Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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 Thoreau, 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, have had a tremendous influence on subsequent writers and thinkers.
Nature is an essay by Emerson that stresses the importance of solitude in creating the conditions necessary for one to enrich both their empirical and intuitive understanding of the universe. In his view, physical isolation in the natural world helps people see past the faulty assumptions that they’ve acquired from years of socialization, many of which obscure or even hide the transcendent powers of Nature. Humans often take Nature for granted and neglect their relationship with it. As a consequence, they are unable to recognize the presence of the divine that can be found in their natural surroundings.
To argue for the benefit and wisdom that can be gleaned by interacting with Nature, Emerson uses many simple but powerful and concrete metaphors to connect to his audience. For example, he uses the metaphor of a transparent eyeball to show that when one beholds an instance of beauty in the natural world, “all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” This metaphor helps illustrate how a subject both sees and becomes part of their surroundings all at once, obliterating their sense of self while also being joined with a power greater than themselves. In these moments, one comes closer to God and achieves unity with this divine source, merging with it. However, Emerson uses these metaphors with a slight degree of irony, qualifying that they are merely tools for perceiving Nature and do not actually penetrate Nature in its whole form. Only experiencing Nature directly can provide those deeper insights.
Emerson’s mind tends toward unification rather than diversification. Thus, Emerson is of the view that all of Nature is one great, integrated whole, rather than a set of discrete objects that one consciously perceives. He argues that reaching this understanding of unity is necessary to obtain a state of peace. Following that logic, he ends the essay with an exhortation to prioritize individual reflection while seeking solitude in Nature by referring back to the imagery of the eye: “So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes.”
According to Emerson, one’s personal pursuit of wisdom and enlightenment should be a higher priority than theorizing and historicizing knowledge. This belief is at the core of the philosophy of transcendentalism. As a transcendentalist, Emerson believes that acquiring knowledge from books, education, and social exchange is useful but can be limiting. Rather, people must seek a higher form of wisdom and spiritual growth (as opposed to merely intellectual growth) through their own natural faculties. When one immerses oneself in Nature, one can perceive the immanence of a natural God that is in a constant state of renewal.