Friday, March 23, 2012

Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Mankind’s metaphysical, ethical, and aesthetic relationship to the universe
Originally published in 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Nature had a profound impact on American literature and philosophy. Prior to this work, the arts of the Western world had been built upon centuries of cultural history, and American culture was little more than a redundant reflection of past civilizations. Emerson argued that, with the abundance of raw, untouched wilderness in the New World, American writers, artists, and scholars possessed a rare opportunity to build a uniquely American aesthetic, based not on the achievements of the past but drawn directly from nature itself. At the time, the concept of nature was little developed in the public psyche. Most people thought of nature simply as the provider of meat, produce, and timber. Emerson championed the appreciation of nature not only for the value of its commodities but also for the sake of its moral and spiritual benefits.

The philosophy that Emerson espouses in Nature reads like a mixture of the dualistic idealism of Plato and the monistic pantheism of Spinoza. Like Plato, Emerson believed that there is a higher reality, a divinity, that exists outside of the physical universe we perceive with our senses. Emerson refutes the assertion by many idealists, however, that sensual nature is simply a deceptive illusion which conceals true reality from us. Instead, Emerson insists that nature is the medium through which the divine speaks to us, that it is only by observing and loving nature that we can truly experience God. By accumulating empirical data of the natural world around us, we are able to ascertain the laws which govern the universe. It is through this exercise of reason that mankind is truly able to glimpse the divine. Thus, religions that emphasize an unseen kingdom of heaven over the perceptual world of nature do a disservice to man. Though Emerson was a Unitarian minister, the God of which he speaks does not resemble the Judeo-Christian deity, but rather a pantheistic universal soul which is synonymous with reason. Divinity is present throughout the universe, in all things, including humanity. Mankind must accept the fact that they themselves are a part of God, and having done so must live up to their own godliness. Emerson talks much of Spirit, which would lead one to believe he held a dualistic view of the universe, but since he provides a pantheistic conception of Spirit as an all-embracing unity that permeates the entire universe, it would seem, arguably, that he considers Spirit an inherent property of matter, and that the two substances of matter/spirit exist within one entity, rather than in separate realities.

Nature serves as the de facto manifesto of the Transcendentalist movement, as it is the most concise and comprehensive encapsulation of that movement’s ideals. To contemporary readers, the most familiar expression of Transcendentalism is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. The appeal of Emerson’s work has not held up as well over the years as that of his protégé Thoreau, primarily because the language Emerson uses is far less accessible. Emerson liked to couch his philosophical concepts in poetic metaphor, and in Nature he even goes so far as to confess that he finds ambiguity more inspiring than clarity. Hence, Nature makes for a difficult read. To some extent it’s too poetic to be good philosophy, and too philosophical to be good poetry. Nevertheless, this brief book is loaded with passages of extreme beauty, eloquence, and wisdom. The time spent deciphering this complex work will be handsomely compensated by a rich yield of inspiration and enlightenment.

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