Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Nature, by Ralph Waldo Emerson: Transcendentalism at the core of American Identity

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Category: Book Reviews
Published: 09 November 2008
Written by Bénédicte Leude

rwemersonRalph Waldo Emerson was born in 1803 and died in 1882. At the age of eight, he became fatherless. After an austere youth and studies at Harvard, he first became an Unitarian minister in Boston before evolving into the famous essayist, poet (he said: « I am born a poet, of a low class without doubt, yet a poet. That is my nature and vocation. ») and popular philosopher that we know.

After marrying Lydia Jackson in 1835, he settled in Concord near Boston. The year 1836 was marked by the publication of his essay on Nature. He was thus to be greeted by the young generation who saw in him the new mentor of America. Thoreau was his neighbor and disciple, and became during his life a living illustration of the principles advocated by Emerson, particularly through his book Walden.

In 1837, “The American scholar” is a speech in favour of the defense of a real American culture which, according to James Russell Lowell, “cut off the cable which linked America to British thought”.

He not only remains as the “philosopher of optimism” of the 19th century, but also as a champion of feeling for nature. He was inspired by Romanticism, Neo-Platonism, Kantianism, and Hinduism, and developed an “existentialist” ethics of self-improvement. His essay “Self-Confidence” provided the basis of a new identity for America.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were contemporaries and friends. They both belonged to the current of Transcendentalism, which defends the immanence of the All in each element, even the minutest, and within oneself. It is linked not only to German romanticism and idealism but also to the great Asian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism). It is not transcendence by means of the supernatural, but an inner transcendence. It consists in a transformation of the interiority by a mystical or poetical experience, by an experience of being one with nature. The individual and his action are seen as the essential factors in morals and politics, in science, and even in religion, where rituals are not considered to be as important as the inner experience and as outward behavior.

Transcendentalism was born close to the Unitarian church, mainly established in New England. The Unitarians contest the Trinity (God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit) which is not present in the Bible and insist on the human nature of Jesus. They also advocate self-discipline in daily life. The commitment of the believer has to lead to action: against poverty, ignorance, slavery or alcoholism. It is a humanistic and social religion.

William Ellery CHANNING, Likeness to God, 1828: «How much of God may be seen in the structure of a simple leaf, which, though so frail as to tremble in every wind, yet holds connexions and living communications with the earth, the air, the clouds, and the distant sun, and through these sympathies with the universe, is itself a revelation of an omnipotent mind! God delights to diffuse himself everywhere ».

Transcendentalism does not recognize either the Trinity or God as a person. God is deemed to be closer to the Atman (Hindu conception), the universal soul or spirit, which is beyond human personality.

nature Nature: Emerson first sought an answer to the question of the place of man in a “science” of nature. His essay, Nature, was published in 1836, and is the main text by Emerson and about transcendantalism. It  is divided into 8 parts.

1.      Nature: it is an experience of solitude. He first notes that when one wants to be alone, one can look at the stars because they inspire a feeling of respect, because they remain inaccessible. He adds: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!” All the objects in nature entail such an impression of wisdom, happiness and simplicity.

Emerson insists on the importance of this link between man and nature. He says: “His intercourse with heaven and earth becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows.” This power of ecstasy is not due only to nature, but to the human, to the harmony between the two. In fact, on contact with nature, we become an integral part of God.

Finally, Emerson adds that we have to use the pleasure of nature with some moderation because “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit“.

2. Commodity: Nature is perfectly fitted for human beings, as Emerson said: “All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man”.

Emerson seems to have an idyllic vision of nature as something which is alive and surrounds men and which is at their service. However, his vision does not reject industry as being in contradiction with nature: for him, both are complementary.

3. Beauty: he divides the latter into three elements: first, beauty as a pleasure in perceiving natural forms, as a relief for men. Then, beauty as “the mark God sets upon virtue“. Concerning this aspect, he provides a really romantic explanation of the phenomenon, when he says, for instance, that he sees beauty and virtue “when Leonidas and his three hundred martyrs consume one day in dying, and the sun and moon come each and look at them once in the steep defile of Thermopylae“. To conclude, he considers beauty as an object of the intellect, saying for instance that “The production of a work of art throws a light upon the mystery of humanity“.

His conceptions of values are really close to those of the Greeks: for him Truth, Goodness and Beauty are the same thing (“Truth, and goodness, and beauty, are but different faces of the same All“), as they are for Plato.

4.  Language: for Emerson, “Language is a third use which Nature subserves to man“. First, he notes that words are signs of natural facts. For instance, “Right means straight; wrong means twisted. Spirit primarily means wind; transgression, the crossing of a line”. Then, he realizes the existence of a universal symbolism, when he says: “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact“. This can be compared to the symbolism in poetry, like that of Paul Verlaine, when the latter writes, for instance “your soul is a selected landscape” [votre âme est un paysage choisi, Fêtes Galantes].

5. Discipline: Every material event is a lesson which the soul has to take as a spiritual lesson. Discipline can be defined as a capacity to make one’s actions dependent on some key principles. We can take the example of the ploughman: his activity is always linked to nature, to the season. The ploughman has to follow the constancy of nature as a discipline to achieve his work. Actually, men have to be inspired by nature in their moral being and follow nature’s principles, like resistance or inertia.

Another important idea in this chapter is the pragmatism demanded by Emerson: his idealism is a practical idealism when he says: “good thoughts are no better than good dreams, unless they be executed“. We can compare his thought with that of the 20th century German thinker and sociologist Mannheim: a utopia only exists if it is implemented.

To conclude, in this chapter, he opposes the philosophy of the Ancients when he says: “Nature is thoroughly mediate. It is made to serve. It receives the dominion of man as meekly as the ass on which the Saviour rode. It offers all its kingdoms to man as the raw material which he may mould into what is useful“. Whereas the Ancients considered man as one element among others in the Cosmos, Emerson is also heir to the galileo-cartesian revolution in which man stopped considering himself as an element like any other in nature, but as the master and owner of it (Descartes). Like Bacon, Emerson thinks that we have to question nature to make it confess its secrets.

6. Idealism: Emerson is opposed to a Christian vision of nature. In Genesis, after the fall of Adam and Eve from Eden, God says “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field”. Adam will have to work to harvest the fruits of the soil. On the contrary, Emerson does not consider nature as miserly or cursed, but in the service of man.

7. Spirit: The essential for man is to recognize the Spirit in nature.

8. Prospects: Emerson concludes his essay by offering to build man’s spirituality by a new vision of nature.

We may observe that the US was the first country to open National Parks to preserve nature. This is characteristic of an essentially American vision of the subject. Indeed, the first American settlers were confronted with a virgin space, a nature in a state of wildness. This also represents an important value in Americans thoughout this period.

Emerson raises a really current issue when he refers to the benefits of nature on the human soul, when he explains that nature helps to free us from daily worries. For instance, in the chapter about Beauty, he says: “The tradesman, the attorney comes out of the din and craft of the street, and sees the sky and the woods, and is a man again. In their eternal calm, he finds himself (…)We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough”. But, in cities today, everybody is not able to “see far enough”, to be in contact with nature: trees are sparse, forests even more and sometimes, even the sky is not accessible because of pollution. In the chapter Language, he says that the life of cities is artificial and curtailed. In the chapter about nature, he writes that “In the woods, we return to reason and faith. (…)Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes“, he raises a real problem: are people who do not have access to nature condemned never to return to reason, nor escape mean egotism?

When studying Thoreau’s philosophy of Nature and Transcendentalism, it could be interesting to emphasize the influence of Emerson’s work on the definition of an American identity. In his essay Experience, he asks “Where do we find ourselves?” and an answer might be that the American philosophy is based on the concept of the “common”. Indeed, the independence of American thought requested by Emerson is a claiming of the common. In The American Scholar, he specifies: “I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provençal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds». This demand for the popular, the common is built in opposition with the elitism of European culture. It is not an answer to the problem of knowledge, but a means to re-think the question of the relationship with the world. According to Emerson, America has the capacity to re-invent tragedy, as it can re-invent Kantian philosophy, following its own forms.

Emerson also claims for the pursuit of a better me, an improvement of the self, as in Plato’s philosophy, but with the new idea of an improvement, a change, in daily life, by the intelligibility of the daily, the common, the concrete. He insists on the fact that perceptions are more reliable than thoughts: there exists a world of thinking as in the cavern of Plato, but the only world where I can change things is the common world. Here lies the optimism of Emerson.

In Emerson’s philosophy, the original America does not exist and never existed, and Americans are finally not settlers but migrants (Thoreau says in Walden: « I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there »). Emerson and Thoreau are not philosophers of the American identity, but of migration. Indeed, today, the process of migration is really better accepted in the United States than in Europe, for instance. American people do not hesitate to move from one end of the United States to the other for their work or to start a new job.

Emerson refuses philanthropy, not from an egoistic point of view, but because he considers that “a charitable dollar is a mean dollar”, because it is given to a person in a context of inequality, thus maintaining the latter in a state of inferiority. He refuses a society where giving alms is a necessity. As we have seen in the chapter concerning discipline, Emerson defends a practical idealism, and so is against charity and in favor of social action.

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