Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American scholar, writer, and philosopher who became a pivotal figure of American Romanticism and of the transcendentalism movement, both of which flourished in the mid-nineteenth century. Much as Romanticism favored the experience of the individual artist, transcendentalism encouraged people to realize their full potential and learn the mysteries of the universe on their own, without the corrupting influence of modern society. Emerson strongly advocated for these ideals through his writing and public lectures. Living in Concord, Massachusetts, he was a major source of influence for other famous writers in the area, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoureau, and Louisa May Alcott. In 1836, he published Nature, one of his most iconic essays, which espoused transcendental philosophy. This essay, and the rest of Emerson’s work, has had a tremendous influence on subsequent writers and thinkers.
In the introduction to Nature, Emerson argues that people of his era must move beyond retrospection and create their own views of the world around them instead. For this reason, he advocates for a reevaluation of how human beings interact with Nature, particularly the relationship between Nature and the soul. As Emerson sees it, people’s natural surroundings can not only meet their material needs but also help them realize Nature’s aesthetic value, achieve spiritual growth, think more clearly, and attain self-discipline.
Emerson labels these respective uses for Nature as Commodity, Beauty, Language, and Discipline. He explains each of these dimensions in greater detail in the ensuing chapters. As Commodity, Nature provides for the health and well-being of all people, being “the only use of Nature which all men apprehend.” With Beauty, Emerson believes that Nature contains sights and sensations that are pleasing to both the eye and the human spirit, which are instances of Beauty that life in a city cannot provide. Even with Language, he claims that “Nature is the symbol of spirit,” meaning that even if words are merely representations of physical objects, those same objects signify spiritual realities that can only be fully comprehended in these objects’ actual presence. Finally, people can acquire discipline and personal fulfillment by interacting with Nature. They can do this by working the land, studying their natural surroundings, and learning to become one with their spiritual essence.
Overall, Emerson uses this essay to explore the metaphysics of Nature. As he understands it, Nature does not have absolute existence, because it may merely be a figment of humankind’s imagination. However, this ambiguity doesn’t matter to Emerson. He believes that Nature, in all its beauty and splendor, serves a higher purpose for mankind because God created Nature to liberate man. In other words, the ultimate function of Nature is to lead people back to their divine source.
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...
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