Ralph Waldo Emerson is best known to the general public as a 19th-century American writer and philosopher, essayist, poet, and transcendentalist. Unitarian Universalists know him in this way, too, but also as a Unitarian minister and an important influence on the development of our religious tradition. To read and appreciate Emerson today, you will face several obstacles, so it’s best to address those from the start.
Modern-day readers will be dismayed or at least bothered by his use of the word “man” where we would expect “person” or “man or woman” or some acknowledgment that women, too, are included in his frequent generalities.
Second, he often uses poems or parts of poems as introductions to his essays. You might have to read them twice or more in order to make sense of their function, which tends to hinder rather than facilitate the reading.
Third, the diction of the 19th-century is quite different from our use of the language today. Emerson has the reputation of being a clear and eloquent writer, but only to those who spend enough time with him to get used to the length of the sentences, the breadth of the references, and the complexity of the ideas.
Other than that, it’s easy going.
Emerson was born in 1803. His first major essay, Nature, was published in 1836, and his active career lasted for forty years, until about 1875. He was the oldest of four sons who matured to adulthood; four other siblings died in childhood; all three of his younger brothers died before he did.
Emerson became engaged to a young woman named Ellen Tucker at age 25; she was 18. Letters to her and testimony of others indicate that he was deeply in love with her. They were married in September of 1829, the same year as his ordination. She died from tuberculosis less than a year and a half later. The following year, he resigned his ministry at the Second Church of Boston and sailed for Europe and England on Christmas Day. Two years later, at the age of 31, he started a new career in lecturing.
The Lyceum movement was just beginning. It was a time in our country’s history when there was a thirst for knowledge, a fascination with new ideas, and a deep appreciation for the intellectual ferment caused by the give and take of ideas. While in England, Emerson met some of the best-known writers of the day, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle. Emerson was especially influenced by Carlyle, who was himself an original thinker and challenged convention and orthodoxy.
In 1836, Emerson and friends (including Frederic Henry Hedge, George Ripley, and George Putnam) formed a club for the purpose of intellectual discussion. They called it the Transcendental Club.
The following year, Emerson invited three women to dinner, ensuring that they would be present when the meeting of the club began. Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Hoar, and Sarah Ripley came to dinner and did, in fact, attend the meeting. And so, Emerson managed to make the gathering a co-educational one. That same year, Emerson befriended a Concord neighbor, Henry David Thoreau, whom he had met a couple of years earlier. It would become an important friendship for both.
We honor Emerson as a Unitarian forebear, and so we should, as he contributed greatly to the “opening up” of our tradition, encouraging the responsibility of each individual in working out his or her own salvation and finding out for ourselves what we might mean by such a word as “salvation.”
But, though Emerson (like his father) was a Unitarian minister, he influenced the movement more after he resigned his pastorate than he did when engaged in active ministry.
Emerson delivered lectures more than 1500 times and was a voluminous writer. His journals fill sixteen large volumes in their collected edition; in addition, he wrote dozens of essays, scores of poems and hundreds of letters. Today, though, I’ll focus for the most part on three of his essays—The Over-Soul, The American Scholar, and Self-Reliance—as well as his address to the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School in 1838. In these pieces, the originality of his thinking emerges in the most pronounced way, I think.
Though Self-Reliance is perhaps the most famous of Emerson’s essays, it would be a mistake, I think, to start there in your reading (if you are tempted to read), as it would be all too easy to gloss over some of the important aspects of the work and misread the essay completely as a paean to egotism and excessive self-concern.
More than anything else, I think, Emerson is concerned with the soul. He is fully convinced that the reality of the soul is what allows for all significance in life. He is concerned with authenticity, originality, freshness, courage, and spirit. He is wary of accepted traditions, of reverence for public figures, and of conventions of most kinds. He believes in the reality of the emotional life and looks to it for signs leading to truth. He tells us to trust in what he calls our “intuition” and “instinct”.
At the same time, he reveres reason, believing that the vehicle for attaining clear thinking is the opening of all the senses to an ever-present reality that provides the blessings of insight that lead to wisdom. He believes that we can transcend mundane reality by opening ourselves to impulses available in what we might otherwise call “mundane reality.” If you find yourself thinking of Buddhist teaching as you listen to his ideas, that’s reasonable enough, as Emerson felt himself drawn to what were called “Indic” influences and Vedanta philosophy.
Why did Emerson leave the ministry? According to his biographer, Robert D. Richardson, Jr., it was because “he was interested in his own primary, personal religious experience and that of his parishioners, not in repeating and referring to the reported religious experiences of long-departed historical personages” (p. 90). One thinks of St. Paul and St. Augustine. Emerson’s marginalizing the teaching of such church luminaries would be resented by the traditionalists in the parish, never mind the ministers in the surrounding churches.
For Emerson, direct experience was of more significance than the reported experience (or teachings) of others. And the best way to experience the fullness of God is by direct revelation, placing oneself in God’s kingdom—otherwise known as “nature”—and opening oneself to whatever the experience provides.
Richardson says that “As minister to an important Boston church, Emerson became a public symbol of faith and learning before he had found out who he was or what he really believed” (p. 91). That sounds about right. And, to a minister, that sounds pretty scary.
Emerson was true enough to himself that he was not about to mouth pretty platitudes merely because it was expected of him. At the same time, it was his job to provide spiritual nourishment to his congregation of believers. And he had just lost his wife, whom he had adored, at a very early age. His resignation under these conditions was proper and responsible.
There were other considerations, as well. Emerson could not endorse the narrowly held understanding of the significance of communion in the church of his day, for instance. And, as impressive a preacher as he could be, he was described as “hopeless” at pastoral care. Sometimes he ended up at the wrong house—the house of someone with the same name as his intended host—because he failed to get accurate directions. And a retired military man sent him from his bedside because Emerson “did not know what he was about.”
If Emerson did not mature quickly as a minister, he was forced by the “unwanted experience”of his wife’s death to mature quickly as a man. Earlier “unwanted experience” included the death of Emerson’s father, the Rev. William Emerson, when Ralph Waldo was eleven years old. With no head of the family, poverty was the rapid consequence for the family. Yet because of his integrity, Emerson divested himself of a good income as a minister (a Harvard professor would not achieve the income Emerson was receiving until ten years after his resignation).
Left without a functioning theology or a viable profession, Emerson was thrown upon his own resources, internal and external. His lack of a coherent framework for looking at the world and interpreting his experiences encouraged him to make the most of the intellectually enriching experiences of his European travels. (Richardson says that Emerson associated travel with meeting people rather than seeing places.)
Emerson read widely and deeply, whether in Europe or at home. He was interested in the nature of reality, but more than that, the nature of his own mind and its possibilities in interacting with whatever it was that made up reality, infused as he experienced it, with the majesty of God’s presence. (If you were here for our recent presentation, What Do We Talk About When We Talk About God?, you know that this talk of “God” has dimensions beyond what you may have been taught in Sunday school or have learned to resent as simple-minded orthodoxy.)
“A new and convincing argument about the nature of the mind came to (Emerson) from Coleridge via James Marsh (who wrote the introduction to Coleridge’s book Aids to Reflection), and J. G. Herder showed him how one might reinstate the individual as the starting point of history and cosmology.” Now, this can too readily and mistakenly be understood as a kind of worship of the self, giving some kind of sovereignty to the individual over the universe, as it were.
No, what Emerson was coming to believe was that each individual experienced the world differently from each other; each experienced the world uniquely. So, an experience of reality as an experience of God (which, I believe, he understood as one and the same thing) was a sacredly unique experience.
It was therefore a kind of heresy to try to generalize an understanding of God or to regulate understanding in some way when no one other than the individual himself (herself) had that personal understanding, and so that right to personal testimony. (This gets back to our talk about God: our religious tradition’s understanding of the “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”)
Emerson was particularly impressed with James Marsh’s comment, “The first principles, the ultimate grounds of [philosophy, morals, and religion] must be sought and found in the laws of our own being or they are not found at all.” This is the insight that allowed Emerson to join personal experience, nature, morality, and religion into a kind of fusion that produced the philosophy commonly known as “transcendentalism.”
I think the opening two paragraphs of the address delivered to the senior class in Divinity College, Harvard University, in 1838, illustrates this understanding better than anything I might say.
In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature was never displayed more happily. The corn and the wine have been freely dealt to all creatures, and the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward, has not yielded yet one word of explanation. One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world, in which our senses converse. How wide; how rich; what invitation from every property it gives to every faculty of man! In its fruitful soils; in its navigable sea; in its mountains of metal and stone; in its forests of all woods; in its animals; in its chemical ingredients; in the powers and path of light, heat, attraction, and life, it is well worth the pith and heart of great men to subdue and enjoy it. The planters, the mechanics, the inventors, the astronomers, the builders of cities, and the captains, history delights to honor.
But when the mind opens, and reveals the laws which traverse the universe, and make things what they are, then shrinks the great world at once into a mere illustration and fable of this mind. What am I? and What is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched. Behold these outrunning laws, which our imperfect apprehension can see tend this way and that, but not come full circle. Behold these infinite relations, so like, so unlike; many, yet one. I would study, I would know, I would admire forever. These works of thought have been the entertainments of the human spirit in all ages.
If you read the complete address (which I heartily enjoin you to do), you will find that Emerson is in love with virtue. “I love the Right; Truth is beautiful within and without forever more. Virtue, I am thine; save me; use me; thee will I serve, day and night, in great, in small, that I may be not virtuous, but virtue.”
This is not the kind of Christianity that values Christ for whatever usefulness he can provide as a vehicle for us to get to heaven. Instead, it’s the kind of Christian understanding that says that Jesus was the Son of God because he understood himself a lover of virtue and a vehicle for it, and we, too, can be Sons of God if we do the same. (Richardson says that Emerson felt compelled to leave the church not because he believed too little, but because he believed too much.)
What is the test of a “true faith”? For Emerson, “The test of the true faith, certainly, should be its power to charm and command the soul, as the laws of nature control the activity of the hands—so commanding that we find pleasure and honor in obeying” (PE, p. 82). Emerson’s experience with Christian preaching was too often that it was dry and lifeless, that listening to the preacher, you never got the sense that he lived at all, that there was no liveliness in his personal life, so that the “capital secret of his profession” could not be fulfilled, that he “convert life into truth.” This became his own personal calling. It’s what drew Emerson to Thoreau, one intuits, and what, one assumes, drew Thoreau to Emerson.
In his essay on The Over-Soul, Emerson doesn’t explicitly tell us what he means by that term. Instead, he tells us what he thinks about man and his relationship with “a higher origin” and lets us discern his meaning for ourselves. “Man is a stream whose source is hidden. Our being is descending into us from we know not whence…. I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine.” So, this “self-reliance” is actually a “Self-reliance,” a reliance on what you might call a Supreme Self that each of us has direct access to if we would but take the time to open ourselves to its influence, to love it as we love virtue and doing what’s right.
Here is the heart of Emerson’s thinking regarding the Over-Soul, insofar as I’ve been able to find it:
The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is the great nature in which we rest as the Earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand and become wisdom and virtue and power and beauty.
We live in succession, in division, in part, 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 the shining parts, is the soul.
This idea that “the subject and the object are one” is shared by the Buddhist understanding. The separation of the world and us as experiencers of the world is a false separation or a real separation based on a false understanding. All is one and our failure to understand that is the same as our failure to experience that.
In the essay The American Scholar, Emerson says, “There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself. Therein it resembles (man’s) own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he can never find,—so entire, so boundless” (p. 53).
- The Portable Emerson edited by Carl Bode in collaboration with Malcolm Cowley. Penguin Books. NY, NY. 1981. (“The American Scholar;” “Divinity School Address;” “Self-Reliance;” “The Over-Soul.”)
- Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson, Jr. University of California Press. Berkeley & L.A., California. 1995.
- A Walk in the Forest. Gentle Persuasion: The Sounds of Nature. The Special Music Company, Essex Entertainment. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1992 (CD)
- Wikipedia: “Ralph Waldo Emerson” and “Transcendentalism”
Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, on September 11, 2016