Ralph Waldo Emerson first published Nature in 1836. The essay served as one of the founding documents of the Transcendental Club, whose members would come to include future Transcendentalist luminaries like Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott. The Club convened its first meeting a week after the publication of Nature, led by Emerson.
The critical reception of his seminal work has shifted over time. Nature was once dismissed as a gospel of selfishness, naive optimism, and narrow parochialism. However, scholars, with the benefit of hindsight, now understand his work as not only the harbinger of Transcendentalism, but also a modern rethinking of Stoicism, Plato, and Kant.
In this essay, Emerson outlines his initial ideas about the fundamental relationship of humanity with nature, which he would develop further in later essays. His conception of this relationship was revolutionary for its time when many thought of humanity as separate from and above the rest of the natural world, and of nature as the mere reflection of human will/manipulation, a means for human ends.
Introduction and Nature
"Our age is retrospective," Emerson begins. "It builds on the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism." While earlier generations "beheld God and nature face to face," the present merely sees the world through the eyes of the past. Troubled by this trend, Emerson asks, "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?" After all, "the sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship."
In this way, Emerson opens his essay with a sweeping dismissal of those tools of insight based on the past, and a demand to understand the world - that is, God and nature (two sides of the same coin for him) - instead through our own personal, direct relationship to and revelations about the world. The rest of the introduction is spent outlining what such an understanding would entail and require - its methods, aims, and definitions.
As the title of his essay suggests, he grounds his approach to understanding the world in Nature, which along with the Soul, composes the universe. By "Nature," Emerson includes everything that is "not me" (i.e., separate from the Soul), "both nature [as conventionally understood, i.e., those essences unchanged by humans, like a tree or a river] and art [those essences mixed with the will of humans, like a house or a canal], all other men and my own body." Like the Stoics, Emerson believed that in nature could be found the source of moral principles and well being. However, in the present age, he argues, "few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing." For seeing/understanding nature entails not only asking what nature is or how it operates, but also "to what end is nature?"
To pursue such an understanding of nature - an inquiry he believes allied to science, all of which aims to "find a theory of nature" - he does not appeal to other authorities on the subject, past or present, but rather his own experience to craft a theory he believes self-evident and self-validating. While this may not seem scientific in terms of objectivity, he argues, "Whenever a true theory appears, it will be its own evidence. Its test is that it will explain all phenomena." His success in crafting such a theory arguably derives from his ability to immerse his readers in his own experiences, as with the passage,
Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.
Another famous passage describes his experience as a "transparent eyeball," a conduit for God as he stands in nature:
Here [in the woods] I feel that nothing can befall me in life, - no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. 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 eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.
In the next sections, Emerson outlines in detail and in ascending order of importance the components of the relationship of humanity and nature: the common uses/aspects of nature (see "Commodity," "Beauty," and "Language"), our lived experience vis-a-vis nature (see "Discipline"), and the manifestation of the universal/divine (what he calls, "Reason") in nature (i.e., Transcendentalism; see "Idealism," "Spirit," and "Prospects").
The most obvious and tangible aspect of the relationship between humanity and nature is the practical usefulness of nature as a source of raw material and energy. Emerson observes that all parts of nature - as material, process, and result - work toward the benefit of humanity:
“The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man.”
He further illustrates this process in his admiration of a tide-mill, which, on the seashore, makes the tides drive the wheels and grind corn, and which thus engages the assistance of the moon like a hired hand, to grind, and wind, and pump, and saw, and split stone, and roll iron.
However, Emerson argues the use of nature as commodity is the lowest of benefits, and quickly moves on to less material gifts and aspects.
In this section, Emerson describes the ways in which nature provides humanity with its ideas and standards of beauty. “The standard beauty is the entire circuit of natural forms – the totality of nature.” Emerson asserts this is because "such is the constitution of things, or such the plastic power of the human eye, that the primary forms, as the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us a delight in and for themselves,” as evidenced by the creations of artists (e.g., poets, painters, sculptors, musicians, architects). In other words, it is a given based on the relationship of humanity with the natural world: "The world thus exists to the soul to satisfy the desire of beauty.” Ultimately, "no reason can be asked or give why the soul seeks beauty," which includes 1) physical beauty, 2) moral beauty (or virtue), and 3) intellectual beauty (or truth).
As beauty is grounded in nature, so is language. Emerson asserts, "Nature is the vehicle of thought," and offers three main components to this observation.
First, "words are signs of natural facts." Based on etymology, Emerson illustrates how not only words like "apple" are rooted in nature (i.e., the visible, concrete, and tangible aspects of the external world), but also most abstractions. For example, "supercilious" is from the Latin super cilia, which means raising the eyebrow. Another example, not mentioned by Emerson, is "consider," which comes from the Latin con siderare, meaning to study the stars.
Next, Emerson says, “Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts,” which emphasizes the use of nature to express our ideas.
Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of the mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture. As 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 familiar expression for knowledge and ignorance; and heat for love.
Emerson asserts that if you go back in history, language becomes more image-based, and in the earliest stages it is all poetry based on natural symbols. In modern times, Emerson argues, our language has become corrupted by secondary desires - the desires for money, pleasure, power, and praise - rather than the simple and fundamental desire to communicate our thoughts without loss (i.e., with the images and symbols of nature). As such, our language has ceased to create new images based on visible nature, the old words have become perverted and abstracted, and the obviousness of his point is difficult to see. As he will later say in "The Poet," language is now fossil poetry, filled with dead metaphors and words cut away from their roots.
Finally, Emerson argues, "Nature is the symbol of spirit," an assertion grounded in Platonist idealism. Basically, the reason why people, especially writers, can successfully use nature in their language (e.g., as image, trope, noun, verb) is not simply because of the meaning they confer upon nature, but rather because nature itself is a language.
Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts? The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.
That is, nature is an expression of the laws and ideas (i.e., the metaphysics) that underpin the visible world. By tapping into the language of nature, humans are able to in turn express the laws and ideas of the world. Emerson suggests this is why popular proverbs of different nations usually consist of a natural fact, like "a rolling stone gathers no moss," "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," and "the last ounce broke the camel's back."
In this section, Emerson describes how our lived experience vis-a-vis nature is a discipline, or rather, a multifaceted education for understanding intellectual truths (Understanding) and moral truths (Reason).
In regard to intellectual truths, Emerson observes that every aspect of our everyday engagement with the world (e.g., space, time, food, climate, animals) and matter (e.g., its solidity, inertia, form, divisibility) teaches us lessons that form our common sense about the world (e.g., about difference, likeness, order, particularity, generality). Furthermore, each encounter teaches us about power, about the ability for humans to shape nature according to their will.
Nature is thoroughly mediate. It is made to serve. It receives the dominion of man as meekly as the ass on which the Savior rode. It offers all its kingdoms to man as the raw material that he may mold into what is useful.
In regard to moral truths, our engagements with nature teaches us about the "premonitions of Reason" - by which Emerson means the universal soul, his Transcendentalist conception of God - and thus shape our conscience.
Therefore is nature glorious with form, color, and motion; that every globe in the remotest heaven, every chemical change from the rudest crystal up to the laws of life, every change of vegetation from the first principle of growth in the eye of a leaf, to the tropical forest and antediluvian coal-mine, every animal function from the sponge up to Hercules, shall hint or thunder to man the laws of right and wrong, and echo the Ten Commandments.
This entails that despite the infinite variety of natural processes and forms, they all embody a version of the moral law of the universe, which illustrates the unity of Nature - its unity in variety.
The river, as it flows, resembles the air that flows over it; the air resembles the light that traverses it with more subtle currents; the light resembles the heat that rides with it through Space. Creatures are only a modification of one another; the likeness between them is more than the difference, and their radical law is one and the same. A rule of one art, or a law of one organization, holds true throughout nature. So intimate is this Unity, that, it is easily seen, it lies under the undermost garment of Nature, and betrays its source in Universal Spirit.
Finally, Emerson asserts the amount of moral influence each encounter has on an individual depends on the amount of truth it illustrates to the individual, which cannot be easily quantified.
Who can guess how much firmness the sea-beaten rock has taught the fisherman? How much tranquility has been reflected to man from the azure sky, over whose unspotted deeps the winds forevermore drive flocks of stormy clouds, and leave no wrinkle or stain?
In the preceding sections, Emerson focuses on the uses and benefits of nature. In "Idealism" and "Spirit," he shifts to questions of what nature is. Such questions are based on his Idealism, and thus do not mean what is nature composed of, but rather, is there a higher reality or law behind nature, and does visible nature really exist?
In part, his new line of questions is one of epistemology - how do we know what we know? He first offers the claim of the radical Idealist, who believes reality is fundamentally constructed by the mind:
In my utter impotence to test the authenticity of the report of my senses, to know whether the impressions they make on me correspond with outlying objects, what difference does it make, whether Orion is up there in heaven, or some god paints the image in the firmament of the soul.
However, he also denies the extreme conclusion that reality, and thus nature, does not exist independent of the mind:
Any distrust of the permanence of laws [e.g., gravity] would paralyze the faculties of man.
He settles the issue by showing how various aspects of culture - including 1) motion (which affirms the internal reality of the observer due to the feeling of the sublime that arises from the difference felt between the observer/human and the spectacle/nature, as when seeing the shore from a moving ship), 2) poetry (which affirms the reality of the soul by the way in which poets conform nature to their thoughts and "makes them the words of the Reason" or the soul), 3) philosophy (which like poetry, affirms the reality of the soul by the way in which philosophers animate nature with their thoughts and makes them the words of Reason, except in this case for Truth rather than Beauty), 4) intellectual science (which generates insight based on abstract ideas and thus the spirit), and 5) religion and ethics (which degrades nature and suggests its dependence on the spirit) - convince us of the reality of the external world, of nature and spirit, and thus tend to imbue us with a moderate form of idealism:
It is the uniform effect of culture on the human mind, not to shake our faith in the stability of particular phenomena, as of heat, water, and azote; but to lead us to regard nature as a phenomenon, not a substance; to attribute necessary existence to spirit; to esteem nature as an accident and effect.
As a qualification to the discussion of Idealism in the previous section, Emerson asserts that Idealism is ultimately an introductory hypothesis (like carpentry and chemistry) about nature. If it only denies the existence of matter, or external reality, as with extreme Idealism, then it of no use to him, for it does not satisfy the demands of the spirit. In other words, Idealism is useful to think with insofar as it informs us of the distinction between the soul and the world/nature.
By recognizing this distinction, and the existence of each, we can then understand their relation to one another - that is, how spirit (the Supreme Being, the Universal Soul) acts through us, "as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old," and thus is not subject to the human will, as with the rest of the world/nature.
In this last section, Emerson argues it is better approach the world as a naturalist than as a student of empirical science. Compared to the precision and experiments of the scientist, the naturalist employs self-discovery and humility, and thus continues to learn about his relation to the world, and remains open to the secrets of nature. The naturalist will pay attention to the truth and to the real problems to be solved:
It is not so pertinent to man to know all the individuals of the animal kingdom, as it is to know whence and whereto is this tyrannizing unity in his constitution, which evermore separates and classifies things, endeavoring to reduce the most diverse to one form.
Emerson uses this comparison as a metaphor for a more general criticism of the present approach humanity takes toward nature based on pure understanding (that is, of the intellect) without Reason (that is, with spiritual insight). However, there are occasional examples of how humanity might act with both:
Such examples are, the traditions of miracles in the earliest antiquity of all nations; the history of Jesus Christ; the achievements of a principle, as in religious and political revolutions, and in the abolition of the slave-trade; the miracles of enthusiasm, as those reported of Swedenborg, Hohenlohe, and the Shakers; many obscure and yet contested facts, now arranged under the name of Animal Magnetism; prayer; eloquence; self-healing; and the wisdom of children.
Until humanity begins to act with both understanding/intellect and reason/spirituality towards nature, to repair its relationship with nature and the world, humanity remains disunited with itself and the world lacks unity. To correct this trend, Emerson argues people need to acquire a new, educated way of seeing the world, by which he means the Transcendentalist approach he has laid out in the previous sections.
So we shall come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect (“What is truth?), as well as that of the affections (“What is good?”), by yielding itself passive to the educated Will.