48 pages 1 hour read

Ralph Waldo Emerson


Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1836

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Summary: “Nature”

“Nature” is an 1836 essay by the American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Philosophical in scope, it lays out the tenets of Emerson’s ideas about Transcendentalism, a movement that promoted the virtues of the natural world and the individual and regarded society and organized religion as corrupting forces.

In the Introduction, Emerson complains that his age is “retrospective” in its reverence for the teaching and philosophy of the past (15). His generation ought to have “an original relation to the universe” because this point in history is as good a time as any for gaining insight into the wonders of God’s creation (15). Organized religion, he argues, has done little to further man’s understanding of the truth behind creation. When a “true theory” emerges, it will not need to be mediated through a sacred text or pastor; rather, “it will be its own evidence” (15).

Emerson considers that the universe is composed of nature and the soul. He defines nature as “essences unchanged by man” (16), such as space and trees, which render the works of man insignificant by comparison.

In Chapter 1, “Nature,” Emerson argues that to find true solitude, man must go outdoors and contemplate the vastness of nature until he is awestruck. Nature is egalitarian, as it does not discriminate based on education or riches. The landscape belongs to no one, regardless of people’s property rights. The variety found in nature corresponds to the shifting moods of man, and nature is therefore his fitting companion in good and inclement weather alike.

Man can be restored to a greater sense of self through a contemplation of nature and can even get closer to God. In this state of transcendence, “all mean egotism vanishes” as man becomes “a transparent eye-ball” who is nothing and yet sees all (18).

In Chapter 2, “Commodity,” Emerson explains that commodity is one of the uses of nature. Nature is man’s “provision,” being “at once his floor, his work-yard, his play-ground, his garden, and his bed” (20). Emerson observes how in his lifetime, which overlapped with the Industrial Revolution, man has harnessed nature to achieve unparalleled technological advancement.

In Chapter 3, “Beauty,” Emerson draws attention to the fact that in ancient Greek, the word for the world—cosmos—is synonymous with beauty. Beauty is thus “the constitution of all things” (22), and all natural things “give us a delight in and for themselves; a pleasure arising from outline, color, motion, and grouping” (22). However, the presence of “a spiritual element” is necessary to avoid lapsing into sensualism, as Emerson considers beauty the external “mark God sets upon virtue” (24). Another application of beauty is the intellect, which “searches out the absolute order of things as they stand in the mind of God, and without the colors of affectation” (26). He argues that this process leads to the making of art, as “the beauty of nature reforms itself in the mind […] for new creation” (26).

In Chapter 4, “Language,” Emerson regards words as “signs of natural facts” and that “every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance” (28). For example, the word “wrong means twisted,” while “supercilious” suggests “the raising of the eyebrow” (28). On a further level, “every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact” as “every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of mind” (28). Emerson places man, the maker of language, “in the center of beings” because he is responsible for making meaning (29). Crucially, man and other natural beings have an interdependent relationship, as neither can be understood without the other.

Emerson argues that corruption in men is closely followed by corruption in language, as “secondary desires” such as those for riches or pleasure get in the way of truth, and “old words are perverted to stand for things which are not” (30). He considers that rural poets are less likely to lose the truth of their relationship to nature than those in cities, who stand to be corrupted by crowds and politicians. He thinks that living in harmony with nature, and the subsequent love of truth and virtue, will enable man to better understand the origins of creation (33).

In Chapter 5, “Discipline,” Emerson considers that nature is a discipline, and through it, man can gain a sense of order or hierarchy, as nature is full of examples of how “things are not huddled and lumped, but sundered and individual” (35). Nature can be a moral influence on man because it teaches him truths about the limits and substance of things. A wise individual is as discerning as nature in their judgment of the relative merits of things.

There is a unity in the variety of nature, as harmonies and motifs are repeated in its different elements. Man is the most ordered being in all of Creation; however, every human specimen evinces some flaw or injury. Actions are more capable than words of communicating the “central Unity” of things; they are “the perfection and publication of thought,” while words “break, chop, and impoverish” (39).

In Chapter 6, “Idealism,” Emerson addresses the notion put forth by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato that the perceptual world of nature is a mere shadow of the eternal truthful realm of God and ideas. Emerson concludes that this line of questioning is immaterial: As humans are powerless to test the accuracy of their senses, nature, “be what it may, is ideal to me” (41). However, while man exists entirely within natural laws, “the question of the absolute existence of nature still remains open” (41).

Human reason helps to give the material of nature expression and meaning. Poets can utilize natural motifs to express their thoughts as ideas, as their work becomes “the use which Reason makes of the material world” (43). Arguably, the poet only differs from the philosopher in that he seeks beauty before truth, as both subordinate “the apparent order and relations of things to the empire of thought” and seek constants within the shifting scenes of human experience (45). This search for truth behind the shifting scenes of reality enables men to live without the fear of worldly misfortune, as all worldly problems begin to appear transient to him.

While children begin their lives centered in nature and the truth of the perceptual world, as their reason grows, they stand to live more for the mind and the eternal states within it. For Emerson idealism sees the universe as a unified “picture, which God paints on the instant eternity, for the contemplation of the soul” (48). The universal soul can transcend disputes of mankind, especially ecclesiastical ones.

In Chapter 7, “Spirit,” Emerson contends that all the functions of nature can be grouped in the category of spirit, which speaks of God and origins. Spirit is a “perpetual effect,” like “a great shadow pointing always to the sun behind us” (50). Without this religious element, idealism “leaves God out of me. It leaves me in the splendid labyrinth of my perceptions, to wander without end” (50).

Rather than building nature around humanity, God “puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old” (51). A man can rely on God just as a plant can rely upon the earth. Through nature, man has access to the mind of the creator and so can become a miniature version of a creator himself.

Man can measure his virtue or degeneration according to how harmoniously he lives with nature, as “we are as much strangers in nature as we are aliens from God” (52). This is because every landscape bears evidence of God and his creative power.

In Chapter 8, “Prospects,” Emerson laments that the empirical sciences are so concerned with the observation and mastery of particular aspects of nature that they lose sight of the whole picture. Instead, the optimal naturalist would see that empiricism is limited, and that the truth of his relationship to the world “is not to be learned by any addition or subtraction or other comparison of known quantities, but is arrived at by untaught sallies of the spirit, by a continual self-recovery, and by entire humility” (53). The optimal naturalist focuses on wholes over parts, and spirit over matter.

Emerson quotes Plato when he says that “poetry,” with its contemplation of wholes and universals, “comes nearer to vital truth than history” (55), which studies mankind piecemeal. Emerson considers that man’s present relationship to nature, which is mainly utilitarian, is an impoverished one.

A “redemption of the soul” (57), and a restoration of man’s wholeness, will enable him to perceive a complete vision of nature and himself reflected in it. Importantly, “he cannot be a naturalist, until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit” (57). Then all the natural commonplaces that man takes for granted will be restored to him as wonders, as he looks “at the world with new eyes” (57). Emerson ends with a long quotation from the man he calls his Orphic poet—this was Amos Bronson Alcott, a fellow Transcendentalist and friend of Emerson’s—that posits that “nature is not fixed but fluid” and subject to the alterations and molding of spirit (58).