Iconoclast, elitist, revolutionary, scholar, prophet — Emerson was all of these, and more. Among his journals, essays, and poems, Emerson displays his cultured eclecticism on the written page.
Amid discussions of his “Transcendentalism," Emerson preferred to “disdain the courtly muses of Europe, distrust bookworms, and worship nature as the abiding fount of inspiration," and yet he was more at home in his study than communing in the woods with Mother Nature.
Emerson was considered to be one of the great orators of his time, a man who could enrapture crowds with his deep voice, enthusiasm, and egalitarian respect for his audience. A common joke heard from his audiences was that they had no idea what he was saying, but that it was beautiful.
The early years
Emerson was born in May 1803, to a Unitarian minister. Unfortunately, he lost his father when he was eight. His mother kept the family together, being blessed by free rectory rent, and gifts of food and money from the parish.
After attending Boston Latin School, Ralph enrolled in Harvard University in 1817 — at the age of 14. He was able to afford his education by being named President’s Freshman, which gave him his room free of charge, and by waiting on tables, winning a small scholarship, and tutoring during the summer.
Following graduation in 1821, Emerson seemed destined to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Unitarian clergyman. After attending Harvard Divinity School, he emerged as a minister in 1829. However, a dispute with church officials over the administration of the Communion service, and a reticence toward public prayer, led to his resignation in 1832.
In 1832 and 1833, Emerson toured Europe, where he met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, among others. In 1835, he bought a house in Concord, Massachusetts, in the countryside northwest of Boston, and quickly became a leading citizen.
In September of the following year, the Transcendental Club was formed at the home of George Ripley in Boston. They were a group of intellectuals who shared an idealist frustration with the general state of American culture and society of the day.
Among those attending were Emerson Frederick Henry Hedge, Orestes Brownson, Bronson Alcott, James Freeman Clarke, and Convers Francis. Other regular male members included William Henry Channing, Theodore Parker, Christopher Pearse Cranch, John Sullivan Dwight, Cyrus Bartol, and Caleb Stetson. The group's female members included Sophia Ripley, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Peabody.
It was there that Emerson and company could discuss the virtues of “new" ideas in literature, religion, culture, and philosophy, as inspired by Immanuel Kant,¹ the world-renowned 18th-century German philosopher. Here they embraced Transcendentalism as an alternative to the Lockean “sensualism" of their fathers and of the Unitarian Church, and finding this alternative in “Vedic ² thought, German Idealism, and English Romanticism."
Emerson brought Transcendentalism to the fore of the American consciousness that year with his astounding treatise, Nature. He railed against the very principles by which he had been reared, specifically those tenets of Unitarianism that were taught at Harvard Divinity School, and the overall state of intellectualism at Harvard.
Among Nature's core beliefs was “an ideal spiritual state that ‘transcends’ the physical and empirical and is only realized through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions." Emerson wrote:
"We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds... A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men."
Emerson closed his essay by calling for a revolution in human consciousness to emerge from his new idealist philosophy:
"So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect — What is truth? and of the affections — What is good? by yielding itself passive to the educated Will. ... 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."
Emerson’s teachings were heard and heeded by a number of scholars and authors of the day, including Hawthorne, Whitman and Thoreau, although they carried his principles beyond the point he had wished to take them. They were true to the spirit of his teachings, however, in rejecting his authority.
Emerson and Thoreau were especially close for a while. It was on Emerson’s land that Thoreau built his cabin on Walden Pond. The two would be at odds with each other, however, for seemingly bad advice given Thoreau to publish his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, without extensive drafts. The book flopped, leaving Thoreau in deep debt and harboring ill will toward Emerson.
Although Massachusetts was a hotbed of abolitionism, Emerson maintained a detached attitude throughout the 1830s and 1840s. However, the provisions of the Compromise of 1850, particularly the fugitive slave law that it contained, finally forced his hand. Speaking in New York on March 4, 1854, he commented:
I said I had never in my life up to this time suffered from the Slave Institution. Slavery in Virginia or Carolina was like Slavery in Africa or the Feejees, for me. There was an old fugitive law, but it had become or was fast becoming a dead letter, and, by the genius and laws of Massachusetts, inoperative. The new Bill made it operative, required me to hunt slaves, and it found citizens in Massachusetts willing to act as judges and captors. Moreover, it discloses the secret of the new times, that Slavery was no longer mendicant, but was become aggressive and dangerous.
The later years
Late in his career, Emerson was often accused by Thoreau and others of swaying from the ideals of Transcendentalism, but that charge was not altogether fair. Emerson did slip into some Unitarian-based habits now and then, but he always retained a stringent independence that reflected his individualism. He always insisted that he wanted no followers, but instead sought to give man back to himself, as a self-reliant individual.
Of his own synopsis of his work, he said it was his doctrine of "the infinitude of the private man," that remained central.
¹Kant was considered one of the greatest, and one of the most influential, thinkers of modern Europe, and the last major philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment.
² Vedas collectively refers to a body of ancient Indo-Aryan religious literature that is associated with the Vedic civilization and is considered by adherents of Hinduism to be revealed knowledge.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Regarding Slavery in America If you put a chain around the neck of a slave, the other end fastens itself around your own. Essays, First Series Regarding Battle of Concord By the rude bridge that arched the flood, Their flag to April's breeze unfurled, Here once the embattled farmers stood, And fired the shot heard 'round the world. In "Concord Hymn" on July 4, 1837 Regarding Higher Education If the colleges were better, if they ... had the power of imparting valuable thought, creative principles, truths which become powers, thoughts which become talents, — if they could cause that a mind not profound should become profound, — we should all rush to their gates: instead of contriving inducements to draw students, you would need to set police at the gates to keep order in the in-rushing multitude. The Celebration of Intellect, 1861 Regarding Oliver Wendell Holmes I read your piece on Plato. Holmes, when you strike at a king, you must kill him. Said to a young Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who had written a piece critical of Plato in response to his earlier conversation with Emerson Regarding Religion in America The Religion that is afraid of science dishonours God and commits suicide. It acknowledges that it is not equal to the whole of truth, that it legislates, tyrannizes over a village of God's empires but is not the immutable universal law. Every influx of atheism, of skepticism is thus made useful as a mercury pill assaulting and removing a diseased religion and making way for truth. From his journal, March 4, 1831 Regarding John Brown That new saint, than whom nothing nothing purer or more brave was ever led by into conflict and death...will make the gallows glorious like the cross. Regarding Walt Whitman I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging… Letter to Whitman, 1855 Regarding Bravery A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer. Regarding The Declaration of Independence Only the great generalizations survive. The sharp words of the Declaration of Independence, lampooned then and since as 'glittering generalities,' have turned out blazing ubiquities that will burn forever and ever. Lecture given in 1864