American Transcendentalism Web
Authors & Texts Roots & Influences Ideas & Thought Criticism
Resources Search Communication Center
Default text size Big text size Bigger text size Biggest text size

Transcendental Ideas

Philosophy of Nature

Primary Texts: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Primary Texts: Henry David Thoreau

Related links:

Student Notes on the Transcendentalist Perspective of Nature

Man learns that Nature is awe-inspiring, all-powerful and full of dangerous beauty. Man is limited by nature's fences; there are some places in Nature that man is incapable of traversing—-be it too daunting emotionally, as it was for Thoreau in Ktaadn, or simply a physical impossibility. Thoreau in "Walking" observes, "For my part I feel that with regard to Nature I live sort of a border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transient forays only. . . ." Man is so insignificant in the face of nature, our existence is untenable: Thoreau's "House-Warming" . . . ."Nor need we trouble ourselves to speculate how the human race may be at last destroyed. It would be easy to cut their threads any time with a little sharper blast from the north. We go on dating from Cold Fridays and Great Snows; but a little colder Friday, or greater snow would put a period to man's existence on the globe."

As treacherous and cruel that Nature's justice can be, Mother Nature simultaneously rejuvenates the soul, and both Emerson and Thoreau believed that emotional and spiritual rebirth was an important tool of Nature's glory. In his journal, Emerson writes (in absolutely beautiful prose reminiscent of Whitman): "In the instant you leave far behind all human relations, wife, mother and child, and live only with the savages—-water, air, light, carbon, lime, and granite. Nature grows over me. Frogs pipe; waters far off tinkle; dry leaves hiss; grass bends and rustles, and I have died out of the human world and come to feel a strange, cold, aqueous, terraqueous, aerial, ethereal sympathy and existence. I sow the sun and moon for seeds." Similarly in "Walking", Thoreau writes, "If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, --if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk." Dying in nature is automatic rebirth, a recycling. "Walking": "So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts. And light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn."

Recaptured innocence is another aspect of man's relationship with nature, which coincides with truth. Emerson's "The Method of Nature", states:
"Shall we not quit our companions, and betake. . . .some unvisited recess in Moosehead Lake, to bewail our innocency and recover it, and with it the power to communicate again with these sharers of a more sacred idea." He continues: "Let us worship the mighty and transcendent Soul. . . . Truth is always holy, holiness is wise. . . . Tenderly, tenderly they woo and court us from every object in nature, from every fact in life, from every thought in the mind. The one condition coupled to the gift of truth is its use. . . .Emanuel Swedenborg affirmed that it was opened to him, that the spirits who knew truth in this life, but did it not, at death shall lose their knowledge."

Emerson and Thoreau realized that Nature is elusive, an infinite circle that man would never really quite grasp. But for both of these men, there was thrill in the chase—-a stimulating enigma and mind-bending chase for answers that remained just outside of the periphery. In Thoreau's "Where I Lived and what I Lived For": "Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man. In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime."

Emerson in "Circles" : "There is no end in nature, but every ending is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. This fact, as far as it symbolizes the moral fact of the Unattainable, the flying Perfect, around which the hands of man can never meet. . . ." To Emerson, the fluidness of his surroundings meant Nature is a continuous expression of the spirit. Thoreau continues the same idea in "The Pond in Winter": "After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what—how—when—where? But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question to nature and daylight." The answer was there is no answer--just open your eyes to see what Nature reveals to you day after day! He continues this idea of not really wanting to know all of nature's laws: "Our notions of law and harmony are commonly confined to those instances we detect; but the harmony results from a far greater number of seemingly conflicting, but really concurring, laws, which we have not detected, is still more wonderful."

Shannon Riley

Insofar as American thought is concerned, there seem to be two distinct lines of thought concerning Nature. One, which had among its proponents the bulk of colonial Americans, is that Nature—-the wilderness, more accurately—-is a foreign, rather fearful entity that must be dealt with by taming it. It is not uncommon for the wilderness to be referred to as a "desert" in early American writing. We must remember the writers were most often speaking of the lush green wildness of the mid-Atlantic and New England states when they used this term! Nature was unpredictable, irrational, and vaguely feminine and bad. According to this view, the main purpose of Nature is how it may serve mankind; it has little value in itself if left in a "natural" state. Evolving from this fearful outlook is the attitude contained in the word "frontier," which translates as opportunity; the frontier is a tabula rasa commodity, a blank slate available to anyone with the guts, willpower, and means to inscribe his name. Again, it has little or no value in itself but only in its potential offering to the prospective owner. Once owned, it is of course no longer "frontier" but merely "property."

The second line of thought—-which most Americans espouse today in theory, at least, if not in actual practice—-is that Nature is a good entity and valuable on its own unique terms, as itself, without regard to the purposes of mankind. However, it's very difficult to escape our Puritan/Yankee heritage. (Yankee is used in a pre-Civil War sense here). We still ask of Nature: what good is it? Even that we want left strictly alone in its pristine wild beauty is unmolested because we've already taken what we wanted: the idea of a place still with clean air, water, animals. This desire was the driving force behind the creation of the National Parks: we want to preserve not Nature, exactly, but the loveliness of it. While one surely cannot argue with the positive result of such a desire, nonetheless it goes right back to "What good is it?" To value Nature strictly as itself without any regard to profit, financial, spiritual, or otherwise, seems an impossible task.

Meg Brulatour

What strikes me the most in each of the readings, not only in Emerson's Nature is the intense connection made between spirituality and nature. It is certainly present in Thoreau's texts; Walden and "Walking" are probably the best examples. The entirety of "Walking" seems to be an extended metaphor for pushing forward, not only physically, but mentally and spiritually as well. Without nature, we wouldn't survive in any manner: physically, emotionally, mentally or most of all spiritually. Thoreau seems to endorse a constant communion with nature. Obviously, he devotes his life to it, in what we learn from Walden.

Emerson, while endorsing a similar type of philosophy of nature, seems more stringent in his ideas of nature and less stringent in his actual communion with nature. Of course, this could be false. It might be his writing style and authoritative tone that seem to preach more than practice. Emerson gives few personal examples, so readers really don't know if he lives in the way that he suggests readers or listeners live. Emerson seems to focus a great deal on the ties between nature and the spirit. He tells readers what the connections are. Thoreau, on the other hand, often shows us the connections, but leaves it up to us to make them in our own minds.

Ellen Moore

American Transcendentalism Web
Authors & Texts Roots & Influences Ideas & Thought Criticism
Resources Search Communication Center