Nature (1836) by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) is the key statement of the principles informing New England transcendentalism. The transcendentalist movement was a highly diverse phenomenon whose representatives addressed themselves in many voices and from many different perspectives to every important concern agitating New England life and thought in the decades preceding the Civil War. In view of this diversity, it may seem hazardous to claim one text as central to the movement. Nature owes its pivotal position to Emerson's searching exploration and provocative expression of the philosophical principles that most vitally affected transcendentalist thought—whether that thought addressed itself to religious, literary, social, or political questions. Not surprisingly, Nature has often been called the "manifesto" of transcendentalism.
Nature is also the fundamental statement of Emerson's own philosophy. Although his first book, it was not a beginner's immature endeavor. It reflected years of intellectual questioning and assiduous attempts to accommodate complex, sometimes conflicting philosophical positions. Nature shows all the marks of a work still in progress, but it is for that reason all the more true to Emerson's intentions. Although Emerson wrote many works after Nature, the principles it explored and the mode of thinking it performed made it his defining achievement. In Nature, moreover, Emerson first demonstrated his profound engagement with the most challenging ideas of the age, the ideas advanced by German and English philosophy and literature. While transcendentalism is traceable to important native roots, Emerson's Nature also involved it in the speculative ferment of international Romanticism.
Nature exemplifies Emerson's commitment to philosophical idealism. The book espouses the fundamental idealist tenets that Spirit or Mind (or Soul, Idea, Thought) has primacy both ontologically—only Spirit has real existence and everything outside it is merely phenomenal—and epistemologically: knowledge arises not from the senses (as empiricism supposed) but from the laws of the mind and from the mind's imposing its laws and structures upon the indeterminate data provided by the senses. Like Romantic—or, more strictly, Kantian and post-Kantian—idealism in general, Emerson's idealism privileges epistemology over ontology in the sense that it identifies true being with knowing. The world, our selves, and Spirit achieve reality through knowledge. The only world we have is the world as we conceive it to be, the world congruent with our idea of it; our only real self is the self we are conscious of; and Spirit is not absolute object but absolute subject, pure thought thinking itself and realizing itself in our own thinking. According to Nature, knowing is being: the human "feels by knowledge the privilege to be!" and our partaking of Spirit, our "apprehend[ing] the absolute," makes us feel that "for the first time, we exist" (Collected Works [henceforth CW ] 1:25, 35). The famous "transparent eye-ball" passage also identifies real being with true seeing, with sharing transcendent insight, an experience eclipsing the "mean egotism" that constitutes nonbeing ("I am nothing"): "I become a transparent eye-ball. . . . I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God" (CW 1:10).
Three related points need emphasizing. First, Emerson uses the term "nature" in a dual sense: in the "common sense," as referring to the natural world, and in the philosophical sense, as referring, in language ultimately derived from Johann Gottlieb Fichte, to "the not me," that is, everything that is not my own mind, thus "both nature and art, all other men and my own body" (CW 1:8). To facilitate future reference to this distinction, this essay shall, when necessary to avoid confusion, refer to the natural world as Nature-A and to the not-me in its historical and cultural aspects as Nature-B. Second, although Spirit transcends time and space, which, Emerson says, "are relations of matter" (CW 1:35), the self-expression of Spirit of necessity takes place in time and space, and thus becomes part of the phenomenal world, as either Nature-A or Nature-B. Third, in line with Romantic thinking, Emerson conceives of Spirit as inexhaustibly creative and thus, in its self-expression, as ever new and infinitely progressive. The human mind thinking originally rather than conventionally or traditionally is the means through which Spirit expresses itself anew. Each such expression is a partial self-realization of Spirit and thus enhances its self-knowledge. Spirit, in other words, needs the human thinker as much for its self-realization as the human thinker needs Spirit for inspiration, for original thought. In a dramatic rhetorical gesture, Emerson allows Spirit itself to acknowledge its dependence on "the human form." Spirit says: "From such as this, have I drawn joy and knowledge. In such as this, have I found and beheld myself. I will speak to it. It can speak again. It can yield me thought already formed and alive" (CW 1:28). The human who transcends past expressions of Spirit, which constitute our historical or cultural heritage (Nature-B), and shows her or his unique individuality by expressing original thought, is the means through which Spirit expresses and realizes itself now. Such a human, Emerson says in his essay "Intellect" (1841), "respects the highest law of his being" (CW 2:202).
THE PROBLEM OF THE AGE
Emerson's commitment to idealism inspires the complaint that opens Nature: "Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism," wasting its intellectual substance honoring and studying past expressions of Spirit (CW 1:7). All such expressions are limited and defective because in the act of expressing itself the pure idea becomes subject to time and space, the compromises of culture, the idiosyncrasies of fashion, linguistic inadequacies and stylistic conventions, failures in skill and flaws in temperament. "Why," then, "should we grope among the dry bones of the past?" (CW 1:7). Indeed, as explained in his 1837 Cambridge address "The American Scholar," "When [Man Thinking] can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men's transcripts of their readings" (CW 1:57). Not even Homer or Shakespeare can compensate for the loss of "an original relation to the universe" (CW 1:14, 7).
Emerson never objected to truly creative reinterpretations of the past, to past philosophy or literature being born anew through one's rethinking and mentally rewriting it. In such encounters, the mind of the present, far from being dominated by the past, actually puts the past in its debt; in his lecture on "Art," Emerson thinks Shakespeare indebted to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Samuel Taylor Coleridge "for the wisdom they detect in his Hamlet and Anthony" (Early Lectures 2:48). Emerson himself often creatively adapted past figures to the needs of his own thinking, as in his chapters on Plato, Montaigne, or Shakespeare in Representative Men (1850), to say nothing of the Jesus of the Divinity School "Address" (1838). What Emerson condemned, in the opening of Nature and elsewhere, was the mind of the present succumbing to the burden of history, to a sense of historical belatedness that devalues the present, discourages originality, and casts doubt on the individual's potential as "a newborn bard" of the Spirit (CW 1:90). He wanted his age to escape from spiritually impoverishing retrospection and be reawakened to a sense of its own responsibility to Spirit. A means to this end is men and women being reconnected with their own direct experience of Spirit-in-nature. Emerson, therefore, invokes the natural world, Nature-A, as an antidote to the world of tradition and culture, Nature-B. Like Spirit, Nature-A is always now: "The sun shines to-day also" (CW 1:7). As an American of his generation, Emerson also regarded appreciation of Nature-A as a safeguard against deflection from a national cultural vocation by the example of a strongly European Nature-B. Nature-A was a great national asset, defining a new Eden. Emerson's introduction and chapter 1 ("Nature") stress, therefore, the need to be sensitive to the miracle that is Nature-A, a miracle that should lose none of its enchantment by its pervasiveness. Indeed, "The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common" (CW 1:44). The content and quality of such seeing, however, depend not upon nature but upon the self because "what we are, that only can we see" (CW 1:45).
THE EDUCATION OF THE SELF
Chapters 2 through 5 demonstrate the human's advancing to deeper spiritual self-awareness. The starting point of this process is the individual's encounter with Nature-A. Unlike the human mind, which is Spirit as consciousness, Nature-A is Spirit as negation of consciousness: it is "a remoter and inferior incarnation of God, a projection of God in the unconscious" (CW 1:38). Confrontation with "unconscious" Nature-A evokes responses that enable humans increasingly to recognize the deeper spiritual dimension of their being and thus their distinctness from nature. They become aware of "the eternal distinction between the soul and the world" (CW 1:38). The most immediate encounter takes place on the level of "Commodity" (chapter 2), where the mind discovers its ability to make nature serve the needs of the body. The mind exploits and imposes structures upon nature that ensure and enhance physical survival, which is an obvious prerequisite for the flourishing of the individual's spirit.
One aspect of this flourishing is the human spirit's discovering in itself a yearning for beauty (chapter 3). Emerson asserts that "the desire of beauty" is "an ultimate end" of the soul and that "no reason can be asked or given why the soul seeks beauty." Beauty is simply, like truth and goodness, a postulate of Spirit that needs to be made real and concrete in individual experience (CW 1:17).
Emerson divides his chapter into three numbered sections. The first may be labeled "natural beauty." Nature-A as such is aesthetically neutral. It provides material whose "beauty" depends upon whether or not it is perceived as beautiful, and thus on an act of the mind. The mind could not possibly identify beauty in nature unless it brought to its perception a mental category called "beauty." Nature provides the opportunity to bring this category into play, thus actualizing it in experience. The second section may be called "moral beauty" because Emerson devotes it to the beauty inherent in and demonstrated by virtuous or heroic action. Obviously, moral beauty involves a far greater contribution of Spirit, and therefore it ranks higher than the natural beauty of section 1. As action, moral beauty enters upon the world of time and space and thus (as Nature-B) is accessible to human perception. The moral beauty that such action radiates profoundly affects the world. It hallows battlefields and other places that have witnessed noble endeavors. It enables men and women to see beauty even in the scaffold if sanctified by martyrdom such as that of a Sir Henry Vane or a William Russell. The third section can be called "intellectual beauty" because it concerns the beauty of thought itself, the beauty of ideas. The principal way in which beautiful ideas express themselves is through works of art. The idea has primacy: without it the artist could not create a work of art because he or she would have nothing to imprint upon the material provided by Nature-A. The beauty of art is superior to the beauty of Nature-A (section 1) because it involves a far greater contribution of Spirit: art involves a more profound transforming of nature, a fuller fusion of Spirit and matter, than is required for the mere perception of natural beauty. By becoming part of Nature-B, works of art, moreover, make the beauty of ideas accessible to everyone.
From Plato onward, the pursuit of knowledge has been associated with ways of looking. Plato's "Ideas" imply vision: Greek idea ( from idein, "to see"; also, "to see mentally") means "that which is seen," "appearance," "form," and, as a product of mental perception, "notion," "idea." A vivid sense of the visual implication of idea still surfaces in Goethe's statement that, if the Urpflanze ("archplant") was an idea, it was an idea he could "see with his eyes" (16:867–868). The term "theory" (theMria) was equally vision-rooted: it meant "a looking at," "a viewing," "a beholding," and hence, as in Plato and his successors, "contemplation," "speculation." TheMria also referred to the "contemplative life" ( bios theMrētikos) and, in early Christian thought, to the contemplation of God. The phrase "eye of the mind" and its variants, which Plato used repeatedly to designate a suprasensory mode of perception, occur in such diverse ancient authors as Aristotle, Cicero, Ovid, St. Paul, and Marcus Aurelius. Given the enormous influence of Plato and the writers just mentioned, one is not surprised to find the image of the mind's eye reappearing in, for example, Chaucer and Sir Philip Sidney, Shakespeare and Goethe, Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Emerson ("the eye of Reason," as in the excerpt below). From its opening sentence to its final words, Nature invokes the sense of sight and shows the mind reaching for suprasensory vision—for insight through the mind's eye, for a higher theory and a transcendent idea. This privileging of suprasensory vision expresses Emerson's Romantic and transcendentalist rejection of eighteenth-century sensationalism and his conviction that the dominance of sense perception precluded higher vision and deeper insight. Like Coleridge and Wordsworth, he knew that seeing into the essence of things required emancipation from what the former called the "despotism of the eye" ( Biographia Literaria 1:107) and the latter the "tyranny" of "the bodily eye . . . / The most despotic of our senses" (the 1850 Prelude 12:135, 128–129). As Emerson himself points out in chapter 6 of Nature ("Idealism"), excerpted below, only by negating "this despotism of the senses" can one attain true insight.
From Sight to Insight
To the senses and the unrenewed understanding, belongs a sort of instinctive belief in the absolute existence of nature. In their view, man and nature are indissolubly joined. Things are ultimates, and they never look beyond their sphere. The presence of Reason mars this faith. The first effort of thought tends to relax this despotism of the senses, which binds us to nature as if we were a part of it, and shows us nature aloof, and, as it were, afloat. Until this higher agency intervened, the animal eye sees, with wonderful accuracy, sharp outlines and colored surfaces. When the eye of Reason opens, to outline and surface are at once added, grace and expression. These proceed from imagination and affection, and abate somewhat of the angular distinctness of objects. If the Reason be stimulated to more earnest vision, outlines and surfaces become transparent, and are no longer seen; causes and spirits are seen through them. The best, the happiest moments of life, are these delicious awakenings of the higher powers, and the reverential withdrawing of nature before its God.
Emerson, Collected Works 1:30.
In Nature's progress toward its ultimate goal of gaining a deeper insight into Spirit, the fourth chapter, "Language," follows the chapter on "Beauty" because language is a more inwardly based, a more subtle and ethereal—in a word, a more spirit-imbued—instrument of spiritual self-expression. Put differently, "Beauty" is more heavily dependent on nature. This is obvious with natural beauty, but also the greatness or heroism revealing moral beauty is firmly embedded in the world of time and space, in a historical context (e.g., the Spartan hero Leonidas at Thermopylae). Similarly, the works of art expressing intellectual beauty (architecture, sculpture, painting) are bound to matter and locale in a way that language is not. Language's higher level of transcendence of nature and its more intimate involvement in Spirit make it essential to human, and thus spiritual, self-definition to a degree that art is not.
Like "Beauty," "Language" is divided into three sections. In the first section, Emerson credits nature with providing our vocabulary. Words are simply "signs of natural facts." But as the term "sign" indicates, natural facts become words for us only through our mind's endowing them with meaning. This role of mind is all the more evident because the real focus of section 1 is on metaphor, which consists in turning words as signs of natural facts into words expressing "moral or intellectual fact[s]" (CW 1:18). Accentuating the contribution of mind, this process correspondingly attenuates the contribution of nature, as is also evident in section 2, whose subject is symbol. Emerson's claim that "every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact" (CW 1:18) involves three levels: (1) it starts with the natural fact or object, which, though necessary, is merely inceptive; (2) the mind endows the object, as symbol, with meaning; and (3) since symbol suggests or hints at the spiritual fact but cannot encompass it, the mind recognizes symbol's inferiority to what it symbolizes. Through symbol, the finite mind reaches for insight into the spiritual dimension of reality. Through symbol, language not only transcends nature but also reaches beyond itself for something it cannot ultimately grasp. This inadequacy of language will help explain Emerson's attitude in the chapter "Spirit" and the ultimate "incompleteness" or open-endedness of Nature itself.
The third section of "Language" vindicates the claim in section 2 that "particular natural facts" correspond symbolically to "particular spiritual facts" (CW 1:17). The finite mind can establish such correspondences—can find an appropriate natural object to symbolize a specific thought—because Nature-A in its totality is a symbol of Spirit. The fact that the natural world is Spirit's own symbolic language makes possible and authorizes using part of that world when attempting to give voice to what is inevitably (given the finiteness of the individual mind) but a very limited and transient revelation of Spirit. But the objects of nature, which constitute Spirit's universal language, also have meanings beyond the ones consciously given them in the act of appropriating them symbolically. At present, our limited insight into Spirit precludes our fully understanding the book of nature, but we do know that nature, as symbol of Spirit, also symbolizes the human mind and that, consequently, the laws of nature can be shown to illustrate moral laws. Emerson often uses "moral" and "ethical" in the broad sense of anything having reference to human character and practical wisdom. A statement like "The last ounce broke the camel's back" demonstrates a law of nature, but it also implies a moral truth, thus extending the statement's spiritual significance. Indeed, the laws of nature "have a much more extensive and universal sense when applied to human life" (CW 1:22).
Chapter 5 is called "Discipline," by which Emerson means the education of the self through confrontation with nature. The use of nature as discipline "includes the preceding uses" of the world (commodity, beauty, language) "as parts of itself" (CW 1:23). In "Discipline," Emerson invokes the most significant distinction in his age's idealist epistemology, the distinction between "the understanding" and "the reason." Ultimately traceable to Immanuel Kant's distinction between Verstand (understanding) and Vernunft (reason), the terms reached Emerson primarily as reinterpreted by Coleridge. In "Language" Emerson calls reason the "universal soul" and says that "intellectually [epistemologically] considered" we call reason that which "considered in relation to nature, we call Spirit" (CW 1:18–19). Not surprisingly, in "Discipline" reason is by far the higher faculty. The understanding derives "intellectual truths" from its confrontations with the data provided by the senses, which it subjects to analysis, reflection, and discursive reasoning. "Every property of matter is a school for the understanding," which "adds, divides, combines, measures." The understanding, in sum, "form[s] the Hand of the mind" and teaches "common sense" (CW 1:23–24).
Whereas the understanding provides the mind with both insight into and practical guidance concerning nature and the world, reason focuses upon the mind itself; "reason transfers all these lessons [of the understanding] into its own world of thought." Reason is able to do so because it perceives "the analogy that marries Matter and Mind" (CW 1:23). This perception of analogy is rooted in reason's grasping the unity underlying all seeming variety: "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. For, it pervades Thought also" (CW 1:27–28). Spirit is the One pervading all, and the best evidence of this truth is that "all things are moral" (CW 1:25)—that the moral sense without which humanness is inconceivable finds in nature an inexhaustible source of moral lessons. Emerson followed Kant in repeatedly stressing the primacy of ethics among human concerns. He held that "the moral is prior in God's order to the intellectual" (Letters 1:450). In "Discipline," Spirit is recognized primarily through human reason's discovering the inescapably moral character of its encounters with nature. For a geologist, a rock may hold "intellectual" (scientific) interest. Far more important to Emerson is the moral implication of the question: "Who can guess how much firmness the sea-beaten rock has taught the fisherman?" (CW 1:27). The geologist may learn scientific facts (at the level of the understanding). The fisherman may learn firmness, endurance, courage, and similar virtues—in other words, qualities of the soul.
Emerson devotes three chapters of Nature to attempts to elucidate the ultimate reality, Spirit itself. In chapter 6, "Idealism," he establishes once and for all the ontological absoluteness of Spirit and the merely phenomenal existence of nature. Emerson's idealism does not deny the existence of matter. What it does assert is "the total disparity between the evidence of our own being, and the evidence of the world's being. The one is perfect; the other, incapable of any assurance" (CW 1:37). Our own being inheres in the mind's reason-based self-reflexivity; the world, by contrast, exists only as the content of the mind's sense-based representations. The only world we have is a phenomenal world, a world perceived by humans, and because a non-perceived world is not accessible to us, we are unable to determine the validity of our perceived world. In his fundamental philosophical statement on the Spirit-nature distinction, Emerson says that our mind's progress inevitably leads us "to regard nature as a phenomenon, not a substance; to attribute necessary existence to spirit; to esteem nature as an accident and an effect" (CW 1:30). He here invokes an ancient dichotomy much debated throughout the history of philosophy: substance versus accident. Spirit is substance, Latin substantia, Greek ousia, "being," "essence." Nature is accident, Latin accidens, Greek to sumbebēkos, "contingency," in philosophical usage designating that which is dependent on substance but cannot encompass it. For Emerson, nature is conceivable only in relation to Spirit, but it does not encompass Spirit's essence, both of which points are reconfirmed by his calling nature "an effect." Unlike nature, Spirit is "necessary," in the philosophical sense of being noncontingent, unconditioned, essential.
Emerson points out, however, that the inescapably phenomenal existence of our world in no way precludes "the stability of nature" based on "the permanence of natural laws" (CW 1:29–30). Nature is universal lawfulness because it reflects Spirit. Emerson agrees with Kant that the "serene order" (CW 1:39) of nature derives from the mind inescapably imposing its rules upon nature in the act of structuring and interpreting the content of sensation. Avoiding the complexity of Kant's argument, Emerson simply considers it a given that the laws of nature are but the mind's ideas objectified: "A law determines all phenomena" but "that law, when in the mind, is an idea" (CW 1:33–34). The mind, consequently, also derives self-knowledge from the study of nature, its objectified self. As stated in "The American Scholar," "the ancient precept, 'Know thyself,' and the modern precept, 'study nature,' become at last one maxim" (CW 1:55).
Emerson illustrates the superiority of mind to nature in several ways. He avers, for instance, that in all scenes of life the perceiver occupies a position of absolute centrality in that he or she unavoidably constitutes a center of awareness to which nature and other humans appear as merely spectacle. Similarly, the poet makes nature "revolve around the axis of his primary thought." Through imagination, which Emerson defines as "the use which the Reason makes of the material world," the poet demonstrates the secondary status of nature by making it vehicular to thought, whose primacy consists in its identity with "the Reason" (CW 1:31). Emerson also reminds readers that the superiority of mind to matter is an essential tenet of metaphysics and of religion and ethics. But "even in physics, the material is ever degraded before the spiritual" (CW 1:34). This claim holds not only for those advancing "a theory of nature" (CW 1:8) but also for the empiricist, who cannot subject nature to an experiment unless that experiment be mentally conceived beforehand, thus again showing the constructive initiative of mind and the "passivity" of nature.
Having established the primacy of Spirit, Emerson confronts in the next chapter ("Spirit") the question that the whole of Nature has been leading to: What is Spirit? Spirit is "ineffable essence," essence that "refuses to be recorded in propositions." Consequently, Emerson's idealist theory is unable to answer the question. Even though we can think Spirit, we cannot know Spirit because our language has no grip on it. Therefore, concerning Spirit, "he that thinks most, will say least" (CW 1:37). Emerson's inability to answer the question inheres in Spirit, as absolute "substance," being beyond the definitional reach of any of its predicates. Because nature, the medium necessary for the expression of these predicates, is but "an accident," none of the predicates provided by such chapters as "Beauty," "Language," and "Discipline" can do justice to Spirit: each of them is too deeply involved in "accidental" nature. Even the chapter "Idealism," which clearly sets off Spirit from nature, cannot truly define the former: by defining Spirit as distinctness from nature, it makes the identity of Spirit conditional upon the nature of nature, thereby denying that identity its transcendent absoluteness. Spirit, in sum, defies conceptualization.
Emerson's failure to define Spirit and his admission that his philosophical idealism was merely "a useful introductory hypothesis" (CW 1:38) were expressions of his dynamic conception of truth. He would have violated his deepest convictions as a Romantic and a transcendentalist had he pretended to give final answers to the questions raised in Nature or subjected his thoughts to rigid systematization. For Emerson, truth resides in one's striving to attain it, not in any final conclusion. He, therefore, concludes his book with a chapter in which nothing is concluded, a chapter whose very title, "Prospects," counters the opening sentence ("Our age is retrospective") and promises an escape from the intellectual stagnation there implied. In sometimes rhapsodic language, Emerson urges embracing the challenge of "undiscovered regions of thought" and having boundless faith in the promise of humanity: "Infancy is the perpetual Messiah" (CW 1:41–42). This message was singularly relevant to Emerson's young country, whose greatness, he was convinced, was contingent upon its orientation to the future, its attempts to realize the ideals informing the human spirit. Americans were called upon to serve humankind by exploring, in the words of "The American Scholar," "the unsearched might of man" (CW 1:69).
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Gustaaf Van Cromphout
"Nature (Emerson)." American History Through Literature 1820-1870. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 25, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/nature-emerson
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