Beauty, Enlightenment, and Emerson’s ‘Nature’

Beauty, Enlightenment, and Emerson’s ‘Nature’
"Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains," 1868, by Albert Bierstadt. Oil on canvas. (The Smithsonian. (Public Domain)

Recently, I took a short hike on a trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trek wound through dense forest, across quick-flowing mountain streams, and ended in a short climb to the base of a towering waterfall.

In the heat of midday, the cold mist from the falls was an exhilarating reprieve and allowed for inspirational reflection. There, isolated among the stillness of the afternoon, time seemed to stand still only for a few moments, until the trek resumed back down the mountainside.

‘Return to Reason and Faith’

The restorative experience was reminiscent of what Ralph Waldo Emerson describes in his 1836 book “Nature”:

“In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befal [sic] me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity…which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes.”

Emerson maintains that individuals can seek peace and solitude through connection with the natural world. This notion is particularly important in our modern existence, as it seems that mankind’s spiritual and physical relationship with the environment is fractured and continually degrading.
Engraving of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1878, by Stephen Alonzo Schoff. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)
Engraving of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1878, by Stephen Alonzo Schoff. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

Emerson’s “Nature” is largely credited to have begun the philosophical and literary movement of American Transcendentalism that included writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and George Ripley. Transcendentalism’s basic premises and ideals would go on to influence important sociopolitical changes in American society such as the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and the establishment of a national park system.

According to Lawrence Buell, professor emeritus of American literature at Harvard University, Transcendentalists believed that humans possess a “higher ‘Reason,’ or divine intuition, distinct from mere ‘Understanding,’ or inductive reasoning, that is capable of direct intuitive perception of Truth with a capital T.” It is precisely amid nature itself that Emerson finds opportunities to obtain such wisdom, enlightenment, and divine truth that is locked within the human spirit.

Love of Beauty

“The Crossroads at the Eagle Nest, Forest of Fontainbleau,” circa 1844, by Charles-Francois Daubigny. Oil on canvas. Private Collection. (Public Domain)
“The Crossroads at the Eagle Nest, Forest of Fontainbleau,” circa 1844, by Charles-Francois Daubigny. Oil on canvas. Private Collection. (Public Domain)
Emerson argues that humankind’s relationship and connection to nature is the very essence of a divine understanding of the universe, beauty, and God. Not only does the world provide commodities for the continuation of social existence, but it also is the reference point for artistic and philosophical awareness. Emerson writes:

“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 production of a work of art throws a light upon the mystery of humanity. … A leaf, a sun-beam [sic], a landscape, the ocean, make an analogous impression on the mind. What is common to them all—that perfectness and harmony, is beauty.”

Art and philosophy have similar aims toward ultimate enlightenment, only that the poet seeks beauty while the philosopher seeks out truth. The ultimate goals of both artist and philosopher begin as ideas birthed from a connection to nature. Emerson states:

“It is, in both cases, that a spiritual life has been imparted to nature; that the solid seeming block of matter has been pervaded and dissolved by a thought; that this feeble human being has penetrated the vast masses of nature with an informing soul, and recognized itself in their harmony. …”

Harmony between the individual, nature, and God is key to understanding Emerson’s arguments regarding nature’s importance and power. Many of his theories that regard humanity and social interactions all stem from the regenerative power of nature and its connection to the divine.
As Buell notes, Emerson and early Transcendentalist writers studied and adapted theories from Buddhism and German philosophy, as well as Western Enlightenment ideals passed along by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.

Nature’s Regenerative Power

"The Picnic," 1846, by Thomas Cole. Oil on canvas. Brooklyn Museum. (Public Domain)
"The Picnic," 1846, by Thomas Cole. Oil on canvas. Brooklyn Museum. (Public Domain)

The motif of rebirth as part of nature’s regenerative power is, for Emerson, an essential part of human spiritual awakening. He compares the newborn child to the death of an elderly man as nature’s gift of continual opportunities for deeper human understanding and spiritual transcendence.

For men and women to tap into this potential, one must connect with nature to truly contemplate beauty and the relationship one has to the planet and universe.

Considering the chaos of today’s world, it is important to take a moment and reacquaint oneself with nature—not just for activity or leisure, but for brief contemplation and spiritual connection. Emerson maintains that beauty can be found even in mundane tasks, through introspection and contemplation.

This type of deep understanding helps bridge the splintering gap between mankind and the natural world. Through this connectivity, positive individual and social change can spring forth. Emerson says:

“As when the summer comes from the south, the snow-banks melt, and the face of the earth becomes green before it, so shall the advancing spirit create its ornaments along its path, and carry with it the beauty it visits, and the song which enchants it; it shall draw beautiful faces, and warm hearts, and wise discourse, and heroic acts around its way, until evil is no more seen.”

As summer approaches and the days grow warmer and longer, be sure to take time to contemplate the beauty of nature around you. The water in the streams, the leaves on the trees, and even the afternoon rainstorms that leave vibrant rainbows in their wake.

Take a deep breath and consider how nature’s balance provides beauty, enlightenment, sustenance, and constant opportunities for spiritual rejuvenation.

Dustin Fisher is a writer and educator. He has penned multiple articles on film and popular culture as well as given lectures and presentations at universities in both the U.S. and UK. Currently, he is teaching at Edison State College while completing his doctorate in film studies and American literature at the University of Cincinnati.
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