Emerson’s Ecological Thought

I am heading off to a retreat for a month and so I will be reducing my posts to one a week on Thursdays for a while now. I hope that you enjoy my last few on Emerson before I move on to start  exploring Existentialism, which I have been reading recently.

To get back to Ralph Waldo Emerson, as we read his writings on nature he seems to emphasize time and time again the remarkable perfection of the fit between nature and human beings. We miraculously find ourselves in a world that is suited to our needs in every conceivable way. We thirst and water is produced for us, we hunger and food is there. We need to breathe and the air fills our lungs, we need to travel and find that firm ground meets our feet with every step. We need our spirit uplifted by beauty and we find it in every season in all weather and each hour of the day. We need to communicate and the world provides an infinite variety of objects for us to name and label so that we can learn to speak and to think. We have appeared in a perfect world, absolutely suited to us.

When I read Emerson’s writing on nature in his first book I see a man who is beginning to break away from the Christian worldview that he was trained in as a minister. In a more traditional Christian view of nature he might emphasize the gratitude he feels for what the creator has given us, but Emerson is beginning to see with ecological eyes. In a more traditional view it might look like we are the luckiest beings that could ever exist because God, our father, has created for us a Garden of Eden that is perpetually standing at the ready to meet our every need.

Emerson is beginning to think differently. He is beginning to realize that the reason our world is a perfect fit for us is not because God created it that way. In fact he is beginning to see that we are not in the world at all. We are of the world. The world is perfect for us because we grew out of it like a flower grows out of a bud. We don’t think the flower is lucky that there happened to be a bud perfectly suited for its emergence, we think that the bud and the flower are part of the same event. In the same way we human beings aren’t lucky aliens who happened to land on a planet perfectly suited to our needs. In fact, we didn’t merely happen to end up here at all. We were produced by this planet. It is not as if we could have ended up on some other world that was barren and airless and then found it impossible to survive. If we had been produced by a different kind of world we would have been different kinds of creatures and that planet would have suited us in that form just fine.

Emerson is exploring the edges of a new thought, what I believe University of California at Davis professor Timothy Morton would call the ecological thought. (Please take a look at Dr. Morton’s stuff he is a very interesting thinker.) Emerson is begining to articulate a unified vision of reality that will have a tremendous affect on the further development of American thought. It will become a gravitational field that Peirce, James and Dewey and many thinkers after them will revolve around. Emerson is beginning to see beyond Christian cosmology to discover that the world and the human beings in it represent a single living system – a unified whole growing organism. This is the Romantic conception of the universe being transplanted into the young nation of America.

In his first book Emerson won’t go beyond his beautiful and poetic descriptions of a growing world to embrace the more radical view of an evolving world, but he will in time. First he will encounter the world proposed by Georg Hegel and finally some key ideas from Hindu philosophy before he can make the evolutionary leap. He will though, he will.

By the time he publishes his second series of essays in 1844 he will have developed the foundations of a true evolutioanry spirituality. In fact in his essay “Nominalist and Realist” he anticipates the idea of holons that has more recently been popularized by Ken Wilber. That idea is that the universe is created from “holons” which means things that are both wholes that include other things as parts, and at the same time are themselves also parts of still larger wholes. This idea that the universe is made up of wholes that are also parts, along with the insight that the universe evolves when wholes become parts of still larger wholes is central to a great deal of the evolutionary spirituality that has become so popular today.

Emerson in his essay seems to intuit the exact same structure in the universe when he writes “…as much as a man is a whole, so is he also a part; and it were partial not to see it.” He goes on in the same essay to say. “You are one thing, but nature is one thing and the other thing, in the same moment. She will not remain orbed in a thought, but rushes into persons…and by many persons incarnates again a sort of whole.”

 In so much of his writing Emerson seems to straddle the apparent paradox of insisting on the undivided autonomy and agency of the individual while at the same time stating that all of nature, including individual human beings, is also a singular whole. It is a subtle and sophisticated  ecological thought that he passes on to the next generation of American philosophers and eventually to those of us today who are also inspired by an evolutionary view of spirituality.