The promise of technology versus the pastoral ideal: Ralph Waldow Emerson's conflict over the role of mankind in nature.

Author:Lumpkin, G.T.
 
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Ralph Waldo Emerson was among the first American philosophers to address the role of technology in the early development of the United States. His work "The American Scholar" has been called the intellectual Declaration of Independence and works such as "Nature" and "The Poet" capture a way of thinking known as Transcendentalism, a kind of mystical philosophy that emphasizes the primacy of the spiritual over the material and empirical. Nature, in this schema, was divine, "the present expositor of the divine mind," by which mankind could transcend the material to access the spiritual. One might think from this description that Emerson would represent the most ardent pro-natural environment perspective. In fact, his writings epitomized the conflict between the domination of nature and human progress in the nineteenth century. In his early years, he praised the progress that came from technological achievements. But as he observed the rise of industrialism in his later years, he was troubled by the role of technology, and its affects on man and nature, in promoting commerce. As a result, his attention turned to man's responsibility in containing technology. This paper addresses the effect that Emerson had on the intellectual history of American thought regarding the relationship of individuals and institutions toward technology in the natural environment.

Emerson was a great advocate of the exaltation of mankind. This was accomplished, he reasoned, through human intellect. He felt that in the divine order, intellect was primary and nature was secondary. Imagination was the exercise of intellect by which humans are lifted up. The imagination was employed in finding better ways to use nature and thus he praised the creativity that he witnessed in daily life. As such, in his early writings he commends the clever and insightful ways in which mankind makes use of nature. In his essay, "Civilization," he advocates using the river to turn the wheel of a saw mill saying, "the river is good natured, and never hints an objection." Moreover, Emerson writes that humans are made strong by employing Nature, "by borrowing the might of the elements. The forces of steam, gravity, galvanism, light, magnets, wind, fire, serve us day by day and cost us nothing" (p. 32). In another essay, "Farming," Emerson suggests that it is the purpose of Nature to serve the farmer: "The earth works for him: the earth is a machine which yields almost gratuitous service to every...

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