By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Nature’ is an 1836 essay by the American writer and thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82). In this essay, Emerson explores the relationship between nature and humankind, arguing that if we approach nature with a poet’s eye, and a pure spirit, we will find the wonders of nature revealed to us.
You can read ‘Nature’ in full here. Below, we summarise Emerson’s argument and offer an analysis of its meaning and context.
Emerson begins his essay by defining nature, in philosophical terms, as anything that is not our individual souls. So our bodies, as well as all of the natural world, but also all of the world of art and technology, too, are ‘nature’ in this philosophical sense of the world. He urges his readers not to rely on tradition or history to help them to understand the world: instead, they should look to nature and the world around them.
In the first chapter, Emerson argues that nature is never ‘used up’ when the right mind examines it: it is a source of boundless curiosity. No man can own the landscape: it belongs, if it belongs to anyone at all, to ‘the poet’. Emerson argues that when a man returns to nature he can rediscover his lost youth, that wide-eyed innocence he had when he went among nature as a boy.
Emerson states that when he goes among nature, he becomes a ‘transparent eyeball’ because he sees nature but is himself nothing: he has been absorbed or subsumed into nature and, because God made nature, God himself. He feels a deep kinship and communion with all of nature. He acknowledges that our view of nature depends on our own mood, and that the natural world reflects the mood we are feeling at the time.
In the second chapter, Emerson focuses on ‘commodity’: the name he gives to all of the advantages which our senses owe to nature. Emerson draws a parallel with the ‘useful arts’ which have built houses and steamships and whole towns: these are the man-made equivalents of the natural world, in that both nature and the ‘arts’ are designed to provide benefit and use to mankind.
The third chapter then turns to ‘beauty’, and the beauty of nature comprises several aspects, which Emerson outlines. First, the beauty of nature is a restorative: seeing the sky when we emerge from a day’s work can restore us to ourselves and make us happy again. The human eye is the best ‘artist’ because it perceives and appreciates this beauty so keenly. Even the countryside in winter possesses its own beauty.
The second aspect of beauty Emerson considers is the spiritual element. Great actions in history are often accompanied by a beautiful backdrop provided by nature. The third aspect in which nature should be viewed is its value to the human intellect. Nature can help to inspire people to create and invent new things. Everything in nature is a representation of a universal harmony and perfection, something greater than itself.
In his fourth chapter, Emerson considers the relationship between nature and language. Our language is often a reflection of some natural state: for instance, the word right literally means ‘straight’, while wrong originally denoted something ‘twisted’. But we also turn to nature when we wish to use language to reflect a ‘spiritual fact’: for example, that a lamb symbolises innocence, or a fox represents cunning. Language represents nature, therefore, and nature in turn represents some spiritual truth.
Emerson argues that ‘the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.’ Many great principles of the physical world are also ethical or moral axioms: for example, ‘the whole is greater than its part’.
In the fifth chapter, Emerson turns his attention to nature as a discipline. Its order can teach us spiritual and moral truths, but it also puts itself at the service of mankind, who can distinguish and separate (for instance, using water for drinking but wool for weaving, and so on). There is a unity in nature which means that every part of it corresponds to all of the other parts, much as an individual art – such as architecture – is related to the others, such as music or religion.
The sixth chapter is devoted to idealism. How can we sure nature does actually exist, and is not a mere product within ‘the apocalypse of the mind’, as Emerson puts it? He believes it doesn’t make any practical difference either way (but for his part, Emerson states that he believes God ‘never jests with us’, so nature almost certainly does have an external existence and reality).
Indeed, we can determine that we are separate from nature by changing out perspective in relation to it: for example, by bending down and looking between our legs, observing the landscape upside down rather than the way we usually view it. Emerson quotes from Shakespeare to illustrate how poets can draw upon nature to create symbols which reflect the emotions of the human soul. Religion and ethics, by contrast, degrade nature by viewing it as lesser than divine or moral truth.
Next, in the seventh chapter, Emerson considers nature and the spirit. Spirit, specifically the spirit of God, is present throughout nature. In his eighth and final chapter, ‘Prospects’, Emerson argues that we need to contemplate nature as a whole entity, arguing that ‘a dream may let us deeper into the secret of nature than a hundred concerted experiments’ which focus on more local details within nature.
Emerson concludes by arguing that in order to detect the unity and perfection within nature, we must first perfect our souls. ‘He cannot be a naturalist until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit’, Emerson urges. Wisdom means finding the miraculous within the common or everyday. He then urges the reader to build their own world, using their spirit as the foundation. Then the beauty of nature will reveal itself to us.
In a number of respects, Ralph Waldo Emerson puts forward a radically new attitude towards our relationship with nature. For example, although we may consider language to be man-made and artificial, Emerson demonstrates that the words and phrases we use to describe the world are drawn from our observation of nature. Nature and the human spirit are closely related, for Emerson, because they are both part of ‘the same spirit’: namely, God. Although we are separate from nature – or rather, our souls are separate from nature, as his prefatory remarks make clear – we can rediscover the common kinship between us and the world.
Emerson wrote ‘Nature’ in 1836, not long after Romanticism became an important literary, artistic, and philosophical movement in Europe and the United States. Like Wordsworth and the Romantics before him, Emerson argues that children have a better understanding of nature than adults, and when a man returns to nature he can rediscover his lost youth, that wide-eyed innocence he had when he went among nature as a boy.
And like Wordsworth, Emerson argued that to understand the world, we should go out there and engage with it ourselves, rather than relying on books and tradition to tell us what to think about it. In this connection, one could undertake a comparative analysis of Emerson’s ‘Nature’ and Wordsworth’s pair of poems ‘Expostulation and Reply’ and ‘The Tables Turned’, the former of which begins with a schoolteacher rebuking Wordsworth for sitting among nature rather than having his nose buried in a book:
‘Why, William, on that old gray stone,
‘Thus for the length of half a day,
‘Why, William, sit you thus alone,
‘And dream your time away?
‘Where are your books?—that light bequeathed
‘To beings else forlorn and blind!
‘Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed
‘From dead men to their kind.
Similarly, for Emerson, the poet and the dreamer can get closer to the true meaning of nature than scientists because they can grasp its unity by viewing it holistically, rather than focusing on analysing its rock formations or other more local details. All of this is in keeping with the philosophy of Transcendentalism, that nineteenth-century movement which argued for a kind of spiritual thinking instead of scientific thinking based narrowly on material things. Emerson, along with Henry David Thoreau, was the most famous writer to belong to the Transcendentalist movement, and ‘Nature’ is fundamentally a Transcendentalist essay, arguing for an intuitive and ‘poetic’ engagement with nature in the round rather than a coldly scientific or empirical analysis of its component parts.