In 1903, in Concord, Massachusetts, at a ceremony observing the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famed American philosopher, William James, noted the following:
The pathos of death is this, that when the days of one’s life are ended, those days that were so crowded with business and felt so heavy in their passing, what remains of one in memory should usually be so slight a thing. The phantom of an attitude, the echo of a certain mode of thought, a few pages of print, some invention, or some victory we gained in a brief critical hour, are all that can survive the best of us. It is as if the whole of a man’s significance had now shrunk into the phantom of an attitude, into a mere musical note or phrase suggestive of his singularity happy are those whose singularity gives a note so clear as to be victorious over the inevitable pity of such a diminution and abridgment.
Then speaking of Emerson, who had died scarcely 20 years earlier, James observed: The form that so lately moved upon these streets and country roads, or awaited in these fields and woods the beloved Muse’s visits, is now dust; but the soul’s note, the spiritual voice, rises strong and clear above the uproar of the times, and seems securely destined to exert an ennobling influence over future generations.
Well, we are now at the year marking the 200 anniversary of the birth of Emerson, and we are part of the future generations of which James had spoken. Turning James’ prophecy into a challenge, I ask this morning whether Emerson’s voice is still heard, and continues to exert an ennobling influence over our times, as it did over his own.
If truth be told, I think Emerson’s voice is not heard today as loudly as it was 100 years ago. But it is not silent, nor, by any stretch are Emerson’s words and deeds irrelevant to our self-understanding as Americans, two hundred years after his birth. As Ethical Culturists his relevance is incalculably great, for Ethical Culture was inspired in great measure by Emerson’s thought, and we continue to resonate with his spirit, and remain guided by his vision.
In this year, the bicentennial of Emerson’s birth, I want to spend one Sunday morning looking at his contribution and its distinctiveness and what endures in his message. This is not easy to do, because Emerson was a difficult thinker. If he has been the bane of every high school English student, there is good warrant for this. Emerson’s thought is often enigmatic, his metaphors erudite, his rhetoric highbrow, and his message elusive. Emerson speaks in aphorisms, not in tightly drawn paragraphs. He is like an oracle that descends from the stratosphere and encourages you to rise up to meet him half way. To read Emerson is to be provoked by his substance and his style. For he is surely a provocateur. His aphoristic pronouncements always imply more than they say, and he invites you, the reader, to take his pithy wisdom and round out and complete his thoughts with thoughts of your own. He often offends your values while he challenges your mind, and inspires your creativity. To read Emerson is to sore to new heights and plunge into the depths, beyond which you sense even more wisdom resides, and to come away challenged, maybe even transformed. To read Emerson is not to saunter with him, but grabble with him in the service of a kind of intellectualized therapy.
Who was Ralph Waldo Emerson, and what was his contribution? Emerson was the unchallenged leader of what is often referred to as the American Renaissance. He was at the center of a club of fascinating and creative individualists who flourished in the three decades before the Civil War. They were the movers and shakers of what history refers to as the Transcendentalist Movement. Among the major Transcendentalists we find, in addition to Emerson, figures such as Orestes Brownson, George Ripley, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, and Henry David Thoreau. Out of Transcendentalism from the mid-1830s to the Civil War, grew the first rumblings of the abolitionist movement, feminism, utopianism, and literary romanticism. Not only were the Transcendentalists religious radicals and social reformers, they were also master prose stylists, essayists, poets, correspondents and obsessive diary keepers. They communed with nature as they did with each other, and with the times in which they lived. Here was a small band of individuals of who knew each, were ingeniously creative and energetic and who had a disproportionate influence in transforming the American landscape, artistically, religiously and politically. Among their heirs were such luminaries as Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, even Abraham Lincoln. The Transcendentalists all came out of Boston Unitarianism, and at least half of them were Unitarian ministers. The Unitarianism of the day was the liberal wing of Calvinist Christianity, which still echoed with the austerity of its Puritan heritage. Unitarianism then was not what is was to become 100 years later, and what it is today. It was in Emerson’s time, heavily doctrinal, intellectually dry, rationalistic and very proper.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25th, 1803, and for all but 32 years his male ancestors on his father’s side were Congregational ministers in Concord, Massachusetts going back to 1635. Like several generations before him, Emerson went to Harvard in 1817, graduated in 1821 at the age of 18, studied for the ministry and became a pastor at the Second Unitarian Church in Boston in 1829. But in 1832, Emerson’s growing religious doubts became a crisis. He felt that he could no long in good conscience administer the central rite of Christian devotion, the ritual of communion. When his congregation refused to go along with him in dropping the ritual, he quit. He left the ministry, and pursued a religious path that took him outside of Christianity. He became a religious radical, a heretic, and abandoned the ministry to become an itinerant sage.
At the moment he refused to administer the rites of communion, Emerson became Emerson. His reasons for leaving the ministry foreshadowed the central thrust of his developing world-view and his contribution to American thought and values. He went public with a sermon, and among his reasons, he gave the following: “this mode of commemorating Christ is not suitable to me”, he said. “Freedom is the essence of Christianity…Its institutions should be as flexible as the wants of man. The form out of which the life and suitableness have departed should be as worthless in its eyes as the dead leaves that are falling around us.” This seemingly simple protest that the religious rituals of Christianity were not suitable to him, implies far more than it says, and, as noted, presages Emerson’s subsequent philosophy. For in that protest Emerson is saying that he rejects second hand religion. To engage in the rites of the Last Supper is to engage in an act of imitation. It is to do it, because someone else did it before. It is to be obedient to the authority of another, and another time, rather than to one’s own inner authority. Because it is religious experience second hand, and not one’s own immediate and direct experience, it is drained of authenticity, and it is drained of life.
Let me put it this way. Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalist were exponents of what is know as the Romantic Movement. What is Romanticism? One way of defining it is to note that for the Romantic, a person’s feelings, emotions, and intuitions are an organ of knowledge. The Romantics believed that one’s feeling were like a sixth sense that could, with near infallibility and with immediacy, know with certainty and conviction things that the mind, intellect and reflection could never so securely grasp. With the intellect we can only know the surface of things. But with the heart, with the emotions, with intuition, one could immediately grip, they believed, Justice, Truth, and Beauty with a certainty that was self-evident. For the Romantic, you simply know in your heart Beauty and Truth when you see. Cogitating over these things will never quite get you there.
Emerson articulated this Romantic principle with extraordinary eloquence and power. What he argued for was for men and women not see their lives through the lives of others, or in response to want others want them to be, but to have their own individual, authentic, first hand experience of life. Moreover he bade people to trust their inner selves, the voice from within, which he believed spoke with a type of universal truthfulness. In order to trust oneself, Emerson believes we need to put aside the mystique and the authority of other people, of social conformity, and of the past with which we are so willing to endow those agencies external to us.
The opening lines of his opening essay of his book Nature make this program clear. He says:
Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The fore-going generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? …The sun shines today also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.
With these lines we can begin to put Emerson in his context and see why he is a preeminent bard of the American experience. He says “there are new land, new men, new thoughts.”
Emerson was born in 1803, the date when the Louisiana Purchase more than doubled the size of the United States. American horizons were boundless and the frontier, limitless. We were a vast, open land that beckoned limitless opportunity. America represented a pristine place that had potentially thrown of the shackles of stuffy, aristocratic class-bound, history enslaved Europe. Moreover, there were the first glimmers of the Industrial Revolution in America, the steamboat, the telegraph, the emergence of factories. In America, one could make life anew.
Emerson’s thought resonates with that newness. He wants to provoke Americans to take seriously their possibilities, their birthright for creativity, newness and spiritual invigoration. In his own terminology, Emerson divides the history of America into the Party of the Past and the Party of Hope. On one side, we have writers such as Hawthorne and Melville with their brooding pessimism, tragedy and generally dark vision of the human condition. On the other side we have people such as Whitman, and Emerson himself, who are the heralds of optimism and faith in the future.
What are the source of this optimism and this hope? For Emerson, they reside in our capacity for “Self-Reliance”, which is also the title of one of his most famous essays. Emerson presupposes an initial state of timid, unhappy conformism. The antidote is to go deep into the self to the realm of what Emerson refers to as the “aboriginal Self,” the me at the bottom of the me, beyond the zones shaped by daily preoccupations, the expectations of others, and the pressures of conformity. When you have touched these depths, Emerson believes, you will be able to tap the font of your creative energy, your genuine selfhood. You will touch the wellsprings of authenticity, originality, creativity and life.
Let me give some powerful examples from Emerson himself, from his essay “Self-reliance”:
Whoever would be a man, must be a non-conformist… Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind…No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to this or that; the only right is what is after my own constitution; the only wrong what is against it… I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.”
“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say “I think,” “I am,” but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its exist-ence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied and it satisfies nature in all moments alike. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too, lives with nature in the present, above time. The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.”
And then my favorite Emersonian quote:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. “Ah, so you will be sure to be misunderstood.” Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
It is the assertion of this kind of militant individualism in the face all forms of social pressure and conformity that made Emerson Friedrich Nietzsche’s favorite American. For Nietzsche the only constant in nature was the “will to power”, the primordial thrust of the individual to overcome others and to perpetually overcome the self. In Emerson, he at least partway saw a kindred spirit.
But what, we may ask, saves Emerson’s individualism and self-reliance from quickly becoming nothing but egocentricity, narcissism and selfishness? It is here that Emerson’s thought turns metaphysical and religious.
There is a paradox in Emerson’s thinking, which is one of the things that makes him difficult. He claims that the deeper you go into the individual self, the less individual you become. Emerson, the Romantic, is a pantheist. He believes that the divine spirit, God, permeates everything, and as such flows through us as well. But Emerson’s God is austerely impersonal, both transcendent and immanent; a force or spirit that in a way is more real than the physical world that we experience through our senses. When we bore into the deepest part of ourselves, our aboriginal self, we tap the flow of the divine, which is the same impersonal force that flows through all of us as it flows through all of nature. It is as if there is an impersonal divine mind from which our own individual minds partake. We are manifestations of the divine mind, as is everything else in nature. Emerson sometimes refers to this divine mind that passes through all of us, as the “Oversoul.” For Emerson, God is not out there; God is within. “As a man’s prayers are a disease of the will,” says Emerson, “ so are their creeds a disease of the intellect.” “Obey thyself,” he says. “That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen.”
Sometimes Emerson even goes as far as to imply that at the deepest level we are all the same. The deeper you go into your individuality, the less individual you become, but the more Godlike you become. Hold this is in your mind because I will get back to it when talk about Emerson’s relationship to Ethical Culture. Emerson had once summed up his own thinking, by saying “In all my lectures, I have taught one doctrine, the infinitude of the private man.” That is, there is a direct line from the inner recesses of the individual, private, self that leads all the way up to infinity, to God.
Needless to say, this kind of doctrine scandalized Emerson’s respectable religious peers, because there is nothing Christian about it. In fact, Emerson was among the first Americans to discover Asian religions, and his religious thought is explicitly closer to Hinduism than it is to Christianity. Back to “Self-reliance.” Emerson writes,
“What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded? …The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition…In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin… When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing ourselves but allow a passage to its beams…Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due…Whenever a mind is simple and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away – means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now and absorbs past and future into the present hour.”
And in a scenario in the essay Nature which is famous, Emerson is walking in the forest and makes the following observation:
In the woods is perpetual youth…There I feel nothing can befall me in life – no disgrace, no calamity, which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I can become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing, I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me…
The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. This unity of self with the Universal Being, is, of course, mysticism, and we can correctly conclude that Emerson was the first New Age guru, an early apostle of the Age of Aquarius, as well as a forerunner of humanistic psychology with its emphasis on self-actualization and peak experiences.
These few themes, needless to say, only begin to scratch the surface of Emerson’s thoughts. But, with introduction it is not hard to see why Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture was attracted to Emerson. In fact, in one of his essays, Emerson expresses his hope that in the future America will create a new religion of pure ethics. And we can rightly see Ethical Culture as a fulfillment of Emerson’s vision. Adler liked Emerson’s appeal to the new. He liked the fact that Emerson’s commitment to the individual made him, in a sense, a philosopher of democracy, and his call to America to recognize its own greatness and originality, appealed to Adler the immigrant who was striving to establish himself in his new land.
Adler was also strongly attracted to Emerson’s religious radicalism. Both Adler and Emerson shared a conviction that the modern world and modern science had made belief in a supernatural and personal God who is outside of us, and who performs miracles, no longer credible. Moreover, Adler resonated with Emerson’s Transcendentalism, and his conviction that man is not merely a material being, but that there is a divine spirit, which is part of us, and of which we partake. Most importantly, Adler was attracted to the fact that Emerson consecrates the human being; that he makes the person holy and sacred. For this was the center of Adler’s own philosophical quest – how to ground or justify the worthiness of the human being.
In 1875, when Adler was 24 and the sage of Concord was 75, they met. Adler was duly impressed. He later wrote that
“Divinity as an object of extraneous worship for me had vanished. Emerson taught that immediate experience of the divine power in self may take the place of worship. His doctrine of self-reliance also was bracing to a youth just setting out to challenge prevailing opinions and to urge plans of transformation upon the community in which he worked.”
For a while, Adler states, Emerson intoxicated him and he walked with his head in the clouds, clouds with which Emerson enveloped him. But as he matured Adler became critical of Emerson, for reasons that we hinted at above. Recall that for Emerson, the more we dig into ourselves, the more we touch upon the spiritual substance within, which Emerson tells us is undifferentiated. The fact that at bottom, we are all the same, caused Adler to believe that there was something wanting in Emerson’s ethics. For Adler, what makes us worthy is not our sameness with others, but, on the contrary our distinctiveness, our uniqueness. If we were all replicas of each other, then we would be expendable. It is our differences that make us unique and therefore ultimately worthy. In Adler’s own words:
“According to Emerson life is a universal masquerade, and the interest of the whole business of living consists in the ever-renewed discovery that the face behind the different masks is still the same. Difference is not cherished on its own account.”
He concludes his critique of Emerson by saying, “ …he is genuinely American, — a rare blend of ancient mystic and modern Yankee, a valued poet too, but as an ethical guide to be accepted only with large reservation.” These are technical, but perhaps not unimportant quibbles. Of more importance is the question of the lasting importance of Emerson to us today, in the bicentennial of his birth. What does he leave us of lasting value?
Emerson’s influence since he hit his prime in the 1830s has ranged broadly across the American landscape. His influence has been felt in philosophy, literature, religion, psychology, and in the field progressive social action. Mathew Arnold thought he most important English prose writer in the 19th century. John Dewey wrote that he was the only American thinker worthy of being ranked with Plato. Speaking for myself, in a broad sense I owe my job to Emerson. For Emerson was America’s first important public intellectual. Emerson was not a technical philosopher. He was not a novelist or a playwright. He gave lectures and wrote essays, thousands of lectures and hundreds of essays. He referred to himself as a poet, but he was also a seer and a sage, and became a public icon. He was a founder of what was known as the lyceum movement. In the century before radio, television and the computer, the lyceum movement was made up of town- and city-based, loosely connected forums for lectures, debates, and entertainment. It was were folks got their news, education and culture. Forty years later, Ethical Culture replicated this model when Felix Adler rented Carnegie Hall to address crowds of thousands on the issues of the day. Our platform and the Ethical Society continue that tradition that Emerson began.
Emerson also transformed religion creating what the Yale critic, Harold Bloom, has called the “American Religion.” He allows you to be religious and spiritual, and believe in a transcendent reality without belief in the supernatural. His religious views imply a type of aesthetic that merges religion with literature and poetry. In the words of the historian of religion, Sydney Ahlstrom,
“Emerson was new kind of romantic pagan, one who throws from the temple not only the money changers, but the priests as well, and with them their beliefs, creeds, and rituals.”
Emerson also provides an antidote to tragedy, and is the philosopher of optimism and hope. In great measure, his philosophy of self-reliance was a response to tragedy of his own. Emerson’s father died when he was eight. His first wife, Ellen died a year and half after they were married. As a young man, Emerson lost two of his brothers, and then his beloved son, Waldo, died, when the child was seven years old. To read Emerson then and now, is to find anchorages in a changing, and often tragic world, in which one can face a new day, inspired by hope, and confident in one’s own powers.
But we cannot lose sight of Emerson’s inspiration as a social reformer. He lacked the grit of his colleague Henry David Thoreau, and he was not as radical as Theodore Parker, who was a firebrand progressive social action. Yet, Emerson was deeply committed to redressing the injustices of the day. His philosophy of the divinity of every person, stood against the oppression and degradation of the individual, and served as basis for justice, democracy and freedom. Anticipating Thoreau’s civil disobedience, Emerson announced, “ Every actual state is corrupt. Good men must not obey the laws too well.” Though he came to it later than some of his fellow Transcendentalists, in part because his individualism made him skeptical of all organizations, Emerson became an outspoken and courageous defender of the abolitionist cause, which of course was the most pressing moral issue of the day. He spoke on platforms with the great Fredrick Douglass, and by the 1850s, through himself totally into the cause of the abolition of slavery. He opposed totally the fugitive slave law which he called a “filthy enactment” and he lauded John Brown and his raid on Harper’s Ferry as a true hero.
In Emerson’s individualism some have seen a defense of free market capitalism even admiration for the successful businessman who asserts his power within the dynamics of the market. And there is, no doubt, some truth to this in the sense that Emerson lends himself to being appropriated for this purpose. But far closer to the truth is that Emerson hated the vulgarity of the excesses of the marketplace. He characterizes the emerging capitalist economy as “a system of selfishness… of distrust, of concealment, of superior keenness, not of giving but of taking advantage.” He goes as far as to claim, “there is nothing more important than to resist the dangers of commerce.” Recall that it was Emerson who warned us “things are in the saddle and their ride humankind.” This to my mind is Emerson’s most lasting legacy. In his tremendous erudition, scholarship and eloquence, he reminds us of the importance and nobility of culture.
In his ability to make nature sacred, and to sanctify the mundane, he brings to our world elegance and beauty. In his abiding regard for the individual, he urges us to believe in ourselves and to bring to the light of day our creative potentials. In his faith in the individual, he endows with the courage to be non-conformist in the face of everything that deadens the human spirit. We live in a time of mass conformity, driven by the vicissitudes of the market. We live in a time ruled by technology and the demands of the machine. It’s a time when democracy is in great danger, and the individual feels less empowered in the face of government. It is a time when old-time, authoritarian religion has made an ominous comeback, and has encouraged people to give themselves over to powers not of themselves. It is a time that Emerson would recognize, and which he would not have liked. If we can wrest from Emerson’s words even a little bit of hope, optimism and faith in ourselves, he will have proven his relevance to our time, as he so powerfully did in his own.
Dr. Joseph Chuman
5 October 2003