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Still Ahead of His Time

Born 200 years ago this month, Ralph Waldo Emerson had some strange ideas about the natural world. Recent research suggests they might even be true

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Within living memory of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, the authentic cultural voice of America had spoken, outlining the future of American science, philosophy, scholarship, poetry and even landscape design. Today, many people do not know Ralph Waldo Emerson, and many of those who do, consider him at best a 19th-century transcendentalist or, at worst, the Dale Carnegie of belles lettres. But Emerson, who was born 200 years ago this month, prophetically mastered a wisdom that could have saved us all a lot of trouble by clarifying our place in nature.

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A gift seems to have been granted to certain people in the moments in history we call renaissance. One can hear the gift in the voice of that time—a confident exuberance, accepting the tragic aspect of life, but also full of hope and belief; capable of a genial irony but devoid of cynicism and academic intellectual vanity. It is a voice that more cynical or exhausted ages find annoying.

 

Emerson is a renaissance voice. Living in the afterglow of the New England Puritan age of faith, and in the dawn of America’s political, artistic and exploring power, Emerson combined a boisterous energy with a rational and judicious piety. Too intellectually adventurous to remain a Unitarian minister (he became fascinated by Hindu theology), he did not abandon his religious tradition altogether. At the center of his insights was a vision of nature’s intimate relationship with the human and the divine.

In 1836, Emerson caused a stir when he published a long essay, "Nature." At 33, he had finally broken with his church, moved from Boston, where he was born and grew up, to Concord, Massachusetts, and set out to create his own theology. "Nature," which Emerson revised and later published in a collection with the same title, would influence European thinkers such as Thomas Carlyle and Friedrich Nietzsche and would become an almost sacred text for Emerson’s American disciples, including Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott (the educator and abolitionist) and Margaret Fuller (the feminist), who went to sit at the feet of the prophet.

The ideas Emerson put forth in a second, more prophetic essay also entitled "Nature," published in 1844, boil down to two concepts: first, that a purely scientific understanding of our physical being does not preclude a spiritual existence; second, that nature embodies a divine intelligence. Reconciling those views, he argued that we need fear neither scientific progress nor the grand claims of religion.

In one of his most striking prophecies, the Sage of Concord seems to have anticipated the theory of evolution by natural selection as it would be developed by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species, published in 1859. Like Darwin, Emerson emphasizes the importance of the newly discovered antiquity of our planet: "Now we learn what patient periods must round themselves before the rock is formed, then before the rock is broken, and the first lichen race has disintegrated the thinnest external plate into soil, and opened the door for the remote Flora, Fauna, Ceres, and Pomona, to come in. How far off yet is the trilobite! how far the quadruped! how inconceivably remote is man!"

Emerson combines this idea with the observation by Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) that organisms tend to multiply beyond their resources, giving us a capsule version of natural selection. "The vegetable life," Emerson says, again prefiguring Darwin, "does not content itself with casting from the flower or the tree a single seed, but it fills the air and earth with a prodigality of seeds, that, if thousands perish, thousands may plant themselves, that hundreds may come up, that tens may live to maturity; that, at least one may replace the parent." Certainly, with the parable of the sower, Jesus beat Emerson to the punch; but as Emerson himself might have said, there is a kinship among prophets, and they speak to each other across the millennia.

Emerson also seems to have anticipated by about 80 years Erwin Schrödinger’s and Albert Einstein’s discovery that matter is made of energy. "Compound it how she will, star, sand, fire, water, tree, man, it is still one stuff, and betrays the same properties," Emerson writes, adding: "Without electricity the air would rot."

Recognizing the mathematical basis of physical reality, he seems aware that the apparent solidity of matter is the illusion that physicists would later show it to be: "moon, plant, gas, crystal, are concrete geometry and numbers." (I imagine Emerson would have been pleased by the discovery of quarks, which are bits of math spinning in a mathematical space-time field.) He already seems to intuit the Big Bang, the theory of the universe’s birth that would not appear for another hundred years. "That famous aboriginal push," as he calls it, anticipating today’s scientific understanding of the universe, is a continuing process that "propagates itself through all the balls of the system; through every atom of every ball; through all the races of creatures, and through the history and performances of every individual."

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