Emerson: The Quintessential American

Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalism

A theologian, essayist, orator and poet, Emerson is variously described as America’s own philosopher, our first literary giant, the father of the environmental movement, and the founder of what literary critic Harold Bloom calls “the American religion,” a distinctive blend of individualism and self-reliance.

Emerson’s philosophy, Transcendentalism, began as a ferment in the Unitarian church. It was not a religious movement, however, but a spiritual one.

There were no doctrines, houses of worship or ritualized devotions. Emerson emphasized not belief in a particular creed but rather independent thinking, good works, and the development of character.

His interest was in the principles that unite us, not the doctrines that divide us. Following Jesus’ insistence that the kingdom of Heaven is within you, Emerson sought moral universals, what he called “interior truth.”

He insisted, for example, that if the Confucians in China, the stoics of Athens, the noblest Buddhists, and the wisest Christians all met and conversed, they would find themselves of one mind.

Like Thoreau, he also believed that solitude in nature leads to true enlargement of the mind and spirit. His books, he said, “should smell of pine and resound with the hum of insects.”

Emerson’s words had a powerful effect on his contemporaries, bringing Walt Whitman “to a boil,” as Whitman himself put it.

(In turn, Whitman’s universal voice, descriptive style and free verse form became the nation’s single most distinctive contribution to world poetry.)

Emerson was not just a contemplative theologian, however. He was also a man of action. A passionate abolitionist, he spoke out forcefully against slavery, calling it not just an institution but “a destitution.”

How does this nineteenth-century philosopher speak to us today?

Like William James, the great psychologist who followed in his footsteps, Emerson recognized that most of our difficulties start right between our ears.

The first key to resolving your problems is to upgrade your thinking. “This time, like all times, is a very good one,” said Emerson, “if we but know what to do with it.”

We also fail to recognize how our problems benefit us by strengthening us, advancing our interests.

When a man “is pushed, tormented, defeated,” he wrote, “he has a chance to learn something; he has been put on his wits; on his manhood; he has gained facts; learns his ignorance; is cured of the insanity of conceit; has got moderation and real skill.”

If it doesn’t seem that way now, recognize that it may in the future. It’s often just a matter of perspective. “The years teach much,” Emerson said, “which the days never know.”

Like his fellow Transcendentalists, Emerson lived a simple life and warned of the trap of materialism. Financial success, he said, lies never in the amount of money we have, but in the relation of income to outgo.

“It is a cold, lifeless business,” he wrote, “when you go to the shops to buy something which does not represent your life and talent, but a goldsmith’s.”

Of course, much of the pressure to seek and display affluence comes not from within but from society itself. The world wants you to live according to its opinion, not your own.

“Every brave heart must treat society as a child,” he said, “and never allow it to dictate.”

Emerson is hard to categorize and impossible to sum up. He described himself as an endless seeker, devoting his life to understanding the human mind and the mysteries of existence.

American literature, philosophy, religion and social policy have all been strongly affected by his words and deeds.

Historians say he may have had more influence in the shaping of American thought than any other individual – and is second only to Lincoln as a spokesman for the country’s highest ideals.

Yet Emerson modestly claimed that he taught just one principle, the infinitude of the private man.

“Nothing is at last sacred,” he said, “but the integrity of your own mind.”

Source: Alex Green

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