Emerson’s ideals: who “owns” nature?

 “We are taught by great actions that the universe is the property of every individual in it. Every rational creature has all nature for his dowry and estate. It is his, if he will. He may divest himself of it; he may creep into a corner, and abdicate his kingdom as most men do, but he is entitled to the world by his constitution. In proportion to the energy of his thought and will, he takes up the world into himself.” (Emerson, 19)

                I found this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature to be quite interesting; while it revealed his overarching thoughts about nature and ideas of ownership, the larger passage did not do much more than confuse me. Emerson plainly states in the above quote that “every rational creature” owns nature, but after he states this, he goes on to show his version of a “survival of the fittest” ideal- stating that the seas are always most helpful and cooperative with the “ablest navigators.” According to Emerson in the larger passage, it seems that the “more rational” a person is, the more deserving they are of nature’s bounty. This idea, to me, goes against what the above quote seems to state.

His views in the larger passage align with earlier ideas (especially those of Crevecour) we have seen that relate ownership to those deemed most worthy or most highly evolved (i.e. the hunter being less worthy than the farmer). But Emerson brings in another element of ownership- he seems to believe that not only a man’s ability, but also his oneness with nature is what determines ownership. Although he delves into this more innovative idea, he still relies on older means of identifying the ownership and familiarizing his readers with it- his discussion of a man’s “kingdom” is using a historically aristocratic ideal to describe a new age way of viewing worth. This portion of the quote attempts to bridge the gap between his ideas within the above quote and his ideas in the larger passage- it creates a rather odd “gray area” between what Emerson seems to want to believe and what he actually feels.

Overall, I found this reading rather problematic- Emerson seemed to backpedal quite a bit, and I had a hard time breaking his ideas down into something understandable. I think this quote brings that quality to life quite well- at its simplest point, Emerson was trying to say that individuals are all worthy of nature’s beauty and wonder, but later goes on to say that those most worthy are the people that are most unified with nature emotionally and physically. I also think there were many other layers to what he was discussing in this excerpt of Nature. For me, Emerson’s style of writing tends to break down his own argument before he can solidly define what that argument is.


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. Ch./Art: Full book p.1x-76.pub. American Renaissance 2009


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by yribaf on September 20, 2011 at 11:29 pm

    I agree with your argument because I also found Emerson’s writing to be confusing and contradicting in many ways. I wonder what exactly Emerson meant by “great actions” in this quote and why this gives him the idea that the universe can be owned by any individual. His “rational creature” and “survival of the fittest” arguments are also quite peculiar. I think he is biased in his argument, sharing many of the views of Crevecour since Emerson speaks of Native Americans as “savages” (20). The more rational creature seems like he is referring only to Europeans because of his word choice. Emerson may have seen nature as beautiful and full of wonder, but I think he did so out of a need to make a biased group of “rational creatures” feel superior and more worthy of using nature for their own purposes.

    Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. Ch./Art: Full book p.1x-76.pub. American Renaissance 2009

  2. Posted by kwalley on September 22, 2011 at 9:53 am

    I completely agree that Emerson’s style does more to dissolve his own arguments rather than strengthen them. Your observation on Emerson’s hypocritical stance that “every rational creature” owns nature and then his later statement that is those who are more at one with nature who own it is very interesting. I find that Emerson simply cannot decide whether any man can “own” nature or if there is a hierarchal system. Emerson states, “all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, Nature” (Emerson 3). Adding this quote into your argument it is impossible to truly understand what point Emerson is trying to make, he himself cannot decide not only who can own nature or even what nature is.

    Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. Ch./Art: Full book p.1x-76.pub. American Renaissance 2009

  3. Posted by michaelmichaelsmith on September 22, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    Emerson’s writing is definitely dense. However, in this particular passage, I found that the idea of “survival of the fittest” and that the universe is “the property of every individual in it,” are not at odds.

    It is those who embrace and understand nature, and by extension themselves, who will benefit the most. As individuals, we can be active truth-seekers or “creep into a corner. (Emerson 19)” It is those who search nature for its dualistic wisdom who gain greater ownership of nature. But this ownership isn’t really physical as much as spiritual/philosophical. By applying nature to man’s worldly concerns, the individual can attune themselves to let nature worth through them. It is in this way that ownership is established. But since its a soft ownership, there is no limited supply and all who strive for it can have it. “It is his, if he will (will, as in, volition).” (Emerson 19)

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