Study Guide

Representative Men

Representative Men Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Representative Men was first presented as a course of lectures in Boston in the winter of 1845-1846 and later during his visit to England in 1847. The volume opens with a discussion of the uses of great thinkers and follows with six chapters on those who represent humanity in six aspects: Plato as philosopher, Emanuel Swedenborg as mystic, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne as skeptic, William Shakespeare as poet, Napoleon Bonaparte as man of the world, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as writer.

The book has often been mentioned in connection with Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), but whereas Carlyle saw the hero as a divinely gifted individual above and apart from the common person, Emerson conceived of the “great man” as a lens through which people may see themselves. For Emerson the great man is one who through superior endowments “inhabits a higher sphere of thought, into which other men rise with labor and difficulty.” Such individuals may give direct material or metaphysical aid, but more frequently they serve indirectly by the inspiration of their accomplishment of things and by their introduction of ideas. The great man does stirring deeds; he (or she) reveals knowledge and wisdom; he shows depths of emotion—and others resolve to emulate him. He accomplishes intellectual feats of memory, of abstract thought, of imaginative flights, and dull minds are brightened by his light. The true genius does not tyrannize; he liberates those who know him.

For Emerson, all humans are infinitely receptive in capacity; they need only the wise to rouse them, to clear their eyes and make them see, to feed and refresh them. Yet even the great man has limits of availability. People get from one what they can and pass on to another who can nourish mind or spirit or inform a dulled palate. As people are infinitely receptive, so are they eternally hungry; and as people find sustenance, through them the spirit of the world’s great thinkers diffuses itself. Thus, through the ages the cumulative effect of great individuals is that they prepare the way for greater intellects.

Emerson views the representative philosopher Plato as an exhausting generalizer, a symbol of philosophy itself, a thinker whom people of all nations in all times recognize as kin to themselves. He absorbed the learning of his times, but Emerson sees in him a modern style and spirit identifying him with later ages as well. Plato honors the ideal, or laws of the mind, and fate, or the order of nature. Plato defines. He sees unity, or identity, on one hand and variety on the other. In him is found the idea (not original, it is true) of one deity in whom all things are absorbed. A balanced soul, Plato sees both the real and the ideal. He propounds the principle of absolute good, but he illustrates from the world around him. In this ability lies his power and charm. He is a great average man in whom others see their own dreams and thoughts. He acknowledges the ineffable and yet asserts that things are knowable; a lover of limits, he yet loves the illimitable. For Plato, virtue cannot be taught; it is divinely inspired. It is through Socrates that we learn much of Plato’s philosophy, and to Emerson the older philosopher is a man of Franklin-like wisdom, a plain old uncle with great ears, an immense talker, a hard-headed humorist, an Aesop of the mob to whom the robed scholar Plato owed a great debt.

For Emerson the two principal defects of Plato as a philosopher are, first, that he is intellectual and therefore always literary, and second, that he has no system. He sees so much that he argues first on one side and then on another. Finally, says Emerson, the way to know Plato is to compare him, not with nature (an enigma now, as it was to Plato), but with others and to see that through the ages none has approached him.

Emerson would have preferred to discuss Jesus as the representative mystic, but to do so would have meant sailing into dangerous waters: The orthodox believers of the time would probably have objected to the inclusion of Jesus as a representative man. Emerson chose Swedenborg instead, but in reading this chapter of the book one gets the notion that Emerson was forcing himself to praise this eighteenth century mystic. Emerson remarks that this colossal soul, as he calls him, requires a long focal distance to be seen. Looking more closely, he finds in Swedenborg a style “lustrous with points and shooting spiculae of thought, and resembling one of those winter mornings when the air sparkles with crystals.” He summarizes some of Swedenborg’s leading ideas: the universality of each law in nature; the Platonic doctrine of the scale or degrees; the version or conversion of each into other, and so the correspondence of all the parts; the fine secret that little explains large, and large, little; the centrality of man in nature, and the connection that subsists throughout all things.

Emerson also quotes the following passage from Swedenborg’s theology that must have appealed to the Unitarian Emerson: Man is a kind of very minute heaven, corresponding to the world of spirits and to heaven. Every particular idea of man, and every affection, yea, every smallest part of his affection, is an image and effigy of him. A spirit may be known from only a single thought. God is the grand old man.

When, however, Emerson comes to the Swedenborgian mystical view that each natural object has a definite symbolic value—as, a horse signifies carnal understanding; a tree, perception; the moon, faith—he rebels at its narrowness. As for Swedenborg’s theological writings in general, Emerson complains of their immense and sandy diffuseness and their delirious incongruities. Emerson warns that such books as Swedenborg’s treatise on...

(The entire section is 2388 words.)