Two Possible of Emerson’s Catalogue of Definitions for Nature

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature is absolutely profuse with differing definitions both in what defines nature and conversely in what nature defines (as nature defines language for instance). Initially, in his introduction, Emerson defines nature “in the common sense” as “essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf” (Emerson, 3). Emerson defines nature as that which remains in its natural resting state untouched by the hand of man. This definition clearly places man outside of what is natural—outside of nature. This is not the definition that Emerson would prefer as the word choice “in the common sense” and the surrounding discourse seem to suggest. He later defines nature as “…the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for [man’s] support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens” (Emerson, 11). This characterization of nature suggests that it exists to sustain the existence of man. This is stated more explicitly in the passage that reads “Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man” (Emerson, 12). Emerson here believes that the meaning of nature is the fulfillment and propagation of man. This definition is expanded to include not only use but also intrinsic gratification.  Emerson states “A nobler want of man is served by nature, namely, the love of Beauty…the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us a delight in and for themselves” (Emerson, 15).  Emerson has moved beyond his original definition to include in the meaning of nature not only the fulfillment and propagation of man but also his gratification in the natural wonder and sublimity of nature. He further defines this conception of practical use and appreciation of beauty as an inherent natural right of all humanity when he states “Every rational creature has all nature for his dowry and estate…he is entitled to the world by his constitution” (Emerson, 19). Here he asserts that the connection with and use of nature is a fundamental right independent of class or mindset. This conceptualization of the meaning of nature is based on the relationship between man and nature and is not necessarily a definition of nature itself.  However, in developing this one of his many trains of thought on the question “what is nature?” he has negated the seeming formal, pragmatic definition of nature provided in the introduction and included the human animal in his overall definition of nature, implying that mankind and nature are inextricably bound as one would not exist without the other (God created nature for mankind) and mankind is unavoidably a part of nature no matter how the machinations of his mind try to separate him from it.

One of the stranger definitions of nature Emerson provides is nature as an inherent morality in and of itself. The relevant passage reads “Therefore is nature glorious with form, color, and motion…every chemical change from the rudest crystal up to the laws of life…every animal function from the sponge up to Hercules, shall hint or thunder to man the laws of right and wrong, and echo the Ten Commandments” (Emerson, 38). This essay is positively diffuse with creationist overtones and it is quite often stated that God created the earth (and with it, nature) for mankind. However, here Emerson is suggesting that one of the more hidden meanings of nature is an inherent morality (though he sure as hell fails to quantify this), an underlying ethical construct written into the very DNA of nature. This implies a further connection between man and nature in that the ethics of man, the clearly defined right and wrong, come from and are imbued in nature itself.

Bam! Cited

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

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