English Literature


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The Enigmatic Book that Ignited America's First Intellectual Revolution

In the year 1836, a self-published book emerged into the literary scene, earning immense critical acclaim and sparking the Transcendentalism movement in America. This book, titled 'Nature', delves into the intricate relationship between humanity and nature, exploring its significance and purpose in our lives.

The Anonymous Author Behind 'Nature'

The author of this book was later revealed to be Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), then a relatively unknown 33-year-old. After leaving his job as a minister, Emerson had returned from his travels in Europe, remarried, and established himself in Concord, a suburb of Boston.

Emerson would go on to become a renowned lecturer, essayist, poet, and one of the pioneers of Transcendentalism. 'Nature' provided a platform for Emerson to introduce his philosophical ideas, which would go on to influence future generations of writers and intellectuals.

The Genesis of Transcendentalism

With its emphasis on the importance of nature, 'Nature' laid the foundation for the 19th-century intellectual movement known as Transcendentalism. This sparked the interest of a group of writers and intellectuals, including Bronson Alcott, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Theodore Parker, Orestes Brownson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau, who would often gather at Emerson's home in Concord. While they may have not shared all of Emerson's beliefs, they all recognized the inherent value of nature.

The Key Message of 'Nature'

Although 'Nature' is a complex and layered essay, its main message is simple: immerse yourself in nature. Emerson urges readers to lose themselves in the natural world and become "transparent eye-balls" in order to truly comprehend the world. Essentially, according to Emerson, nature is the key to understanding everything.

The Core Ideas and Overview of 'Nature'

'Nature' is a lengthy essay that delves into various philosophical, religious, and literary concepts throughout history. Emerson presents his definition of nature and its four purposes in relation to humanity: as a commodity, a source of beauty and language, and a subject of study. He then expands this definition to philosophy and theology, highlighting how understanding nature can provide insight into ourselves, our history, and our place in the world.

The Introduction: A Society Fixated on the Past

Emerson begins by pointing out that our society is "retrospective" and often fixated on the past. He questions why we believe that there can be no great prophets, poets, or philosophers in the present day and suggests looking to nature as a bridge between the past and the present. By understanding the purpose of nature, we can gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in history.

Chapter I: Exploring the Wonders of Nature

Just like the stars in the night sky that seem close, yet out of reach, nature also surrounds us everywhere but often feels distant and unattainable. We may even overlook it, seeing fields as mere property or forests as a potential source of lumber. Emerson suggests that to truly appreciate the essence of nature, we must view it with the "eye and heart of a child". This can be achieved by escaping to the woods, where, as Emerson famously said, we can stand "as a transparent eye-ball" and lose our sense of self.

Through this experience, we can see ourselves as an integral part of the natural world, rather than separate from it. Nature allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the world and our place within it.

The Purposes of Nature According to Emerson

Nature has been a subject of fascination and contemplation for humanity since the beginning of time. In his work, "Nature," Ralph Waldo Emerson explores the various ways in which humans interact and engage with the natural world. He challenges the notion that humans are separate from nature and instead presents four distinct "ends" or purposes that nature serves.

Chapter II. Commodity

The first purpose that Emerson identifies is the use of nature for commodity. This refers to the utilization of natural resources to meet human physical needs and desires. This can be seen in everyday activities such as using rocks and trees to construct buildings or consuming plants and animals for sustenance.

According to Emerson, the purpose of nature is not just for humans to survive and thrive, but also to serve as a source of inspiration and guidance. In Chapter III of his book, he discusses the three purposes of nature in relation to beauty. These include the simple pleasure we experience when observing the natural world, the harmonization between nature and human intentions, and the inspiration for human art.

Emerson also delves into the role of nature in language in Chapter IV. He believes that nature provides us with the "signs" or words that have roots in natural observations, and that we often use analogies from nature to describe human psychological states. Furthermore, he argues that nature influences our ideas of right and wrong, as seen in popular idioms and various teachings of philosophies and religions.

Emerson's exploration of nature's purposes challenges the belief that humans are separate from their environment. In fact, he argues that nature serves as a teacher for practical, intellectual, and moral truths. By carefully observing and understanding nature, we can gain a greater appreciation for our connection with the natural world.

Emerson's Concept of Discipline and Its Relation to Nature

In his discussion of discipline, Emerson refers to an academic or intellectual discipline. He believes that nature provides a comprehensive course of study for practical, intellectual, and moral truths, encompassing the purposes of commodity, beauty, and language. By closely observing nature, we can learn valuable lessons in difference, likeness, order, and progression, highlighting the interconnectedness between ourselves and our surroundings.

Emerson also argues that morality is deeply rooted in nature, and that the moral law is present in all aspects of the natural world. By recognizing the unity and diversity of nature, we can gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and our surroundings. This understanding can be expressed through language and actions, and Emerson also notes the significance of the human form in nature.

Emerson's Perspective on Idealism and Realism

In connecting his theory of nature to the philosophical debate between idealism and realism, Emerson challenges the idea that our knowledge is limited to our ideas about things. He believes that nature provides a vast source of knowledge and experience, and that our understanding of the world is not limited to consciousness or ideas alone. By embracing the interconnectedness of nature and humanity, we can gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

Understanding the Nature of Reality: Emerson's Perspective

The question of whether reality is objective or subjective has long been a topic of debate. While realism argues for an external world beyond our perception, Emerson presents the idea of idealism - that everything exists in the mind of a Supreme Being. In his philosophy, nature plays a central role in understanding the universe and ourselves.

Chapter VII. The Concept of Spirit

To Emerson, nature is both useful and sacred, and its stability and permanence are evident in our daily lives. He believes that a "spirit" or a Higher Power is the driving force behind the creation and continued existence of all things. As individuals, we have a piece of this spirit within us, but we can only understand it through our connection to nature.

Chapter VIII. The Power of Nature

Emerson emphasizes the importance of paying attention to our dreams, intuitions, and observations of nature. He encourages us to break away from societal norms and see ourselves as intertwined with nature and its history. By understanding nature, we can better understand our place in the universe and build a better world.

The Three Branches of Philosophy

According to Emerson, metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics are interconnected through nature. Our minds work in harmony with nature, and it is through nature that we gain knowledge of ourselves and the world. As an idealist, Emerson sees everything as existing in the mind of a Higher Being.

The Lessons of Nature

While the debate between realism and idealism may continue, Emerson believes that there is much to be learned from nature - the interconnectedness of all things. By embracing the lessons of patience and discipline from nature, we can find inner peace and harmony within ourselves and our surroundings. As Emerson wisely said, "Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience."

At the core of his beliefs, Emerson's philosophy centers on ethics - the study of what is right, wrong, good, and bad. He firmly believes that nature is the key to comprehending these moral concepts, as every aspect of the natural world holds valuable lessons for us to learn. This philosophy is closely connected to his views on epistemology and metaphysics, as he sees nature, God, and humanity as an interconnected unity, where goodness, virtue, and righteousness are inherent.

Throughout history, various religions and philosophies have strived to uncover ethical truths within nature. Emerson's philosophy echoes this pursuit, as he views all existence as unified. This means that the answers to fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, and morality can be found within nature itself.

The Influence of Nature on Emerson's Career

In 1836, Emerson published his first major work, Nature, which introduced ideas that he would continue to develop throughout his career. This publication attracted like-minded individuals to Emerson's circle, eventually forming the Transcendentalism movement.

In Nature, Emerson questions why society is so preoccupied with the past instead of living in the present. He suggests that understanding nature can break this unhealthy cycle and highlights the difficulty humans face in truly observing and comprehending nature. He famously encourages us to become "transparent eyeballs," losing our sense of self and immersing ourselves in nature.

Emerson identifies four purposes of nature: providing commodities, beauty, language, and discipline. He advocates for philosophical idealism and unity, while also acknowledging the importance of the individual.

The Significance of Nature in Emerson's Philosophy

Emerson concludes his work by emphasizing the value of understanding our place in nature and not undervaluing our daily lives. He urges us not to compare ourselves to historical figures like Adam or Caesar but to appreciate the interconnectedness of all existence.

In conclusion, nature occupies a central position in Emerson's philosophy. It is the key to understanding ourselves and the world, offering moral guidance and inspiration for achieving greatness. Emerson's insights on nature continue to influence philosophical and literary thought to this day.

  • Baym, N. (2007). The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B 1820-1865

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