Around 1830 a philosophical movement called Transcendentalism emerged, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The publication of this book, Nature, in 1836 was the milestone event where transcendentalism became a major cultural movement.
What is transcendentalism? It’s essentially the philosophy that nature and the natural order are the true arbiter of spirituality. Transcendentalism is a protest against culture and society and states that religion and political parties corrupt the individual spirit. A core belief of this philosophy is that people and nature are inherently good. Steven Pinker poses the same argument about the inherent virtue of man in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, albeit from a psychological perspective rather than spiritual. (As a side-note, transcendentalism and this book predate the entire field of psychology by half a century).
As you might expect, this book is written in old English, which reads a lot like poetry. Although it’s not very long, it took a long time to read because this style of writing isn’t conducive to scanning, and you want to understand every sentence because this book carries a lot of depth. The tempo of Emerson’s writing in Nature isn’t unlike Shakespeare, although this book couldn’t really be considered a narrative.
My Beliefs on Theology and Nature
As a young child I went to church every Sunday with my Episcopalian mother. At the same time, I was brought to meditation groups with my Buddhist father. With a choice between the two, I preferred the freedom and flexibility of Buddhism to the rigidity and stern discipline of the Christian faith. As I grew into an adult, I transitioned to atheism as I read books about behavioral genetics and microbiology. (Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene had a great impact on me.)
Now I believe that humans are born with an inert need to believe in a “big picture” of how the world works to make sense of what we perceive as random chaos. We yearn for spirituality. Your big picture generally either comes from an ancient book that tells you what to believe, or it comes from an understanding and appreciation of the incredible complexity of the universe. I choose the latter, and this is essentially what transcendentalism is. God is in every intricate detail of the universe – from the fractal patterns in snowflakes and leaves to the arrangement of stars and nebula in the galaxy.
This book is filled with thought provoking quotes that are even more relevant in our always-connected society than in Emerson’s. I recommend it, but keep in mind that this book might require some patience if you aren’t accustomed to reading early 19th century literature.
“To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.”
“Give me health and a day, and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous. The dawn is my Assyria; the sun-set and moon-rise my Paphos, and unimaginable realms of faerie; broad noon shall be my England of the senses and the understanding; the night shall be my Germany of mystic philosophy and dreams.”
“All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world.”
Amazon link: Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson