The American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82)
resists easy classification. During his lifetime he was an influential
public intellectual whose lectures drew large audiences throughout America
and in England, and whose works were a fixture in households worldwide.
Emerson influenced both the German and the Anglo-American philosophical
traditions through Nietzsche and Heidegger on the one hand, and William
James and John Dewey on the other.
Emerson develops a philosophy of flux or transitions in which the human self plays a central role. At the core of his thought is a hierarchy of value or existence, and a tremendous aspiration for personal and social progress. 'Man,' he writes in his first book Nature (1836) 'is the dwarf of himself.' Along with these vast ambitions, however, lies a dire portrait of humankind's current condition: 'Men in the world of today are bugs or spawn, and are called "the mass" and "the herd"'. Emerson's
major works are essays, but his sentences and paragraphs no less than his essays or series of essays stand on their own as expressions of his thought.
2 Emerson as Philosopher
3 Early Works
4 Mature Philosophy
Ralph Waldo (known to friends and family after his college years as 'Waldo') was the fourth of eight children born in Boston to the Reverend William Emerson and Ruth Haskins Emerson. He lost his father to tuberculosis just before his seventh birthday and was raised by his mother and his father's sister Mary Moody Emerson. After four undistinguished years at Harvard he became a schoolteacher and studied theology there, preparing for the ministry.
In 1829, Emerson was ordained pastor of the Second (Unitarian) Church of Boston and married Ellen Tucker. Ellen died of tuberculosis in 1831, and the following year Emerson resigned his position on the grounds that he could no longer administer the sacrament of the Last Supper, which he considered a "dead form." On Christmas Day, 1832, he set sail for Europe, where he toured Malta, Italy, France, Switzerland, England, and Scotland. In Britain he met the aging William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, who became a liifelong friend.
Soon after his return in November, 1833, he gave his first lecture, on The Uses of Natural History, at the Masonic Temple of Boston, embarking on a career as a public speaker that was to continue for the next half-century. He married Lydian Jackson in 1835 and settled in Concord, from which he set out on lecture tours throughout the northeastern United States and later to England (in 1847-8 and 1872-3) and the American midwest.
Emerson's published works, derived from his lectures and journals, include Nature (1836), Essays, First Series (1841), Essays, Second Series (1844), Representative Men (1850), English Traits (1856), The Conduct of Life (1860), and Society and Solitude (1875).
2 Emerson as Philosopher
There is no one to whom commentators, philosophers or not, are more apt to deny the title of philosopher than Emerson. Most twentieth-century discussions of his work have been by literary critics, with such notable exceptions as John Dewey's 1903 address 'Ralph Waldo Emerson--Philosopher of Democracy' and a series of papers by Stanley Cavell. Emerson is no system-builder in the mould of Descarates or Kant or Hegel, and his use of the essay form--inherited from his hero, Montaigne--corresponds to the radical epistemological and metaphysical openness of his thought: towards the end of his great essay 'Experience', he writes, 'I know better than to claim any completeness for my picture. I am a fragment and this is a fragment of me.'
Emerson has a broadly Kantian outlook, according to which the world is in some way our construction. But like other Romantics, he finds that the 'lenses which paint the world' include our passions: "Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus. These moods 'do not believe in one another': each comes with 'its own tissue of facts and beliefs'. In one moment, we find ourselves bound by fate, in another real possibilities open up; in one moment we see a picture or read a book with a sense of adventure and understanding, in another we cannot see what interested us before. 'Our life,' Emerson states, 'is March weather, savage and serene in one hour'.
At the center of the series of moods lies the self--or, it would be better to say--the problem of the self. For Emerson, like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, finds the existence of the self to be a major issue. If the mass of men are 'bugs or spawn' and even the great or representative person is 'partial,' then the achievement of a fully developed human self is an enormous task. Emerson presents himself as having undertaken this task in 'Self-Reliance': 'Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.'
Emerson's philosophy is a blend of classical and incipiently 'postmodern' or 'pragmatist' notions. With its references to the 'Unity' or 'Over-Soul, within which every man's particular being is contained,' or to 'the Ideal journeying always with us, the heaven without rent or seam,' Emerson's writing exhibits a strong Neoplatonic streak. Yet in a world of shifting moods and things that 'slip through our fingers...when we clutch hardest' at them,' Emerson finds no foundations but only 'a house founded on the sea'. Even our language, far from reflecting permanent forms, is 'fluxional', 'vehicular and transitive,...good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead'. These Neoplatonic and pragmatic tendencies come together in Emerson's statement that 'the one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul.' Whether in history, philosophy, or conversation, Emerson stresses the expansions or transitions of thinking the individual undergoes. Each of his major essays offers a series of such transitions.
3. Early Works
Emerson's philosophy is often taken as starting with his first book Nature (1836), where he expresses a sense of 'decorum and sanctity in the woods' and of vast 'prospects' for a culture of new thought and 'new men'. The new culture can be achieved, and the beauty of the world restored, 'by the redemption of the soul,' but this redemption takes place, Emerson emphasizes, according to no formula or model, but through 'untaught sallies of the spirit, by a continual self-recovery, and by entire humility'.
Emerson's distinctive philosophical voice emerges in 'The American Scholar' (1837) where, in one of the reversals characteristic of his thinking, he writes of the scholar less as a man in a library than as a complete 'Man Thinking', whose 'dictionary' is a life of free 'action'. Influenced by but not 'warped out of his own orbit' by past writing, the scholar is an original source rather than 'the parrot of other men's thinking'. Emerson calls us back to ordinary life: to 'the literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life'. Although he is often termed a 'transcendentalist', Emerson does not wish to transcend the common world. 'I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into today and you may have the antique and future worlds.'
'An Address Delivered Before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge', commonly known as the 'Divinity School Address' (1838), contains a fierce attack on institutional religion, but a defense of such 'holy bards' as Moses and Jesus. The 'eastern monarchy of a Christianity' Emerson finds around him treats the revelation as something that happened 'long ago..., as if God were dead.' But, Emerson insists, 'God is; not was.'
Emerson's first series of 12 essays contains some of his best-known work, including 'History,' 'Self-Reliance,' 'The Over-Soul,' and 'Circles', as well as 'Friendship', 'Spiritual Laws,' 'Intellect', and 'Compensation'. Emerson thinks of history, like scholarship, as a matter primarily of the personal and the present, as 'the desire to do away this wild, savage and preposterous There or Then, and introduce in its place the Here and the Now.' 'The Over-Soul' teaches a religion of the here and now to go along with Emerson's present-oriented history and scholarship: 'The simplest person, who in his integrity worships God, becomes God.' 'Circles' expresses Emerson's vision of flux and incompletion, in which 'permanence is but a word of degrees'. Especially in morality, 'there is no virtue which is final; all are initial.' Yet Emerson presents his own set of initial or experimental virtues, including especially 'abandonment' and 'enthusiasm.'
'Self-Reliance' offers an indictment
of the crowd or public—a 'mob' of 'timorous, desponding whimperers'—and
a radical defense of the individual. 'Whoso would be a man,' Emerson
states, 'must be a nonconformist'; and the healthy attitude of human nature
is displayed in 'the nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner'.
Anticipating Nietzsche's idea of the human creation of higher values, Emerson
brazenly asks 'What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions if I
live wholly from within?'
4. Mature Philosophy
Emerson's 'Experience' dominates the second series of essays (1844), building an interpretation of human experience around the writer's grief at the death of his five-year-old son Waldo. The essay opens with the depiction of a series of stairs whose top and bottom we cannot see. This, Emerson tells us, is 'where we find ourselves.' Like many Emersonian essays, 'Experience' tells the story of 'the fall of man' and of rebirth or renewal--not through a foreign power but through contemporary 'men and women.' How can we make our way through 'the system of illusions' or the 'train of moods' in which we find ourselves, when there is no final, best view, no 'anchorage'? A newly pragmatic Emerson maintains that we can learn to skate over the surfaces of life; or, in a related metaphor, to find that 'everything good is on the highway.' The second series also includes 'Manners', where Emerson develops a philosophy of social relations that, anticipating Nietzsche, stresses the distance between individuals. In 'Nominalist and Realist' the final essay in the series, he develops a perspectival metaphysics that complements his epistemology of moods.
Emerson's preoccupation with the heroic develops most fully in Representative Men (1850), which includes essays on Plato, Napoleon, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Swedenborg, and Goethe. The skeptic in the Montagine essay takes a position between that of 'the abstractionist and the materialist', each of whom treats the world as more solid than it is. We are in fact 'spinning like bubbles in a river...bottomed and capped and wrapped in delusions.' Montaigne, the wise skeptic, develops a philosophy of 'fluxions and mobility,...a ship in these billows we inhabit...tight, and fit to the form of man'.
The greatest of Emerson's late essays, 'Fate' (1860), dwells on the biological, physical, and psychological forces controlling our experience. Our individual fortunes are fated, for example, because the events that 'seem to meet' us are as much 'exuded' from our character as encountered. Yet Emerson insists that there is also liberty or freedom, and that this liberty rests on our powers of thinking: 'if there be irresistible dictation, this dictation understands itself.' As in all his work, from Nature onward, Emerson records both our subjection to necessity and our powers of overcoming it. The ideal life, he suggests, can be achieved through a controlled oscillation or balance between 'Nature' and 'Thought'.
List of Works
Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1971--) The Collected
Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Robert Spiller et al, Cambridge,
Mass: Harvard University Press, (The new standard edition of Emerson's
-------(1903-4) The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 12 volumes. (Former standard edition.)
-------(1836) Nature, repr. in Collected Works, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, vol. 1, 1-45. (Emerson's first book, advocating an original relation to the universe.)
-------(1837) 'The American Scholar'; repr. in Collected Works, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971, vol. 1, 52-70. (Calls for active souls rather than slavish scholars or 'bookworms'.)
------- (1838) 'The Divinity School Address'; repr. in Collected Works, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), vol. 1, 76-93. (Controversial graduation address at Harvard Divinity School, in which Emerson attacks the 'Monster' of institutional Christianity.)
-------(1841) Essays, First Series, in Collected Works, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971, vol. 2. (Contains 'Self-Reliance', 'Circles', 'The Over-Soul' and 'Intellect'.)
------- (1844) Essays, Second Series, in Collected Works, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971, vol. 3. (Contains 'Experience', 'The Poet' and 'Nominalist and Realist'.)
--------(1850) Representative Men, in Collected Works, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971, vol. 4. (Essays on Montaigne, Plato, Napoleon, and others.)
--------(1860) The Conduct of Life, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960). (Contains 'Fate', 'Power' and 'Illusions'.)
------(1961-72) The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 3 vols. Stephen E. Whicher, Robert E. Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams, eds., Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. (Includes Emerson's first lectures of 1833; and a course on 'The Present Age' given in 1839-1840.)
------(1964) The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph L. Rusk. 6 vols. New York: Columbia University Press. (Correspondence with family and friends, including Mary Moody Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Henry James, Sr., Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.)
------(1910-14) The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes. 10 vols., Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin. (Records of his reading and thinking from 1819 onwards, and the source for much in his essays.)
-------(1960--)The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William Gillman, et. al., Cambridge: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press. (The standard edition.)
------and Carlyle, Thomas (1964) The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle, ed. Joseph Slater, New York: Columbia University Press. (Transatlantic correspondence of two great figures of Romanticism.)
References and Further Reading
Allen, Gay Wilson (1981) Waldo Emerson,
New York: Viking Press. (A fine, readable biography of Emerson.)
Cavell, Stanley (1981) 'Thinking of Emerson' and 'An Emerson Mood', in The Senses of Walden, An Expanded Edition (San Francisco: North Point Press. (Sets out Emerson's relation to Heidegger through discussion of his
'epistemology of moods'.)
------(1988) In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Traces lines of thought from Kant through Coleridge to Emerson, and offers an existentialist reading of 'Self-Reliance'.)
------(1989) 'Finding as Founding: Taking Steps in Emerson's "Experience"', in This New Yet Unapproachable America, Albuquerque, New Mexico: Living Batch Press. (Argues that Emerson offers a proto-Heideggerian criticism of 'thinking as clutching', and a conception of foundation as 'finding' or 'taking the open road'.)
------(1990) 'Introduction' and 'Aversive Thinking' in Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. (Emerson's thought in relation to
issues discussed by Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Rawls.)
Ellison, J. (1984). Emerson's Romantic Style, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (A close reading of Emersonian texts, stressing the 'defensive and aggressive functions' of his irony, repetitions, and contradictions.)
Firkins, Oscar W. (1915) Ralph Waldo Emerson, Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (A superbly written general account of Emerson's life and writing.)
Goodman, Russell B. (1990) American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Discusses Emerson's relation to European Romanticism and American pragmatism.)
Holmes, Oliver Wendell (1885) Ralph Waldo Emerson, Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (A memoir by one of Emerson's distinguished friends.)
Kateb, George. (1995). Emerson and Self-Reliance, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. (Emerson's social and political philosophy.)
Packer, B. L. (1982) Emerson's Fall, New York: Continuum. (The best contemporary literary treatment of Emerson's essays.)
Poirier, Richard (1992) Poetry and Pragmatism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ('Emersonian pragmatism' in William James, Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, and Wallace Stevens.)
Richardson, R. D., Jr. (1995) Emerson: The Mind on Fire, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. (An excellent, comprehensive biography of Emerson.)
Scudder, Townsend (1936) The Lonely Wayfaring Man: Emerson and Some Englishmen, New York: Oxford University Press.
Whicher, Stephen (1953) Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. (A classic discussion of Emerson's dialectic of freedom and fate.)
RUSSELL B. GOODMAN