The Role Of Ralph Waldo Emerson In Transcendentalism
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, Emerson is known for being a prominent essayist, lecturer, philosopher, and poet in American literature. His works focus on the champion of the individual and how the self-evaluation of the individual experience can discover many of the truths of life and the self (Brewton). Emerson is credited as being one of the founders of the ideology of Transcendentalism, the concept of having complete faith in oneself (Mariotti). Transcendentalism supports the idea of one relying on his intuition and beliefs, Emerson labeled this concept “Self Reliance” (Brewton). Emerson’s concept of self-reliance encourages his readers to think for themselves; he instills that for one to trust oneself they have to follow the inner promptings that correspond to the highest degree of their consciousness (Brewton).
In his essay 'Self-Reliance,' Emerson is concerned that the term self-reliance is unsuitable to characterize the transparency and truth, which is the intent of solitude, reflection, and integrity (Myerson pg. 188). In “Self Reliance” Emerson stresses the centrality of the individual willpower. Emerson demonstrates that individual will and power must yield to a force in nature that he describes as 'higher' and 'greater' than humans. Self-reliance can sometimes be misinterpreted; self-reliance doesn’t always infer that there is a self already formed in which we can rely on (Goodman). The self we should rely on is only created after the true introspection of our consciousness (Goodman). A self-reliant person has to identify their spark of originality, which is their special gift to the world (Goodman). This spark is not easy to find, it takes deep introspection of oneself to find the individual gifts that bring them happiness (Myerson pg. 167). Self-reliance’s payoff is one's acceptance of themselves, but the payoff isn’t only limited to affecting our mental health (Goodman). When one is true to themselves it benefits them socially as well, the most personal thoughts turn out to be the most acceptable, most public, and universally true among others (Goodman).
The benefits of self-reliance are best exhibited in one of Emerson’s most significant works, Self Reliance, “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages (Emerson).” In this quote, Emerson conveys the idea that through self-reliance one will discover their unique gifts and interests through a true introspection of oneself (Emerson). Throughout Self Reliance, he discusses the empowerment a person feels when they become one with themselves, a self-reliant person gains a feeling of fulfillment and are truly content with who they are (Goodman). Emerson argues that self-reliance will help one reach their fullest potential by developing inner strength and cultivating a strong character (Myerson pg 64)). Emerson points out that those who judge you are just reflecting their unhappiness onto you, he argues that once we realize this we will discover a feeling of inner peace and not waste our lives seeking the approval of others (Myerson pg 74). “Self Reliance” emphasizes how deep introspection can improve our relationships with ourselves and others, including our enemies (Brewton).
Emerson often uses the “Self” in his works, he uses it to note the individual subject to his action, or when noting the identity of a person (Myerson pg 74). Emerson’s central theme of individualism is not written with any intent of narcissism (Myerson pg 91). Individualism is the answer to the disease of narcissism and is the remedy for the 'existing evils' of institutional and social life (Myerson pg 91). It is important to analyze this correctly when reading Emerson’s works.
In Emerson’s writing he makes it clear that he does not want to conform to the norms of society, he encourages the reader to not allow others to think for them (Myerson pg 14). To escape the forces of tradition and conformity, the free mind requires separation and independence (Myerson pg 30). Conformity is the opposite of Self-Reliance, in conformity we pay unearned respect to the opinions of others and expect satisfaction in return (Goodman). Emerson is telling the reader that one will only find satisfaction when they conform their lives to the pure ideas in their mind and not to societal norms (Goodman). Emerson feels strongly about self-reliance because he believes that most people already have self-reliant moments themselves that they should take advantage of (Kateb pg 205).
Emerson lived at the height of the Romantic era, which became a new wave of thinking and started to thrive in America (Myerson pg 80). Instead of stressing facts and reason, Romantic thought emphasized human imagination and emotion. Not only did Ralph Waldo Emerson provide much of that, but he also helped develop it and influenced many other Romantic authors. Emerson felt that his life had lost its importance and meaning, so he decided to search for answers and wrote about what he found. Emerson wrote about the individual truths provided to us by our nature and consciousness. Emerson wrote about the strength of individuality, his individualist writing appealed to sensitive and searching souls as well as conservatives and was viewed as an embodiment of American values.
In “Nature” Emerson focuses on portraying man as a creature fallen away from a primordial connection with nature. Emerson believes that people should live their lives according to their originality as a person in relation to the universe instead of confining to norms defined by society. A short book titled, Nature, published anonymously in 1836, began the career of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Brewton). In the book, he argues that people tend to accept past knowledge and traditions instead of experiencing God and nature at the moment (Brewton). Emerson emphasizes that the goal of science is to provide a theory of nature(1Brewton). He points nic out that for a man to be in awe of nature he requires a balance of his inner and outer senses, this requires true solitude. Emerson suggests that if one goes out into nature leaving behind anything influenced by society, he will obtain true solitude (Cliffnotes). Emerson defines the two components of the universe as Nature and Spirit (Cliffnotes). He explains human nature as everything separate from the inner individual, similar to the definition of Nature in the physical aspect, the world unchanged by man (Cliffnotes). The Nature component of the universe is everything separate from the individual and the spirit component is the inner individual (Cliffnotes).
Nature presented the idea that people should have a simple life in harmony with nature. In Nature Emerson, focuses on the true source of divine revelation and emphasize the importance of creativity in improving the self-determination of the individual (Brewton). Emerson suggests four uses of nature: commodity, beauty, language, and discipline (Brewton). Commodity provides necessities such as heat, food, water, shelter, and transportation. It is apart of a human's nature to master his environment for his survival, 'A man is fed, not that he may be fed, but that he may work.” Commodity is considered to be part of nature because it is the enhancement of nature using human intelligence (Cliffnotes). Emerson conveys that beauty can be evident in every object in nature because every object in nature has its respective beauty, this beauty can only be appreciated when perspective allows it to (Cliffnotes). One’s perception of beauty depends on one’s individual rejoice in “primary forms, in and for themselves (Cliffnotes).” Another use of nature is in language, language is nature’s service to man as a vehicle for thought (Cliffnotes). Language allows humans and animals to communicate their thoughts and feelings with others from their species. Finally, the last use of nature that Emerson mentions is discipline, the moral code for man created through both the rational and logical understanding of reason (Cliffnotes). Emerson argues that this moral code is apart from human and is instilled in our consciousness, it’s the little voice in our heads that tells us what’s right and wrong (Brewton).
The period in Emerson’s between the years 1836 and 1844 is often referred to as “The Miraculous Years” (Encyclopedia). Emerson published his first work, Nature, in 1836 and then Self Reliance in 1841. Both Nature and Self Reliance are some of Emerson’s most famous works. Three years after writing Self Reliance, Emerson publishes his Essays: Second Series. The essays consist of: The Poet, Experience, Character, Manners, Gifts, Nature, Politics, New England Reformer, and Nominalist and Realist (Encyclopedia). These essays were all concerned with Transcendentalism and are some of Emerson’s best-known works. The Dial was also a product of this innovative period, it was a Transcendentalist magazine founded by Emerson and Margaret Fuller (Encyclopedia). The Dial played an important role in the creation of a uniquely American voice in literature and marked a big milestone in Transcendentalism (Encyclopedia).
Throughout his essay “Divinity School Address,” Emerson participated in a kind of religious discourse called radical restorationism (Duffy). Emerson’s philosophy is better understood to be neither a rejection of Christianity or as being proceeded with it (Duffy). Another example of radical restorationism would be Mormonism, it is neither a rejection of Christianity nor a continuation of Christianity (Duffy). He advocates that the present also needs its prophets, although the revelations of the past are real, they are incomplete because they happened in the past (Duffy). Emerson argues that faith should not be understood as a closed manuscript of ancient texts, but rather be understood as an ongoing occurrence (Duffy). The romantic theology of Emerson corresponds to the voice of God with every human being's inner light of consciousness (Duffy). The idea that everyone can speak in the name of God drives Emerson towards his radical restorationist view of faith (Duffy).
On September 9, 1832, Emerson delivered his 'Lord's Supper' sermon in the Boston Second Church on the occasion of his resignation as a Unitarian minister (Berger). The Sermon had a particular theme of criticism of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist (Berger). What infuriated him the most was the church's shifting religious devotion to the figure of Christ by institutionalizing a specific and limited form of historical memory (Berger). Emerson’s 'devotion to the cause of divine truth' was not diminished, but rather, he states his disagreements with the church on the means of which the end should be pursued (Berger). Emerson asserts he will love Jesus as a 'glorified friend,' and obey him only as he would guide us to the creation of the soul for our well-being (Berger). Emerson establishes an essential principle of his subsequent thinking: the principal role of the self concerning the soul (Berger).
Ralph Waldo Emerson was thirty-four when he met a twenty-two-year-old Harvard student, Henry David Thoreau in 1837 (Poetry Foundation). After meeting Thoreau, Emerson decides to take him under his wing (Poetry Foundation). He started taking a paternal interest in Thoreau and even patronized him at times (Poetry Foundation). The influence Emerson had on Thoreau is made evident through his works, both share a similar theme of independent thought (GradesFixer). An example of this influence can be identified in the comparison between Emerson’s essay, Self Reliance and Thoreau’s essay, Civil Disobedience (GradesFixer). Self Reliance focused on purpose, trust in one’s intuition, not complying with society's norms, and social responsibility, a theory of ethics through which people are accountable for fulfilling their civic duties (Moss). Civil Disobedience focused on similar themes, such as responsibility, nonconformity, and intuition (Moss). However, Thoreau introduces a new theme of civil disobedience, he calls for people to be disobedient to the government when they establish laws that are considered unjust (Moss). He also voices his opinion against government taxation and eventually Thoreau is arrested for not paying his taxes (Moss). Although they both had similar philosophies, Emerson and Thoreau had two different approaches in their writing (GradesFixer). Thoreau’s approach was inherently personal compared to Emerson's more observational approach (Moss).
Emerson was one of the first people to emphasize the topic of women’s rights in American Literature, “I wish the American Poet should let old times go & write on Women's Suffrage” (Myerson pg 213). Emerson spent his childhood around strong independent women, his father died when he was young, leaving his mother to take care of 7 children, all under the age of ten, all by herself (Myerson pg 213). This gives Emerson a larger amount of respect for women than most men of his time. Emmerson asserts his opinion on women’s rights in Woman,
“Women are the same as men in faculty, only less in degree. But the general voice of mankind has agreed that they have their strength; that women are strong by sentiment; that the same mental height which their husbands attain by toil, they attain by sympathy with their husbands.”
The quote explains how men and women can be both similar, but different according to their human nature (Myerson pg 213). In his essay Woman, Emerson asserts his dedication to women's rights and reveals his most public extended statement on women’s issues (Myerson pg 213). Emerson was alive during the first women's suffragist movement and voiced his opinion on these topics in many journals and essays (Myerson pg 213). Emerson believed that all women deserve the right to vote and the right to own property and he argued that we no longer live in a time where women need a man to protect them everywhere they go (Myerson pg 213).
Ralph Waldo Emerson also makes his stance against slavery clear in his writing, “Slavery is an institution for converting men to monkeys” (Moody). Emerson first mentioned slavery in his public writing in 1822 with the publication of the Vision of Slavery (Moody). The vision of Slavery was considered more of a literary experiment rather than a moral commentary (Moody). His conclusion moralizes their condition, “Confess that there are secrets in that Providence which no human eye can penetrate, which darkens the prospect of Faith, and teaches us the weakness of our Philosophy.” Emerson is illustrating the dark past of each slave and is expressing his philosophical disagreements with slavery (Moody). Emerson agrees with the cause of the abolition movement, however, he chooses not to align with them because he doesn’t agree with their methods (Moody). He is quoted as saying,
“I awoke at night and bemoaned myself because I had not thrown myself into this deplorable question of Slavery, which seems to want nothing so much as a few assured voices. But then, in hours of sanity, I recover myself, and say, 'God must govern his world, and knows his way out of his pit, without the desertion of my post, which has none to guard it, but me. I have quite other slaves to free than those negroes, to wit, imprisoned spirits, imprisoned thoughts, far back in the brain of man,-far retired in the heaven of invention, and which, is important to
the republic of Man, have no watchman, or lover, or defender,”
In this quote, Emerson expresses how the evils of slavery dawn on him and describes how other men are slaves to other things such as faith, substance, standards, traditions, and schools of thought.
Emerson’s anti-slavery views lead to him residing in the north in support of the Union. In a protest against slavery, Emerson welcomed the Civil War as a need for dignity and as a moral good (Moody). His philosophy of war is seen in this statement,
“My interest in my country is not primary, but professional;
I wish that war, like peace, shall bring out the genius of men...
War, I know, is a potent alternative, tonic magnetizer,
reinforces manly power a hundred and a thousand times.”
Emerson's interest in the civil war was primarily philosophical and moral, rather than being fueled by political motives. After the war ends Emerson writes a poem in celebration,
“I break your bonds and masterships,
And I unchain the slave:
Free be his heart and hand henceforth
As wind and wandering wave.”
This poem takes on the perspective of a slave in the south when the Union won the Civil War.
On January 27, 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s son, Waldo, died at the age of five from scarlatina (Ronda). Emerson has a hard time grieving, “I chiefly grieve that I cannot grieve,” he is so surprised by the incident that his immediate instinct is denial (Rond). Four years after the death of his son, Emerson publishes a poem in his son's memory, Threnody. Threnody depicts Emerson’s struggle to accept the loss of his son, Emerson takes this feeling of sadness and mourning and translates it into his art (Ronda). This essay takes on themes of fate and mourning,
“The gracious boy, who did adorn, The world whereinto he was born,
And by his countenance repay, The favor of the loving Day,
Has disappeared from the Day's eye; Far and wide she cannot find him, My hopes pursue, they cannot bind him. Returned to this day the south-wind searches And finds young pines and budding birches, But finds not the budding man;
Emerson mourns the son he just lost and is deeply saddened to fall victim to fate (Ronda). The death of Waldo changes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s life and impacts his writing as well (Ronda).
Emerson started to lose his memory towards the end of his life and started to need increasing assistance from others, particularly his daughter Ellen. Emerson soon contracted pneumonia and sadly, died on April 27, 1882, at the age of seventy-eight in Concord, Massachusetts.