26 September 2010

Emerson on Nature

Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous essay on nature begins thus:

"Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes . Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.

Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man's condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?"

You can read the whole text here.

There is a paradox in quoting those famous words at this distance. If I take them to heart, if I ask you to take them to heart, then I am violating the counsel they offer. For why is Emerson not to be regarded by now as one of those sepulchred fathers he was telling us to ignore?

Still, the flow of thought is lovely, and the confidence is inspiring. "Undoubtedly, we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable." Who is it who does not at times doubt that undoubtable point?

The passage reminds me that Emerson was a frequent guest in the James home when William and Henry were boys there. Indeed, Emerson was William James' godfather. If we are going to see that connection as philosophically significant, we might look to these words: The everyman "acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth."


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