In Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature, what does he mean by the line, “The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and heart of the child?”

In Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature, what he means by the line “The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and heart of the child” is that men only see nature as an object, whereas the child has a deep spiritual connection to it.

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What Emerson is seeking to highlight in these lines is what he regards as a difference in attitude towards the natural world between adults and children. On this reading, too many adults look at nature and see it as an object, something to be controlled, tamed, and exploited for the benefit of humankind.

There's no sense among contemporary humanity that nature is a powerful spiritual force in its own right, something with which we as humans can develop a close bond. Indeed, for a pantheist like Emerson, humans are an intrinsic part of nature; there is no meaningful separation between ourselves and the natural world we inhabit.

But all too often we no longer feel this. We separate ourselves from nature to the extent that though we might see the world around us, we no longer feel it. And yet the child is different; she feels nature deep inside her heart and in her soul. She doesn't just see the sun, she sees—and feels—what it illuminates.

Children are inherently curious about the world around them, but they invariably lose that curiosity as they get older. Part of Emerson's reason for writing Nature is to summon adults back to a sense of childlike wonder in beholding the joys of nature that surround them.

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Emerson feels that, as we age, we gradually begin to truly see less and less. It is not the case that we cannot physically see what is around us, we simply lose sight of what things are really important; we may get caught up in materialism, our jobs, or our other responsibilities. He says,

To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.

Thus, when we become adults, we forget to stop and smell the roses, to use a common expression. The sun is there and while we see it with our eyes, we fail to see it with our hearts. The child, who has not yet learned to ignore and forget, is still affected by nature in the way we are meant to be; nature is God's direct creation as are we. The adult who truly appreciates nature has retained something of the child within him.

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Unsurprising given Ralph Waldo Emerson's influence on his equally famous one-time acolyte, Henry David Thoreau, the elder philosopher and writer viewed man's relationship to his surroundings through a spiritual prism consistent with his training as a minister and with his personal inclinations towards naturalism and transcendentalism. The importance of Emerson's work, especially his treatise Nature, cannot be overstated, given the influence he had not just on Thoreau, but on such luminaries of American literature as Melville, Whitman, Dickinson, and others. When examining Emerson's reflections on "nature," then, one needs to remain committed to the author's relationship to his subject.  When he wrote that "The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and heart of the child," he is stating that the source of life on Earth should not be viewed through the cold pragmatism of the scientist alone, but also through the lens of creationism. [This comment is not meant as a refutation of evolution, but as an affirmation, in the eyes of this theologically-trained minister of the presence of a divine being responsible for the beauty that surrounds us.] Reflect, for a moment, on the passage that follows the above quote:

"The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows."

The Earth is a gift given to man, but one the relationship to which is symbiotic.  The natural characteristics of the planet should play an integral role in the emotional and intellectual development of humanity.  The Sun exists not just as a source of light in contrast to darkness, but as a source of spiritual fulfillment that enlightens as well as lightens. Emerson's reference to "heaven and earth" is not accidental or intended as poetic; that was not the purpose of Nature, which he had published anonymously out of concern for the emotional reactions it could evoke. Presaging the modern environmental movement, Emerson believed deeply in the equanimity of life on Earth, that one species of living being is spiritually as well as practically connected to another. As he also wrote in this seminal work,

"The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged." 

This father of the modern environmental movement understood the fragility of the relationship of man to the environment, and viewed the latter as every bit as important as the former.

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