Ralph Waldo Emerson on Nature: Transcendentalism~
Transcendentalism is characterized by belief in individuality, simplicity, idealism, civil disobedience, intuition, spirituality, and nature’s importance (Michaud 76). In his articles on nature, Emerson seeks to enlighten people on the ways in which their focus on the historical facts and tales has hindered them from attaining of an original and personal religion and insight. This insight, he believes, can only be attained when people connect to nature (Michaud 79). Emerson equally envisions nature as one which can be categorized into four uses. These include beauty, discipline, commodity, and language (Emerson). Through these distinctions, he shows how humans make use of nature to attain their goals which include the sharing of information, attaining pleasure, and comprehension of their world (Emerson). In this paper, we show how Emerson achieves his transcendentalism goals in the essay “Nature” by portraying nature as one enabling people to gain a dualistic perspective of the world.
In the first chapter of his essay, Emerson treats the existing society in terms of nature (Barke 883). Nature, in turn, is treated in terms of that which is Supernatural. This approach enables Emerson to interpret even those items which can be experienced through the physical senses as distinct kinds of revelation. Emerson portrays the human senses as ones which are essential to explain humans’ bond with nature (Barke 883). He claims that while the vibrations or motions present in the world can be experienced through touching, smelling, hearing, seeing, and tasting, one can generalize them as pleasure or pain depending on the nature of their revelation. He further holds that facts can be understood in the light of ideas. In one such instance, he describes an illuminating experience in the woods. During the particular experience, Emerson describes feeling elevated to an infinite space and claims that the elevation stirs freedom from his selfishness (Robinson 83). He explores the transformation his vision goes through. In the precise moment, he no longer views the world in a typical manner. He is engulfed by the world around him and explores this state by describing his existence at that moment as ‘nothing’ (Emerson). He feels that he can see everything thus referring to himself as a transparent eyeball. While he views the simplest of the senses as nature’s way of revealing its mysteries, he acknowledges that these revelations are limited by our ability to experience these senses (Barke 884). For instance, the senses are characterized by confinement to various inherent restrictions. In this significant instant, one can see the unification of the spiritual and natural worlds through Emerson’s words. Emerson becomes one with nature and can only describe himself as a particle of God. This school of thought is also evident when he describes himself using the same words which he would use to explain the existence of vegetables (Emerson). In so doing he portrays freedom from the physical reality which he exists in, while he is still deeply immersed into it.
Transcendence equally emphasizes the ability to envision objects in terms of a higher dimension. Emerson’s essay builds logical operations around the customary unity-diversity pair (Barke 881). Emerson holds that it is possible to reach the heights of transcendentalism by relying on the experience attained at lower stages (Michaud 80). He views natural things as ones translating in an ascending order into the spiritual (Michaud 79). This translation is viewed to be existent in the very nature of all material. The circle is therefore only complete when one has gone through the physical into the spiritual. As such, the mind is viewed as supreme. In line with this argument, Emerson views things as ones ascending from particulars to the general. For instance, while tables and chairs can be viewed as particulars, furniture can be used as a general term applied to them. In this way, furniture becomes a higher term to refer to these items. The ascending process in Emerson’s essays is completed when the particulars are assigned generalized terms like beings or entities (Barke 881). At the highest point, the overall term is considered overly comprehensive in that it covers everything (Michaud 80). Emerson, consequently, views the world and everything existing in it as one which is understandable as an assortment of means with the intention of carrying out a single purpose (Barke 881). The purpose, according to Emerson is situated in an eventual dimension which is positioned beyond the one which people can see at any particular moment. By applying this approach in an effort to interpret the world, Emerson views it as a set of instrumentalities, which he labels commodities (Barke 882). Nature can, therefore, be explained in terms of Super Nature.
Additionally, Emerson’s attempt to view nature in terms of Super Nature presents other possibilities. It creates the need for bridges which connect both terms. This bridge, which is seen to exist between this realm and the realm beyond, is established with clarity in the chapter on discipline (Barke 884). In the aforementioned chapter, Emerson enquires, “To what end is nature?”(Emerson). The question enables him to develop the chapter making a recurrent connection between unity and diversity. Emerson views our experiential existence as one involving a variety of things. These things double as a variety of means which function to achieve one end (Barke 884). According to Barke (889), Emerson’s articulation which sees people’s daily experiences as ones with some unitary end in a realm beyond, provided the framework for transcendentalizing movements which were transformed to John Dewey’s Instrumentalism. The chapter equally contains traces of Emerson’s attempt to escape from guilt through transcendence. One such instance is in Emerson’s references to one’s separation from a friend (Barke 884). In his article, he envisions an ideal friend who, through his interaction, increases one's admiration for God’s resources. Upon the departure, the friend is no longer physical. However, the unconscious effect which was previously existent remains and it is modified into sweet and solid wisdom. This passage is, in essence, a rewording for the death of a close friend. In line with the beliefs guiding transcendence, the ultimate transformation is evident as Emerson focuses on the condition of the living and explores it in terms of those who have died (Barke 893). The world of the living is portrayed to be the world of conditions. As a result, the transcending of these conditions is equated to the world of the departed. In the same light, Emerson transforms such things as snow from their physical image to their spiritual image (Emerson). This can be seen in the way he develops his references to snow. At first, snow is referred to in a way that people would physically interact with. However, towards the end of the chapter, he views snow as a spiritual thing whose physical characteristics are attributable to its manifestation in a world of conditions. Emerson’s claim of an intangible world which is accessed through an intangible spirit realm establishes unity between religion and science (Barke 893). This is mainly due to the support which science offers to his conviction of a unified cosmos which manifests a distinct energy. Emerson therefore, held that one could not study nature’s development and processes without gaining additional insight into the supernatural laws which regulated the realms beyond, that is, the moral and spiritual realm.
Emerson similarly achieves his goals through his enlightenment on the strides which humans have taken through history in ‘Prospects,’ his final chapter (Emerson). These steps, he explains, have been intended to affirm the final supernatural oneness. In his attempt to fortify transcendence, Emerson transforms the physical world from a lifeless material into energy. This gives the world an extensive religious scope (Barke 891). Creation, as energy, is an object of perception. In this light, Emerson portrayed creation as a cycle of interactions and energies which was changing and flexible as opposed to unmovable and static. Defining creation as phenomenon enabled the writer to unify the body and the spirit through event hence revealing matter and soul in nature’s process as languages of a central evolving unity. Religion was therefore established as an enactment of idealism. Consequently, one does not have to see or understand their world. On the contrary, he called people to build their own world (Robinson 87). Emerson feels that if one builds their world they are empowered to align their life with the unadulterated idea in their mind. The aforementioned idea then leads a revolution in the spirit flood causing the things which one find disagreeable, such as prisons and snakes, to vanish (Barke 891). Evidently, Emerson views these disagreeable appearances as temporary. In his school of thought, he envisions the kingdom of man as one which has power over nature. In this regard, he views an advancing spirit as one which can not only create its own beauty but also carry this beauty and reality with it in whatever environment it visits (Emerson). In the same light, Emerson shows transcendence through his claim that the principle of unity stems from the universal spirit. He sees the universe as one having one single matter (Emerson). This matter is however multifaceted in that it appears in such forms as stars, fire, trees, water, and man. The deepest expression of the universe, according to Emerson, is the harmony in its action. As such, natural processes are viewed as versions of moral sentences.
Evidently, Emerson has attained his goal in his attempt to portray nature as one enabling people to gain a dualistic perspective of the world. This has been accomplished by applying the transformation principle in his essay, thus allowing him to build a bridge between the disparate realms in existence. Emerson, therefore, treats the things which are in existence in the perceivable realm in terms of the spirit realm beyond. In this light, the writer has explored nature as an encryption of vital laws which shape the foundation for human experience (Robinson 83). Despite their manifestation, Emerson felt that the core laws could not be explained and claimed that one had to experience them (Robinson 85). The writer also views natural things as ones translating in an ascending order into the spiritual. People’s experiences, therefore, have some unitary end in a realm beyond and nature is consequently the origin of moral discipline. Moreover, he envisions the kingdom of man as one which has power over nature. Finally, the moral sentence guiding natural processes is seen to lie at the core of nature and can be perceived in the physical materials, existing relations, and processes.
Burke, Kenneth. "I, Eye, Ay: Emerson's Early Essay on" Nature": Thoughts on the Machinery of
Transcendence." The Sewanee Review, Vol. 74, No. 4, 1966, pp. 875-895.
Emerson, Ralph. “Nature”. http://transcendentalism-
legacy.tamu.edu/authors/emerson/nature.html Accessed 9 December 2018.
Michaud, Régis. "Emerson's transcendentalism." The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 30,
No. 1, 1919, pp. 73-82.
Robinson, David. “The “New Thinking”: Nature, Self, and Society, 1836–1850.” Mr. Emerson's
Revolution, edited by Jean McClure Mudge, Open Book Publishers, 2015, pp. 80-116.
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