Emerson and Idealism

by | Feb 16, 2021 | Insight, Self-Development, Sujantra's Philosophy

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) published his book Nature in 1836 at the age of 33. It contains an introduction and eight chapters. Chapter VI is entitled Idealism. In this short chapter Emerson brilliantly conveys the nuanced depths of the profound philosophy of Idealism. It had previously, and with various nuances, been espoused by such luminaries as Plato, Bishop Berkeley, Leibniz, Kant, Shelling, and Fichte. Idealism can offer profound clarity and insight into living. Emerson brings this philosophy to life while adding his unique twist and flavor.


Photo by Salil Wilson

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy describes Idealism as positing, “…that reality as we understand it reflects the workings of the mind.” Going a bit deeper it says, “The only reality with which we inquirers can have any cognitive commerce is reality as we conceive it to be. Our only information about reality is via the operation of mind—our only cognitive access to reality is through the mediation of mind devised models of it.” My favorite short description, from the same source, states, “…any characterization of the real that we can devise is bound to be a mind-constructed one…”

Most of Emerson’s writings began as lectures given in America and Europe. He knew how to convey ideas and reach the minds and hearts of men and women who often did not have access to universities and higher education. He taught common people to think and reason at the level of Socrates and Plato. He was well versed in the ancient philosophies of India which had explored and developed Idealism before the time of the Buddha. Emerson spoke and wrote with the confidence of direct experience.

Nature and Idealism

From this point forward all quotations are from Chapter VI of Emerson’s Nature.

According to Emerson, there is spirit and there is nature. Spirit is the soul and its action is Reason. Nature is the reality we live within. It is what we experience. Nature is light entering our eyes, sound waves, trees, mountains, rivers; everything we perceive other than our essence. But what is nature beyond how it appears to us? This is one of the deep questions of philosophy. You and I may both be looking at the same tree, but are we seeing the same thing? I am distracted and remembering a tennis match from yesterday; you are a botanist closely examining the leaves. You see color more distinctly than I. You know all of the chemistry existents in the tree. I fall asleep and though under the boughs of the tree walk the streets of Paris. A young girl is climbing in the tree imagining forest fairies and the treehouse her father promised to build for her. Who is seeing and experiencing the real tree? Can we even be sure there is anything besides our perception?

“A noble doubt perpetually suggests itself,…whether nature outwardly exists.”
We know only our perceptions. We cannot know with absolute confidence what our perceptions are based upon because our senses, nervous system, and brain only represent nature to our mind’s eye nature through electrical and chemical impulses.

Rene Descartes Two hundred Years Earlier

Here Emerson captures the essence of Rene Descartes’ philosophical inquiry from 1639, which is a pivotal moment in modern Western philosophy. I sit here in the park on a sunny afternoon and wonder how can I know with absolute certainty, beyond any doubt, that what my senses convey to me is real? The sun appears to be smaller than the cloud which covers it. I once was in the park enjoying a game of soccer, we lost and I was emotional. I woke up to discover it was all a dream. At the time I did not doubt that the game was real. I could be dreaming now. How can I be sure I’m not? Is the tree truly as I see it, or is my perception a creation of my mind? Is the world of waking more real than the world of dreams? If both waking and dream are products of my mind then are there as many worlds as there are dreams? These are the question that has vexed philosophers since mankind became self-conscious. What is the nature of reality? What is real.

Descartes reasoned the outer world to be a creation in the mind of the perceiver. A creation of which one cannot be sure. The only thing of which we can be certain is that we exist. That I am observing and doubting and wondering. That I am thinking. The thoughts may be accurate or inaccurate but I am sure that it is I that am having them. Nothing more can be known absolutely. Some draw nihilistic conclusions about life from this line of thinking–not Emerson. He saw the experience of life, regardless of its ultimate reality, as an opportunity for our spirit and soul to learn, aspire and expand.

Emerson declares the positivity of life and all that we experience regardless of different philosophical debates. “…what difference does it make, whether Orion is up there in heaven, or some god paints the image on the firmament of the soul?… Whether nature enjoy a substantial existence without, or is only in the apocalypse of the mind, it is alike useful and alike venerable to me.” The reality that we each perceive is the backdrop for our growth and enlightenment. Let us not get lost in doubting our perceptions, keep to the task at hand: living.

The times we live in effect our outlook. Descartes lived during the tail end of the Inquisition: the Catholic Church’s demand for adherence to their beliefs or torture and possibly death to those not in compliance. Descartes, to live, had to mold his inquiry and teachings to comply with those of the Catholic church. Emerson was living in America, two hundred years later. Emerson had resigned his role as a Christian minister, he did not want to be hemmed in by belief systems he felt to be limiting. He saw nature as a form of God. Different times allow for different ideas to flourish.

An interesting side note in the history of philosophy: Idealism says that through the faculty of mind, brain, and senses each of us generates our experience of reality. We cannot know with absolute certainty what lies beyond the perception of our mind for we need our minds to perceive. Nature is thus a phenomenon of our experience. We cannot be sure it arises from a substance since all we know is the experience of our perceptions. Phenomenalism grew out of this focus on the phenomenon of experience which in turn gave rise to Existentialism.

Emerson’s Zest for Living

This uncertainty regarding the absolute nature of the external world, need not cripple our experience and joy in living. Instead, it challenges us to explore our role as the observer of our experience which in turn leads to an awareness of a unique moment in time. “Any distrust of the permanence of laws [the workings of nature and our place in it] would paralyze the faculties of man…the wheels and springs of man are all set to the permanence of nature…We are not built like a ship to be tossed, but like a house to stand. ” If we are not careful we can cripple ourselves with analysis paralysis regarding the nature of reality. Instead, take life as you experience it and use your intelligence to take your awareness to the next level. Make the most of life, of your moment in history.

Spirit and Soul

To find our genius, our essence, we need a steady sense of reality to stand upon. Having done that, by accepting nature as we experience it, Emerson says that the next step is to isolate our essence as an observer from that which we experience.

Nature for Emerson means our entire experience of reality. Nature is light entering our eyes, sound waves, trees, mountains, rivers; everything we perceive other than our essence. At this point in his essay, he turns his attention to how we can find our essence. He notes that some erroneously believe: “In their view, man and nature are indissolubly joined.” For them our senses and mind are intertwined with nature, never to exist independently. “The presence of Reason mars this faith. The first effort of thought tends to relax this despotism of the senses which binds us to nature as if we were a part of it…”

Emerson capitalizes the word reason. The reason, as Emerson uses the word is the ability to discriminate between what is nature and what is oneself. It is the deep sense of Self that observes the world, sensation, and thought and knows itself as permanent while everything else is constantly shifting. Reason is a priori knowledge in that the sense of Self comes intuitively to each person and is not knowledge that is assembled in the mind. Reason is accessible to all who can lift their minds ever so slightly from sensation and thought. Emerson used philosophy, and Reason, as a way to come to a higher and deeper understanding of life and himself. He had profound spiritual experiences and sought to guide others towards the same.

By calling for an awareness of the difference between spirit and matter, between mind and nature, Emerson falls in line with one of the philosophies of ancient India: the Samkhya. This school of philosophy actively sought liberation, or as Emerson would say, emancipation, through the use of Reason and the active discrimination between soul and nature. This is done by differentiating between that which is natural and that which is Self. By eliminating what you are not you can experience what you truly and permanently are. By dropping ego-identifications you eventually connect into the source of ego, which is spirit, the sense of Self, which comes before all thought.

This necessary dropping of ego-identifications takes place on the mental plane, yet does not have to involve changes in your day to day world. I can realize that I am not my money or possession yet still utilize those things in my daily life. I am not my opinions or even my thoughts. My essence is deeper. I can experience that depth yet still utilize my opinions and thoughts to navigate through situations and circumstances.

The Power of Reason

The animal mind is limited, the human mind has Reason. “…the animal eye sees, with wonderful accuracy, sharp outlines, and colored surfaces. When the eye of Reason opens, to outline and surface are at once added grace and expression. These proceed from imagination and affection…” In Emerson’s vernacular imagination is the mind’s capacity to construct reality from sense impressions.

Emerson had spiritual experiences: “If the Reason be stimulated to more earnest vision, outlines and surfaces become transparent and are no longer seen; causes and spirits are seen through them. The best moments of life are these delicious awakenings of the higher powers, and the reverential withdrawing of nature before its God.” Through the active effort of our Reason, we see nature as sense impression and we come to know ourselves, the observer, the creator of our unique life experience. Nature has its role. “Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us.” From what do we need emancipation? From the illusion that we are not the immortal spirit.

Emerson talks about two methods by which we can feel our essence being independent of nature. The first is by experiencing a physical change of perspective. Each time we shift perspective, “seeing the shore from a moving ship…The least change in our point of view gives the world a pictorial air.” This is the sense of my physical point of view changing, yet I remain consistent. I stay consistent, I am always the center of my experience while everything around me shifts and changes. I am the only constant. “In these cases, by mechanical means, is suggested the difference between the observer and the spectacle—between man and nature…a low degree of the sublime is felt, from the fact, probably, that man is apprized that whilst the world is a spectacle, something in himself is stable.” It is this stable element in ourselves that is the key to our emancipation.

The second way takes place in the more subtle realm of mind. At this point in the essay, Emerson introduces the idea of the poet. For Emerson, the poet is the ideal person in that they have achieved emancipation. The poet is not merely a type of artist, they are knowers of truth. Through the power of Reason, of pure and concentrated mind, the poet, “unfixes the land and the sea, makes them revolve around the axis of his primary thought, and disposes them anew.” The primary thought is awareness of oneself as the observer. Once that is achieved then all sensation, imagination and in fact, our entire experience of reality comes under our control. We experience life for what it is. “The sensual man conforms thoughts to things; the poet conforms things to his thoughts.” This is the power of living that the poet, which each of us can become, attains. “The one [ limited to sense experience] esteems nature as rooted and fast; the other, [the poet] as fluid, and impresses his being thereon.”

This is the difference between feeling that one is a victim of circumstance and feeling that one creates their own destiny, or at least their own attitude towards what occurs in life. Emerson now offers an insight that requires some contemplation. “The Imagination may be defined to be the use which the Reason makes of the material world.” Emerson defines imagination as a verb. Imagination is how we create our experience of life.

Next Emerson extols Shakespeare as the ideal poet for he can use his Reason upon the material world and manifest it in his art. “Whilst the poet animates nature with his thoughts, he differs from the philosopher only herein, that the one proposes Beauty as his main end; the other Truth.” When we perceive from the point of view of the poet or philosopher when we view reality from the clear heights of Reason we “…feel that the outward circumstance is a dream and a shade. Whilst we wait in this Olympus of the gods, we think of nature as an appendix to the soul.”

A Path to Liberation

Emerson lectured throughout America and Europe. He gave hope and vision to those who attended his lectures. He offered a tangible description and methodology that all could follow. “…all men are capable of being raised, by piety or by passion, into their [the gods] region. And no man touches these divine natures, without becoming, in some degree, himself divine…We become physically nimble and lightsome; we tread on air; life is no longer irksome, and we think it will never be so…for he is transported out of the district of change.” We all crave stability yet nature is in a constant state of flux, our mind is in a constant state of flux. If we can root into the primary thought, the core sense of Self, we find the changeless. We are “transported out of the district of change…for the first time, we exist.”

Emerson was transcending time and space as we all can. “…we learn that time and space are relations of matter; that with a perception of truth or a virtuous will they have no affinity,” Emerson suggests against the nullification of the outward experience. The world and life provide us the opportunity to create and become. “I have no hostility to nature, but a child’s love to it. I expand and live in the warm day like corn and melons. Let us speak her fair. I do not wish to fling stones at my beautiful mother, nor soil my gentle nest.”

Emerson concludes with his ten-thousand-foot view of reality. A view that he grounds for us in common understanding. “Idealism sees the world in God. It beholds the whole circle of persons and things, of actions and events, of country and religion, not as painfully accumulated, atom after atom, act after act, in an age creeping Past, but as one vast picture which God paints on the instant eternity for the contemplation of the soul.” What a great term, the instant eternity! At this moment is all of Time. The greatest moment to be in is this one.

Emerson encourages us in contemplation of the soul, that is our role, our potential experience. We must make the time and effort. “It [the soul] accepts whatsoever befalls, as part of its lesson. It is a watcher more than a doer, and it is a doer, only that it may the better watch.”

With that last line, Emerson concluded Chapter VI, Idealism. Next, he moves to Chapter VII, Spirit.

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