Emerson, Earth Spirituality, and the Ecological Crisis

Joel Kovel


The human race is confronted by an unfolding crisis unique in the history of civilization—a crisis which has more than an even chance of bringing that history to a close. The crisis is ecological, and signifies that the metabolism between humanity and nature has gone out of control. Objectively, the present crisis evokes the apocalyptic imagination in that the end of the world, as we know it, is a clear possibility given present tendencies. Yet apocalyptic thining will not resolve, but only worsen, a predicament that calls for an unprecedented synthesis between reason and spirit.

That "end of the world" scenarios are now at least arguable can be shown in many ways. For example, it has been reliably estimated that the current consumption by the human species of the aggregate amount of energy produced through photosynthesis—what has been called the "earth's primary product"—stands now at roughly twenty-five percent of the total, and forty percent of what is produced on land. If we now take into account three seemingly iron trends—first, the prospect of a doubling of world population in about fifty years, second, the relentless growth in industrial output, the rate of which outstrips population growth by a factor of three; and third, the steady decline of prime photosynthetic sources such as rainforests, it should be quite obvious to even the rudest intelligence that, whicle no precise date can be placed on the event, a colossal reckoning, of world-shattering proportions, is looming. No, the world will not end in a pillar of fire, nor in the parting of the seas, but some kind of collapse is certainly on the boards within the next half-century or so, given these brutal facts; not to mention others, such as global warming, groundwater depletion, species destruction, systematic intoxication by organochlorines, and the like.

It is my purpose here to comment further upon the unfolding of these grim tendencies—though it must be emphasized that the prospect of breakdown is not some distant abstraction, but a reality already with us in many premonitory ways such as decline in sperm count, the rise of various pandemics and other health problems, and the beginning decline of world good production. I am more concerned, for now, with the subjective side to this crisis, for the ecological crisis engages every aspect of existence. It is not just an injury to selected ecosystems, such as fisheries and forests. It is also an injury to the ecosystem of the body, and to that of society as well. It is, to put it somewhat differently, a crisis both material and spiritual, affecting the natural ground of spirit and the spiritual ground of nature.

When I speak of the subjective side of the crisis, I mean how the interpenetrated crises of spirit and nature emerge into consciousness both individual and collective. Today this happens chiefly in grossly irrational forms. For example, this summer's biggest successes at the movie theatres have been the films Twister and Independence Day. Not since the 1950s have such crowds of people flocked to see films about being rescued from cosmic events portending the end of the world. In the 50s, the cold war and the nuclear crisis propelled such fantasies. Now it is the mass perception of a gathering civilizational crisis, the sense of a world gone haywire, and of our exquisite vulnerability.

This perception is highly managed by a powerful apparatus of denial and rationalization, whch has effectively trimmed the ecological crisis into proportions manageable through the capitalist market—despite the fact that it is that same market which is responsibly for the crisis in the first place. Thus the official rationality denies the reality of the crisis, as well as its causes, and forces thought into irrational and apocalyptic channels, to be processed and harvested by the entertainment industry.

Relief may be sought from unbearable anxiety through an imaginary intensification that shifts the scene to a more conprehensible domain and, crucially, resolves it—even if the resolution be death. Better end with terror than terror without end, observed Nietzsche. Nevertheless, this constructed end is a distortion: the ecological crisis is not about alien invasion or a great whirlwind. It is rather the widening disruption of interlinked ecosystems under the impact of human society until the phrase, "end of the world," becomes an adequate metaphor for the resulting barbarism, political authoritarianism, famine and pestilence.

To treat this metaphor as real, by succumbing to the logic of apocalypse, is a crippling abandonment of hope and reason. The logic of apocalypse is external, as shown by our two blockbuster films, in which humanity suffers from natural "acts of God" or extraterrestrial invasion. And it is God, or the state, who is to rescue or otherwise dispose of the apocalyptic menace. With respect to the ecological crisis, attention is diverted from what has taken place on earth, from what brought this about in the first place. Attention is diverted from the only feasible way of overcoming the crisis: radically democratic and socially transformative collective action. Thus, humanity is rendered as passive, in the hands of higher powers. But, the state will not fix this, nor a charismatic leader, nor technology, nor technocrats. Only democratic renewal can mobilize intelligence and energy, check selfish materialism, and safeguard against the compulsion of gigantism and rampant, cancerous growth which is the hallmark of an ecodestructive society.

A spiritual renewal is necessary if we are to lift ourselves out of the death-dealing, officially sanctioned consciousness. Apocalyptic discourse is spiritual, by any coherent definition of the term, because it pertains to the transition from ordinary to extraordinary states of being. Spirit means a passage beyond the normally defined boundaries of the self into altered relations of being, and this is exactly what apocalyptic thinking does. Now if apocalypticism is spiritual and yet the wrong course of action, it follows that not all spiritualities are of equal value, and that spirituality itself may be subjected to critique. A spiritual path can be rational and creative, or irrational and destructive, and there needs to be a way of telling the difference. This insight runs counter to the standard "New Age" ethos, whose premise is that the contemporary world suffers from insufficient spirituality, when it follws that to "be spiritual" is a non-problematic good.

We do suffer from living in a despiritualized time. In an epoch strangling in materialism, any spiritual outlet can seem preferable to the limbo of non-belief and the vacuousness of consumer society. What this understandable desire forgets, however, is that there are numberless ways to pass beyond the self; by no means all of the same value. We do not leave the self entirely behind when we go beyond its limits in a spiritual passage. For even the most selfless absorption in mystical experience, which seeks complete detachment from the world, is still engaged with the world to the extent of having to reject it—a step with many moral implications. Nor do we need to invoke esoteric states of being. The world is rank with destructive spiritualities of splitting, domination and harsh repression. Recall that Nazism was highly spiritual in its way, replete with all kinds of esoterica and occult belief, including a kind of ecological awareness. Nor can its murderousness and spirituality be treated in isolation from each other. Hitler found a humiliated and lost people, and he gave great numbers of them a sense of spurious integrity through abandoning the painful individuality of modernity and fusing the self with the Volk and Fuhrer. This fusion required a fantasy of purification which, in turn, required splitting off the bad inside and projecting it to the hated Jews, whose destruction could, therefore, be imagined to secure the purification of the German people. Thus, what was an exalting spiritual experience from one angle, was achieved through murderousness at the other. And this trapped some of the best minds of Europe, along with millions of ordinary people.

Critique requires reflection into the historical ground from which a spirituality springs and the political project it serves. This "spirit of critique" applies not only to pathological specimens like Nazism and religious fundamentalism, but also to manifestly beneficient developments such as the earth-centered spirituality which was emerged in reaction to the gathering ecological crisis. The project of earth-centered spirituality is to reverse the ecological destructiveness of our civilization in order to contribute to healing and restoring a ravaged earth. We are familiar by now with the indictment that Western civilization, in its Faustian drive for power, has reduced nature from a spiritually vibrant matrix into inert resources and dumping grounds for the world market. The pillage of nature would never have occurred absent such a transformation, grounded in a despiritualized world-view. The elementary premise of earth-based spirituality, then, is the regeneration of a spirit relation to the earth as a necessary component in adopting a healing, rather than a destructive, attitude toward nature. The questions before us, then, have to do with the real causes underlying the indictment of the West, the relation of these to spirituality, and the potential for earth centered spirituality to overcome the damamged ecology of the planet.

Spiritualities are to be understood in relation to the real people who articulate them. Among the antecedents of earth centered spirituality, the figure of Ralph Waldo Emerson is particularly important because of his canonical influence in nineteenth century America. American intellectual life in Emerson's time was both compact and in limbo, waiting to be born. Its compactness made it possible for Emerson to become a kind of one-man university, directly and personally addressing the key intellectuals of his time—Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Alcott, Whitman and, especially, Henry Thoreau—who radiated out from his influence like ever widening ripples in a pond. And the times were ripe fro his message. The nation had not yet found either its identity or its full place on the world stage. Emerson's mission was to create a distinctively liberal and progressive American sensibility. He was the exponent of an emerging national consciousness, to which he imparted the vigor and optimism of a nation on the rise.

The full emergence of America as a world power was several generations away in the 1830s, when Emerson first stretched his wings. But an impulse toward greatness both moral and material, a kind of redeemer mentality, had marked the nation from the beginning. To build a new society did not suffice; the world itself had to be transformed and saved in the making. This "city upon a hill" philosophy was first articulated by the Puritan fathers, and constitutes a quite original position in the history of the world. Never before had a nation been founded with so powerful a sense of mission. Two centuries of rationalism, the decline of diabolism, and the rise of a spirit of tolerance and technical progress separate Emerson from John Winthrop and the Mathers—yet the inner drive to redeem humanity persisted. Emerson saw himself as the personification of this. As he wrote in his journal at age 36:

What shall be the substance of my shrift? Adam in the garden, I am to new-name all the beasts of the field and all the gods in the sky. I am to invite men drenched in Time to recover themselves and come out of time and taste their native immortal air...I am to indicate constantly, though all unworthy, the Ideal and Holy Life, the life within life, the Forgotten Good, the Unknown Cause in which we sprawl and sin (P - 386)

In a typically expansive passage, Emerson also announces what is to become the transcendental stamp to his thought. This is defined as resisitance to an oncoming despiritualization in order "to celebrate the spiritual powers in their infinite contrast to the mechanical powers and the mechanical philosophy of this time." Emerson throws down the spiritual gauntlet. Spirit, as such, will conquer, if only we open ourselves to it.

Emerson is, therefore, both critic and celebrator—a man who stands against destructive tendencies in the American nation while being, at the same time, for the expansion and greatness of America. The celebration of spirit reaches it apotheosis in the concluding passage of the famous essay on Nature in which he announced his genius, and writes of the "advancing spirit" which

...will create ornaments along its path, and carry with it the beauty it visits and the song which enchants it; it shall draw beautiful faces, warm hearts, wise discourse, and heroic acts, around its way, until evil is no more seen. The kingdom of man over nature...—a dominion such as now is beyond his dream of God,—he shall enter without more wonder than the blind man feels who is gradually restored to perfect sight. (2-81)

The mix of rhapsodic affirmation and critical energy has powerful spiritual potential. But this also raises the question as to the extent an uplifted spirit may console, smooth out differences, and rationalize contradictions—in other words, blur reality and stabilize the status quo—rather than provide a transformative moment to permit real change. This issue is especially acute in the ecological crisis, where we face the unacceptable choice between greenwashed rationalization and apocalyptic hysteria. The adequacy of an earth-centered spirituality is defined by its capacity to help us transcend the former limitation, while avoiding the latter. Spirit needs, in other words, to reject the given, eco-destructive order of thngs, while reclaiming a larger, more inclusive and radical rationality. An adequate earth-centered spirituality help delegitimate the given system, while opening toward a new and more worthwhile society.

At first view, Emerson's role here is beneficial. He vigorously attacks the prevailing materialism of American culture, and he also explicitly argues for a notion of a living vital nature in deep contact with the human spirit. Obviously, Emerson loves nature and would have us love, value and preserve it as well. He stands squarely against the dominant concept of nature as merely instrumental to the growth of the economy—a set of resources for extraction and sinks for dumping wastes. The essay on Nature is rapturous in its appreciation of the natural world. Nature "never wears a mean appearance;" "there is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet;" "Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted in to infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God." (Z37-39) There is certainly no comfort for heedless economic growth in these words; or for the selling of pollution rights; or for mainstream corporate environmentalism. Emerson appreciated nature's immediate use—value to humanity—what he anachronistically called its status as "commodity." But this was but a prelude to asserting nature's transcendental importance. For Emerson, any despiritualization of nature is also despiritualization of humanity, and a violation of ourselves as well as of the external world.

However, there are other notes, more ambiguous and even ambivalent. Consider the passage quoted earlier in which Emerson writes of the "advancing spirit" which "will create ornaments along its path." Is there not something jarring about this optimism in view of what has, in fact, happened? You might want to think of the rhapsodic tone as a poignant echo of a supposedly simpler time. But before lapsing into nostalgia for a vanished national childhood, bear in mind that the widely presumed innocence of nineteenth century America is a convenient myth. The ecstasy expressed by Emerson here, and in numberless other passages, is appealing, no doubt. Optimism always is. But the America of 1839 had already been well-shaped by slavery, Indian genocide and an incipient capitalism radically predatory upon nature—habits that were also signposts leading in our direction. Nor is Emerson's optimism the passive expectation of a good future that is to happen to us; it is rather an evocation of active forces which will make the future happen. His optimism both anticipates and mobilizes for a goad stated with striking explicitness: the oncoming "kingdom of man over nature...—a dominion such as now is beyond his dream of God..." It must be said that Emerson's "advancing spirit" bears the unmistakable aura of a crusader, the onward march of Christian soldiers. Though he rejected Christian chauvinism, its animus seems to have remained very much with him. Emerson rejects the dream of God, only to go beyond the dream of God into a dream of modernity. His transfigured nature surpasses the religious vision of paradise, as the railroad is to suprass the wagon as a mode of transportation—and with the same enhanced degree of ecological destructiveness.

The question now arises, what nature is actually seen by Emerson in his optimism? I'll tell you: a nature already worked over by society and ready for yet more subjection. Emerson abstracts his particular setting into the essence of nature, although what he actualy sees when he looks about is a concrete territory with a history. And the history is obliterated in his essentialization, the history of a land selected by Europeans, snatched from the previous inhabitants and made into a landscape for Emerson to live within.

What he calls nature is the New England landscape: "a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky;" (Z38) or "the spectacle of morning from the hilltop over against my house, grom daybreak to sunrise, with emotions which an angel might share. The long slender bars of cloud float like fishes in the sea of crimson light" or "the charm of a January sunset" in which "the western clouds divided and subdivided themselves into pink flakes modulated with tints of unspeakable softness..." (Z43) No doubt this is lovely; we have, I should think, all felt the same way about similar landscapes. But does this entitle us to praise, with Emerson, "the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for man's support on this green ball which floats him through the heavens" (Z40)—a turn of phrase that again represses the real appropriation of the land?

Emerson's subjection of nature to human need will have him conflating the loveliness of even an imaginary landscape with the presumed moral quality of the deeds done there. This "beauty is the mark God sets upon virtue." As an example of this beauty-certified virtue we have:

the bark of Columbus nears the shore of America—before it the beach lined with savages, fleeing out of all their huts of cane; the sea behind; and the purple mountains of the Indian Archipelago around, can we separate the man from the living picture? Does not the New World clothe this form with her palm-groves and savannahs as fit drapery? Ever does natural beauty steal in like air, and envelop great actions. (Z45)

In other words, if a landscape is pretty, then good things must have been done there. One wonders why the "savages" were not rated as highly, since they had the benefits of the same landscape for aeons before 1492.

This cannot be excused with the observation that Emerson was, after all, only a product of his era, hence should not be charged with its flaws but, rather, lauded for his advances—an argument regularly trotted out to stifle critical inquiry. No doubt Emerson went beyond his time in some respects. But he also carried forward and, through the power of his language and the vigor of his thought, even expanded its pathological view of nature in others. More to the point, his was not the most advanced and radical view of nature to have been articulated by an American of the mid-nineteenth century. There was another man who saw with greater acuity and depth than Emerson—and, significantly, was not thanked for his insight. I refer to Herman Melville, a distinct loser when compared to the enormously successful and influential Emerson—a loser, moreover, because he spoke of things that Emerson would not.

Some fifteen years Emerson's junior, Melville had a dramatically different experience of nature. While the Sage of Concord was establishing his brilliant reputation, Melville was knocking about the globe on a series of hazardous sea voyages. When he returned and settled down to write, Melville achieved a brief popularity as the recounter of exotic travel stories. But then his vision deepened, and his career sputtered and crashed. As Emerson ran about the country giving more than a lecture a week to appreciative audiences, and steadily amassed a small fortune based upon his writing, Melville dropped out of the intellectual world and finished his days as a customs inspector—so obscure that his death was unmarked even by an obituary in the New York Times.

Here is something of Melville's description of the Galapagos Islands, taken from his tale, "The Encantadas," and based upon a voyage made there in 1838, around the time Emerson composed his essay on Nature:

On most of the ilse where vegetation is found at all, it is more ungrateful than the blankness of Aracama. Tangled thickets of wiry bushes, without fruit and without a name, springing up among deep fissures of calcined rock and treacherously masking them, or a parched growth of distorted cactus trees.

In many places the coast is rock-bound, or, more properly, clinker bound; tumbled masses of blackish or greenish stuff like the dross of an iron furnace, forming dark clefts and caves here and there, into which a ceaseless sea pours a fury of foam, overhanging them with a swirl of gray, haggard mist, amidst which sail screaming flights of unearthly birds heightening the dismal din....On the oppressive, clouded days, such as are peculiar to this part of the watery Equator, the dark, vitrified masses, many of which raise themselves among white whirlpools and breakers in detached and perilous places off the shore, present a most Plutonian sight. In no world but a fallen one could such lands exist. (M1-234)

Melville resembles Emerson in finding an objective correlate of the inner self in nature, thereby making nature a kind of canvas on which can be projected various values and qualities. But their differences greatly outweigh the obvious fact that he sees a fallen world where Emerson finds a risen one. The issue here is less the refutation of the Emersonian dictum that Nature "never wears a mean appearance," as the detachment of nature from a schema of essence and utilization. Emerson wants to see nature as the reflection of the human spirit, driven onward by the unfolding of that spirit. In his worldview, man "is placed in the centre of all beings, and a ray of relation passes from every other being to him." In this relation, mature is our servant. But Melville sees nature as nobody's servant. What for Emerson is "the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for [man's] support" is, for Melville, something with no necessary and prefigured relation to humanity. Melville sees not only the unspeakable harshness of the Encantadas when he looks at nature: he is quite capable of seeing beauty and rapture in the natural world, as many a passage in Moby Dick and other works will attest. But he sees concretely, and differentiatedly. Nature is not there for us; it is just there. We are a part of it and not its centre. We are not to expect any automatic welcome, but have to somehow make our way. The ghastly Encantadas are as real as the New England sky with its soft, fluffly clouds. Nature is not laid out in some Hegelian schema as the unfolding of spirit, nor the necessary emanation of humanity's true being, nor as the great provider whose bounty is at the disposal of an advancing civilization. It has its laws in which we, too, participate, for humanity is part of nature. But nature is much greater in Melville's view of things than it is for Emerson. It is not to be subordinated to the human spirit in a fantasy of progress; it can just as soon assault, depress, overwhelm, or indifferently ignore the human being who knocks at its door, as yield its fruits.

This more radical sense of nature suffuses Moby Dick. It helps account both for the incomparable grandeur of that work, and also for its indigestibility by the society for which Melville wrote. The awe we feel toward the Leviathan who is the Whale, of the terror in the "heartless voids and immensities of the universe," that helps account for the feat of the whale's whiteness—these are slaps in the face of the mythology of progress and dominion over nature fed by Emerson.

There is a practical aspect to this radical difference in conceptions of nature. Melville's view of nature's concreteness and unsurpassibility, is grounded in the fact that he knew nature as a sailor who had to face the ocean's rough contingency for four years. Coping with the sea, and hunting huge whales in small open boats, is not conducive to raptures about an advancing spirit creating ornaments in its path. Viewed from the perspective of a whaleboat, Emerson's famous aphorism that "the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind" (Z53) does seem a bit fatuous. At the risk of being blunt, let me say that Melville's genius was rooted in the life of a working man; while Emerson's was grounded in the life of a gentleman. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a prodigious worker, but not one to use his hands to directly engage nature in order to survive or make a living, nor a worker who knew what it was like to labor with others of the same class. Therefore, though each arose from and eventually lived with the gentry and intelligentsia, Melville's sojourn among the "mariners, renegades and castaways," to use his salutation of the common people who labored that the world may be made, was to permanently imprint itself upon his soul and become elaborated in his works. Emerson, meanwhile, lived among books and upon the labor of others—and even though this made him squirm, he could not escape it. Once, so his most recent biographer Robert Richardson tells us, Emerson, in a pang of liberal conscience, asked Louisa (the maid) and Lydia (the cook) to leave the kitchen and eat with the family. The cook refused, writes Richardson, "knowing perhaps... that it is easier to condescend than to accept condescension." (R346) The sense of discomfort spills over into the pages of Nature, where we are informed that despite the overall bountifulness of nature, there is some "discord between man and nature, for you cannot freely admire a noble landscape if laborers are digging in the field hard by. The poet finds something ridiculous in his delight until he is out of the sight of men." (Z74)

Emerson's frequent, albeit well-intentioned, forays into social commentary tend to suffer the same awkwardness and inauthenticity, while Melville's sensitivity to the realities of work gives his writing a critical edge unsurpassed in American literature. Melville was quite aware of this difference, and although I know of no evidence that Emerson thought one way or another about the failed author of Moby Dick, the younger man undoubtedly thought about his famous contemporary, no doubt with some envy and bitterness, but also with insight. Indeed, it is not far-fetched to specualte that Melville's work from Moby Dick on, (including and perhaps especially) The Encantadas, was written in a deliberately anti-Emersonian vein. In any event, there is the hostile caricature of Emerson as the preacher/ philosopher Mark Winsome in The Confidence Man, "a cross between a Yankee Peddler and a Tartar priest," who finds a beautiful soul "where beauty is," as, for example, in a rattlesnake. (M3-190) In addition, there are a number of interesting observations scattered throughout Melville's letters, journals and marginalia. We know that Melville was actually in the audience as Emerson spoke on "Mind and Meaning in the 19C" in February 1849—just as he was beginning work on Moby Dick. The event was recorded in a sarcastic letter to his cousin Evert Duckinck:

I was very agreeably disappointed in Mr. Emerson. I had heard of him as full of transcendentalisms, myths and oracular gibberish;...Till I heard him lecture—To my surprise I found him quite intelligible, tho' to say truth, they told me that night he was unusually plain.

The ambivalent reflections contined in another letter written the next month, which can be read as a proposal for Moby Dick:

Nay, I do not oscillate in Emerson's rainbow...Yet I think Emerson is more than a brilliant fellow. Be his stuff begged, borrowed or stolen, or of his own domestic manufacture he is an uncommon man....I love all those who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more...I'm not talking of Emerson now—but of the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving and coming up again with blood-shot eyes since the world began.

In his marginalia, Melville drops the facade of politeness and becomes positively scathing. We find phrases such as "to annihilate all this nonsense..." next to Emerson's text; and alongside the passage in the essay on "Prudence"—"Trust men, and they will be true to you," the words: "God help the poor fellow who squares his life according to this." Melville notes that Emerson's "gross and astonishing errors and illusions spring from a self-conceit so intensely intellecual and calm that at first one hesitates to call it by its right name. Another species of Mr. Emerson's errors, or rather, blindness, proceeds from a defect in the region of the heart." As late as 1870, we find the quarrel continuing. Next to Emerson's text that "the first lesson of history is the good of evil" we find: "He still bethinks himself of his Optimism—he must make that good somehow against the eternal hell itself."

The personal animus should not obscure the fundamental questions Melville raises. Emerson, Melville claims, is superficial: he does not dive deep enough. Being so, he remains trapped in self-conceit, bobbing up and down on the surface, deluding himself that what he sees or feels is coterminous with the whole of reality, and that the sea exists to help his bobbing up and down. This is a challenge to the most sacred tenet of Emersonian thought: the primacy of the self. Melville dismisses this as a conceit—a blindness which must remain fixated on optimism in order not to see "the eternal hell itself."

It might be said, but way of rejoinder, that had Melville access to Emerson's journals, he would have formed a more generous estimation. The private Emerson is more complex and less optimistic; there is little of that relentless cheer and uplift, and much somber brooding about the condition of American society. Here, for example, is a journal entry from 1839: "A question which well deserves examination now," namely, the "invasion of Nature by Trade with its Money, its Credit, its Steam, its Railroad," which "threatens to upset the balance of man, and establish a new, universal Monarchy more tyrranical than Babylon or Rome." (P386) On the other hand, the discrepancy raises another doubt about Emerson, and gives Melville's verdict additional force. Why, after all, did Emerson dissemble and blunt his own critique, as he admits in the same journal entry? "And all of us apologize when we ought not, and congratulate ourselves when we ought not." Why not speak consistently with what he felt—which is what Melville did? There is an obvious answer, which can neither be proven nor rejected out of hand. It is that Emerson suppressed himself opportunistically: that he perceived a role of positive thinker open to him, took this role, and reaped the handsome reward. America has a bottomless hunger for positive thinkers, and a profound, allergic intolerance for serious criticism. Look at what befell Melville. Emerson cared not for this fate. The man who wrote the essay on Prudence was nothing if not prudent. And so he apologizes. The sharpness of the private Emerson degenerates into public remarks like, "We must trust infinitely to the beneficent necessity which shine through all laws" (Politics, E566), words that could have been put into the mouth of a Polonius.

Emerson was a passionate identitarian, and his spiritual appeal rests, in good measure, on evoking the essential connectedness of all things, as against the fragmenting so characteristic of modern life. Emerson's notion of the self is one of the unifications of many into one: what is man, asks Emerson but "a congress of nations"? As he explains in the lecture on religion, we live for those unique moments when "this deep power in which we lie and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object are one." As Richardson puts it, for Emerson everything rests "on the perception that the world of differences can and must be resolved into a world not only of similarity but of identity. In Emerson's cosmos difference is hell, similarity purgatory. Identity alone constititutes paradise." In Emerson's words, "the perception of identity unites all things and explains one by another, and the most rare and strange is equally facile as the most common. But if the mind lives only in particulars, and sees only difference, (wanting the power to see the whole—all in each) then the world addresses to this mind a question it cannot answer, and each new fact tears it in pieces." (R334)

The notion of the unity of all things is a worthy spiritual goal, as well as a prime ecological principle. But in any given instance, this can be either wishful desire or a philosophically thought-through notion of reality. If our hypothesis about Emerson has merit, the private man and the public man were at odds, the latter suppressing the doubts of the former. The journals and the essays sometimes seem the work of two men; they are surely the work of a man at war with himself. But this same man would not wish to be at war with himself, especially a war between principled criticism and success-seeking opportunism. He is, after all, a conscientious man, and the charge of opportunism would weigh very heavily on his soul. How better to fulfill this wish, and obliterate the contradiction, than to proclaim a philosophy of identity which postulates a whole that does not organically exist? From this angle, Emerson's identitarianism constitutes a kind of premature closure, a bringingtogether of things whose real differences do not yet admit of identity—and, crucially, an avoidance of the confrontation and work necessary to create not unity, but a viable synthesis. In this case, Emerson fails to produce the transformative synthesis suggested above. He perpetuates, rather, a reformist dualism that glosses over rough edges to win legitimacy. And so, Emerson sees an advancing spirit when he should have seen, like Melville, advancing domination. Or he sees this domination, in his private musings, then suppresses it in his public text. Because he cannot grasp the category of negation, Emerson falls into his self-defined category of those who are "wanting to see the whole—all in each."

The whole will never be approached, except through the fractures. To overcome the gap between what is, and what ought to be, we need to address the structural forces that hold things down and suppress their life. This faculty is remarkably stifled in Emerson. The awkward effort to integrate his serving ladies into the dinner table was a reaction to his refusal to join the Brook Farm collective where egalitarianism was to be attempted in real practice rather than condescending gesture. The decision not to join was, according to Richardson, tied to Emerson's transcendental affirmation of the individual self. For "he could join no association that was not based on the recognition that each person is the center of his or her world." On more theoretical ground he rejected Orestes Brownson, whose essay, "The Laboring Classes," contains the assertion that "the evil we speak of is inherent in all our social arrangements and cannot be cured without a radical change of those arrangements....The only way to get rid of those evils is to change the system." To Richardson—a largely sympathetic biographer—Emerson's "faith in the power and infinitude of the individual was greater than his faith in collective action." Emerson saw the self connected to all things; but connection remains purely formal and not practical: all things are predicates to the subject of the individual self, just as nature is a metaphor for the mind.

The political implications are crippling. If, as Emerson claims, "Governments have their origins in the moral identity of men," (E566) then we need to consider any classes that gain control over the state and use it against other classes. And if "The foundations of man are not in matter, but in spirit" (Z77), politics devolves into strategies of self-expression, while the self becomes an empty, common denominator, swallowing all, even the state itself: "To educate the wise man the State exists, and with the appearance of the wise man the State expires. The appearance of character makes the State unnecessary. The wise man is the State." (E566)

Despite the direction of his journals, the public Emerson dissolves relevant differences. "I do not charge the merchant or the manufacturer. The sins of our trade belong to no class, to no individual. One plucks, one distributes, one eats. Everybody partakes...." (Z133) The cure for this is highly voluntaristic, being no more than the sum of individual good wills, embellished with assertions that are, frankly, embarrassing in view of the direction taken by American society: "Let our affection flow out to our fells; it would operate in a day the greatest of all revolutions. It is better to work on insititutions by the sun than the wind. The State must consider the poor man, and all voices must speak for him....Let the amelioration in our laws of property proceed from teh concession of the rich, not from the grasping of the poor." This, to Emerson, is "the power of kindness," in short, the politics of love: "One day all men will be lovers; and every calamity will be dissolved in the universal sunshine." (Z146-47) One can almost hear George Bush prating of the "thousand oints of light"—or, to advance the clock to the present, Bill Clinton "ending welfare as we know it."

We do not fault Emerson for his instincts, which are those of good will, or for his acute intelligence. What is too often lacking, however, is the courage to face the negative, and to follow the implication of his own criticism. We might try to pick up this thread as it weaves a spirituality of the earth, and draw some preliminary conclusions.

First, earth-centered spirituality has to be just that: centered in the earth. Emerson's virile anthropocentrism was the product of his times, and also an important part of the making of his times. In this respect, the term, "transcendentalism," is something of a misnomer. For all Emerson's efforts at transcendence, he reproduces the prevailing nineteenth century mythos of man over nature, nature serving man. It may be added that in such a discourse, the masculinist focus needs to be emphasized: the subordination of nature to man reproduces the subordination of women to men. Nature to Melville, by contrast, is not tameable; his conception, evocative of those painted Chinese screens in which a tiny human figure is seen at the edges of an immense and indeterminate landscape, inspires genuine respect for nature as a transcendent formation, ultimately detached from the needs of advancing spirit. In fact, the notion of an advancing spirit, wrapped in Emerson's relentless optimism, is too poor a rendition entirely. To see spirit as over nature, and nature as a metaphor for mind, is to diminish spirit as well as it does nature. To place spirit over nature reduces spirit to ego—the controlling, repressive, domineering aspect of mind—and narrows mind to the requirements of that ego.

Melville's nature cannot finally be tamed: the figure of Moby Dick is evidence enough for that. But Melville is exquisitely sensitive to the fact that the ego of his time, conditioned by an expanding capitalism, will go down to the bottom of the sea trying to tame nature. Ahab represents the psychotic revenge of wounded egoic narcissism. His madness should not be seen in isolation, however, from the normal rape of nature that passes for the economy. Ahab, writes Melville, "was intent on an audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge." The ship's owners, on the other hand, represent egoic advantage. They "were bent on profitably cruises, the profit to be counted down in dollars from the mint." (M2-202) This is to be an extremely bloody and horrific pursuit whose reality is concealed by dominant ideology, as promulgated by intellectuals and the church. The following passage about the killing of an old whale makes the point:

As strange misgrown masses gather in the knotholes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale's eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arn, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of man, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all. (M2-391)

It is hard to avoid the observation that Melville may have had Emerson in mind as the sermonizing protagonist of the present lecture as he wrote this passage. It is also necessary to add that the pitiless expansion of capital has industrialized the fishery—and the chicken-factory, and the pig-factory, and the beef-factory—so that this slaughter, which is but one sortie in the war on nature, has become ever more brutally impersonal. Today, though the killing of whales has finally been put in abeyance, industrial ships with nets large enough to hold ten Boeing 747's still trawl the seas, accelerating the ecological crisis. This places us ever more in the need of voices to speak resolutely out against the industrialization of nature—and for a spirituality which can mobilize a passionate defense of nature—for it is the nature of spirit to step outside the given, and protest against it.

It is in the nature of spirit also to be dialectical, that is, to move through negations; and the fuller this motion, the more adequate spirit becomes in the service of life. Earth-centered spirituality, therefore, is an incomplete, imperfect, and even destructive spirituality to the extent that it remains centered on the earth. A purely biocentric spirituality both jettisons humanity and forgets that nature is only known—and only destroyed—through social institutions such as industry and technology, organized under the aegis of capital. As commonly practiced, this falsely purified spirituality is irrelevant except as a distraction; at its more extreme edges, it turns into eco-fascism, as surely as the Third Reich boasted of compassion for a nature untrammeled by Jews, Communists, homosexuals, gypsies, and other undesirables.

Nature-centered spirituality needs, therefore, to be decentered, negated and made social; transformed into a spirituality not merely spiritual, but dialectically related to a transformative social practice so unthinkable in these dark times that only a spiritual leap can encompass its possibility and draw its outline. Such a possibility has been enunciated time and again, and needs to be restored today if we are to survive as a civilization. An intimation was even given by Emerson in a moment when the fog of trascendentalism lifted:

As long as our civilization is essentially one of property, of fences, of exclusiveness, it will be mocked by delusions. Our riches will leave us sick; there will be bitterness in our laughter; and our wine will burn our mouth. Only that good profits, which we can taste with all doors open, and which serves all [human beings]." (E745)

To this admonition, which serves nature as well as humanity, we can truly say, amen.


E—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures, New York: The Library of America, 1983.

M1—"The Encantadas," from Herman Melville, Billy Budd and Other Tales, New York: New American Library, 1961.

M2—Herman Melville, Moby Dick, New York: Penguin, 1992.

M3—Merman Melville, The Confidence Man, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1984.

P—Vernon Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1927.

R—Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995.

Z—Larzer Ziff, ed., Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Essays, New York, Penguin, 1982.