Prompt 1: Nature as Phenomenon and Substance

I might be writing with a personal bias, as I feel that my understanding of Emerson’s work was affected by the language he used—that which was presumably common, scholarly vernacular at the time. In this way, I felt almost as if I was deciphering or translating the text, and with any translation there is invariably some bias or degree of error. Nevertheless, what I came away with from this piece was a sort of circular logic, explaining nature as a phenomenon and substance. This is to say, nature is a phenomenon of human expression and a physical entity that comprises all that is not me; in Emerson’s words: “all that is not me, that is both nature and art, all other men and my own body must be ranked under this name, Nature” (Emerson, 125). However, these seemingly disparate definitions are united with a kind of reverential awe—consistent with some of the pastoral literature we read earlier—that explains nature as necessarily sublime in both its forms. An example of this is Emerson’s examination of nature in its relation to man.

On page 28 of Nature, Emerson examines the significance of an ant. When taken solely as an ant, with no analogous connection to humans, it remains insignificant. But, in the moment when “a ray of relation is seen to extend from it to man,” it becomes sublime. By Emerson’s reckoning Nature is sublime, but by this definition it can only achieve this quality through its relation to man. This is also present earlier in the text, when Emerson explains how nature deifies man, giving him or her dominion over it, and thus is at their discretion: “How does Nature deify us with a few and cheap elements! Give me health and a day, and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous” (17). This quote is explaining how man configures nature based on his or her mood, that through the manipulation of the natural substance: the clouds and the trees, man creates the phenomenon, experienced or explained as nature.

And so it goes in the text, that nature is defined by humans and shapes their definition: even becoming the basis for the language we use to define it.

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

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