3 On Making the World Habitable

Emily Dumler-Winckler


Two well-assorted travelers use
The highway, Eros and the Muse.
From the twins is nothing hidden,
To the pair is nought forbidden;
Hand in hand the comrades go
Every nook of Nature through:
Each for other they were born,
Each can other best adorn;
They know one only mortal grief
Past all balsam or relief;
When, by false companions crossed,
The pilgrims have each other lost.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson[1]

In “An Address Delivered before the Senior Class in Divinity College” at Harvard Divinity School in 1838 (hereafter, “Divinity Address”), Ralph Waldo Emerson declared that it is by “the religious sentiment” and “not by science or power” that “the universe is made safe and habitable” (78).[2] He and his fellow transcendentalists embraced the insights of the so-called second scientific revolution of the nineteenth century. At the same time, they were aware of the limitations and dangers that attend certain modern scientific practices and views of nature. These disenchanted views tend to alienate us from nature, God, one another, and ultimately from our own agency. They do so by celebrating our power to dominate creation and its creatures or to become impervious to nature’s perils through stoic detachment. The modern temptation is to think that it is by these forms of knowledge or power that the world is made safe and habitable. Emerson saw then what we know now—the toxic effects of these temptations. Ironically, both views (namely, that human beings are meant to conquer or to withdraw from nature) have long been attributed to Emerson.[3] On the contrary, as I read him, Emerson is devoted, beginning to end, to expounding the virtues that modern agents would need to overcome both forms of alienation, to make a home of the modern world we inhabit. My aim is as much constructive as it is interpretive. I am interested in getting Emerson right in order to illuminate our understanding of the virtues today.

In this short essay, I would like to say something about these virtues—about their distinctions and unity—and about how these matter for practitioners of modern science, and more broadly for all who would make a home of the world we inhabit. Along the way, we will see that Emerson maintains some version of the classic distinction between the intellectual and moral virtues, as well as the theological virtues—faith, hope, and love—that perfect them. He is interested in the virtues that perfect science, as well as its perfection by the religious sentiment. From his early work Nature to the “Divinity Address,” and from his 1841 essays on “Intellect” and “Art” to his final lecture series, Emerson helps us to think about the virtues that perfect the modern practices of science and religion.

At the outset, a cautionary note is perhaps in order. Unlike Aquinas and Aristotle before him, Emerson does not set out to provide us with a detailed analytic account of the virtues or good habits.[4] His account, strewn throughout his literary corpus, is nonsystematic and more akin to Augustine’s in form and style. Nonetheless, like his ancient and medieval predecessors, Emerson seems to think that distinguishing between the intellect and will, or the intellectual and moral virtues, helps us to understand and describe the various perfections and imperfections of human agents. But crucially, a distinction is not a division or divorce. As we might suspect, this transcendentalist is as much concerned about the unity of intellectual, moral, and theological virtues as he is about clarifying their differences.

Intellectual and Moral Virtues

In the first paragraph of “Intellect,” Emerson asks: “How can we speak of the action of the mind under any divisions, as of its knowledge, of its ethics, of its works, and so forth, since it melts will into perception, knowledge into act? Each becomes the other” (407). It may be tempting to read this as a precursor to the views of contemporary virtue epistemologists who deny any distinction between the intellect and will or between the moral and intellectual virtues. But the final line “each becomes the other” is better read as part of the riddle, an elaboration of the previous question: how can we speak of any divisions of the mind or soul? Does each part indistinguishably become the other? Or, rather, does each distinctively become (as in, suit and befit) the other?

That it is the latter becomes clear in the essay. But Emerson puts the point most strikingly in the poem I have used as my epigraph, “Love and Thought.” Here, he depicts love and thought as “two well-assorted travelers.” Distinct, they are nonetheless well-suited: “Each for the other they were born, each can the other best adorn.” Their only mortal grief comes “when, by false companions crossed, the pilgrims have each other lost.” The comrades are meant to travel hand in hand, and yet the possibility of deception and divorce looms. Thoughtless love and loveless thought would ensue.

In the essay, Emerson seems to follow Aquinas’s distinction between the intellect and will, namely aptness and use, and their respective virtues. The virtues that perfect the speculative and practical intellect give us an aptness to think and to act in accordance with reason. But they do not move us to use that aptness. That is the job of the will. Nor do they move us to use them well or for good ends. That is the role of the moral virtues. The intellectual virtues perfect the intellect to help us to see rightly, but they do not move us to action, much less right action. For Emerson, the intellect names the capacity to contemplate, to theorize, to reflect on abstract truths in a way that does not necessarily move us to act. The same can be said of “Art,” the title of the essay that immediately follows “Intellect.” The moral and theological virtues are needed in order to use an art or craft (any knowledge about how to do or make something) that one possesses and to put art to good use.

The point here is that one may attain excellence in knowledge and in certain scientific practices without attaining excellence in all of the moral or theological virtues needed to perfect these with respect to the ends of life as a whole. The only moral and theological virtues that have a necessary connection to scientific technique (picture the lab technician), scientific theory (think of the cosmologists), scientific practices (hypothesis formation, observation, testing, collaboration, and so on), and the intellectual virtues (scientia, reasoning, insight, and so forth), are those needed for their basic use and exercise. Nonetheless, one can participate in these activities, acquire these habits, be born with these talents, and even produce these products without further ordering them to the ends of love or justice. For that, one needs the moral virtues such as justice, temperance, prudence, and courage, as well as the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, among others.[5] Some scientists seem to possess all of these together. But some do not. Take James Watson and Francis Crick, who, for all their intellectual brilliance, were unjust in their treatment of Rosalind Franklin. Watson and Crick never fully acknowledged that Franklin’s theoretical expertise in molecular physics directly contributed to their ongoing work on DNA and saved them from pursuing a dead end.[6] Even today, it is no secret that the #metoo movement is as necessary in science as in Hollywood. Distinguishing between various intellectual, moral, and even theological virtues helps us to make sense of how this could be the case.

Scientists must possess at least certain of the intellectual virtues that perfect their reasoning, understanding, creativity, and imagination with respect to the natural world, and their knowledge of how to create hypotheses and perform experiments. They must also possess at least certain of the moral virtues that perfect their passions and desires, that inspire them to pursue their inquiries and to work with diligence. Because of the interconnectedness of the moral and intellectual virtues—between aptness and use—in all social practices, including modern science, it is likely that excellent scientists will have a host of other virtues as well: a love of knowledge, open-mindedness, patience, humility, honesty, justice, friendship, and even faith, hope, and love in their secular and theological forms. A wide range of moral virtues are crucial for perfecting the scientist qua member of the scientific community, whether in the lab, classroom, guild, or public sphere. Most of us will want to say that the unjust scientist—the one who abuses his power over students, for example—is not an excellent scientist. He may be brilliant and successful by other measures, but he is not exemplary in all aspects of the practice. Furthermore, the moral and theological virtues are needed to perfect the scientist with respect to the whole of life, as a son or daughter, mother or father, friend, citizen, coach, etc.

A Journey of Ascent

In his early work Nature, the themes of which he would elaborate over the course of his literary career, Emerson takes his reader on a journey of spiritual ascent from blindness to sight, from the half-sight of science to the vision or song of the Orphic poet. The final chapter of the work, “Prospects,” lives up to its name, offering hopeful revelations, visions of a new heaven and earth. But initially the prospects do not look so good. Entering the “kingdom of man,” in which God will “go forth anew into the creation,” is a matter of good sight and virtue, of both seeing and acting well. Here we are warned of the “half-sight of science” and the “half-force” of religion which severely diminish our vision and agency (45, 49, 47).

Science, Emerson claims, is half-blinded by an excessive attraction to the means, insofar as it loses sight of the end. Even the most astute naturalist discovers that nature’s lessons cannot be learned through the understanding alone, “but [are] arrived at by untaught sallies of the spirit, by a continual self-recovery, and by entire humility” (43). Science is a matter of grace, reception, and intuition as much as tuition. The empirical sciences and idealism, he thinks, provide answers to the question “what is matter?” But they do not answer his other main questions: “whence and whereto Nature?”

According to Emerson’s diagnosis, the same partiality afflicts human agency insofar as it “applies to nature, but half its force” (46). By the half-force of religion, like the half-sight of science, Emerson means that most of us relate to nature and exercise power by the understanding rather than reason. He adopts and adapts this distinction from Coleridge, who had done the same with Kant’s distinction. For our purposes, it is enough to say that he likens the understanding to half-sight and half-force. We master nature “by penny-wisdom” (46). We have learned the lessons of commodity and extractive economies, the economical use of “fire, wind, water…steam, coal, chemical agriculture….” Alone, this form of power—power to commodify, dominate, control, harness, use, even waste—amounts to a frugal and piecemeal resumption of power. It too fails to address the question “to what end nature?,” and creates more problems than it solves. This form of mastery alienates us from nature, God, and neighbor, yes, but also from ourselves. “The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps,” Emerson tells us, “is because man is disunited with himself” (47). Everything, everyone, becomes reduced to its instrumental use, a means to some other (usually economic) end, rather than an end in itself. But he does not leave us in darkness or despair.

Rather, “in the thick of darkness” in antebellum America, Emerson maintained that glimmers of light are never wanting—“examples of the action of man upon nature with his entire force—with reason as well as understanding” (46). As luminous examples of this ascetic, moral, disciplined use of force, Emerson suggests the history of Jesus Christ, religious and political revolutions, the abolition of the slave-trade, and the wisdom of children. After 1860, he would add John Brown. The problem “of restoring to the world original and eternal beauty, is solved by the redemption of the soul” (47). Redemption is the cure for both the half-sight of science and the half-force of religion.

Theological Virtues

Whereas in Nature we find the vision of the Orphic poet at the summit of the spiritual ascent, in Emerson’s “Divinity Address” we find a similar ascent to the sublimely beautiful apex of the religious sentiment. The virtues of faith, hope, and love—traditionally theological virtues—are crucial for the ascent to this zenith. Of course, for this erstwhile Unitarian minister, the theological virtues do not have Aquinas’s Trinity as their object. Nonetheless, their objects are triune and regard the hypostatic union of the spiritual and material, the ideal and the real. In a sense, these virtues are every bit as much a matter of grace, of participatory reception, as infused virtues are for Aquinas. In “Spiritual Laws,” Emerson writes of all virtue: “There is no merit in the matter. Either God is there or he is not there” (132). How then do faith, hope, and love perfect or redeem science and religion?

Emerson’s late essay “Worship,” like Nature, begins and ends in faith and wonder. By 1868, Emerson could see that the “old faiths” had succumbed to an untimely death. Along with the fatal divorce of religion and morality that typified antebellum America, culture had come to be defined by natural science. Just on the other side of the Civil War, he summarized the corruption of antebellum religion: “Here… are churches that proscribe intellect…slave-holding and slave-trading religions; and, even in the decent populations, idolatries wherein the whiteness of the ritual covers scarlet indulgence” (1058). Among the idolatrous (that is, white) religions, “There is no faith in the intellectual, none in the moral universe. There is faith in chemistry, in meat and wine, in wealth, in machinery, in the steam-engine…in public opinion, but not in divine causes” (1059). Corrupt faith is defined by an “acceptance of the lucrative [rather than the moral] standard” (1063). Emerson’s keen insight here is that, for better and worse, we put our faith in one thing or another. For even the firmest naturalist or materialist, faithlessness is not an option.

The virtue of faith perfects the natural sciences and religion alike by revealing their affinity and by directing practitioners to their moral and spiritual ends. By Emerson’s lights, the discoveries of the natural sciences are of a piece with a “secreter gravitation” of the religious sentiment and are “predetermined to moral issues” (1064). True “religion or worship is the attitude of those who see this unity” (1065). For this reason, it would be near-sighted “to limit our faith in laws to those of gravity, of chemistry, of botany, and so forth.” The virtue of faith perfects our vision of natural and divine laws alike.

As with the other virtues, Emerson not only describes hope, but seeks to inspire it in his readers. In Nature, he had claimed that the wise writer—a modest name for his ambitious aims—dispenses hope by suggesting new regions of activity, new horizons of thought and action. “An infinite hope” is the greatest gift that all genius bestows.[7] Hope comes as a gift, as grace. The vices opposed to hope are presumption and despair. It is easy to imagine the corroding effect of these vices in the practices of science and religion alike. In science, presumption ends in falsehood and despair in resignation. The same could be said of religion, with equally toxic and alienating effects. Both “Worship” and Nature provide hope, not by painting a sanguine portrait of future events, but by pointing out new domains for work, and suggesting that virtuous activity is the end—the only key to heaven, in this life or another.

Love may be the most conspicuous aspect of the journey of ascent and of Emerson’s work as a whole. Emerson was tutored by the Apostle Paul and Augustine of Hippo, alongside Plato, Milton, Burke, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. He knows that love is all in all and that faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love. From Nature to “Worship” we find this refrain: “The superiority that has no superior; [the cure of blindness]; the redeemer and instructor of souls, as it is their primal essence, is love” (1064). Absent love, all our activities and causes—scientific, religious, or otherwise—are so much dross. Indeed, love is the distinguishing mark of genius, that which sets it apart from its semblances talent, cleverness, and skill. Emerson concludes “Art,” the final essay in first series, with the observation that “When science is learned in love, and its powers are wielded by love, they will appear the supplements and continuations of the material creation” (440). To learn science in love, and wield its powers by love, is to reject the merely economical use, the lucrative standard. Then science, and we might add technology, will appear at one with the material creation. He may as well have said the same of religion. When religious practices are learned in love, and religion’s powers are wielded by love, they too will appear unified with the order of nature.

The virtues of faith, hope, and love may have natural and theological analogues, and yet Emerson suggests that both matter for the perfection and unity of science and religion.[8] In the final paragraph of Nature, the Orphic poet’s final canto is meant to inspire the virtues of faith, love, and hope needed to pursue the beatific vision. By the time we reach this summit, those who have eyes to see and ears to hear may receive the benediction, worth quoting at length (if partially):

Nature is not fixed but fluid. Spirit alters, moulds, makes it…. Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world, and beyond its world a heaven…. Adam called his house heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours…a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit…[which shall] 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, which cometh not with observation,—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 (48–49).

At this point, our twenty-first century ears should ring with the plausible objections of environmental ethicists and scientists, not to mention Emerson scholars. Are not humanity’s divine ambitions and force precisely what have created our current crisis? Is not the poet’s final charge to “build your own world” the mantra of so-called industrial progress and environmental degradation, of modern science, technology, and religion run amuck? Did not Emerson officiate the wedding of the Industrial Revolution and colonial conquest, and become godfather of its progeny American nationalism?[9] Did not his gospel create the new religion of American exceptionalism?[10] If theology is part of the problem, is not science our only hope?[11] I cannot respond to each of these concerns with the depth they deserve here. Nonetheless, I think that the vision of the Orphic poet warns against precisely these developments.

From begin to end, Emerson suggests with Augustine that the city of God is from everlasting to everlasting. Those who enjoy the restoration of sight, who build a house, a world, and a heaven in which to dwell, inhabit this kingdom, however provisionally, here and now. Our dominion is no less than that of Adam, Einstein, or Gandhi. But neither is it more or otherwise. It is not the stoic power of withdrawal. Neither is it the corrupt and corrupting power of domination, conquest, or exploitation. Rather, the exhortation to “Build…your own world” is of a piece with the nonconformist, ascetic Pauline counsel to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. The final line of “Art” alludes to the story of Jesus’s healing of a blind man in Mark 8:22–25. After Jesus spits on the man’s eyes and puts his hands on them, he asks: “Can you see anything?” The man had half-sight. He could see, but his vision was blurry. People walking appeared as trees. So Jesus sets his hands on the man’s eyes again and his sight is fully restored. Emerson likens the wonder we will all feel at coming to see fully to that of this blind man. Absent the virtues required for the ascent, we are all blind or have half-sight, whether we know it or not.

Emerson was well attuned to the promise and peril of modern science and religion alike. To some extent, natural scientists must have a disenchanted attitude toward nature. It is this posture, after all, that enables nature to be (to some extent) dissected and known, predicted and controlled. Yet when directed by the lucrative rather than moral standard, this attitude has had quite toxic effects, among theologians and priests no less (if more ironically) than scientists. Unaccompanied by the religious sentiment or the virtues of faith, hope, and love that perfect the scientist and religious practitioner as members of various moral communities, these practices threaten to do more harm than good, to impede rather than enhance human flourishing and the common good. Science and technology may help make the world provisionally livable; they may orient us to the many wondrous nooks and crannies of the universe we inhabit. Alone, they do not make our planet or our cosmos safe or habitable. The religious sentiment does so, not by giving us power to control and dominate, and not by immunizing us from dangers, toils, and snares, but rather by empowering us to live well, even to die well, in their midst.

EMILY DUMLER-WINCKLER is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics and Constructive Theology at Saint Louis University. She received her Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2015 before serving as a post-doctoral research associate in Theology with the Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing at the University of Notre Dame. She specializes in moral theology, with a particular interest in virtue, moral psychology, aesthetics, ascetic practices, politics, and social change in the modern era. She is the author of several articles, including “The Virtue of Emerson’s Imitation of Christ,” Journal of Religious Ethics 45.3 (2018): 510–38.


  • Bowlin, John R. Tolerance among the Virtues. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.
  • Decosimo, David. Ethics as a Work of Charity: Thomas Aquinas and Pagan Virtue. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Early Lectures: 1838–1842. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.
  • ——. Emerson: Essays and Lectures. New York: Library of America, 1983.
  • McLeish, Tom. Faith and Wisdom in Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Porter, Jean. The Perfection of Desire: Habit, Reason, and Virtue in Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2018.
  • Reilly, Timothy S., and Darcia Narvaez. “Character, Virtue, and Science.” Philosophy, Theology and the Sciences 5.1 (2018): 51–79.
  • Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • Sideris, Lisa H. “Science as Sacred Myth? Ecospirituality in the Anthropocene Age.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 9.2 (2015): 136–53.
  • Walls, Laura Dassow. Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.
  • West, Cornel. The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

  1. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Poems, Complete Works, Vol. 9.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Emerson quotations throughout this essay are from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson: Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983).
  3. For the former, see Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Geneaology of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 17ff. For the latter, see Robert D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 233–34.
  4. Jean Porter, The Perfection of Desire: Habit, Reason, and Virtue in Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2018); David Decosimo, Ethics as a Work of Charity: Thomas Aquinas and Pagan Virtue (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016); John R. Bowlin, Tolerance among the Virtues (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016). The term “habit” is somewhat fraught, especially in the field of psychology. For a recent work that acknowledges its troublesome association with behaviorism in psychology and yet its standard use in philosophy (and puts it to good use throughout), see Timothy S. Reilly and Darcia Narvaez, “Character, Virtue, and Science,” Philosophy, Theology and the Sciences 5.1 (2018): 51–79. Why use the term here? Put simply, it is standard in theology and philosophy, the disciplines from which I engage these interdisciplinary conversations. Thomas Aquinas insists that virtues are habits and revises Augustine's definition of virtue from a "quality" to a "habit" (I-II 55.4). Many prominent moral theologians (for example, Porter, Decosimo, and Bowlin) have used the term, while clarifying that Aquinas means something more nuanced than our common notion of the word. Others may object: why not use the Latin term habitus, to avoid confusion? Over the course of the past century several social theorists have given term habitus a central place in their theories. The extent to which their notions of habitus are akin to premodern notions is highly debatable. All this is to say, the water is equally murky whether one uses “habit” or “habitus.” Given the multilingual enterprise of interdisciplinary work, the use of either term should pose no problem to interdisciplinary conversations, so long as one is adequately aware of the qualms in other disciplines and clarifies their use of the term. I follow Decosimo’s explication of the term; he sees its four primary features as follows: “Habit is a perfection of a capacity. It is necessarily either good or bad in se. It is difficult to change. And it enables action at will” (Ethics as a Work of Charity, 74).
  5. For an example of a scientist who argues that faith and wisdom are integral to excellence in scientific practice, see Tom McLeish, Faith and Wisdom in Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  6. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer who helped me to more accurately state Franklin’s contributions.
  7. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Early Lectures: 1838–1842 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), 84.
  8. See John R. Bowlin, Tolerance among the Virtues (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), especially its final chapter on forbearance as a natural and theological virtue.
  9. For these respective views see Laura Dassow Walls, Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), 105; West, The American Evasion of Philosophy, 17.
  10. Richardson, Emerson, 226.
  11. For one excellent response to this question see Lisa H. Sideris, “Science as Sacred Myth? Ecospirituality in the Anthropocene Age,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 9.2 (2015): 136–53.