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Modern philosopher in full bloom
Modern philosopher in full bloom

Eleven great writers, thinkers, poets and philosophers made the final cut of Philosophy in the Garden, though Henry James and Edith Wharton had to be pruned.

How did modern-day philosopher Damon Young come to write this title that, at first glance, may present as overwhelmingly esoteric? (By the way, two quick points: you'll not get a hernia from reaching for the ideas in this book and - total trivia - Young is no gardener himself and struggles to keep his yard's grass controlled.)

"It was after I wrote Distraction (his first book) I noticed many of the authors I was interested in - Nietzsche, Henry James and Virginia Woolf - were often in the garden and thinking about gardens and that encounter was either transformative or made a great impact on them," Young says from his Melbourne home.

"Then I went back to classical Greece and Rome and Plato, Aristotle and Epicurus. Roman philosophers were often known for their great gardens and held dialogues in them, and gardens seem to help properly realise their ideas."

Philosophy in the Garden is a stimulating read where individual truths may well bloom and grow for those who would till the soil of being for the harvest of enlightenment. If not, at the very least this volume is packed with brilliant literary info. Such as: Did you know Jane Austen did not write for a decade when in Bath and separated from her beloved Chawton Cottage and its colourful gardens? The great author was, however, once again fired with spirit to continue her incisive literary revelations of human hearts and manners when the family moved to the Hampshire coast and a home titled Castle Square, the gardens of which became greatly admired by locals and a source of great pride to Austen.

Gardens (nature) and humanity (human beings) are two fundamentals of philosophy and you can learn that from the big daddy of 'em all - Aristotle. Humanity is not an answer but an ongoing question and nature is both visible and unseen and mutable. Young says both entwine in the garden.

"Authors like Jane Austen did seem to be consoled by the natural order in the garden as well as it being a place that gave her a break from humans," he says. "So there is a certain cosmic order to be seen in nature in a garden and also can reflect our relationship to mortality - really evident in Emily Dickinson's writing.

"For her, I think it was not so much having control over nature in a garden, but more nature's cycles representing the idea that part of us can continue to flower after we're gone. In a sense Dickinson's garden reassures her that like flowers that continue to blossom, her poems would survive."

Delving into the great artists' lives and staying in them for months at a time via multiple biographies could be gruelling, admits Young. For thinkers who erred on the side of bleak, those determined to see no meaning, no light, no relief from the inevitability of the grave, research for this book was an act of disciplined determination. While Young admires the intellectual prowess of Jean-Jacques Rousseau for example, he says: "I could also give him a slap. He's not a man I admire."

(Rousseau had big problems with what he saw as contemporary man's counter position to nature.)

Other authors in this reflection on alfresco thinking include Proust, Colette, Orwell, Kazantzakis, Sartre and Voltaire (who at least had the good sense to develop a sense of humour).

"I think that it was appropriate I ended with him in the book," Young says.