Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was a philosopher and writer who called for some significant changes in the ways people interacted with nature, others, and themselves. He created a series of now-classic essays that promote the philosophy of transcendentalism. Emerson was certain that everyone possessed his or her own inner light and could discover truth not just by the senses and reason but also by intuition and imagination. Humans, Emerson thought, could rise above—transcend—the material world and experience God in their own being.
Emerson's first essay, “Nature,” appeared in 1836 and promotes the symbolic view of nature: essentially, nature seems mysterious but can be entered into and understood by searching for the soul within it. Nature also points beyond itself to God and stands as a mediator between humanity and the divine.
Emerson addressed American academics in “The American Scholar,” urging them to spend more time in nature and seeking the transcendent rather than focusing on traditional academic pursuits.
“Self-Reliance” is probably one of Emerson's most famous essays. In it, he promotes the individual and encourages people to avoid dependence on and conformity to others but rather to trust in themselves and strike out on their own path. “Insist on one's self,” he urges; “never imitate.” Only a firm commitment to one's principles will bring peace.
Emerson's other essays include “Representative Men,” in which he sets forth the likes of Plato, Shakespeare, and Napoleon as examples of humanity; “The Conduct of Life,” in which he places value on concentration; “The Poet,” in which he asserts that art flows from the unity of the human, the natural world, and the divine; and “Experience,” in which he optimistically affirms that every experience of life is an opportunity for learning.
Emerson's essays are still much quoted (although a bit less read in full these days). His style is accessible, for the most part, and he delights in aphorisms that have become part of the American cultural milieu. His ideas are unique and interesting, and he provides (at the very least) food for thought through his philosophy and writings.