"Nature" is an essay written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and published by James Munroe and Company in 1836. In the essay Emerson put forth the foundation of transcendentalism, a belief system that espouses a non-traditional appreciation of nature. Transcendentalism suggests that the divine, or God, suffuses nature, and suggests that reality can be understood by studying nature. Emerson's visit to the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris inspired a set of lectures he later delivered in Boston which were then published.
Within the essay, Emerson divides nature into four usages: Commodity, Beauty, Language and Discipline. These distinctions define the ways by which humans use nature for their basic needs, their desire for delight, their communication with one another and their understanding of the world. Emerson followed the success of "Nature" with a speech, "The American Scholar", which together with his previous lectures laid the foundation for transcendentalism and his literary career.
In "Nature", Emerson lays out and attempts to solve an abstract problem: that humans do not fully accept nature's beauty. He writes that people are distracted by the demands of the world, whereas nature gives but humans fail to reciprocate. The essay consists of eight sections: Nature, Commodity, Beauty, Language, Discipline, Idealism, Spirit and Prospects. Each section takes a different perspective on the relationship between humans and nature.
In the essay Emerson explains that to experience the "wholeness" with nature for which we are naturally suited, we must be separate from the flaws and distractions imposed on us by society. Emerson believed that solitude is the single mechanism through which we can be fully engaged in the world of nature, writing "To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars."
When a person experiences true solitude, in nature, it "take[s] him away". Society, he says, destroys wholeness, whereas "Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other's hands for the profit of man. 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."
Emerson defines a spiritual relationship. In nature a person finds its spirit and accepts it as the Universal Being. He writes: "Nature is not fixed but fluid; to a pure spirit, nature is everything."
Emerson uses spirituality as a major theme in the essay. Emerson believed in reimagining the divine as something large and visible, which he referred to as nature; such an idea is known as transcendentalism, in which one perceives a new God and their body, and becomes one with their surroundings. Emerson confidently exemplifies transcendentalism, stating, "From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake its rapid transformations: the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind", postulating that humans and wind are one. Emerson referred to nature as the "Universal Being"; he believed that there was a spiritual sense of the natural world around him. Depicting this sense of "Universal Being", Emerson states, "The aspect of nature is devout. Like the figure of Jesus, she stands with bended head, and hands folded upon the breast. The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship".
According to Emerson, there were three spiritual problems addressed about nature for humans to solve: "What is matter? Whence is it? And Whereto?" What is matter? Matter is a phenomenon, not a substance; rather, nature is something that is experienced by humans, and grows with humans' emotions. Whence is it and Whereto? Such questions can be answered with a single answer, nature's spirit is expressed through humans, "Therefore, that spirit, that is, the Supreme Being, does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us", states Emerson. Emerson clearly depicts that everything must be spiritual and moral, in which there should be goodness between nature and humans.
"Nature" was controversial to some. One review published in January 1837 criticized the philosophies in "Nature" and disparagingly referred to beliefs as "Transcendentalist", coining the term by which the group would become known.
Henry David Thoreau had read "Nature" as a senior at Harvard College and took it to heart. It eventually became an essential influence for Thoreau's later writings, including his seminal Walden. In fact, Thoreau wrote Walden after living in a cabin on land that Emerson owned. Their longstanding acquaintance offered Thoreau great encouragement in pursuing his desire to be a published author.
- ^Nature. Boston: James Munroe and Company. 1836. Retrieved February 3, 2018 – via Internet Archive.
- ^Liebman, Sheldon W. “Emerson, Ralph Waldo.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature. Ed. Jay Parini. Oxford University Press, 2004. Web.
- ^“Transcendentalism.” The Oxford Dictionary of English. 2010. Web.
- ^Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Nature". The Oxford Companion to American Literature. Ed. James D. Hart. Rev. Philip W. Leininger. Oxford University Press, 1995. Web.
- ^Baym, Nina, Wayne Franklin, Philip F. Gura, and Arnold Krupat. The Norton Anthology of American Literature.
- ^Hankins, Barry. The Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalists. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004: 24. ISBN 0-313-31848-4
- ^Reidhead, Julia. "Henry David Thoreau", The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. 825-828. Print.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American philosopher and poet who sparked the social movement of Transcendentalism around 1836. America around 1836 was expanding industrially and technologically, making huge advances throughout the newly prosperous country. Emerson was special in that, in the very beginning of these advances he could see the possible consequences that these things would have on human divinity with nature. He believed it could separate us from the inspiration that the world of nature inspires around us. He had a quest in his life for unity and self-reliance. His piece, “Nature,” represents the beginning of Transcendentalism, which teaches that divinity is throughout all things in nature and humanity. “Nature” is a thought-provoking essay that describes his abstract thoughts about humanity’s relationship with nature.
At first, he argues for a new approach to understanding nature by defining. How he defines nature is the start of his new approach to how he understands nature. In the universe there is nature and the soul. He states that nature all that is separated from us and then distinguishes nature from art; art being natural objects that humans alter for purposes. Nature refers to essences that are unchanged by humans: space, the flower, and the air. Emerson believes that humanity has lost a bit of curiosity and excitement in creating new things because industrialization and the immense reliability of theories already created and histories about nature rather than observing it on one’s own. He believes in a new approach for understanding nature, by casting out all of human’s outside theories and historian’s teachings and immersing oneself into nature. This gives one a chance to provoke greater insight into the world of nature than ever before. He states that through nature’s forms, it describes its own design, and that other interpretations are not needed to perceive it. This approach differs from the ones in the past by not relying so much on the history of past generation’s beliefs of thinkers and, instead, relies on the new thoughts of people of today and one’s own perceptions of nature by not just accepting past impersonal theories.
When Emerson states the “theory of nature” he means ideas based on principles to explain the world around us, regarding nature. Nature, to Emerson, which is everything that is not humanity and things that are unchanged by humanity. When he discusses the theory of nature he states that scientist have one aim, which is to find a theory of nature, but have been unsuccessful in doing so. Additionally, he mentions that the road to find that truth of the theory of nature has caused much hate and separation between humanity to find a concrete definition or explanation of creation. Therefore, he believes the most abstract truth of the theory of nature is the most practical and true. By using the term theory of nature, Emerson is describing the human desire to make sense of creation and the world around us.
"In the woods, we return to reason and faith." -Emerson
Emerson considers that the relationship between most people and nature is that people take nature for granted. This concept is conveyed when he mentions the stars and how if they only appeared one night in a thousand years the great and amazing impact that the stars would have on humankind. Because they appear every night, people are not as astonished by them as much as they would if the prior were the case. He has a philosophy of seeing things new each day and that all sorts of nature have a beautiful influence, even if they are always present. Another view of how Emerson views humans relationship with nature is that he believes that men own farms and fields but do not own the landscape or scenery. He states that the best part of the farms are the scenery which the land contains for the eye to see and lack actual, earthly documentation of ownership. Nature, Emerson uses the woods for example, brings perpetual youth to humankind and returns the human soul to reason and faith. Furthermore, he states that the sun shines into the eyes of a man but shines into the heart of a child. One who appreciates and sees nature like it is new, as a child would, will experience a never ending feeling of youth. The relationship Emerson describes between nature and people is that of a bond of contemporary tranquility and advanced understanding.
There is evidence of Emerson’s moral or religious beliefs in “Nature” that might have influenced how he views humankind’s relationship to nature. Emerson mentions God when he talks about how he feels in the woods. With vast space and bare ground beneath his feet and blissful air around him he feels as if he is nothing and sees everything. He states, “I am part of a parcel of God.” Which portrays that he is a part of a package of something much more grand and divine than himself: God. So, this shows that his religious belief that God is greater than him and he is nothing but a smaller part of the entire parcel, conveys that he may view nature, like God, is grander. It is his passage to the tranquility God has created through nature in him. Nature can change each day due to the hours but one will see what they feel in nature, for it, “wears the colors of the spirit.” So this, too, gives nature a God-like essence portraying a religious belief of Emerson.
As intelligent readers and Americans, we should treasure critical-thinking literature like Emerson's "Nature." Pieces like these improve our awareness with nature and the world around us, a concept that is dwindling in today's society. Self-reliance and much needed solitude are healthy ways to clear one's mind and feel balanced. Emerson shows us in "Nature" his extraordinary beliefs about humankind and their relationship with nature. Even a progressive minded, independent individual like Emerson still valued and related back his divine experiences to the great creator. Analyzing classic pieces of literature is something everyone should attempt. You never know what you can learn.