Paxton Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nature’s Connection with Man Through out history many intellectuals have

examined the question what is nature and what its connection with man. Great men like Aristotle, Parmenides, and Henry David Thoreau have all explored this question. Along with the many other philosophers who wrote on nature Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay entitled Nature, also explores what nature is and how it is connected with man. From his essay Nature we can indentify that Ralph Waldo Emerson perceives nature as something that is connected to man both temporally and spiritually through commodity, beauty, language; and discipline. In order to understand where Emerson is coming from it is important to define what, according to Emerson, is nature. It is also necessary to explain how he defines commodity, beauty, language, and discipline. First we will define what nature is according to Emerson. Emerson states that the word “nature” “refers to essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf” (Emerson 2). This, he says, is different than “art” which is defined as “is natural objects or materials that we alter for our own purposes” such as a house, a canal, a statue, or a picture (“Summary and Analysis of Nature”). These two distinctions—nature verses art—are important to keep in mind when examining Emerson’s view of man’s connection with nature. Emerson lumps all the uses for the world into four categories which he says are commodity, beauty, language, and discipline. According to Emerson “commodity” means a physical necessity, “beauty” is a part of nature that serves are needs, “language” is how we describe the objects in nature, and “discipline” is the way man becomes to know nature. As we keep these


definitions in mind—what nature, commodity, beauty, language, and discipline is—we can better understand Emerson’s belief of what nature is and what man’s connection is with nature

Paxton With the major terms that Emerson uses we can now go on to explore the different aspects in which, according to Emerson, man is connected to nature both temporally


and spiritually. The first thing that connects man with nature is commodity. Commodity connects man with nature because it is nature which provides to man. The entire human race depends on nature to provide their basic needs and nature in its wisdom provides man with the necessities that he needs to survive. “All parts [of nature],” says Emerson, “incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man” (3). From the wind to the animal, every thing in nature works with each other for the benefit and profit and man. Nature does not provide man with its commodities just to keep man alive, but Emerson suggests there is more than just the survival of man that nature has in mind. Emerson declares “A man is fed, not that he may be fed, but that he may work” (4). This statement reveals Emerson feels that nature gives man the food that he needs so that he has enough energy to go about his daily chores. It is in this way that man is connected to nature through commodity. Man gets the food he needs from nature and in return he is able to work to improve nature and gain money to provide for him. Just as commodity provides man with his temporal needs, with beauty, as Emerson puts it, “A nobler want of man is served by nature” (Emerson 4). This want is served by the eye of man which sees through the use of light. Light, according to Emerson, makes beauty that is seen through the eye. Emerson writes, “There is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful” (Emerson 4). He even goes on as far to say that “Even the corpse has its own beauty” (Emerson 4). Everything in nature has beauty all man needs to recognize this beauty is light. In another part of his essay he makes this comment about beauty “Beauty, in its largest and profoundest sense, is one expression for the universe” (Emerson 7).

Paxton Emerson says that there are three ways in which beauty connects man with nature. The


first way beauty connects man with nature is that it gives us strength when we are low on energy. Speaking of the rejuvenating power of nature and the beauty of it Emerson says this: “The inhabitants of cities suppose that the country landscape is pleasant only half the year. I please myself with the graces of the winter scenery, and believe that we are as much touched by it as by the genial influences of summer. To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again” (Emerson 5). Through these words Emerson reminds us that no matter what time of the year it is nature never cease to display its beauty and rejuvenating powers. The second way that beauty connects man with nature is through enhancing noble deeds of man and increasing man’s spirituality. Emerson says that the earth is beautiful because of virtue and it inspires man to be virtuous. Speaking of this connection between virtue and nature Emerson pleads with man to become one with nature when he writes “Nature stretcheth out her arms to embrace man, only let his thoughts be of equal greatness. Willingly does she follow his steps with the rose and the violet, and bend her lines of grandeur and grace to the decoration of her darling child. Only let his thoughts be of equal scope, and the frame will suit the picture” (Emerson 6). Along with pleading for man to become united with nature he also asserts that the only way to be united with nature is to have virtue “A virtuous man is in unison with her works, and makes the central figure of the visible sphere” (Emerson 6). These to statements on declare a central theme that Emerson has in his essay on nature which us that man must become united with nature. The third way beauty connects man with nature is through mans intellect. Emerson says that the reason beauty connects man with

Paxton nature through intellect is because both are striving for order. Speaking of the nature of the intellect he writes “The intellect searches out the absolute order of things as they stand in the mind of God…” (Emerson 6). These words imply that both man and nature are searching for a perfect order and it is that search for order that leads man to become connected with nature.


Just as beauty connects man with nature spiritually so does language. To explain the connection Emerson uses what he calls a “threefold degree” (Emerson 7). This “threefold degree” is one “Words are signs of natural facts,” two “Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts,” and three “Nature is the symbol of spirit” (Emerson 7). These three ideas are the main things that bind man and nature together. According to Emerson language is a series of metaphors, symbols representing other things (Summary and Analysis). Emerson says that we use different words to mean different things such as “Right means straight; wrong means twisted. Spirit primarily means wind; transgression, the crossing of a line; supercilious, the raising of the eyebrow” (Emerson 7). As he connects the words he uses with things of nature, man becomes more connected with nature. Another way Emerson says that nature is spiritually connected to man is that “every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind” (Emerson 8). Another way of saying this is that everything in nature represents a state of mind that man has. For example Emerson says that “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” (Emerson 7). These are only some of the many examples that Emerson gives to show how the things of nature represent a state of mind that man has. The last way that language connects man spiritually through parts of the speech and the laws that we make. Emerson writes “Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind” (Emerson 9). The reason for his claim is because man’s laws



seem to mimic nature's laws but over time we have blurred the distinction between our laws and nature's. He also supports his claim that are words are metaphors by referring to proverbs and other famous sayings “In like manner, the memorable words of history, and the proverbs of nations, consist usually of a natural fact, selected as a picture or parable of a moral truth” (Emerson 10). He goes on to say that his statement also applies to allegories, fables, and parables. Emerson seems to say that because the language of man constantly refers to nature and the spirit that man is connected to nature through language because of the symbols they use. Emerson says that the reason for this connection is because “that which was unconscious truth, becomes, when interpreted and defined in an object, a part of the domain of knowledge” (Emerson 11). So far the things that connect man to nature have either been only a temporal or only a spiritual connection, but the last thing which connects man with nature connects man both temporally and spiritually. This thing that connects man in both aspects is discipline. According to Emerson man connects with nature through two things “Understanding” and “Reason” (Emerson 11). He goes onto to explain how understanding and reason contribute to mans connection to nature. He writes “Every property of matter is a school for the understanding, -- its solidity or resistance, its inertia, its extension, its figure, its divisibility. The understanding adds, divides, combines, measures, and finds nutriment and room for its activity in this worthy scene….Reason transfers all these lessons into its own world of thought, by perceiving the analogy that marries Matter and Mind.” With out reason and understanding man cannot possibly be able to connect himself with nature. Emerson argues that understanding and reason are interconnected to each other and man cannot hope to be united with nature without them. Emerson states that Understanding is concerned with the knowledge of how objects function in



the world and Reason is the intuition needed to understand those objects. It is this correlation that ties reason and understanding together. According to Emerson, with out both understanding and reason man is not connected with nature because he cannot truly learn anything from it. In conclusion Ralph Waldo Emerson perceives nature and man as being connected through both temporal and spiritual means. This connection is created through commodity, beauty, language and discipline. All these categories together are what help man and nature to become one. Commodity helps man temporally, beauty and language help man spiritually, and discipline helps man in both areas, but they work together to help man create a oneness with nature.

Paxton Works Cited Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. 12 February 2012. (Note: Page numbers are based of a word document of the text) CliffsNotes. Emerson’s Essays “Summary and Analysis of Nature”. 12 February 2012.