Highlights from Emerson’s “Nature”
Post from January 24, 2017 (↻ May 15, 2023), filed under Philosophy (feed).
Another part of the series, here are some highlights from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature (1836).
Emphasis as it appears in the original work may be missing, and my own edits, though marked, may be broad. Then, important: By sharing these highlights I neither implicitly endorse nor recommend respective authors and their views. Assume that I know little of the authors, and that I have a nuanced view on the matter. (Everything the highlights can tell is that—much like the books themselves—for some reason or other I found them of interest.) When a detailed understanding of my views is important, ask me.
All science has one aim, namely, to find a theory of nature.
Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul. Strictly speaking, therefore, all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the not me, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, nature.
Nature, in the common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf.
Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.
A man is fed, not that he may be fed, but that he may work.
[…]the primary forms, as the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us a delight in and for themselves […].
[…]the eye is the best composer, so light is the first of painters. There is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful.
To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.
Every natural action is graceful.
Nature stretcheth out her arms to embrace man, only let his thoughts be of equal greatness.
All men are in some degree impressed by the face of the world; some men even to delight. This love of beauty is Taste.
Others have the same love in such excess, that, not content with admiring, they seek to embody it in new forms. The creation of beauty is Art.
The standard of beauty is the entire circuit of natural forms—the totality of nature
[…]. Nothing is quite beautiful alone: nothing but is beautiful in the whole. A single object is only so far beautiful as it suggests this universal grace.
Truth, and goodness, and beauty, are but different faces of the same All.
- Words are signs of natural facts.
- Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.
- Nature is the symbol of spirit.
Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine.
The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.
There seems to be a necessity in spirit to manifest itself in material forms
“Material objects,” said a French philosopher, “are necessarily kinds of scoriae of the substantial thoughts of the Creator, which must always preserve an exact relation to their first origin; in other words, visible nature must have a spiritual and moral side.”
Every property of matter is a school for the understanding
Reason transfers all these lessons into its own world of thought, by perceiving the analogy that marries Matter and Mind.
[…]“good thoughts are no better than good dreams, unless they be executed!”
[…]property […]is the surface action of internal machinery, like the index on the face of a clock.
The foolish have no range in their scale, but suppose every man is as every other man. What is not good they call the worst, and what is not hateful, they call the best.
“What we know, is a point to what we do not know.”
All the endless variety of things make an identical impression. Xenophanes complained in his old age, that, look where he would, all things hastened back to Unity.
Each creature is only a modification of the other; the likeness in them is more than the difference, and their radical law is one and the same.
A rule of one art, or a law of one organization, holds true throughout nature.
Every universal truth which we express in words, implies or supposes every other truth. Omne verum vero consonat.
Words are finite organs of the infinite mind. They cannot cover the dimensions of what is in truth. They break, chop, and impoverish it. An action is the perfection and publication of thought.
“The wise man, in doing one thing, does all; or, in the one thing he does rightly, he sees the likeness of all which is done rightly.”
In my utter impotence to test the authenticity of the report of my senses, to know whether the impressions they make on me correspond with outlying objects, what difference does it make, whether Orion is up there in heaven, or some god paints the image in the firmament of the soul?
[…]the most wonted objects […]please us most.
“The problem of philosophy,” according to Plato, “is, for all that exists conditionally, to find a ground unconditioned and absolute.” It proceeds on the faith that a law determines all phenomena, which being known, the phenomena can be predicted. That law, when in the mind, is an idea. Its beauty is infinite. The true philosopher and the true poet are one, and a beauty, which is truth, and a truth, which is beauty, is the aim of both.
Intellectual science has been observed to beget invariably a doubt of the existence of matter.
[…]time and space are relations of matter [.]
Ethics and religion differ herein; that the one is the system of human duties commencing from man; the other, from God.
The first and last lesson of religion is, “The things that are seen, are temporal; the things that are unseen, are eternal.” It puts an affront upon nature. It does that for the unschooled
[…]seen in the light of thought, the world always is phenomenal […].
The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship.
Nature is so pervaded with human life, that there is something of humanity in all, and in every particular.
[…]spirit, that is, the Supreme Being, does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old.
[…]man has access to the entire mind of the Creator, is himself the creator in the finite. This view, which […]points to virtue as to
“The golden key which the palace of eternity,”
carries upon its face the highest certificate of truth, because it animates me to create my own world through the purification of my soul.
[…]this may show us what discord is between man and nature, for you cannot freely admire a noble landscape, if laborers are digging in the field hard by. The poet finds something ridiculous in his delight, until he is out of the sight of men.
[…]there remains much to learn of his relation to the world, and that it is not to be learned by any addition or subtraction or other comparison of known quantities, but is arrived at by untaught sallies of the spirit, by a continual self-recovery, and by entire humility. […]there are far more excellent qualities in the student than preciseness and infallibility; that a guess is often more fruitful than an indisputable affirmation, and that a dream may let us deeper into the secret of nature than a hundred concerted experiments.
“Poetry comes nearer to vital truth than history.”—Plato
A wise writer will feel that the ends of study and composition are best answered by announcing undiscovered regions of thought, and so communicating, through hope, new activity to the torpid spirit.
law is still paramount, if still he have elemental power, if his word is sterling yet in nature, it is not conscious power, it is not inferior but superior to his will. It is Instinct.
The difference between the actual and the ideal force of man is happily figured by the schoolmen, in saying, that the knowledge of man is an evening knowledge, vespertina cognitio, but that of God is a morning knowledge, matutina cognitio.
The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things
[…]. The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself.
The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common. What is a day? What is a year? What is summer? What is woman? What is a child? What is sleep? To our blindness, these things seem unaffecting.
To the wise, therefore, a fact is true poetry, and the most beautiful of fables.
[…]each phenomenon has its roots in the faculties and affections of the mind.
Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see. All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit. So fast will disagreeable appearances, swine, spiders, snakes, pests, madhouses, prisons, enemies, vanish; they are temporary and shall be no more seen.
The kingdom of man over nature, which cometh not with observation,—a dominion such as now is beyond his dream of God,—he shall enter without more wonder than the blind man feels who is gradually restored to perfect sight.
Read the whole book: Nature.
I’m Jens, and I’m an engineering lead and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
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