The Natural vs. The Unnatural

“…the ancient precept, ‘Know theyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘Study nature,’ become at last one maxim” (Emerson 1140).

For Ralph Waldo Emerson, any form of academic or intellectual study that wasn’t intimately connected with nature in one way or another was inherently unnatural, and thus unworthy of merit. To be a true scholar in America, says Emerson, one must always have nature as a philosophical foundation, for it is “the first in importance of the influences upon the mind” (1139). Nature is the source of all inspiration and experience, and by attuning oneself to nature, it is possible to comprehend most all the complexities of life. The effect of nature upon the mind and soul, according to Emerson, is nothing short of miraculous — when communing with the natural world, he holds that an individual has the kind of experience usually reserved for only the loftiest heights of rapture and ecstasy: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes…I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” (1112). Communion with the natural world, then, should be at least related, if not directly the purpose, of all scholarly pursuits.

“I went to the woods to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (Thoreau 1920).

Henry David Thoreau also believed in the fundamental importance of the natural world on the mind and soul – he differed from Emerson, however, in his belief that one must remove themselves from the unnatural influences of society in order to truly experience nature unadulterated by artifice. As an example, Thoreau puts forth that “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides on us” (1921), an example of how societal influences may appear to improve life, but in reality only remove and distance one from the natural world. His clarion call is to reject these unnatural influences and retreat from them, and to use nature in order to “settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe…till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake” (1923-4). That is, the correct way to live is to try in earnest to disregard anything that is not present in the wilderness, and instead heed only those influences that result in an understanding of the expressly real – opinion, prejudice, tradition, etc., are all concepts that can be equally true and false for two different people. Thoreau holds that nature, however, is the ultimate universal truth, and so is the seat of absolute reality.

“Then, flinging the already written pages of the Election Sermon into the fire, he forthwith began another, which he wrote with such an impulsive flow of thought and emotion, that he fancied himself inspired” (Hawthorne 1473).

Nathaniel Hawthorne was just as much a believer in the power of nature as Thoreau and Emerson above, and his novel The Scarlet Letter is rife with descriptions of the struggle between unnatural society and the natural world. For instance, in the above passage, Dimmesdale, possibly the character most influenced by societal life, comes back from a day in the woods and is overcome with such a divine burst of inspiration that he is compelled to throw his meticulously written sermon into the fire and write an entirely new version in one burst of passion. This shows that nature can redeem even the person most dramatically removed from it; yet there is a downside. Unlike Thoreau and Emerson, Hawthorne had a much more negative outlook on the lasting effects of nature. Dimmesdale does return from the woods an enlightened man, but the very next day he is back at the head of a religious procession to celebrate the election of a new governor in town — that is, his transcendence was short-lived, and seems to wear off more or less completely. Hawthorne, then, sees society not just as unnatural, but as a poisonous presence that works to keep those under its influence out of communion with nature, and therefore restricts their ability to fully realize their potential, which can be unlocked only through natural means.

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