When Ralph Waldo Emerson published "Nature" in 1836, he combined many of the transcendental ideas that were soon to be identified with his name. Not all of his readers were pleased. Those who were strict Calvinists opposed him since he repudiated the notion that humanity was irrevocably sinful and doomed to suffer the torments so well described by Jonathan Edwards in his Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Nor were the Unitarians pleased since Emerson relegated logic and reason, the central pivots of their creed, to a much reduced status. Finally, even for those who might have otherwise been receptive to his message that intuition trumps logic, Emerson's prose style--abstract, allusive, and at times inconsistent--served to distance this message from the reader. It was hardly surprising that the sales of his initial book of essays were dismally few.
Nevertheless, Emerson's essays in general and "Nature" in particular eventually caught on with an American readership that was becoming increasingly literate and attuned to similar such beliefs that were then slowly filtering in from Europe. In "Nature," Emerson took the essentials of Neo-Platonism, a system of values that connected objects of the material world with their spiritual counterparts, and allied them with the Wordsworthian creed that the world of physical nature is but a reflection of a higher nature that is itself a manifestation of God in nature. The philosophical glue binding man to nature and to God was Emerson's solid belief that man needed more than the evidence of his senses to apprehend a "true" picture of the universe. Those who used only their physical senses were no more than half-blind materialists groping in the dimmest of lights for a Truth that was freely available to all were they only willing and able to discard the self-imposed blinders of reason and logic. Emerson called this focus on logic the Understanding, a term that he borrowed from Carlyle. That system of thought which man used based on feeling and intuition he termed Reason. He did not mean to imply that one was superior to the other, but he went to considerable pains to assert that man needed both to gain a truer apprehension of the world around him. The very attempt to peer behind and beyond the façade of nature must always pay dividends. There is no "failure" in the attempt. It is the striving itself which imbues the observer with a spiritual affinity both to nature and to God that was sorely lacking prior to a refusal to be satisfied with a one-dimensional view of the universe.
In his introduction to "Nature," Emerson indicates that the current view of man in relation to nature was in need of an overhaul. The earlier views handed down to him by his forebears were shackles rather than liberators of thought. It was time for him to re-evaluate the very means by which man should place himself in the cosmic scheme of things. In each of the eight subheadings of "Nature," he analyzes, often in overlapping ways, how man might do that. Nature, he insists, is both source and destination for all of man's highest goals and aspirations. And for man to realize these hopes, he must acknowledge that there is a nature beyond this nature, thus necessitating the constant use of Reason to intuit its existence. Emerson's ubiquitous use of undefined terms and overly florid language often hide how the man of Understanding may transform himself to a man of Reason, but he implies that the process in an internal one. All that is needed is the will to do so, and the process of assimilation begins. The final subsection on "Prospects" is a summation of the preceding seven. Here, he notes that man can unite himself with God and nature at will. Running through "Nature" as well as nearly all of the remainder of his essays is the interlinking theme of Unity. Man Thinking is the man who has made the transcendent leap from seeing nature as no more than an infinity of unrelated things to one who now can see that each thing seen is united with every other thing in a universal ball of divine spirit. The world that he asks all men to build is a mental construct with the foundation of logic to perceive what is there and one of feeling to animate those men to aspire to be the semi-divine beings that Emerson insisted that they could be in the first place.