Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: Emerson on nature and wisdom

Editor’s note: This is the 33rd in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
Reading Emerson may be compared to taking a shower. Instead of streams of water falling gently and pleasantly over one’s body, there is a steady flow of words that infuse the mind and cleanse it of the grime and mire of the vulgar world, of common opinions and fashionable novelties and their grinding effects. His words elevate the mind to a consideration of nobler, purer things; they awaken in the conscience a longing for perfection; they induce in consciousness a sense of infinite possibility. They are not meant as a means to escape the world, but to cause a higher engagement with it.
There is, I believe, in all Emerson’s writing a constant purpose, which is self discovery; but this should not be taken as selfishness, rather it prescribes the conquest of every selfish motive. The self that he sought and represented in his writings is not that of the narcissist or the resentful misanthrope, not the creature of Twitter and Facebook and the so-called social media. It discovers itself in the contemplation of nature; it is not a mere subject, but a “superject” — a term invented by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead to signify the integral relation of subject and object, of self and world.
“If a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. … One might think the atmosphere was made with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime.” “I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am a part or particle of God.” So wrote Emerson in his earliest major publication, “Nature.” His God is not the person of biblical tradition, but nature itself as a never-ceasing benevolence.
Similarly, in an address to the senior class of Harvard Divinity School he said this:
“In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature was never displayed more happily.”
This “poetic naturalism” is recurrent in everything he wrote. And there is perhaps no better way to educate students in a lasting love of nature than to have them read Emerson.
But always there follows a higher theme. The sentiment of nature opens the mind to a higher moral self. “A more secret, sweet, and overpowering beauty appears to man when his heart is opened to the sentiment of virtue. … he learns that his being is without boundary; that, to the good, to the perfect, he is born, low as he now lies in evil and weakness.” This higher self perceives the essential goodness of everything. “Evil is merely privative, not absolute: it is like cold, which is the privation of heat. … Benevolence is absolute and real. So much benevolence a man has, so much life hath he.”
This moral sentiment is the expression of true religion, rising above the artificial bonds of every tradition, free from meaningless ritual and sectarian feelings. It is its own revelation and so requires no other justification. Yet, it is always new. It encompasses everything, and it excludes no one from its obligation to do no harm, only good. Hence, it is the only proper basis of civil society, for only a civil society whose citizens are free from the fetters of every particular identity and chauvinism can long endure.
It may be objected that this conclusion is far from self-evident. It is not the reason that most nations, perhaps any at all, would give to justify their existence, let alone recognize the need for it. Yet I am inclined to believe that the moral self that Emerson imagines in his writing, a self that strives to encompass all of nature in a benevolent embrace, and that owns its own identity by means of a sense of moral obligation to others is a sure prescription for a nation’s abiding health.
For consider our current political situation. The United States is plagued by two crises, one political, the other global.
First, the political. In the last presidential election, the people of the United States (granted a minority of them) elected as president an individual who is morally unfit for the office. A colossal egotist. The prince of narcissists, selfish and resentful. The only antidote to this moral void at the head of the nation is for citizens to fill it with the substance of their own moral persons: in all that they do, in their sentiments, actions that do not follow the perversity of their mad leader, but rise to a higher sentiment of good. This is the only justifiable reason for our resistance and the only true measure of it.
The global crisis is environmental. There is no doubt that our material way of life is leading us on a path of global extinction, not to mention that it is also a cause of increasing inequality and injustice, of pain and sorrow among many who are altogether innocent of the misuse of nature’s resources by the rich and advantaged. The evidence is decisive, and to deny it is pathological. The encompassing embrace of nature that Emerson the poetic naturalist proposes promises a way not to save nature, for in the end, nature will take care of itself — and us as well — but a way of restoring us to a proper relation to the only source of our being and induce a proper respect for it. It might be said, “The fear of Nature is the beginning of wisdom.”

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