“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 (19).”

 

While reading, Nature, I was pondering the question, ‘who owns nature?’ Or, moreover, who does Emerson believe owns nature? I ran across this quote and it perplexed me. Here, Emerson asserts that every rational individual owns nature. This may be true of nature only in its purest form, wilderness, but anywhere nature has been sullied by the hand of man this assertion is wrong. For example in England, all the land belongs to the king or his proprietors. It is his property, at least that’s what he and his army says. Even if a man went to an acre of England and said “this is now mine” and built a house and it was ‘his will’ to own it, that piece of nature is not his and he would be subject to persecution for having done so. The air in his lungs on that acre may be his, the rain falling on his back on that acre may be his, but by law, the land is not his.

Maybe by, “Every rational creature has all nature for his dowry and estate,” Emerson means that nature as a whole is for the use of mankind as a whole. Otherwise, his statement would not make sense, because if the land is the kings, the man has no right to claim that acre as his estate and leave it as dowry to his heirs. Emerson must mean nature, void of man and government and property boundaries and law, belongs to every creature. Which would make sense because nature is above manmade laws. And what does Emerson mean by the ‘great actions’ that teach us the universe is the property of every individual? Are these ‘great actions’ weather? Or perhaps the constellations of the stars which he mentions in Nature serve as a depiction of the ultimate sublime?

Back to nature and it’s ownership, before the section ‘Commodity’ in which I excerpted the above quote, Emerson contradicts himself. He says, “The charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet (6).”  This is contradictory to his aforementioned quote in that he says the land is the property of every individual, yet certain men own certain parts. Millers field, for example, is not also Mannings field, and yet the horizon belongs to none but the poet? The only understanding I can make from this is that Emerson believes that the physical land ‘nature’ and the idea or notion of nature in an individuals mind are two separate entities.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. I don’t think Emerson has his own arguments straight. This issue of “ownership” is interesting – ultimately, I think Emerson is simply enamored by his own language. He has actually not thought through the actual ramifications or practicalities of “nature belonging to any man.” He’s just a poet. For example, that last quote which mentions the field belonging to different farmers but the horizon to the poet calls to mind that in all practicality, owning land must be lawfully sectioned off and owned, etc. But to “own” land in Emerson’s sense of it is to just look at the landscape and maybe admire it, to just be a “poet.” And maybe just by being a poet, he owns the land. But it’s all ethereal headgames.

  2. I find this aspect of Emerson’s work very interesting. I can’t help but want to look into what characterizes a “rational creature” to Emerson. Is this only a human man? I ask this because earlier Emerson stated that the field is “[a males] floor, his workyard, his garden, and his bed” (12). Can females and the animals of the earth have no ownership in Emerson’s mind? Furthermore, like the contradictory quote original poster pulled, is this a singular possession (ex: Miller’s field, John’s field) or does all mankind have ownership over all land as originally suggested in this puzzling quote.

    His endless contradictions are frustrating but like the commenter above me stated, his work is poetic, and I found it helpful to not examine the piece of writing as a whole but almost to look at it like it was stanzas- each section expressing completely different and almost unrelated sentiments.

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