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Transcendentalism and The Value of Nature

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During the 19th century, a new movement known as Transcendentalism emerged that greatly impacted world philosophy and literature. Transcendentalism is made up of many different, yet connected concepts, such as individualism, nonconformity, and the divinity of nature. Transcendentalists believed in the inherent goodness of humanity and nature and argued that people reach their full potential when free of society’s corrupt institutions. Believers of the movement emphasized the idea that a person can improve himself through nature and “transcend” his knowledge of the world by following his intuition.The founder of Transcendentalism was Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose work started the movement and created a new period of US literature. He provided a positive view of religion and argued that nature was the place where God could be found. This went beyond what was taught in church and was against the more “conservative” beliefs of the Unitarian Church because it held the sanctity of nature on the same level of God. This idea that nature allows man to be one with God and is more powerful than civilization was attractive to many.

Emerson had a huge influence on his time and gained many followers, among them was Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s and Emerson’s work focused on self discovery and they urged their readers to look towards nature for individual growth and a better quality of life. They believed that everything is connected and by living in harmony with nature, it can become a refuge for the soul. Emerson and Thoreau, along with other modern environmentalist authors, argue that nature is sacred because it offers a connection to the divine to those who embrace it. (Thesis)In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s first essay, “Nature”, he argues the sanctity of nature by describing it as the closest thing to the presence of God and a tool to reach the divine. He believes nature is on the same level as God and suggests that mankind can reach this level by embracing it. Emerson credits his harmonious relationship with nature for his connection with a higher spirit: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.

Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see allIn this passage, Emerson praises the natural world and its ability to fix all things. He believes that when people are in nature, they “return to reason and faith”. As a result, nature becomes a spiritual escape and an opportunity to connect with a higher spirit. Regarding Emerson’s personal experience, when he immerses himself in nature and truly feels it, he realizes how insignificant his problems are: “Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,- all mean egotism vanishes.” By letting himself “bathe” in the “blithe air”, Emerson merges with nature and finds the divine feeling he had been searching for. His emphasis on the sensory feelings felt from the wind makes the readers feel the same vividness of nature that Emerson felt. This use of imagery gives the readers a reason to appreciate nature and makes them see the full sanctity of nature because it is described in such a positive light. It is evident that Emerson found this spiritual state because he described the feeling as being “uplifted into infinite space”, indicating that he had reached God’s level.

Ultimately, Emerson was able to reach this level because he approached nature from an unbiased viewpoint and new outlook on life. He advocates for the importance of looking at the world in a new way and explains that his connection with the divine is thanks to his new perspective: “I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all…” The transparent eye-ball is a metaphor for Emerson’s new perspective on nature that is absorbent rather than reflective. This inferred that Emerson wanted to take in all nature had to offer and as a result, he was able to discard all feelings of selfishness and see the full sanctity of nature because he realized his insignificance in front of something so great and beautiful. When he says “I am nothing; I see all”, Emerson acknowledges that his physical body is “nothing” when he embraces nature, but at the same time he can also see all. This is a paradox and by using it, Emerson shows how he reached the divine while persuading his readers to become one with nature. Using the eye-ball as a tool, Emerson got to experience nature’s divinity and see its true value.

Henry David Thoreau, writing in the mid 19th century, published Walden in 1854. He went to live at Walden Pond in 1845 for the purpose of finding harmony with nature and testing his transcendental views in the real world. Because he was a student of Emerson, Thoreau shared similar ideologies about nature and its sanctity. His relationship with nature described in Walden reveals how Thoreau followed Emerson’s transcendentalist beliefs and reflects the idea that divinity is everywhere in nature. Thoreau’s poetic writing style and romantic tone help him emphasize the value of nature because it includes allusions, analogies, and metaphors that describe nature in a positive light. He recounts his stay at Walden Pond and explains how his cabin, along with the weather, invoked a connection to the divine:To my imagination it retained throughout the day more or less of this auroral character, reminding me of a certain house on a mountain which I had visited a year before… The winds which passed over my dwelling were such as sweep over the ridges of mountains, bearing the broken strains, or celestial parts only, of terrestrial music. The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it.

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Olympus is but the outside of the earth every where.In this excerpt, Thoreau depicts Walden Pond as a place so beautiful it can only compare to Mt. Olympus, home of the Greek Gods. Thoreau writes like a poet by appealing to the senses and using vivid imagery to describe the natural world. When he says his cabin looked like an “auroral character”, Thorueau expresses a positive attitude towards nature because an aurora projects a colorful image across the sky. This use of an analogy gives the readers a more grandeur view of the world so that they can better see the value of nature from Thoreau’s point of view. When Thoreau describes the wind passing through Walden Pond as the “celestial parts” of “terrestrial music”, he is combining the earthly qualities of nature with the heavens. By combining the two, Thoreau argues that nature is sacred because it has a heavenly effect on mankind. Furthermore, when Thoreau states that “The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it. Olympus is but the outside of the earth every where”, he is sharing his Transcendentalist beliefs that nature is a powerful and Godly force. Thoreau uses the wind as a metaphor for the voice of God.

The metaphor describes nature as an infinite “poem”, thus inferring it is sacred because God’s spirit is everywhere in nature. As well as acknowledging the sanctity of nature, Thoreau also conveys the importance of embracing nature when he says “few are the ears that hear it”. This means only the people that become one with nature can hear the wind and be able to connect with the divine. In the same passage, Thoreau uses another metaphor of Greek Mythology to prove that nature is sacred: “Olympus is but the outside of the earth every where”. By alluding to Olympus, Thoreau is arguing that nature possesses the same level of divinity as the home of the Gods. This makes the readers realize that heaven and earth are the same place and that if you embrace nature for what it is, you will see divinity everywhere in the natural world. Thoreau’s Walden is a meaningful expression of the sanctity of nature because his advocacy for oneness through nature illustrates how one can reach the divine. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau had an incredible influence on the Transcendentalist movement and the nature writers that emerged from it. Emerson’s “Nature” gave birth to a new set of ideas and Thoreau’s Walden is abound with vivid descriptions of the divine spirit present in nature.

While these concepts still exist, Transcendentalist writing has evolved into works that focus more on mankind’s impact on nature than the simple beauty of the natural world. Modern environmentalist writer, Edward Abbey, is a product of the new American nature writer and while his works are contemporary, they include transcendentalist beliefs similar to those of Emerson and Thoreau. In his essay “The Great American Desert”, Abbey showcases the value of nature by expressing his love for the desert and his desire to protect it. He dissuades his readers from visiting the desert, but also invites them in an attempt to make them see nature as a whole: “those who learn to love what is spare, rough, wild, undeveloped, and unbroken will be willing to fight for it, will help resist the strip miners, highway builders, land developers…” In this passage, Edward Abbey appeals to the readers emotions to argue that the open spaces of the deserts are sacred places. When he says “those who learn to love what is spare, rough, wild, undeveloped, and unbroken will be willing to fight for it”, he is stating the importance of embracing nature and the positive effects it can have. By embracing the whole desert, including its “rough” and “undeveloped” qualities, Abbey’s love for the desert transcends beyond the average person because he was able to overlook its negative qualities.

Some people might suggest that Abbey’s views go against transcendentalist beliefs because he is dissuading his readers to explore nature, but in reality he is only dissuading the “land developers” and other people who come with bad intentions. Similar to Thoreau’s claim that only a few can hear the voice of the divine, Abbey is claiming that the people who love nature will be able to reach the divine because they “will be willing to fight for it”. By fighting for it and resisting man’s abuse of the deserts , Abbey believes you are worthy to travel the desert and therefore able to see the beauty of nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson, like Abbey and Thoreau, strongly believed that one’s outlook on life greatly affects their ability to make meaningful connections with nature. He feels that as we get older, we start to take nature for granted and stop seeing it for what it is. In “Nature”, he explains how society has distanced people from their true selves and prevented them from seeing the importance of nature: “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun… The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child.”In this passage, Emerson argues that if we all had the spirit of a child, we would be able to see the divinity in nature because children’s eyes are more “transparent”.

This idea can be compared to the quotes by Edward Abbey and Henry David Thoreau because they all describe nature as a powerful force that offers a connection to the divine to those who embrace it. His statements that “few adult persons” can see nature and “Most” don’t see the sun are hyperboles and help Emerson illustrate the extent of damage society has caused. By acknowledging that “The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child”, Emerson expresses the importance of maintaining a youthful spirit because he is saying that only children can truly experience the beauty of nature, as they have not yet started to ignore nature. When the sun “shines into the eye and the heart of the child”, it not only allows the child to see the beauty of nature, but also to connect with it on a deeper level. Above all, Emerson’s advocacy for the necessity of maintaining a childlike spirit is significant because youthfulness is an important transcendentalist value that connects us to nature and all of its sacred elements.In the chapter “Brute Neighbors”, Henry David Thoreau expands upon the importance of youthfulness by describing the young birds at Walden Pond as beautiful and pure beings. Enchanted by their spirit, he writes about their eyes: “The remarkably adult yet innocent expression of their open and serene eyes is very memorable… They suggest not merely the purity of infancy, but a wisdom clarified by experience. Such an eye was not born when the bird was, but is coeval with the sky it reflects.” 238Thoreau’s wondrous tone and suggestive language show how having a young spirit can represent a kind of eternal wisdom or divine quality. He uses a paradox when he says the eyes are “remarkably adult yet innocent” to engage the readers and give them a glimpse of something truly beautiful and interesting. He also uses imagery when he describes the eyes as “open and serene”, which helps paint a more accurate picture of the birds youthful spirit because open eyes suggest a state of taking in everything.

Due to this instinct, Thoreau sees “not merely the purity of infancy, but a wisdom clarified by experience.” This statement is significant because it helps Thoreau argue the sanctity of nature and the importance of embracing it. By saying the phoebe possesses both the purity of infancy and wisdom from experience, Thoreau is suggesting that he found an animal with a perfect balance between its animal instinct and spirituality. This proves his idea that animality and spirituality don’t have to be in conflict in nature and helps him argue that by taking in all nature has to offer, you can reach the same level of divinity as the phoebe.

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