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Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature.


"Nature is but an image or imitation of wisdom, the last thing of the soul; nature being a thing which doth only do, but not know." Plotinus


- urges for not intermediate, but immediate experience

- asks for poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition

- "To what end is nature?"

- all science aims to find a theory of nature, but: the most abstract truth is the most practical one

- defines the term "Nature" in the philosophical sense: Universe = Nature + Soul

- nature is "not-me"

(a) nature in the common sense (essences unchanged by man) + Art (essences changed by man)

(b) nature in the common sense only


"Chapter I: Nature"

- stars = perpetual presence of the sublime; remembrance of the city of God

- nature as inaccessible as stars, nature cannot be possessed

- nature is difficult to be seen by adults, easier by children

- influenced by S. T. Coleridge's Biographia Literaria: genius as the ability to carry the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood

- a person in midst of nature (e.g. forest):

(a) nature gives delight, provided there is harmony of man and nature: she always wears the colours of the spirit (pathetic fallacy)

(b) nature purifies the human being ("I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. [...] I am part of God.")

"Chapter II: Commodity"

- "commodity" = usefulness

- the final purpose of the world:

(a) Commodity

(b) Beauty

(c) Language

(d) Discipline

- endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man

- useful arts are only reproductions or new combinations of the same natural benefactors


"Chapter III: Beauty"

- delight ("The eye is the best of artists.")

- intense light renders even a corpse as beautiful

- aspects of Beauty:

(a) simple perception of natural forms

- nature is always changing and is always beautiful, in any time of the year

(b) spiritual element

- the divine beauty which can be loved without effeminacy

- found in combination with the human will

- every heroic act is beautiful, but: a heroic act + its setting = Beauty

(c) object of the intellect

- Beauty is immortal ("Nothing divine dies.")

- Art is a new creation of Beauty

- totality of nature ("the many in one"): parts of nature are beautiful not alone, but as a whole

- beauty in nature is not ultimate, has not found its terminal yet

"Chapter IV: Language"

- nature as a vehicle of thought:

(a) Words are signs of natural facts.

- words expressing a moral or intellectual fact are derived from words for material appearance (e.g. "wrong" is derived from "twisted")

(b) Particular natural facts symbols of particular spiritual facts.

- every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind (e.g. a cunning man = a fox)

(c) Nature is the symbol of spirit.

- Reason = intuitive powers of the mind

- Understanding = rational powers

- universal soul = Reason; Reason in relation to nature = Spirit

- "Spirit is a Creator": man embodies it in his language as the father

- natural history useful only when married to human history

- nature as an interpreter: corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language; necessity of simplicity and truth for the interpretation

- discourse: a material image arises as contemporaneous with every thought

- advantage of country-life (fresh images)

- proverbs: natural fact as a parable of moral truth (e.g. a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush)

- fundamental law of criticism: "Every scripture is to be interpreted by the same spirit which gave it forth."

- a life in harmony with nature => the world becomes an open book

"Chapter V: Discipline"

- nature as a teacher: educates both Understanding and Reason (Matter and Mind)

(a) nature as a discipline of the understanding in intellectual truths; our dealing with sensible objects as a constant exercise

- a wise man realizes Space and Time, shows his wisdom in gradation and separation of things => creates a scale as wide as nature

- nature as a discipline inexhaustible

- the lesson taught by nature = the exercise of Will

- nature is made to serve man

(b) all things are moral: nature is always the ally of Religion

- ethical character seems to be the end for which nature was made

- "What is the end of nature?", the notion of the end of nature:

(a) terminal: an exhausted thing is refitted => no terminal

(b) purpose (most probably preferred by Emerson)

- each natural process is a version of a moral sentence; a farm as a mute gospel

- Unity in nature and Unity in Variety

- source of nature is universal Spirit => analogy not only in similar things, but also in things of great superficial unlikeness

- every universal truth implies or supposes every other truth

- every rightly done action has likeness of all rightly done actions

- human predominates over all other forms, the spirit prefers it to all others


"Chapter VI: Idealism"

- "idealism" = in the sense of an "idea"

- questions: Is education not the Final Cause (purpose) of the Universe? Does nature outwardly exist?

- it is alike to Emerson, it is ideal to him

- natural laws are as permanent as Spirit (they were arranged by God as such)

- senses perceive things only x to Reason things become transparent and causes and spirits are to be seen through

- man's instructions in the Ideal philosophy:

(a) nature itself is to conspire with spirit to emancipate us

- mechanical changes, alternation of local position (driving instead of walking): also very common things seen from a new perspective stimulate new thoughts

- scale: God =?Spirit (source of Idea) > Nature > Human (Idea is perceived by Reason, not by Understanding)

(b) poetry

- Shakespeare produces words of Reason in his sonnets and plays, aware of the relativity of the magnitude of material things, all objects shrink and expand to serve the passions of the poet (cites some sonnets and the Tempest)

(c) philosophy

- a poet's aim is Beauty, a philosopher's aim is Truth

- but: the true philosopher and the true poet are one, and their common aim is beauty, which is truth, and truth, which is beauty

- even in physics the material is degraded before the spiritual

(d) intellectual science

- doubts the existence of matter and pursues the Ideas

- man who sees the Ideas becomes in some degree divine himself, becomes immortal

(e) religion and ethics

- practise of ideas, degrading nature and suggesting its dependence on spirit

- religion is from God, ethics from man

=> motion, poetry, physical and intellectual science, and religion educate human to see not only things, but to see them through to discover ideas which are from God ("Idealism sees the world in God.")

"Chapter VII: Spirit"

- one comprehensive use of Spirit: points to the Spirit, intermediates the universal Spirit

- nature as the visible state of God

- Spirit evokes questions: What is matter? Whence is it? Whereto?

- idealism denies existence of matter

- the highest truth is present to the soul of man

- spirit is present throughout nature, is one and not compound, and acts upon us through ourselves and not from without

- Spirit = the Supreme Being

- through the purification of your soul, you become creator yourself, because you gain access to the entire mind of the Creator

"Chapter VIII: Prospects"

- the highest reason is always the truest

- but: empirical science is apt to cloud the sight: minuteness in details is useless without relation between things and thoughts

- Aristotle: "Poetry comes nearer to vital truth than history."

- conclusion: both history and prophecy are needed

- the foundations of man are not in matter but in spirit, the element of spirit is eternity

- "A man is a god in ruins."

- "Man is the dwarf of himself."

- man was once dissolved by spirit, now man is deprived of his innocence and Instinct

- exceptions: actions of man with reason as well as understanding (e.g. miracles, history of Jesus, abolition of the Slave-trade etc.)

- discrepancy between the actual and the ideal force of man

- aim: restoring to the world original and eternal beauty by the redemption of the soul

- harmony: the world as we perceive it lacks unity because man is disunited with himself

- wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common

- nature is not fixed but fluid, spirit alters, moulds, makes it: the immobility or bruteness of nature is the absence of spirit

- every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond a house a world and beyond a heaven: the world exists for you, all that Adam had you have, too

=> build your own world and conform your life to the pure idea in your mind until evil is no more seen


- often paraphrases the Bible, philosophers (esp. German, connected with Romanticism and the Greek philosophers), and poets (T. S. Coleridge)

- cites verses of considerable length

- assumes the tone of a poet-prophet

- presents not rigidly Christian, but rather pantheistic beliefs (God is manifested in nature)

- the concluding paragraph addresses directly the reader, abounds in urgency, marked by visionary optimism


  • Author

    Emerson, Ralph Waldo. (1803 - 1882).
  • Full Title

  • First Published

    Boston: James Munroe & Co., 1836.
  • Form


Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. (1836). In: The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym et al. NY: Norton, 1989.


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