“We are by nature observers, and thereby learners.”  Here Emerson points to a way that nature itself has shaped the kind of things that we are.  But this power of observation, and potential for learning, can be applied to a multitude of things, as our modern universities attest.  In this essay I’d like to explore what we might learn when nature, through us human beings, bends back upon itself and becomes conscious of itself; when one of its products has gained the ability to reflect upon that out of which it has arisen.

MS Am 1280.235 (706.3B) Houghton Library.MS Am 1280.235 (706.3B) Houghton Library.Implicit in this picture is the idea that we human beings are a part of nature; it discourages the formation of a boundary that separates humans and nature as two alien forces that must vie with one another.  No doubt, the relation between humans and the physical environment in which we live has undergone drastic change in the history of our species, particularly in the relatively recent past.  That developmental history is one in which we’ve come out of a physical environment saturated with “essences unchanged by man” and created one in which most people are surrounded by the man-made.  The question for us now is whether this trajectory will continue, and what we might be missing out on if we lose touch with this nest from which we have flown.

Emerson writes: 

Every rational creature has all nature for his dowry and estate.  It is his, if he will.  He may divest himself of it; he may creep into a corner, and abdicate his kingdom, as most men do, but he is entitled to the world by his constitution.  In proportion to the energy of his thought and will, he takes up the world into himself.

What is Emerson on about here?  What is this business about being entitled to the world by our constitution and taking the world up into ourselves?  And how is this tied to rationality?  The answer, it seems, is connected to what it is that we learn about nature when we observe its operations; and Emerson seems to think there’s a common thread in the various truths that we glean from nature through observation.  He says man “finds something of himself in every great and small thing, in every mountain stratum, in every new law of color, fact of astronomy, or atmospheric influence which observation or analysis lay open.”  So what truth is it that we find everywhere in nature through observation, whether casual or of a more scientific stripe, that is also at the same time somehow a part of ourselves?

The answer for Emerson is that nature is intelligible, is law-governed, structured in accordance with rational principles; and I think there is compelling case for our adoption of this stance today.  The natural world is susceptible to being understood by our minds, and when you step back and think about this fact, it is astounding.  Where we once thought that we had to offer supplication towards the heavens for rain, we now know that this process is governed by laws that we can get a grasp on with our minds.  There is a match, a fit, between the rational operation of our minds, and the way that nature operates, like two interlocking puzzle pieces.  And it is this match that we find in nature, its intelligibility, that we feel is of kin with us; we are entitled to nature because of our rational constitution, and we take up the world into ourselves in thought.  We can reproduce in our minds the guiding principles of the world outside our minds, and this activity itself is the result of nature’s handiwork.  It is this account of truth in nature that allows Emerson to say:

the ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘Study nature,’ become at last one maxim.

The tight connection between the rational mind and intelligible nature does not, however, give us license to see in nature whatever we will, to descend into a subjectivism where we can attribute processes and mechanisms to nature willy-nilly.  Rather we are constrained in certain ways by the demands of reason, but they are constraints that illuminate rather than shackle us in obscurity.  Emerson’s method is clear:  “Some play at chess, some at cards, some at the Stock Exchange.  I prefer to play at Cause and Effect.”  And, just like the rational approach to nature, the kinds of truths in nature that are uncovered don’t seem to be random or willy-nilly, at least not on a macro scale.  Emerson writes:

The first steps in Agriculture, Astronomy, Zoölogy, ...teach that nature’s dice are always loaded; that in her heaps and rubbish are concealed sure and useful results.

And furthermore, it’s not the case that we find such truths only in what we happen to like, or in things that we happen to have an affinity with.  They are found throughout everything, great and small, attractive or displeasing:

Truth has not single victories; all things are its organs,—not only dust and stones, but errors and lies.  The laws of disease, physicians say, are as beautiful as the laws of health.

Harvard University Archives, HUP Emerson, R.W. (1)Harvard University Archives, HUP Emerson, R.W. (1)So it is in this way that nature bends back upon itself and becomes conscious of itself as I said at the outset of this essay:  one particular component of nature, the human being, has been endowed by nature itself with the ability to re-present in thought what takes place in the world, and in a way so as to potentially encompass all existing things.  Emerson asks:  “What is a man but nature’s finer success in self-explication?”, and goes even further in claiming that “the soul’s communication of truth is the highest event in nature.”  The potential of human thought to grasp truth is a phenomenon that is astonishing in itself; in addition, however, it is this phenomenon that serves as the foundation for objective claims about the existence of value and beauty in nature, which are the topics of the final two essays.

Emerson claimed that all rational creatures are entitled to the natural world because of their constitution, that is, in virtue of being rational.  We have no reason to think that subsequent generations, whether already born or not, are likely to be any less rational than ours.  Rather, we may have reason to hope that they will be more rational, less self-interested and driven by the consuming flames of wealth.  And if they are entitled to the natural world just as much as we are, a long ethical look in the mirror on our part is called for.  We have an obligation to preserve the truth, goodness, and beauty in nature for those that come after us.  This ethical imperative, however, is not only for the sake of these other rational creatures, but for the natural world more generally, and it is to the intrinsic goodness of nature that I turn to in the next essay.


Michael welcomes correspondence, and can be reached at mpopejoy@fas.harvard.edu. His series "Emerson and the Environment" is part of a larger project which was awarded a Student Sustainability Grant. Quotations taken from Emerson’s first book, Nature, his essays "Love," "Spiritual Laws", "Art," "The Over-Soul," and his journals. He is happy to provide more specific source information for the quotations.