Problematic Emerson Quote

“Nature is thoroughly mediate. It is made to serve. It receives the dominion of man as meekly as the ass on which the Savior rode. It offers all its kingdoms to man as the raw material which he may mould into what is useful. Man is never weary of working it up. He forges the subtile and delicate air into wise and melodious words, and gives the wing as angels of persuasion and command. One after another, his victorious thought comes up with and reduces all things, until the world becomes, at last, only a realized will – the double of the man.” (pg 143)


This quote was surprising to me because of its blatant declaration of supremacy over nature and because of the powerful language used to defend, or rather, parade said claim.  Phrases such as “made to serve”, receives the dominion of man”, “meekly as the ass” weaken the forces of nature. In the same way, with powerful language, he strengthens man (a comparatively weaker force): “He forges”, persuasion and command”,  “His victorious thought” and “the double of the man”. This presents men as superior to nature and, by extension –based on his reference to nature as a female- men as superior to women.

It is also problematic because, based on his otherwise glorious descriptions of nature as providing “perpetual youth” and as being “graceful”, one is left to wonder how he winds up at his conclusion. How is nature simultaneously Majestic and “meek as an ass”?  This is an inconsistency on his part and portrays a lack of clarity.

Further problematic is the fact that he consistently refers to nature as a “her”. This raises several issues of gender; more specifically, the adopted mentality of man’s superiority to women. On page 134 Emerson states, “nature stretcheth out her arms to embrace man”. This statement would be acceptable if a few pages prior he had not said “nature in its ministry to man…” works for “…the profit of man” (pg 130). Here he supposes that not only is man superior to nature, but at its very essence, every occurrence in nature is made solely for the profit of man; the movement of the wind, the falling of rain from the sky, the shining of the sun. Emerson here, behaves as though the world revolves around him (no pun intended). In short, the quote was surprising because of how forceful it was, despite all its problematic suppositions.


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. Ch./Art: Full book American Renaissance 2009


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by lpeake on September 22, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    I also saw quite a bit of sexism in this passage. Emerson seems to be right on track with what we discussed in class as nature being feminine and men needing to conquer it. His use of “her” when describing nature and fits along with this idea. I particularly find the sentence “[It] is made to serve,” problematic because this quote indicates that like nature, women were made by God (as Emerson references nature being made by God at several points) to serve men. He seems to see nature as nothing more than another thing for men to try and dominate over.

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