Reflection on Emerson’s Nature
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature is a series of eight essays that touch upon a variety of thoughts on nature in writings on Nature, Commodity, Beauty, Language, Discipline, Idealism, Spirit and Prospects. Emerson’s essays were initially published anonymously and were influenced by his early form of Transcendentalism. He composed the essays in Nature after leaving the Unitarian ministry. (p. viii) Emerson’s Nature has influenced Emerson’s friend Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, John Burroughs and many others since its first publication. What Emerson entreats in Nature is that man must foray into nature in order to understand the “perpetual presence of the sublime.” (p. 6)
I am forever caught up in the “perpetual presence of the sublime,” that Emerson speaks of, for nature never ceases to amaze me and in that, my heart is like that of a child, as Emerson alludes: “The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other, who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.” (p. 7)
Emerson speaks to my soul when he says, “In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages,” (p. 8) for I see the wilderness as the most blessed of places where beauty is forever changing moment by moment. Nature is such that it is constantly changing with its own forces at work constantly, the wind, the skies, the oceans, the forest, the fields. All ever changing. All ever beautiful even in its decay.
I cannot deny Emerson’s insistence that “nature is medicinal,” (p. 15) for surely there is no better balm in my opinion that a walk in the sun taking in the beauty of nature around you. In that awe that nature creates all around us, there is succor. As Emerson says, “Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us.” (p. 43) There is no place within the confines of society that I feel as free as when I am surrounded by nature.
In Nature, Emerson sets a standard that encourages us to look to the littlest things in nature for the miraculous in life. John Elder in his introduction to the Nature/Writing, credits Emerson inventing a “specific vocabulary, of a nature writer’s voice.” (p.ix) Emerson called upon his readers to connect the very existence of nature with the divine. The connection is ever prevalent and of the utmost necessity in a world where we are connected to technology more than nature.
In the essay Language, Emerson notes, “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact.” (p.23) Beyond the confines of traditional religion Emerson called on his readers to connect with nature in its most expansive and compelling aspects. His writings on Nature are still today some of the most important and influential writings in the non-fiction genre. At times lofty in his descriptions of nature and its spiritual connections to man and at times droll in his views of the current day dilemmas, I am reminded at every turn of the page reading each of the eight essays, why Emerson’s Nature is as eternal as its subject matter.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” Emerson, Ralph Waldo and Henry David Thoreau. Nature / Walking. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1991. 3–67.
Originally published at PamelaLeavey.com.
“I declare this world is so beautiful that I can hardly believe it exists.” The beauty of nature can have a profound effect upon our senses, those gateways from the outer world to the inner, whether it results in disbelief in its very existence as Emerson notes, or feelings such as awe, wonder, or amazement. But what is it about nature and the entities that make it up that cause us, oftentimes unwillingly, to feel or declare that they are beautiful?
One answer that Emerson offers is that “the simple perception of natural forms is a delight.” When we think of beauty in nature, we might most immediately think of things that dazzle the senses – the prominence of a mountain, the expanse of the sea, the unfolding of the life of a flower. Often it is merely the perception of these things itself which gives us pleasure, and this emotional or affective response on our part seems to be crucial to our experience of beauty. So in a way there is a correlate here to the intrinsic value of nature; Emerson says:
the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us a delight in and for themselves
Most often, it seems to me, we find these things to be beautiful not because of something else they might bring us – a piece of furniture, say, or a ‘delicacy’ to be consumed – but because of the way that the forms of these things immediately strike us upon observation. In fact, one might even think that this experience of beauty is one of the bases for valuing nature – nature is valuable because it is beautiful.
Emerson seems to think that beauty in the natural world is not limited to certain parts of nature to the exclusion of others. He writes that every landscape lies under “the necessity of being beautiful”, and that “beauty breaks in everywhere.” As we slowly creep out of a long winter in the Northeast, I think Emerson would find the lamentations about what we have ‘endured’ to be misguided:
The inhabitants of the cities suppose that the country landscape is pleasant only half the year….To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.
The close observer of nature sees a river in constant flux, even when the river’s water is frozen and everything appears to be static and unchanging for a time. Nature can reveal its beauty in all places and at all times to the eye that knows how to look for it. We can hear Emerson wrangle with himself on this very point in the words of this journal entry:
At night I went out into the dark and saw a glimmering star and heard a frog, and Nature seemed to say, Well do not these suffice? Here is a new scene, a new experience. Ponder it, Emerson, and not like the foolish world, hanker after thunders and multitudes and vast landscapes, the sea or Niagara.
MS Am 1280.235 (706.3E) Houghton Library
So if we’re sympathetic to the idea that nature, or aspects of it, are beautiful, we might ask ourselves why we experience nature in this way. Emerson says that nature is beautiful because it is alive, moving, reproductive. In nature we observe growth and development in living things, contrasted with the static or deteriorating state of the vast majority of that which is man-made. More generally, he writes: “We ascribe beauty to that which…has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its end; which stands related to all things”. He cites natural structures as lacking superfluities, an observation that in general has been confirmed by the advancement of biology. Furthermore, he says that whether talking about a human artifact or a natural organism, any increase of ability to achieve its end or goal is an increase in beauty. So in Emerson we might find the resources for seeing evolution and the drive to survive as a beautiful rather than an ugly process, governed by laws that tend to increase reproductive fitness and that we can understand through observation and inquiry. And lastly, Emerson points to the relation between what we take to be an individual and the rest of nature as a quality of the beautiful. This consists in the “power to suggest relation to the whole world, and so lift the object out of a pitiful individuality.” In nature one doesn’t come across individuals that are robustly independent from their environment; rather things are intimately interconnected with their surroundings in ways that we don’t fully understand.
Nothing is quite beautiful alone: nothing but is beautiful in the whole.
All of these qualities of beauty seem to go beyond the mere impression of sensible forms that we started with, and what they require is what also served as the basis of truth and goodness in nature.
MS Am 1280.235 (708) Houghton LibraryIn addition to the immediate experience of beauty based in perception, Emerson suggests that the beauty of the world may also be viewed as an object of the intellect. He writes that “the question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking of the foundations of things.” In other words, we can also experience the world as beautiful because of its rational structure and our ability to grasp that structure through thought. Think for instance of the geometric structure of a crystal, or snowflake, or nautilus shell. Or consider the complexity of the fact that the reintroduction of the wolf in Yellowstone National Park changed the course of the rivers due to a chain reaction of cause and effect through the food web, a process called a trophic cascade. This reinforces Emerson’s emphasis on the interconnection between all members of the natural world; as observers of nature we are confronted with one giant, complex process that isn’t of our own making, but that we can also understand, and get a mental grasp on, even if only partially, and be awe-struck in that process of understanding.
There is thus an emotional or affective component in the beauty of the intellect just as there is in the immediate beauty of perception. If we destroy the natural world, we take away the things that we can marvel at and experience awe towards in these two ways. And this experience of the beautiful through the intellect may reinforce our attributing value to nature here as well, but a deeper kind of value, the intrinsic value I talked about in the last essay. Here it is not only that nature is valuable because it is beautiful, but nature is beautiful because it possesses intrinsic value, grounded in its intelligible structure. Thus we see a close parallel between goodness and beauty in nature. We can find an objective basis for goodness and beauty in nature, namely its intelligible structure, but also see that nature is valuable and beautiful for us, with the particular apparatus that nature has given us for navigating our way through the world.
So that which is the basis of truth in nature and provides it with intrinsic value is also that which makes it beautiful. Emerson himself ties these three aspects of nature into one package himself:
He should know that the landscape has beauty for his eye, because it expresses a thought which is to him good: and this, because of the same power which sees through his eyes, is seen in that spectacle
This is the unified philosophy of nature that I set out to explicate in the first essay – nature is the source of truth, goodness, and beauty, because of its intelligible structure, and because of its production of organisms that can recognize that structure, us. And this view of nature includes an inherent call to protect that which is true, good, and beautiful. These are the things that we as human beings are searching for, are striving after, and yet they’re right in front of us if only we would listen with our ear to the earth.
Although I’ve been advocating an approach to nature based on its intelligibility, we are far from tying down the giant that is nature with our minds. Emerson writes that “the perception of the inexhaustibleness of nature is an immortal youth.” Although we shall continue to try to uncover nature’s secrets, let us also continue to take pleasure in our immediate encounter with her. Let us continue to be awe-struck, like the child on the seashore, or clambering up a tree. Let us hold onto that experience, and fight for the environment that makes it possible, both for the child in each of us, and for those that come after us.
Michael welcomes correspondence, and can be reached at email@example.com. His series "Emerson and the Environment" is part of a larger project which was awarded a Student Sustainability Grant. Quotations taken from Emerson’s journals, his book Nature, and his essays ‘Nature’, ‘Art’, ‘Beauty’, and ‘Spiritual Laws.' He is happy to provide more specific source information for the quotations.