In the book, Emerson explains the relevance of nature to human existence. Nature helps human beings achieve spiritual growth, meet their material needs, attain aesthetic sentiment, think clearly, and achieve discipline. Each of these aspects is explained further in the subsequent chapters.
Emerson also talks about the metaphysics of nature. According to him, nature does not have absolute existence because it's not clear whether or not it's a figment of one's imagination. However, this doesn't matter to Emerson; he believes that nature in all its beauty and splendor serves a higher purpose for mankind. Emerson is of the opinion that God created nature to liberate man. To support this argument, he says that the ultimate function of nature is to lead a person back to their universal spirit.
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 matter and mind, using this link as the basis for his theory of language. According to him, language originally came from and should remain in close contact with natural images or facts. A language characterized by, or a discourse drawing heavily upon, vivid images is thus most desirable.
Because of the identification of beauty, truth, and virtue as different expressions of the Creator, the corruption of a person’s character is necessarily followed by that person’s corrupted use of language. Viewed in this light, people with strong minds who lead simple lives in the countryside cannot but have an advantage in the use of powerful language over people residing in the city, who are prone to be distracted by the material world.
After language, discipline—another use of nature at a still higher level—occurs. Following Coleridge and some of the nineteenth century German idealists, Emerson distinguishes two kinds of cognitive faculties: one, reason, which perceives the analogy that unites matter and mind,...
(The entire section is 1,229 words.)