Nature is an essay written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, published anonymously in 1836. It is in this essay that the foundation of transcendentalism is put forth, a belief system that espouses a non-traditional appreciation of nature. Transcendentalism suggests that divinity suffuses all nature, and speaks to the notion that we can only understand reality through studying nature. A visit to the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris inspired a set of lectures delivered in Boston and subsequently the ideas leading to the publication of Nature.
Within this 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.
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 while living in a self-built cabin on land that Emerson owned. Their longstanding acquaintance offered Thoreau great encouragement in pursuing his desire to be a published author.
Emerson followed the success of this essay with a famous speech entitled "The American Scholar". These two works laid the foundation for both his new philosophy and his literary career.
In “Nature,” Emerson lays out an abstract problem that he attempts to solve throughout the essay: that humans do not fully accept nature’s beauty and all that it has to offer. According to Emerson, people are distracted by the world around them; nature gives to humans, but humans do not reciprocate. Emerson breaks his essay into eight sections—–Nature, Commodity, Beauty, Language, Discipline, Idealism, Spirit and Prospects—–each of which sheds a different perspective on the relationship between humans and nature.
According to Emerson, humans must take themselves away from society’s flaws and distractions in order to experience the “wholeness” with nature for which they are naturally suited. Emerson believes that solitude is the only way humans can fully adhere to what nature has to offer. Reflecting upon this idea of solitude, and humans' search for it, Emerson states, “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.” Clearly, a person must allow nature to “take him away,” society can destroy humans' wholeness. Nature and humans must create a reciprocal relationship, “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,” as Jefferson says, nature and humans need each other to be beneficial. This relationship that Emerson depicts is somewhat spiritual; humans must recognize the spirit of nature, and accept it as the Universal Being. “Nature is not fixed but fluid. Spirit alters, moulds, makes it. The immobility or bruteness of nature, is the absence of spirit; to pure spirit, it is fluid, it is volatile, it is obedient.” Emerson explains that nature is not “fixed or fluid;” to a pure spirit, nature is everything.
Although highly metaphorical, “Nature” creates such a different perspective towards one's view of nature. Emerson abstractly speaks to everyone; metaphorically creating common ground.
Emerson uses spirituality as a major theme in his essay, “Nature”. 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 anew 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”, proving 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? Hence 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.
- 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.
- Reidhead, Julia. “Henry Davidson Thoreau.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. 825-828. Print.
- Baym, Nina, Wayne Franklin, Philip F. Gura, and Arnold Krupat. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Seventh ed. Vol. B. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2007
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- Nature – Digitized copy of the first edition from the Internet Archive.
- Nature at emerson central
- Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1836) at Oregon State University