Emerson’s ESSAYS proclaim the self-reliance of a man who believed himself representative of all men since he felt himself intuitively aware of God’s universal truths. He spoke to a nineteenth century that was ready for an emphasis on individualism and responsive to a new optimism that linked God, nature, and man into a magnificent cosmos.
Emerson himself spoke as one who had found in Transcendentalism a positive answer to the static Unitarianism of his day. He had been a Unitarian minister for three years at the Old North Church in Boston (1829-1832), but he had resigned because in his view the observance of the Lord’s Supper could not be justified in the Unitarian Church.
Transcendentalism combined Neoplatonism, a mystical faith in the universality and permanence of value in the universe, with a pervasive moral seriousness akin to the Calvinist conviction and with a romantic optimism that found evidence of God’s love throughout all nature. Derivative from these influences was the faith in man’s creative power, the belief that the individual, by utilizing God’s influence, could continue to improve his understanding and his moral nature. Knowledge could come to man directly, without the need of argument, if only he had the courage to make himself receptive to God’s truth, manifest everywhere.
Through his essays and addresses Emerson became not only the leading Transcendentalist in America, but also one of the greatest if least formal of American philosophers. The latter accomplishment may be attributed more to the spirit of his philosophy than to its technical excellence, for Emerson had little respect for logic, empiricism, and linguistic analysis—features common to the work of other great American philosophers such as Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Nor can Emerson be compared in his method to such a philosopher as Alfred North Whitehead, for Emerson disdained speculative adventures; he believed himself to be affirming what nature told him, and nature spoke directly of God and of God’s laws.
Emerson’s NATURE (1836) was the first definitive statement of his philosophical perspective, and within this work may be found most of the characteristic elements of Emerson’s thought. The basic idea is that nature is God’s idea made apparent to men. Thus, “the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind,” “The axioms of physics translate the laws of ethics,” and “This relation between the mind and matter is not fancied by some poet, but stands in the will of God, and so is free to be known by all men.” Emerson asserted emphatically that “day and night, river and storm, beast and bird, acid and alkali, preexist in necessary Ideas in the mind of God”; hence he agreed with those who supposed that nature reveals spiritual and moral truths. Not only does nature reveal truths; it also disciplines men, rewarding them when nature is used properly, punishing them when it is abused.
One secret of Emerson’s charm was his ability to translate metaphysical convictions into vivid images. Having argued that nature is the expression of God’s idea, and having concluded that “The moral law lies at the center of nature and radiates to the circumference,” he illustrated the moral influence of nature by asking, “Who can guess how much firmness the sea-beaten rock has taught the fishermen?” The danger in Emerson’s method, however, was that readers tended to forget that his idealism was philosophically, not merely poetically, intended; he believed literally that only spirit and its ideas are real. He admitted the possibility that nature “outwardly exists,” that is, that physical objects corresponding to his sensations exist, but he pointed out that since he was not able to test the authenticity of his senses, it made no difference whether such outlying objects existed. All that he could be sure of were his ideas, and that, whether directly or indirectly, the ideas came from God. For Emerson, then, idealism was not only a credible philosophy, but also the only morally significant one.
If nature is God’s idea made apparent to men, it follows that the way to God’s truth is not by reason or argument but by simple and reverent attention to the facts of nature, to what man perceives when his eye is...
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Essays, First and Second Series
The key to the rich diversity of thought in these essays is Emerson’s belief that the individual soul is “part or parcel of God.” The soul, he held, is superior even to Nature, although sometimes communion with Nature can lead to mystical insights.
Emerson believed absolutely in self-reliance: If what he called the Over-Soul is everywhere and we are part of God, then individuals may find truth in everyday phenomena without guidance from ancient precept or modern-day science. “Trust thyself,” he says in “Self-Reliance.” “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts.”
To Emerson, participation in the Over-Soul also meant superiority to circumstance. He regarded the world of change and surface appearance as concealing eternal, changeless essences. “Experience,” he says in his essay of that name, “leaves me as it found me, neither better nor worse.” In “Compensation,” however, suggesting that every ill may be an unrecognized blessing, he reminds us that a loss leaves room for a new situation more conducive to character growth.
Emerson’s philosophy, a unique balance of mysticism and shrewd practicality, has left its stamp on the American character. He has appealed to young dissenters from his own time down to ours. By teaching and example, he gave important impetus to nineteenth century Americans seeking to establish a native literature in this country. Not only did he encourage them to depart from European models, but also his essays embody a compact, vigorous, unmistakably American style often startling in its effects.
Although presented through philosophic essays, Emerson’s ideas have served as an important source of poetic inspiration. He strongly influenced Henry David Thoreau and such notable American poets as James Russell Lowell, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and (indirectly through Whitman) Allen Ginsburg.
Bibliography (Masterplots, Definitive Revised Edition)
Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981.
Bosco, Ronald A., and Joel Myerson, eds. Emerson in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003.
Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.
Goodman, Russell B. American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Jacobson, David. Emerson’s Pragmatic Vision: The Dance of the Eye. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.
Lopez, Michael. Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996.
Myerson, Joel, ed. A Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Porte, Joel, and Saundra Morris, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
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Sacks, Kenneth S. Understanding Emerson: “The American Scholar” and His Struggle for Self-Reliance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.
Yanella, Donald. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Twayne, 1982.