Emerson and problems in defining nature: humans as culturally-indebted owners of the land

When I began reading from “Nature”, it took no more than a few passages to set up the expectation that Emerson was going to ultimately be a proponent of nature’s inherent rights to its own dominion, its beauty, its infinite resources and its place in the pecking order above the human race — the unenlightened, rebellious children, so to speak. However, Emerson’s flattery of nature in fact came with a surprising twist: though we owe everything to it, “Nature is thoroughly mediate. It is made to serve” (38) — a jarring statement to follow the appreciative doting that had come before. Nature, according to Emerson, at least in the outset, is the foundation and inspirational springboard for everything culturally human, whether it be language, the arts, or any other expressive or behavioral convention belonging to our kind. When I first read, “All the parts [of nature] incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man” (12) I took Emerson to suggest a symbiotic relationship between humankind and nature, such tto mean that man needn’t exploit nature because it already graciously provides us enough, but this sentiment was misleading. I found it strange, ungrateful and pompous that someone could recognize how much human beings owe to nature, and at the same time see nature as subservient to a species so dependent upon it. For example, our arts imitate the memes already laid out for us in the natural landscape, and concepts such as composition and unity are not creations of humans, rather, truths expressed in nature and repeated by human artists: “Thus is Art, a nature passed through the alembic of man. Thus in art does nature work through the will of man filled with the beauty of her first works” (23). Similarly, our language is not an original act of expression; rather, we express all things via retroactive reference to meanings derived from things occurring naturally and which have already established a visual-to-mental sense of symbolism or semantics for us: “1. Words are signs of natural facts” (25). What this contradiction led to was only more questions. How can we justify placing ourselves above nature when we are in such debt to it and dependent upon it for our identity and continuation as a species with a highly developed and highly diverse sense of culture? What, if any, is the human factor that Emerson considers the justifying clause in his assertion that nature is meant to serve us?…

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


3 responses to this post.

  1. I must agree that at first I was impressed by Emerson’s view of nature as this divine, sublime experience beyond human control and conception. Then, especially in his “Language” chapter, he suddenly turned on his “human-centric” viewpoint.

    For example, Emerson states in the Introduction: “Nature, in the common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man” (3). Then he goes on to say in his “Languages” chapter: “Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts?” (31)

    It seems a little bipolar of emerson, and as you pointed out, he has quite a few contradictions in his philosophy, which – in my opinion – weakens Emerson’s authority to give any sort of religious-type philosophy.

  2. Posted by rebsheppard on September 22, 2011 at 11:32 am

    I too was thrown off course by the mentioned quote on page 38 that indicated a shift in Emerson’s argument from the characterization of Nature as a symbolic outpost of the divine on Earth to a means of serving the desires of man. However, it was my interpretation (and perhaps I interpreted the quote this way because it was the only way I could rationalize Emerson’s drastic rhetorical shift) that the author is implying that man’s inevitable domain over nature is an extension of divine will, and that nature must be “used” to carry this will out.

    For example, he states that “Sensible objects conform to the premonitions of Reason and reflect the conscience. All things are moral; and in their boundless changes have an unceasing reference to spiritual nature.” (38) This argument alludes to Emerson’s opinion that God endowed man with the faculty of reason, and so it is man’s obligation to apply this reason to the domain of nature. While I feel that the entirety of Emerson’s writings lack enough factual substance to be considered effective works of philosophy, I don’t think his intention in writing “Nature” was to justify a selfish anthro-centric perspective. I am more inclined to feel that the change in thought that occurred on page 38 was the result of intellectual inconsistency than malicious intent.

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

  3. Posted by etrotta on September 23, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    I agree with your analysis of Emerson. It is hard to figure out what he truly thought the connection between nature and man was. On one hand, he describes nature with a reverence that is almost religious, but then he goes on to contradict himself by writing about nature as man’s possession. I think that the way that he saw man’s use of nature is much different than the way that we see man’s use of nature. It seems like Emerson saw untouched nature as its true form but at the same time, humans have the right to use what they need from nature. When we look at that from our perspective, that is a very dangerous way to see nature. With the technology that we possess today, we are capable of completely destroying nature.

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