Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Ralph Waldo Emerson American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Throughout his literary career, Emerson consistently advocated the idea of self-reliance, of making self the ultimate judge of things in this world. The self he celebrates, however, is not the same as the individual self, which threatens to become selfishness, but an autonomous spirit which wills to act according to universal moral laws. This spirit, which is located in all objects, may grow as a result of communion with nature.

Like many Romantics, who give nature an essential role in their intrinsic lives by treating it either as an equal partner with, or as a substitute for, God, Emerson often expresses a passion for nature, as can be seen in his famous work Nature (1836). His love for nature appears to he the expression of his heart based on nature’s utilitarian value; however, his reason tells him otherwise. In his analytical reasoning, he follows the argument of traditional idealism in conceiving nature as an ephemeral phenomenon without independent existence. As a result of the conflict between his intellect and his emotion, Emerson remains essentially indecisive as to the ontological being of nature.

From his early work Nature to the publication of Letters and Social Aims (1875), he consistently uses the image of shadows to illustrate the essence of nature. What is emphasized in an equally consistent manner throughout Emerson’s life is the utilitarian value, both spiritual and physical, of nature to humankind. Because of the extremely important role that it enjoys in a person’s daily life, Emerson cannot afford to part with nature, which is emotionally close to him, nor can he follow the traditional doctrine of idealism without misgivings.

His love for nature often makes him doubt the statement of idealism, and these emotions force him to endow nature with life—hence the persistent tension between emotion and intellect in Emerson. When his reason gains ascendancy, he will deny that nature has a soul. Once his emotion becomes dominant, however, he will not hesitate to attribute a spirit or apply the metaphorical expression of transcendence to nature.

In “The Over-Soul” (1842), Emerson works out the framework for his idea of oneness, a metaphysical basis for the celebration of ego. The Over-Soul is the embodiment of wisdom, virtue, power, and beauty, among which virtue is supreme. To be the partner of the Creator—or to be a creator—one’s duty lies only in assuring the unceasing circular flow between one’s own soul and the Over-Soul. It follows that when Emerson says in his “Divinity School Address” that the man who renounces himself comes to himself, he means only the renunciation of the willful interference with the free flowing of the universal spirit, not biblical self-denial.

To obey the soul, according to Emerson, one’s acts would naturally arrange themselves by irresistible magnetism in a straight line. Because of the constant communication with and participation of the divine essence of the universe, each individual becomes part of the essence and is, thus, self-sufficient in every moment of his or her existence. As the divinity of the Over-Soul is inherent in the soul of each individual, one fulfills this divinity by being true to the transcendental spirit in oneself and by keeping it free from the harmful interpositions of one’s own artificial will. Virtue is not, as is made clear in “Spiritual Laws” (1841), the product of conscious calculation and should not be interfered with by will.

Applied to history, the idea of the Over-Soul leads to a subjective view of the past. History, according to Emerson, is only a record of the universal mind, and its task is to find the expression of one’s soul. Under this notion, what is called history is actually biography. A similarly moralistic view characterizes his theory of art. Although Emerson’s theory of the Over-Soul lays the groundwork for Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1855), his view of art focuses more on a poet’s character than on...

(The entire section is 5,415 words.)