Emerson: nature and words

Hawthorne branches in blossom...

An English Hawthorne in May. The boughs were popular for May Day decorations before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, after which the trees did not bloom until mid-May. The ancient Greeks carried hawthorn branches in wedding processions, as emblems of hope.

I intended to start summer by reading Voegelin on Plato. I’m interested in what they both say about the metaxy–the inbetween of the immanent and the transcendent, where we experience being. For young people unfortunate enough to have grown up under the influence of a deconstructive culture which drowns out reality with propaganda, replacing God’s kingdom with their own, their most sacred feelings and emotions are reinterpreted within a bottomless self endlessly chattering amid legions of desires and fears.

I want to think more about today’s language wars, which lie at the heart of modernity’s global contests to replace Creation with Ideology.
I’ve been re-reading Emerson’s “Nature” –or at least listening as I drove the old truck to Missoula for a couple yards of compost. I was surprised at how prescient Emerson was in his discussion of language. He begins his chapter on language with three statements about nature and language:

1. Words are signs of natural facts.
2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.
3. Nature is the symbol of spirit.

I read these words when I was in college, but I don’t remember them making any particular impression on me. Today they seem precisely the needed counter to the chorus of antichrists substituting myraid uncertainties for every natural fact. They would destroy such words as male, female, marriage and family by positing endless expanding tangles of meanings, as though the tree of life were a bramble thicket.

Emerson understood nature as language, a way of thinking consistent with Genesis, where God speaks our world. Words refer to realities–to categories that actually exist in Creation, and we can speak truth:

A man’s power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth, and his desire to communicate it without loss. The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language. When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise, — and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not; a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults. In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections. Hundreds of writers may be found in every long-civilized nation, who for a short time believe, and make others believe, that they see and utter truths, who do not of themselves clothe one thought in its natural garment, but who feed unconsciously on the language created by the primary writers of the country, those, namely, who hold primarily on nature.

It is from nature that we get the images that allow us to think about such things as hope and majesty. Our words are true to the extent that they evoke things as they really are.

This entry was posted in Gardening, Teaching.