Human Nature in Society and in the Wilderness Essay
Human Nature in Society and in the Wilderness
Transcendentalism was a current of thought that took prevalence over America in the nineteenth century. It was a revolutionary paradigm which was inspired by Romanticism, Idealism and Platonism and endeavored to raise awareness to the importance of the inner life of man. The major Transcendentalist writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, argued that mankind depletes its own spiritual force by living artificially. The two authors, whose theories are very similar, perceived that humanity was rapidly moving away from its natural state. The modernization of the world also implies a greater distance from the world of nature. Both Emerson and Thoreau deplored the fact that the human society appears to have forgotten its origins. As such, the author prescribed a return to nature and a withdrawal from society. In their view, there is a transcendental meaning in nature, which cannot be discerned through the wisdom found in books. The connection between the spirit of man and the natural environment is unmistakable. Thus, in order to attain the supreme truth, man has to move closer to nature and rediscover life in its primitive form.
According to both Emerson and Thoreau, the contemplation of nature cultivates the spirit in many distinct ways. As it shall be seen, the authors found that nature can have almost limitless uses for man’s body and mind. While the natural world is ever present in all of Emerson’s writings, the essay that comprises most of his ideas in this respect is the one entitled Nature. In this essay, Emerson enumerates and comments upon the main uses of nature to man. As he notes, nature is of infinite use to man, befriending him in every respect. The first step to get in touch with the spiritual force contained in nature is to withdraw from the society of man: “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society” (Perkins 1283). Emerson, a firm believer in originality, emphasizes that man should learn directly from nature and not from the sources that quote it. He urges man to uses all his sensual and intellectual capacity to learn from direct experience. It is in wilderness that man can have access to the teachings of nature. Emerson shows that, if man were able to preserve his connection of nature, there would be no more sorrow: “In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life – no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair” (Perkins 1284). The woods push the mind towards reason and faith, keeping his spirit sane. Accompanied only by the natural elements, man would never love his balance or his sanity.
Furthermore, Emerson enumerates four distinct uses of nature: commodity, beauty, language and discipline. Although the modern man tends to think of himself as an independent entity that is able to exploit nature in his own interest, he forgets that nature can teach him everything. First of all, the author uses the notion of “commodity” to discuss the practical usefulness of nature for man. According to him, the surrounding nature brings numberless proofs of the fact that its main design is to function harmoniously and serve man: “Beasts, fire, water, stones and corn serve him” (Perkins 1285). Nature’s role is therefore to provide for man in every possible way. Its forces join to create certain conditions, which are appropriate for the existence of human life.
The second use of nature is that of beauty. Emerson suggests that nature educates the spirit of man to perceive and understand beauty. Although the modern man takes the natural splendors that surround him for granted, nature is a constant delight for the human eye and soul: “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 delight in and for themselves” (Perkins 1285-86). As Emerson points out, the beauty of nature is essential for man as it creates a friendly environment where his spirit can develop. The third use of nature is similar to that of beauty. Emerson claims that nature is the source of man’s language. Through three concise statements, the author summarizes the way in which nature functions as language for man. First of all, he shows that, “words are signs of natural facts” (Perkins 1289). Communication originates in man’s need to speak about nature. Moreover, the natural elements speak to the human mind and transmit messages that are beyond the factual: “Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts” (Perkins 1289). Finally, Emerson adds that, “nature is the symbol of the spirit” (Perkins 1289). Thus, the author shows that man’s spirit and the surrounding nature are interwoven and interdependent.
The fourth use of nature that Emerson includes in his discussion is discipline. As the writer puts forth, nature is infinitely resourceful for man’s education: “Every property of matter is a school for the understanding” (Perkins 1293). Even the most elementary interaction between man’s intellect and the world of nature presupposes a permanent exercise of reason: “Our dealing with sensible objects is a constant exercise in the necessary lessons of difference, of likeness, of order, of being and seeming, of progressive arrangement; of ascent from particular to general” (Perkins 1294). Without realizing it, man is constantly exposed to useful learning, by merely contemplating his surroundings. Emerson identifies and discusses several uses of nature for man. In his perspective, a thorough contemplation of nature is the only means of ascension for man, towards a higher state. In order to understand the world and his place in it, man must withdraw from the artificial world that is created within the human society and join his spirit to that of nature.
Henry David Thoreau supports Emerson’s views in his writings. While their ideas about nature and solitude, Thoreau’s works offer further insight since they are conceived from direct experience. In Walden, Thoreau recounts his experiences and feelings while leading a solitary life in the woods. The author actually applied his ideas and left society to be closer to the natural world. His long essay is filled with ideas but also with direct experiences from his lonely life. In poetic prose, Thoreau expresses the genuine sense of companionship that he feels in the midst of wilderness: “Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath…” (Perkins 1477). The author experiences nature intensely and passionately. The sights that the modern man no longer notices are a source of delight for him. In a similar way to Emerson, Thoreau points out that man would never feel desolation or unhappiness if he lived closer to nature: “There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still” (Perkins 1478). Like Emerson, Thoreau distinctly feels that, although alone, he could never feel deserted while he is close to the natural world.
Thoreau does not emphasize particular uses of nature but suggests that it is only through the cultivation of this strong link between nature and man that the spirit can fully develop. His wanderings through the woods make him aware of a sense of connection with the natural environment: “I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in the scenes we are accustomed to call wild and dreary…that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again” (Perkins 1478). Therefore, he also advocates the withdrawal of man from the society of other people, in order to attain a real sense of connection with the world of nature: “I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or a sorrel, or a horsefly, or a bumble bee” (Perkins 1481). Thoreau feels that he is akin to the plants and animals in the wilderness, which are always perfectly integrated in the environment. He shows therefore that man will only be able to advance when he rediscovers his relationship with the natural world. As Thoreau highlights, man should become aware of his relationship to the whole of nature.
The main thesis of Transcendentalism is therefore that man should endeavor to gain self-knowledge and stifle ignorance by an adherence to the essential truths in life, such as the human self and the human mind, nature and the universe itself. The transcendentalists perceived that the modern world was moving at a fast pace towards the exclusive authority of utility and materialism. Opposing this tendency, they strived to bring the life of the human spirit to the foreground. Thought had to be pushed farther so as to transcend the immediate, contingent reality and to touch the profounder truths. Both Emerson and Thoreau indicate that the role of nature is essential in man’s life. The natural world is both needed to fulfill the practical needs of man and his more profound, spiritual ones. Nature has many roles and none of them can be replaced by an artificial existence. Thus, Transcendentalists aimed for a renewal of perception, that would move beyond the immediate and that would improve and restructure human life.
Perkins, Barbara and George. The American Tradition in Literature. Volume I. 12th Edition. New York: McGraw Hill, 2009.