The Conscious Evolution of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Part 3)

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 9 Comments

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.”

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Eric Schey
Eric Schey
10 years ago

I find it fascinating that Emerson presents this idea that “The world is the mind precipitated” because I was reading the following passage in Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution just this weekend that paints a very similar picture: “Let us imagine a vessel full of steam at a high pressure, and here and there in its sides a crack through which the steam is escaping in a jet. The steam thrown into the air is nearly all condensed into little drops which fall back, and this condensation and this fall represent simply the loss of something, an interruption, a deficit. But… Read more »

Brian
Brian
10 years ago

Metaphorical speculation. Abstractions that have lost their mooring. Non-sense, but beautifully stated I must admit. I looked up Emerson in a philosophy textbook to see if he is respected in the field and this was the only citing: Sometimes people try to show that we can get along without consistency. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, once wrote that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and some people have claimed that he thereby showed that only narrow thinkers try to be logical. But in fact, a moment’s reflection will suffice to show that you cannot make sense unless… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago

You might need to look in a different book. Emerson wasn’t really a philosopher – in fact there weren’t really philosophers at his time (at least not in America yet). Emerson is a corner stone in the creation of American culture – in fact he is often called the father of American culture. He was not a rigorous thinker or a technical thinker. He was however a towering intellect and literary figure. Arguably the most important figure in American literature. (The authors of philosophy text books aren’t necessarily well respected.:)) Take a look at “The American Evasion of Philosophy” to… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Today I was reading in a book ‘Emersons life in science’ of Walls and there I found that when Emerson traveled for the first time through Europe (visiting Paris museum of Natural history) he had with him a copy of Goethe’s Italienische Reise in which Goethe detailed the goal of his journey, to find the primal or ur-plant, the primitive form that, unfolded, would exhibit the complete “chain of life”. ‘ What it did to Emerson was not the idea of nature’s creative order -that had been since long time familiar to him- but the reality of the idea, the… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago
Reply to  Liesbeth

Liesbeth, Thank you for this. I did read about Emerson’s time in Paris and his experience there, but I had forgotten about it. Goethe was tremendously influential on Emerson, partly through Emerson’s own reading of Goethe and partly because Emerson dear spiritual friend Margaret Fuller was a devotee of Goethe. Emerson was very influenced by Fuller and she by Goethe – you can see it all through Emerson’s spiritual work. I am finally reading Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom and it is fascinating to see the similarities between Steiner and Emerson – which makes sense because they were both influenced by… Read more »

Albert Klamt
10 years ago

There is a review of the book “The Romance of Individualism in Emerson and Nietzsche”: http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=1419 Its however not deep enough in my eyes. Neither was Nietzsche a troubled nature and Emerson a lighthearted one. They both lived within their time and cultures. And embodied the radical impulse for freedom. in his corresponence with Walt Whitman Emerson revealed some puritanism. His one limitation to embodiment. While Nietzsche tried to give the phenomenology of the great health in “Gay science”. clearly adresing the felt evolution of bodymind too. I see the great wealth as bridge between Emerson and Nietzsche. A space… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hi Jeff, re: “Emerson has an answer. He believes that humankind has lost it evolutionary way.”

Is it possible to lose evolutionary way? If human Progress is meant, it may be more apt a term. Evolution is a fact of Being and can’t be sidetracked or stymied, it continues to operate, like gravity.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

I like to see America as a milestone and turning point in the development of evolutionary consciousness. We who espouse human rights, equality for all humans and respect for all Creation and for the belief in Democracy as the way of the future of humanity are the apostles of evolutionary consciousness that are shaping humanity’s potential to be enlightened, the destined omega of humanity.Those who continue to violate sacred human rights are a retro influence retarding that thrust, a breed that will eventually die out, if they are kept from their violent and anti-life attitudes and behaviors.

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