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This short, mysterious book, self-published anonymously in 1836, received high critical praise and kick-started America's first homegrown intellectual movement, Transcendentalism. After defining nature and identifying its purposes in relation to human life, Emerson reveals that it is only through nature that we can understand the world and ourselves.
Nature was the first major publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). In 1836, the 33-year-old Emerson was practically unknown to the world. He had only recently quit his job as a minister after the death of his wife, returned from a tour of Europe, married a second time, and established himself in Concord, a suburb of Boston.
Emerson would go on to achieve worldwide fame as a lecturer, essayist, poet, and one of the founders of a major American intellectual movement, Transcendentalism. In Nature, Emerson introduced important philosophical ideas that he would continue to develop in his later work, and that would inspire generations of writers and intellectuals.
By making nature a point of central spiritual and philosophical concern, Emerson laid the foundation for the 19th-century intellectual movement that would eventually become known as Transcendentalism. Excited by the ideas in Nature, a group of writers and intellectuals, including Bronson Alcott, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Theodore Parker, Orestes Brownson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau, started to visit Emerson's house in Concord regularly. Although they did not necessarily agree with Emerson on all points, they all thought that nature was of utmost importance.
Transcendentalism: an early 19-century intellectual movement that emphasized the importance of the natural world, individual expression, and choice.
Nature is a complex book, but its main message is simple: lose yourself in nature! It is only by, in Emerson's words, becoming a "transparent eye-ball" in the forest that we can really understand anything at all.1
Nature is a long and complex essay that engages with major philosophical, religious, and literary ideas spanning thousands of years. After offering a definition of nature and our place in it, Emerson identifies four purposes of nature in relation to humanity: it exists as a commodity, as a source of beauty and language, and as a course of study. Emerson then applies this expanded definition of nature to philosophy and theology before explaining how understanding nature allows us to understand ourselves, our history, and our place in it.
Emerson begins with the declaration that "Our age is retrospective" or backward-looking and obsessed with the past. Why do we feel that no great prophets, poets, or philosophers can exist in our times? He proposes that we look to nature as a kind of common denominator between the past and present to answer this question. If we can discover the purpose of nature, then perhaps we can understand our place in it and in history.
For Emerson, nature is not just the natural world of rivers, trees, and air – this is what he terms the "common sense" of nature. Nature does include these things, but it also includes "art" or human artifacts as well as human bodies. Nature is everything that we don't identify with ourselves.
Looking out at the evening sky, we may be dazzled by the shining stars that surround us on all sides. But we cannot reach out and touch them or even get any closer to them for a better look. This is not only true of the stars: nature surrounds us everywhere, but it also seems distant and inaccessible. Sometimes we fail to notice it even when we are looking directly at it, for example, when we consider a field only as a farmer's property or a forest as potential lumber. We need "the eye and heart of the child" in order to see nature for what it truly is. Escaping from the town or city into the woods is the best way to accomplish this. In the woods, Emerson famously remarks:
Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all.
Losing our sense of self while observing the natural world, we begin to feel that we are, in fact, a part of it after all.
Working with this definition of nature and with the doubt that humans are separate from nature, the next four chapters identify four "ends" or purposes that nature is used for.
The first purpose, commodity, is simply the use of the natural world to satisfy physical needs or desires, such as when we use rocks or trees to build structures or feed ourselves with plants and animals. Emerson doesn't spend much time on this purpose, and he notes that it is not really an end in itself since "A man is fed, not that he may be fed, but that he may work."
Nature has three distinct purposes in relation to beauty. The first is the simple delight that we take in looking at the natural world. While Emerson thinks that this delight is stronger in rural landscapes, he notes that absolutely anything can be made beautiful under the right lighting conditions (photographers, take note!).
The second is the kind of beauty that arises when the natural world seems to be in harmony with human intentions, such as when a cool and sunny day corresponds with a planned road trip or a sailing expedition falls on a windy day. Emerson thinks that this is especially beautiful when nature cooperates with larger human ambitions, such as those of generals and explorers.
The third purpose of nature in relation to beauty is the inspiration it provides for human art. Taking pleasure in natural beauty, the beauty "reforms itself in the mind" for the purpose of artistic creation. Art is a kind of distillation of nature through the human mind.
As with beauty, nature also has a threefold purpose in relation to language. The first of these is to provide what Emerson calls "signs," by which he means something like "words." Many words have etymological origins in natural observations: the word "right" comes from an ancient Indo-European word for "straight," the word "spirit" comes from a Latin word meaning "breathe," and so on. Whether we realize it or not, nature provides a great deal of the vocabulary we use on a daily basis.
The second purpose is to provide analogies for human psychological states. Emerson provides a helpful list of examples here:
An enraged man is a lion, a cunning man is a fox, a firm man is a rock, a learned man is a torch. A lamb is innocence; a snake is subtle spite; flowers express to us the delicate affections. Light and darkness are our visible expression for knowledge and ignorance; Visible distance behind and before is respectively our image of memory and hope.
These analogies are so consistent across cultures and so prominent in every language that they could not be the result of chance. Emerson thinks that they demonstrate a fundamental similarity between the human mind and the natural world. He suggests that the mind works best outside of the city, where it can observe and draw inspiration from the natural world for its language and thoughts.
Inspired by the post-Kantian philosophical developments of his time, Emerson drew a distinction between "Reason" and "Understanding." Understanding includes the more mechanical processes of the mind, like doing calculations or thinking logically. Reason is a more active, creative process through which we form representations of the outside world.
In Nature, Emerson suggests that Spirit is the same thing as Reason but "considered in relation to nature." In fact, Emerson views Spirit, in particular, as being "the Creator. Spirit hath life in itself. And man in all ages and countries, embodies it in his language."
Because Emerson views both Reason and Spirit as being reflections of God's own processes, they exist throughout the natural world, linking God, humans, and nature together.
The third purpose of nature with respect to language builds directly on the second one. It is not only our common thoughts that are articulated in the natural world but also our very ideas of right and wrong. This is hinted at in popular idioms such as "A rolling stone gathers no moss" or "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," but its deeper articulation has also been the objective of all major philosophies and religions "from the era of the Egyptians and the Brahmins, to that of Pythagoras, of Plato, of Bacon, of Leibnitz, of Swedenborg." Our judgments about right and wrong turn out to be judgments about real, natural facts.
By 'discipline,' Emerson means something like an academic or intellectual discipline – a course of study. Combining the purposes of nature that we find in relation to commodity, beauty, and language, we find a full course of study for practical, intellectual, and moral truths.
We have already outlined the lessons that Emerson thinks nature has to teach us. Before reading on, review the sections on "Commodity," "Beauty," and "Language." Do you find anything there that resembles a school curriculum?
The careful observation of nature offers "constant exercise in the lessons of difference, of likeness, of order, of being and seeming, of progressive arrangement; of ascent from particular to general; of combination to one end of manifold forces." Eventually, this results in the formation of the natural sciences and natural laws. In addition to providing an endless source of intellectual investigation, we also learn about our own willpower through the effects that we produce on the natural world.
Emerson has already noted how the language we use to think about ethics and morality is always drawn from the natural world, but, in this chapter, he takes that argument a step further. Because "the moral law lies at the center of nature and radiates to the circumference," every interaction we have with the natural world is a potential lesson in ethics. The end-point of these moral lessons is an understanding of the "Unity of Nature, –the Unity in Variety, – which meets us everywhere." This truth can be expressed in both language and action, and it is closely related to the realization that "the human form" is predominant in nature.
Emerson's next step is to relate his theory of nature to a long-standing philosophical debate: that between idealism and realism. A central question in the history of Western philosophy has been whether we can really know the world outside of our own consciousness of it and whether the outside world even exists outside of our ideas.
Idealism: the philosophical position that our knowledge of things is limited to our ideas about them. Some idealists go even further and think that nothing exists other than consciousness or ideas.
Realism: the philosophical position that there is a real world of things external to us and that our ideas are just representations of those things in our head, usually formed from our sense perceptions.
Emerson thinks that the importance of the realism versus idealism question is overstated. Real or ideal, nature "is alike useful and venerable to me," and its "stability" and "permanence" are demonstrated to us all on a daily basis. Human beings also need to believe in this stability and permanence if they are to function normally.
How, then, do we come to doubt the existence of the reality of the world in the first place? Emerson points to four broad causes: "motion, poetry, physical and intellectual science, and religion." While moving in, for example, a car, train, boat, or airplane, we seem to be a fixed point that the world moves around. This is what first causes us to think that there must be a difference between ourselves, as the observer, and the world, as the observed thing changing rapidly around us. Poetry has a similar effect, but purely in the imagination: it can bring up images of "air, the sun, the mountain, the camp, the city, the hero, the maiden" from both the present and from different historical periods. These images "float before the eye" in a way that reinforces the difference between the individual and the world.
Philosophy and science raise doubts about the external world in a different way. Both of them focus on abstract ideas, laws, and absolute truths. This means that even the sciences, such as physics, which are dependent on our observations of the world around us, come to rely on logical and mathematical principles – on ideas rather than things. In a similar way, religion teaches us to focus on the eternal afterlife rather than the physical world. Since a common religious message is that "the things that are seen, are temporal; the things that are unseen, are eternal," it often results in the devaluing of the physical, material world in contrast with the spiritual one.
Despite the common-sense appeal of realism, Emerson thinks that the weight of the evidence from our experience of travel, poetry, philosophy, science, and religion – in short, from nearly every cultural advancement – suggests the truth of idealism. Idealism, perhaps more importantly, "sees the world in God." Here, Emerson is invoking a type of idealism that sees reality as existing not just in the human mind but in God's mind, too. In this way, we seem to be able to save the common-sense view that nature is permanent and stable while still holding that there is no reality outside of (God's) ideas. What concerns Emerson most is the effect that this has on our mindset: since it allows us to see everything as "one vast picture, which God paints on the instant of eternity," it gives us a better perspective on nature, history, and our place in them.
If idealism is the answer to the question "What is matter?", then two important questions still remain: where did matter come from, and where is it going? To answer these questions, Emerson thinks that we need the idea of a "spirit" or "Supreme Being." This is an active, creative force that "is not wisdom, or love, or beauty, or power, but all in one, and each entirely," and which is the cause of both the origin and continuing existence of everything. Since it is "one and not compound" it must include everything – even ourselves. This spirit is literally a part of us, giving human beings "access to the entire mind of the Creator." It speaks through us, but we cannot impose our will on it. Instead, we have to work to understand it, and we can only do this by understanding nature:
We are as much strangers in nature, as we are aliens from God. We do not understand the notes of the birds. The fox and the deer run away from us; the bear and tiger rend us. We do not know the uses of more than a few plants, as corn and the apple, the potato and the vine.
Nature, then, turns out to be our access point to understanding God, the universe, and ourselves. If we fail to understand it, and can only understand ourselves in contrast to it, then we lose all possibility of meaningful knowledge.
In this concluding section, Emerson elaborates on what he means by understanding nature. It is not so much the collection of natural facts or the identification of different species of plants and animals that interests him. While these activities are important, they are just one means to an end. Emerson emphasizes the importance of seeing nature with a sense of wonder and paying attention to dreams, guesses, and hunches in our attempt to understand the natural world. Given that nature speaks through us, it should perhaps be no surprise that these can provide just as much insight as scientific observation.
Returning to his introductory theme of our backward-looking age, Emerson calls on us to rise to the occasion. Armed with the knowledge of our place in God's "vast picture," we must realize that:
All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you, perhaps, call yours a cobler's trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar's garret. Yet line for line, and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs...Build, therefore your own world.
No matter how humble or unimportant our ordinary lives may seem, they are continuous with all of nature and history. It is up to us to realize this fact and act accordingly.
Philosophy can be broadly divided into three distinct categories based on what type of questions it answers: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Emerson is interested in all these branches of philosophy, and his conception of nature has a central role in how he develops them.
Epistemology: the branch of philosophy that asks what we can know and how we can know it.
Metaphysics: the branch of philosophy that is interested in what exists (if anything).
According to Emerson, our brains work in ways that are fundamentally analogous to other natural processes. Nature forms our language and our thoughts themselves. It is only through nature that we can have knowledge of anything – including ourselves.
Emerson also thinks that only one thing exists and that it is called nature. He is also an idealist and believes that everything exists only as an idea or as consciousness (see the definition of idealism above). It is the consciousness of God, however, which guarantees the stability and permanence of reality. While Emerson states that everything, including ourselves, is part of this unity of nature, he also often speaks as if individual humans are in some sense separate from nature. Nature speaks through us, and we can fail to listen or try to understand. Individual people, then, also exist and have free will in Emerson's philosophy.
Ethics is the branch of philosophy concerned with what is good, bad, right, or wrong. Nature provides the answer to all this information for Emerson. Every natural fact, no matter how unimportant it appears on the surface, contains a potential moral lesson. This is tied in with Emerson's epistemological and metaphysical conclusions about nature. Since nature, God, and humanity are all aspects of the same basic unity, that unity must also contain all goodness, virtue, and rightness. It has been the ambition of all of the world's greatest religions and philosophies to find the ethical facts embedded in the natural world.
Remember that for Emerson, all existence is unified. This means that answers to the questions of what exists, what we know and what is right and wrong can all be found in the same place: nature.
1. Baym, N, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B 1820-1865, Norton, 2007.
While many people have written about nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about it particularly frequently, and made it the centerpiece of his philosophy.
The main point of Nature is that we can only really understand the world and ourselves when we lose ourselves in nature.
The central idea of Nature is that we need to lose ourselves in nature if we are to understand the world and accomplish anything great.
Emerson believes that nature is of central importance to every aspect of human life, from meeting our physical needs to shaping the way we speak and think.
Emerson's analysis discovers four purposes of nature: as commodity, as beauty, as a source of language, and as an intellectual discipline.
Which sentence best summarizes the main idea of Nature?
Become a transparent eye-ball.
What is the definition of philosophical idealism?
Only ideas exist or can be known.
How was Nature received after its publication?
It was unpopular, but attracted a small number of enthusiastic followers.
What did Emerson mean by saying that his age was "retrospective"?
It was backward-looking and focused on the past.
What do we need in order to truly see nature?
The eyes and heart of a child.
What is the first experience that usually causes people to doubt realism?
Rapid motion while traveling.
In what way is nature a commodity?
It satisfies our physical needs for food and shelter.
In what way is beauty one of the purposes of nature?
We take natural pleasure in experiencing it, acting out our plans in it, and creating art inspired by it.
In what way is language a purpose of nature?
Our vocabulary, concepts, and moral understanding are all based on nature.
How is one purpose of nature to be a discipline?
It is an intellectual discipline that can teach us whatever we need to know.
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