Self-Reliance

Nature Symbol Icon

Emerson imagines nature as the ultimate form of the underlying reality of everything, including the natural world and human character. This perspective on nature is a direct reflection of the transcendentalist belief that there is an underlying consistency in every part of creation, which implies that observing one part of creation—including the self—should allow the perceiver to come to a better understanding of other parts of creation as well.

Emerson therefore represents nature and humans in contemplation of nature as an important source of knowledge.  An individual looking at roses under his window isn’t just engaging with the material world, Emerson argues.  Instead, looking at the roses and contemplating the relationship between each stage of the flower’s life allows the individual to live “above time” and escape an overreliance on the past.  The ability of one part of nature to stand in the place of other parts of creation extends even to God. Emerson’s statement, “We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity,” references this idea of God as just another expression of transcendent truth.

Emerson also uses nature as a source of analogies to help explain his perspective on human nature. For example, Emerson contrasts the jagged outline of the Andes or Himalayas Mountains seen from close up with the insignificance of those variations when seen “in the curve of the sphere” to support his argument that apparent inconsistencies in human nature are only due to perspective. Emerson’s admiration for babies, infants, and boys are all rooted in an understanding of their human natures as ones that are closer to “nature” as whole because they have not yet conformed to societal expectations that come with adulthood, and instead function more on the basis of intuition.

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Nature Symbol Timeline in Self-Reliance

The timeline below shows where the symbol Nature appears in Self-Reliance. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Paragraphs 1-2
Transcendentalism Theme Icon
Nonconformity, Morality, and Individual Greatness  Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
...third that praises the “power and speed” of a child raised in the wilds of nature. (full context)
Paragraphs 12-16
Nature Theme Icon
With regards to consistency, Emerson reminds the reader that human nature has its own internal consistency, so it truly is impossible for a person to do... (full context)
Paragraphs 21-24
Transcendentalism Theme Icon
Nonconformity, Morality, and Individual Greatness  Theme Icon
Anti-Enlightenment Ideas and American Culture Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
...truth and organs of its activity.” If we observe the universe at work, especially in nature, we will become wise. Everything in existence can serve as a source of truth, and... (full context)
Transcendentalism Theme Icon
Nonconformity, Morality, and Individual Greatness  Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
Rather than timidly looking to the past, individuals would be better off looking to nature to understand how to move through the world, Emerson posits. He observes that the blade... (full context)
Paragraphs 25-28
Transcendentalism Theme Icon
Nonconformity, Morality, and Individual Greatness  Theme Icon
...one of transcendence, “above passion,” beyond time, and more expansive than the “[v]ast spaces of nature.” (full context)
Transcendentalism Theme Icon
Nonconformity, Morality, and Individual Greatness  Theme Icon
Anti-Enlightenment Ideas and American Culture Theme Icon
...conventional morality, and he sees the same “principle of conservation and growth” at work in nature. Everything in nature, in fact, reflects self-reliance. Emerson believes that with an understanding of the... (full context)