Nature and Transcendence: Emerson on How We Become Our Most Authentic Selves
By Maria Popova
“We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness,” Loren Eiseley wrote in his exquisite meditation on nature, human nature, and the meaning of life. “We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.” In the same epoch, Rachel Carson invited an elemental unforgetting as she considered our spiritual bond with nature: “Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.”
In light of how life on Earth evolved, this appears as a clear, almost commonplace reality. But the foundation for it was laid out more than a century before Eiseley and Carson, well before Darwin shaped this understanding of reality with his evolutionary theory.
In 1833, just as the term Transcendentalism was being coined for the philosophical movement sweeping New England, an essay appeared that became its founding document: “Nature” by the thirty-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882).
Emerson’s soaring essays would go on to inspire generations — among them the young Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass emanates the Emersonian recognition that each of us contains “the past, the future, dwelling there, like space, inseparable together,” that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” But it was in “Nature” that Emerson laid out the founding credo of his body of work — a credo that became the animating spirit of an entire epoch of thought and feeling.
A generation before his young nature-ecstatic protege Henry David Thoreau proclaimed, “In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean,” Emerson writes:
Cities give not the human senses room enough. We go out daily and nightly to feed the eyes on the horizon, and require so much scope, just as we need water for our bath.
Celebrating the “quarantine powers of nature” and its singular “ministrations to the imagination and the soul,” he offers an antidote to the deadening effects of city life:
At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he makes into these precincts. Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes. Here we find nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her… The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles. Here no history, or church, or state, is interpolated on the divine sky and the immortal year.
There, Emerson observes, we find ourselves enraptured in a kind of embodied transcendence:
I leave the village politics and personalities, yes, and the world of villages and personalities behind, and pass into a delicate realm of sunset and moonlight, too bright almost for spotted man to enter without novitiate and probation. We penetrate bodily this incredible beauty… A holiday, a villeggiatura, a royal revel, the proudest, most heart-rejoicing festival that valor and beauty, power and taste, ever decked and enjoyed, establishes itself on the instant. These sunset clouds, these delicately emerging stars, with their private and ineffable glances, signify it and proffer it. I am taught the poorness of our invention, the ugliness of towns and palaces.
Sobered to this ugliness, we see afresh all the naïve ways in which we try to cheat nature — ways that have grown infinitely more elaborate in the two centuries since, but just as naïve:
We anticipate a new era from the invention of a locomotive, or a balloon; the new engine brings with it the old checks. They say that by electro-magnetism, your salad shall be grown from the seed whilst your fowl is roasting for dinner: it is a symbol of our modern aims and endeavors, — of our condensation and acceleration of objects: but nothing is gained: nature cannot be cheated: man’s life is but seventy salads long, grow they swift or grow they slow.
And yet our mortality — the haunting reality of our transience — shimmers in a new light when seen in the context of nature in its totality, for then it becomes a sacrament to the eternal flow of energy in the universe, of which we are each a passing particle, linked to every other passing particle. Emerson writes:
The knowledge that we traverse the whole scale of being, from the center to the poles of nature, and have some stake in every possibility, lends that sublime luster to death, which philosophy and religion have too outwardly and literally striven to express in the popular doctrine of the immortality of the soul. The reality is more excellent than the report. Here is no ruin, no discontinuity, no spent ball. The divine circulations never rest nor linger. Nature is the incarnation of a thought, and turns to a thought again, as ice becomes water and gas.
A century before the Vedanta-inspired Nobel-winning quantum pioneer Erwin Schrödinger made his koan-like observation that “the over-all number of minds is just one,” Emerson — who was among the first Americans to read Eastern philosophy — adds:
The world is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping again into the state of free thought.
In a sentiment James Baldwin would echo in his dazzling insistence that “nothing is fixed,” Emerson would pick up the subject four decades later, in an 1872 lecture titled “Poetry and Imagination”:
This magnificent hotel and conveniency we call Nature is not final… Nothing stands still in nature but death… Creation is on wheels, in transit, always passing into something else, streaming into something higher… Thin or solid everything is in flight… everything undressing and stealing away from its old into new form, and nothing fast but those invisible cords which we call laws on which all is strung. Then we see that things wear different names and faces but belong to one family: that the secret cords or laws show their well-known virtue through every variety, be it animal, or plant, or planet… All multiplicity rushes to be resolved into unity.
Complement with Robinson Jeffers’s epic poem about the interwoven mystery of mind and universe, then revisit Emerson on how to trust yourself, the key to living with presence and authenticity, resisting the tyranny of the masses, and his conflicted love letters with Margaret Fuller.
Published December 10, 2022