Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882) was an American essayist, lecturer, and poet, who was a leading figure of the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. He was seen as a champion of individualism, liberty and freedom of thought. He was a prolific essayist and speaker, giving over 1,500 public lectures in the US. Nicknamed the Sage of Concord—he became the leading intellectual figure of the United States.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston in 1803, the son of a Unitarian Minister. His father died when he was young (8 years old) and he had to support his education through doing part-time jobs. In October 1817, he went to Harvard, where he served as class poet, but he didn’t stand out as a student graduating in the middle of his class. After graduation, he went to Florida, seeking warmer climates for his delicate health.
Emerson worked as a schoolmaster and later as a pastor in Boston’s Second Church. However, he gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of Transcendentalism in his 1836 essay, Nature. Following this ground-breaking work, he gave a speech entitled ‘The American Scholar’ in 1837, which Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. considered to be America’s “Intellectual Declaration of Independence”.
” We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. The study of letters shall be no longer a name for pity, for doubt, and for sensual indulgence. The dread of man and the love of man shall be a wall of defence and a wreath of joy around all. A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.” – Emerson, ‘The American Scholar‘
When he was just 18, Emerson married Ellen Louisa Tucker, but she tragically died just two years later – an event which shook the young Emerson. Around this time, he became more uncertain over the religious beliefs of the church he worked as a pastor. He was unsatisfied with the Communion and the method of worship. To Emerson, it seemed too dry. Several years later in 1838, he was invited to Harvard Divinity School, where he gave a famous address claiming that early Christianity had ‘deified’ Christ and as a result, he discounted the miracles in the Bible (a similar approach to the Jefferson Bible). This radical approach was heavily criticised by members of the establishment.
Emerson wrote most of his important essays as lectures first, then revised them for print. His first two collections of essays – ‘Essays: First Series’ and ‘Essays: Second Series’, published respectively in 1841 and 1844 – represent the core of his thinking, and include such well-known essays as ‘Self-Reliance’, ‘The Over-Soul’, ‘Circles’, ‘The Poet and Experience’. Together with Nature, these essays made the decade from the mid-1830s to the mid-1840s Emerson’s most fertile period. Emerson saw the aim of life for man to realise his inner divinity.
“The purpose of life seems to be to acquaint a man with himself. He is not to live the future as described to him but to live the real future to the real present. The highest revelation is that God is in every man.” – Emerson, Journals
Emerson also was instrumental in encouraging other American writers. Walt Whitman sent his innovative poetry “Leaves of Grass” to Emerson. Emerson wrote a glowing five-page review – and this was influential in helping Whitman’s career. He was also very close to Henry David Thoreau – he considered Thoreau to be his best friend. Emerson was an influential figure in the movement of Transcendentalism. Evolving out of European Romanticism, it was a philosophy which developed its own outlook, which combined both mysticism with a belief in rationality and scientific outlook.
Emerson was firmly against slavery. After 1844, despite disliking being in the public limelight, he became more involved in the anti-slavery movement. In 1859, he gave a speech praising the fiery abolitionist John Brown.
“The South calls slavery an institution… I call it destitution… Emancipation is the demand of civilization”. (Emerson January 31, 1862)
He supported Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election and expressed disappointment when the civil war seemed to be about preserving the union rather than the abolition of slavery. However, on meeting Lincoln in 1862, Emerson warmed to Lincoln and after his assassination, Emerson gave a warm tribute to his beloved President.
Religious views of Emerson
Emerson’s religious beliefs evolved. His early Christianity was too limiting. He was non-conformist and sought out religious meaning from his own experience and a wide-range of religious sources. Reading the great Indian scriptures, he was highly moved and felt that they hinted at the real meaning of religion.
“I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad Gita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us” – Emerson, Journals (1822–1863)
Similar to the Deism of the American Founding Fathers, Emerson also saw Nature as a powerful way to understand the living God.
“Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” – Emerson – Nature (1836)
Towards the end of his life, his memory began to fail him, and he retreated from public life, concentrating on writing poetry. In April 1882, Emerson was found to be suffering from pneumonia, and he died shortly after.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net, Published 22nd Jan. 2010. Last updated 12 October 2019.
The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Inspiration & Wisdom from the Pen of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Inspirational people – People who made a difference in a positive way and left the world a better place. Includes Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Teresa and Emil Zatopek.
Famous Americans – Great Americans from the Founding Fathers to modern civil rights activists. Including presidents, authors, musicians, entrepreneurs and businessmen. Featuring Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Madonna, Oprah Winfrey.
People of the Romantic Era (1790s to 1850s) Romantic poets (Blake, Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shelley) and Romantic artists, composers and writers.
People of the Nineteenth Century (1801 to 1900) Nineteenth Century saw the economic boom of the industrial revolution and world-wide movements for political change.
Main Element’s of Emerson’s Teachings
Individuality and the importance of individual freedom.
“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense” (Self-Reliance)
The unending capacity of the human spirit and human nature.
A willingness to speak your mind whatever the consequences.
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.” (Self-Reliance)
The presence of God in all, and the ability of Nature to reveal God.
“The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance.” (Nature, 1836)
Emerson was influenced by Indian religious thought such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas, expressing a belief in non-dualism.
“I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad Gita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.” (Journals 1 October 1848)
Emerson was one of the key figures of Modern American literature. He inspired and encouraged other writers such as Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau.