Ralph Waldo Emerson had a spiritual vision explaining how the process of evolution was leading life inevitably in the direction of consciousness, and he did not separate human consciousness and activity from that process. Through his essay called “Nature” he makes comments like, “We talk of deviations from natural life, as if artificial life were not also natural.” And more to the point he claims that “we need not be superstitious about towns, as if that terrific or benefic force did not find us there also, and fashion cities. Nature who made the mason, made the house.”
Whatever it is that Emerson sees as the guiding will and intelligence that is guiding the process of evolution he sees it as not being separate from the will and intelligence that human beings utilize when we act. In affect he is already stating, again in 1844 long before evolutionary spiritual thinkers such as Sri Aurobindo, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Rudolf Steiner. He was developing a theory of conscious evolution.
Emerson’s optimism about the ultimate role that humanity could play in the natural order of things seemed to know no bounds. At the present time Emerson felt that we are far from the ultimate majesty and perfection of nature and so due to our “dullness and selfishness, we are looking up to nature, but when we are convalescent, nature will look up to us.” Emerson believed that humankind in its perfect state will be the crowning achievement of the natural process of evolution not a sullied bi-product.
Again it seems important to consider that Emerson did not see human beings as separate from the process of evolution. He is teaching a form of evolutionary nonduality, in which he does not draw a line of separation between the process of evolution and the fruits of that evolution including human beings. There is an evolutionary force that Emerson imagines in his vision of universal development and he sees this guiding force reflected in the human mind. The human being then becomes both the creator and the created. The discoverer and the originator of the things discovered because “the craft with which the world is made, runs also into the mind and character of men.”
This paradoxical creator/created aspect of human nature is expressed by Emerson when he claims that “This guiding identity runs through all the surprises and contrasts of the piece, and characterizes every law. Man carries the world in his head… Because the history of nature is charactered in his brain, therefore is he the prophet and discoverer of her secrets…Common sense knows its own, and…The common sense of Franklin, Dalton, Davy, and Black, (all great thinkers) is the same common sense which made the arrangements which now it discovers.”
The great scientific discoveries of Emerson’s time represent for him not humanity discovering the secrets of some nature outside. These discoveries are humanity rediscovering the laws that it had created in a form prior to becoming human. This same sentiment would be reflected two centuries later when Andrew Cohen asks, “When we ask the question “Who am I?” from the perspective of cosmic evolution, the answer comes back: “I am the universe becoming aware of itself in human form.”
Emerson in his evolutionary vision is anticipating the evolutionary philosophy that will be developed by Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey decades later. Perhaps Emerson’s comes close to expressing the later Pragmatism when he says, “We live in a system of approximations. Every end is prospective of some other end, which is also temporary; a round and final success nowhere. We are encamped in nature, not domesticated.”