Great People

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson
25 May 1803 - 27 April 1882










An American Philosopher


One of America's greatest philosophers who managed to introduce European and Eastern thought to the New World, and greatly contributed in forming a unique American quality that came from an original and distinguished mind, which was open to all kinds of influence. He was one of the major figures of the Transcendentalism movement, a period which was also called the American Renaissance, that took place between 1835-1865. It was a glorious time when literature, poetry and philosophical thought flourished, and Emerson's influence acted as a catalyst for other great writers such as Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau, who was the closest of Emerson's friends.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Western, or Yankee mystic, as he is often referred to, had extensively read the philosophies of Plato, Confucius and Kant and the works of great writers, such as William Shakespeare, Sir Francis Bacon and Samuel Coleridge. In his own writings he managed to combine religion with philosophy, as well as ancient classical ideas with super-naturalism and mysticism. He supported the infinite potential of an over-soul, which he accepted as an inseparable part of the human existence, and termed it as the "infinitude of every man." Having been influenced by the European Romanticism of that time, he promoted ethics, aesthetics and advanced thought, not only in the theoretical but also in the practical aspect of life. He was a non-conformist and a great supporter of human rights, a proponent of abolition of slavery, and one who believed that man has to be in absolute harmony with nature and with himself.


The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25th 1803, in Boston Massachusetts, USA. His family was deeply religious, as his father was a Unitarian minister of the First Church, and his mother came from a well-known Anglican family. Ralph was well acquainted with the Holy Scripts that were daily read in his home, and his father, who had founded the "Anthology Club of Boston," was a very educated man who loved art, literature and poetry. Unluckily, when Ralph was only 8 years old, his father died and the young boy was raised by his mother and his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, who sent him to Boston Public Latin School, where his early literary gifts were recognized.

At the age of 14, Ralph entered Harvard college where he could develop his writing skills, and make his first steps on the path of a brilliant writing career. When he graduated, he worked as a school teacher in a girls' school that his brother had established, but left a few years later to go to Harvard Divinity School, and in 1829 he accepted an invitation to be ordained as junior pastor in the Second Church of Boston.

The time he spent in Church was greatly beneficial to Ralph, as he derived inspiration from his sermons, while his rhetoric abilities greatly improved in the pulpit, and his rhetoric was a skill that would make him distinct, when he gave numerous lectures throughout his life.

He met his future wife Ellen Louisa Tucker while preaching at Concord, New Hampshire. She was only 18 years old and a very beautiful young lady. They got married and moved to Boston, but Ellen was already suffering from tuberculosis, and two years later she died leaving Ralph devastated. He left Boston and the Church, as he had already several disagreements with accepting the Biblical miracles, and with the rituals of the Holy Communion. He left for Europe and sailed to Malta, in the Mediterranean.

For some time he travelled round Italy, and then he visited Europe where he met some great men and kindred spirits, like Thomas Carlyle, William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. One year later, in 1834 he returned to the US, and after living for some time with his mother in Newton, he moved to Concord, and in 1835 he married his second wife, Lydia Jackson with whom he had four children. When his first son was born, Ralph expressed his view on infancy writing: "the perpetual Messiah, which comes into the arms of fallen men and pleads with them to return to paradise."

For the next 20 years, Emerson revealed a unique talent in writing and lecturing, and he made a lot of friends in the literary world among which, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Hoar. To the end of his life Emerson said that he had always considered Thoreau as his best friend and in 1862, when Thoreau died of tuberculosis at the age of 44, it was Emerson who delivered his eulogy.

In 1840, along with Bronson Alcott and George Ripley, he launched The Dial magazine that represented the Transcendentalist movement, and in 1841, he published his first series of Essays while his second series was published in 1846. Emerson travelled all over the US giving lectures and captivating his audiences with his ideas and speaking style.

In 1847 and for nine months, he toured England, Scotland and Ireland, studying the cultures of the places he visited, and getting inspiration for his lectures on the Natural History of Intellect and his book, English Traits. In 1860, he published another series of lectures on the Conduct of Life, which increased his fame in the American literary world, while lecturing, actively taking part against slavery, and supporting the emancipation of the slaves. During the last years of his life his memory failed him, especially after the fire that burned down his house in 1872. He died of pneumonia in 1882 and on his grave, Whitman said: "A just man, poised on himself, all-loving, all-inclosing, and sane and clear as the sun."

Back to Top


Emerson's Life & Beliefs

Emerson's writings, during his early years, show that he had a strong belief in self-reliance, he maintained that wisdom came to men by divine influx, that nature was the means to unlock all secrets of wisdom, and make men enlightened. One of the most important works of his early period is his book "Nature," which he wrote in 1836. It is a masterpiece in lyrical prose, which expresses young Emerson's idealism and can be compared with Thoreau's "Walden" and Whitman's "Song of myself." In it, Emerson combines his personal beliefs, confessions and experiences with prophecy, while Mother Nature takes the place of Jesus guiding man on his way to salvation.

Emerson declared the literary independence from England, and as it was depicted in his work "The American Scholar," in 1837. He was against the imitations of others, and against following traditions of the past, which he considered to be of minor importance. In "History" he states that conformist and compliance with tradition equal to spiritual suicide. He greatly appreciated philosophers who wrote out of personal experience and inner wisdom, such as Coleridge, Kant and Spinoza, and those who were able to relate the soul to the divine spirit. For him, the human form was the link to the universal mind and that was why he praised "the great servants of the race" such as Plato, Swedenborg, Shakespeare and Goethe, who offer humanity, eternal youth, wisdom and prophecy.

In his early years, he was an anti-conformist, who had even rejected the Unitarian Church which he had served as a priest and he was against social rules as they were applied on human relationships. In "Friendship," he supported the view that "like only can know or understand like." However, in his later works, Emerson seems to accept the idea of less reliance to self, he accepted fate and showed respect for society. In his "Conduct of Life," which he wrote in 1860, he seems to realize human limitations in a universe that constantly evolves while in "Illusions" he turns his attention to the Hindu "maya," which is the phenomenal universe from which the soul has to find its path to ascension.

Back to Top


Conclusion

National and international thought has been greatly influenced by Emerson's philosophy, which has also been a major source of inspiration for future thinkers. He was an authority on showing the way that life has to follow, a way which challenges existing standards and manages to overcome personal, national and religious barriers.

Back to Top

Back to Great People