Life & Death Through Nature

Ralph Waldo Emerson is considered the father of American Transcendentalism, and regarded as one of the greatest poets of the 19th century. The goal of this analysis is to start a dialogue on the intricacies/subtle nuances of life and death. It is through these allegories in the essay Nature that I will focus my attention. It is my hope by starting such a dialogue, that the reader can better understand what Ralph Waldo Emerson meant, as much of the concepts he was appropriating were highly esoteric and well ahead of his time.

in 1836 Ralph Waldo Emerson put forth an essay entitled Nature that would become the blueprint for transcendentalism. Transcendentalism posits that divinity is essentially correlative to all of nature. It speaks to an idea that a person can only understand reality through studying nature; here I believe, Emerson goes to great lengths to showcase a wholly esoteric method of understanding life & death. This understanding is not constrained by the rigid precepts set forth by theology, but seeks to embrace universal truth as a catch all for symbology when meant to understand life relative to Nature in the modern age. Thusly, the chapters of Nature are broken down into an introduction and eight chapters. They are one word titled pieces that theoretically could stand on their own as individual lectures discussing Nature at length in the modern age. The names of these are as follows: Nature, Commodity, Beauty, Language, Discipline, Idealism, Spirit, and Prospects.

Perhaps one may be asking themselves, has not the Modern age changed drastically since Emerson was alive in the 19th century? In short, yes it most definitely has. One of the main ideas behind the Transcendentalism movement was this thin thread of everyday life disenfranchisement that ran counter to the popular ideals prevalent back then. This is espoused upon quite, explicitly within the introduction to Nature. Emerson’s very first words are, ” Our Age Is Retrospective,” and he wastes no time to build a bridge across the divide of understanding when correlative to divinity and Nature. “Why should we not enjoy an original connection with the universe?” He challenges the reader with his rhetoric. Essentially he is hinting through the introduction that life, can only be understood by gaining experience, and it is through this experience that mind can essentially stimulate itself through the body by way of malleable nature. This sort of stimulation will allow for the mind to become introspective about what it has learned. Whatsoever the stimuli the introspective wayfarer on the highway of life learns, he/she is coming to their own conclusion about the ideas he comes across, and not relying on pre-conceived dogma or religious doctrine/sciences to influence. I believe Emerson understood that the purposeful life, one that shines with brilliant luster is one that is steadfast in its boldness to seek out new ideas, and experiences. For only then can a person truly know nature through the divine. This critique of the state of the 19th century runs parallel to our own modernity, and Emerson expands upon the premise in the following chapters.

In chapter One Emerson expresses that man should go into solitude from time to time as a means to be by himself. Once alone the man can observe nature all around as a means to find an awareness of his separation from the material world. These are powerful sentiments especially his affirmation of the stars in the following statement, ” if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. the rays that come from the heavenly bodies, the perpetual sublime.” I believe he is speaking of a man having equilibrium, despite working in cities, that it is important for man to have freedom through Knowledge of self. The relation this has especially to life is that when truth comes, one must be able to hear it. Nature is this simple yet entirely complex truth. I believe that Emerson’s tone denotes challenge; he does not want man to lose that connection with Nature as most have already. The well adjusted or balanced person will show distinct signs of equilibrium. Emerson describes that person as: ” he who has retained the spirit of infancy well into their manhood.” This is described as a sense of wonder and curiosity. It is the state of innocence, of a freed mind well before the world got a hold of a child and turned said child into a man. A state of perpetual youth. This is the power Emerson wants to see grow within people rather than lost. It is infinite boldness, the, ” I can adapt and overcome whilst smiling,” state of mind. It is what the zen buddhists, call the ” No Mind.” It is very well known and regarded that Emerson took much inspiration from eastern theology. The texts of Nature are dripping with its understandings.

In chapter two, aptly titled Commodity, it is Emerson’s understanding of how man perceives the malleable reality of nature. “all the advantages to which our senses owe to nature. ” These are the tangible items to which the common man can perceive. He goes on to say, ” A man is fed, not that he may be fed, but that he may work. ” This statement brings to mind, the old saying, ” bring a man a fish and he may eat for one day, but teach a man to fish and he may eat for the rest of his days.” This understanding of nature while very simplistic and base in its nature, becomes the foundational building blocks for the rest of the chapters. In life man imparts these understandings of the malleable reality around him to family and friends so they too shall pay forward the knowledge in which they themselves have come to understand. This understanding leads us to Beauty.

The 3rd chapter of Nature: entitled Beauty, has Emerson examining the human love for beauty in Nature. To define beauty he goes to say, ” The ancient Greeks called the world kosmos, beauty. Such is the constitution of all things, or such the plastic power of the human eye.” The eyes themselves in conjunction with light paint pictures of a unified perspective of Kosmos or rather beauty. The eye being the composer and light the painter that brings the ethereal to life. He goes on to break beauty down in a three fold manner: 1) simple perceptions of natural forms are an aesthetic delight. It is these forms that are useful to a man because of their reliance upon commodity and beauty. To The mind and body hurt and or in need of therapy, nature is the wholistic medicine that which restores mind and body back to form. Emerson goes on to say, ” if too eagerly hunted, become shows merely, and mock us with their unreality.” In unraveling the meaning of the aforementioned statement it seems to me that the pleasing/beautiful aesthetic of nature is the least of its parts. He goes into this in the 2nd distribution of beauty. 2) ” The presence of a higher spiritual element is essential to its perfection. ” Emerson says this while alluding to a combination of human will and beauty. That these two forces when together yield natural action such as heroic deeds, and virtue. The most rational creatures have nature for estate and dowry so long as they choose to use it. He goes on to name famous people as examples for having used the beauty of nature in conjunction with pure will to complete acts of truth and or heroism. The marks of these kind of people are: powerful character, happy genius, and those around them will remark how easily said person took all things along with him-“the opinions, and the day,” etc. Emerson only hints at the intellect in the 2nd distribution of beauty. For this he leaves it to the 3rd and final classification of beauty. 3) ” the Intellect searches out the absolute order of things as they stand in the mind of God, and without the colors of affection.” This denotes that beauty is not the all encompassing construct of which man should place his importance on but rather as a means to unravel the truth of the world around them through their own device. ” truth and goodness and beauty are but merely different faces of the same. Beauty is not the ultimate. It is the herald of inward and eternal beauty and is not alone a solid and satisfactory good. ” What Emerson means by this statement is that beauty within nature is simply just a part of a greater whole of universal truth. For a person on the journey of life to get caught in appearances may potentially mean that said person still has much to gleam from nature so that they may ascend to an understanding of self that is higher. This in turn leads us into the dissection of the 4th chapter in Nature.

Chapter 4

Emerson explores Language in chapter 4 of nature. It is the understanding of language as it is meant to service humanity. Said service to humanity, etymologically speaking requires that Emerson appropriates the sentiment of all language being linked to their specific
origin in material and or quality. The father of transcendentalism believes that we as adults have lost the means to conduct ourselves boldly with regards to the understanding of the first language. It is the innocence of childhood that maintains the ability to do so along with primitive people. The simplistic way of living or rather the aesetic’s way of living made prevalent by Buddhist precepts. This is something that Emerson may have drawn inspiration from. As with the theory of zen buddhism’s yin and yang. The circular theory of balance and harmony. Essentially the belief is that language offers insight to the workings of God. Especially those involved with creative endeavor. Understanding language eventually leads to discipline.

Chapter 5 discipline

In the 5th chapter of Nature, Emerson has decidedly arrived at the understanding of discipline as it correlates to comprehension. The fact that all Nature seeks to teach humanity logic plus intuitive reasoning means that there is truly indeed an unseen fiber that binds all together. It is the commonality of all, or rather the universal truth. Essentially it is through this universal truth that common sense can be taught. This theory as it pertains to life is what can best be described as a moral compass. Similar in theory to Christian theology but different in the sense that it does not have the judgmental dogma attached to it. The universal truth emerson refers to throughout Nature has more commonality with the eastern philosophy/theological movements.

Chapter 6 idealism

The chapter titled idealism is a chapter laden with understanding from a period of life that very much mirrors the aftermath of where man goes to when faced with the question of his own mortality. This primarily, deals with faith and one’s impending death. Coincidentally enough, Emerson questions whether Nature is in fact real. This coping mechanism is reminiscent of denial. The unwillingness to see truth despite having or not having signs of its impending truth or falsity. The father of transcendentalism asks this all encompassing question, ” what does it matter?”He comes to the answer as it relates to faith of life. ” it is ideal to me so long as I cannot try the accuracy of my senses.” Despite the question of nature’s reality being unanswered he describes an instinctive belief in the absolute existence of nature. It is here where the whole of man is joined to nature eternally. He goes on to describe several ways in which professionals such as: the poet, the philosopher, and the astronomer, to what end in which they come to terms with this question. As mentioned prior that oneness or universal truth of understanding becomes the lynch pin for this mostly unanswerable dilemma for idealism in essence sees the world of nature in God and whilst doing so beholds all matter as one huge painting in the universally vast truth. It is the life purposeful life that holds stead fast to this commonality amongst all things and thus dies with acceptance the things that befell it. Not too be taken negatively, again Emerson clearly took great interest in the eastern philosophies and theologies where balance and equilibrium is paramount for said purposeful life. But still the spirit of things lacks definition.

Chapter 7 the spirit

Essentially the 7th chapter goes to great lengths to describe its definition. Emerson begins with, ” Nature is devout, like the figure of Jesus, she stands with bended head and hands folded upon the breast. The happiest man is he learns the lesson of worship from nature.”In simpler terms Emerson describes that in thought and language of matter God is elusive. But God’s infinite worship through the finiteness of this world through nature allows God to stand as an apparition in conjunction with the phenomenon of nature. Through this the universal truth and or spirit can speak to he/she who worships to essentially lead the individual closer to God. Or rather closer to enlightenment. But where does matter come from? An whereto? It is these truths that Emerson asks in rhetoric to say that at its most fundamental, the most high is always present, and allows for the enlightened man who can, as an extension of the supreme being and it’s supreme channels to create here in the finite. Emerson refers to this as, ” the golden key that opens the palace to eternity.” The natural world around us basically becomes the modus by which we human beings in a constant degenerative state can measure our departure from this plain of finite existence. This statement unknowingly brings us to the 8th and final chapter.

Chapter 8 prospects

The chapter of nature titled Prospects is the final chapter in Emerson’s essay Nature. It is the one that ultimately unites all in much the same way each subsequent chapter had before it. Except with one difference to set it apart; It speaks of man, and his inconsistent rapport with nature, that man is strong in body, and in digestion but the mind remains brutish. the majority of man is still tied down to a lesser way of living. An imperfect life, with loss relative to potential.


In conclusion, Ralph Waldo Emerson is considered the father of American Transcendentalism, and regarded as one of the greatest poets of the 19th century. The goal of this analysis is to start a dialogue on the intricacies/subtle nuances of life and death. It is through these allegories in the essay Nature that I have focused my attention. The dialogue introduced within this essay should theoretically help the reader come to an understanding about what Ralph Waldo Emerson meant, considering the concepts he was appropriating were highly esoteric and well ahead of his time.

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