The Conscious Evolution of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Part 3)

Why is the universe evolving? That is a question that must necessarily arise if we are to even entertain the possibility that there might be any form of consciousness directing the process of evolution. If we see a deterministic universe governed by universal laws there is no reason to speculate as to the “Why?” of the universe. The universe just is. On the other hand if we entertain notions of teleology we must tackle the question of meaning and purpose in the universe.

Emerson tackles this question at the end of his essay on Nature by asking, “What is the end sought?” he quickly answers his own question stating, “Plainly to secure the ends of good sense and beauty, from the intrusion of deformity or vulgarity of any kind.” The universe in short is ultimately good. Emerson has a truly optimistic view of progress and evolution. Yet he must contend with the facts. If the universe is an evolutionary process that is heading toward its own most highly perfected form what about all of the suffering in the world? Why is humanity in a current state that was by Emerson’s own admission forces him/her to look up to forms of nature that should be less advanced?

Emerson has an answer. He believes that humankind has lost it evolutionary way. “Thought, virtue, beauty, were the ends;” he claims “but it was known that men of thought and virtue sometimes had the headache, or wet feet, or could lose good time whilst the room was getting warm in winter days. Unluckily, in the exertions necessary to remove these inconveniences, the main attention has been diverted to this object; the old aims have been lost sight of, and to remove friction has come to be the end.”

Humankind has gotten so preoccupied with the quest for creature comforts that he/she has forgotten their original evolutionary reason for being. Emerson parodies this state of affairs by describing humanity “one who has interrupted the conversation of a company to make his speech, and now has forgotten what he went to say.” He goes onto to find evidence for this misguided state of human affairs in the form of what he sees as “an aimless society, of aimless nations.”

What is the solution? How can humanity reclaim its evolutionary pathway to higher being? Emerson first states that, “We cannot bandy words with nature, or deal with her as we deal with persons. If we measure our individual forces against hers, we may easily feel as if we were the sport of an insuperable destiny.” Nature is simply too powerful and too awesome for us to bully into submission. “But if, instead of identifying ourselves with the work, we feel that the soul of the workman streams through us, we shall find the peace of the morning dwelling first in our hearts, and the fathomless powers of gravity and chemistry, and, over them, of life, preexisting within us in their highest form.”

We cannot fight against the evolutionary “workman” that is nature, but we can identify ourselves with the work of evolution. If we see ourselves as evolutionary agents then we will find the “soul of the workman (nature) streams through us.” Again Emerson is describing an evolutionary awakening that will surface in the Pragmatism of the next generation of American philosophers and erupt in the 20th century and beyond in myriad forms of evolutionary spirituality.

Emerson sees divinely unfolding evolutionary process that runs unendingly forward from the mind of God, through the chain of being of God’s creations and ultimate through the mind of humankind. He states, “The divine circulations never rest nor linger. Nature is the incarnation of a thought, and turns to a thought again, as ice becomes water and gas. The world is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping again into the state of free thought.”