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Morten Oddvik, E-226 Literature and Nature, 14.05.

2009

Emerson on Beauty

In this essay I will focus on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature, more precisely I will look at the

chapter on «Beauty». In this chapter Emerson divides beauty into three categories; physical

beauty, spiritual beauty and idealistic beauty. I will discuss this hierarchical division and how it is

anthropocentric in many ways. Additionally I will look at some of the implications in Emerson’s

division of beauty.

Emerson writes that to man «the simple perception of natural forms is a delight» and how physical

beauty affects us as humans in a «medicinal», recreational way. This is his first point in his

discourse on beauty, and he exemplifies this physical beauty through references to tradesmen and

attorneys and how they become men again when they step out into the street and see «the sky and

the woods». This is an effect of nature that most human beings recognize, the delightful feeling of

admiring nature’s everyday beauty in our surroundings and its invigorating effect on us.

I find it interesting how Emerson formulates the purpose of this physical beauty in terms of

horizons, or as he puts it, «The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired,

so long as we can see far enough». We are all dependent on nature in order to find balance in our

lives. Nature provides us with the perspectives necessary to achieve this.

Emerson continues by praising nature’s «loveliness», which satisfies «without any mixture

of corporeal benefit». He becomes quite celestial in his rendering of his experiences of natural

beauty. There is this sense of «oneness», or unity, with nature, that he feels is heavenly as he

partakes «its rapid transformations». This metaphysical dimension of nature and its beauty seems

to be essential for Emerson: «How does Nature deify us with a few and cheap elements!» he

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exclaims enthusiastically. We become godly in our contact with its physical beauty; it is not only

recreational. Thus, we cannot ignore nature if we desire complete tranquility.

Emerson remains true to his thought that we have an unconditional love for nature, and its

changing seasons, its natural flow of beauty and its lively «shows of day». The direct meaning of

nature is not something that Homer or Shakespeare could «re-form» for him in words. Emerson

rhetorically questions what nature tries to tell us. The «mute music» of nature is the vitality and

vigor that nature bestows on us, and makes us feel content.

Thus, there is another level of beauty according to Emerson, a beauty that is more spiritual

than the physical beauty «which is seen and felt». He explains this higher beauty as something

where «the spiritual element is essential to its perfection». This beauty is an ethical one, where the

question of what is right and virtuous in life is essential. Emerson seems to mean that there exists a

symbiotic relationship between man and nature as a result of the human will. Due to this will,

nature’s «high and divine beauty (...) can be loved without effeminacy».

This spiritual beauty, however, implies at the same time an anthropocentric view of nature.

Man is «entitled to the world by his constitution», Emerson prophesies to the reader. This is a

spiritual beauty where man becomes «of equal greatness» to nature herself, as «nature stretcheth

out her arms to embrace man». We become part of nature’s spiritual beauty through our actions,

since nature, to Emerson, is «his, if he will.»

The third level of beauty, which Emerson classifies as the highest one, is that of ideal beauty. This

is where nature «becomes an object of the intellect». This type of beauty seems inextricably linked

to the anthropocentric view of nature that Emerson has presented earlier. This view of nature is

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Neo-Platonic; it deals with nature’s relation to thought, to the ideal. Emerson suggests that man

can through spiritual contemplation refine his understanding of the truth. In line with Eastern

philosophy and religious thought, Emerson deems nature to be divine; man’s contemplative

relation to nature will therefore render him divine. The road to divinity goes through the «pursuit

of the intellect». This will consequently lead to good, and as Emerson optimistically believes; «All

good is eternally reproductive».

Nature inspires the creative dispositions of our intellect. Emerson emphasizes that spiritual

beauty also encourages us to action: «The beauty of nature reforms itself in the mind, and not for

barren contemplation, but for new creation». We reproduce nature in art. Nature stimulates

creative inspiration due to our fascination with it, «this love of beauty is Taste», which then

triggers man individually to create, hence «creation of beauty is Art.» We recreate the world in the

image of nature. The results of this recreation in art are «similar and single», but they shed «light

upon the mystery of humanity».

Emerson concludes his discussion of nature’s three levels of beauty by declaring that «beauty in

nature is not ultimate»; it is only one part of nature. Beauty in nature is not the «final cause of

Nature». This natural beauty is «one expression of the universe». Emerson seems to view beauty

as a means for human beings to understand themselves and to satisfy the soul. And by the

interaction between reason, or intuition in Emerson’s sense of the word, and nature we will reach a

higher understanding of ourselves. We will get closer to understanding the universal truths of

nature.

There are, however, blatant contradictions in Emerson’s discourse on beauty. On the one hand he

maintains that physical beauty invigorates us. When we contemplate the physical beauty of nature

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we feel at ease, we find ourselves. Nature satisfies us, but we are also dependent on it because we

are a part of it, and if we ignore it, we will decay spiritually. We will cease to realize ourselves as

humans, because «the health of the eye seems to demand a horizon». Moreover, Emerson

acknowledges the fact that nature is divine and that we are metaphysically dependent upon it. We

have a divine potential to become united with the «heavenly» beauty of nature, but only if we

pursue it spiritually. We only exist in union with nature. By acknowledging this fact we can

spiritually grow to a higher understanding.

On the other hand, Emerson explains, «we are taught by great actions that the universe is

the property of every individual in it». Nature serves us due to our constitutional right to rule it.

As Emerson puts it, «nature became ancillary to man». Man is the center of nature, and the beauty

of the world is there for us to admire.

In this manner he at one and the same time argues that we are part of nature and somehow

superior to it. He himself asks, «can we separate the man from the living picture?» and answers in

part that we cannot. Nature does not only have a «medicinal» effect upon us; it gives us the

opportunity to see the complexity of the world, the variety, the diverse beauty of it. It provides us

with perspectives, with horizons that make us see meaning, see hope in our lives and see the

greater picture of it all. Perspectives are essential for us if we desire a rich life where we can live in

a reciprocal relationship with nature. In order for us to understand the world we live in, we depend

upon nature. Nevertheless, Emerson concludes in the last passage, «the world thus exists to the

soul to satisfy the desire of beauty». Thus he is viewing nature in an anthropocentric way.

In this essay I have discussed Emerson’s view on nature and his hierarchical conception of it.

Emerson was a pioneer, an evolutionist and an impeccable progressionist. His heavy emphasis on

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Neo-Platonic thought, especially in his discussion of idealistic beauty, makes him think of nature’s

physical presence as something inferior to thought. His religious schooling had also naturally a

great impact upon his view of nature and beauty, as seen in his religious perspectives of nature.

«Beauty is the mark God sets upon virtue», he writes and emphasizes the divinity of nature’s

beauty.

His structural classifications of nature’s beauty are simple, but old-fashioned. For the most

part it is clear that Emerson makes a distinction between nature and man, which is the basis for his

anthropocentrism. In other words his hierarchical divisions of beauty are based upon a world,

which can be perceived on different levels, as in Eastern philosophy.

Emerson’s heavy emphasizing on the hierarchical division of beauty, where the ideal beauty

is highest contains undermining implications. The physical beauty is not as spiritually valuable, or

pure, as the ideal beauty. In the same fashion Emerson is making a distinction between the ideal

and the spiritual beauty. The latter beauty is anthropocentric and thus not as pure, or high, as the

ideal, he writes. At the same time he his concluding the discussion on the whole that: «(...) beauty

in nature is not ultimate. It is the herald of inward and eternal beauty, and is not alone a solid and

satisfactory good. It must therefore stand as a part, and not as yet the last or highest expression of

the final cause of Nature.» By this he minimizes the importance of the anthropocentric viewpoint

as emphasized in spiritual beauty. He is simply saying that nature is not perfect, but the ideal, in a

Neo-Platonic sense is, and that is why this is the highest form of beauty.

Emerson provides the reader with many interesting observations on beauty, both inspiring

and provoking. His hierarchical division of physical, spiritual and ideal beauty seems simple

enough. Nevertheless, Emerson appears to be inconsistent in how he views nature. On the one

hand he is taking a naturalist position, where nature is the only place where man can find himself.

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«Nature satisfy the soul with its loveliness» and has an almost mysterious impact upon us as

human beings. Next Emerson is taking an anthropocentric position where he views nature as ours,

or as he puts it: «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 or estate». As rational beings

we are entitled to nature, as we are the only ones to acknowledge its usefulness.

On the other hand Emerson is saying that the highest form of beauty is the ideal, where

beauty in nature is not the highest, but the «inward and eternal beauty» is. Emerson seems to be

inconsistent in his anthropocentric view of nature, as he does not fully acknowledge that we are

part of nature, and therefore we cannot separate ourselves from it. As the Greeks called the world

simply «beauty», which Emerson reminds us of in the beginning of the chapter, so does there exist

an interdependent relationship between man and nature that should not be ignored.