Saturday, December 29, 2012

Nature - Ralph Waldo Emerson


I like it when thinkers try to devise a theory of everything. Never mind whether or not I find the belief system to be valid or not, I just love to explore these little models of the Universe that great minds attempt to create.

In his essay Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson sets out to create a new theology. He declares that it is time for modern man to break from the ideas of the past and formulate their own philosophies.

“The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry  and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? “

Emerson next sets out to paint a picture of the ALL. At times his view is cryptic and difficult to envision. However, he ultimately creates the outlines of a coherent thought system. As per this Wikipedia entry, Nature put the philosophy known as Transcendentalism on the map.

Though at times murky as to his exact meaning, Emerson describes a world where spirituality is of prime importance.  Spirit flowing through people actually creates the external world. The matter that we see around us is a creation of the human mind and soul. People were once greater, but have somewhat lost touch with spirituality and nature, and have thus been diminished in relation to the world around us.

'Man is the dwarf of himself. Once he was permeated and dissolved by spirit. He filled nature with his overflowing currents him sprang the sun and moon; from man, the sun; from woman, the moon. The laws of his mind, the periods of his actions externized themselves into day and night, into the year and the seasons. But, having made for himself this huge shell, his waters retired; he no longer fills the veins and veinlets; he is shrunk to a drop.” 

Reading this work, one is struck by how exuberant Emerson was about creation. The man absolutely loved existence. Virtue and good are woven into the fabric of reality.

The axioms of physics translate the laws of ethics. “

Emerson devotes pages upon pages to the redemptive and sublime connection between people and nature. He criticizes science as well as the old religions as unnaturally separating humankind from the spiritual and natural. There are implications that the worship of a patriarchal God as opposed to appreciating the wonders of the natural world has stifled our existence. He eventually concludes that once humans have freed their thoughts from such rigid beliefs, that people will achieve amazing influence over their environment and a paradise on Earth will be achieved.

All this philosophizing is accomplished with prose that is often soaring as well as poetic. The above passages are just a few examples.

This is the first work that I have read by Emerson; however, I have read Walt Whitman extensively. Any reader of both will clearly see just how much Emerson was an influence upon the great American Poet. I highly recommend Emerson for the Whitman fan and vice a versa.

I cannot say that I agree with much of Emerson’s nuts and bolts view of the world. However, his enthusiasm and optimism about life, as well as the world around us, is inspiring and contagious. For those readers who, like myself, love exploring the “big ideas”, this is a must read.

20 comments:

BookBelle said...

Now that I have all this free time post-graduation, I will definitely search out Emerson. I have had 2 Theology classes that have taught elements of spirituality and the natural world. I am most interested.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Belle - I tend to really enjoy theology and similar writings.

I know what it is like to be too busy to read much and the feeling of freedom that one gets when your time opens up again.

Congragualtions on your graduiation again!

Guy Savage said...

I am not a fan of Emerson. We spent far too much time on him on American Lit classes, but at the same time I wonder where he would land in today's world: can't help but think he'd be appalled at the world.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I guess that the wrong classes can really ruin it:)

Based upon my readiong of at least this work I think that you are correct that Emerson would be very dimayed at how mechanistic and out of touch with the natural world that many people and society is today.

On the other hand I think that he would recignize that some folks were still trying to connect with spiritualility and nature. I sense such an optimistic attitude in this essay that I do not belive that the current state of affairs would leave him completely defeated.

I of course will need to read more of him!

Caroline said...

I was thinking the exact same thing as Guy. If he thought people were lacking spirituality then ...How shocked would he be today.
I have read a bit of Whitman but no Emerosn at all. They bothe are not taught in our schools and I just never picked them up but what you write does interest me lot. Enthusiasm and optmism paired witha spiritual world view sound great to me.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I defiantly agree that in many ways Emerson would not like today's world.

On the other hand I often talk to people who tell me that they have a strong spiritual spiritual sense and beliefs that is not tied to organized religion and seems to be connected to the natural world as well as a little mysticism. This viewpoint seems to be very popular in my generation (I am 45 years old) as well as in the Northeastern United States ( I would not describe myself as sharing these beliefs but several of my friends do). I think that much of this viewpoint can be traced back to Emerson and Transcendentalism.

As I think about Guy's comment, I do not believe that Emerson was touched upon in any high school or collage class that I took.

Sharon Henning said...

I've read all of Whitman's poetry but none of Emerson. It's fascinating to me how people-not just Emerson but many people today as well- don't seek truth but are content to believe they can create their own reality.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - To a great degree I agree with you. The problem is that what I believe to be the path to truth is likely to be very different from what many other people think it is. Emerson thought that he was on the path and believed that part of it was self created. I do not agree with him. I suspect that yourself and I may not agree on the way to truth.

It seems to me that the best any of us can do is to hold fast to our own convictions while trying stay as open minded and respectful toward other views (As long as the views they are presented respectfully and are not based upon hate hate, discrimination, etc.).

Tom Cunliffe said...

Emerson is just a name to me so its good to read a little more about him here. I've read Thoreau's Walden which presumably is slightly similar in some ways?

Nice review Brian.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - Thanks for the good word!

I am ashamed to say that I have not gotten to Thoreau yet. I wanted to read Emerson first as I heard that Thoreau built on his ideas. A bit more of Emerson and hopefully I will get to Thoreau soon.

Ryan said...

You are on a mission to read everything I read 20 years ago. I do remember enjoying this book, but I've always been a fan of big ideas so that doesn't surprise my 20-years-later self. Anyway, Happy New Year, man!

Harvee Lau said...

Man and nature I agree is a winning combination. Seeing the spiritual in nature is probably common to many religions/beliefs. Nice to see Emerson revisited and examined.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan and Happy New year!

I am stalking your reading list!

I too love big ideas and at least in this essay Emerson seems like he was all about them.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - I think that to a degree, the "Big Three" Western religions have gotten away from the nature connection. Many others, some older, maintain it. In that way think Emerson's viewpoint can be connected to these older beliefs.

Gautam Bhatia said...

Very interesting. I haven't read Emerson (yet), but this seems pantheistic - did you spot similarities with Spinoza, among the philosophers, and Shelley (among the poets)? I like both of them. Quite a bit. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guutam - Emerson does not mention multiple god but his image of a deity seems very fuzzy in this essay and I would say that pantheism does not seem incompatible with his views.

I must sadly confess that I have not yet read Spinoza. It has also been awhile since I read Shelly so I must read those poets before I can anwser:)

Lucy said...

This sounds really interesting. When I think of Whitman, I too automatically consider Emerson. I've been reading Leaves of Grass a lot recently, and so perhaps I should read this soon! I do like the first passage you quoted about poetry and philosophy of insight.

All the best :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lucy - I remember when you posted something on the issue of poetry in contract to philosophy. I think that it is exemplified in Emerson and Whitman. Leaves of Grass is remarkable. I must admit that though I have only read a little bit of Emerson, I enjoy reading Whitman a lot more!

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

I really should come over more often -- I need to read your wonderfully interesting posts!!

Although I did read one or two essays by Emerson in high school (I think I read one titled "Self Reliance"), I have never read any of his more extensive works. Looks like this one might be an excellent starting point! It sounds absolutely FASCINATING. Thanks for your TERRIFIC review!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Maria - I totally get how busy life gets!

If I recall I started with this work because it seemed to lay out Emerson's basic philosophy and looked to be good starting point.