As he returned from Europe in 1833, Emerson had already begun to think about the book that would eventually be published under the title Nature. In writing Nature, Emerson drew upon material from his journals, sermons, and lectures. The lengthy essay was first published in Boston by James Munroe and Company in September of 1836. A new edition (also published by Munroe, with Emerson paying the printing costs, his usual arrangement with Munroe) appeared in December of 1849. This second edition was printed from the plates of the collection Nature; Addresses, and Lectures, published by Munroe in September 1849. (The second edition of this collection was published in Boston in 1856 by Phillips, Sampson, under the title Miscellanies; Embracing Nature, Addresses, and Lectures.) Nature was published in London in 1844 in Nature, An Essay. And Lectures on the Times, by H. G. Clarke and Co. A German edition was issued in 1868. It was included in 1876 in the first volume (Miscellanies) of the Little Classic Edition of Emerson's writings, in 1883 in the first volume (Nature, Addresses, and Lectures) of the Riverside Edition, in 1903 in the first volume (Nature, Addresses, and Lectures) of the Centenary Edition, and in 1971 in the first volume (Nature, Addresses, and Lectures) of the Collected Works published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Nature has been printed in numerous collections of Emerson's writings since its first publication, among them the 1940 Modern Library The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (edited by Brooks Atkinson), the 1965 Signet Classic Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (edited by William H. Gilman), and the 1983 Library of America Essays & Lectures (selected and annotated by Joel Porte).
Emerson prefaced the prose text of the 1836 first edition of Nature with a passage from the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus. The 1849 second edition included instead a poem by Emerson himself. Both present themes that are developed in the essay. The passage from Plotinus suggests the primacy of spirit and of human understanding over nature. Emerson's poem emphasizes the unity of all manifestations of nature, nature's symbolism, and the perpetual development of all of nature's forms toward the highest expression as embodied in man.
Nature is divided into an introduction and eight chapters. In the Introduction, Emerson laments the current tendency to accept the knowledge and traditions of the past instead of experiencing God and nature directly, in the present. He asserts that all our questions about the order of the universe — about the relationships between God, man, and nature — may be answered by our experience of life and by the world around us. Each individual is a manifestation of creation and as such holds the key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe. Nature, too, is both an expression of the divine and a means of understanding it. The goal of science is to provide a theory of nature, but man has not yet attained a truth broad enough to comprehend all of nature's forms and phenomena. Emerson identifies nature and spirit as the components of the universe. He defines nature (the "NOT ME") as everything separate from the inner individual — nature, art, other men, our own bodies. In common usage, nature refers to the material world unchanged by man. Art is nature in combination with the will of man. Emerson explains that he will use the word "nature" in both its common and its philosophical meanings in the essay.
At the beginning of Chapter I, Emerson describes true solitude as going out into nature and leaving behind all preoccupying activities as well as society. When a man gazes at the stars, he becomes aware of his own separateness from the material world. The stars were made to allow him to perceive the "perpetual presence of the sublime." Visible every night, they demonstrate that God is ever-present. They never lose their power to move us. We retain our original sense of wonder even when viewing familiar aspects of nature anew. Emerson discusses the poetical approach to nature — the perception of the encompassing whole made up of many individual components. Our delight in the landscape, which is made up of many particular forms, provides an example of this integrated vision.
Unlike children, most adults have lost the ability to see the world in this way. In order to experience awe in the presence of nature, we need to approach it with a balance between our inner and our outer senses. Nature so approached is a part of man, and even when bleak and stormy is capable of elevating his mood. All aspects of nature correspond to some state of mind. Nature offers perpetual youth and joy, and counteracts whatever misfortune befalls an individual. The visionary man may lose himself in it, may become a receptive "transparent eyeball" through which the "Universal Being" transmits itself into his consciousness and makes him sense his oneness with God. In nature, which is also a part of God, man finds qualities parallel to his own. There is a special relationship, a sympathy, between man and nature. But by itself, nature does not provide the pleasure that comes of perceiving this relationship. Such satisfaction is a product of a particular harmony between man's inner processes and the outer world. The way we react to nature depends upon our state of mind in approaching it.
In the next four chapters — "Commodity," "Beauty," "Language," and "Discipline" — Emerson discusses the ways in which man employs nature ultimately to achieve insight into the workings of the universe. In Chapter II, "Commodity," he treats the most basic uses of nature — for heat, food, water, shelter, and transportation. Although he ranks these as low uses, and states that they are the only applications that most men have for nature, they are perfect and appropriate in their own way. Moreover, man harnesses nature through the practical arts, thereby enhancing its usefulness through his own wit. Emerson quickly finishes with nature as a commodity, stating that "A man is fed, not that he may be fed, but that he may work," and turns to higher uses.
In Chapter III, "Beauty," Emerson examines nature's satisfaction of a nobler human requirement, the desire for beauty. The perception of nature's beauty lies partly in the structure of the eye itself, and in the laws of light. The two together offer a unified vision of many separate objects as a pleasing whole — "a well-colored and shaded globe," a landscape "round and symmetrical." Every object in nature has its own beauty, which is magnified when perspective allows comprehensive vision of the whole.
Emerson presents three properties of natural beauty. First, nature restores and gives simple pleasure to a man. It reinvigorates the overworked, and imparts a sense of well-being and of communion with the universe. Nature pleases even in its harsher moments. The same landscape viewed in different weather and seasons is seen as if for the first time. But we cannot capture natural beauty if we too actively and consciously seek it. We must rather submit ourselves to it, allowing it to react to us spontaneously, as we go about our lives.
Secondly, nature works together with the spiritual element in man to enhance the nobility of virtuous and heroic human actions. There is a particular affinity between the processes of nature and the capabilities of man. Nature provides a suitably large and impressive background against which man's higher actions are dramatically outlined.
Thirdly, Emerson points out the capacity of natural beauty to stimulate the human intellect, which uses nature to grasp the divine order of the universe. Because action follows upon reflection, nature's beauty is visualized in the mind, and expressed through creative action. The love of beauty constitutes taste; its creative expression, art. A work of art — "the result or expression of nature, in miniature" — demonstrates man's particular powers. Man apprehends wholeness in the multiplicity of natural forms and conveys these forms in their totality. The poet, painter, sculptor, musician, and architect are all inspired by natural beauty and offer a unified vision in their work. Art thus represents nature as distilled by man. Unlike the uses of nature described in "Commodity," the role of nature in satisfying man's desire for beauty is an end in itself. Beauty, like truth and goodness, is an expression of God. But natural beauty is an ultimate only inasmuch as it works as a catalyst upon the inner processes of man.
In Chapter IV, "Language," Emerson explores nature's service to man as a vehicle for thought. He first states that words represent particular facts in nature, which exists in part to give us language to express ourselves. He suggests that all words, even those conveying intellectual and moral meaning, can be etymologically traced back to roots originally attached to material objects or their qualities. (Although this theory would not be supported by the modern study of linguistics, Emerson was not alone among his contemporaries in subscribing to it.) Over time, we have lost a sense of the particular connection of the first language to the natural world, but children and primitive people retain it to some extent. Not only are words symbolic, Emerson continues, but the natural objects that they represent are symbolic of particular spiritual states. Human intellectual processes are, of necessity, expressed through language, which in its primal form was integrally connected to nature. Emerson asserts that there is universal understanding of the relationship between natural imagery and human thought. An all-encompassing universal soul underlies individual life. "Reason" (intuitive understanding) affords access to the universal soul through the natural symbols of spirit provided by language. In language, God is, in a very real sense, accessible to all men. In his unique capacity to perceive the connectedness of everything in the universe, man enjoys a central position. Man cannot be understood without nature, nor nature without man. In its origin, language was pure poetry, and clearly conveyed the relationship between material symbol and spiritual meaning. Emerson states that the same symbols form the original elements of all languages. And the moving power of idiomatic language and of the strong speech of simple men reminds us of the first dependence of language upon nature. Modern man's ability to express himself effectively requires simplicity, love of truth, and desire to communicate efficiently. But because we have lost the sense of its origins, language has been corrupted. The man who speaks with passion or in images — like the poet or orator who maintains a vital connection with nature — expresses the workings of God.
Finally, Emerson develops the idea that the whole of nature — not just its particulate verbal expressions — symbolizes spiritual reality and offers insight into the universal. He writes of all nature as a metaphor for the human mind, and asserts that there is a one-to-one correspondence between moral and material laws. All men have access to understanding this correspondence and, consequently, to comprehending the laws of the universe. Emerson employs the image of the circle — much-used in Nature — in stating that the visible world is the "terminus or circumference of the invisible world." Visible nature innately possesses a moral and spiritual aspect. Man may grasp the underlying meaning of the physical world by living harmoniously with nature, and by loving truth and virtue. Emerson concludes "Language" by stating that we understand the full meaning of nature by degrees.
Nature as a discipline — a means of arriving at comprehension — forms the subject of Chapter V, "Discipline." All of nature serves to educate man through both the rational, logical "Understanding" and the intuitive, mystical "Reason." Through the more rational understanding, we constantly learn lessons about the similarities and differences between objects, about reality and unreality, about order, arrangement, progression, and combination. The ultimate result of such lessons is common sense. Emerson offers property and debt as materially based examples that teach necessary lessons through the understanding, and space and time as demonstrations of particularity and individuality, through which "we may know that things are not huddled and lumped, but sundered and individual." Each object has its own particular use, and through the understanding we know that it cannot be converted to other uses to which it is not fitted. The wise man recognizes the innate properties of objects and men, and the differences, gradations, and similarities among the manifold natural expressions. The practical arts and sciences make use of this wisdom. But as man progressively grasps the basic physical laws, he comes closer to understanding the laws of creation, and limiting concepts such as space and time lose their significance in his vision of the larger picture. Emerson emphasizes the place of human will — the expression of human power — in harnessing nature. Nature is made to serve man. We take what is useful from it in forming a sense of the universe, giving greater or lesser weight to particular aspects to suit our purposes, even framing nature according to our own image of it. Emerson goes on to discuss how intuitive reason provides insight into the ethical and spiritual meanings behind nature. "All things are moral," he proclaims, and therefore every aspect of nature conveys "the laws of right and wrong."
Nature thus forms the proper basis for religion and ethics. Moreover, the uses of particular facets of nature as described in "Commodity" do not exhaust the lessons these aspects can teach; men may progress to perception of their higher meaning as well. Emerson depicts moral law as lying at the center of the circle of nature and radiating to the circumference. He asserts that man is particularly susceptible to the moral meaning of nature, and returns to the unity of all of nature's particulars. Each object is a microcosm of the universe. Through analogies and resemblances between various expressions of nature, we perceive "its source in Universal Spirit." Moreover, we apprehend universal order through thought — through our grasp of the relationship between particular universal truths, which are related to all other universal truths. Emerson builds upon his circle imagery to suggest the all-encompassing quality of universal truth and the way it may be approached through all of its particulars. Unity is even more apparent in action than in thought, which is expressed only imperfectly through language. Action, on the other hand, as "the perfection and publication of thought," expresses thought more directly. Because words and conscious actions are uniquely human attributes, Emerson holds humanity up as the pinnacle of nature, "incomparably the richest informations of the power and order that lie at the heart of things." Each human example is a point of access into the universal spirit. As an expression of nature, humanity, too, has its educational use in the progression toward understanding higher truth.
At the beginning of Chapter VI, "Idealism," Emerson questions whether nature actually exists, whether God may have created it only as a perception in the human mind. Having stated that the response to this question makes no difference in the usefulness of nature as an aid to human comprehension of the universal, Emerson concludes that the answer is ultimately unknowable. Whether real or not, he perceives nature as an ideal. Even if nature is not real, natural and universal laws nevertheless apply. However, the common man's faith in the permanence of natural laws is threatened by any hint that nature may not be real. The senses and rational understanding contribute to the instinctive human tendency to regard nature as a reality. Men tend to view things as ultimates, not to look for a higher reality beyond them. But intuitive reason works against the unquestioned acceptance of concrete reality as the ultimate reality. Intuition counteracts sensory knowledge, and highlights our intellectual and spiritual separateness from nature. As the intuition is increasingly awakened, we begin to perceive nature differently, to see the whole, the "causes and spirits," instead of individual forms.
Emerson explores idealism at length. He first points out that a change in perspective is caused by changes in environment or mechanical alterations (such as viewing a familiar landscape from a moving railroad car), which heighten the sense of the difference between man and nature, the observer and the observed. Altered perspective imparts a feeling that there is something constant within man, even though the world around him changes, sometimes due to his own action upon it. Emerson then discusses the way in which the poet communicates his own power over nature. The poet sees nature as fluid and malleable, as raw material to shape to his own expressive purposes. Inspired by intuition and imagination, he enhances and reduces facets of nature according to his creative dictates. He provides an ideal interpretation of nature that is more real than concrete nature, as it exists independent of human agency. The poet, in short, asserts "the predominance of the soul" over matter. Emerson looks to philosophy, science, religion, and ethics for support of the subordination of matter to spirit. He does not uniformly approve of the position assigned to nature by each of these disciplines, but nevertheless finds that they all express an idealistic approach to one degree or another. He points out that although the poet aims toward beauty and the philosopher toward truth, both subject the order and relations within nature to human thought in order to find higher absolutes, laws, and spiritual realities. Scientists, too, may elevate the spiritual over the material in going beyond the accumulation of particulars to a single, encompassing, enlightening formula. And although they distrust nature, traditional religion and ethics also promote the spiritual and moral over the physical. In "Idealism," Emerson again takes up the capacity of all men to grasp the ideal and universal. Intellectual inquiry casts doubt upon the independent existence of matter and focuses upon the absolute and ideal as a higher reality. It encourages approaching nature as "an appendix to the soul" and a means of access to God. Although these complex ideas are expressed by specialists in "intellectual science," they are nevertheless available to all. And when any man reaches some understanding of divinity, he becomes more divine and renews himself physically as well as spiritually. Knowledge of the ideal and absolute brings confidence in our existence, and confers a kind of immortality, which transcends the limitations of space and time.
Emerson points out that in the quest for the ideal, it does not serve man to take a demeaning view of nature. He suggests nature's subservience merely to define its true position in relation to man, as a tool for spiritual education and perfection (as discussed in "Discipline"), and to distinguish the real (that is, the ideal) from the unreal (the concretely apparent). He concludes the chapter by advocating the ideal theory of nature over more popular materialism because it offers exactly the kind of view of the world that the human mind craves and intuitively wants to adopt. It subordinates matter to mind, places the world in the context of God, and allows man to synthesize a mass of details into a whole.
Emerson deals with nature's spiritual qualities and purpose in Chapter VII, "Spirit." He states that a true theory of nature and man must allow progressive, dynamic comprehension. In its fidelity to its divine origin and its constant illumination of spirit and of the absolute, nature allows satisfaction of this condition. Emerson writes of the difficulty of visualizing and expressing the divine spirit. The noblest use of nature is to help us by representing God, by serving as the medium "through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to lead the individual back to it." Emerson then addresses three questions: What is matter?; Where does it come from?; and What is its purpose?
The first question — What is matter? — is answered by idealism, which holds that matter is a phenomenon (in Kantian philosophy, something that appears to the mind independently of its existence outside the mind) rather than a substance. This theory both underscores the difference between the incontrovertible evidence of human existence in the intellect and the questionable existence of nature as a distinct reality outside the mind, and at the same time allows us to explain nature in terms other than purely physical. But it is not enough to say that nature does not have independent existence. The divine spirit and human perception must also form part of the equation. Emerson adds that the very importance of the action of the human mind on nature distances us from the natural world and leaves us unable to explain our sympathy with it. He then turns to the questions of where matter comes from, and to what end. He refers to the "universal essence," an all-encompassing creative life force, which God expresses in nature as it is passed through and invigorates man. Man's capabilities are unlimited in proportion to his openness to nature's revelatory and transforming properties. Nature affords access to the very mind of God and thus renders man "the creator in the finite." The world is thus explained as proceeding from the divine, just as man does. Emerson describes it as "a remoter and inferior incarnation of God, a projection of God in the unconscious." Nature possesses a serenity and order that man appreciates. His closeness to God is related to his appreciation of and sympathy with nature. Emerson closes the chapter by referring to the difficulty of reconciling the practical uses of nature, as outlined in "Commodity," with its higher spiritual meaning.
In "Prospects," the eighth and final chapter of Nature, Emerson promotes intuitive reason as the means of gaining insight into the order and laws of the universe. Empirical science hinders true perception by focusing too much on particulars and too little on the broader picture. "Untaught sallies of the spirit" advance the learned naturalist farther than does precise analysis of detail. A guess or a dream may be more productive than a fact or a scientific experiment. The scientist fails to see the unifying principles behind the bewildering abundance of natural expressions, to address the ultimately spiritual purpose of this rich diversity, to recognize man's position as "head and heart" of the natural world. Emerson points out that men now only apply rational understanding to nature, which is consequently perceived materially. But we would do better to trust in intuitive reason, which allows revelation and insight. He cites examples of intuition working in man (Jesus Christ, Swedenborg, and the Shakers among them), which provide evidence of the power of intuition to transcend time and space. Emerson refers to the knowledge of God as matutina cognitio — morning knowledge. He identifies the imbalance created by man's loss of an earlier sense of the spiritual meaning and purpose of nature. By restoring spirituality to our approach to nature, we will attain that sense of universal unity currently lacking. If we reunite spirit with nature, and use all our faculties, we will see the miraculous in common things and will perceive higher law. Facts will be transformed into true poetry. While we ponder abstract questions intellectually, nature will provide other means of answering them. Emerson concludes Nature optimistically and affirmatively. He asserts that we will come to look at the world with new eyes. Nature imbued with spirit will be fluid and dynamic. The world exists for each man, the humble as well as the great. As we idealize and spiritualize, evil and squalor will disappear, beauty and nobility will reign. Man will enter the kingdom of his own dominion over nature with wonder.