Nature by Ralph Emerson


In the 19th. century the U.S. was marked by westward expansion, increasing national consciousness, political organisation and regional competition. The Monroe doctrine brought many of these different strands together in 1823. It stated that the western hemisphere was no longer open to European colonisation, under threat of aggressive reaction by the U.S. In turn it promised to respect the present European colonies and not to interfere in their internal affairs.

The population doubled between 1830 and 1860 and consequently westward migration expanded aided by communication and improvements in transport. The northern part of the country mirrored European urbanisation and industrialisation. The south remained more agricultural.

An idealistic reform movement fought against social, economic and political inequalities, including slavery. This provoked north south conflict over the questions of slavery and tariffs.

Intellectuals and writers were influenced by European philosophy and they created Tanscendentalism, a radical expression of Romanticism. The term transcendentialism came from Kant who described it:

"I call all knowledge transcendental which is concerned, not with objects, but with our mode of knowing objects so far as this is possible a priori [that is, independent of reason]."

Both the Romantic and Transcendental movements were a reaction against convention and formal classicism by emphasising inspiration, emotion and subjectivity. In the U.S. Transcendentalism began against the dehumanisational effects of industrialism. It was also a reaction against the established religion, based on harsh Calvinism, through preaching a more expressive, personal and humanistic form of religion. European translations made foreign thinking available, in particular Madame de Stäel's De L'Allemagne was translated into English under the title Germany. She became an archetype for Transcendental thinking.

Transcendentalists believed that a direct relationship with God and Nature was important. Emerson wrote in Nature: 

"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?"

Thoreau's expression of his unity with Nature was the concept of the Oversoul. This was a cosmic oneness between God, humanity and Nature. Emerson described the Oversoul as:

"... that great nature in which we rest . . . that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other. . . . We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE."

The Oversoul was a platonic idea in which the divine spirit was present in all of Nature and each aspect of Nature, partly reflected the divine mind. All universal laws could be extrapolated from the particular examples. This divine presence was a path to understanding oneself and that led to perceiving a higher truth. They relied on intuition rather than reason to guide their understanding of the Oversoul. Bowen, a critic of Emerson's reliance on intuition and rejection of reason, wrote on Transcendentalism that it:

"... rejects the aid of observation, and will not trust to experiment. The Baconian mode of discovery is regarded as obsolete; induction is a slow and tedious process, and the results are uncertain and imperfect. General truths are to be attained without the previous examination of particulars, and by the aid of a higher power than the understanding. . . . truths which are felt are more satisfactory and certain than those which are proved. . . . Hidden meanings, glimpses of spiritual and everlasting truth are found, where former observers sought only for natural facts. The observation of sensible phenomena can lead only to the discovery of insulated, partial, and relative laws; but the consideration of the same phenomena, in a typical point of view, may lead us to infinite and absolute truth, — to a knowledge of the reality of things. . ."

The Transcendentalists published their philosophy through lectures, sermons, articles and books. The most notable writers were Emerson, Alcott, Ripley, Parker, Brownson, Fuller, Peabody, Channing, Thoreau and Clarke. In 1863 they formed the Transcendental Club to discuss their theories. They held that knowledge was of an intuitive nature which drove them to educational reform. Alcott ran a school in Boston which used Socratic dialogue as a teaching method in which he asked questions on a topic then directed the discussion, making learning an interactive process. Elisabeth Peabody acted as Alcott's assistant and founded the first U.S. kindergarten in 1860. Margaret Fuller set up conversation groups for women in her bookstore, encouraging learning through intuition, rather than imposition of facts.

Another reform movement embraced by Transcendentalists, such as Alcott, Fuller, Peabody, Thoreau and Emerson, was that of the abolition of slavery. Thoreau participated in the Underground Railroad in Concord which helped fleeing slaves to escape to the North and particularly to Canada.


Nature (1836) was divided into an introduction and eight chapters. It included an epigraph by Plotinus which suggests the primacy of spirit and of human understanding over nature:

"Nature is but an image or imitation of wisdom, the last thing of the soul; Nature being a thing which doth only do, but not know." 


Emerson laments that people in his time look back historically to the teachings and philosophies of the past. Traditional religion has done little to help understanding of the truths of creation. He encourages his generation to create an original relationship with the universe in order to discover the truth behind creation. We will know when a true theory appears since it will be its own evidence. Emerson holds that the universe is made up of nature and soul. He defines nature compared to human creations as:

 “essences unchanged by man” 

Chapter 1: Nature

His argument here is that to find isolation you must go outdoors and contemplate Nature with awe. Nature is egalitarian and does not judge based on wealth or education. The earth belongs to no-one since Nature has no property rights. Nature's variety correlates with human moods and so it is a suitable companion. It can restore humanity to a sense of self and, by contemplation of Nature, people can come closer to God, through transcendence.

Chapter 2: Commodity

According to Emerson commodity is one use of Nature as it is humanity's garden, playground and bed. He observes that in his time Nature has been usefully harnessed through technology as never before. 

Chapter 3: Beauty

The author notes that in ancient Greece the same word, Cosmos, signified world and beauty. This implies that beauty is the constitution of everything and all natural things give us pleasure through their shape, colour, movement and organisation. However, to avoid falling into sensuality we need a spiritual element and Emerson sees beauty as God's outward sign for virtue. Beauty is also found in the intellect which seeks the divine order of things. He believes that this process leads to art when the beauty of Nature is reworked in the mind as a new creation.

Chapter 4: Language

Emerson presents words as “signs of natural facts”. He believed that the root of each word reflects some natural aspect. He adds that every natural fact symbolises a spiritual truth, just as every aspect of nature corresponds to a state of mind. Humans are central beings since they create language to make meanings, but all natural beings are interdependent.

The philosopher argues that language and corruption are closely related through the perversion of old words. He thinks that rural poets are less likely to lose their true connection to Nature since they are not open to the corruption of public pressures and politicians like city poets. Creation can be better understood by living in harmony with Nature and so in love with truth and virtue.

Chapter 5: Discipline

Emerson regards Nature as a discipline through which you can achieve an insight into order and hierarchy. It is also a moral reference since it teaches truths about the substance and limits of things. Nature shows the wisdom of how to judge what is worthwhile.

Nature is both unity and variety in the harmonies of its elements. The most organised being in Creation are humans, despite their flaws. Actions display the central unity of things; words break and impoverish them.

Chapter 6: Idealism

Plato argued that Nature was a reflection of the eternal Forms. Emerson thinks that this is a distraction since, as humans cannot test the accuracy of their sensorial experience, Nature is simply ideal. Humans exist within the natural laws and so the question of the absolute must remain open.

Reason helps give expression to the material world and poets use nature motifs to communicate their abstractions as ideas. The difference between the philosopher and the poet is that the latter seeks beauty before truth, however both are looking for constants within human experience. This changes all fear of worldly misfortunes into transient problems.

Children begin their lives living in the nature and truth of the perceptual world. As they reason they live more for the mind and its eternal states. For the author idealism perceives a unified universe:

“a picture, which God paints on the instant eternity, for the contemplation of the soul”.

Chapter 7: Spirit 

Emerson considers that all functions of Nature can be understood as spirit which informs on origins and God. 

For him Nature is channeled through humanity which is like a plant in the earth. It is through Nature that humans can access the mind of the Creator and themselves become small versions of the creator. The measure of virtue resides in how harmoniously humans live with Nature. 

Chapter 8: Prospects

The philosopher criticises scientific vision saying that it observes only particular bits of Nature and does not see the big picture. The best naturalist would recognise that the empirical method is limited and that quantification will not reveal the truth of human relationship to the world. He would focus on the whole, not the part, spirit over the material. This is why poetry comes nearer to truth than history and why the contemporary utilitarian vision of his time is barren. It is only by satifying the demands of the spirit that humans can become naturalists and views the world as a wonder. 

Emerson ends his book with a quotation by Alcott whom he calls his Orphic poet:

"Man is the dwarf of himself. Once he was permeated and dissolved by spirit. He filled nature with his overflowing currents. Out from him sprang the sun and moon; from man, the sun; from woman, the moon. The laws of his mind, the periods of his actions externized themselves into day and night, into the year and the seasons. But, having made for himself this huge shell, his waters retired; he no longer fills the veins and veinlets; he is shrunk to a drop. He sees, that the structure still fits him, but fits him colossally. Say, rather, once it fitted him, now it corresponds to him from far and on high. He adores timidly his own work. Now is man the follower of the sun, and woman the follower of the moon. Yet sometimes he starts in his slumber, and wonders at himself and his house, and muses strangely at the resemblance betwixt him and it. He perceives that if his law is still paramount, if still he have elemental power, if his word is sterling yet in nature, it is not conscious power, it is not inferior but superior to his will. It is Instinct."


Universal Understanding

Emerson insists that we must all cease to rely on secondhand information, on wisdom from the past and on inherited and institutionalized knowledge. Instead, he advocates developing a personal comprehension of the universe. He affirms that this is what people in the past did through their relationship with God and Nature. 

Emerson's focus is that the laws of the universe are available to everyone through a mix of nature and personal efforts. He considers that the relationship between spirit and matter can be understood because it:

"is not fancied by some poet, but stands in the will of God, and so is free to be known by all men." 

The author believes that each of us can understand Nature and God through reason, logic and intuition. Whichever method individuals use, insight into universal order always comes from their experience of Nature and personal powers of receptivity.

God, Man, and Nature

Emerson insists on a conception of the universe which embraces humanity, Nature, matter and spirit. He calls this view the Oversoul. It is the perception of the universe as a whole as opposed to our fragmented view at present. This is due to our having lost the spiritual element that binds the divine, human and matter.

The source of unity lies in the universal Spirit, since the relationships of the natural order are manifestations of God, according to Emerson. This ideal theory of nature which sees it as a proyection by God on the human mind converts God into an integral part of our comprehension of Nature.

Spiritualisation along with intuitive insight will enable us to fix our fragmentary vision of the world and make sense of the universe. However, he insists that the microcosm is important because the parts are miniature reflections of the whole. Thus means that with just one part we can understand the big picture.


For Emerson 'reason' is a type of intuitive understanding. Reason for Kant is related to spiritual truth and for Locke to the laws of nature. Emerson describes Reason as the ability to grasp spirit through the symbols of nature and connects spirit with the universal soul. It is God reaching out to humanity rather than a human capability. He proposes examples of intuition: miracles, the life of Jesus, principled action like anti-slavery, enthusiasm, hypnosis, prayer, and eloquence.

He analyses the distinction between understanding and reason, both of which instruct. He considers that understanding implies matter and leads to a commonsense vision, not a broad one. Reason is able to transport humanity into the spiritual world since its intuitive functioning does not accept material reality as ultimate and so encourages spiritual quest.

Humanity and Nature

Both humans and Nature are expressions of the divine and both are essential to one another. Humans form part of the material world through their physical existence but are also separate from nature because of their spiritual and intellectual abilities. 

According to Emerson humanity is superior to and has powers over Nature. It was created to serve human physical, intelectual and spiritual needs. He points out that humans harness Nature for its material usefulness. Natural beauty also has the power to restore exhausted humans, offer pleasure and stimulate the intellectual. Art expresses human interpretation of Nature's beauty.

Nature takes its meaning from its role of communication between humanity and God. Language expresses and articulates spiritual and material truths in Nature, which in turn enables human capabilities.

The Material and The Spiritual

The author asserts the primacy of spirit over matter. The purpose of Nature is, through representation of the divine, to encourage insight into the laws of the universe and so bring humans closer to God. He argues that words originated in the interaction between mind and matter and represent symbolic truth because Nature expresses the divine. Thus the whole of Nature symbolises all spritual truth:

"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."

Moral law is also at the core of Nature which expresses ideas pre-existing in the mind of God.

Finally Emerson considers whether Nature exists separately or is created by God in the mind, something, he says, that is not provable. He concludes that idealism is preferable to thinking of Nature as concrete reality. He admits that the idealist vision is difficult to admit from the commonsense point of view, that held by those who trust rationality over intuition.

However, in the end he insists that by remaining open to intuition we can rise above narrow commonsense:

". . . 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."


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