Nature in Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Role of Human Harmony
It is undoubtedly a natural and primal instinct that drives humans to search for a universal understanding of our reality. Simultaneously cursed and blessed with self-awareness, we have sought for thousands of years to articulate some sort of connection amongst ourselves, our surroundings, and the divine. In his essay “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson explores the ways in which humans interact with the natural world in order to answer this overarching question of, in his own words, “to what end is nature?” (Emerson 27). At the center of his musings is, amongst other things, how the sense of sight is used to interpret and understand the world around us. There are, Emerson claims, different forms of sight which, depending on which ones we use, can either provide a clear path to understanding nature, or divert our attention from the truth and further obscure our ability to achieve harmony with nature.
Emerson begins his essay by immediately expressing his discontent with the idea of blindly adhering to established religious and philosophical schools of thought. He states that “[t]he foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes” (Emerson 27). In other words, the natural world that we see and interact with is not our own: rather, it is a specific interpretation of it passed down over countless years. It is a pre-made worldview, pre-packaged and habitually passed down from one generation to the next. On the one hand, this is the easy way to understand the natural world, as there is no assembly required: the paradigm through which we can view the world has already been built by those who came before us. But Emerson rejects this notion, asking, “[w]hy should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?” (Emerson 27). Thus marks Emerson’s first rejection of a ‘lesser’ form of sight, instead advocating a more direct interaction with nature. In order to achieve an understanding of the natural world in its purest form, we must dismantle all pre-existing, cookie-cutter philosophies that have invaded our minds and start from scratch. Each individual must construct his or her own paradigm through which to see the world: only then can we each achieve our own personal ‘face to face’ relationship with God and nature. Thus, Emerson denounces sight through the eyes of others, and instead emphasizes an individual-based form of sight.
Following his introduction, Emerson furthers his critique of the forms of sight which he deems unworthy, denouncing the superficiality with which most adults see nature. He notes the wonder with which children see the world, as they have not yet been desensitized to nature’s beauty and distracted by the demands of human society. Some adults, however, still retain this sense of awe: these individuals who have “retained the spirit of infancy into the era of manhood” (Emerson 29) are the true lovers of nature in Emerson’s eyes. Thus, what he advocates here is a form of sight the achievement of which requires a reunion with one’s inner child. This is something that can only be done while experiencing solitude in nature, away from the world’s distractions. The act of separating oneself from artificially constructed human society to silently revel in nature’s purity will, according to Emerson, rekindle a youthful spirit of reverence that will allow one to truly See nature. “In the woods,” asserts Emerson, “is perpetual youth” (Emerson 29).
This is not to say, however, that Emerson sees absolutely no value in surface-level sight. He does indeed view aesthetic pleasure as a necessary stepping-stone to seeing nature on a deeper level, and thus dubs the human eye “the best of artists” (Emerson 31). Scientifically, the human eye absorbs light and relays what we see to the brain. The brain, in turn, interprets these images in such a way that brings us “a pleasure arising from outline, color, motion, and grouping” (Emerson 31). But this is an automatic form of pleasure, as all natural forms hold mystery and beauty within them. This pleasure must be intensified by translating this perceived aesthetic beauty into spiritual beauty.
To outline this process, Emerson breaks down beauty into three properties, the first being its inevitability. As has been established, humans are invigorated by absorbing the pleasures of aesthetic natural beauty. This beauty is ever-changing, yet constant: nature in all seasons, at all hours of the day, in all types of weather, brings some form of pleasure to the eye that observes it. But one who pursues nature’s beauty too eagerly will be ‘mocked’ by it. Thus, one can only truly appreciate nature by submitting to it; by accepting its unpredictability as a necessary piece of its beauty. With this claim, Emerson emphasizes a form of sight that requires the individual to contextualize him or herself within nature: to see oneself as subject to nature’s whims as we live out our socially constructed lives.
Secondly, Emerson declares spirituality to be an essential element in the process of truly ‘seeing’ nature. Nature has always been the backdrop of mankind’s greatest accomplishments, and this provides us with a common inspiration that will forever enhance and drive our creativity. Expanding upon this in his third point, Emerson credits artistic creativity to nature’s ability to stimulate the mind. He explains that artistic creation is driven by an inherent desire for beauty, and to simulate the natural beauty which we perceive is to fulfill that desire. It is a constant, self-perpetuating cycle of interpretation and creation, and yet “[n]o reason can be asked or given why the soul seeks beauty” (Emerson 34).
Thus, these three principles of beauty outlined by Emerson demand a very specific form of sight. One must, first and foremost, retain the mindset of “perpetual youth” that nature provides. With our minds open and our eyes curious, we can then see nature’s beauty in such a way that demands and encourages our contribution to it. Essentially, Emerson rejects the mere aesthetic appreciation of beauty as a true form of sight. Rather, the definition of sight that he offers requires appreciation of and submission to nature; evocation of spiritual connections between nature and the soul; and finding delight in reproducing its beauty. In this sense, nature is “not only the material [that we see], but is also the process and the result” (Emerson 30).
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