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Profiles in Greatness: Ralph Waldo Emerson

By railing against conformity, Ralph Waldo Emerson taught a new way of life through his many essays and lectures on self-reliance, self-improvement and self-realization. He also was a leader of the Transcendentalist movement; its followers believed that many of society’s institutions (including organized religion and political parties) corrupted the inherent goodness of man.

Emerson influenced generations of writers, and his beliefs about individualism are pillars of American culture. We caught up with Emerson’s pensive spirit at his home in Concord, Mass.

 

Q: You were not a particularly gifted student as a boy and a young man. How do you explain your transformation into a respected writer?

A: “That which we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do; not that the nature of the thing itself has changed, but that our power to do is increased.”

Born in Boston in 1803 to a Unitarian minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson began learning the lessons of hardship at age 8, when his father’s death left the family dependent on the charity of the church. Nevertheless, Emerson’s mother was a determined woman who wanted to send four sons to Harvard, so she maintained a boardinghouse to earn money. The Emersons lived in poverty, but Ralph and his brothers were inspired by an aunt who taught them to look upon deprivation as “ecstatic self-denial.”

Emerson spent four years at Harvard, had a brief stint as a schoolmaster, and then followed the path of his ancestors, pursuing a career as a Unitarian minister. Emerson questioned conventional Christianity, however. His skepticism, a lifelong feature of his thinking and writing, was fueled initially by his readings of Buddhist and Hindu literature. As he educated himself, Emerson became increasingly passionate about developing a new worldview and resigned from his church position in 1832.

 

Q: You gave up a well-paying job as a minister to teach and inspire others with your ideas. Why?

A: “It was high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, ‘Always do what you are afraid to do.’ ”

Emerson used the inheritance from his first wife’s death to pay for a move to Concord, Mass. There he led the life of a “poet,” a term he used broadly to describe his whole career, even though he is largely known as an essayist.

After traveling extensively in Europe to broaden his perspective, Emerson returned to Concord and wrote Nature, published in 1836. The essay did not make Emerson famous, but it did begin to outline his values as a thinker who focused on the repudiation of materialism and the embrace of nature as the embodiment of divinity. His views influenced American contemporaries Walt Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose works remain classic reading for U.S. high school and college students.

Nature, along with Emerson’s 1838 “Divinity School Address” at Harvard, laid the foundation for Transcendentalism, a school of thought devoted to self-reliance and self-improvement. Although the membership of Emerson’s Transcendental Club was small, it included the great thinkers Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, and others influential in American literature and philosophy.

 

Q: What was the guiding principle of your life as you became well-known as a writer and lecturer?

A: “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.”

With the publication of Essays in 1841, Emerson built on his stature as an author. Unlike his previous essays and lectures, this book—composed of famous pieces such as “Self-Reliance” and “The Over-Soul”—was written for a popular audience. It laid out the Transcendentalist ethics of self-improvement and put forth the idea that a life goal is to pass into higher forms, a belief akin to Buddhist principles.

Emerson became especially well-known for lashing out against conformity. He lambasted the “herd instinct” and challenged people to be open to new ways of thinking and doing in order to continually improve themselves. “A foolish consistency,” he wrote, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

 

Q: Even after you were comfortable financially and respected in your field, life was not easy for you. How did you cope with challenges?

A: “Bad times have scientific value. These are occasions a good learner would not miss.”

By the 1840s, Emerson was the recognized founder and leader of the Transcendental movement, and he made frequent lecture tours in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. But when he lost his 5-year-old son Waldo to scarlet fever in 1842, his outlook gradually darkened, and he started to recognize how difficult it was to attain his ideals in a troubled and imperfect world. Emerson also became acutely aware that life is forever slipping away. In fact, well before his death in 1882, Emerson’s memory was erratic and his intellectual power declined.

It wasn’t that Emerson adopted a negative worldview—he just adjusted the sunny optimism of his earlier work. He noted that human nature seems to resist change. But in “Experience,” he urged his audiences not to give up. “Up again, old heart!” Emerson wrote, noting that the “true romance which the world exists to realize will be the transformation of genius into practical power.”

 

Q: Today some might argue that your philosophical essays are no longer relevant. What would you say to that?

A: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.”

By the 1850s, Emerson’s work seemed anticlimactic compared to the essays of his younger years; perhaps surprisingly, his older works grew more popular even as Emerson diverted his attention from those ideas to focus on the abolition movement.

 Emerson was a powerful influence on writers as diverse as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, born in 1844, and later American literary figures such as Robert Frost, Theodore Dreiser and Ralph Ellison. 

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