Emerson’s Ecological Thought

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 14 Comments

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.

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Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Last week I was reading ‘ the world of Sophie’, which is a childrens book about the history of philosophy. It is very clear and I was really inspired by it. It is written by a philosopher, Jostein Gaarder, who is clearly not spiritual, but closest to existentialism with which he ends the book. I definitely was very influenced by him. Reading on, he ended with Marx, Darwin, Freud, Sartre and that was for me ‘coming home’ they all have been very close to my heart, but especially the last two brought me to extremely total narcissism. I am reading… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Reading again your blog, I remembered that Gaarder (Sophie’s world) brought in Kierkegaard after Hegel. He said he was the one who brought in individualism. I also remembered Sartre ->Kierkegaard. I never read him, but it is just like once one starts, there are so many links..Jostein Gaarder has a real nice way to explain the tension between what you are talking about. He mixes fairy tales through the story and this time Sophie gets two little bottles, one with red and one with blue liquid. When she drinks the red one, she suddenly experiences the extreme unity in nature,… Read more »

Carl
10 years ago

Did Emerson say anything about teleology? Did he believe there is a grand purpose or goal that somehow guides the process from the end, or has the Universe and humans as part of it evolved in another way, not “toward” something but based on a moment-to-moment process, moving into the unknown rather that toward some target or outcome?

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago

Emerson was Hegelian in that regard. He believed that the Over-Soul was the perfected mind of the universe and it was gradually coming into manifestation through history.

Nils Montan
Nils Montan
10 years ago

I think in many, many ways Emerson (and in different ways his younger friend Thoreau) are the fulcrum of American History in the sense of the exploration of consciousness. They are the first generation that understood German Idealism and started reading Eastern Mystical thought. I like the bio of Emerson, Richardson’s “Mind on Fire.”

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

I think we’ve established that Emerson’s Over-Soul and the Awakened Spirit are the same. Yes?

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago

Nils I agree with you…you too Frank!

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Can we say that those on to the truth of Enlightened Evolution, getting it’s significance, are its apostles, to give high praise to it, them, us? Chief amond them, with all the brickbats thrown at him, is Barack Obama, IMO. I’m so gratified with his pronouncements most of the time and think we’re lucky to have him and Mrs Obama at this point in our evolution. I wish all his detractors would listen more dispassionately and less merely blindly putting forth their party line opinions, Tea Partiers especially.

Comments?

Nils Montan
Nils Montan
10 years ago

I worry about claiming apostleship. It feels dangerous and subject to “us” v. “them” mentality. I think President Obama is pretty great in many ways – but I understand why many people don’t. After too many years of putting people on pedestals, politicians, yes, sure; but mostly “spiritual teachers” and gurus, I am not interested in that game anymore.

Evolutionary politics, perhaps the trickiest enterprise of them all, requires one to go very, very deep into every question and to take on many different perspectives.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Nils, re: Obama

I don’t put him on a pedestal though I”m really impressed with someone in politics who seems to be espousing evolutionary consciousness. I’m grateful for any and all voices as influential as he and Mrs Obama is in his position and wish them well. I hope he gets a chance to fulfill his vision and not get too compromised or swayed and prevented from that.

TY for your response. Aloha, F.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hi Nils, re: “I worry about claiming apostleship.”

(Onelook) apostle: an ardent early supporter of a cause or reform

If you can go by that def, is there any objection to referring to people who have gotten the message on Enlightenment Next? The message of E Next is still not on everybody’s radar yet and trying to spread the word to those people needs some wind beneath its wings from us apostles. I hope you are too.

Nils Montan
Nils Montan
10 years ago

@Frank,

Good one. I am a lawyer – and you know how much we like to spit hairs.

You are absoutely right on this one Frank and under this definition, I am an apostle too!

In fact, it’s clear that one of our major resonsibilites in this word is to spread the good news of evoulutionary enlightenment.

I am very glad to be in your company bro.

All the best,

Nils

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Glad to see you getting the point of my definition, Nils. Yes, we all need to get on the bandwagon to spread the message of evolutionary enlightenment, that human evolution depends on adapting and modifying our behaviors and attitude in the way evolution works to enable a more efficacious survival rather than going the way of dinosaurs. What I mean that’s crucial is for each and all see that the personal and the planetary are intertwined. How we conduct ourselves, behave ourselves in peaceable ways is a spiritual and evolutionary modification if we want to avert any international and planetary… Read more »

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