... Squashed down to read in about 15 minutes
"A man is a god in ruins."
Wikipedia - Full Text - Print Edition: ISBN 014243762X
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston of an old English family of preachers. He followed the family trade into the Unitarian ministry, but resigned after theological disagreements. In 1833 he visited Europe, met with Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Carlyle, and returned to Concord, Massachusetts where he inspired Thoreau and spend his days talking and writing about what has become known as American Transcendentalism - a new view of nature as, not a mere component of the world but rather as an all-encompassing divine entity into which we can, and ought, to immerse ourselves.
This abridgement by John Hammerton reduces the original 16000 words down to 2599 (16%), giving an estimated reading time of 15 minutes.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Squashed version edited by Glyn Hughes © 2011
I. To What End is Nature?
Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticisms. The foregoing generations beheld God face to face; we through their eyes. Why should not we also have an original relation to the universe? Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? Let us interrogate the great apparition that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire to what end is Nature.
Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and Soul. Strictly speaking, therefore, all that is separate from us, all which philosophy distinguishes as 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. Art is applied to the mixture of his will with the same things, as in a house, a canal, a statue, a picture. But his 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.
To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. But if a man would be alone let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly bodies will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man in the heavenly bodies the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how men would believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.
Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection. When we speak of Nature in this manner we have a distinct but most poetical sense in the mind. We mean the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects. The charming landscape which I saw this morning is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men's farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title.
II. Her Delight
In the presence of Nature a wild delight runs through the man in spite of real sorrow. Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods, too, a man casts off his years as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child. Within these plantations of God a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed in the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of universal being circulate through me; I am a part or particle of God. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.
Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight does not reside in Nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both. It is necessary to use these pleasures with great temperance. For Nature is not always tricked in holiday attire, but the same scene which yesterday breathed perfume and glittered as for the frolic of nymphs is overspread with melancholy to-day. Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.
The misery of man appears like childish petulance when we explore the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for his support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens. All the parts incessantly work into each other's hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice on the other side of the planet condenses the rain on this; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man.
The useful arts are reproductions or new combinations by the wit of man of the same natural benefactors. The private poor man hath cities, ships, canals, bridges, built for him. He goes to the post-office, and the human race run on his errands; to the book-shop, and the human race read and write all that happens for him; to the court-house, and nations repair his wrongs.
III. Her Loveliness
A nobler want of man is served by Nature, namely, the love of beauty. Such is the constitution of all things, or such the plastic power of the human eye, that the primary forms, as the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us a delight in and for themselves, a pleasure arising from art, line, color, motion, and grouping. This seems partly owing to the eye itself. The eye is the best of artists, as light is the first of painters.
To the body and mind which have been cramped by noxious work or company Nature is medicinal, and restores their tone. But in other hours Nature satisfies by her loveliness and without any mixture of corporeal benefit. I see the spectacle of morning from the hilltop over against my house from daybreak to sunrise with emotion which an angel might share. How does Nature deify us with a few and cheap elements. Give me health and a day, and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous. The dawn is my Assyria; the sunset and moon rise my Paphos, and unimaginable realms of faerie; broad noon shall be my England of the senses and the understanding; the night shall be my Germany of mystic philosophy and dreams.
The inhabitants of cities suppose that the country landscape is pleasant only half the year. To the attentive eye each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same fields it beholds every hour a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.
Every rational creature has all Nature for his dowry and estate. 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.
IV. Her Gift of Language
Language is another use which Nature subserves to man. Words are signs of natural facts. The use of natural history is to give us aid in supernatural history. Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance. Right means straight; wrong means twisted; transgression the crossing of a line. Most of the process by which this transformation is made is hidden from us in the remote time when language was framed; but the same tendency may be daily observed in children.
It is not words only that are emblematic, it is things. Every appearance in Nature corresponds to some state of mind, and that state of mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture. An enraged man is a lion, a cunning man is a fox, a firm man is a rock, a learned man is a torch. Visible distance behind and before us is respectively an image of memory and hope.
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. This universal soul he calls reason: it is not mine, or thine, or his, but we are its; we are its property and men. And the blue sky in which the private earth is buried, the sky with its eternal calm and full of everlasting orbs is the type of reason. That which, intellectually considered, we call reason, considered in relation to Nature we call spirit. Spirit is the creator. Spirit hath life in itself, and man in all ages and countries embodies it in his language as the Father.
As we go back in history language becomes more picturesque until its infancy, when it is all poetry. When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas are broken up, new imagery ceases to be created and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not; a paper currency is employed when there is no bullion in the vaults.
V. Her Moral Discipline
In view of the significance of Nature we arrive at the fact that Nature is a discipline. What tedious training, day after day, year after year, never ending, to form the common sense; what continual reproduction of annoyances, inconveniences, dilemmas; what rejoicing over us of little men, what disputing of prices, what reckoning of interest and all to form the hand of the mind!
The exercise of will or the lesson of power is taught in every event. Nature is thoroughly mediate. It is made to serve. It receives the dominion of man as meekly as the ass on which the Saviour rode. It offers all its kingdoms to man as the raw material which he may mold into what is useful. And he is never weary of working it up. He forges the subtle and delicate air into wise and melodious words, and gives them wings as angels of persuasion and command. One after another his victorious thought comes up with and reduces all things, until the world becomes at last a realized will.
Every natural process is a version of a moral sentence. The moral law lies at the center of Nature and radiates to the circumference. What is a farm but a mute gospel? The chaff and the wheat, weeds and plants, blight, rain, insects, sun it is a sacred emblem from the first furrow of spring to the last stack which the snow of winter overtakes in the fields. Who can guess how much firmness the sea-beaten rock has taught the fisherman? How much tranquility has been reflected to man from the azure sky? How much industry and providence and affection we have caught from the pantomime of brutes?
The unity of Nature meets us everywhere. Resemblances exist in things wherein there is great superficial unlikeness. Thus architecture is called "frozen music" by Goethe. "A Gothic church," said Coleridge, "is petrified religion." The law of harmonic sounds reappears in the harmonic colors. The granite is different in its laws only by the more or less of heat from the river that wears it away. The river, as it flows, resembles the air that flows over it; the air resembles the light that traverses it with more subtle currents.
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. This unity pervades thought also.
VI. Is Nature Real?
A noble doubt suggests itself whether discipline be not the final cause of the universe, and whether Nature outwardly exists. The frivolous make themselves merry with the ideal theory as if its consequences were burlesque, as if it affected the stability of Nature. It surely does not. The wheels and springs of man are all set to the hypothesis of the permanence of Nature.
But while we acquiesce entirely in the permanence of natural laws, the question of the absolute existence of Nature still remains open. It is the uniform effect of culture on the human mind to lead us to regard Nature as a phenomenon, not a substance; to attribute necessary existence to spirit.
Intellectual science fastens the attention upon immortal necessary uncreated natures, that is, upon ideas; and in their presence we feel that the outward circumstance is a dream and a shade. Whilst we wait in this Olympus of the gods we think of Nature as an appendix to the soul. Finally, religion and ethics, which may be fitly called the practice of ideas, have an analogous effect. The first and last lesson of religion is: "The things that are seen are temporal; the things that are unseen are eternal."
VII. The Spirit Behind Nature
The aspect of Nature is devout. Like the figure of Jesus, she stands with bended head and hands folded on the breast. The happiest man is he who learns from Nature the lesson of worship. Of that ineffable essence we call spirit, he that thinks most will say least. We can foresee God in the coarse, as it were, distant phenomena of matter; but when we try to define and describe Himself, both language and thought desert us, and we are as helpless as fools and savages. The noblest ministry of Nature is to stand as the apparition of God. It is the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to bring back the individual to it.
I conclude this essay with some traditions of man and Nature which a certain poet sang to me.
The foundations of man are
not in matter, but inspirit. And the element of spirit is eternity. To it, therefore, the longest series of events, the oldest chronologies are young and recent. A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer and shall pass into the immortal as gently as we awake from dreams. Infancy is the perpetual Messiah which comes into the arms of fallen men, and pleads with them to return to paradise. The problem of restoring to the world the original and eternal beauty is solved by the redemption of the soul. The ruin that we see when we look at Nature is in our own eye. Man cannot be a naturalist until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit. Love is as much its demand as perception. When a faithful thinker shall kindle science with the fire of the holiest affection, then will God go forth anew into the creation.
Nature is not fixed, but fluid. Spirit alters, molds, makes it. The immobility, or bruteness, of Nature is the absence of spirit. Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world, and beyond its world a heaven. 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 cobbler'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.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson's grave in Sleepy Hallow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts
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