Waldo, it’s not all about us: Where Emerson’s “Nature” goes wrong

bald eagle

Bald eagle, via Wikipedia

I want to talk about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous 1836 essay, “Nature,” and why one of its central ideas is dead wrong, but first I’m going to tell a true story about a bald eagle. The two thoughts are related.

A long time ago when I was still in school, I was at a religious retreat when someone from the church brought a live bald eagle for us to look at. As I recall, this person volunteered at some wildlife rescue organization. The eagle had been injured and was no longer able to fly. This was back before the bald eagle population had recovered from the effects of DDT. This was only the second one I had seen; I wouldn’t see one in the wild for another decade. The bird was wary but not agitated, and we all kept a respectful distance.

I remember that it was obvious to me at the time that the man had no particular reason to show us this bird. It was just something he wanted to do. But we were at a church retreat, and a pretty conservative church at that, and so after telling us about the species, he made several analogies to spiritual subjects and basically wrapped the whole thing into a Sunday School lesson. He probably even quoted the “They will soar on wings like eagles” verse from Isaiah.

He ended his talk this way, I think, out of some sense of moral or spiritual obligation. The eagle wasn’t allowed simply to be a wonderful being in and of itself. To be truly worthwhile it had to represent something higher, something abstract. Even at the time, that bothered me.

Now to Emerson’s “Nature.” I’m not going to discuss the whole thing, just one section of the second chapter, “Language,” in which he makes a mistake similar to that made by the man with the eagle.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, via Wikipedia

Ralph Waldo Emerson, via Wikipedia

“Every natural fact,” Emerson writes, “is a symbol of some spiritual fact.” Great. But how does he know this? There’s a larger problem here, which is Emerson’s tendency to make grandiose, sweeping pronouncements based on no evidence but the beauty of the idea. He lived in an age in which bold pronouncements of bookish men were still mistaken for well-established knowledge.

But more specifically, consider what Emerson says a few paragraphs later as he develops the idea that nature is full of analogies to spiritual truths (emphasis added):

“It is easily seen that there is nothing lucky or capricious in these analogies, but that they are constant, and pervade nature. These are not the dreams of a few poets, here and there, but man is an analogist, and studies relations in all objects. He is placed in the centre of beings, and a ray of relation passes from every other being to him. And neither can man be understood without these objects, nor these objects without man. All the facts in natural history taken by themselves, have no value, but are barren, like a single sex. But marry it to human history, and it is full of life… The instincts of the ant are very unimportant, considered as the ant’s; but the moment a ray of relation is seen to extend from it to man, and the little drudge is seen to be a monitor, a little body with a mighty heart, then all its habits, even that said to be recently observed, that it never sleeps, become sublime.”

Two points, the lesser one first: Yes, we love analogy and metaphor. When apt, they can help illustrate abstract ideas by bridging the concrete and the abstract. But do we find these comparisons or make them? At the very least we select aspects of our world for analogy, taking what suits our fancy and ignoring the rest.

Which leads to the larger point: Emerson’s view of nature is hopelessly anthropocentric. He seems to value the natural world only for aesthetic beauty and as a source of analogy. Doesn’t it have intrinsic value? Yes, the details of science may at times seem dry and uninteresting — just a pile of data. But taken together, the system itself is rich and complex and beautiful, and not just as some sort of analogy or moral lesson. To think otherwise cheapens nature, reduces it to a means to an end.

This is one of those times when I’m reminded of how long ago Emerson lived, and how in many ways his was a pre-scientific Western mind. A great shift in thinking began with the Copernican revolution. Just as Copernicus figured out that the Earth is not the center of the solar system, so science in a broader sense has shown that the universe is not built around humans. It isn’t all about us, or even mostly about us.

Emerson loved nature, but in hindsight the passage above seems childish. A little boy assumes that he is the most important thing in the world and that everyone should cater to his wishes. Most of us grow out of that as we mature as individuals, though we’re still growing out of it as a species. But to the degree that Emerson’s words seem naïve and dated, maybe that shows our progress.

(FYI: On March 20 I’ll begin a yearlong series of posts about Emerson’s friend Henry David Thoreau and his great book, Walden. The “A Year in Walden” series will feature short readings and comments four times a week, exploring this rich and wonderful book at an appropriately leisurely pace.)


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