Ralph Waldo Emerson – Nature and Other Things | Philosophize This! with Stephen West #165

Key Takeaways

  • We seem to never run out of creative ways to argue with each other
    • “We got to be willing to accept the possibility that we may always just be pitting one narrative against another arguing and fighting and going to war over how we want the world to look at.”Stephen West
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson would say that maybe the reason we can’t unite is that we’ve been using the wrong strategy this entire time
    • People place too much value on the history of external narratives and abstractions to make sense of the world 
    • Instead, we should abandon these “dry bones of the past” (the theories that somebody else came up with), and lay more emphasis on coming up with new ideas
  • According to Emerson, the way to become self-reliant is via an intense individual intentional relationship with nature
    • Nature is the “Universal Being”, anything in the universe that is not “I” (that means even art, language, our physical bodies, etc.)
  • The first mistake in getting to know nature is not paying attention; distractions like step-tracking culture, looking for a pretty picture to post on Instagram
    • The second mistake is that we often see ourselves in relation to how we already think about nature; we project previous narratives
    • Seeing nature in a new light (devoid of narratives) has the potential to change the way we see everything in our society
  • What we find beautiful are manifestations of the order that pervades all of nature 
    • For Emerson, it’s this order that we’re connecting with when we connect with beautiful things
    • The main takeaway of this is about the symbolism of viewing nature as a holistic process
  • Even if every thought that we’ve ever had is at its foundation ultimately given to us by society, there is still value in being self-aware of the origins of our thinking
    • Some people may think that we are nothing more than a byproduct of the ideas of the past, but one day today’s ideas will be the ideas of the past

Key Books Mentioned

  • Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson
    • Waldo examines the meaning of our relationship with nature by describing how an individual should view and interact with nature and what he should hope to achieve through this connection

Intro

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the most cherished poets and writers in American history. He was at the center of the American transcendental movement and created many literary works honoring self-reflective experimentation and the relationship between humans and nature 
    • None of us like being at war with other people and sometimes it seems like there is no progress when it comes to the unity of our species
      • Could it be that this is just how we are?
    • In his essay “Nature”, Emerson makes it clear that people should rely less on second-hand information, inherited and institutionalized knowledge, and instead opt for a personal understanding of the universe
  • Host: Stephen West (@iamstephenwest)

Why Humans Wage War

  • Since the dawn of civilization, humans have been at war with each other 
    • Whether it’s a war of ideas or an actual physical invasion of a country 
    • We seem to never run out of creative ways to argue with each other
    • “One thing we don’t have a shortage of in this world throughout history is a lack of unity within our species.”Stephen West
  • Why is that?
    • None of us like being at war with other people and sometimes it seems like there is no progress when it comes to the unity of our species
    • Could it be that this is just how we are? 
    • “We got to be willing to accept the possibility that we may always just be pitting one narrative against another arguing and fighting and going to war over how we want the world to look at.”Stephen West
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson would say that maybe the reason we can’t unite is that we’ve been using the wrong strategy this entire time
    • People place too much value on the history of external narratives and abstractions to make sense of the world 
    • Instead, we should abandon these “dry bones of the past” (the theories that somebody else came up with), and lay more emphasis on coming up with new ideas
    • By yielding to the theories and narratives of other people, we replace our intuitions with the intuitions of someone else 
    • Why not rely a bit more on ourselves instead?

How Do We Become Self-Reliant?

  • According to Emerson, the way to become self-reliant is via an intense individual intentional relationship with nature
    • Nature is the “Universal Being”, anything in the universe that is not “I” (that means even art, language, our physical bodies, etc.)
    • The best way to get to know nature is to be in nature 
  • The first mistake is not paying attention; distractions like step-tracking culture, looking for a pretty picture to post on Instagram
    • The second mistake is that we often see ourselves in relation to how we already think about nature; we project previous narratives
  • These narratives inform us how to think about nature, “…if you are a Christian maybe you see nature as god’s kingdom that was put here for your delight.” Stephen West
    • To truly connect with nature, we need our own experiences and interpretations, 
    • By learning to let go of the intuitions of others it’s possible to view nature through the lens of a childlike curiosity

Shed Yourself of the Dry Bones of the Past 

  • Once we let go of all the ways we’ve been told to think about nature, we should pose a simple question: “to what end is nature?”
  • What does nature mean?
    • Emerson believes that part of coming up with new ideas calls for coming up with new answers to old questions
    • Seeing nature in a new light (devoid of narratives) has the potential to change the way we see everything in our society
    • We can begin to notice a lot of things we otherwise take for granted
  • The stars in the night sky 
    • In chapter 1 of Emerson’s “Nature”, he asks what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years
    • “…how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • The same goes for all the other natural wonders (trees, mountains, lights, etc.) that fade into the background of our lives because they’re just always there

What Else Is Nature?

  • Nature is a provider (food and water, raw material) 
    • A landlord that has given you a home to stay in and a lifetime lease 
    • It gives us purpose but it also sometimes works for us in the things we need 
  • Role model
    • Don’t worry about being the picture of absolute consistency that society expects of you
    • Nature is chaotic and inconsistent from one perspective but take a few steps back and look at the mountain range in its entirety
  • 24-hour gym (e.g. hiking, swimming, etc.)
  • Nature provides us with medicinal ingredients; it can heal our physical ailments and help with mental health and emotional well-being
    • For Emerson, nature puts the problems of day-to-day life into their proper perspective (almost none of them are that big)
  • “By studying the macrocosm of nature we start to better understand the microcosm of ourselves.” Stephen West
  • An entertainer that provides us with beautiful sunsets landscapes
    • Beauty is a crucial human need, something so universally loved by people because our minds naturally seek an order 
    • What we find beautiful are manifestations of the order that pervades all of nature 
  • For Emerson, it’s this order that we’re connecting with when we connect with beautiful things
    • The main takeaway of this is about the symbolism of viewing nature as a holistic process
    • Each part is in some way connected to every other part 

Don’t Let Their Interpretations Get in the Way of You Creating Your Own

  • Everything that we consider to be an important part of human life is derived from the process of nature 
    • And yet we tell ourselves “…that the crowning achievement of humankind has been that we freed ourselves from the shackles of nature.”Stephen West
    • We want to believe that we have conquered nature and we use these narratives to prove our case to ourselves, adding on top to the narratives of the past 
  • Emerson is not asking us to stop listening to other interpretations of reality but to not let their interpretations get in the way of creating our own
    • “Have respect for the thoughts of other people take inspiration but don’t ever have too much respect where you start worshiping at their altar.”Stephen West
    • By doing that, Emerson believes we might find the answer to the question: “to what end is nature?” 
  • Nature contains divine wisdom beyond our capacity to understand via regular modes of inquiry 
    • Emerson is trying to get us to notice the holistic unity of all things 
    • We’re all in this together, we are equal parts of the same unity. Hurting someone else is hurting yourself 
  • To get more connected with nature, every individual needs to make a conscious effort to reconnect with the natural world 
    • In other words ” …if you’re passionate about healing the disunity of humanity start first by healing the disunity you find within yourself and then work your way out from there once again this is a turn inward to find wisdom rather than outward.”Stephen West

Two Different Ways of Studying Nature 

  • Scientific material understanding  
    • With any interpretive method, including science, there are inherent limitations
    • Science is great at providing a certain type of understanding of the natural world, breaking things down into their parts, weighing, measuring, isolating 
    • However, there are some things that science can’t do 
    • Science can’t measure the deliberate personal connection that we create with nature through intuition
    • It’s the job of science to say why things are the way they are they
  • The intuition that gives us access to the transcendent immaterial aspects of the universe 
    • Emerson believes that people place more importance on the science derived from nature while ignoring the moral and spiritual experience obtainable through an actual experience in nature
    • People read books and listen to podcasts about nature they spend no time actually in the natural world listening and paying attention
    • Books are great, but they can also pose a dangerous trap for someone to fall into 
  • “The American Scholar”, a speech by Ralph Waldo Emerson
    • Nature, books, and action are the 3 key things a person needs to ensure a proper education
    • Action is the only way thoughts in your head become something real 

Is “Thinking for Yourself” Just an Illusion?

  • A structuralist might say that we can never escape society’s influence
    • Whether we like it or not, society has given us narratives that we use to navigate the world down to every category we use 
    • “There are, of course, possible thoughts outside of what you will ever think, you just effectively will never think about them because you were given a different set of cultural input since birth.”Stephen West
    • Does that mean that every seemingly outside-of-the-box idea that we have is already predetermined by society?
  • Does that take the power away from what Emerson is saying?
    • Even if every thought that we’ve ever had is at its foundation ultimately given to us by society, there is still value in being self-aware of the origins of our thinking
    • Some people may think that we are nothing more than a byproduct of the ideas of the past, but one day the ideas that we have today will be the ideas of the past
  • “A determined thoughtful individual can inspire culture with new ideas and if that’s something that you have aspirations of doing then I guess what Emerson might say is to make sure that you choose for yourself what you want those ideas to be.” – Stephen West
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