Study Guide


by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Nature Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Composed of an introduction and eight chapters, Nature, Emerson’s first book, contains all the fundamental ideas that were to be developed at length later in his life. The dominant theme of this work—the harmony between humans and nature—also became the theoretical basis of many literary works composed after it in the nineteenth century United States.

The treatise begins with a criticism of reliance on the past and a suggestion to depend on oneself to explore this world. In explaining the justification for self-trust, Emerson espouses a dualistic view of the universe, which, according to him, is divided into two parts: one, the self which represents the soul, the other, the exterior world, which he terms nature, the latter being subordinated to the former. Perfect correspondence, in his view, exists between these two parts, a link which makes one’s communication with the outside world possible. To him, nature is all benevolence; community, by contrast, often signifies waywardness.

In communicating with nature, he believes, one is able to purge oneself of all cares and eventually achieve a mystical union with the universe. Apart from spiritual nourishment, nature provides an individual’s material needs. At higher levels, it further fulfills one’s aesthetic sentiment, serves as the vehicle of thought, and disciplines one’s mind. Under the heading “Beauty,” which constitutes the third chapter, a theory of aesthetics is advanced. Emerson distinguishes three kinds of beauty in nature: the beauty of exterior forms, which is the lowest kind; spiritual beauty, with virtue as its essence; and the intellectual beauty characterized by a search for the absolute order of things.

Characteristic of Emerson, unity can be found among these three kinds of beauty, which, at the ultimate level, are but different expressions of the same essence: “God is the all-fair. Truth, and goodness, and beauty, are but different faces of the same All.” The equation of beauty, truth, and virtue is typical of Romantic aesthetics.

In discussing the use of nature as the vehicle of thought, Emerson further illustrates the correspondence between nature and soul, and...

(The entire section is 902 words.)

Nature Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981.

Bosco, Ronald A., and Joel Myerson, eds. Emerson in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003.

Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

Goodman, Russell B. American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Jacobson, David. Emerson’s Pragmatic Vision: The Dance of the Eye. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Lopez, Michael. Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996.

Myerson, Joel, ed. A Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Porte, Joel, and Saundra Morris, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Robinson, David M. Emerson and the Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Sacks, Kenneth S. Understanding Emerson: “The American Scholar” and His Struggle for Self-Reliance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Yanella, Donald. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Twayne, 1982.