“The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature.” We might think this comes as a surprise from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is often characterized first and foremost as a transcendentalist, and idealist, rather than as a naturalist. We might most immediately think of Emerson for his doctrine of self-reliance and as a bulwark of rugged American individualism. When it comes to nature, we often appeal to another of Harvard’s and the Boston area’s most celebrated figures, Henry David Thoreau, with whom Emerson was good friends. Thoreau joined Emerson’s household in Concord for a few years, and performed his great experiment on Walden Pond on a plot of land that Emerson owned. But Emerson’s connection to nature and the environment is far more robust than the tenuous one that requires Thoreau as his mediator.
In fact, Emerson can be seen as offering a foundational philosophy of nature that Thoreau operates within. My aim in these brief essays is to sketch that philosophy, according to which nature is a source of the three primary objects of ancient philosophy, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and to explore how this approach might be relevant to our own relationship to nature and the environment. Before I address each of the three facets of Emerson’s philosophy of nature in the three subsequent essays, I would like to provide a basis for this philosophy of nature, and for taking Emerson to be a founding father not only of American naturalism, but also of a tradition of concern for the natural world at Harvard that continues and flourishes on campus today.
A place like Harvard and its activities embodies the life of the mind. Emerson exemplifies how the life of the mind both can and should be integrated with the life of nature. In his journal, he writes:
when surprised by company and kept in a chair for many hours, my heart sinks, my brow is clouded and I think I will run for Acton woods, and live with the squirrels henceforward.
We must not only sit, and think, but also act, and interact; and not only with each other, our colleagues, but also with the natural world, which, as Emerson puts it, is comprised of “essences unchanged by man”. We might think this sounds obvious and intuitive, but point to the difficulty of this kind of connection in the hustle and bustle of modern day Cambridge and Harvard Square. After all, this must have been much easier for Emerson who set off for the halls of Harvard in 1817; who before that, was tasked with driving the family cow to pasture in what is now downtown Boston as his daily chore. The connection to nature seems like a far easier one to make in those days.
Despite this, Emerson recognizes the impediments to our connection with the natural world in his time as well. He says, “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature.” This is, however, to our detriment.
The man comes out of the wrangle of the shop and office, and sees the sky and the woods, and is a man again. In their eternal calm, he finds himself…But how few men see the sky and the woods!
We may no longer be able to walk out of our abodes or offices on campus and see the primeval woods, but we still have the sky! And we have majestic trees in the Yard, with squirrels and birds, and hundreds of other organisms that escape our perceptual system, designed for medium-sized objects. And we can still recognize our affinities with these things, these ‘essences’ not of our own making, and with the unified system that they make up and we are part of. Speaking of nature, Emerson writes, “Compound it how she will, star, sand, fire, water, tree, man, it is still one stuff, and betrays the same properties.” As many contemporary physicists have pointed out, we’re composed of stardust, the heavier elements compounded in the center of stars and then blasted into space when the star exhales its last breath of life. And we can learn from these brethren of ours: “I think that a man should compare advantageously with a river, with an oak, with a mountain, endless flow, expansion, and grit.”
The power of the human encounter with nature can even rise to the height of religiosity, and this can come within the context of a particular religious tradition, or to the committed atheist who experiences awe in the face of the uncounted wonders of the natural world. Emerson writes: “At the gates of the forest…Here is sanctity which shames our religions…Here we find nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs ever other circumstance”. Nature is the sine qua non, that without which we, and all that we are, vanishes. It is that out of which we rose, upon which we are wholly dependent, and to which we shall return. Although, in my estimation, Emerson has much worth listening to and pondering when it comes to nature and our relationship with it, there is one aspect of his thought from which we must nowadays depart:
[man’s] operations taken together are so insignificant, a little chipping, baking, patching, and washing, that in an impression so grand as that of the world on the human mind, they do not vary the result.
This no longer holds true for us. Our species has changed the face of the globe to an unprecedented extent in the history of our planet and this has come, and is almost sure to continue to come, with negative effects on the biosphere, us included. So we must ask what we can do about it, what we should do about it, in an ethical sense, and act accordingly.
I think that Emerson can help us out here. He occupies a place among the founding fathers of American (and global) naturalism, along with the likes of Thoreau and John Muir. However, he can also be seen as an early originator of a tradition of reflective thinking about nature at Harvard, someone that the Harvard community can look to with pride, and as a source of inspiration. Emerson was a student of the College, and of Divinity; he gave his famous Divinity School Address in the chapel of Divinity Hall, now called Emerson Chapel, which would result in him not being invited to speak on campus for many years, due to the unorthodox views on religion that he propounded. He would later come back, though, and deliver a series of lectures on the Natural History of the Intellect in the Department of Philosophy in 1870. That department, with which I am affiliated, currently resides in a building bearing his name, Emerson Hall, which contains a statue of the venerable sage on the first floor.
So Emerson is a Harvard figurehead for concern for the natural world and the environment, someone to go back to as a storehouse of insight, but also to expand upon. And the tradition that Emerson helped to initiate is alive and well on campus today—we should see Harvard organizations such as the Office for Sustainability and the Center for the Environment as inheriting this rich tradition, and continuing to develop it in innovative ways. So next time you’re walking by Emerson Hall, consider stopping in to pay your respects to old Waldo, and giving his golden left knee a rub—but don’t expect any luck: “Shallow men believe in luck, believe in circumstances…Strong men believe in cause and effect.” So instead, ask what you might do, how you should act, to contribute to this living tradition so that both we and the natural world may flourish simultaneously.
Michael welcomes correspondence, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 address "The American Scholar," his essay "Nature," and his journals. He is happy to provide more specific source information for the quotations.