Expanding on the themes of unity and spirituality, Emerson illustrates the inherent affiliation between the divine human soul and nature, and how that connection inevitably manifests in the creations—fine art, architecture, and literature—that individuals make. In Emerson’s view, nature is “an endless combination and repetition of a very few laws,” serving as an outward manifestation of the internal universal spirit that unites all things. He argues that artists have a proclivity—whether deliberate or subconscious—to echo the sublime beauty of nature in their creations. Art therefore serves as a historical marker of man’s eternal reverence for and unity with nature.
Emerson believes that the proper way to comprehend humankind’s progression through history is through nature and its manifestations in human creations. He questions why “upborne and surrounded as we are by this all-creating nature ... should we be such hard pedants, and magnify a few forms?” Emerson believes that nature is an “all-creating” force that is inherently divine and inseparable from God, and that people should therefore look inward to their spiritual connection with natural world for answers rather than relying on rigid facts and empirical data. True genius, according to Emerson, lies in the ability to perceive the inherent similarities (rather than the differences) of all living things, past and present. He argues that “the identity of history is equally intrinsic, the diversity equally obvious” to that of nature, and that the “simplicity of cause” at the center of all things can best be understood by viewing historical pieces of art and architecture or by reading timeless works of great literature.
At several points throughout “History,” Emerson utilizes the symbol of a Gothic cathedral to exemplify the unity of natural beauty with humanity’s spiritual inclinations. He observes that great feats of architecture such as this seem to “done by us, and not done by us,” reflecting art’s paradoxical ability to both resonate with the human soul and to transcend it. Emerson specifically observes the likeness the Gothic church shares with nature, arguing that it “plainly originated in a rude adaptation of the forest trees.” He also notes that the Gothic church is a culmination of man’s ever-developing interactions with the natural world throughout history, and that its construction embodies “a blossoming in stone subdued by the insatiable demand of harmony in man.” This image speaks to Emerson’s broader observation that art serves as an encapsulation of the eternal unity of human beings with their surroundings in the natural world.
Deepening his argument that art is a timeless representation of man’s unity with nature, Emerson points out that “nature is full of a sublime family likeness throughout her works; and delights in startling us with resemblances in the most unexpected quarters.” He believes that humanity’s universal connection with nature and its inevitable representation in art allows the individual to experience an eternal connection with the creator and other viewers of a great work. Emerson recounts a painter who told him that “nobody could draw a tree without becoming a tree,” illustrating the fact that great artists are those who perceive and successfully convey the intrinsic connection between human beings and the rest of the natural world.
Emerson goes on to relate the relationship between man-made creations and nature back to history, arguing that individuals are “not less strictly implicated” in natural history than in “the civil and metaphysical history of man.” Human history is inextricably linked with natural history, argues Emerson, noting that great historical figures such as Columbus and Newton relied on their relationship with the natural world in order make their discoveries. Emerson ultimately believes that since art and literature are an ongoing record of humanity’s unity with nature, studying these great works is the most effective means of deepening and understanding that connection.
Creation and Nature ThemeTracker
Creation and Nature Quotes in History
Upborne and surrounded as we are by this all-creating nature, soft and fluid as a cloud or the air, why should we be such hard pedants, and magnify a few forms? Why should we make account of time, or of magnitude, or of figure? The soul knows them not, and genius, obeying its law, knows how to play with them as a young child plays with graybeard and in churches.
If any one will but take pains to observe the variety of actions to which he is equally inclined in certain moods of mind, and those to which he is averse, he will see how deep is the chain of affinity.
What is the foundation of that interest all men feel in Greek history, letters, art, and poetry, in all its periods, from the Heroic or Homeric age down to the domestic life of the Athenians and Spartans, four or five centuries later? What but this, that every man passes personally through a Grecian period.
The advancing man discovers how deep a property he has in literature,—in all fable as well as in all history. He finds that the poet was no odd fellow who described strange and impossible situations, but that universal man wrote by his pen a confession true for one and true for all.