Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803-1882. An American essayist, lecturer, and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century.
Emerson is arguable the most influential American writer of the nineteenth century. Without Emerson, we would not have Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, or Walt Whitman. Whitman himself wrote in his journals that he was “simmering, simmering, simmering, Emerson brought me to a boil.”
According to literary theorist and critic Harold Bloom, no one writing in the Western world in any language has been influenced by Whitman, who he claims is an Emersonian.
Bloom claims that after Emerson, you were either an Emersonian or not. Even though critical of Emerson like Herman Melville, who satirized him in The Confidence Man, called him a “deep diver.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson died in 1882, but he is still very much with us. When you hear people assert their individualism, perhaps in rejecting help from the government or anyone else, you hear the voice of Emerson. When you hear a self-help guru on TV tell people that if they change their way of thinking, they will change reality, you hear the voice of Emerson. He is America’s apostle of individualism, our champion of mind over matter, and he set forth the core of his thinking in his essay “Self-Reliance” (1841).
While they influence us today, Emerson’s ideas grew out of a specific time and place, which spawned a philosophical movement called Transcendentalism. “Self-Reliance” asserts a central belief in that philosophy: truth lies in our spontaneous, involuntary intuitions. from Individualism in Emerson’s Self Reliance
Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement that developed in the late 1820s and 1830s in the eastern United States.
A core belief of transcendentalism is in the inherent goodness of people and nature. Adherents believe that society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual, and they have faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent.
Transcendentalism emphasizes subjective intuition over objective empiricism. Adherents believe that individuals are capable of generating completely original insights with as little attention and deference to past masters as possible.
The American Scholar
“The American Scholar” was a speech given by Ralph Waldo Emerson on August 31, 1837, to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College at the First Parish in Cambridge in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was invited to speak in recognition of his groundbreaking work Nature, published a year earlier, in which he established a new way for America’s fledgling society to regard the world. Sixty years after declaring independence, American culture was still heavily influenced by Europe, and Emerson, for possibly the first time in the country’s history, provided a visionary philosophical framework for escaping “from under its iron lids” and building a new, distinctly American cultural identity.
Emerson uses Transcendentalist and Romantic views to get his points across by explaining a true American scholar’s relationship to nature. There are a few key points he makes that flesh out this vision:
- We are all fragments, “as the hand is divided into fingers”, of a greater creature, which is mankind itself, “a doctrine ever new and sublime.”
- An individual may live in either of two states. In one, the busy, “divided” or “degenerate” state, he does not “possess himself” but identifies with his occupation or a monotonous action; in the other, “right” state, he is elevated to “Man”, at one with all mankind.
- To achieve this higher state of mind, the modern American scholar must reject old ideas and think for him or herself, to become “Man Thinking” rather than “a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking”, “the victim of society”, “the sluggard intellect of this continent”.
- “The American Scholar” has an obligation, as “Man Thinking”, within this “One Man” concept, to see the world clearly, not severely influenced by traditional/historical views, and to broaden his understanding of the world from fresh eyes, to “defer never to the popular cry.”
- The scholar’s education consists of three influences:
- I. Nature as the most important influence on the mind
- II. The Past manifest in books
- III. Action and its relation to experience
- The last, unnumbered part of the text is devoted to Emerson’s view on the “Duties” of the American Scholar who has become the “Man Thinking.
from Self Reliance
I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instil is of more value than any thought they may contain. 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.
Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles. (566)