Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1770
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 innocent. Emerson criticized science not because it was useless, but because more important matters, those having a moral bearing, confronted man at every moment in the world of nature; the individual needed only to intuit nature, to see it as it was without twisting it to fit his philosophy or his science, in order to know God’s thoughts. Thus, in the essay “Nature” Emerson wrote that “Nature is the incarnation of a thought, and turns to a thought again. . . . The world is mind precipitated. . . .” He added, with assurance, “Every moment instructs, and every object; for wisdom is infused into every form.”
The ideas which Emerson had endorsed in NATURE found explicit moral application in the address titled “The American Scholar,” delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge in 1837. Emerson defined the scholar as “Man Thinking,” and he declared that the main influences of the scholar’s education are nature, books, and action. The duties of a scholar all involve self-trust; he must be both free and brave. The rewards of such freedom and bravery are inspiring: the mind is altered by the truths uncovered, and the whole world will come to honor the independent scholar. It was in this address that Emerson said that “the ancient precept, ’Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ’Study nature, become at last one maxim.”
The essay “Self-Reliance,” included in the First Series, emphasizes the importance of that self-trust to which Emerson referred in his Phi Beta Kappa address. It is understandable that this emphasis seemed necessary to Emerson. If nature reveals the moral truths which God intends for man’s use, then three elements are involved in the critical human situation: nature, man, and man’s attitude toward nature. It is possible to be blind to the truths about us; only the man who is courageous enough to be willing to be different in his search and convictions is likely to discover what is before every man’s eyes. Emerson emphasized self-reliance not because he regarded the self, considered as a separate entity, important, but because he believed that the self is part of the reality of God’s being and that in finding truth for oneself, provided one faces nature intuitively, one finds what is true for all men. “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius,” Emerson wrote in “Self-Reliance”; he added that it is a kind of genius that is possible for anyone who is willing to acquire it.
Believing that each man’s mind is capable of yielding important truth, Emerson distinguished between goodness and the name of goodness. He urged each man to work and act without being concerned about the mere opinions of others. “Whoso would be a man, must be a non-conformist,” and whoever would advance in the truth should be willing to contradict himself, to be inconsistent: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
That Emerson’s philosophy was not an endorsement of selfish behavior is clear from his emphasis upon the use of the mind as an instrument for the intuitive understanding of universal truths and laws, but it is possible to misinterpret “Self-Reliance” as a joyous celebration of individuality. A sobering balance is achieved by the essay “The Over-Soul” in which Emerson subordinates the individual to the whole: “Meantime within man is the soul of the whole . . . the eternal One.” Using language reminiscent of Platonism, Emerson wrote that the soul “gives itself, alone, original and pure, to the Lonely, Original and Pure, who, on that condition, gladly inhabits, leads and speaks through it.”
Emerson valued the poet because the poet uses his imagination to discern the meanings of sensuous facts. The poet sees and expresses the beauty in nature because he recognizes the spiritual meaning of events; he takes old symbols and gives them new uses, thereby making nature the sign of God. In the essay “The Poet” Emerson wrote that the poet’s insight is “a very high sort of seeing,” a way of transcending conventional modes of thought in order to attend directly to the forms of things.
It is a misunderstanding of Emerson to regard him as a sentimental mystic, as one who lay on his back and saw divinity in every cloud. Emerson’s transcendental insight is more akin to the intelligence of the Platonic philosopher who, having recognized his own ignorance, suddenly finds himself able to see the universal in the jumble of particular facts. Emerson may be criticized for never satisfactorily relating the life of contemplation to the life of practical affairs, but he cannot be dismissed as an iconoclastic mystic. For him the inquiring soul and the heroic soul were one, and the justification of self-reliance and meditation was in terms of the result, in the individual soul, of the effort to recognize the unity of all men. In “Experience,” Emerson chooses knowing in preference to doing, but it is clear that he was rejecting a thoughtless interest in action and results. In “Character” and again in “Politics” he emphasized the importance of coming to have the character of transcending genius, of spirit which has found moral law in nature and has adapted it for use in the world of men. The transforming power of spirit properly educated and employed was something Emerson counted on, and he was concerned to argue that such power is not easily achieved.
Emerson defended democracy as the form of government best fitted for Americans whose religion and tradition reflect a desire to allow the judgments of citizens to be expressed in the laws of the state. But he cautioned that “Every actual State is corrupt,” and added, “Good men must not obey the laws too well.” Here the independent spirit, concerned with the laws of God, demands heroism and possibly, like Thoreau, civil disobedience.
Scholars have written innumerable articles and books attempting to account for Emerson’s influence—which continues to be profound—on American thought. If agreement is ever reached, it seems likely that it will involve acceptance of the claim that Emerson, whatever his value as a philosopher, gave stirring expression to the American faith in the creative capacity of the individual soul.
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