Summary and Analysis of Nature Chapter 8


The essay's final chapter opens with reflections on how to study nature. According to Emerson, intuition is more preferable in trying to understand nature than are the calculated measurements of science and geology. Empirical science, based on detailed observation, studies individual objects, but it fails to place them back into their natural surroundings. In other words, empirical science views an object only in its singularity rather than as a piece of a larger whole. Note that Emerson promotes "untaught sallies of the spirit" as the best way for us to learn about our world, a process that depends more on Reason (intuition) than on Understanding (mere observation), although we must first understand before we can reason. His greatest complaint is that we gain a limited knowledge of nature because we too readily mistake Understanding for Reason.

Recalling the theme of unity, Emerson theorizes that each person is a microcosm, a small universe corresponding to the macrocosm of the natural world. This theory of each person being a microcosm was very popular in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and Emerson quotes at length from a poem by George Herbert, a seventeenth-century British poet. Herbert's poem, which elaborates the parallels between humans and nature, establishes a familial relationship in which nature is an intricate household organized for our well-being.

The concluding paragraphs draw extensively on the ideas of Amos Bronson Alcott, a fellow transcendentalist whom Emerson affectionately calls his "Orphic poet." The philosophy presented in this final section holds that humanity has degenerated from a former utopia, which was a condition of unity and wholeness within nature. All ills and evils in the world may be traceable to this lapsing away from close attention to spiritual truths. The remedy for this condition of mental and moral infirmities lies in our being open to nature's enlightening and healing powers. Reflection and intuition will unite humanity and nature in the perfection of an undivided whole.