February 16, 2011

"Build therefore your own world."

While reading Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1836 essay Nature, I found myself at turns fascinated, frustrated, exhilarated, annoyed. As a first exposition of Transcendentalism, Emerson, who read in the Eastern religious traditions, wrote of the spirit in nature and humankind, and of unity:
that behind nature, throughout nature, spirit is present; one and not compound it does not act upon us from without, that is, in space and time, but spiritually: ...that spirit...does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old.
At other times in the essay, Emerson seems too much to place the world as subservient to Man, who he sees as its "head and heart". It's possible I am misreading from my 21st century viewpoint, which sees homo sapiens as an often destructive species. At the end of the essay Emerson won my heart, first by this simple sentence:
The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.
And then by the following words, which I found very moving, and a lesson for our lives in finding a place, finding happiness:
What we are, only can we see. All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobbler's trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar's garret. Yet line for line and point for point your dominion is a great as theirs, though without fine names. Build therefore your own world.


  1. wow. Thank you for sharing these, Altoon. I remember Emerson was someone to chew on and consider at length (well, his words) but I had never gone far enough to find this. My word, if we had nothing else but a holy book and this paragraph we would have enough to work on our whole lives. I will tell you, looking through your pictures of your home, I started to cry bec I had not been building my own world. I had stopped for circumstances. By your generous sharing of your home and these fine words, I realized I needed to roust up the gumption to start building again. Figuratively and edificially. Lots to chew on. Thanks.

  2. I'm really pleased you also found Emerson's words moving, A. His essay was full of little gems. I had balked after beginning "Nature" quite a while ago, and a philosopher friend's blog post on Emerson got me going again, and I'm glad of it.

  3. to me, interesting how reading the still-life photo differs from reading your test and quotes accompanying it. the different kinds of reading, how far each goes, each's limits, each's ease, presence and ramifications. the different kinds of reading, given and taken, create the dialogue...

  4. rappel, that pile of objects sits in my living room and seemed an apt metaphor to me for building: one on top of another, different things from different parts of life, some hand made. For me the text is much richer and more interesting than the image, but an image does call up associations. I wonder if you'd care to expand on what you see in the different readings.

  5. I was referring more to the experience of the two different kinds of reading - visual/ verbal - rather than the qualities of content present in each...

  6. "The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.", the grasping of which illustrates "simple, not easy".
    This post reminds me of something I heard radio's Dr. Laura Schlessinger say once, "Have and do...or be and give." Seems those are our two choices.

    1. I would hate to leave out the "do", JBS, which is Emerson's building of a world. The choice is false.