M. Bryan Strain
Professor Robert King
18 September 2012
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature
In Nature, Emerson is attempting to understand the mind of god. He believes, if a man can truly behold all of nature, he would have all truth at his disposal. His analogies and anecdotes are so lofty and so romantic that it is easy to point out the flaws in his thinking. He often contradicts his own sayings only a few pages away. That is not to say there is no truth in his thoughts. I found some truths to be poignant and wise; most often being simple thoughts that need no elaboration.
I agree with Emerson when he says, “Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable” (215). Answers may not be what we expect or they may require greater understanding than we possess, but the answers are there to be discovered.
When Emerson states, “We are now so far from the road to the truth, that religious teachers dispute and hate each other, and speculative men are esteemed unsound or frivolous” (215). I completely disagree. Emerson implies throughout Nature, that men are sometimes not a part of nature or they have the capacity to go against nature. Do cougars not have disputes? Do bears not practice cannibalism? Are animals and weather incapable of doing something wrong? I think not. I’m reminded of the lyrics to a song called No New Tale to Tell by Love and Rockets. “You cannot go against nature, because when you do go against nature, that’s a part of nature too” (Rockets). Emerson says, “Nature never wears a mean appearance” (215-16). I’m sure the ancient inhabitants of Pompeii would disagree when Mt. Vesuvius erased their city and buried them in time and space. Nature, like man, is perfectly capable of wearing a mean face.
Emerson sees perpetual youth in the wilderness (217). He also claims that, “In the woods, we return to reason and faith” (217). In the wilderness the sick and old are eaten. Only the youth remain until they weaken. I’ve heard it said of pioneers becoming savages as the Indians. It seems to survive in the wild, one must become wild. He claims the wilderness has no calamity and that nothing can befall him that nature cannot repair (217). This is the loftiest of romantic ideas. With all our advancements, with all our knowledge and genius, the wilderness is still dangerous. We still lose people to the wild country today. A simple fall; a daring attempt to climb a mountain; a hungry wolf; a protective mother bear; a falling tree; a rising river; all these can befall a man irreparably.
I wish not to leave on a critical view of Emerson’s thoughts. There are some simple truths within this text I wish to address. “All good is eternally reproductive” (222). Emerson suggests that good will find a way to live on, and evil would bring good things to an end. I can help but wonder how many species man is responsible for causing extinction. Natural extinction occurs as well. This would say to me that nature is capable of doing evil as well as man.
“The use of natural history is to give us aid in supernatural history” (223). I love this quote. Those things that our scientists call metaphysics, life after death, god, spirits, and etc. are hinted at by nature. The organization of things down to the smallest known particle to the furthest objects we can see in space hint toward a set of rules in organization. We struggle to learn what those rules are, but Emerson sees as I do that they point to something far above our understanding.
Finally, in the most poignant thought of this text, Emerson quotes 1 Corinthians 15:44 of The Bible, speaking of the human body as a seed, “It is sown in a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (224). Is it so hard to believe that when we are young we are so amazed at all the external forces that work upon us. We struggle to adapt to our parents, the environment, our peers, and the growth of our own bodies. As Emerson suggests, with age we begin to understand why things are the way they are. We seek to change things around us that don’t make sense in the order of things. Our thoughts grow ever more internal and wisdom enlightens our minds. We pass on whatever our young will receive and then we leave.
While I don’t think it’s possible for mankind to fully embrace Emerson’s message to the ideal he has romantically communicated. There is a truth to attempt at such a quest. Perhaps someday mankind may accomplish the whole of Emerson’s dream, but an individual will likely never attain such grand understanding in the short lives we live.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” The Norton Anthology American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. Eighth Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1836. 214-31. Print.
Rockets, Love and. “No New Tale to Tell.” Earth, Sun, Moon. 1987. Compact Disc.