Thoreau, Emerson, and Transcendentalism Ralph Waldo Emerson Introduction to Emerson's Writing

Nearly a century and a quarter after his death, Emerson remains one of the most widely read and frequently quoted of American authors. The newness of his ideas and the vigor of his style captured the attention of his lecture audiences and contemporary readers, and continue to move readers today. Emerson expressed the idealistic philosophy underlying his writings with conviction. The degree to which he himself was moved by his thoughts on God, man, and nature enabled him to strike emotional chords and to inspire understanding in the reader.

Emerson's influence as a prose writer derives in part from his incisive observation and his vivid expression. Although he dealt with abstruse concepts, his writing nevertheless possesses clarity, directness, and careful progression from one idea to the next. Difficult concepts are elucidated through analogy and metaphor. Moreover, individual perceptions and ideas progress toward broad generalizations that sweep the reader along. Emerson's phraseology and construction frequently and engagingly suggest the spoken rather than the written word. This impression is reinforced by his propensity for adapting existing words into his own unique creations and for employing quotable maxims. His rhetorical style builds up to peaks of language and emotion. Indeed, Emerson's appeal as a writer — his ability to affect his audience — owes much to his experience as a preacher and public speaker and to the fact that many of his essays were delivered as lectures before they were revised for publication.

Emerson's poetry presents, symbolically and in compressed form, the same major themes found in his addresses and prose writings. The rise and fall of emotional intensity in the poetry parallel the crescendos and cadences of the essays. There are considerable stylistic differences among the poems. Critics have varied widely in assessing the technical success and overall merit of Emerson's poems.

Emerson's thought was informed by a variety of influences, among them New England Calvinism and Unitarianism, the writings of Plato, the Neoplatonists, Coleridge, Carlyle, Wordsworth, Montaigne, and Swedenborg, and eastern sacred texts like the Bhagavad Gita. But his interpretation and synthesis of his antecedents and contemporaries were his own. More than any other thinker and writer of his period, Emerson defined in his work what we think of as American Transcendentalism.

At the end of his life, Emerson looked back on the rise of New England Transcendentalism in the essay "Historic Notes on Life and Letters in Massachusetts," later published under the title "Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England." He wrote of this vital period: "The idea, roughly written in revolutions and national movements, in the mind of the philosopher had far more precision; the individual is the world." Although disinclined to take credit for his own influence, he himself did much to advance the central position of mankind and of the individual in relation to God, nature, and human institutions. From before the 1836 publication of Nature (his first, most comprehensive exposition of the principles of Transcendental philosophy), every lecture that he gave and every piece that he wrote elevated the importance and dignity of man as an expression of God, as a part of the unity of God, man, and nature in the Oversoul. The assumptions underlying Nature invalidated the subordination of the individual in more traditional religious, social, and political frameworks. In Chapter VII of Nature ("Spirit"), Emerson wrote:

. . . that spirit, that is, the Supreme Being, does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old. As a plant upon the earth, so a man rests upon the bosom of God; he is nourished by unfailing fountains, and draws, at his need, inexhaustible power. Who can set bounds to the possibilities of man? . . . man has access to the entire mind of the Creator, is himself the creator in the finite.

This outlook was radically humanistic, and challenged the distant sovereignty of God that formed part of New England's Calvinistic heritage.

Emerson not only uplifted mankind to oneness with, rather than subservience to, God. He also suggested a distinctly democratic view of each man as equal in worth and capacity to all other men. Human hierarchies, distinctions between the great and the humble, were irrelevant in measuring the value of the individual. Emerson wrote in Chapter VIII of Nature ("Prospects"):

All that Adam had, all that Cæsar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Cæsar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobler's trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar's garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world.

This affirmative vision of equality among men, all possessing divinity in some degree, appeals to us today as powerfully as it did to Emerson's contemporaries. Emerson asserted a kind of democracy far more basic than any political or social system can promote. Moreover, he strengthened the individual's claim to significance and respect by philosophically framing extraordinary expressions of human ability within the context of humanity as a whole. Emerson perceived the particular man who had achieved distinction in some way as a demonstration of the possibilities of all men. He proclaimed in "The American Scholar"

The main enterprise of the world for splendor, for extent, is the upbuilding of a man. Here are the materials strown along the ground. The private life of one man shall be a more illustrious monarchy, — more formidable to its enemy, more sweet and serene in its influence to its friend, than any kingdom in history. For a man, rightly viewed, comprehendeth the particular natures of all men. Each philosopher, each bard, each actor, has only done for me, as by a delegate, what one day I can do for myself.

Emerson was fascinated by the attributes — both positive and negative — of a variety of exceptional individuals. He delivered lectures and published essays (contained within his Representative Men) on Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. But he focused on these men not so much to highlight their particular excellences as to suggest the potentialities and aspirations of humanity as a whole. He wrote in "Uses of Great Men" (the first piece in Representative Men):

As to what we call the masses, and common men; — there are no common men. All men are at last of a size; and true art is only possible, on the conviction that every talent has its apotheosis somewhere. Fair play, and an open field, and freshest laurels to all who have won them! But heaven reserves an equal scope for every creature. Each is uneasy until he has produced his private ray unto the concave sphere, and beheld his talent also in its last nobility and exaltation.

Emerson saw the external limitations imposed by civilization, society, institutions, and materialism as greater impediments to individual self-realization than the differences of gifts among men.

Emerson's exaltation of the individual was based upon his view of the integral connection between God, man, and nature. Man is capable of much — imagination, insight, morality, and more — but all of his aptitudes derive from his intimate relationship with a larger, higher entity than himself. Emerson expressed the essential oneness of man with the divine in his essay "The Over-Soul":

We know that all spiritual being is in man. . . . [A]s there is no screen or ceiling between our heads and the infinite heavens, so there is no bar or wall in the soul, where man, the effect, ceases, and God, the cause, begins. The walls are taken away. We lie open on one side to the deeps of spiritual nature, to the attributes of God.

The divine is accessible because God communicates directly to man. Moreover, the influence of the divine on each individual grants the unlimited possibility of higher development, "the infinite enlargement of the heart with a power of growth." The individual may approach ever closer to the perfection of God: "Ineffable is the union of man and God in every act of the soul. The simplest person, who in his integrity worships God, becomes God; yet forever and ever the influx of this better and universal self is new and unsearchable." Self-improvement — moral and spiritual elevation toward the divine — is unbounded, growth an open-ended process.

Nature, which, as Emerson wrote in "Idealism" (Chapter VII of Nature), "is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us," forms a third part of the equation between the divine, the human, and the material. It is a key element in man's realization of his relationship with God: "The world proceeds from the same spirit as the body of man. It is a remoter and inferior incarnation of God, a projection of God in the unconscious." Man's understanding of the importance and meaning of nature is essential to his achieving the insight into God that is available to all. The failure to recognize nature results in distance from God: "As we degenerate, the contrast between us and our house is more evident. We are as much strangers in nature, as we are aliens from God." The channels of interaction between man, God, and nature must remain unobstructed for the universal to express itself in the particular mind and existence of the individual.

Emerson explained the means by which the individual understands his place in the encompassing as oracular and revelatory. He wrote in "The Over-Soul":

And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul. Only by the vision of that Wisdom can the horoscope of the ages be read, and by falling back on our better thoughts, by yielding to the spirit of prophecy which is innate in every man, we can know what it saith.

The broad scope of the universe and man's position in it are fathomable not by the logic of the human intellect, but by the divine spark of intuition. In his glorification of intuitive "reason" (a usage adopted from the English Romantic poets) over more rational, experiential "understanding," Emerson was influenced by Kant and by the interpretation of German idealistic philosophy offered by the English Romantics, particularly Coleridge.

Emerson saw that there was no way to explain intuition in terms of ordinary mental processes. "We know truth when we see it . . . as we know when we are awake that we are awake," he wrote in "The Over-Soul." If mysteriously inexplicable, however, intuition is exhilarating

We distinguish the announcements of the soul, its manifestations of its own nature, by the term Revelation. These are always attended by the emotion of the sublime. For this communication is an influx of the Divine mind into our mind. . . . Every distinct apprehension of this central commandment agitates men with awe and delight. . . . By the necessity of our constitution, a certain enthusiasm attends the individual's consciousness of that divine presence. The character and duration of this enthusiasm varies with the state of the individual, from an extasy and trance and prophetic inspiration . . . to the faintest glow of virtuous emotion. . . .

Indeed, Emerson added, intuitive insight and religious revelation are similar to insanity, another intense expression of a force beyond the control of the individual.

To remain receptive to the intuitive process, a man must trust in himself. In "Self-Reliance," Emerson wrote of the need for each man to think for himself, to trust in his own ability to understand, evaluate, and act. He warned his audiences and his readers not to give up their freedom as individuals to constricting beliefs and customs, to common values, to established institutions:

But now we are a mob. Man does not stand in awe of man, nor is his genius admonished to stay at home, to put itself in communication with the internal ocean, but it goes abroad to beg a cup of water of the urns of other men. We must go alone. I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching. . . . Why should we assume the faults of our friend, or wife, or father, or child, because they sit around our hearth, or are said to have the same blood? All men have my blood, and I have all men's. Not for that will I adopt their petulance or folly. . . . But your isolation must not be mechanical, but spiritual, that is, must be elevation.

The intellectually, morally, and spiritually independent individual maintains his ability to come to a direct understanding of the world around him and of his place in it and in the universe.

Emerson argued against reliance on the thought of the past in "The American Scholar," and against conformity to established religion in the "Divinity School Address." Unquestioning acceptance and compliance close off spontaneous communication with the divine and limit the fulfillment of human potential. Self-reliance is equivalent to trust in the divine. Emerson wrote in "Self-Reliance":

The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust. . . . What is the aboriginal Self on which a universal reliance may be grounded? What is the nature and power of that science-baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty even into trivial and impure actions, if the least mark of independence appear? The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition. . . . In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin.

Thus, self-reliance permits intuition, which allows the individual to grasp the divinity that enfolds the human and natural realms. Conformity is passive, while openness to intuition is part of an active, dynamic process. Reliance on tradition fixes values and understanding, preventing growth. Intuition, on the other hand, a force of intense flux, results in the ever-higher perfection of man toward godliness.

Idealist though he was, Emerson was keenly aware of the difficulty of reconciling the material and the spiritual. He attempted to bridge the gap between the two with the theory of correspondence, which he understood in large part through the thought and work of mystical Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, and through that of Sampson Reed, Swedenborg's American disciple. Emerson developed the idea of correspondence in Nature. He perceived the physical world as a manifestation of spirit — of the creator's mind — and therefore as symbolic of the divine, and saw a one-for-one correspondence between natural laws and spiritual laws. In its symbolism, he wrote, nature is designed to afford man comprehension of God. Human expressions and constructs such as language, architecture, and even morality are based upon and reflect the forms and laws of nature, and consequently also provide evidence of and insight into God.

The principle of correspondence allowed Emerson to frame external reality within the context of divine absolutes and, at the same time, to harness the material world to man's striving to spiritualize and to make himself a more perfect reflection of God. Emerson wrote of correspondence in "Language," Chapter IV of Nature:

This relation between the mind and matter is not fancied by some poet, but stands in the will of God, and so is free to be known by all men. . . . There seems to be a necessity in spirit to manifest itself in material forms; and day and night, river and storm, beast and bird, acid and alkali, preëxist in necessary Ideas in the mind of God, and are what they are by the virtue of preceding affections, in the world of spirit. . . . The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world.

Toward the end of understanding correspondence and of perceiving the divine through it, Emerson advocated a "life in harmony with nature, the love of truth and of virtue." Gradually, he wrote, the relationship between the material world and the ideal in the mind of God will be understood. Through intuition, which works on the human mind as it observes nature, "the world shall be to us an open book, and every form significant of its hidden life and final cause."

Emerson and Thoreau both regarded poetry as a form of literature peculiarly suited to express Transcendental insight into the divine. Emerson also presented poetry as a kind of demonstration of correspondence, a simultaneous manifestation of the properties of physical form and ethereal spirit. He wrote in his essay "The Poet":

For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem, — a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. The thought and the form are equal in the order of time, but in the order of genesis the thought is prior to the form.

Ultimately, then, the spiritual origin of the poem precedes the poem as "thing," as an object possessing physical form as well as idea. And through the beauty of its form, something of the underlying spiritual impetus behind the poem is revealed.

Emerson not only explored the relationship between the material and the spiritual in his writings, but also directly addressed the discrepancy between philosophy and our experience of life, notably in the essay "Experience." While he rejected narrow and limiting approaches and institutions, he was tolerant of humanity and of social forms. On a basic level, he accepted the world he lived in as it was, and sought to reconcile it with the higher spiritual reality that he perceived beyond.

In Nature, "The American Scholar," "The Divinity School Address," and a few other key early pieces, Emerson expressed most of the major ideas that he explored throughout the rest of his work. In the course of his career, he examined a broad range of subjects — poets and poetry, education, history, society, art, politics, reform, and the lives of particular individuals among them — within the Transcendental framework that he set forth early in his career as a lecturer and a man of letters.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

According to Emerson's "The Divinity School Address," the "sentiment of virtue" is described as what?