“I declare this world is so beautiful that I can hardly believe it exists.” The beauty of nature can have a profound effect upon our senses, those gateways from the outer world to the inner, whether it results in disbelief in its very existence as Emerson notes, or feelings such as awe, wonder, or amazement. But what is it about nature and the entities that make it up that cause us, oftentimes unwillingly, to feel or declare that they are beautiful?
One answer that Emerson offers is that “the simple perception of natural forms is a delight.” When we think of beauty in nature, we might most immediately think of things that dazzle the senses – the prominence of a mountain, the expanse of the sea, the unfolding of the life of a flower. Often it is merely the perception of these things itself which gives us pleasure, and this emotional or affective response on our part seems to be crucial to our experience of beauty. So in a way there is a correlate here to the intrinsic value of nature; Emerson says:
the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us a delight in and for themselves
Most often, it seems to me, we find these things to be beautiful not because of something else they might bring us – a piece of furniture, say, or a ‘delicacy’ to be consumed – but because of the way that the forms of these things immediately strike us upon observation. In fact, one might even think that this experience of beauty is one of the bases for valuing nature – nature is valuable because it is beautiful.
Emerson seems to think that beauty in the natural world is not limited to certain parts of nature to the exclusion of others. He writes that every landscape lies under “the necessity of being beautiful”, and that “beauty breaks in everywhere.” As we slowly creep out of a long winter in the Northeast, I think Emerson would find the lamentations about what we have ‘endured’ to be misguided:
The inhabitants of the cities suppose that the country landscape is pleasant only half the year….To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.
The close observer of nature sees a river in constant flux, even when the river’s water is frozen and everything appears to be static and unchanging for a time. Nature can reveal its beauty in all places and at all times to the eye that knows how to look for it. We can hear Emerson wrangle with himself on this very point in the words of this journal entry:
At night I went out into the dark and saw a glimmering star and heard a frog, and Nature seemed to say, Well do not these suffice? Here is a new scene, a new experience. Ponder it, Emerson, and not like the foolish world, hanker after thunders and multitudes and vast landscapes, the sea or Niagara.
MS Am 1280.235 (706.3E) Houghton Library
So if we’re sympathetic to the idea that nature, or aspects of it, are beautiful, we might ask ourselves why we experience nature in this way. Emerson says that nature is beautiful because it is alive, moving, reproductive. In nature we observe growth and development in living things, contrasted with the static or deteriorating state of the vast majority of that which is man-made. More generally, he writes: “We ascribe beauty to that which…has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its end; which stands related to all things”. He cites natural structures as lacking superfluities, an observation that in general has been confirmed by the advancement of biology. Furthermore, he says that whether talking about a human artifact or a natural organism, any increase of ability to achieve its end or goal is an increase in beauty. So in Emerson we might find the resources for seeing evolution and the drive to survive as a beautiful rather than an ugly process, governed by laws that tend to increase reproductive fitness and that we can understand through observation and inquiry. And lastly, Emerson points to the relation between what we take to be an individual and the rest of nature as a quality of the beautiful. This consists in the “power to suggest relation to the whole world, and so lift the object out of a pitiful individuality.” In nature one doesn’t come across individuals that are robustly independent from their environment; rather things are intimately interconnected with their surroundings in ways that we don’t fully understand.
Nothing is quite beautiful alone: nothing but is beautiful in the whole.
All of these qualities of beauty seem to go beyond the mere impression of sensible forms that we started with, and what they require is what also served as the basis of truth and goodness in nature.
MS Am 1280.235 (708) Houghton LibraryIn addition to the immediate experience of beauty based in perception, Emerson suggests that the beauty of the world may also be viewed as an object of the intellect. He writes that “the question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking of the foundations of things.” In other words, we can also experience the world as beautiful because of its rational structure and our ability to grasp that structure through thought. Think for instance of the geometric structure of a crystal, or snowflake, or nautilus shell. Or consider the complexity of the fact that the reintroduction of the wolf in Yellowstone National Park changed the course of the rivers due to a chain reaction of cause and effect through the food web, a process called a trophic cascade. This reinforces Emerson’s emphasis on the interconnection between all members of the natural world; as observers of nature we are confronted with one giant, complex process that isn’t of our own making, but that we can also understand, and get a mental grasp on, even if only partially, and be awe-struck in that process of understanding.
There is thus an emotional or affective component in the beauty of the intellect just as there is in the immediate beauty of perception. If we destroy the natural world, we take away the things that we can marvel at and experience awe towards in these two ways. And this experience of the beautiful through the intellect may reinforce our attributing value to nature here as well, but a deeper kind of value, the intrinsic value I talked about in the last essay. Here it is not only that nature is valuable because it is beautiful, but nature is beautiful because it possesses intrinsic value, grounded in its intelligible structure. Thus we see a close parallel between goodness and beauty in nature. We can find an objective basis for goodness and beauty in nature, namely its intelligible structure, but also see that nature is valuable and beautiful for us, with the particular apparatus that nature has given us for navigating our way through the world.
So that which is the basis of truth in nature and provides it with intrinsic value is also that which makes it beautiful. Emerson himself ties these three aspects of nature into one package himself:
He should know that the landscape has beauty for his eye, because it expresses a thought which is to him good: and this, because of the same power which sees through his eyes, is seen in that spectacle
This is the unified philosophy of nature that I set out to explicate in the first essay – nature is the source of truth, goodness, and beauty, because of its intelligible structure, and because of its production of organisms that can recognize that structure, us. And this view of nature includes an inherent call to protect that which is true, good, and beautiful. These are the things that we as human beings are searching for, are striving after, and yet they’re right in front of us if only we would listen with our ear to the earth.
Although I’ve been advocating an approach to nature based on its intelligibility, we are far from tying down the giant that is nature with our minds. Emerson writes that “the perception of the inexhaustibleness of nature is an immortal youth.” Although we shall continue to try to uncover nature’s secrets, let us also continue to take pleasure in our immediate encounter with her. Let us continue to be awe-struck, like the child on the seashore, or clambering up a tree. Let us hold onto that experience, and fight for the environment that makes it possible, both for the child in each of us, and for those that come after us.
Michael welcomes correspondence, and can be reached at email@example.com. His series "Emerson and the Environment" is part of a larger project which was awarded a Student Sustainability Grant. Quotations taken from Emerson’s journals, his book Nature, and his essays ‘Nature’, ‘Art’, ‘Beauty’, and ‘Spiritual Laws.' He is happy to provide more specific source information for the quotations.
In 1856, a group of British railroad engineers uncovered an ancient and advanced civilization. The engineers were laying tracks through the Indus River Valley in present day Pakistan. They searched the area for stone to make ballast. Ballast is crushed rock placed around railroad tracks to drain water from the path of the train. The engineers found bricks that seemed very old, but were formed exactly alike. The local people told the engineers of the ruins of an ancient city made of the same bricks. The engineers soon realized that the bricks were part of one of the earliest advanced civilizations in history.
Archaeologists later discovered more than 1500 additional settlements along the banks of the Indus River. As with Mesopotamia and Egypt, the river’s silt provided the civilization with rich topsoil for farming.
Thousands of clay tablets indicate that the people of the Indus River Valley developed a writing system that may be even older than Sumerian writing. Archaeologists have not yet deciphered the writing of the Indus River Valley civilization, so their form of government, their religious beliefs, and the social structure of their society remain a mystery.
The Indus River civilization developed about 3000BCE and flourished for about 1500 years before mysteriously going into a period of decline. We don’t know what those ancient people called the cities they lived in, but we now refer to the two largest as Harappa, after a nearby village, and Mohenjo Daro, a local term that means “hill of the dead."
Harappa and Mohenjo Daro were expertly planned cities built with a grid pattern of wide, straight streets. Thick walls surrounded the cities. Many people lived in sturdy brick houses that had as many as three floors. Some houses had bathrooms and toilets that connected to the world’s first sewer system. An irrigation system of canals provided a reliable source of water for growing wheat and barley. There is also evidence that people herded sheep, cattle and goats.
The ancient people of the Indus River Valley had a highly advanced knowledge of mathematics and a sophisticated system of weights and measures. The bricks–even those used in different cities–are the same size, suggesting that the cities may have had the same government.
Archaeologists have also found evidence of musical instruments, toys and games, and pottery. The people of the Indus River valley were very interested in cleanliness. Excavators have uncovered evidence of combs, soaps, and medicine. The cities were also practicing some form of dentistry. We know this because archaeologists found a gravesite with the remains of people whose teeth had been drilled.
The Indus River Valley cities traded with distant foreign cultures. Archaeologists have found jewelry made in Harappa as far away as Mesopotamia. Traders also sold cotton cloth and hardwood from the teak trees that grew in the valley.
Ancient cities along the Indus River Valley may have been home to more than five million people, but the civilization went into decline about 1700BCE and seems to have been abandoned by about 1500BCE. Archaeologists have many ideas from the clues left behind, but no definite answers.
Perhaps a natural disaster could have destroyed the civilization. There may have been a prolonged drought, or the moving tectonic plates that created the Himalayas may have caused a devastating earthquake. Some evidence suggests the Indus Valley cities were invaded by nomadic warriors who destroyed their advanced culture.
It is also possible that the people of the Indus Valley cities may have unintentionally destroyed their environment. They may have overgrazed their land, exhausted their soil, or cut down the forests in their region. The people may have been left without wood for building and fuel, and without the trees to hold the topsoil in place, the land was vulnerable to severe flooding.
It is also possible the same moving tectonic plates that created the Himalayas may have caused a devastating earthquake, or the people may have been defeated by another culture.
Archaeologists have excavated only a fraction of the many cities and settlements of the Indus River Valley civilization, so our understanding of the region is still evolving. Perhaps we may one day decipher their writing so we can learn how these ancient cities developed, how their citizens learned to create an advanced civilization, and why the cities were eventually abandoned.