The Nature of Things


We begin reading the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson on Friday, which will provide my freshmen honors seminar with a sunny change of pace after the morbidity of King Lear and the caustic satire of Jonathan Swift. Some of the students may even have encountered Emerson in high school, where his essays sometimes remain required reading. Indeed, many critics see Emerson as the quintessential American thinker: forward-looking, optimistic and an advocate for individualism. His influence on later writers and thinkers has proven profound and long-lasting. He was certainly an important influence on Walt Whitman, a poet the students read last fall.

Born to a family of New England clergymen, Emerson was slated early for a career in the church. As a boy he had been nurtured with a rational version of Christianity, but over time he became disenchanted with attempts to justify faith through rational means. As a young man, he also suffered grievous personal tragedies, losing his brothers and his first wife to tuberculosis in a short span. After the death of his wife, he sailed to Europe where he met important literary and cultural figures. He remarried upon his return to America and began to write. His essay "Nature" was published in 1836 and has become a touchstone of American literature. Indeed, Emerson is considered the chief progenitor of American Romanticism, a cultural stance that he gave a particularly American slant, but whose broader roots stretch back to Europe and into the 18th Century.

Romanticism was in many ways a reaction to the 18th century. That century, also known as the age of reason, had witnessed a series of prolonged attacks on many fronts to the idea of an individual self. During these years, for example, Europe underwent rapid industrialization. This in turn created socioeconomic changes that shifted the population from a rural, agrarian way of life to a more depersonalized urban lifestyle. Consequently, people became distanced from nature. In addition, large-scale mechanized industries sprang up and changed the character of work. The factory system with its regimented hours and mindless repetition seemed to make human beings mere interchangeable parts in an impersonal process.

The 18th Century also saw the rise of radically skeptical philosophers who doubted the very existence of an individual self. The philosopher David Hume argued that the self Descartes believed himself to have found was only a product of cultural situatedness, and the German philosopher Imannuel Kant saw the self as an empty fiction accompanying on-going thought. In the face of these social and philosophical attacks, Romantic writers, philosophers and artists tried to reassert the importance of the self. Their art and criticism focused on self-analysis and self-reflection. They went inward to examine the human mind's relationship to the world. Oddly, even though he was not a Romantic philosopher, Kant's ideas about consciousness, especially his Pure Critique of Reason, influenced many Romantic thinkers.

Kant had been interested in how we can know that the world we experience is real and not just the product of our minds. As you may recall, this problem also concerned Descartes. In the end, Kant concluded that we could never be fully certain about the reality of the world outside of our minds. He did think, however, that we could be somewhat more certain about the categories our minds tended to impose upon the world.

Romantic thinkers like Emerson seized on this idea because it seemed to suggest that the individual mind does play a role in ordering, shaping and imposing meaning on the world. From Plato to Kant, one important goal for philosophers had been to describe the nature of the reality that we inhabit but cannot agree upon. The Romantics, however, saw the problem differently. They were not trying to grasp what was really out there. Rather, they sought to express the power of the individual mind to give shape to what was out there. In short, they wanted to put the "self" back in the driver's seat. Nature for them was a set of building blocks for the creative mind. Through it, the individual expressed his will and unique being.

As a result, nature became an important focus of Romanticism, but not in its naturalistic or scientific sense. Indeed, one important idea to keep in mind while reading Emerson is that the word "Nature" has more than one meaning. Commonly we use it to mean the external world in its entirety: trees, rocks, mountains, the ocean. But we also use the word to mean the inherent character or basic disposition of a person. For example, we might say, "It's just not in his nature to lie."

For Emerson, nature comprises both of these meanings simultaneously. Thus the forest or the mountainside exist, but they have no meaningful existence without a person's individual nature to behold them. In the end, Emerson argued, human consciousness is the giver of meaning to nature. It is our mind, our thoughts, and our imagination that are forever creating the meaning of this world.

Emerson's "transparent eyeball" represents the thin, permeable membrane between the external world in its entirety (the NOT ME) and the inherent personal nature of the human being who perceives it (the ME). What's tragic, in Emerson's view, is that so many people get locked into only one way of viewing the world. They fail to realize that they are radically free to re-envision the world's meaning, for nature is at once their own being and a playground for their creative minds.

So what does a Romantic like Emerson offer us in terms of an understanding of human nature? Well, he suggests a new way of conceiving our relationship to the world around us. He argues that what makes us distinctively human is our almost God-like ability to refashion the world with our imaginations, an ability only limited by the human predisposition to dull thinking and social conformity. He also argues (unlike Plato) that truth is an on-going discovery, one that can never be finalized; for each generation must experience creation like the first human beings who ever gazed upon the world.

This is heady, intoxicating stuff. You can open up to almost any page of Emerson and find something quotable and inspiring. This is not to say that Emerson is beyond criticism. Over the centuries the "otherness" of the external world has proven a fairly durable concept. Some critics also feel he verges dangerously toward solipsism (the philosophy that nothing exists beyond the self) or the heresy of pantheism (seeing God in everything). Others see him as overly optimistic and having no workable concept for evil. And yet, after Swift, Emerson does seem a bracing and even liberating force.

He certainly had this effect on Walt Whitman, who wrote,"I simmered, I simmered, then Emerson brought me to a boil."

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