Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.
--Henry David Thoreau
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts. He is widely regarded as one of America's most influential authors, philosophers and thinkers. At one time a Unitarian minister, Emerson left his pastorate because of doctrinal disputes with his superiors. He traveled to Europe on Christmas Day, 1832, where he made the acquaintance of such literary notables as Thomas Carlyle, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Carlyle and Emerson would form a notable lifelong friendship.
My first brush with Emerson came during my junior year of high school. I had begun dating my wife and also had my first encounter with another intellectual giant, my late father-in-law, Joe Tarazewich.
The bookshelves of Tarazewich’s study were jammed full of books of philosophy, literary heavy hitters, and other classical thinkers. When we first start dating someone, we obviously want to make a good impression. Tarazewich was an intimidating figure—he had once played major college football for Drake and also was voted to Maine’s all-time high school football team of the past fifty years, making first team, when he played for Thornton Academy. Even as a cocky 17-year-old, I knew this giant of a man was someone important, even moving beyond my short-term goal of trying to impress him so I could continue dating his daughter.
He gave me a copy of Emerson’s essays, which I set out to read and understand. I was struck by Emerson’s essay on self-reliance. Coming from a very orthodox faith tradition, Roman Catholicism, and beginning to rebel against its strictures (much to my own parent’s consternation), reading Emerson felt like leaving a thick strand of trees, and walking out into an open field.
Emerson believed that the ultimate source of truth is within us. He believed in trusting one’s reason, and limiting the influence of the outside world. That didn’t mean that Emerson was a reclusive, intellectual hermit. He didn’t isolate himself from people, as indicated in a letter written to Carlyle, where Emerson said, “A new person is always to me a great event, & will not let me sleep."(Note 1) Updike wrote that “He lectured everywhere, and knew everyone." (Note 2)
The belief that all we can really know is within us is the foundation for what would become transcendentalism. As Emerson wrote, “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds...A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.” (note 3)
This movement originated in New England, specifically Boston, although Emerson would find a home in Concord. It began as a protest against the general state of culture and society, and in particular, the intellectual culture existing at Harvard, as well as the doctrines of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity School. Transcendentalists’ sought to integrate the belief that the ideal spiritual state “transcends” the physical and empirical and is only realized through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions. This was a direct contradiction to the overriding influence of Calvinist theology that constituted American Christianity at that historical juncture.
American Transcendentalism (in addition to Emerson, other prominent transcendentalists and contemporaries were naturalist and rebel Henry David Thoreau, Amos Bronson Alcott, an educator, novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, as well as Margeret Fuller, who served with Emerson as editor of The Dial) espoused a romantic idealism that favored individual instinct, self-knowledge, and a belief in transcendent, eternal ideas. This idea was rooted in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. It was Coleridge, the British poet that lent the Transcendentalists the spiritual side of Kant’s system, when he (some would argue, misleadingly) reduced Kant’s theory of human cognition to a dichotomy between Reason, and Understanding. A pious Anglican, Coleridge argued Reason—that which separates us from all other living things—reveals to humanity the mysteries of the Christian faith. (note 4)
This led the New England Transcendentalists in seeing the reflection of God, in human Reason. While many continued to hold the Calvinist belief in the divine nature of Jesus Christ, some, especially Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau, considered his ministry to be the representation of the best of humanity.
While Unitarians today consider Emerson as one of their own, history teaches us that he was at the center of a major schism that had developed within Unitarianism in the 19th century. The Transcendentalists, led by Emerson, argued against the significance of historically based miracles in the Bible.
Given that the Unitarians controlled many of the conservative Congregational churches in New England, bastions of Calvinist orthodoxy at the time, to depart from the most conservative of beliefs, such as miracles, might lead to them losing their institutional control of their churches. Hence, they opposed the Transcendentalists’ push to deny this element of theology.
Reform-minded Unitarians—many of them being younger members of the denomination, and not part of the fight to gain control of the congregational churches—were open to crossing conservative theological lines. They had read Emerson's book Nature and were attracted to his ideas, ideas that stated that “Man is a god in ruins,” and that man should be self-reliant and follow his intuition and feelings as well as his reason to reach full self-development. Like Emerson, they thought that dried-up doctrines of an earlier time should not get in the way of original insights.
In 1838, the seven graduating seniors of the Harvard Divinity School selected Emerson as keynote speaker at their graduation, passing over older and more conservative Unitarians. The invitation was an act of defiance against their elders and teachers, and Emerson was well aware of it. With the chapel filled with the graduates and their families and all the most noted Unitarians in attendance that beautiful July day, Emerson took the pulpit and calmly and confidently lay siege to some of the Unitarians’ most cherished ideas.
While innocuous by today’s standards, Emerson called for religious self-reliance, and urged those in attendance not to depend on the worn-out doctrines passed down but to seek out our own convictions. To the hearers and those reading it in the newspapers of the day, however, the address was pure transcendental heresy.
Emerson’s address ignited a furor in newspapers, pulpits, and pamphlets against the talk and Emerson was roundly and regularly condemned.
The controversy found Emerson retreating to his study, quite calm and above the storm, and refused to respond publicly. He called the fuss “a tempest in a washbowl,” (note 5) but his journal shows us today that he was upset by the vehemence of the attacks against him. Repeatedly he wrote in his journal, “Steady, steady!”
Emerson's former Harvard professor, Andrews Norton, usually a cautious and sober man, wasted no time blasting the address in the Boston Daily Advertiser. He called the graduates accessories to a crime for inviting a “man who attacks Christians and the Clergy” to “deliver an incoherent rhapsody.”
The importance of Emerson’s ideas for our time shouldn’t be discounted. During his time, a time when print was the primary means to disseminate ideas, he urged independent thinking and stressed that not all life’s answers are found in books. In his The American Scholar address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge in 1837, Emerson states that: “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst.” He believed that a scholar learns best by engaging life.
I’m afraid many that live a stunted life, seeking through the pursuits of prooftexting, and securing points for their preconceived notions, will miss the value of Emerson. In his essays on The Conduct of Life, he outlined a pathway for “engaging life.” To Emerson, thinking was the hardest kind of work. I think he was accurate in his statement of this fact. Additionally, he spoke highly of the value and the importance of work, as a means to leaving behind a life worth living. He spoke of the importance of “those who love work, and love to see it rightly done, who finish their task for its own sake; and the state and the world is happy, that has the most of such finishers. The world will always do justice at last to such finishers; it cannot do otherwise.”
My hope is that some of my readers, regardless of political ideology, will seek out Emerson, and learn from some of his timeless ideas.
1 Understanding Emerson: “The American Scholar” and His Struggle for Self-Reliance, by Kenneth S. Sacks; Princeton University Press, 2003
² John Updike, “Emersonianism,” New Yorker, 4 June, 1984, 115
3 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar,” an essay.
4 Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People; Yale University Press, 1973 5 Kenneth Sacks, ibid.