Monday, October 14, 2013

Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson

v     Nature was an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, written in 1836. It’s about 22 pages long.

v     This essay explains transcendentalism – that you can find divinity (Godliness) in nature, all around you. Emerson called it a Universal Soul, or Reason. The idea is that, if everything on Earth was made by God, then each little thing tells you something about God.

“What is a farm but a mute gospel? The chaff and the wheat, weeds and plants, blight, rain, insects, sun, ––it is a sacred emblem from the first furrow of spring to the last stack which the snow of winter overtakes in the fields. But the sailor, the shepherd, the miner, the merchant, in their several resorts, have each an experience precisely parallel, and leading to the same conclusion: because all organizations are radically alike. Nor can it be doubted that this moral sentiment which thus scents the air, grows in the grain, and impregnates the waters of the world, is caught by man and sinks into his soul. The moral influence of nature upon every individual is that amount of truth which it illustrates to him. Who can estimate this? Who can guess how much firmness the sea-beaten rock has taught the fisherman?”

v     Emerson believed that nature united everything, from animals to the arts and sciences:

“Not only resemblances exist in things whose analogy is obvious, as when we detect the type of the human hand in the flipper of the fossil saurus, but also in objects wherein there is great superficial unlikeness. Thus architecture is called "frozen music," by De Stael and Goethe. Vitruvius thought an architect should be a musician. "A Gothic church," said Coleridge, "is a petrified religion." Michael Angelo maintained, that, to an architect, a knowledge of anatomy is essential.”

v     This essay is divided into eight sections, titled: Nature, Commodity, Beauty, Language, Discipline, Idealism, Spirit, and Prospects

v     In the essay, nature isn’t just the woods and rivers. It’s the physical world – everything around you, including art, science, and your physical body - everything but your soul.

v     In the section titled Nature, Emerson discusses how it serves human needs: as entertainment/delight, for communication, and for understanding our world.

v     Emerson argued that people do not fully accept nature’s beauty and all it has to offer. He said most people don’t see, or notice, nature the way a child does. That we lose something by growing up – a poetic or artistic way of seeing.

v     He suggested that people stay in solitude to better develop their relation with nature.

“In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child.”

v     Commodity has to do with all the gifts from the earth. the main idea is we shouldn’t gripe or complain about our world, but be thankful for everything it offers.

“this ocean of air above, this ocean of water beneath, this firmament of earth between? this zodiac of lights, this tent of dropping clouds, this striped coat of climates, this fourfold year? Beasts, fire, water, stones, and corn serve him. The field is at once his floor, his work-yard, his play-ground, his garden, and his bed.”

v     Emerson didn’t believe that human technology was against nature. His argument was that it imitated nature.

“The useful arts are reproductions or new combinations by the wit of man, of the same natural benefactors. He no longer waits for favoring gales, but by means of steam, he realizes the fable of Aeolus's bag, and carries the two and thirty winds in the boiler of his boat.”

v     Emerson felt that the natural world was a gift so beautiful, it made us all richer than kings:

“Give me health and a day, and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous. The dawn is my Assyria; the sun-set and moon-rise my Paphos, and unimaginable realms of faerie; broad noon shall be my England of the senses and the understanding; the night shall be my Germany of mystic philosophy and dreams.”

v     What makes the world so beautiful isn’t simply all the nice, scenery, but the fact that it’s there even when not expected, to remind us of our place, and to provide beauty when we’re struggling.

“Go out of the house to see the moon, and ’t is mere tinsel; it will not please as when its light shines upon your necessary journey.”

v     In Language, Emerson explains how all our words and expressions come from nature.

“An enraged man is a lion, a cunning man is a fox, a firm man is a rock, a learned man is a torch. A lamb is innocence; a snake is 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.”

v     Emerson uses the word Discipline to mean a subject, like a school subject. Nature is itself a subject you can learn from. It’s a teacher, lesson book, and a classroom. Every science class you take, every literature and history class, even PE, they’re all different sides of the discipline of nature.

v     Through the discipline of nature, we learn common sense, and the nature of property, debt, and credit. Emerson compared property to snow:

“if it fall level to-day, it will be blown into drifts to-morrow”

v     Through the discipline of nature, we can learn morals – right and wrong:

“All things are moral; . . . every chemical change from the rudest crystal up to the laws of life; every change of vegetation from the first principle of growth in the eye of a leaf, to the tropical forest and antediluvian coal-mine; every animal function from the sponge up to Hercules, shall hint or thunder to man the laws of right and wrong, and echo the Ten Commandments. Therefore is nature ever the ally of Religion: lends all her pomp and riches to the religious sentiment.”

v     Everything we buy and consume can teach us morals. Think of common objects like pencils, cups, shoes, coats, eyeglasses, etc. Emerson saw them as servants:

“. . . the use of commodity, regarded by itself, is mean and squalid. But it is to the mind an education in the doctrine of Use, namely, that a thing is good only so far as it serves; . . .”

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