Dicke, Robert J. (ed.) / Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters
volume XLIV (1955)
Hedges, William L.
A short way around Emerson's nature, pp. 21-27 ff. PDF (2.5 MB)
24 Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters [Vol. 44 is natural, is not standing fast according to laws, it is moving faster, changing shape before our eyes, changed before we are sure what it is all about into history. "What we call nature is a certain self-regulated motion or change" ("The Poet," III, p. 22). Or it is "a mutable cloud . . . always and never the same." It "casts the same thought into troops of forms, as a poet makes twenty fables with one moral" ("History," II, p. 13). If we search long enough, we find always and everywhere order, logic, reason. Nothing in experience seems extraneous, unlike or unrelated to anything else. "The identity of history is intrinsic, the diversity equally obvious. There is, at the surface, infinite variety of things; at the centre there is simplicity of cause" ("History," II, p. 14). We can rationalize (find reason for) any event, we can inevitably find some other event with which to compare or contrast it. In the lump sum of experience, there is nothing entirely unexpected, nothing we should not have expected. "Nature is an endless combination and repetition of a very few laws" ("History," II, p. 15). Even the law of the jungle is natural, and, once recognized, it ceases to be wild. The brutality and fear remain. But that dog eat dog or that through the chain of being species prey upon species is simply part of that "nature of things," accommodation or "abandonment" to which is the obligation of "the intellect" ("The Poet," III, pp. 26—7). Out of the indicative present—whatever is—we formulate a conditional ought-to-be as a means of abandoning ourselves to what is to come. Looking ahead through continuous change we have no guarantee that our predictions will be satisfied or that our particular scheme of things will be amenable to all possibilities. We simply believe certain laws ought to be obeyed. True, the ambiguity of "ought" suggests further complications in nature; there is more than one tense, or sense, to the expected. A government seems natural when it is well suited to the environment and the temperament of a people, and then the exhortation is for that people to adhere to their given constitution— which seems to mean that they must try to keep on being what they can't help being already. A state of nature may be things as they are or ideal conditions toward which enlightened men strive. But eventually it is possible to identify moral law and physical law—for both are what-we-expect. Thus Emerson as well as the eighteenth century speaks of both as laws of nature. Is all this tantamount to saying that everything conceivable is natural? Well, Emerson certainly means that all our conceptions are founded in nature, everything conceived, everything formulated, realized, rationalized, all our hopes and fears. And beyond
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