Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882) was the preeminent essayist, poet, and lecturer in antebellum America. The values articulated in Emerson's most famous lectures—self-reliance, nonconformity, and reverence for nature—would all become the guiding principles of American identity. Emerson's essays earned him the appellation the "American Socrates."
Emerson attended Harvard Divinity School and was ordained as a Unitarian minister in 1829. After finding he was "no longer interested" in the rite of communion, Emerson left the church in 1832 to follow an inward journey that became the hallmark of his thought. Influenced by European Romanticism, Emerson believed that the ultimate source of truth resided within oneself, and his most influential essays presented fidelity to one's inner promptings as the basis of authentic life.
For Emerson, individualism was fundamentally grounded in the American experience. The Puritans who established the Massachusetts colony abhorred the ritual and centralized authority of the Roman Church, as well as the formalism and religious hierarchies (and persecutions) of the Church of England. The colonial experience in the New World wilderness had instructed generations of Americans on the virtues of self-reliance, independent, representative government, and the ubiquitous presence of God in nature. Emerson drew on these precedents and lessons to advance a compelling American identity based on personal autonomy, resourcefulness, and distrust of authority.
Increasingly uncomfortable with revelation and tradition as grounds for truth, Emerson rejected central tenets of Christian doctrine, including the divinity of Jesus, as incompatible with the inner light of reason. His Harvard Divinity School Address, which critiqued ossified Christian tradition to the outrage of Protestant New England, was enthusiastically received among young people. "Nothing is sacred but the integrity of your own mind," Emerson declared. Such Emersonian rejection of received wisdom, and emphasis on the near-sacred autonomy of the individual, has penetrated into American character and traditions, providing justification for individual self-expression and autonomy—for both good (American inventiveness and innovation) and ill (youth rebellion and the loosening of sexual mores).
As the leading voice of New England Transcendentalism, Emerson was central to an important literary and philosophical movement in the years preceding the American Civil War. (The term "Transcendentalism" is a misnomer coined by the mistaken inference that Emerson had been reading the German Transcendental Idealists Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. He was influenced not by German philosophy but by the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge). Transcendentalism influenced virtually all of the writers of what literary critic F. O. Matthiessen famously termed "the American Renaissance," including Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. Emerson would directly influence the next generation of American writers as well, most notably William James and Henry James.
Transcendentalists in general, and Emerson and Thoreau in particular, were outspoken abolitionists who wrote and organized in opposition to slavery. Most notably, they publicly defended John Brown following Brown's sensational attack on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia in 1858. Emerson almost single-handedly lifted Brown from wide-spread opprobrium for the attempted slave uprising into a rallying point for the abolition of slavery.
Just as a distinctly American poetry begins with Walt Whitman, so does the sound and vigor of American prose assume its contours in Emerson. He is memorable not only for articulating and justifying American experience, of but for his spare, aphoristic, almost sermon-like style that has become characteristic of American prose. Emerson's style continues to influence writers today, just as his thought continues to stand at the epicenter of American culture.
Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to the Rev. William Emerson, a Unitarian minister from a famous line of ministers. He gradually drifted from the doctrines of his peers, then formulated and first expressed the philosophy of Transcendentalism in his essay Nature.
When he was three years old, Emerson's father complained that the child could not read well enough. Then in 1811, when Emerson was eight years old, his father died. He attended Boston Latin School. In October 1817, at the age of 14, Emerson went to Harvard College and was appointed President's freshman, a position that gave him a room free of charge. He waited at Commons, which reduced the cost of his board to one quarter, and he received a scholarship. He added to his slender means by tutoring and by teaching during the winter vacations at his Uncle Ripley's school in Waltham, Massachusetts.
After Emerson graduated from Harvard in 1821, he assisted his brother in a school for young ladies established in his mother's house; when his brother went to Göttingen to study divinity, Emerson took charge of the school. Over the next several years, Emerson made his living as a schoolmaster, and then went to Harvard Divinity School, emerging as a Unitarian minister in 1829. A dispute with church officials over the administration of the Communion service and misgivings about public prayer led to his resignation in 1832. A year earlier his young wife and reputed one true love, Miss Ellen Louisa Tucker, died in April 1831.
In 1832–1833, Emerson toured Europe, a trip that he would later write about in English Traits (1856). During this trip, he met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle. Emerson maintained a correspondence with Carlyle until the latter's death in 1881. He served as Carlyle's agent in the U.S., although Emerson's high opinion would later wane as Carlyle became more and more extreme and authoritarian in his reactionary political views.
In 1835, Emerson bought a house on the Cambridge Turnpike, in Concord, Massachusetts. He quickly became one of the leading citizens in the town. He also married his second wife, Lydia Jackson, there.
In September 1836, Emerson and other like-minded intellectuals founded the Transcendental Club, which served as a center for the movement, but didn't publish its journal The Dial, until July 1840. Emerson published his first essay, Nature, anonymously in September 1836. While it became the foundation for Transcendentalism, many people at the time assumed it to be a work of Swedenborgianism.
In 1838 he was invited back to Divinity Hall, Harvard Divinity School, for the school's graduation address, which came to be known as his “Divinity School Address.” His remarks managed to outrage the establishment and shock the whole Protestant community at the time, as he proclaimed that while Jesus was a great man, he was not God. For this, he was denounced as an atheist, and a poisoner of young men's minds. Despite the roar of his critics, he made no reply, leaving it to others for his defense. He was not invited back to speak at Harvard for another 40 years, but by the mid-1880s his position had become standard Unitarian doctrine.
Early in 1842, Emerson lost his first son, Waldo, to scarlet fever. Emerson wrote about his grief in two major works: the poem "Threnody" and the essay "Experience." In the same year, William James was born, and Emerson agreed to be his godfather.
Emerson made a living as a popular lecturer in New England and the rest of the country outside of the South. During several scheduled appearances that he was not able to make, Frederick Douglass took his place. Emerson spoke on a wide variety of subjects. Many of his essays grew out of his lectures.
Emerson associated closely with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau and often took walks with them in Concord. He encouraged Thoreau's talent and early career. The land on which Thoreau built his cabin on Walden Pond belonged to Emerson. While Thoreau was living at Walden, Emerson provided food and hired Thoreau to perform odd jobs. When Thoreau left Walden after two years' time, it was to live at the Emerson house while Emerson was away on a lecture tour. Their close relationship fractured after Emerson gave Thoreau the poor advice to publish his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, without extensive drafts, and directed Thoreau to his own agent who made Thoreau split the price/risk of publishing. The book was a flop, and put Thoreau heavily into debt. Eventually the two would reconcile some of their differences, although Thoreau privately accused Emerson of having drifted from his original philosophy, and Emerson began to view Thoreau as a misanthrope. Emerson's eulogy to Thoreau is largely credited with the latter's negative reputation during the nineteenth century.
Emerson was noted for being a very abstract and difficult writer who nevertheless drew large crowds for his speeches. The heart of Emerson's writing was his direct observations in his journals, which he started keeping as a teenager at Harvard. Emerson elaborately indexed the journals. Emerson went back to his journals, his bank of experiences and ideas, and took out relevant passages, which were joined together in his dense, concentrated lectures. He later revised and polished his lectures for his essays.
He was considered one of the great orators of his time, a man who could enrapture crowds with his deep voice, his enthusiasm, and his egalitarian respect for his audience. His outspoken, uncompromising support for abolitionism later in life caused protest and jeers from crowds when he spoke on the subject. He continued to speak on abolition without concern for his popularity and with increasing radicalism. He attempted, with difficulty, not to join the public arena as a member of any group or movement, and always retained a stringent independence that reflected his individualism. He always insisted that he wanted no followers, but sought to give man back to himself, as a self-reliant individual. Asked to sum up his work late in life, he said it was his doctrine of "the infinitude of the private man" that remained central.
In 1845, Emerson's "Journal" records that he was reading the Bhagavad Gita and Henry Thomas Colebrooke's Essays on the Vedas. Emerson was strongly influenced by the Vedas, and much of his writing has strong shades of nondualism. One of the clearest examples of this can be found in his essay, "The Over Soul":
We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist 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. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.
French essayist Michel de Montaigne strongly influenced Emerson as well. From de Montaigne’s compositions, Emerson took the conversational, subjective style and the loss of belief in a personal God. He never read Kant's works, but, instead, relied on Coleridge's interpretation of the German Transcendental Idealist. This led to Emerson's non-traditional ideas of soul and God.
Emerson died in 1882 and is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts.
Nature is a short book Emerson published anonymously in 1836. It was his first major essay, in which the foundation of what would come to be called American Transcendentalism is set forth. Emerson outlines a sort of democratic pantheism—that is, he defines nature as not just the clockwork universe going about its business according to mathematical laws of physics, but describes nature as an all-encompassing divine entity inherently known to us in our unfettered innocence. Everything in the universe, according to the young Emerson, is infused with a sort of Holy Spirit, which requires that we need only open our minds in order to perceive.
Emerson's argument, that to know nature is to literally know God, is truly radical for his time. He argues that to assume a Creator exists only through passed-on teachings or "second-hand" knowledge is to be ignorant of Him altogether, and that the only way to come into contact with any sort of divinity is through the raw, unfiltered experience of the natural world. The importance of this uniquely American emphasis on personal experience over common knowledge cannot be stated enough. It is one of the founding principles of Transcendentalism as a movement, and would come to later be more rigorously (and less polemically) investigated in Emerson's more mature essays, most notably "Self-Reliance.”
It is important to note, however, that the ideas Emerson puts forward in Nature do not come entirely out of nowhere. Emerson's emphasis on inner epiphany and an experience of the divine through the experience of wild nature is remarkably close to those put forward, some half-century earlier, in the sermons of the Great Awakening American preacher Jonathan Edwards and Edwards' theory of "the true and inner light."
In this essay, Emerson conveys and more fully articulates his belief in what he calls self-reliance, hinted at in Nature but never quite put forward there. The term might seem self-explanatory but misinterpretations of Emerson are numerous. By self-reliance Emerson most certainly does not mean isolationism, xenophobia, or otherwise relying on the self merely because one has an innate distrust of others, although this particular essay has been exploited by pundits who have used for their own political ends. Nor, importantly, is Emerson advocating the philosophy of solipsism—that is, the belief in the existence and importance of one's self to the exclusion of all other beings. (Such a problematic train of thought belongs much more closely to Carlyle than to Emerson.)
By "Self-Reliance" Emerson means that one trusts the Self above everything else (the capitalization is Emerson's.) What Emerson means by this is that one must trust ones present thoughts and impressions however confused they may seem, rather than those of other people or of one's past self. This philosophy is exemplified by one of his famous quotes from the book;
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."
Emerson means that in order to continue thinking, one must always rely on what manifests as the Self rather than on the unreliable and potentially fallacious ideas of others that has not been worked out for the Self. If the Self dictates a course of zig-zags, then one must follow that course or be confused forever. If the Self commands, as it does so beautifully in Whitman's Song of Myself, that one must contradict oneself, then "Very well then, I contradict myself."
The ideas of Self-Reliance, abstracted as they are from the pantheism and vague nature-worship of Emerson's earlier essays, have much more in common with the German Transcendental Idealists, and particularly the ideas of Immanuel Kant than any of his other more obviously "transcendental" work. In this essay Emerson is almost certainly drawing from Coleridge (who, unlike Emerson, had read Kant) and his theory of Imagination, which essentially has the same function as Emerson's Self, the same faculty which, in Kant's Critique of Judgment, goes by the name of the "Reflective Judgment." The idea common to all three is that there is a sensus communis (Kant's term) that is distinct from our common senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, and so on) as well as from our common understanding (that is, the communal body of knowledge generally referred to as "common sense"). In other words, there is a "sixth sense" which Emerson calls the sense of the Self, that inner inkling that somehow seems to know what's best for us, even when we don't think we know. The thought, presented in Emerson perhaps more clearly than in either of his European contemporaries, is revolutionary and is central to the character of almost all the imaginative creativity that would burst out of the American Transcendentalist movement.
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