Ralph Waldo Emerson burst on to the American literary scene in the autumn of 1836, as the protege of Thomas Carlyle, under whose spell he had fallen during a visit to England in 1833. On his return to America, duly inspired, the 30-year-old Emerson embarked on a brilliant career as an acclaimed public lecturer, a programme of self-enlightenment through which he would evolve his post-Romantic and quasi-religious idea of transcendentalism. This ecstatic concept, typical of the American mind at its more fervent and mystical, was first expressed in a lecture entitled Nature that Emerson gave at Harvard on 5 November 1836 in which he articulated his belief that “Nature is the symbol of spirit”. This, according to the critic Jay Parini, would influence “generations of poets and nature writers” for whom this call to arms became “a major source of ideas”.
“Nature,” Emerson declared, in a self-conscious echo of the Romantic ideal, “is the incarnation of thought.” He added, with thrilling opacity, that “The world is the mind precipitated.” In explication of these mysteries, he argued that to experience the “wholeness” with nature for which we are naturally suited, we must be separate from the quotidian distractions imposed by society. For Emerson, it was “solitude” that would be the singular mechanism through which the questing individual might become fully engaged in the world of nature.
He instructed, in words which soon resonated among an emerging generation of Americans: “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.”
When a person experiences true solitude, in nature, it “takes him away”, elevating him to a new level of consciousness. Society, Emerson said, destroys wholeness, whereas “Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapour to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man.”
From this kind of exalted secular piety, it’s a short step to Emerson’s definition of a spiritual relationship with nature through which the individual can discover the “spirit of nature”, and accept it as the Universal Being: “Nature is not fixed but fluid; to a pure spirit, nature is everything.”
Like all the great American intellectual salesmen, Emerson was intent on establishing himself as the chief explicator of nature’s special language – a unique means of communication, offered exclusively to his followers: “Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word; but it is not a language taken to pieces and dead in the dictionary, but the language put together into a most significant and universal sense. I wish to learn this language, not that I may know a new grammar, but that I may read the great book that is written in that tongue.”
Some of Emerson is a passionate American frontier howl which, strangely, can also morph into unvarnished Trumpism
This was heady stuff in straitlaced, post-revolutionary New England. Other invitations followed and on 31 August 1837, now speaking within the precincts of Harvard, Emerson gave his now-famous Phi Beta Kappa “Oration”, which would become known as The American Scholar, described by Oliver Wendell Holmes as America’s “intellectual declaration of independence”.
After this, Emerson never looked back. He became the Sage of Concord, Massachusetts whose Essays approached the status of holy writ. The first volume of these was published in 1841; its influence would reverberate down the remaining decades of the century.
Subsequently, Emerson wrote on a number of subjects, never espousing fixed philosophical tenets, but developing ideas popular in America, ideas such as individuality and freedom, mankind’s ability to fulfil itself through individual endeavour. Emerson is one of several figures who adopted a pantheist approach to existence by rejecting any religious faith that separated God from the world. His Nature was fairly abstract: “Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul.”
Emerson’s high-flown articulation of “America first”, expressed in sentences such as “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe”, struck a powerful chord with impressionable and idealistic young men like Henry David Thoreau. His Walden (No 64 in this series) is directly descended from Emerson’s Essays, especially those that addressed quasi-existential questions such as friendship, heroism, art and, in a popular restatement of his Phi Beta Kappa speech, the all-American question of self-reliance, a rhetorical paean that has a strange, almost surreal, topicality in the spring of 2017. “Nothing at last is sacred,” declares Emerson, “but the integrity of your own mind…” He had already elaborated what he means by this: “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. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost – and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment.”
Some of Emerson, stripped of its high-mindedness, is a passionate American frontier howl which, strangely, can also morph into unvarnished Trumpism: “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it… The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules and whines. I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim.”
“A foolish consistency,” Emerson remarks soon after this, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Emerson, one of the most influential writers in the United States during the 19th century, is central to American Romanticism. His essays and lectures had a profound influence on the thinkers, writers and poets who came after him. Once, when asked to sum up his work, he said he believed in the “infinitude” of the private individual. Emerson is also renowned as a mentor and friend of Henry David Thoreau whose Walden owes him a deep debt.
A signature sentence
“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”
Three to compare
Henry David Thoreau: Walden (1854)
Dale Carnegie: How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936)
Robert Macfarlane: The Wild Places (2007)
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Ralph Waldo Emerson is the Top Dog of Transcendentalism. The Godfather. The Big Cheese. The biggest, oldest, most huggable tree in the forest, if you're starting to think like a Transcendentalist. The whole movement got going largely because of his efforts. He was the son of a Unitarian minister who himself became ordained as a Unitarian minister, until he got disgruntled with Unitarianism.
But that doesn't mean he turned his back on the spiritual world. Emerson wanted us to be better in touch with our inner selves, God, and nature. He was instrumental in elaborating some of the most important Transcendentalist concepts in essays and books like "Self-Reliance" and "Nature."
And don't forget, this guy was also a founding member of the Transcendental Club, which was the hub of Transcendentalist thinkers and writers beginning in 1836. Yup, that's where to find Waldo.
In this 1841 essay, Emerson argues that we need to learn to be a lot more individualistic—yep, you guessed it: rely on ourselves. That doesn't just mean cooking our own meals and doing our laundry instead of getting Mom to do it—it's about freeing ourselves from the fetters of social convention and the opinions of others.
Only by following our own individual path and our own inner instinct will we be able to distinguish truth from falsehood and good from evil. And an added bonus is that we'll be much happier for it. Sweet!
Emerson's essay exemplifies the Transcendentalist virtue of individualism. These guys and gals really believed that folks have to think for themselves. And in "Self-Reliance," Emerson shows us exactly why that's so important.
Is it a book? Is it an essay? It's both, naturally! (Har har.) Emerson's, um, book-length essay is all about—yes, guessed again!—the power of nature. And it sure as dandelions isn't just about green grass and blue skies. Nature can actually lead us to God, and to our true selves.
Emerson's essay was way influential (not to mention controversial) when it was first published. So much so that it became one of the founding documents of the Transcendental Club, which was founded the same year. The essay would also have a huge influence on Henry David Thoreau, who read it as an undergrad at Harvard. And the tree began to sprout!
Chew on This
In "Self-Reliance," Emerson advises us to trust ourselves. After all, it's the only way to achieve self-reliance. If all the greats did it, he said, then so can you!
Moving onto "Nature," where Emerson argues that everything is connected. Beauty, he even says (thinking of the sunset sort of beauty), is "one expression for the universe." And you better believe it's an expression that unites us all when we ooh-and-ahh as the sun goes down.