How Knowledge of The Natural World Helps Man to Understand His Own Human Nature.
An essay by Christina Pociask
American literature, which reflects the relationship between man and himself and man with nature, has come a long way since man’s first encounters with the Natives. In the beginning, American literature mainly consisted of journal entries and letters to the Crown explaining what the land looked like and how the Native peoples acted. Once the people of the colonies got settled in and freed themselves from the oppression of the Crown, they began to relax and reflect on the world around them. They, particularly Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and even Walt Whitman, began to ponder the relationship between earth/ nature and humanity. By the 19th century it became a widespread movement, often times referred to as Transcendentalism. Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman believe that observation of the natural world reveals to man things about his own human nature.
Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks with a reverence for the natural world unlike anyone else before his time. In his work titled “Nature”, Emerson demonstrates just how nature herself teaches man about himself. Particularly in Chapter IV. Language, Emerson asks, “Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts? The world is emblematic. Parts of Speech are metaphors because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind” (225, Volume B). His overall theme in Language is to show how, essentially, man-made language is a reflection of nature. He describes, “This immediate dependence of language upon nature, this conversion of an outward phenomenon into a type of somewhat in human life, never loses its power to affect us” (224, Volume B) Here, he is showing that the relationship between man and language would not exist without the help of nature to give man the idea for his symbols. “All spiritual facts are represented by natural symbols. The same symbols are found to make the original elements of all languages” (224, Volume B). Emerson expresses the idea that nature teaches men things he cannot come to know without fully appreciating the laws of the natural world. He really drives this point home in Chapter V. Discipline of “Nature”:
“Space, time, society, labor, climate, food, locomotion, the animals, the mechanical forces, give us sincerest lessons, day by day, whose meaning is unlimited. They educate both the Understanding and the Reason. Every property of matter is a school for the understanding,– its solidarity or resistance, its inertia, its extension, its figure, its divisibility… Reason transfers all these lessons into its own world of thought, by perceiving the analogy that maries Matter and Mind” (227, Volume B).
Henry David Thoreau differs from Emerson such that his writings are based off of his experiments of living in the woods. Yet, his work is similar in that he explores the ways in which nature reveals things to man that he would not come to understand by living in the city. There is something about the simplicity of living life “off the grid”, as one might call it in today’s day and age, that reveals man’s true desires. It also reveals how little man needs to survive- materialistically that is. In Chapter II of “Walden”, Thoreau declares that, “I went to the woods because I wished 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…I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life” (1028, Volume B). Thoreau believes that the woods, or rather the state of living in the woods, lends itself many lessons to be learned about humanity and how one ought to live. Several paragraphs following that statement he begins to preach on how simplicity is the proper way of life- a conclusion he evidently stumbled upon by living so close with nature herself. He goes on to say, “In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that man has to live…. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary to eat but one-” (1029, Volume B). On the following page he continues this theme of simplicity by saying, “I could easily do without the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it”. The reason for this being that, “To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and and read it are old women over their tea” (1030, Volume B). Although Thoreau’s tone is a tad pompous- which is a characteristic he shares with Walt Whitman rather than Emerson- his reason for bringing this up points back to his reason for living in the woods. These are all lessons he learned from living as close to the heart of nature as humanly possible. In reference to living in the woods he muses, “And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality which surrounds us” (1032, Volume B). Going back the pompous or egotistical side of Thoreau, it is apparent that he holds himself with high reverence in comparison to the general public because of his accomplishment of solitary living for such small annual earnings.
This egotism is also seen in Walt Whitman’s work, specifically the poem “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass. In the first stanza the speaker, who we make the assumption is Whitman himself, says, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, – And what I assume you shall assume, – For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”. In this long, story-like, poem he paints a picture of nature. His idea of nature is different from Emerson’s and Thoreau’s ideas because he leads the reader to make up their own conclusions about nature instead of just giving his own interpretation. In stanza 6 he speaks of the grass. He mentions that a child knows not what it is any more than a grown man does. His observation of nature is what allows him to make this conclusion. In reference to the grass, the speaker of the poem says, “It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of– their mothers’ laps,– And here you are the mothers’ laps” (lines 114-115, stanza 6). Although it seems a little abstract to compare the lap of one’s mother to the green grass of the rolling hills, he is demonstrating that the idea of the grass, its softness and its eternal comfort, can be paralleled with whatever the reader wants it to be. Philosophically speaking, this ties back to the thoughts of Emerson and Thoreau because the mere study of nature allows man to reveal things about himself that he did not know before. Whitman demonstrates this concept- the idea of studying nature- in the first line of the 17th stanza of “Song of Myself”, “These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are- not original with me”. Here he is demonstrating that all men, not just himself, are capable of observing earthly nature and coming to grips with man’s human nature by doing so. This final point is yet another way in which Whitman differs in thought from Thoreau.
Thoreau makes it clear that man has to live minimally in order to really become one with and understand earthly nature and how it teaches man about human nature. Whereas Whitman thinks that any man is capable of doing this, from anywhere in the world, and at any age. Thoreau and Whitman share their tone of egotism. Meanwhile, Emerson and Thoreau share a great appreciation for the outdoors and a similar writing style. Whitman is almost in a separate category from Emerson and Thoreau because he writes in a poetic style. Nevertheless, each author demonstrates that by observing the natural world, man is able to learn a thing or two about his own human nature.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th
ed. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: WW Norton & Co., 2012. 224, 225, 227.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Walden.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th
ed. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: WW Norton & Co., 2012. 1028, 1029, 1030, 1032.
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th
ed. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: WW Norton & Co., 2012. 1333 and 1342.