Friday, March 1, 2013


In the early 1800’s, Ralph Waldo Emerson visited the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, France and found himself entranced by what he saw there. Where his fellow patrons observed nature, Emerson perceived Nature. Where we notice only a majuscule letter, Emerson glimpsed God. This visit inspired his seminal essay Nature, in which Emerson expresses his thoughts on the relationship between Nature, Mankind, and God. Within this essay, Emerson famously pronounced, “The whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind” (17). In this, you can see Emerson beginning to define Nature in relation to Man, as an expansion to the standard definition. The standard definition of Nature, as viewed by both the common man and the Oxford English Dictionary, was anything in the physical world, including the “landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations” (Murray). That distinction, Nature as opposed to Man, is the essence of Emerson’s thoughts on Nature.
It can be hard to see God in Emerson’s view of Nature, but if you look with care, Emerson’s belief in the inherent spirituality of Nature becomes evident. “The aspect of nature is devout.” Emerson stated. “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” (32). Clearly, Emerson is relating Nature as part of the trinity of Mankind, wherein Man must consort with Nature to find God, to whom he refers to as the “Supreme Being” (6, 33). Or to quote Emerson, “Nature, in its ministry to man, is 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” (32). Nature as God was an encompassing idea to Emerson. He wrote that a visionary man could lose himself in Nature, as the “currents of the Universal Being circulate through [him]”, as a “transparent eyeball” through which he could see his unity with Nature, and through which he fulfilled his destiny as “part or parcel of God” (Emerson 6). A man in ill health could be healed by Nature, provided that he sought harmony with Nature and God, and not healing for its own ends. Nature provided the necessary stimulus for intellectual growth and thought, through which God is made accessible to Man. Beauty and art, in which Man expresses God, are "the result or expression of nature, in miniature" (Emerson 12). Even our most basic interactions with Nature, to find sustenance and shelter, are a “perfect” and intentional part of the relationship between Man and Nature (Emerson 6). To Emerson, Nature was the medium "through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to lead the individual back to it" (32).
Emerson believed that we should look to Nature for wisdom and spirituality, rather than to the past or the wisdom of our forefathers. “Our age is retrospective.” Emerson wrote. “It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” (3). Each individual, Emerson believed, had the ability to understand Nature, and to use Nature to answer their own questions and to understand their own mysteries. He stated that “We must trust the perfection of the creation so far as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy” (Emerson 3). Nature, then, was seen as both an expression of God and a means for understanding God, even as we – Mankind – exist as the highest expression of both. In the words of Emerson, “So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, — What is truth? and of the affections, — What is good? by yielding itself passive to the educated Will. ...Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit” (39). In short, Nature is the lens through which Emerson viewed God and Man.
            Emerson was a key figure in the 19th century Transcendentalist movement, which was a philosophical and religious movement comprised largely of academics who believed in Man’s innate integrity, as influenced by Nature, wherein Nature was understood to have spiritual underpinnings, and even referenced as the physical aspect of a “Supreme Being” (6, 33). This idea is a core tenet of Transcendentalism, which Emerson opined was “the very oldest of thoughts cast into the mould of these new times” (81). Understanding Emerson’s religious and philosophical views, vis-à-vis Transcendentalism, are integral to understanding his views on Nature, because it so deeply colored his thoughts on Nature. “Nature,” Emerson stated, “is transcendental, exists primarily, necessarily, ever works and advances, yet takes no thought for the morrow. Man owns the dignity of the life which throbs around him in chemistry, and tree, and animal, and in the involuntary functions of his own body" (86). Here, we again see Emerson wax eloquent on Nature with regard to Mankind.
Both Emerson and his Transcendentalist contemporary Henry David Thoreau sought to define Nature in terms of Mankind; specifically in how it illuminated the character of Man, how it contrasted from Man, and what those things tell us about Man and God. However, Thoreau viewed Nature almost as an infant sees its mother; large and encompassing, a nurturing provider, easy to take for granted. Thoreau described Nature in religious terms, as an entity that is separate but still innate. In contrast with Emerson, Thoreau’s view was almost entirely non-scientific, with information gathered for the purpose of joy, rather than for critical analysis. Emerson, on the other hand, viewed Nature as the ultimate culmination of Mankind and God. Nature was something deserving of appreciation and worship, a tool for spiritual growth, a wonder to be categorized and cataloged, and as much an intrinsic part of Man as separate from us. To Emerson, Nature existed in a trinity with God and Man, and could only be expressed or defined in relation thereof.

Works Cited
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York;

Modern Library. 2000. Print.

Murray, James A.H. Bradley, Henry. Craigie, W. A. Onions, C. T. Oxford English

Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1989. Print.

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