Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson, Ralph Waldo (25 March 1803 - 27 April 1882)
Emerson, the third of six sons (two sisters died in early childhood), was greatly influenced in his youth by his father’s sister, Mary Moody Emerson, who was 4’ 3” tall and slept in a coffin-shaped bed. She was, he felt, “the best writer in Massachusetts,” and his manuscript of her letters and his recording of their conversations totaled 870 pages.
Although his father was nonreligious, a Unitarian minister, his aunt was a “deistic pietist” whose motto was “Always do what you are afraid to do.” She came to disapprove of her nephew’s ideas, but from her he learned to think for himself. His mother, widowed when Emerson was eight, ran a boardinghouse to keep her five children out of poverty. Waldo, as he was called, did not seem destined for greatness, and at Harvard he graduated thirtieth in a class of fifty-nine. He suffered from eye trouble and had early symptoms of tuberculosis.
As pointed out by Carlos Baker, an Episcopalian, in Emerson Among the Eccentrics (1996), the kindly, self-controlled man with unusual friends had a hellish youth. His father died when Emerson was eight. His young wife, Ellen, died after their eighteen months of marriage; his brothers had traces of madness and died young. He proposed by letter to his second wife, Lydia Jackson, later confessing he knew he could never have written the kind of romantic love letter she wanted. Baker’s book, about the thinkers and hangers-on who surrounded Emerson, is consummate in its details.
Caleb Crain, in American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation (Yale, 2001), tells of Emerson's having translated a homerotic poem of the 14th century Persian poet Hafiz. He also suggests that Emerson had a crush when young on Martin Gay, a fellow student:
- And there were new friendships. Emerson found himself strangely and powerfully attracted by a new freshman named Martin Gay. With an unembarrassed frankness he wrote in his journal about the disturbing power of the glances he and Gay exchanged. He would remain susceptible to such crushes, expressed at first through glances, all his life; most of them would involve women. Later he wrote about the quickness with which a glance could arouse a depth of interest. He had a sort of theory of "the glance." And while he heavily crossed out the Martin Gay journal notes at some later time, his initial recording of them indicates his essential emotional openness. He may have been quiet, he certainly did not cut a commanding figure, but he did not shrink from direct experience.
What Emerson Read
A careful journal-keeper, he included whose work he read (his transcendentalism was inspired by Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Carlyle), quotations he liked, and arguments he worked out. He looked into the mystical writings of Pythagoras, Plotinus, Schelling, Schleiermacher, Swedenborg, and Böhme, and he read from Chinese, Indian, and Persian religious literature. By writing his comments into the journal, which amounted to some 263 volumes of observations, anecdotes, epiphanies, and dreams that totaled more than 3,000,000 words, he was aided in remembering ideas and constructing new essays.
In his journal are described the personal losses which so affected him - his wife Ellen died in 1831; his brother Charles died in 1836, and two of his other siblings died in childhood, one having been retarded from birth; his son Waldo died in 1842. His second marriage, to Lydia Jackson in 1835, resulted in her calling him Mr. Emerson. Robert D. Richardson Jr.’s Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995) implies that Lydia treated him coolly but loved him greatly.
The journals also describe his closeness to Margaret Fuller and to Caroline Sturgis, leading Richardson to speculate, without specifics, that “in the early 1840s Emerson was living emotionally, though not physically, in what would now be called an open marriage.”
In his journal (1836) he wrote,
- The most tedious of all discourses are on the subject of the Supreme Being.
A Unitarian minister (1829 to 1832) and a leading transcendentalist along with Coleridge, Emerson believed in humankind’s need to think independently. At the Second Church of Boston, he left because of some differences with his congregation—he demanded that he not be required to administer “the silly Lord’s Supper.” Following is an excerpt from one of his final sermons, delivered on 9 September 1832:
- The Lord's Supper
Having recently given particular attention to this subject, I was led to the conclusion that Jesus did not intend to establish an institution for perpetual observance when he ate the Passover with his disciples; and, further, to the opinion, that it is not expedient to celebrate it as we do. I shall now endeavor to state distinctly my reasons for these two opinions.
- I. The Authority of the Rite
What did [the expression “this do in remembrance of me”] really signify? . . . . I see natural feeling and beauty in the use of such language from Jesus, a friend to his friends; I can readily imagine that he was willing and desirous, when his disciples met, his memory should hallow their intercourse; but I cannot bring myself to believe that in the use of such an expression he looked beyond the living generation, beyond the abolition of the festival he was celebrating, and the scattering of the nation, and meant to impose a memorial feast upon the whole world. . . . But still it may be asked, why did Jesus make expressions so extraordinary and emphatic as these —“This is my body which is broken for you. Take; eat. This is my blood which is shed for you. Drink it.” I reply they are not extraordinary expressions from him. They were familiar in his mouth. He always taught by parables and symbols. It was the national way of teaching and was largely used by him. Remember the readiness which he always showed to spiritualize every occurrence. He stooped and wrote on the sand. He admonished his disciples respecting the leaven of the Pharisees. He instructed the woman of Samaria respecting living water. He permitted himself to be anointed, declaring that it was for his interment. He washed the feet of his disciples. These are admitted to be symbolical actions and expressions. Here, in like manner, he calls the bread his body, and bids the disciples eat. . . . But it is said: “Admit that the rite was not designed to be perpetual. What harm doth it? Here it stands, generally accepted, under some form, by the Christian world, the undoubted occasion of much good; is it not better it should remain?”
- II. This is the Question of Expediency
- If the view which I have taken of the history of the institution be correct, then the claim of authority should be dropped in administering it. . . .
- It has seemed to me that the use of this ordinance tends to produce confusion in our views of the relation of the soul to God. It is the old objection to the doctrine of the Trinity, -—that the true worship was transferred from God to Christ, or that such confusion was introduced into the soul, that an undivided worship was given nowhere. Is not that the effect of the Lord’s Supper? I appeal now to the convictions of communicants—and ask such persons whether they have not been occasionally conscious of a painful confusion of thought between the worship due to God and the commemoration due to Christ. For, the service does not stand upon the basis of a voluntary act, but is imposed by authority. . . . I am so much a Unitarian as this: that I believe the human mind cannot admit but one God, and that every effort to pay religious homage to more than one being, goes to take away all right ideas. I appeal, brethren, to your individual experience. . . .
- Passing other objections, I come to this, that the “use of the elements,” however suitable to the people and the modes of thought in the East, where it originated, is foreign and unsuited to affect us. Whatever long usage and strong association may have done in some individuals to deaden this repulsion, I apprehend that their use is rather tolerated than loved by any of us. We are not accustomed to express our thoughts or emotions by symbolical actions. Most men find the bread and wine no aid to devotion and to some, it is a painful impediment. To eat bread is one thing; to love the precepts of Christ and resolve to obey them is quite another. . . . The statement of this objection leads me to say that I think this difficulty, wherever it is felt, to be entitled to the greatest weight. It is alone a sufficient objection to the ordinance. It is my own objection. This mode of commemorating Christ is not suitable to me. That is reason enough why I should abandon it. If I believed that it was enjoined by Jesus on his disciples, and that he even contemplated making permanent this mode of commemoration, every way agreeable to an eastern mind, and yet, on trial, it was disagreeable to my own feelings, I should not adopt it. I should choose other ways which, as more effectual upon me, he would approve more. For I choose that my remembrances of him should be pleasing, affecting, religious. I will love him as a glorified friend, after the free way of friendship, and not pay him a stiff sign of respect, as men do to those whom they fear. . . .
- Fourthly, the importance ascribed to this particular ordinance is not consistent with the spirit of Christianity. The general object and effect of this ordinance is unexceptionable. It has been, and is, I doubt not, the occasion of indefinite good; but an importance is given by Christians to it which never can belong to any form. My friends, the apostle well assures us that “the kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy, in the Holy Ghost.” I am not so foolish as to declaim against forms. Forms are as essential as bodies; but to exalt particular forms, to adhere to one form a moment after it is outgrown, is unreasonable, and it is alien to the spirit of Christ. . . . What I revere and obey in [Christianity] is its reality, its boundless charity, its deep interior life, the rest it gives to my mind, the echo it returns to my thoughts, the perfect accord it makes with my reason through all its representation of God and His Providence; and the persuasion and courage that come out thence to lead me upward and onward. Freedom is the essence of this faith. It has for its object simply to make men good and wise. Its institutions, then, should be as flexible as the wants of men. That 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. . . . [T]hat for which Jesus gave himself to be crucified; the end that animated the thousand martyrs and heroes who have followed his steps, was to redeem us from a formal religion, and teach us to seek our well-being in the formation of the soul. The whole world was full of idols and ordinances. The Jewish was a religion of forms. The Pagan was a religion of forms; it was all body—it had no life—and the Almighty God was pleased to qualify and send forth a man to teach men that they must serve him with the heart; that only that life was religious which was thoroughly good; that sacrifice was smoke, and forms were shadows. This man lived and died true to this purpose; and now, with his blessed word and life before us, Christians must contend that it is a matter of vital importance—really a duty, to commemorate him by a certain form, whether that form be agreeable to their understandings or not. Is not this to make vain the gift of God? Is not this to turn back the hand on the dial? Is not this to make men—to make ourselves—forget that not forms, but duties; not names, but righteousness and love are enjoined; and that in the eye of God there is no other measure of the value of any one form than the measure of its use? . . . Influenced by these considerations, I have proposed to the brethren of the Church to drop the use of the elements and the claim of authority in the administration of this ordinance, and have suggested a mode in which a meeting for the same purpose might be held free of objection. My brethren have considered my views with patience and candor, and have recommended unanimously an adherence to the present form. I have, therefore, been compelled to consider whether it becomes me to administer it. I am clearly of opinion I ought not. This discourse has already been so far extended, that I can only say that the reason of my determination is shortly this: —It is my desire, in the office of a Christian minister, to do nothing which I cannot do with my whole heart. Having said this, I have said all. I have no hostility to this institution; I am only stating my want of sympathy with it. Neither should I ever have obtruded this opinion upon other people, had I not been called by my office to administer it. . . . As it is the prevailing opinion and feeling in our religious community, that it is an indispensable part of the pastoral office to administer this ordinance, I am about to resign into your hands that office which you have confided to me. It has many duties for which I am feebly qualified. It has some which it will always be my delight to discharge, according to my ability, wherever I exist. And whilst the recollection of its claims oppresses me with a sense of my unworthiness, I am consoled by the hope that no time and no change can deprive me of the satisfaction of pursuing and exercising its highest functions.
A leader among liberal Unitarians, Emerson wrote a poem about “The Oversoul,” a term which for him replaced the Judeo-Christian God and was something of a Platonic ultimate, that “Form of the Good” to which all else is connected. His delivering of “The Divinity School Address” in 1838 was a major event in religious liberalism, for he said, “God resides not in formal religion but in Nature, not in rites, but in persons. A more secret, sweet, and overpowering beauty appears to man when his heart and mind open.” Harvard officials interpreted this as meaning he had rejected Christianity, and they were indignant. He was not invited back to Harvard until 1866, when he finally was granted an LL.D. degree. The New England intelligentsia helped him with the Transcendental Club, its publication called The Dial, and the Brook Farm experiment. He became a spokesman for the transcendentalists, as did in varying degrees Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Hawthorne, Lowell, Longfellow, Bryant, Whittier, Melville, and Whitman.
Joseph McCabe is critical of Emerson but says the fact that Emerson refused to continue as a Unitarian minister “definitely puts him in the class of freethinkers.” He added that Emerson “believed in an Over-Soul or World-Soul (as others put it) and might be described as a Pantheist. He did not like the label Transcendentalist or any other label and did not care to pin himself to any definite religious formulae. Although his dogmatic intuitionist ethic is not suitable for our time and it led to a good deal of ethical narrowness, he was a fine force in American life in the last century.”
However, was McCabe unaware that Emerson was invited to give the Harvard Divinity School address by its graduating class, chosen as the one who could give them - as future Unitarian ministers - helpful advice as to how best they could fulfill such responsibilities? His address remains a model for Unitarian ministers. At this point in his life, after leaving the job of pastoral counseling and sick-visiting, he developed his Unitarian views by speaking on the lecture circuit to more than a single congregation, becoming known by far more individuals.
(See Robert D. Richardson's First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process, in which he points out that Emerson was a lecturer, that his essays all began as lectures. "His writing was first speaking." When at the age of 27 he lost his young wife Ellen to tuberculosis after fewer than two years of marriage, he "reacted to being separated from Ellen by separating himself from the church, from Boston, from the prevailing thought of the time (Scottish Common Sense), from . . . the Massachusetts senate chaplaincy, and from the cramping form of the sermon," in Richardson's words. "The loss that darkened his life also freed him. Ellen's death cut Emerson loose. Excluded from conventional happiness, he abandoned conventional life. He redoubled his efforts, albeit with a touch of panic, to live his own life and think his own thoughts." This led to his inability to observe the traditional administration of Communion, saying that this mode of commemorating Christ was not suitable to him, and that this was sufficient reason for him to abandon it: he resigned from the ministry.)
Among Emerson’s humanistic gems are the following:
- • I am the doubter and the doubt, And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.
- • I like a church; I like a cowl; I love a prophet of the soul;
- And on my heart monastic aisles
- Fall like sweet strains, or pensive smiles;
- Yet not for all his faith can see
- Would I that cowlèd churchman be.
- • If eyes were made for seeing, Then Beauty is its own excuse for being.
- • Things are in the saddle, And ride mankind.
- • The reward of a thing well done, is to have done it.
- • Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.
- • Go put your creed into your deed, nor speak with double tongue.
- • 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.
- • I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.
- • When Nature has work to be done, she creates a genius to do it.
- • Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow you think
- in hard words again, though it con tradict everything you have said today.
- • Other world? There is no other world! Here or nowhere is the whole fact.
- • We should not forgive the clergy for taking, on every issue, the immoral side.
- • The cure for theology is mother-wit.
- • As men’s prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect.
- • I knew a witty physician who . . . used to affirm that if there was disease in the liver,
- the man became a Calvinist, and if that organ was sound, he became a Unitarian.
Nietzsche was favorably influenced by Emerson. Erwin Schrödinger as well as Arthur Koestler found favor with Emerson’s view that after death we “lie in the lap of immense intelligence,” that being the Absolute Mind, a “great reservoir of consciousness” according to Paul Edwards in Immortality. Matthew Arnold pronounced Emerson’s essays “the most important work done in prose” in the nineteenth century. Not so praiseworthy were Hawthorne, Melville (“I do not oscillate in Emerson’s rainbow”), T. S. Eliot, and Yvor Winters. But, Harold Bloom wrote, “The mind of Emerson is the mind of America, for worse and for glory, and the central concern of that mind was the American religion, which most memorably was named ‘self-reliance.’ “
The Hall of Fame
When elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans (which was built on the Bronx campus of New York University), Emerson received 87 of the 97 possible votes, bettered only by Washington, Lincoln, Webster, Franklin, Grant, John Marshall, and Jefferson. Three decades prior, Emerson had been fooled into believing that a recently found 10’ 4 1/2” 2900-pound Cardiff, New York, giant was a fossil.
Emerson died quietly of pneumonia. He is buried on a rising ground called Authors’ Ridge at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. The site is marked by a large granite boulder gravestone. Nearby are the remains of Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott. Emerson is flanked by Lidian Emerson, his wife, by their son Waldo, who died at age five, and their daughter Ellen. Ellen’s epitaph reads that although “of a fine mind, she cared more for persons than for books.”