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Ralph Waldo Emerson


The Naturalist

Delivered to the Boston Natural HIstory Society, 7 May, 1934


The Curators have honored me with the task of preparing an Address to the Society agreeably to the custom of its annual meetings. I shall use the occasion to consider a question which though it have not equal interest for all has great interest for many of us: What is the place of Natural History in Education? It is but a small portion of this society who have time to devote themselves exclusively to Natural History. Perhaps it is better we should not. But the question occurs to a man mainly engaged in far different pursuits whether it is wise to embark at all in a pursuit in which it is plain he must content himself with quite superficial knowledge; whether it is no waste of time to study a new and tedious classification. I shall treat this question not for the Natural Philosopher but for the Man, and offer you some thoughts upon the intellectual influences of Natural Science.

I shall say what in my opinion is to excuse such persons as myself who without any hope of becoming masters of any department of natural science so as to attain the rank of original observers, do yet find a gratification in coming here to school, and in reading the general results of Naturalists and learning so much of the classifications of the sciences as shall enable us to understand their discoveries.

That the study of Nature should occupy some place, that it will occupy some place in education, in spite of the worst perversion or total neglect, is certain. I knew a person who sailed from Boston to Charleston, S. C. and never saw the water. But nature takes care generally that we shall see the water and the snow, the forest, the swamp, the mountain, the eclipse, the comet, the northern lights, and all her commanding phenomena. The streets of towns cannot so completely hide the face of heaven and the face of the earth but that every generous and penetrating genius is generally found to have an interest in the works of Creation. The imagery in discourse which delights all men is that which is drawn from observation of natural processes. It is this which gives that piquancy to the conversation of a strong-minded farmer or backwoodsman which all men relish.

But it is said that Man is the only object of interest to Man. I fully believe it. I believe that the constitution of man is the centre from which all our speculations depart. But it is the wonderful charm of external nature that man stands in a central connexion with it all; not at the head, but in the midst: and not an individual in the kingdom of organized life but sends out a ray of relation to him. So that all beings seem to serve such an use as that which is sought in comparative anatomy. We study our own structure magnified or simplified in each one. In a generous education certainly the Earth, which is the bountiful mother and nurse, the abode, the stimulus, the medicine, and the tomb of us all, will not, nor will our fellow-creatures in it, fail of our attention. These objects are the most ancient and permanent whereof we have any knowledge. If our restless curiosity lead us to unearth the buried cities and dig up the mummy pits and spell out the abraded characters on Egyptian stones, shall we see a less venerable antiquity in the clouds and the grass? An everlasting Now reigns in Nature that produces on our bushes the selfsame Rose which charmed the Roman and the Chaldaean. The grain and the vine, the ant and the moth are as long-descended. The slender violet hath preserved in the face of the sun and moon the humility of his line and the oldest work of man is an upstart by the side of the shells of the sea.

But the antiquity of these objects is merely a claim upon the feelings. They have another claim upon the Understanding, which especially concerns us in this view of intellectual influences - they are perfect creatures. It is the result of all philosophy if it is not born with us - an assured optimism. When Lagrange and Laplace found out the periodicity of the errors of the heavenly bodies and thence the stability of the Solar System was the result unexpected by any mind? Whatever theology or philosophy we rest in, or labor after, the students of Nature have all agreed that in Nature nothing is false or unsuccessful. That which is aimed at is attained, and by means elegant and irresistible. The whole force of the Creation is concentrated upon every point. What agencies of electricity, gravity, light, affinity, combine to make every plant what it is, and in a manner so quiet that the presence of these tremendous powers is not ordinarily suspected. Woven in their loom every plant, every animal is finished and perfect as the world. A willow or an apple is a perfect being; so is a bee or a thrush. The best poem or statue or picture is not. This is the view which so much impressed the celebrated Goethe, whose life was a study of the Theory of Art, that he said "no man should be admitted into his Republic, who was not versed in Natural History." There is deep reason for the love of nature that has characterized the highest minds. The soul and the body of things are harmonized; therefore the deeper is a man's insight into the spiritual laws the more intense will be his love of the works of nature.


"The smallest production of nature," says Goethe,"has the circle of its completeness within itself and I have only need of eyes to see with, in order to discover the relative proportions. I am perfectly sure that within this circle however narrow, an entirely genuine existence is enclosed. A work of art, on the other hand, has its completeness out of itself. The Best lies in the idea of the artist which he seldom or never reaches: all the rest lies in certain conventional rules which are indeed derived from the nature of art and of mechanical processes but still are not so easy to decipher as the laws of living nature. In works of art there is much that is traditional; the works of nature are ever a freshly uttered Word of God." Perhaps it is the province of poetry rather than of prose to describe the effect upon the mind and heart of these nameless influence. Certainly he that has formed his ideas of adaptation of beauty on these models can have nothing mean in his estimate and hence Fourier said of Laplace in his eulogy before the French Academy, "What Laplace called great, was great." It is fit that man should look upon Nature with the eye of the Artist, to learn from the great Artist whose blood beats in our veins, whose taste is upspringing in our own perception of beauty, the laws by which our hands should work that we may build St. Peter'ses or paint Transfigurations or sing Iliads in worthy continuation of the architecture of the Andes, [of] the colors of the sky and the poem of life."

And as we have said in the first place these individual forms are perfect, let us speak now of the secret of their composition.


Nothing strikes me more in Nature than the effect of Composition, the contrast between the simplicity of the means and the gorgeousness of the result. Nature is particularly skilled in that rule of arithmetic called Permutation and Combination. Sometimes it is so amusing as to remind us of the French cook who could make forty dishes out of macaroni. A few elements has Nature converted into the countless variety of substances that fill the earth. Look at the grandeur of the prospect from a mountain top. It is composed of not many materials continually repeated in new unions.

Composition is more important than the elegance of individual forms. Every artist knows that beyond its own beauty the object has an additional grace from relation to surrounding objects. The most elegant shell in your cabinet does not produce such effect on the eye as the contrast and combination of a group of ordinary sea shells lying together wet upon the beach. I remember when I was a boy going upon the shore and being charmed with the colors and forms of the shells. I gathered up many and put them in my pocket. When I got home I could find nothing that I gathered, nothing but some dry, ugly mussels and snails. Thence I learned that Composition was more important than the beauty of individual forms to effect. On the shore they lay wet and social by the sea and under the sky. The smell of a field surpasses the scent of any flower and the selection of the prism is not comparable to the confusion of a sunset. A hillside expresses what has never been written down.

We are provoked by seeing how simple are the principles of her architecture. The tree is not, the botanist finds, a single structure but a vast assemblage of individuals. The difference between animal and vegetable textures is very slight at their commencement. Cellular tissue and animal fibre being similar and the vesicle and spiculum -- hydrogen and oxygen deriving their original combination perhaps from their polarity -- all grows up from plus and minus. How beautiful a shell is the Buccinum Harpa! but when we see that every one of these polished ridges that adorn its surface like harpstrings was in turn the outer lip the wonder is less. So many of the forms in conchology were originally determined perhaps by a mere projection. Give water in a cup a revolving motion, and it immediately assumes precisely the form most common in shells, that of the operculum of the buccinums - or helix.

"I am persuaded," said Fontenelle, "that if the majority of mankind could be made to see the order of the Universe such as it is, as they would not remark in it any virtues attached to certain numbers, nor any properties inherent in certain planets, nor fatalities in certain times and revolutions of these, they would not be able to restrain themselves on the sight of this admirable regularity and beauty from crying out with astonishment, "What! Is this all?' "

There are specific advantages of such studies that deserve to be enumerated under the head of intellectual influences. They restrain Imitation - Imitation, the vice of overcivilized communities. To take an example. Imitation is the vice eminently of our times, of our literature, of our manners and social action. All American manners, language, and writing are derivative. We do not write from facts, but we wish to state facts after the English manner. It is at once our strength and weakness that there is an immense floating diction from which always we draw, to which by the ear we always seek to accommodate our expression. It is the tax we pay for the splendid inheritance of the English literature. We are exonerated by the sea and the revolution from the national debt but we pay this which is rather the worst part. Time will certainly cure us, probably through the prevalence of a bad party ignorant of all literature and of all but selfish, gross pursuits. But a better cure would be in the study of Natural History. Imitation is a servile copying of what is capricious as if it were permanent forms of Nature. The study of things leads us back to Truth, to the great Network of organized beings made of our own flesh and blood with kindred functions and related organs and one Cause.

Another part of the intellectual discipline of Natural Science is that it sharpens the discrimination. It teaches the difficult art of distinguishing between the similar and the same. The whole study of Nature is perpetual division and subdivision and again new distinctions. And all these distinctions are real. There is no false logic in Nature. All its properties are permanent: the acids and metals never lie; their yea is yea; their nay, nay. They are newly discovered but not new. The Light yields to Dr. Brewster its unequivocal answer when he puts the dilemma but it has published the same fact to the Universe every moment since the beginning undiscerned.

Natural objects are so sharply discriminated; an oak is so unlike an orange, wax and iron so different, and any mistake in practice is so promptly exposed that it is to be desired, that so many dull understandings who make no distinctions should be set to making chemical mixtures or classifying plants. What pity, instead of that equal and identical praise which enters into all biographies and spreads poppies over all, that writers of characters cannot be forced to describe men so that they shall be known apart even if it were copied from the sharp marks of Botany, such as dry, solitary, sour, plausible, prosing, which were worth a graveyard of obituaries.


These are specific advantages to be sought in Education from Science.

But as we have to do now with its true place and influences there are some important distinctions to be made. We are not only to have the aids of Science but we are to recur to Nature to guard us from the evils of Science.

We are the cossets of civilization, a refinement which consists very much in multiplying comforts and luxuries, which gives us pins and caoutchouc and watches and almanacks and has the bad effect that crutches have of destroying the use of the limbs they are meant to aid. The clock and compass do us harm by hindering us from astronomy. We have made civil months until the natural signs, the solstices and the equinoxes, most men do not know. Find me a savage who does not know them. Even the farmer is losing the power to tell the hour by the sun, or of finding the compass-points by the same means, or by the pole star; and even the botanist in his skill in names is ignorant of the properties of plants. We need study to repair just that loss. In cities we are in danger of forgetting our relation to the planet and the system. There are people in Venice it is said who never leave the quarter of the city where they are born. That is one of the uses the stars render us, looking down from their far and solemn heights into every narrow and deep lane, forcibly admonishing the eye that by chance catches their beam of higher relations than he ordinarily remembers.

I cannot but think that a ramble in the country with the set purpose of observation to most persons whose duties confine them much to the city will be a useful lesson. By such excursions the student will see a day perhaps in a light in which he never regarded it. We are so enslaved by art that we always know it is about half-past four or twenty minutes of five. But go out into the woods, break your hours, carry your biscuit in your pocket, and you shall see a day as an astronomical phenomenon. You shall forget your near and petty relations to Boston and Cambridge and see nothing but the noble earth on which you was born and the great star which enlightens and warms it. The contented clouds shall be to you an image of peace. The pines glittering with their innumerable green needles in the light every breath of air will make audible. "It is Day. It is Day." That is all which Heaven saith. Then look about you and see the manifold works of which day is the occasion. At first all is solitary. You think nothing lives there. But wait a little. Hundreds of eyes and ears watched your approach. The rabbit bounded away as you entered the held. The snake glided off at the noise of your approach from the very rock on which you stand, the bee flew from the neighboring shrub, the titmouse has only taken the next pinetree, and listen a moment, and you shall hear the ground robin scratching the leaves at the side of the brook. The population of the fields is denser than that of the towns. More races here than families there.

Nature is the adroitest economist in her housekeeping and 'tis worth an especial visit to the fields to see how many creatures she contrives to tuck away in a single acre of ground without confusion or crowding. The schoolbooks say, to illustrate the porosity of matter: Fill a tub with cannon balls, then the interstices with bullets, then the interstices with shot, and the interstices with powder. But in nature every layer of the air and of the soil hath its population and every individual its parasite. She puts the ox in the field; the bird on the bough; the insect at the flower; the scaraboeus in the rut; the turtle in the pool; woodpecker in rotten tree; the moth on the leaf; the squirrel; the hawk wheeling up to heaven; in the small interstices of the stones she hatches under a silver counterpane a spider's egg and every one of these creatures is ridden by some happy aphides and apply the microscope to the aphis and lo! the eater is eaten. Nor when you become acquainted with these centres of life will you despise them because their way of life is limited to a rood of ground. They have a life as large as yours. For their fine functions and senses stretch away into that other infinity of minute division which the microscope and the laws of polarization and chemistry have been opening to man, and there is as great an interval between a grain of sand and nothing as there is between the visible universe and the space in which it is swallowed as an atom.

As by aid of art we approach them, dust and mould quicken into races of beings, dots become genera, and, past the limit of unarmed vision, there is an infinite creation in intense activity between us and the negative Pole.


But having stated particular advantages I know that these may be met by statements of particular disadvantages and no study can be truly recommended but by showing in it an absolute Universal fitness that transcends all considerations of place, profession, age, and the like that induce us to prefer one or another liberal pursuit Natural History seeks more directly that which all sciences, arts, and trades seek mediately -- knowledge of the world we live in. Here it touches directly the highest question of philosophy, Why and How any thing is?

No reflecting man but asks these questions and however insolvable they appear would deem it brutish not to ask them of himself. We are possessed with a conviction that Nature means something, that the flower, the animals, the sea, the rock have some relation to us not understood which if known would make them more significant. As men have been fingering the characters that are carved on the Egyptian remains these thousand years, sure that they mean something if we could only find out the cipher, so for a much longer period men have been groping at the hieroglyphics of Nature to find out the cipher, assured that they mean something, assured that we shall understand ourselves better for what we shall read in the sea and the land and the sky. This their open secret is not translateable into words but is to make the face of the earth as much more to me than it is now as is a mountain chain to Humboldt than to his muleteer.

Natural History seeks directly to provide this key or dictionary by observing and recording the properties of every individual and determining its place in the Universe by its properties. Men of extraordinary powers of a contemplative mind have in all ages pondered this secret: Pythagoras, Swedenborg, Goethe, not to mention the Brahmins. These have sought to give an explanation of Nature; of beasts, plants, minerals. The Persian said that Oromasdes made good creatures, Ahriman the evil. Pythagoras said that the soul of man endured penance in the low forms of ferocious, gluttonous, obscene beasts. The pig was the purgatory of the glutton. A like faith had the Brahmin. Swedenborg taught that the soul creates evermore the body; that certain affections clothe themselves in certain forms as cunning in the fox, innocence in the lamb, cruelty in the laughing hyena. These opinions have failed to persuade men of their truth and yet are all valuable as the materials of truth, as proofs of an obstinate belief in the human mind that these creatures have a relation to itself.

This instinct is to be the guide, the god of inquiry or it will never come to anything. Natural History is making with knife and scales and alembic the Theory conform to the fact. It is for want of this marriage that both remain unfruitful. The poet loses himself in imaginations and for want of accuracy is a mere fabulist; his instincts unmake themselves and are tedious words. The savant on the other hand losing sight of the end of his inquiries in the perfection of his manipulations becomes an apothecary, a pedant.

I fully believe in both, in the poetry and in the dissection. I believe that we shall by and by know as The Arabian Nights tell us what the social birds say when they sit in the autumn in council chattering upon the tree, the caprices of the catbird, the affectation of the titmouse. I expect to know much of the biography of plants. Natural History is now little but a nomenclature. Nothing is known of the individuals yet who can doubt that in the history of the individuals lies all the charm as that of human history lies not in the races but in Luther, Napoleon and Webster. I should be glad to know what that delicate yellow Cistus does all the midsummer in those dry fields it inhabits. I should be glad to know what use the smilax subserves with its perennial greenness or whole wide fields of Empetrum and of brake. I should be glad to know the biographies of the extraordinary individuals. It would be even pleasanter than it is now -- to see a pumpkin in Hadley meadows or to shell corn in November in the cornbarn. See that centipede: c'est bien chaussée. Goethe said that Nature had cheated the snake of a body like the promise of his eyes and head and had sheathed him in a sack. Among the insects few seem to be at home in their bodies, entire and content like a bird, but rather as efforts, foreshadowings. Here and there comes a very decided form like that odd Brentus Anchorage which suggest[s] something very different from man, but in general man is the type by which we measure the insect.


I do not, whilst I lay stress on this point, undervalue the ordinary aids of science. The necessity of nomenclature, of minute physiological research, of the retort, the scalpel, and the scales, is incontestable. But there is no danger of its being underestimated. We only wish to insist upon their being considered as Means. We only wish to give equal and habitual prominence to the Love and Faith from which these should flow. This passion, the enthusiasm for nature, the love of the Whole, has burned in the breasts of the Fathers of Science. It was the ever present aim of Newton, of Linnaeus, of Davy, of Cuvier, to ascend from nomenclature to classification; from arbitrary to natural classes; from natural classes, to primary laws; from these, in an ever narrowing circle, to approach the elemental law, the causa causans, the supernatural force.

And the necessity of guarding this original taste, of keeping the mind of the student in a healthful state belongs especially to the consideration of the intellectual influences of science. When a reasoning man looks upon the Creation around him, he feels that it is most fit as a part of the study of himself that he should inquire into the nature of these related beings. He sees that the same laws that govern their structure govern his own; that his very superiority is yet in strict harmony with their natures. He wishes to comprehend their nature, to have such knowledge as shall place him as it were at the heart of the Creation that he may see its tribes and races unfolding themselves in order (as the orbs of our system are seen from the sun) that he may have a Theory of animated nature, understand its Law, so that his eye may predict the functions and habits of the individual before yet they show.

Now this is to be attained only by those who resolutely keep their reason in its seat, who guard themselves against their own habits, who persist in seeking the Idea in the particulars, the Type in the manifold forms. It seems the duty of the Naturalist to study in faith and in love, never to lose sight of the simplest questions, "Why?" and "Whence?" and 'What of that?", to be a poet in his severest analysis; rather, I should say, to make the Naturalist subordinate to the Man. He only can derive all the advantage from intimate knowledge who forces the magnified objects back into their true perspective, who after he has searched the proximate atoms integrates them again as in nature they are integrated and keeps his mind open to their beauty and to the moral impressions which it is their highest office to convey. To him they suggest a feeling as grand as the knowledge is accurate. To this end of furnishing us with hints, intimations of the inward Law of Nature, a cabinet is useful. It would seem as if there were better means of expressing these thoughts than words. 'Tis said that the idea which always haunted John Hunter, that Life was independent of organization, protecting and continually recreating the parts and wonderfully varying its means of action, he never succeeded in expressing but in his Museum. So no intelligent person can come into a well arranged cabinet of natural productions without being excited to unusual reveries, without being conscious by instinctive perception of relations which he can only feel without being able to comprehend or define. The later discoveries of naturalists seem to point more and more steadily at Method, at a Theory. The more superficial their observations the more unconnected and remote do the objects seem: the sticking of iron to the lodestone seems to have no connexion with the rainbow or the lightning or chemical changes but when the observation is more searching and profound the most remote objects are made to approach and seen to be various effects of one law: the spherules and spicula which the physiologist finds at the foundation both of vegetable and animal organization, these oxygenous, those hydrogenous; the little flower which makes lime and metals out [of] the elements of elements, and so promises to give us a course of chemical lessons worth knowing, and strip the little Proteus, Hydrogen, of his last coat, and the whole philosophy of their colours, the redundancy of oxygen in the red and yellow leaves in the autumn woods, the equilibrium of hydrogen and oxygen in the green leaf of midsummer; the application of polarized light as a chemical test; the new laws of crystalline architecture which the autophyllite in polarized light has suggested; Dr. Jenner's derivation of the migration of birds and of fishes from a single organic change; Hatchett's analysis of the egg and its analogies in the intestinal secretions: these seem to be most important steps and the most superficial reader cannot learn them without feeling himself in the precincts of that primary area whence the few great powers of Nature depart to produce by endless combinations their various and innumerable works.

I have great confidence, Gentlemen, that the spirit which has led you to such conspicuous efforts in the cause of Natural History, is founded in so true and deep a love of the laws of the Creation, in so simple a desire to explore and publish to others their precious secrets, as promises to our society the benefits without the pedantry of knowledge. The benefit to the community, amid the harsh and depraving strife of political parties, of these pure pursuits is inestimable.

We are born in an age which to its immense inheritance of natural knowledge has added great discoveries of its own. We should not be citizens of our own time, not faithful to our trust, if we neglected to avail ourselves of their light. The eternal beauty which led the early Greeks to call the globe [Greek]. or Beauty pleads ever with us, shines from the stars, glows in the flower, moves in the animal, crystallizes in the stone. No truth can be more self evident than that the highest state of man, physical, intellectual, and moral, can only coexist with a perfect Theory of Animated Nature.

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