Table of Contents
2 Discussion of Secondary References
3 Purifying Puritanism
3.1 Replacing the Bible
3.2 Reading Nature
3.3 Chapter “Spirit”: Preserving the Authority of God
3.4 Appeal to the Reader
Ralph Waldo Emerson plays an important role in the development of American intellectual history. His works have influenced novelists like Henry James and William Dean Howells, philosophers like William James and John Dewey as well as his friend Henry David Thoreau. Throughout his life, he wrote essays about a great number of topics. I will focus on an early major work, his essay Nature, published in 1836. In this book, Emerson deals with the relation of nature and man and therefore with an essential philosophical as well as theological question. Although the tone of the opening paragraph sounds quite provocative it must not be taken as characteristic of the whole text. What I want to show in this paper is that at a closer look, Emerson turns out to be both innovator and traditionalist.
In Nature he does what I have called “Purifying Puritanism”. My title implies two things: on the one hand, it suggests that Emerson can be seen as a figure within the American Puritan tradition who takes up forms and ideas of this influential religious group. Nature can be seen as a modernized form of the American Jeremiad, which has been used by the Puritan ministers to indicate what they thought to be dangerous developments in society and to appeal to the community to improve the situation. Emerson’s attitude is similar to that because he also opens with detecting the dangerous developments and shortcomings of his time. Furthermore, he is also conservative in the way that he does not give up religious belief in God as the Supreme Being which stands above and behind everything. These Puritan concepts appear almost unchanged in Emerson’s work and connect him to their religious convictions and the historical forms of Puritan discourse.
This conservative aspect of Emerson’s work is usually not the main focus of interest. Emerson is known as an innovator who paved the way for a new American Self-Reliance. Although this fact can hardly be denied, I would suggest that his breach with tradition is less harsh than usually assumed. In this respect I would argue that Emerson does not absolutely refute the past and the tradition but that he wants to go back to a former and better state of society. His observations make him speak out against the contemporary developments which he characterizes as a process of alienation. It is his aim to alter this situation and he does that by using altered traditions. He purifies Puritanism in using their concept of s ola scriptura but replacing the bible with nature. In putting nature as the highest authority he creates an unmediated approach to God. What the Puritans considered as the wilderness is now providing the direct access to God’s will. Together with a new form of individualism which emphasizes the personal experience, Emerson seeks to arrive at a higher level of harmony with the creation. He blurs the distinction between secular and spiritual concepts in order to merge them. In this way, his approach can be characterized as purified Puritanism.
To prove my arguments, I will examine Emerson’s essay Nature in which he developed many arguments that reappeared in his later writings and can therefore be considered as a key text.
2 Discussion of Secondary References
Eduardo Cadava points out that, in Nature, Emerson uses the form of the Puritan Jeremiad. This kind of text “by Emerson’s day had become not only an important mode of political discourse but also a means of social integration” (Cadava 104). Emerson’s choice of this specific mode of discourse is therefore not unusual. Given the fact that he has been delivering sermons as a minister for years it appears to be a form he has been quite familiar with. Cadava describes the structural similarities:
[The jeremiad] usually begins [...] with a scriptural precedent that defines communal norms. Nature ’s opening sentences allude to chapter 11 of Luke and chapter 13 of the Corinthians. This allusion to the scriptures is then followed by a series of condemnations and laments that describe the present state of the community and recall the covenantal promises that will lead to renewal. The sermon ends with a prophetic vision that unveils a promise and announces an errand of recovery. (Cadava 105)
I basically agree with this observation but I think that the allusions to the Bible have a different function as in the traditional form. They rather show a general tendency in Emerson’s style to imitate the language of the Bible, which is probably a result of his training as a minister and the sermons he delivered.
Alan D. Hodder sees Emerson’s approach of reading nature as a tradition that started with Jonathan Edwards. Emerson took up this traditional method and developed it further:
To conceive nature as a set of signifiers seems to have been as natural for Waldo as it was for his favorite aunt. In New England it finds its clearest precedent [...] in some of Edward’s lesser-known writings. And it was but one short step from seeing nature as significant to reading nature as a book. (Hodder 12)
Hodder’s thesis is that Nature is very closely related to the Book of Revelation in the Bible, in its structure as well as “in its vision” (Hodder 5). This statement puts Emerson into a quite conservative religious position and tries to reveal the supposed innovative potential of Nature as superficial. I think this is true in so far as Emerson did go back to the Book of Revelation as a source of inspiration for his own vision. Nevertheless, I think that Nature was indeed an attempt to break away from the burden of history and Hodder also shows that in describing Emerson’s “transposition of typology from a historical to a natural context” (Hodder 17).
The idea that Nature is actually a work of religious literature which tries to come back to the true faith is represented by R. Jackson Wilson, who thinks that “[t]he book [...] was not really about nature. It was about his [Emerson’s] new calling” (Wilson 83). He argues that it is Emerson’s “justification of his leaving the ministry” (83) and therefore in favor of a more radical position. From this perspective I agree to the conception of Nature as a new Book of Revelation that tries to unfold Emerson’s quest for the “original relation to the universe” (CW I, 7). Although the Bible is the underlying pretext of Nature and there are certainly similarities, it has lost its primary position, as Robert D. Richardson states: “Emerson is not interested in secondhand revelations, secondhand gospel. For this reason he never refers to the Bible as an authority” (Richardson 103).
The replacement of the Bible with nature has also been recognized by Sacvan Bercovitch, who wrote about Emerson’s approach that “[t]his might be Luther announcing the doctrine of sola scriptura, except that the source of divinity here is nature” (Bercovitch 157). At the same time Bercovitch sees the continuation of the Puritan tradition: “In any case, it was in the Puritan image that Emerson conceived the mission of the race. In that image, too, he cast his great essay on Nature (1836) - though not explicitly, of course” (Bercovitch 158).
Barbara L. Packer describes Emerson’s works as an attempt to deal with the sinful state of the world. He refuted the idea of original sin and therefore was
forced to fabricate his own fables in explanation of the fallenness of the world. [...] [Emerson’s explanations] reject the notion that what we call the Fall of Man has anything to do with sin or disobedience; they interpret it instead as a consequence of ‘self-distrust,’ the self’s ignorance or denial of its own divinity. (Packer x).
This shows the close relation of Emerson to the Puritan Jeremiad in that he also laments over the miserable state of society. He admonishes his community, just like the Puritan ministers, to overcome their present situation but refutes original sin as its origin.
Thomas Krusche formulates the connection to the Puritan tradition more explicitly when he says that “Emerson’s transcendentalism has to be understood first of all as a development of American Puritanism” (Krusche 27). In accordance to my thesis that Emerson is both an innovator and traditionalist, Krusche states that “the Puritan Tradition is at the same time an element of the continuity of the history of ideas as well as the starting point of intellectual innovation” (27). Emerson continues Puritan hermeneutics “despite the replacement of the reformatory concept of the sola scriptura with that of the orientation to nature” (30).