Still Ahead of His Time- page 2 | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

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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But Emerson is skeptical about the then-fashionable idea that nature was like a clockwork, a deterministic machine whose future—including our thoughts, feelings and actions—could be predicted if we knew everything that was happening at a prior moment. He, too, felt the "uneasiness which the thought of our helplessness in the chain of causes occasions us." But instead of accepting our fate as parts of a machine, he exalts nature’s wonderful waywardness, which defies science’s attempts at perfect prediction.

Emerson is no less perceptive of human matters. He anticipates Abraham Maslow, the 20th-century psychologist, recognizing that we will pursue our higher, freer, more spiritual goals only after sating our lower ones. "Hunger and thirst lead us on to eat and to drink," he says, "but bread and wine...leave us hungry and thirsty, after the stomach is full." Before Freud, before the sociobiologists, Emerson realized the psychological implications of our animal descent. "The smoothest curled courtier in the boudoirs of a palace has an animal nature," he says, "rude and aboriginal as a white bear." But he draws conclusions that even now we have difficulty accepting—for example, that there is no meaningful distinction between the natural and artificial (or man-made). "Nature who made the mason, made the house," he says. There is no point trying to go back to nature; we are already there.

America largely ignored Emerson’s insights about what is "natural" for a century and a half. Instead, we divided the world into the populated urban wasteland and the "empty" untouched wilderness. Thus we felt justified in uglifying our cities while attempting to eradicate all change and human agency from our national parks. If we feel alienated from nature, it is because we are suffering a hangover from a certain vanity of thought that would raise us above and out of nature. But Emerson sees nature as potentially improved by human beings and human beings as the epitome of nature. Such a view would lead, as it has begun to do recently, to an environmental ethic in which human activity can enrich nature, rather than just lay waste to it or fence it off. "Only as far as the masters of the world have called in nature to their aid, can they reach the height of magnificence," he writes. "This is the meaning of their hanging-gardens, villas, garden-houses, islands, parks, and preserves."

If we had heeded Emerson, we might also have avoided the huge and costly mistake of dividing academic life into two fire-walled regimes, the humanities and the sciences. The consequence was not only that we have had generations of ill-educated young—scientists who know no poetry, poets who know no science—but something even graver. Free will, if isolated from the controlling gentleness and complexity of nature, readily becomes the will to power, which can serve (and has) as a rationale for genocide. We are only now beginning to see the madness of where Western philosophy has led us. Emerson’s genial sanity can perhaps provide an antidote. As he says in "Politics," published in 1844, "the wise know that foolish legislation is a rope of sand, which perishes in the twisting; the State must follow and not lead the character and progress of the citizen...."

Perhaps Emerson’s most exciting prophetic insights are ones that have not yet been fully realized. Consider David Bohm’s idea of the "implicate order," still only a gleam in the eye of physics, that all of physical reality might be thought of as a holographic projection. Emerson, intuiting that concept a century and a half ago, says that, "from any one object the parts and properties of any other may be predicted." Like Stephen Wolfram, whose 2002 book A New Kind of Science advances a view of cosmology as the playing-out of a simple algorithm, Emerson suggested that the world is the result of a simple computational process repeated over and over. Emerson, like Wolfram, cites the seashell, saying of the "whole code of [nature’s] laws" that "Every shell on the beach is a key to it. A little water made to rotate in a cup explains the formation of the simpler shells; the addition of matter from year to year, arrives at last at the most complex forms...."

Emerson’s greatest challenge to contemporary thought may be his view of evolution as a purposeful natural process—an idea vehemently rejected today. He argues that evolution harbors its own divine spirit and, therefore, that the universe is bursting with meaning. In his own time, Emerson was accused of being a pantheist, or a believer in the idea that nature is God, but that accusation misses its mark. For Emerson, nature is not God but the body of God’s soul—"nature," he writes, is "mind precipitated." Emerson feels that to fully realize one’s role in this respect is to be in paradise. He ends "Nature" with these words: "Every moment instructs, and every object; for wisdom is infused into every form. It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure; it enveloped us in dull, melancholy days, or in days of cheerful labor; we did not guess its essence until after a long time."

Certainly, Emerson’s prophecy did not encompass cell phones, nuclear radiation and molecular genetics. But the American renaissance, of which he could fairly be called the founder, deserves to be revisited if we ever gather our culture together again for another bout of supreme creativity.

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