An Introduction to Nature

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"The best way to get at Emerson is to come at him all at once, in the ninety-five pages of his little book called Nature, issued anonymously in 1836, which contains the compressed totality of all that he would subsequently patiently reveal. Revelation rather than logic was the instrument used by Emerson to delve toward truth. It was not his intention to create a philosophy or to codify thought. He distrusted logical arguments as man-made, and therefore inadequate because they are imperfect as man is imperfect. Neither philosopher nor conventional moralist, Emerson, it cannot be said too often, was first and last an artist who attempted to create a vision of the world and man's place in it. What is the world? What is nature which lies all about us? What is the refulgent beauty of nature that draws man out of himself, to quietness and calm, or to resolution? What are the mysteries of nature that inspired men resolve by conquering time or space through the discovery of such things as the telegraph, or the harnessing of waterpower and steam, or rocketing to the moon?

Not a philosopher, Emerson presented himself simply as a person who related what he had experienced, he revealed the world as it was revealed to him as he tried to see it fresh. He wrote as a realist writes. He had been there. He had seen. He knew. His essays, then, are not to be read as logical demonstrations, but as revelations. What truth is in them is not explicit, but implicit. They are to be read, that is to say, as poetry is read, not so much for what they say as for what they suggest of what cannot be said.

His sentences shimmer with meanings beyond logical expression. The essay Nature, for example, has been described as not so much directly addressing the mind as using the 'indirections of Nature itself upon the soul; the sunrise, the haze of autumn, the winter starlight seem interlocutors; the prevailing sense is that of an exposition in poetry; a high discourse, the voice of the speaker seems to breathe as much from the landscape as from his own breast; it is Nature communing with the seer.'

There are three underlying ideas or postulates in this little book, but they are all-embracing. None of them is new with Emerson. He simply as artist expressed them better than many who had spoken them before. The first is the primacy of the soul, which is divine and identical in all men, a spark of eternity, presenting immediate access to all knowledge. It is the God, the all-prevailing spirit with is in all men....Emerson in Nature points to discipline as one of nature's great services to man. For all of what seems his attractive invitations to anarchy, Emerson continually pulls us up short, with insistence on man's responsibility, not only to eternity, but to his own time, on man's responsibility not only to himself, but to what is temporal also. Nature, he tells us, is everything which is not Me. The external world which is useful and beautiful, which makes it possible for us to create language and necessary for us to submit in discipline to its laws, which contains everything which we can hear, taste, touch, or smell or see, which includes our own bodies, flesh, blood, bone, and brain--this is nature. All besides is spirit, and it is this which all men share. What is our duty toward nature--what our duty to ourselves?

The second idea in the little book concerns the sufficiency of nature. Nature is the gigantic shadow of God cast on the senses. Nature is the image, the analogue of God. The beneficiency, the beauty, the mystery of nature are like the beauty, the beneficence, and the mystery of God. It is a means by which God reveals his plan to man. What man sees in nature, however, is only partial truth, a shadow of the final truth that is there to be reveled when man can find it. Moses and Socrates, Ptolemy and Copernicus, Newton--and today he might Einstein and many another--each has approximated truth, but the truth of one is discarded for the truth of the next, which will in its turn be discarded when another person pushes farther the boundaries of truth. The truth of which nature is thus the shadow has always existed in the mind of God. Man's quest is to discover and describe what portion of it he can. His materials are in nature, but the truth against which he may measure what he finds is in God, who is within man. The task is to see nature fresh, as the physicist does, the medical researcher, the jurist, or the poet, who sees beyond nature toward its increasing implications.

The ultimate function of nature, then, is to serve, to free the spirit, to unlock its capacities. It feeds us, pleases us, offers us images which we translate into words so that we may speak together, and its inexorable laws provide a discipline to which we at our peril fail to submit. But man is fed not that he shall eat, nor is he disciplined for discipline's sake, but that he may know the word which is with God. Nature exists, that is, solely for the use of spirit. Emerson never quite goes so far as to embrace idealism completely--to say that material things have no existence except in the mind. What he does say is that they only exist in anything approximately completeness as many recognizes them for what they are....

The third idea in the essay Nature derives from and might even be thought of as a part or correlative of the first. It concerns the immediacy of God. Deity, Emerson would tell us, has 'unrestricted access to every soul, and conversely every soul has like access to all divinity, the process in either case being a divine inflowing, not continuously felt, but only in moments of exaltation such as can only be self-certified, the mystic moments of a seemingly impersonal or expanded being.' As Emerson skirts close to pantheism, which says that the universe is God, and as he toys momentarily with idealism also, so here he comes very close to mysticism without becoming in any strict sense a mystic....Emerson's large value is ...that he was a humanist, man-centered in all of this thinking. 'The flowering of civilization,' he once said, is not society or any institution, but 'is the finished man, the man of sense, of grace, of accomplishment.' But he recognized man as a God-reaching creature also; and he recognized, as almost everyone does, that there are certain rare moments in the lives of each of us...when suddenly for a moment everything seems to fall into place. We become, in Emerson's words, 'part or particle of God.' We are nothing. We see all. The secrets even of all oracles seem answered. 'A man should learn,' Emerson tells us, 'to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within.' We wish we had the power to recall those moments, to write them down, explain their revelation to us. Failing this, we turn in our inadequacy to the poets or the prophets, asking them to do it for us: 'In every work of genius we recognize,' Emerson reminds us, 'our own rejected thoughts.' These moments of insight are rare, but when they do come, we see truth for a moment face to face, not through the eyes of other men.

These three postulates--the primacy of the soul, the sufficiency of nature, and the immediacy of God--are the triple root from which grows Emerson's creation of the lineaments of the invisible world of spirit, which, because we are imperfect, is suggested to us through the imperfections of the physical world about us. In each of them is implicit Emerson's assurance of the divine sufficiency of the individual, of the opportunities for infinitude presented to the private man. The center from which all else radiates is the superlative value which he placed on 'the unity of experience, the direct, momentary, individual act of consciousness.' The trouble with most Americans, someone is said to have said, is that they die at thirty but aren't buried until they're seventy. Emerson pleads not only for the perceptive man whose senses remain alive so that he sees, but also for the man who will trust his perception to lead him independently to thought, who sees beyond things to meaning, to distinguish, as he puts it, facts amid appearances."

Excerpt from Lewis Leary's "Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Interpretive Essay"
Published by Twayne, 1980, pp 30-34

Lewis Leary
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