On Knowledge and Belief in Emerson’s XXXIX Sermon

Charles Taylor, in his discussion of Disenchantment and Reenchantment in his book titled Dilemmas and Connections, posits that in the premodern world, meaning can be found not only within the mind of the individual, but it can also be found in objects present within the external world (290). Ostensibly, what is being argued here is that even in a hypothetical world with no sentient beings present, objects in a premodern world would still possess an inherent quality, or spirit, that would provide it with a meaning or a purpose. However, when we view this notion with a modern lens, it becomes apparent that we humans believe that the mind infuses meaning into the exterior world. On the other hand, we can simply don the non-modern lens and argue that neither the mind nor the exterior are more influential, and that both work in conjunction to create meaning, which is in and of itself a mental construct.

Thus, the division between the inside (the mind) and the outside (nature; the world) becomes increasingly complex because although objects and ideas that are not human-affiliated are considered to be outside of the mind, they still possess the ability to influence how the mind interprets an environment. In other words, the so-called inherent meaning infused within exterior objects has the ability to amalgamate with our interior mind, to the point that it can affect the way we view and approach the world (291). Therefore, the magical wall that creates this divide becomes disenchanted, leaving us with a whole. Nonetheless, there is a certain allure that exists within the maintenance of the interior and exterior division, for it is one that we have used to construct our understanding of the world up to this point. As Taylor would put it, the mentality survives, even if it’s in the background.

As I was reading Emerson’s XXXIX sermon, this struggle definitely became apparent and obvious. Although I view the relationship between the human mind and nature as an interdependent system, I couldn’t help but see a certain allure in Emerson’s rhetoric, especially when dealing with the roles that nature plays in our world. But even more so, what seemed to deeply trouble me in this sermon was the tension that exists in his argument: on one hand, he seems to posit that nature is an exterior force that obeys the rule of God and that follows a specific uninterrupted pattern; on the other hand, he explicitly mentions that the proper flourishing of plant and natural life depends on cultivation. What we are seeing here is a tension between nature as an independent system with its own sense of meaning, and the notion of nature as a system completely reliant on the human mind. I think this tension is further enhanced by Emerson’s view of nature and plant life as a mechanistic rather than organic entity, as exemplified by his discussion of the apple seed: “The little seed of the apple does not contain the large tree that shall spring from it; it is merely an assimilating engine which has the power to take from the ground whatever particles of water or manure it needs, and turn them to its own substance and give them its own arrangement” (Emerson 12). Note that the apple seed is depicted as an object that is designed to comply with a very specific function: to assimilate surrounding elements in order to promote growth and to provide nourishment for human beings. Note that Emerson goes as far as to denote Nature using spiritual allusions:

Do they not come from Heaven and go like Angels round the globe scattering hope and pleasant toil and recompense and rest? Each righting the seeming disorders, supplying the defects which the former left; converting its refuse into commodity and drawing out of the ancient earth new treasures to swell the capital of human comfort (Emerson 10).

Nature, and specifically the seed, from Emerson’s point of view, is an object with a meaning and a spirit of its own that serves as a commodity to human beings. It is viewed as an external object that follows a specific purpose, and that renders fruit that helps sustain generation after generation.

But, doesn’t our very need for nature’s commodities turn us into Angels as well? Has Emerson failed to see that we humans also scatter hope and recompense, and that it is our labor and willingness to cultivate that the apple seed has survived in the first place? Our very breath provides life to plants; we plant, water, fertilize, and care for plant life. Some plant species even exist solely because of human interest and endeavor—think of the avocado, a plant that has seeds that are too big to be propagated via natural animal consumption and defecation. But realistically speaking, it’s not that Emerson was unwilling to see this side of the coin, but rather, he was binded by the spell of a premodern world, in which science was still viewed as a force incapable of explaining the hows and whys of the natural world. We now take this for granted because we live in a disenchanted world, a world in which the idea of a self-sufficient, mechanistic, and teleological seed makes no sense. But why is it then that Emerson’s notions of humanity and nature seem so alluring and tantalizing? The answer is quite simple: although we may have a deep understanding of how the world works, we have no concrete idea of how and why it all started, and how and why it all exists. Sure, as a believer of science and empirical knowledge, I could simply state that due to a series of events, particles heated up and expanded, creating all matter and space as we know it; but due to the fact that this is all based on theoretical assumptions that are difficult to prove or disprove, I am haunted by an everlasting and ever-increasing doubt: what if this is wrong? What if we currently do not have the knowledge or the capacity to even begin to understand the universe? What if I am wrong, and there actually is an entity or creative agent that can be labeled as God? What if nature IS an external agent with an inherent “spirit” designed to comply with a law created by this entity?

Personally speaking, I was disenchanted with religion years ago. But here I am in Notre Dame, and doubts are beginning to surface once again. I wish I can take Emersonian route, be entirely self-reliant on my thoughts and beliefs while paying no attention to outside influences, but is this even remotely possible? I know that disenchantment never really eliminates the influence of the mystical and the magical… despite my lack of religious belief, I must admit that it religion was an important part of my upbringing, and it most likely encoded many of my current values and ideologies. Could it be possible that the remnants of Emerson’s notions are slowly but surely growing in the background? Is it possible that his God-driven, mechanistic, and binary view of the world is but a seed hidden from our view, assimilating elements from our social and cultural environment and growing into a completely different tree? And even if this metaphorical tree will once again rot and wither away, will it not become the soil and the organic matter that is nourishing our current tree of knowledge?





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