Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson “was truly one of our great geniuses” (Hodgins 212). Born in Boston in 1803, Emerson struggled through childhood to then graduate from Harvard at 18 years old. He had been through death, poverty, and struggle his whole life until marrying Lydia Jackson. As he began to preach, his life took a pivotal turn to change into transcendentalism.
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Transcendentalism, a belief in a reality higher than in everyday life that man could achieve, has many qualities to it. People who follow this are glorified by nature, free to express themselves, and have high morals. To reach this higher reality of transcendentalism, one must use their mind and think through their intuition. Instead of looking to science for the reasoning of what happens in life, all reasons are looked into thy self.
Emerson was a major leader of Transcendentalism. Emerson’s works related to the philosophical being of man and he can work towards change, whether it’s in himself or the world around him. Emerson’s purposes seem vague until proven otherwise. Emerson devoted his life to the research of his own beliefs.
Emerson was greatly influenced by all the things that surrounded him in his life. Emerson has no distinct style to his work; he wrote everything from sermons to poetry. Emerson presented his ideas in a very expressive manner, one of the qualities of being a Transcendentalist. He wrote on many concerns of his including nature, society, conspiracy and freedom. After visiting Britain, he realized he needed to work towards eliminate slavery. His beliefs were to work toward change which came out through his works.
Ralph Waldo Emerson put all of these ideas together in his essay “The American Scholar.” He presented it before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard. The essay consists of three things that the scholar can learn from. In the first section he talks about learning from resources, like nature, books, and experience. The next section explains how the scholar can use himself to learn from, using trust and intuition. The last section talks about learning from the past’s mistakes and how the American Scholar needs to develop into its own self away from Britain.
Emerson explains that the scholar can be very confused by nature until he completely understands it and is surrounded by it. The scholar learns in nature how everything is connected to each other. He sees that the trees sprout from roots, leaves grow on trees, and so on. Emerson then has the man, or scholar, classify all the things around him. This helps simplify everything to the man. “There is never a beginning, there is never an end to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself.” This quote explains the connection between nature and the mind. They are both things that are continuous and can be filled with great beauty. He then shows how classification starts when the man is young. “To the young mind, everything is individual, stands by itself.” Even when man is young, he breaks everything down into simpler things. Man then believes “that he and it (nature) proceed from one root; one is leaf and one is flower.” This is the opposite of the relationship between nature and man, but man will realize this on his own. “He shall see that nature is the opposite of the soul. Its laws are the laws of his own mind.”
Emerson then goes on to discuss how we can use books. “Books are the best things, well used; abused, among the worst.” He believes that they should be for trying to find out past information and nothing more. He doesn’t think that books are completely accurate and that man needs to form his own opinion of what happened based off all of the information formed by other men who wrote the books. “The scholar of the first age, received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again.” Emerson doesn’t want man to solely base his thoughts of the books. “Instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm.” It is a never ending cycle that man must create his own ideas from other’s ideas and so on. Emerson believes that the use we can find in books. He thinks that man can learn once he uses his own mind and has his own thoughts.
“They look backward and not forward. But genius always looks forward. The eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hind head.” Emerson states how books are always referring to the past while mane needs to be looking forward to the future.
“Man hopes. Genius creates.” This all leads Emerson to thinking that all men can become a genius by thinking with his own mind. “Genius is the sufficiently enemy of the genius by over-influence.” He doesn’t believe that everyone should be a genius since it’s not always a good thing. Emerson says that “books are for the scholar’s idle times” and the only subjects that man should learn from reading are history and exact science.
Although not as important, the scholar must also take action. He must fill each and every moment of the day. The scholar should work different jobs and learn new professions. Then he will learn new languages in which to illustrate his thoughts. The scholar should teach his knowledge to men, teach them facts versus appearances. To do this, the scholar must trust himself, never willing to give in to popular opinion. He should never seek money or power, or let either sway his judgment. His actions are a reflection of his character, and “character is higher than intellect.”
“Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man… inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind.” Emerson wants the scholar to learn but question everything. “The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power.” Emerson also places a value on action. “The final value of action…is, that it is a resource.” Through action man has transformed himself into Man Thinking. “The mind now thinks; now acts; and each fit reproduces the other…he has always the resource to live.”
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In “Self-Reliance” Emerson expresses his optimistic faith in the power of the individual achievement and originality. In “Nature” Emerson considers the over arching need to discover and develop a relationship with nature and God. Emerson also explains that the human sense of beauty depends on seeing things in relation to the “perfect whole” in his poem “Each and All.” In “Self-Reliance,” “Nature,” and “Each and All,” Emerson strived to stress his beliefs in individuality, and his strong connection with nature, beauty, and God.
“Self-Reliance” is Emerson’s strongest statement of his philosophy of individualism. What he is preaching was the presence of divine spirit in every individual. Emerson stressed the importance of being and believing in one’s self and discouraged the copying of another’s image. Emerson also reveals the insignificance of consistency which clutters and clouds the mind, “A foolish consistency is the hobglobin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.” This quotation forms the closing two lines of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self Reliance”. “Trust thyself” was his advice and many Americans listened. They not only listened in Emerson’s lifetime, but his individualistic concepts have reverberated up to the present time.
Emerson believes that a man should not be what he is not. “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide.” If a man is envious of other people, he will ignore all merits of himself. If a man imitates other people, he will lose his identity – like suicide. It is common to find a woman like me envious of other people.
Emerson is ultimately fascinated with the relation of the individual to the natural world. In “Nature” he described the feeling of unity with all beings, as he became “part or parcel of God.” Emerson feels that nature could take away egoism and repair all problems: “…In the woods we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life – no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space- all mean egoism vanishes.” In those sentences Emerson is explaining that nature is so peaceful that you forget about everything else. That nothing can come between you and the natural world. No disgrace, no calamity nothing that nature can repair. Emerson also wrote, “In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature,” meaning that if a man would search deeply enough within himself he would find something as powerful and beautiful as nature to God, and felt the more connected one was to their environment and surroundings, the closer one would be to God. Lastly, Emerson believes that everything is created somehow fits together to from something he called the “perfect whole.”
In “Each in All” Emerson explains that an object was not beautiful by itself. It needs its surroundings to have beauty and magnificence: “…The delicate shells lay on the shore; The bubbles of the latest wave Fresh pearls to their enamel gave, And the bellowing of the savage sea Greeted their escape to me. I wiped away the weeds and foam; I fetch my sea-born treasure home; But the poor unsightly, noisome things Had left their beauty on the shore With the sun and the sand and the wild uproar.” “Each and All” illustrates a transformation that Emerson took, changing from a disappointed and cheated young boy to a man who learns to appreciate the beautiful world in which he lives, “Again I saw, again I heard, the rolling river, the mourning bird. Beauty through my senses stole, I yielded myself to the perfect whole.” (Pg. 194-195) Ralph Waldo Emerson’ s transcendentalism beliefs all were most evident in his essay’s poems, and speeches. In most famous publications, he expresses his optimistic faith in the power of the individual, the power of beauty and nature, and the power of God and human intuition. His awareness and effort that he puts toward the true meanings in life cause him to become one of the most influential and respected leaders of the transcendentalist era.
Hodgins, Francis. ed. Adventures in American Literature. Orlando: Harcourt, 1989.
Each in all
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