Nature Summary

Nature is an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson in which Emerson outlines his beliefs regarding the relationship between humankind and nature.

  • Emerson begins by asserting that humans need to develop their own sense of self and their own beliefs. He believes that solitary reflection within nature is the best way to accomplish this.
  • Emerson outlines the four ways that humans can benefit from nature: nature as commodity sustains life; nature as beauty provides inspiration and sensual awareness; nature as language suggests that words are imperfect descriptors; and nature as discipline allows people to find self-fulfillment.

Summary

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

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. These are the two categories of existence. The Soul is the self, and Nature (as a proper noun) distinguishes everything else. Within Nature, there are several subsets of non-human categories. These include other people, our own bodies, and art. 

Emerson famously championed alone time spent in nature. During this intentional time with the natural world, with the help of a curious and open mind, Emerson shares that people are able to come into contact with the Divine. They are more able to see the interconnectedness of Nature. When we see these pieces connected to one another, we understand a more holistic view of the world (and all its elements). One example given is the coexistence of many farms: each farm houses different people, and each of these people has an individual story. Yet, importantly, all of these farms contribute to the landscape as a whole. Nature is not about all the separate pieces but about how they work together to form a greater whole.

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. Beauty involves the creation of art, which is either nature itself or the human expression of it. From Beauty, creativity and intelligence are spawned. 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. Emerson points out that nothing can really be proven as real. 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. When humans recognize their larger, more profound purpose in Nature, this divinity follows closely behind.

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