A Short Piece on Transcendentalism

Written / Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

The Discovery of the Self through Nature is a short piece I wrote for my Study in Antebellum Literature 300 class. It discusses Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, Nature, and how Emerson connects objects in nature to the soul and the self through observation and the sensible world. The piece goes on to discuss Emerson’s journey of self discovery and how he expands on Platonic idealism.

Dana Webb
ENG 343
Professor Rebhorn
17 October 2016

Discovery of the Self through Nature 

     Through a journey of self-discovery, Emerson illuminates and expands on Plato’s two world theory through his adventure in discovering the inner self and the world of forms. In his essay, Nature, Emerson connects objects in nature to the soul and the self through observation of the sensible world, the world of forms. He enlightens the reader about the parts of the soul and expands on Platonic idealism by discussing his own personal experiences with the concepts of solitude, commodities, beauty, understanding, and finding the self through nature.

Emerson analyzes and defines the self by discussing the idea of solitude in his life. Through isolation, Emerson was able to study and observe his surroundings without interruption. He “becomes a transparent eye-ball; [he is] nothing; [he sees] all” and becomes one with nature (Emerson 29). The energy and knowledge he obtains from his surroundings is similar to Plato’s in the sense that he is witnessing the “currents of the Universal Being that circulate through” him and he is in turn, a “part or particle of God” (Emerson 29). Emerson uses the metaphor of the transparent eye-ball to represent this idea of the perception of the soul and the body. He is a transparent, invisible individual that finds his “sense of being” by becoming one with nature. He is discovering himself through the soul and understands himself through his perception of nature in which “every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight” (Emerson 29). Through different forms of nature, Emerson is discovering himself and a higher meaning. Plato believes that “those that wish to gain true knowledge of the forms must order their lives so as to subordinate their passions to reason and pursue excellence in intellectual and moral character or virtue” (Liederbach 353) to find meaning in the world. Emerson expands on this idea by showing the reader that “humans live in a world of perceptions” and through isolation to nature, one can find a higher reality in the world of forms, the sensible world. The world of forms is immaterial and we as people cannot see them with our eyes but rather with our minds. The world of forms is not constructed by intelligence but rather discovered and therefore Emerson shows that through solitude and becoming a transparent eyeball, the individual can discover the world of forms in relation to the self through nature.

Emerson draws on the physical part of the soul through the beauty and the materials that surround him. The “appetitive” or physical part of the soul include passions such as food, rest, beauty. The “eye is the best of the artists” and is the “best composer” (Emerson 30) and therefore sees the passions that are desired by the self and mankind. The eye sees “Beasts, fire, water, stones” (Emerson 30) which are all needs that are obtained and used to survive. “Plato identifies temperance as that virtue primarily linked to the appetitive part of the soul” (Liederbach 353) and thus the individual must learn to bring these desires under control. Emerson finds that through nature, he is discovering the appetitive and physical part of his soul through “the endless circulations of the divine charity [that] nourish man” (Emerson 30). The “influence of the forms and actions in nature, is so needful to man” (Emerson 32) and man must learn to control his desires or “passions” to find meaning. Emerson believes that “beauty is the mark God sets upon virtue” (Emerson 32) and plays a huge role in discovering the desires that mankind crave. The “world thus exists to the soul to satisfy the desire of beauty” (Emerson 34) and through the beauty of nature, mankind can discover the passions of the soul and gain knowledge in reason. “Besides the relation of things to virtue, [everything in nature has] a relation to thought” (Emerson 32). Nature stimulates thought and the “intellect searches out the absolute order of things as they stand in the mind of God” (Emerson 32). Through commodities and the beauty within nature, the individual is observing the universe and the “dualistic nature composed of an imperfect physical world of perceived reality and an immaterial world of perfection that comprise actual reality” (Liederbach 353). Emerson is showing the world of perceptions, the real world, is the “world of becoming” (Liederbach 353) because mankind is constantly discovering the idea within the self and the world around them. The world of forms, the sensible world, is the “world of being” (Liederbach 353) and therefore, Emerson states that man must observe and take in his surroundings in nature, the creations of god, to give the individual a better understanding of the real world and the ideas of the sensible world, which is the original world of forms.

Emerson uses idealism to understand the world around him in relation to the world of forms. Plato states that “we must use reason and move beyond the perceptions available to us through sensory perception” (Liederbach 354) but first the individual must have a basic understanding of the real world and “nature” within the world. The “sensible objects [in the real world] conform to the premonitions of Reason and reflect the conscience” (Emerson 41) which is the rational part of the soul. The rational part of the soul is “the virtue related to Wisdom” and is “tied closely with the knowledge of a person’s ultimate good and the means of attaining it” (Liederbach 354). Wisdom is the rational guide to the appetitive part of the soul to obtain knowledge of the forms, the individual must observe that “every object seen, unlocks a new faculty of the soul” (Emerson 39). Through wisdom and by breaking away from the world that has been mentally and socially constructed by mankind, the individual can understand the world of the forms through nature. Plato states that “the world of forms are immaterial realities that are known exercise of reason” (Liederbach 354) and therefore Emerson finds religious connotations through the observation of “the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom” that consist of the “universal soul [that Plato] calls Reason” (Emerson 35). Knowing the world of forms leads to order and the basis for the structure of religion. Emerson believes that “Reason, considered in relation to nature, [is called the] Spirit [, which] is the Creator” and in turn the “spirit manifests itself in material forms” which include “day and night, river and storm, beast and bird” which all “preexist in the necessary ideas in the mind of God” and are in the “world of the spirit” (Emerson 38) or the world of forms. Through nature, the individual can learn about the creations made by god and discover the purpose of ethics which includes the “laws of right and wrong” which “echo the Ten Commandments” (Emerson 41) and create the moral standards for society. The individual can find an understanding of the basic principles of life through nature and “ultimately it is only through the development and employment of certain virtues that one can reach [the] end” (Liederbach 353) and understand the nature of reality.

Emerson uses rationalism to finding the self and God through nature. Nature shapes mankind and the way that religion is worshipped. The spirit must be reunited with nature to gain a rational understanding of the world and thus allow the “eye of reason [to] open” (Emerson 44). Emerson believes that through nature, the individual can “look at the world with new eyes” (Emerson 54) and find happiness and harmony. This realization of the self will in turn will lead to the “redemption of the soul” which solves the problem of “restoring the world [to its] original and eternal beauty” (Emerson 54) that it was once before the corruption of society. Plato states that the construction of society and “predetermined principles, [determines] moral obligation” (Liederbach 354) and can lead to the rejuvenation of the spirit through the discovery of the self. The basis of belief in religion is evident when the individual explores Plato’s two world theory. Today’s society shows that “man is disunited with him-self” (Emerson 54) and that society needs to be restored. Man will perceive nature and religion how he pleases but if man does not acknowledge the spiritual meaning, he will not understand the purpose of nature, and thus not be able to discover his self. “Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven” (Emerson 55). If the individual discovers his self in his spirit, “he shall enter without more wonder than the blind man feels who is gradually restored to perfect sight” (Emerson 55) and the revelation of order and the laws of the universe will be restored. Man is lost “in the dark” but once he discovers his self and realizes the impotence of the kingdom of God, his “sight” will be restored and he will understand his self along with his spirit.

The world of forms is known to lead a person to a greater understanding and knowledge of the self. The self is connected to the soul and through the ideas of solitude, elements, beauty, understanding, and discovery of religion, Emerson successful expands on the Platolian view of the two world theory and shows that a greater knowledge can be reached through the exploration of nature. Plato states that the discovery of the world of forms allows the individual to obtain a sense of higher reality and thus leads to the fulfillment of happiness or “eudemonia.” Emerson portrays to the reader through his personal experience that the self can be discovered through the beauty and observation of nature. Overtime the individual will gain the knowledge needed to understand the world of forms and the idea of the self through experiences within the surrounding material world. The reader can take away a basic understanding of metaphysics from the text and will thus be able to incorporate their newfound knowledge of these ethical ideas into their everyday lives.


Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Joel Porte, and Saundra Morris. “Nature.” 1836. Emerson’s Prose and     Poetry: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism. W.W. Norton, 2001.

Liederbach, Mark. “Ethics: Theories of Virtue Ethics.” God, Meaning and Morality. 3rd ed. Edited by Iain S. Maclean and Diana Edelman. Thomson Learning Custom Publishing, 2002, pp. 353-354.