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Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1803–1882)


Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American author and leader of New England transcendentalism, was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, a locally distinguished Unitarian clergyman, died in 1811 leaving Emerson and five other children in the care of a pious mother and a very learned aunt on the father's side. From 1813 to 1817 Emerson attended the Boston Latin School; then, after four undistinguished years at Harvard, he became a schoolmaster while he continued to study extramurally at Harvard Divinity School. "My reasoning faculty is proportionally weak," he confessed in his Journal in 1824, on deciding to become a minister, "nor can I ever hope to write a Butler's Analogy or an Essay of Hume. [But] the preaching most in vogue at the present day depends chiefly on imagination [italics added] for its success, and asks those accomplishments which I believe are most within my grasp." Made just before he was twenty-one, this acute piece of self-analysis marks the stage in Emerson's life when he really began to understand himself and gain a genuine premonition of his future role as literary artist. For Emerson is, more than anything else, an imaginative writer. (Thus Friedrich Nietzsche, who was at an early stage influenced by Emersonadmiring his "manifoldness" and "cheerfulness"recognized him as one of the nineteenth century's few great masters of prose.)

Formative Experiences

Unitarianism was at first the main formative influence on Emerson, but it was not the most far-reaching, and the sort of preaching he was eventually to excel in had little to do with any established church or, for that matter, with Christianity as such. A trip to Florida for health reasons, in the winter of 18261827, brought about a chance meeting with the aristocratic Achille Murat, whose "consistent Atheism" Emerson found combined, to his surprise, with moral perspicuity. By the late 1820s the young theological student had already got through a prodigious regimen of philosophical and occult reading that included (as the most important authors for his maturer orientations) Zoroaster, Confucius, Muammad, the Neoplatonists, Jakob Boehme, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Baron de Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke, the Scottish philosophers, Emanuel Swedenborg, Johann Gottfried Herder, andabove allMadame de Staël (the De l'Allemagne ). Emerson's attention was being irresistibly drawn to the new cultural movement in Germany. The disturbing advances in German biblical criticism were beginning to penetrate to him via his brother William's enthusiastic letters from Göttingen (William had also met and talked with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe). Soon Emerson was absorbed in Thomas Carlyle's pioneering essays on German literature, and in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Aids to Reflection (1825)in which Emerson discovered the pseudo-Kantian distinction between "Reason" and "Understanding."

In 1829 Emerson was appointed pastor of the Second Church of Boston; shortly afterward he married Ellen Louisa Tucker. Ellen's tragic death of tuberculosis early in 1831 had a deeply anguishing and yet strangely liberalizing effect upon Emerson. He questioned himself about immortality; preached sermons that expounded embryonic versions of his own later doctrines of "self-reverence" (or "self-reliance," as he sometimes called it), "compensation," and "correspondence"; found he was bored with weekday Bible classes; and eventually gave up his pastorate.

On January 2, 1833, he sailed for Europe. This first European tour (he made two more, one in 18471848 and one in 18721873) was crucial in helping him shape into something like a whole the new philosophical outlook he had been consciously groping toward since at least 1824 and to which he ultimately gave poetic expression in his major works. During a short stay in Britain he managed to get an interview with Coleridge at Highgate, met William Wordsworth, and spent twenty-four hours with the Carlyles at Craigenputtock. Carlyle immediately became a lifelong friend.

The conversations with Coleridge and Carlyle, the two men who were to the disenchanted young American living embodiments of all that was viable in contemporary European culture, had simply the effect of confirming Emerson's old belief: As a guide to solving the problem of life's meaning, there is "really nothing external, so I must spin my thread from my own bowels." He reasoned to himself that "the purpose of life seems to be to acquaint a man with himself" and "the highest revelation is that God is in every man." In his Journal entry for September 8, 1833, written while sailing back to America, Emerson included with the above affirmation of his maxim of "self-reverence" two other by then quite explicit convictions: (1) "There is a correspondence [italics added] between the human soul and everything that exists in the world," and (2) since "a man contains all that is needful to his government within himself," it must be that "nothing can be given to him or taken from him but always there is a compensation [italics added]." Here were brought together the key notions that Emerson was to elaborate for the rest of his life, first in his original transcendentalist manifesto, Nature (1836), and then in practically all the later works, including Essays (First Series, 1841; Second Series, 1844), Representative Men (1850), English Traits (1856), Conduct of Life (1860), Society and Solitude (1870), and Letters and Social Aims (1875).

In 1835 Emerson married Lydia Jackson, with whom, he soberly remarked to William, he had found a "quite unexpected community of sentiment and speculation." Soon he was settled in unusual domestic serenity with his wife and his mother in Concord, which remained his home for the rest of his life. Emerson's writings, his sagelike personality, and his roles as the leader of New England transcendentalism and the editor of the Dial gradually brought him an international reputation as perhaps America's leading man of letters.

Mature Writings

If propounded by a philosopher, Emerson's assertions concerning "correspondence" and "compensation" would demand further explication and defense. But to expect anything resembling epistemological lucidity, or even concern, in a writer like Emerson would be to approach him with misconceptions. Indeed, those who read him as one would a philosopher like Immanuel Kant, Friedrich von Schelling, G. W. F. Hegel, or even Coleridge (all of whom certainly had a great influence upon Emerson), largely miss the peculiar merits and significance of his works. For Emerson was neither a critical philosopher nor an idealist metaphysician, but an intuitive sage-poet: "In Emerson," wrote Nietzsche to Overbeck, "we have lost a philosopher. "

Like his artistic models Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Blaise Pascal, and the Goethe of the Maximen und Reflexionen, Emerson was a virtuoso of the pensée, in which style and content, symbol and "meaning," are inseparably conjoined. His meditations are exploratory rather than defining or definitive, and the nonpropositional, revelatory use of language with which Emerson alternately enraptures and ensnares his reader renders inappropriate the conventional task of giving a systematic conspectus of his leading ideas. The analysis to be applied to any work by Emerson is that of the literary critic rather than the philosopher. His method of exploration consists in the cumulative and often dialectical juxtaposition and attempted coalescence of aperçus relating to a single broad theme"Nature," "Friendship," "Wealth," "Immortality"usually in the form of an essay, lecture, or address. In fact, all Emerson's prose works are homiletic: They are secular sermons that differ from the sermons of his ancestors, the New England Puritan divines, largely by virtue of a greater breadth and subtlety of message and the intense personalism of their inner soliloquy.

Yet, despite the epistemological imprecision of his views, Emerson is philosophically interesting in at least two ways. First, because of the very full Journal he kept throughout his life, he affords an extremely well-documented record of a major writer who found it urgently necessary to struggle with philosophical ideas in order to achieve personal (and artistic) integration in an age "destitute of faith, but terrified at scepticism," as Carlyle characterized it. (The ideological perplexities of his age, moreover, lead directly to our own.) Emerson strove to discover for himself "an original relation to the universe": a kind of personal Weltansicht that would somehow keep vital his essentially religious sensibilities and give succor to his pressing emotional needs. Since Christianity could no longer do either of these things, he meditated upon his own experience in the light of those pieces of philosophy that seemed most accommodating. That Emerson found the Germanic philosophical tradition more to his liking than the Anglo-Saxon was the natural result of his individualism, his belief in the primacy of personality, and his closely related admiration for the hero, genius, or great man, in which he joined Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Carlyle, and Nietzsche (see especially Representative Men ). He expressed these fundamentally anthropocentric and aristocratic orientations quite succinctly: "No object really interests us but man, and in man only his superiorities; and though we are aware of a perfect law in nature, it has fascination for us only through its relation to him, or as it is rooted in the mind."

Both Schelling and Hegel influenced Emerson in profound and clearly traceable waysSchelling first, through Coleridge, and Hegel later, particularly through W. T. Harris and the St. Louis School of Hegelians, with whose Journal of Speculative Philosophy Emerson was closely associated in the late 1860s and early 1870s. The primacy of "personality," or "self-consciousness," as it was usually called, was already an established axiom with the Germans. And if the all-embracing dichotomy between mind and naturewith its innumerable manifestations in the troublemaking divisions of "reality and illusion," "religion and science," "moral law and physical law," "the eternal and the temporal," in effect, the division of "the transcendental ideal and the banal actual"could be shown to be only an immature stage in the development of Absolute Spirit whose final blossoming would exhibit all as one: Then, indeed, there would be not only "a correspondence between the human soul and everything that exists in the world" but, even better, a coalescence.

Much in the manner of Hegel, Emerson came to see History, or God, or the Oversoul as a kind of primordial schizophrenic, originally split into mind and nature and now victoriously struggling to personal integration in and through the creative achievements of human culture. Metaphysically speaking, human culture is identical with mind's reintegration with nature. Indeed for Emerson science itself becomes the handmaiden of transcendentalism: Man's conquest of the material environment shows nature to be not alien but fully transparent to mind, and since whatever is intelligible must somehow be itself intelligence, mind and nature are in reality one. But in such a panspiritualistic universe every apparent evil can only be for the greater universal good; the "compensation" for evil lies in the ultimate self-harmony of mind. This is the tortuous metaphysical hallucination that forms the basis of Emerson's optimism. As far then as it can be discerned, his philosophia prima is that of the German idealists, and one sympathetic way of characterizing him would be to say that where Schelling and the rest made the fundamental mistake of attempting to give rational and systematic expression to the mythology of romanticism, Emerson put the whole thing into poetrywhich was exactly where it belonged.

But Emerson's individualism had a further and more practical consequence. He could never reconcile himself to the values of a civilization that, as he saw it, was "essentially one of property, of fences, of exclusiveness"; and the incisive manner in which this dissatisfaction with the prevailing social reality found expression in his writings gives Emerson a special place in the great line of romantic critics of mass society from Rousseau to Karl Jaspers. Brilliantly critical of emergent American commercialism, which necessarily seemed to involve cultural superficiality, Emerson was particularly virulent against the species of democracy that in fact often demands only conformity to depersonalizing custom, and a consequent sacrifice of individual autonomy, of "self-reliance." He did not limit his criticism to America; English Traits is still, among other things, a major indictment of European cant, Philistinism, and materialism by an American.

The second reason why Emerson is philosophically interesting is his influence on philosophers. Nietzsche has been mentioned; so also should be Henri Bergson. A number of Bergson's fundamental concepts often seem in part to be systematizations of Emerson's eclectic intuitions (compare, for example, the élan vital with Emerson's "vital force" in the essay "Experience"); perhaps the most noteworthy is the decided interest in Emerson shown by the pragmatists William James and John Dewey.

Emerson's most pervasive influence, however, was not so much on professional thinkers or writers, but on the public, through the great popular sale of his works. His highly personal yet persuasive and accessible form of romanticism insinuated itself into the general intellectual consciousness of America, and to a lesser extent into that of Europe. "His relation to us is like that of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius," said Matthew Arnold in Discourses in America (published in 1885, three years after Emerson's death); "he is the friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit."

See also New England Transcendentalism.


The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson in the twelve-volume Centenary Edition (Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 19031904) is the standard edition of Emerson's works. Emerson's Journals were originally edited by E. W. Emerson and W. E. Forbes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 19091914). A more recent version is Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by William H. Gilman and others, 3 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 19601963). For more bibliographical details consult Eight American Authors: A Review of Research and Criticism, edited by Floyd Stovall (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1956; reprinted with a bibliographical supplement extended to 1962, New York: Norton, 1963). An informed and brilliantly perceptive account of the role of German thought in Emerson's intellectual development is contained in H. A. Pochmann's German Culture in America (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961), pp. 153207. Among recent studies of Emerson's mind and art, the most illuminating is Jonathan Bishop, Emerson on the Soul (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, and London: Oxford University Press, 1965).

other recommended works

Cameron, Kenneth Walter. Emerson's Developing Philosophy: The Early Lectures (18361838). Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1996.

Cameron, Kenneth Walter. Emerson's Philosophic Path to a Vocation. Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1996.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Vision of Emerson. Edited with an introduction by Richard Geldard. Rockport, MA: Element, 1995.

Goodman, Russell B. American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Gray, Henry David. Emerson: A Statement of New England Transcendentalism as Expressed in the Philosophy of its Chief Exponent. New York: Ungar, 1958.

Hopkins, Vivian Constance. Spires of Form: A Study of Emerson's Aesthetic Theory. New York: Russell & Russell, 1965.

Jacobson, David. Emerson's Pragmatic Vision: The Dance of the Eye. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Levin, Jonathan. The Poetics of Transition: Emerson, Pragmatism, and American Literary Modernism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

Lopez, Michael. Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996.

Porter, David T. Emerson and Literary Change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Robinson, David. Emerson and the Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Van Leer, David. Emerson's Epistemology: The Argument of the Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Michael Moran (1967)

Bibliography updated by Desirae Matherly Martin (2005)

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