hvrr_1pt2_marks.pdf. Accessed 1 June 2017.

Miller, Angela L. “Cole, Thomas.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 15 May. 2017. <http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T018539>.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2011. Print.

Scranton, Roy. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. San Francisco, CA, City Lights Books, 2015.

Tsunetomo, Yamamoto. “Hagakure The Book of the Samurai.” Hagakure The Book of the Samurai, Translated by William Scott Wilson, www.kendo.org.uk/files/Hagakure.pdf. Accessed 26 May 2017.

White, Hayden. The Historical Text as Literary Artifact. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York, W. W. Norton & Co., 2010.