Nature, by Ralph Waldo Emerson
What is Nature? This is the main question that Emerson wants to answer. Nature is everything that is “not me” – space, air, river, leaf. Art is the mixture of Nature with man’s will – house, canal, statue, picture.
Chapter 1, Nature
Few men really see Nature. They see it with their eyes, but it is a superficial type of seeing. Think about the stars. If they appeared only once every 1,000 years, we would worship them as a gift from God, as a glimpse into His Kingdom. However, we are blessed with the presence of the stars every night, and for that reason, they lose their majestic appeal. In the presence of nature, there is a feeling that no calamity or discord can befall man. All sorrow and egotism vanish. Nature does not always look the same, but it is always beautiful - whether it is “tricked in holiday attire” or dulled by the sadness of a man who just lost his close friend.
Chapter 2, Commodity
This is the only use of nature that all men apprehend. Nature produces rain that feeds our crops, sun for the plant, and food for the animals, and by these things man is nourished. Furthermore, man uses nature to pave roads, ship merchandise, build ships and bridges and cities and courthouses, and the list is endless. Commodity is the most basic and simplest function of nature. It feeds us, gives us shelter, and gives us the means to build.
Chapter 3, Beauty
Man loves beauty. In nature’s simplest form, nature gives us something to delight in. At the end of a toilsome day, man is glad and relieved if he can just sit in the sun and enjoy the fresh air. Nature also has a spiritual element. When heroic acts are completed by man, nature embraces and encapsulates those heroic actions, setting the scene and adding to the beauty of man’s success. Through art, nature becomes an object of the intellect. “The creation of beauty is Art.” Art is an abstraction of the beauty in the world around us.
Chapter 4, Language
Words are signs of natural facts -> Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts -> Nature is the symbol of spirit. The root of every word can be traced to the appearance of something material. A wise man, who observes his intellectual processes, will notice that once a conversation transcends beyond familiar facts, a material image will come to his mind contemporary with every thought. “Hence, good writing and brilliant discourse are perpetual allegories.” Natural objects are useful for helping us express particular meaning. Hence, we use images and analogies to express the qualities of a man or the consequences of an action. “An enraged man is a lion, a cunning man is a fox, a firm man is a rock, a learned man is a torch.” A lamb symbolizes innocence, a snake embodies subtle spite, and flowers express delicate affection. Emerson argues that a man’s ability to connect his thought with its proper symbol depends on his character and desire to communicate truth. Proverbs are great examples that link nature to particular meanings: a rolling stone gathers no moss, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, the last ounce broke the camel’s back.
Chapter 5, Discipline
Nature is moral; it is absolute truth. The farmer is disciplined by the rain, blight, insects, and sun. The sailor is disciplined by the rocks, waves, and storms. The merchant, miner, shepherd, and other careers follow the same trend. Words try to say what is true, but words tend to get chopped, misused, and misunderstood. Actions though are truer than words. Yet, even actions are corrupted by the imperfections of humanity. Nature is the truest reflection of God; hence the Biblical prophets embraced nature, and hence brilliant architecture reflects nature. Another discipline of nature is that it teaches us to recognize necessary differences and simultaneously to recognize the unity of everything. On the subject of differences, we must recognize that water is good for drinking, whereas gas is good for burning. We must not mix up these two functions, else we would be a fool. The fool has no scale of differences. On the subject of unity, nature teaches us to recognize that everything is related. Water, air, and fire all follow the same spatial patterns; everything is connected and part of the same creation, and man part of that creation.
Nature’s purpose is to serve. It serves man “as meekly as the donkey on which the Savior rode.” Nature offers all of its resources, raw materials, splendors, and playgrounds to man.
Chapter 6, Idealism
Every person, at one point or another, questions whether or not the things we see outwardly, including nature, are real or if they are simply constructs of our mind – imagination. Is the sun real? Is the moon real? Is this woman real? Or are they just images that some god is painting on my mind? These are valid questions, and our answers depend largely on culture. Our convictions about the external world are affected by: motion, poetry, philosophy, physical science, intellectual science, and religion. Motion: the location from which we observe nature changes with how we view it. View the same city from between your legs, from a plane, and from a train, and your appreciation will be anew with each vantage point. Poetry: with words, the poet communicates the pleasures of nature. Philosophy: the philosopher seeks truth with his words, and in the philosopher’s words, there is beauty, just like in the poet’s words. Physical science: using innumerable observations, scientists, engineers, and astronomers develop formulas to explain the world. They boast irrefragable truths. God created natural laws, and these laws are permanent. Intellectual science: although science is understood by relatively few, the divine is considered by every man. We consider the metaphysical and the existence of space and time after death. Religion: religion and ethics, although different, introduce ideas into life. Ethics originate from man. Religion originates from God. “Idealism sees the world in God.” Pop faith questions the external reality of nature. Idealism accepts nature in its most desirable form, as God’s creation, but does not necessarily attribute nature to God.
Chapter 7, Spirit
Spirit recognizes that nature, like our body, is an apparition of God. When we try to understand and describe nature, language deserts us. We do not understand nature, as much as we don’t understand God. Regarding all the plants and animals in the world, we know relatively little. This chapter concludes with an image of men working the landscape, and observes that laborers ruin the essence of nature; thus, this confirms the discord that exists between man and nature, between man and God.
Chapter 8, Prospects
The attempts by scientists to explain nature with mathematical equations and functions is a mute endeavor. Such attempts miss the fundamental purpose of nature and fail to explain the metaphysical unity of nature and man. More can be learned by dreaming about and contemplating nature than conducting thousands of scientific experiments designed to discover nature’s verities. Man and nature are inseparable; we are united with and dependent on one another.
Emerson ends with a call for men to really see the world around them. “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.” The wise turn the most mundane facts into the most beautiful poems. What is a day, what is a leaf, what is a woman, what is a child, what is sleep, what is labor, what is fear? These are universal aspects of existence. We experience the same phenomena, and live in the same world, that Adam and Caesar and all great men have. Therefore, take this world and make it your own. Here is an excellent quote to end with: “No man ever prayed heartily, without learning something.”
maugre: in spite of
connate: innate, coexisting since the beginning
sordid: morally ignoble, dirty
alembic: an obsolete apparatus used in distilling
acquiesce: to accept something reluctantly but without protest
irrefragable: cannot be refuted or disproved; indisputable
verity: a true principle or belief, especially of fundamental importance
vaticination: prediction, the act of prophesying