Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Waldo Emerson’

Group 2’s Fourth Blog Post

For this blog response, you have a few different writing options. Choose only ONE of these topics to write your response. Be sure to make it clear which question you chose in the subject line of your post. Remember, this blog response is for Group 2 only!

  1.  In her introduction to Writing the Trail, Deborah Lawrence argues that “women’s western writings create conflicting versions of the myth of the American West” (3). What are the typical myths of the American West? After reading Eliza Burhans Farnham’s California: In-doors and Out, do you agree with Lawrence’s argument? Why or why not? What, if any, conflicting versions of this myth does Farnham’s text offer?
  2. In her chapter on Eliza Burhans Farnham, Deborah Lawrence makes several arguments regarding the function of nature/the environment in Farnham’s narrative. In your response, choose one (or a few) of these arguments to critically consider. Do you agree/disagree with her assessment of Farnham’s text? Is there an ecocritical analysis that is missing or underdeveloped in Lawrence’s chapter? Use quotes from Farnham’s text to support your argument.
  3. Write a response in which you analyze Farnham’s use of the word “natural” and how it functions in her text. What behaviors, roles, actions, etc are considered “natural” and why? What value system does Farnham set up with the use of this word? How does Farnham use the term “natural” as part of her rhetorical strategy in this text? How would it be perceived by her Northeastern, female audience?
  4. Write a response in which you consider how Farnham’s depiction and valuation of nature compares to the other writers we’ve encountered so far this semester. In your response, be sure to make close connections between Farnham and another author we’ve read this semester to illustrate your points. If you decide to write about connections between Farnham and Ralph Waldo Emerson or J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, make sure you are adding to (rather than simply repeating) Lawrence’s arguments.

Remember, your posts should follow these requirements and guidelines:

  • Posts must be at least 300 words.
  • Posts must include at least one quote from the text. If you are writing about more than one text, then you’ll need at least one quote from each as support. If the question you chose asks for more than one quote in the instructions above, then be sure to follow those instructions.
  • Stay focused on answering the prompt question above. Avoid repeating the question and be as specific as possible in your answer.
  • Please note that you do not need to answer every “thinking question” I have posted (the questions after the bold directive). These are just options, so you could focus on one or a few. Avoid writing a response that looks like a Q & A or laundry list of answers to these smaller questions; make sure your response flows smoothly and has unity.
  • Your response should make an argument, not summarize the text. If some summary is asked for in the prompt you chose, keep that summary brief and concise.
  • Use specific moments from the text(s) to support and illustrate your argument.
  • Be sure to introduce, quote, cite, and comment on all quotes.
  • Don’t forget to tag your posts! Before adding a new tag, check the “choose from the most used tabs” menu to make sure it is not already listed.
  • Don’t forget your Works Cited!

Group 2, your blog response is due by class time on Tuesday, October 25.

Group 1, blog comments are due by class time on Thursday, October 27.


Prompt 2: Understanding Emerson’s Argument Against Solipsism

“A noble doubt perpetually suggests itself, whether this end be not the Final Cause of the Universe; and whether nature outwardly exists.  It is a sufficient account of that Appearance we call the World, that God will teach a human mind, and so makes it the receiver of a certain number of congruent sensations, which we call sun and moon, man and woman, house and trade.  In my utter impotence to test the authenticity of the report of my senses, to know whether the impressions they make on me correspond with outlying objects, what difference does it make, whether Orion is up there in heaven, or some god paints the image in the firmament of the soul?  The relations of parts and the end of the whole remaining the same, what is the difference, whether land and sea interact, and worlds revolve and intermingle without number or end – deep yawning under deep, and galaxy balancing galaxy, throughout absolute space – or, whether, without relations of time and space, the same appearances are inscribed in the constant faith of man?  Whether nature enjoy a substantial existence without, or is only in the apocalypse of the mind, it is alike useful and alike venerable to me.  Be it what it may, it is ideal to me, so long as I cannot try the accuracy of my senses.”  (45-46)


This paragraph, which commences Emerson’s chapter on Idealism, struck me as one of the text’s most compelling.  What made it compelling was that this is one of the few nature texts I have read so far that explicitly addresses the philosophy that nature might not even exist; this realization becomes particularly jarring when it is preceded by five chapters and an introduction praising and analyzing this thing which we are now made to realize might not be real.  The “noble doubt” to which Emerson is referring is most likely solipsism, a philosophical theory that advocates the idea that only oneself is certain to be reality, while everything outside one’s own thought processes cannot be determined to exist with any degree of certainty.  It is a particularly forceful philosophy since, as Emerson acknowledges, there is no way to test the existence of what we outwardly perceive as real because the mind can be manipulated into perceiving objects that are not there.  In his argument above, Emerson comes to the conclusion that it does not matter whether the universe exists or not, as long as the emotional impact it has on the mind still exists.  He admits that nature might be simply an image painted “in the firmament of the soul” (45), and in the long run this does not matter.

And here is where the problem begins.  In the Introduction to Nature, Emerson defines nature be stating it is “all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the not me, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, Nature” (3).  So, nature is everything outside of one’s own mind, but in the above paragraph Emerson recognizes that solipsism necessitates the view that nature might not outwardly exist, and thus nature could exist solely within one’s mind.  This is a pretty explicit contradiction, and it makes Emerson’s defense of his own transcendentalist philosophy against solipsism even more difficult for the reader.

In defense of Emerson’s beliefs, and to explain this contradiction, here is my proposition.  Emerson does not hold fast and true to the rigid definition of nature he sets up in the Introduction, and he might have only included it to give a rough idea to the reader what was meant by the word Nature.  Also, throughout the text Emerson argues that nature exists as both a conduit and inspiration for human emotion and expression, stating that, “We are thus assisted by natural objects in the expression of particular meaning” (30).  Thus, in Emerson’s true, implicit definition of nature, it does not matter whether nature exists outwardly or inwardly.  Instead, nature is defined by how it is utilized by the human mind, and how it in turn influences the workings of the mind.  To use Emerson’s own words, “Whether nature enjoy [sic] a substantial existence without, or is only in the apocalypse of the mind, it is alike useful and alike venerable to me” (46).  Therefore, this quote effectively renders Emerson’s previous definition of nature null and void, in addition to making his own philosophical shortcomings (or, as he puts it, his “utter impotence”) explicit to the reader.  Perhaps he would have been better off just taking the Blue Pill.

Difficult Quote

“But this origin of all words that convey a spiritual import, so conspicuous a fact in the history of language, is our least debt to nature. It is not words only that are emblematic; it is things which are emblematic. Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture” (Emerson 136).

After reading this quote a few times, I realized that I did not understand Ralph Waldo Emerson description of language. Yes, it is evident that languages are useful tools for human beings. Through language we are able to communicate our ideas, rationalize and express our feelings and concerns.  Despite the fact that there are thousands of different types of languages and dialects, they all have a similar characteristic; language is not simply a representation of an item but the items themselves are symbolic. We should not focus solely on the definition of the words we see, study, or write. Nature in itself is symbolic because it appeals to our senses and our spirit.  Our mind on the other hand is very complex and therefore when we do see “Nature” we see something deeper than what the object is.

Emerson‘s definition of language reminds me of Plato’s Theory of forms. According to Plato, two worlds exist, the visible world and the intelligible world. In the visible world, we see an object and have a name for it. However, in the intelligible world, we already have the simplest concept of the object. For example, if we see a painting, one might say it is beautiful. However, in the intelligible world we know that the painting is beautiful because we already have a concept of beauty. Similarly, Emerson explains that language tries to capture the concept of what we perceive. Our English language is so basic that when we try to translate words, the meanings are lost. That is why in the English language we use metaphors to relate an object to an idea. Emerson says “a firm man is a rock” (137). A man is not literally a rock. However, connotative speaking the man’s character is so grounded that he is compared to a rock.

Troublesome quote from Emerson

“Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of mind, and that state of the mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture. An enraged man is a lion, a cunning man a fox, a firm man is a rock, a learned man is a torch. A lamb is innocence; a snake is a subtle spite; flowers express to us the delicate affections. Light and darkness are our familiar expression for knowledge and ignorance; and heat for love. Visible distance behind and before us, is respectively our image of memory and hope,” (26).

I found this quote particularly interesting. I also found it rather deep and challenging once I began to dissect it. What I came up with is the idea of man existing within nature, due to the Christian belief of creationism. I imagined it in this aspect because Emerson continually references spirituality and Christianity. With this as a starting point, I also thought of Earth’s timeline. From every theory of creation, man came after nature (this being oceans, trees, animals, etc.). Because of this, we must acknowledge the connection that exists between man and nature.

As Emerson later states, “Man and nature are indissolubly joined,” (47). This naturalistic approach shows the infinite bond between the two substances. With no separation of man and nature, metaphorical images will appear. Emerson also references the Christian motive in multiple places. This is an important factor to consider when discussing the relationship between man and nature. By the Christian standard, God molded man out of clay. Because man comes from clay, we must say that man is a creation of nature. So when describing man’s state of mind, a natural appearance, or reference, is soon to follow.

Emerson’s stance, though bold, is true. The comparisons of man to nature still occur, and every emotion is interconnected with nature. Even before Emerson, the lamb was used as a sacrificial element. The Bible also refers to Jesus Christ as the “Lamb of God”, who was used as God’s ultimate sacrifice. It is interesting to see how Emerson draws all of these examples into one theory.

Even beyond the Christian motive, we see the images Emerson mentions in today’s society. In relationships, men are typically seen as “a rock”. The metaphor of light and dark for “knowledge and ignorance” is probably the most common reference. A very typical image is a light bulb for a right answer, or “knowledge”.

Emerson had many ideas for man’s existence within nature, and man’s response to nature. If we accept Emerson’s proposal that “Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of mind” then we must also accept that we are interconnected with nature.

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

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

Emerson’s Struggle with Language and Culture

Because Emerson revoked his own ministry, one could assume that he wholly rejected the Judeo-Christian theory of wilderness as evil or dangerous. Emerson would oppose much of Garrard’s Old World wilderness, possibly even the idea of the religious hermit using nature as a safeguard or the pastoral escape from an urban city, because still implies an anthropocentric idea and nature takes a back seat (Garrard 60). Thoreau went into the woods to reflect on how to enable his own harmony with nature, not on the trivialities of human adversity. But Emerson does not quite go as far as John Muir’s pantheism (Garrard 68). However, we must acknowledge that he did suffer the same conflict Muir had, which was that he was enabled to see the beauty of nature more vastly and physically through science.

Also, Transcendentalism was a product of a schism that began when theologians along with lay scholars began to reconsider religion as permanent, going so far as to say it was a product of humanity. Emerson was very clear about what he perceived the current views of both religion and ethics did to nature, “They both put nature under foot” and later, “Culture inverts the vulgar views of nature” (Emerson 54-55). He is addressing their current state and country, which was devoutly Jacksonian. A man was a man if he owned land, commerce and industry were nearly as important as piety. “Agriculture becomes both the cause and the symptom of an alienation from the earth that monotheistic religion and modern science then completed” (Garrard 60). In America, both of these are ideals that are seen as positives back then, not negative. The state and county was then very Anglo and very Protestant, things Transcendentalism moved away from. Movement being a key word, as both Protestantism and the Aristocracy depended on the status quo to keep order and power.

Emerson, then, rejected not only the Judeo-Christian belief that nature is at its very basest an affront to humanity, but also its subordinate. However, in his struggle with language his doctrine, being both super-generalist and altogether universal, he contradicts himself or his theories overlap and cut themselves off. Yet he doesn’t totally sever himself from religion, although we must be careful not to interpret his ecclesiastical vernacular as strictly operating on the same symbolic basis as his contemporaries might have been used to. He unequivocally considers nature as feminine, and at times seems to equate Native Americans to children, albeit, projecting a more naturalistic view onto them and heralding their clairvoyant abilities to see nature clearer than the urban white man.

For Americans beginning to embrace the idea of individuality and new epistemologies, Emerson deeply seems to struggle with the semantics of language and philology. Emerson believed that our language mostly derived from symbols in nature. Yet, here is a problem, if nature gives humanity language, an arbitrary symbol and primary tool for culture, hasn’t nature contaminated itself? To navigate around this Emerson places language in what he calls the Spirit (Emerson 27). So are we nature itself? (Most people at the time I think would be terrified because of the implication that there was a phenomena going on inside everyone’s body) If every intellectual and spiritual product we conceive is based in language, nature then, is humanity and humanity is nature and nature produces these things though humanity as conduits to itself, and as a result—there really is then, only nature. Man is in his very being; through language is what Emerson calls the Father, which is also the Spirit (Emerson 27). A contradictory patriarchal archetype Emerson might have wanted to avoid.

This is typical of nature writing and it appears every time: nature is a metaphor for man. The question is, can that statement be plausibly reversed? And the irony is that Emerson knows he will always fall short of getting to the heart of Transcendentalism and nature, “Of that ineffable essence which we call Spirit, he that thinks most, will say least.” Language both enables a concept of nature but excludes it because it cannot facilitate a total idea/image/symbol to retain it in its entirety.

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

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Emerson’s ideals: who “owns” nature?

 “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. In proportion to the energy of his thought and will, he takes up the world into himself.” (Emerson, 19)

                I found this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature to be quite interesting; while it revealed his overarching thoughts about nature and ideas of ownership, the larger passage did not do much more than confuse me. Emerson plainly states in the above quote that “every rational creature” owns nature, but after he states this, he goes on to show his version of a “survival of the fittest” ideal- stating that the seas are always most helpful and cooperative with the “ablest navigators.” According to Emerson in the larger passage, it seems that the “more rational” a person is, the more deserving they are of nature’s bounty. This idea, to me, goes against what the above quote seems to state.

His views in the larger passage align with earlier ideas (especially those of Crevecour) we have seen that relate ownership to those deemed most worthy or most highly evolved (i.e. the hunter being less worthy than the farmer). But Emerson brings in another element of ownership- he seems to believe that not only a man’s ability, but also his oneness with nature is what determines ownership. Although he delves into this more innovative idea, he still relies on older means of identifying the ownership and familiarizing his readers with it- his discussion of a man’s “kingdom” is using a historically aristocratic ideal to describe a new age way of viewing worth. This portion of the quote attempts to bridge the gap between his ideas within the above quote and his ideas in the larger passage- it creates a rather odd “gray area” between what Emerson seems to want to believe and what he actually feels.

Overall, I found this reading rather problematic- Emerson seemed to backpedal quite a bit, and I had a hard time breaking his ideas down into something understandable. I think this quote brings that quality to life quite well- at its simplest point, Emerson was trying to say that individuals are all worthy of nature’s beauty and wonder, but later goes on to say that those most worthy are the people that are most unified with nature emotionally and physically. I also think there were many other layers to what he was discussing in this excerpt of Nature. For me, Emerson’s style of writing tends to break down his own argument before he can solidly define what that argument is.


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