Emerson's "Nature" Major Themes


Accessibility of Universal Understanding

Nature expresses Emerson's belief that each individual must develop a personal understanding of the universe. Emerson makes clear in the Introduction that men should break away from reliance on secondhand information, upon the wisdom of the past, upon inherited and institutionalized knowledge:

Our age is retrospective. 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? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?

According to Emerson, people in the past had an intimate and immediate relationship with God and nature, and arrived at their own understanding of the universe. All the basic elements that they required to do so exist at every moment in time. Emerson continues in the Introduction, "The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship."

Emerson's rejection of received wisdom is reinforced by his repeated references throughout Nature to perception of familiar things, to seeing things anew. For Emerson (and for Thoreau as well), each moment provides an opportunity to learn from nature and to approach an understanding of universal order through it. The importance of the present moment, of spontaneous and dynamic interactions with the universe, of the possibilities of the here and now, render past observations and schemes irrelevant. Emerson focuses on the accessibility of the laws of the universe to every individual through a combination of nature and his own inner processes. In "Language," for example, he states that the relation between spirit and matter "is not fancied by some poet, but stands in the will of God, and so is free to be known by all men." In his discussion of "intellectual science" in "Idealism," he writes that "all men are capable of being raised by piety or by passion" into higher realms of thought. And at the end of the essay, in "Prospects," he exhorts, "Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect." Each man is capable of using the natural world to achieve spiritual understanding. Just as men in the past explored universal relations for themselves, so may each of us, great and small, in the present: "All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do."

In "Discipline," Emerson discusses the ways in which each man may understand nature and God — through rational, logical "Understanding" and through intuitive "Reason." Although the mystical, revelatory intuition leads to the highest spiritual truth, understanding, too, is useful in gaining a particular kind of knowledge. But whichever mental process illuminates a given object of attention at a given time, insight into universal order always takes place in the mind of the individual, through his own experience of nature and inner powers of receptiveness.

Unity of God, Man, and Nature

Throughout Nature, Emerson calls for a vision of the universe as an all-encompassing whole, embracing man and nature, matter and spirit, as interrelated expressions of God. This unity is referred to as the Oversoul elsewhere in Emerson's writings. The purpose of the new, direct understanding of nature that he advocates in the essay is, ultimately, the perception of the totality of the universal whole. At present, Emerson suggests, we have a fragmented view of the world. We cannot perceive our proper place in it because we have lost a sense of the unifying spiritual element that forms the common bond between the divine, the human, and the material. But if we approach nature properly, we may transcend our current focus on isolated parts and gain insight into the whole. Emerson does not offer a comprehensive scheme of the components and workings of God's creation. Instead, he recommends an approach by which we may each arrive at our own vision of totality.

Emerson asserts and reasserts the underlying unity of distinct, particulate expressions of the divine. In the Introduction, he emphasizes man's and nature's parallel positions as manifestations of the universal order, and consequently as means of understanding that order. He elaborates upon the origins in God of both man and nature in "Discipline," in which he discusses evidence of essential unity in the similarities between various natural objects and between the various laws that govern them:

Each creature is only a modification of the other; the likeness in them is more than the difference, and their radical law is one and the same. Hence it is, that a rule of one art, or a law of one organization, holds true throughout nature. So intimate is this Unity, that, it is easily seen, it lies under the undermost garment of nature, and betrays its source in universal Spirit.

Our striving to comprehend nature more spiritually will illuminate natural order and the relationships within it as manifestations of God. In "Idealism," Emerson stresses the advantages of the ideal theory of nature (the approach to nature as a projection by God onto the human mind rather than as a concrete reality). Idealism makes God an integral element in our understanding of nature, and provides a comprehensively inclusive view:

Idealism sees the world in God. It beholds the whole circle of persons and things, of actions and events, of country and religion, not as painfully accumulated, atom after atom, act after act, in an aged creeping Past, but as one vast picture, which God paints on the instant eternity, for the contemplation of the soul.

Spiritualization, hastened by inspired insight, will heal the fragmentization that plagues us. Emerson writes in "Prospects": "The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself. He cannot be a naturalist, until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit." By drawing upon our latent spiritual capabilities and seeking evidence of God's order in nature, we will make sense of the universe.

Throughout Nature, Emerson uses analogy and imagery to advance the conceptof universal unity. In Chapter I, he suggests, through the analogy of the landscape, the transformation of particulate information into a whole. Regarded from a transcendent, "poetical" point of view, the many individual forms that comprise the landscape become less distinct and form an integrated totality. (In addition to the poet, the painter, the sculptor, the musician, and the architect are all particularly sensitive to perceiving wholes.)

Emerson also uses the imagery of the circle extensively to convey the all-encompassing, perfect self-containment of the universe. For example, in "Beauty," he describes the way in which the structure of the eye and the laws of light conspire to create perspective:

By the mutual action of [the eye's] structure and of the laws of light, perspective is produced, which integrates every mass of objects, of what character soever, into a well colored and shaded globe, so that where the particular objects are mean and unaffecting, the landscape which they compose, is round and symmetrical.

In discussing the similarities between natural objects and between natural laws in "Discipline," Emerson reiterates and expands the image, making it more complex and comprehensive:

It is like a great circle on a sphere, comprising all possible circles; which, however, may be drawn, and comprise it, in like manner. Every such truth is the absolute Ens [that is, being or entity] seen from one side. But it has innumerable sides.

The circle is thus not only all-encompassing, but allows multiple approaches to the whole.

Emerson develops the idea of each particle of nature as a microcosm reflecting the whole, and as such a point of access to the universal. In "Discipline," he writes of "the Unity of Nature, — the Unity in Variety," and goes on to state:

. . . a leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world.

The idea of microcosm is important in Emerson's approach to nature, as it is in Thoreau's. Because the parts represent the whole in miniature, it is consequently not necessary to see all of the parts to understand the whole. Through an insight akin to revelation, man may understand the "big picture" from just one example in nature. We need not be slaves to detail to understand the meaning that detail conveys.

Reason and Understanding

From the beginning to the end of Nature, Emerson stresses the particular importance of the intuitive type of comprehension, which he calls "Reason," in the terminology of English Romantic poetry. Reason is required to penetrate the universal laws and the divine mind. At the beginning of the Introduction, he calls for "a poetry and philosophy of insight" and "a religion by revelation" — his first references to intuition in the essay. Kantian "Reason" is linked with spiritual truth, Lockean "Understanding" with the laws of nature. Because Nature is a kind of manual for spiritualization, Reason holds a higher place in it than Understanding. Although Understanding is essential for the perception of material laws and in its application promotes a progressively broader vision, it does not by itself lead man to God.

In "Beauty," "Language," and "Discipline," Emerson examines Reason's revelation to man of the larger picture behind the multiplicity of details in the material world. In "Beauty," he describes the stimulation of the human intellect by natural beauty. He offers artistic creativity as the extreme love of and response to natural beauty. Art is developed in the essay as an insightful synthesis of parts into a whole, as are such other expressions of human creativity as poetry and architecture. The intuitively inspired formation of this sense of wholeness is similar to the comprehension of universal law, the ultimate goal advocated in Nature. In "Language," he describes the symbolism of original language as based on natural fact, and the integral relationship between language, nature, and spirit. He identifies Reason as the faculty that provides apprehension of spirit through natural symbols, and connects spirit with the universal soul itself:

Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life. . . . This universal soul, he calls Reason: it is not mine or thine or his, but we are its; we are its property and men. And the blue sky in which the private earth is buried, the sky with its eternal calm, and full of everlasting orbs, is the type of Reason. That which, intellectually considered, we call Reason, considered in relation to nature, we call Spirit. Spirit is the Creator. Spirit hath life in itself. And man in all ages and countries, embodies it in his language. . . .

Reason, which imparts both vision into the absolute and also creative force as well, is thus presented more as God's reaching out into man than as an active capacity solely within man.

In "Prospects," Emerson implores his readers to trust in Reason as a means of approaching universal truth. He writes of matutina cognitio — morning knowledge — as the knowledge of God, as opposed to vespertina cognitio — evening knowledge, or the knowledge of man. (This concept of morning knowledge is echoed in Thoreau's writings in the heightened awareness that Thoreau presents in connection with the morning hours. It is a spiritual, enhanced, spontaneous insight into higher truth.) In "Prospects," Emerson puts forward examples of intuition at work — the "traditions of miracles," the life of Jesus, transforming action based on principle (such as the abolition of slavery), the "miracles of enthusiasm, as those . . . of Swedenborg, Hohenlohe, and the Shakers," "animal magnetism" (hypnosis), "prayer; eloquence; self-healing; and the wisdom of children." These examples make evident the "instantaneous in-streaming causing power" that constitutes Reason.

Emerson explores at length the difference between Understanding and Reason. Both serve to instruct man. However, Understanding is tied to matter and leads to common sense rather than to the broadest vision. Emerson grants that as man advances in his grasp of natural laws, he comes closer to understanding the laws of creation. But Reason is essential to transport man out of the material world into the spiritual. In "Idealism," Emerson asserts that intuition works against acceptance of concrete reality as ultimate reality, thereby promoting spiritualization.

In "Spirit," Emerson presents the notion of the mystical and intuitively understood "universal essence" (a potent, comprehensive life force) which, expressed in man through nature's agency, confers tremendous power:

Who can set bounds to the possibilities of man? Once inhale the upper air, being admitted to behold the absolute natures of justice and truth, and we learn that man has access to the entire mind of the Creator, is himself the creator in the finite.

Reason provides perception of God's creation and a direct link with God, and reinforces the divine within man. It bestows on man an exalted status in the world. And man's identification with God, his elevation through vision, underlies Emerson's sense of nature as a tool for human development. Man is second only to God in the universal scheme. The material world exists for him.

Relationship of Man and Nature

Both man and nature are expressions of the divine, Emerson declares in Nature. Man, in his physical existence, is a part of the material world. But throughout the essay, Emerson refers to man's separateness from nature through his intellectual and spiritual capacities. Man and nature share a special relationship. Each is essential to understanding the other. However, Emerson makes clear that man enjoys the superior position. In his higher abilities, he represents an endpoint of evolution. Moreover, man has particular powers over nature. Nature was made to serve man's physical and, more significantly, intellectual and spiritual needs.

In the poem with which Emerson prefaced the 1849 second edition of Nature, man's place as a developmental pinnacle is conveyed in the lines, "And, striving to be man, the worm / Mounts through all the spires of form." In "Language," he emphasizes the centrality of man, conferred by the inner qualities of mind and spirit

. . . man is an analogist, and studies relations in all objects. He is placed in the centre of beings, and a ray of relation passes from every other being to him. And neither can man be understood without these objects, nor these objects without man.

Man's ascendancy over nature is powerfully expressed in the final passage of the essay:

The kingdom of man over nature, which cometh not with observation, — a dominion such as now is beyond his dream of God, — he shall enter without more wonder than the blind man feels who is gradually restored to perfect sight.

Indeed, although Transcendentalism is sometimes perceived as a simple celebration of nature, the relationship that Emerson and other Transcendentalists suggested was considerably more complex.

In Chapter I, Emerson describes nature's elevation of man's mood, and the particular sympathy with and joy in nature that man feels. But he adds that nature by itself is not capable of producing human reaction. It requires man's inner processes to become meaningful: "Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight, does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both." And in "Beauty," focusing on nature's existence to satisfy man's need for beauty, he states that nature is not in and of itself a final end:

But beauty in nature is not ultimate. It is the herald of inward and eternal beauty, and is not alone a solid and satisfactory good. It must therefore stand as a part and not as yet the last or highest expression of the final cause of Nature.

Nature's meaning resides in its role as a medium of communication between God and man.

Emerson stresses throughout Nature that nature exists to serve man, and explains the ways in which it does so. In "Commodity," he enumerates the basic material uses of nature by man. He then goes on to point out the fact that man harnesses nature to enhance its material usefulness. In "Beauty," Emerson discusses the power of natural beauty to restore man when exhausted, to give him simple pleasure, to provide a suitable backdrop to his glorious deeds, and to stimulate his intellect, which may ultimately lead him to understand universal order. Man's artistic expression is inspired by the perception and translation in his mind of the beauty of nature.

In "Language," Emerson details language's uses as a vehicle of thought and, ultimately, through its symbolism and the symbolism of the things it stands for, as an aid to comprehension and articulation of spiritual as well as material truth. A person effectively expresses himself, Emerson notes, in proportion to the natural vigor of his language. Nature both exists for and intensifies man's capabilities.

In "Discipline," he introduces human will, which, working through the intellect, emphasizes aspects of nature that the mind requires and disregards those that the mind does not need. Thus man imposes himself on nature, makes it what he wants it to be. Emerson writes,

Nature is thoroughly mediate. It is made to serve. It receives the dominion of man as meekly as the ass on which the Saviour rode. It offers all its kingdoms to man as the material which he may mould into what is useful.

Emerson develops this idea in "Idealism," in discussing the poet's elevation of soul over matter in "subordinating nature for the purpose of expression" — giving emphasis and drawing connections as suits the message he wishes to convey. Nature is thus "fluid," "ductile and flexible," changeable by man.

Matter and Spirit

Emerson asserts throughout Nature the primacy of spirit over matter. Nature's purpose is as a representation of the divine to promote human insight into the laws of the universe, and thus to bring man closer to God. Emerson writes of nature in "Spirit" as "the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to lead back the individual to it." He explores the relationship between matter and spirit extensively in "Language," in which he discusses the correspondence between material and moral laws, and in "Idealism," in which he presents the concept of nature as a projection by God on the human mind, as opposed to a concrete reality.

Emerson's discussion in "Language" is based on three premises: that words — even those used to describe intellectual or spiritual states — originated in nature, in an elemental interaction between mind and matter; that not only do words represent nature, but, because nature is an expression of the divine, the natural facts that words represent are symbolic of spiritual truth; and that the whole of nature — not just individual natural facts — symbolizes the whole of spiritual truth. Emerson writes,

The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass.

Because the laws of the material world correspond to higher laws in the spiritual world, man may "by degrees" comprehend the universal through his familiarity with its expression in nature. Emerson states that the symbolism of matter renders "every form significant to its hidden life and final cause." Moral law, as he suggests in "Discipline," "lies at the centre of nature and radiates to the circumference." At the end of "Language," Emerson works toward the ideal theory in presenting all the particulars of nature as preexisting "in necessary Ideas in the mind of God, and are what they are by preceding affections, in the world of spirit." He writes that a fact is "the end or last issue of spirit. The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world." Matter thus issues from and is secondary to spirit.

In "Idealism" and "Spirit," Emerson takes a philosophical leap in asking whether nature exists separately, or whether it is only an image created in man's mind by God. Although he says that the answer cannot be known, and that it makes no difference in man's use of nature, he suggests that idealism is preferable to viewing nature as concrete reality because it constitutes "that view which is most desirable to the mind." Emerson supports the ideal theory by pointing to the ways in which poetry, philosophy, science, religion, and ethics subordinate matter to higher truth. But he also acknowledges that idealism is hard to accept from the commonsensical point of view — the view of those who trust in rationality over intuition. "The broker, the wheelwright, the carpenter, the toll-man, are much displeased at the intimation," he writes at the beginning of "Idealism." Correspondence provides a bridge between matter and spirit. In denying the actual existence of matter, idealism goes much farther.

In various ways in Nature, Emerson appears to suggest that the natural world does, in fact, exist separately from spirit. For instance, he carefully distinguishes between man's inner qualities and his physical existence, between the "ME" and the "NOT ME," which includes one's own body. His progressive argument is marred by this seeming contradiction, and by his hesitancy to state outright that nature is an ideal, even while he discusses it as such. He only goes so far as to say that idealism offers a satisfactory way of looking at nature. But he does not want to sidetrack his reader by attempting to prove that which cannot be proven.

Emerson concludes the essay by asking his readers to open themselves to spiritual reality by trusting in intuitive reason. He writes,

. . . there are far more excellent qualities in the student than preciseness and infallibility; . . . a guess is often more fruitful than an indisputable affirmation, and . . . a dream may let us deeper into the secret of nature than a hundred concerted experiments.

Through receptivity to intuition, we may rise above narrow common sense and transcend preoccupation with material fact per se.