Though related to the Age of Enlightenment as a whole, it’s worth taking a closer look specifically at the role that nature plays, both generally and in terms of shaping Cosimo’s philosophy. One of Cosimo’s regular correspondents, the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, proposed that humans are born into perfection—but, as they engage with society, become corrupted. This idea of perfection is something that Rousseau ties to the natural world, as opposed to the manmade world of Western civilization. With this understanding, it’s possible to read Cosimo’s ascent to the trees as an attempt to escape from society to become what Rousseau might suggest is an ideal man. In this sense, Cosimo’s central conflict is not man versus nature in the conventional sense. Rather, the book examines the societal and cultural trappings of corrupt civilization versus the pure, unadulterated potential of a person in what Rousseau believes is their natural state—ultimately concluding that attempting to break with society to achieve this ideal is impossible.
Though Rousseau didn’t come up with it, he greatly popularized the idea of the “noble savage.” This idea is considered racist and problematic today—but broadly speaking, it states that Native peoples and “pre-political” people, such as those Europeans encountered in the course of colonizing the globe, were unencumbered by civilization and instead, represented an ideal, pure vision of what human life could look like. Indeed, Rousseau even took this idea a step further in his exploration of human development, as he posited that all children go through a phase in which they occupy a similar state of perfect potential, a phase they grow out of as they develop and become a part of society.
Cosimo’s choice to take to the trees reflects, at its heart, the desire to not give in to the corruption as represented by society, or at least the kind of society that Cosimo’s father, Baron Arminio, models for him. For Baron Arminio, life is about wanting—but doing nothing to actually achieve—the dukedom at some point in the future, something that represents Baron Arminio’s desire to be a part of the powerful elite and a part of civilization. This desire to be a duke means that Baron Arminio forces all his family members to adhere to strict rules of conduct, such as forcing his young sons to eat politely with the adults at mealtimes and forcing them into clothes that Biagio suggests would be more appropriate in the French Court of Louis XIV than in their comparatively modest and rural villa in Italy. Cosimo’s reasoning for going up in the trees, then—which he decides to do after a major argument with his parents in which he flat-out refuses to eat snails for lunch—is a concise encapsulation of Cosimo’s broader rejection of society as represented by his father.
For his first few years in the trees, Cosimo becomes a truly wild individual: he begins to hunt, fashions garments out of fur, and falls in with a group of young fruit thieves who regularly harass local farmers—uneducated and impoverished individuals who can be read as products of the ills of civilization. While they, like Cosimo, turn to the natural world of the trees when they’re unable to feed themselves in Ombrosa, they will never be able to make anything more of themselves. Cosimo, on the other hand, is educated very much in the way that Rousseau proposed was best: after a period of time in which he enjoys being wild and free, he’s allowed to return to formal lessons when he’ ready and even agrees to wear proper clothing when the occasion calls for it. From the trees, Cosimo is thus able to enjoy the best of both worlds and in this sense, embody the kind of person Rousseau suggests was ideal and worth emulating. He remains, in many ways, a wild and unencumbered man for most of his life, sleeping in his fur sack, hunting, and in his middle-aged madness, insisting that he’s actually a bird. However, when he does engage with society, it’s in ways that the novel suggests are entirely positive: he organizes fire brigades, fights off pirates, helps fight in the French Revolution, and even makes a brief effort to facilitate government via social contract—what modern readers might recognize as constitutional government. In all of these endeavors, Cosimo is able to escape the corrupting ills of civilized society, while participating to make them better from his ideal life in the trees.
Despite the novel’s implication that Cosimo’s life is one to aspire to in many ways, the novel’s end suggests that this isn’t something that can happen in the present that Biagio inhabits and from which he narrates (an unspecified time in the mid-1800s), or indeed, in the reader’s present. Biagio notes that the trees that facilitated Cosimo’s separation from the civilized world are now gone, leaving behind only the man-made, built environment that Cosimo found to be so stifling and corrupt, as well as a smattering of exotic trees. In this way, while the novel celebrates Cosimo’s choices and the way he lived his life, it suggests that it was something only possible at a very specific point in time: in the time after his death, achieving that moral high ground through association with the natural world is something that the novel suggests is impossible.
Civilization vs. Nature ThemeTracker
Civilization vs. Nature Quotes in The Baron in the Trees
Now, instead, as we dined with the family, childhood’s sad chapter of daily grievances took shape. Our father and our mother were always right in front of us; we had to use knives and forks for the chicken, and sit up straight, and keep elbows off the table—endless!—and then there was our odious sister Battista. A succession of scoldings, spiteful acts, punishments, obstinacies began, until the day Cosimo refused the snails and decided to separate his lot from ours.
From the window I strained my ears to that irregular breath and tried to imagine how it would sound, without the familiar womb of the house, to someone who was just a few yards away but completely entrusted to it, with only the night around him, the only friendly object to which he could cling the trunk of a tree with its rough bark traveled by tiny endless tunnels in which the larvae slept.
Cosimo’s first days in the trees had no goals or plans but were dominated only by the desire to know and possess that kingdom of his. He would have liked to explore it immediately to its furthest boundaries, study all the possibilities it offered, discover it tree by tree and branch by branch.
That need to enter an element difficult to possess which had driven my brother to make his the ways of the trees was now working in him again, unsatisfied, and communicated to him the desire for a more detailed penetration, a relationship that would bind him to every leaf and scale and feather and flutter. It was the love that man the hunter has for what is alive but doesn’t know how to express except by aiming the gun; Cosimo couldn’t yet recognize it and tried to let it out by intensifying his exploration.
Understanding the character of Enea Silvio Carrega helped Cosimo in this: he understood many things about being alone that were useful to him later in life. I would say that he always carried with him the troubled image of the cavalier avvocato, as a warning of what a man who separates his fate from that of others can become, and he was successful in that he never came to resemble him.
Cosimo had always liked to watch people working, but so far his life in the trees, his movements and his hunting, had always answered to isolated and unmotivated whims, as if he were a little bird. Now instead the need to do something useful for his neighbor possessed him. And this, too, if you looked closely, was something he had learned from the company of the bandit: the pleasure of making himself useful, of performing a task indispensable to others.
He understood this: that associations make man stronger and bring out the individual’s best talents, and offer the joy, rarely felt if we remain on our own, of seeing how many honest and good and capable people there are, for whom it’s worthwhile to wish for good things (whereas if we live on our own, the contrary more often happens, of seeing people’s other face, the one that causes us to keep our hand on the hilt guard of our sword).
And there, with naive youthful fervor, he explained the ideas of the philosophers and the wrongs of sovereigns and how states could be governed according to reason and justice.
“You reason too much. Why in the world should love be reasoned?”
“To love you more. Everything increases its power if you do it by reasoning.”
“You live in the trees and you have the mentality of a lawyer with gout.”
“The boldest enterprises should be experienced with the simplest heart.”
He continued to spout opinions until she ran away; then he, following her, despairing, tearing his hair.
How the passion for a life of association that Cosimo always displayed was reconciled with his perpetual flight from civil society I’ve never understood, and it remains one of the larger peculiarities of his character. One might say that the more determined he was to stay hidden up in his branches, the greater the need he felt to create new relations with the human race.
It was an idea of universal society that he had in mind. And every time he worked to bring people together, whether for specific goals like the fire watch or the defense against the wolves, or whether in trade confraternities [...] there was always an atmosphere of conspiracy, of a sect, of heresy, and in that atmosphere the discourse passed easily from the particular to the general, and just as easily from the simple rules of a manual trade to the plan of establishing a world republic of equals, of the free and the just.
Instead my intervention was providential: the itching of the fleas rekindled acutely in the hussars the human and civilized need to scratch, to rub, to get rid of the fleas; they threw away the mossy garments, the knapsacks and bundles covered with mushrooms and spiderwebs; they washed, they shaved, they combed their hair; in short they regained consciousness of their individual humanity, and the sense of civilization, of deliverance from brute nature, won them back.
Then, the vegetation has changed: no more the holm oaks, the elms, the oaks; now Africa, Australia, the Americas, the Indies extend branches and roots here. The ancient trees have retreated upward: on top of the hills the olives, and in the mountain woods pines and chestnuts; down on the coast it’s an Australian red with eucalyptus, elephantine with ficus, enormous and solitary garden plants, and all the rest is palms, with their disheveled tufts, inhospitable desert trees.