Articles Contemporary

Transcendentalism and Spirituality

This essay originally appeared in The Ideal in the West, by David A. Beardsley  (

Many of the principles Americans take for granted can be traced to the “Transcendentalism” of Emerson and his circle, whether realized or not. Over the next few episodes we will take a look at some of these principles and the people who helped to embed them into the modern American consciousness. The first, and perhaps most fundamental, is their insistence on the divine nature of each person, and its consequent effect on the expression of religion and spirituality.

In reading Emerson’s ecstatic  and blissful descriptions of the One, it’s easy to forget that they were written against a backdrop of strong religious disagreements.  The fracturing of the monolithic Christian church that had begun with Luther and led to the Pilgrims continued in the New World.  In many ways, Boston, and Harvard in particular, were ground zero for much of this controversy.  As Philip F. Gura makes clear in his book American Transcendentalism: A History, Harvard was in the thrall of German theology at this time: “…with the conclusion of the War of 1812 and the reopening of safe travel to Europe, Americans began to visit the Continent and to study at German universities.  Among the most prominent of these pioneers were George Ticknor, Edward Everett, George Bancroft, and Frederic Henry Hedge, all of whom eventually carved out positions of intellectual leadership in New England and led efforts to disseminate German language and thought.¹”  Although these men laid the groundwork from which New England Idealism would flower, eventually the turf wars being waged in German universities found their way to the New World as well and opened another front in their hairsplitting academic battles.  Congregations underwent mitosis around the smallest points of doctrinal interpretation, losing sight of the overarching Christian principles of love and forgiveness.
Emerson, a Unitarian by training and by nature, was only too aware of the negative effects of this sectarianism, and it formed part of his decision to leave the ministry in 1831.  In his journal on June 20 of that year he wrote, “Religion is the relation of the Soul to God, & therefore the progress of Sectarianism marks the decline of religion. For, looking at God instantly reduces our disposition to dissent from our brother. A man may die by fever as well as by consumption & religion is as effectually destroyed by bigotry as by indifference.”

Especially after returning from Europe, Emerson had become a Protestant’s protestant.  His direct experiences of the Good, and his growing familiarity with the works of Plato and other non-Christian traditions, strengthened his belief in “the infinitude of the private man,” but it also got him into hot water with the religious establishment of his day.  What Kathleen Raine says of England–“It must also be remembered that the academic world at that time consisted of Protestant clergymen, to whom the Platonic theology must have been extremely distasteful²”–was also true of America.  When Emerson made his points, during the Divinity School Address, about two defects of “historical Christianity,” and urged his listeners to “love God without mediator or veil,” he was banned from speaking at Harvard for twenty years.

Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862

This view is also strongly expressed by other writers of the “Concord School”.  Henry David Thoreau saw the presence of an eternal intelligence amid the birth, growth, and decay of the natural world.  In his attempt to “live deliberately,” he moved, in 1845, into a cabin on Walden Pond (on land owned by Emerson), and took the natural world as his subject for study.  He was perhaps our first Naturalist, but not of Nature per se.  Through his patient observations, he reveals it not as something to be feared, conquered, or exploited, but as an ally in the process of spiritual awakening.  In Walden he says, in a vivid reformulation of Plato’s Divided Line, “As I stand over the insect crawling amid the pine needles on the forest floor, and endeavoring to conceal itself from my sight, and ask myself why it will cherish those humble thoughts, and hide its head from me who might perhaps be its benefactor, and impart to its race some cheering information, I am reminded of the greater Benefactor and Intelligence, that stands over me the human insect.”

He sees being in nature as a way of forcing us to slow down, to connect with forces within that are deeper than the transitory thoughts that push and pull us each day.  Also in Walden he says, “When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence,–that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality.”

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Walt Whitman, although not of Concord, embodied and expressed infinitude in a way that was often too much even for Emerson.  But he acknowledged that Whitman represented the kind of authentic, new American voice about which he had written so often. In 1855 he had received unannounced from Whitman his ambitious poem, “Leaves of Grass,” and in a letter to a friend called it “the best piece of American Buddhism that anyone has had the strength to write, American to the bone.” Whitman had returned the favor by saying “My ideas were simmering and simmering, and Emerson brought them to a boil.”  In a time when it seemed everyone wanted to be a poet, Whitman blew the roof off the poetry world by breaking just about every rule there was, starting with meter and rhyme.

Whitman’s tone is that of the Creator himself taking endless delight in his own creation, seeing it all with equanimity and lack of judgment. From Song of Myself:

Trippers and askers surround me,
People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and city I live in, or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.

Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.³

So the God known to the Transcendentalists is not the distant, severe God of the church establishment: the Father-figure which uses fear and the threat of punishment to control his “children.”  The religious establishments are in the business of providing identities to individuals: I am a Christian, I am a Jew, I am a Muslim.  But in doing so, they prevent us from experiencing the Unity of the One; they keep us in a state of duality, opposition, alienation.  This is fine for the ego–that which loves duality–but deadly for the soul.

For the Transcendentalists, God is the One, than which we cannot be other.  It resists all attempts to define or limit.  It is at the same time impersonal and totally personal–it is “the Me myself.”  It is that which has loved us since before we were born.

Jones Very, 1813-1880
Jones Very, 1813-1880

Another expression of it comes from the work of Jones Very, a mystic or madman or both, who was part of the Concord circle in the late 1830’s.  Although his poetry was diametrically opposed to Whitman’s in style–he wrote in strict Shakespearean sonnet form–his sense of the individual yet universal nature of this “Self” is the same.

The Better Self

I am thy other self, what thou wilt be,
When thou art I, the one seest now;
In finding thy true self thou wilt find me,
The springing blade, where now thou dost but plough.
I am thy neighbor, a new house I’ve built,
Which thou as yet hast never entered in;
I come to call thee; come in when thou wilt,
The feast is always ready to begin.
Thou should’st love me, as thou dost love thyself,
For I am but another self beside;
To show thee him thou lov’st in better health,
What thou would’st be, when thou to him hast died;
Then visit me, I make thee many a call;
Nor live I near to thee alone, but all.4

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¹Philip F. Gura, American Transcendentalism: A History, 2007, Hill and Wang, p. 26

²Kathleen Raine and George Mills Harper, eds., Thomas Taylor the Platonist: Selected Writings, Princeton University Press, 1969, p.21

³Allen Mandelbaum & Robert D. Richardson Jr., eds., Three Centuries of American Poetry, Bantam Books, 1999, p. 246

4Mandelbaum & Richardson, op. cit., p. 212

Articles Contemporary

Emerson Overview pt. 2

This essay originally appeared in The Ideal in the West, by David A. Beardsley  (

The first thing we have to say respecting Emerson as a subject for writing about the Ideal is that we are aware of the irony.  He spent his whole life trying to convince us that each of us is the Ideal, individually wrapped, and yet we persist in thinking it’s about him.  But he himself used the examples of Plato, Shakespeare, Goethe and other “representative men” to make his points, so I feel safe in doing the same.¹  Just remember to look at the moon, not his pointing finger.

I’ve already quoted from his essay The Transcendentalist in which he makes explicit his connection to the Idealist tradition, and certainly I encourage you to read the entire essay.  But another excerpt here would serve as valuable distinction between it and materialism, to show Emerson’s appreciation of consciousness as the prior reality.

The idealist, in speaking of events, sees them as spirits. He does not deny the sensuous fact: by no means; but he will not see that alone. He does not deny the presence of this table, this chair, and the walls of this room, but he looks at these things as the reverse side of the tapestry, as the “other end,” each being a sequel or completion of a spiritual fact which nearly concerns him. This manner of looking at things, transfers every object in nature from an independent and anomalous position without there, into the consciousness. Even the materialist Condillac, perhaps the most logical expounder of materialism, was constrained to say, “Though we should soar into the heavens, though we should sink into the abyss, we never go out of ourselves; it is always our own thought that we perceive.” What more could an idealist say?

This was written in 1842, but as we’ve seen his experience of the Ideal goes back much further, and permeates his first published work Nature, which, as Robert Richardson says in Emerson: The Ideal in America, “…was his effort to get it all into one statement, and he does in under a hundred pages. And it still has this electric jolt.” Early on, he gives an account of one of those moments where the Ideal passes from the theoretical into actual experience, or rather he passes from the material into the Ideal.

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of

"I become a transparent eyeball." Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-1892)
“I become a transparent eyeball.” Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-1892)

them in a thousand years. 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 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.

Later in it he devotes a chapter explicitly to Idealism, and the realm of “immortal necessary uncreated natures, that is, … Ideas”

As objects of science, they are accessible to few men. Yet all men are capable of being raised by piety or by passion, into their region. And no man touches these divine natures, without becoming, in some degree, himself divine. Like a new soul, they renew the body. We become physically nimble and lightsome; we tread on air; life is no longer irksome, and we think it will never be so. No man fears age or misfortune or death, in their serene company, for he is transported out of the district of change. Whilst we behold unveiled the nature of Justice and Truth, we learn the difference between the absolute and the conditional or relative. We apprehend the absolute. As it were, for the first time, we exist. We become immortal, for we learn that time and space are relations of matter; that, with a perception of truth, or a virtuous will, they have no affinity.

Five years after Nature, in 1841, Emerson published the works for which he is still most known: the first series of Essays.  It contains his most famous essay, Self-Reliance,² but also what I believe to be his clearest and most sustained explication and celebration of the Good, which he here calls The Over-Soul:

The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character, and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty. We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. 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.

Near the end of the essay he counsels the need for the kind of stillness that echoes Ficino’s admonition that “…we find eternal unity and the one eternity, not through movement or multiplicity, but through being still and being one.”

Let man, then, learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely; that the Highest dwells with him; that the sources of nature are in his own mind, if the sentiment of duty is there. But if he would know what the great God speaketh, he must `go into his closet and shut the door,’ as Jesus said. God will not make himself manifest to cowards. He must greatly listen to himself, withdrawing himself from all the accents of other men’s devotion. Even their prayers are hurtful to him, until he have made his own. Our religion vulgarly stands on numbers of believers. Whenever the appeal is made — no matter how indirectly — to numbers, proclamation is then and there made, that religion is not. He that finds God a sweet, enveloping thought to him never counts his company. When I sit in that presence, who shall dare to come in? When I rest in perfect humility, when I burn with pure love, what can Calvin or Swedenborg say?

In a remarkable passage from Self-Reliance he speaks to our own ability to experience the Good; but that to know it, we must let go of all our preconceptions and our “passions” that keep us bound to the realm of the changeable.

 And now at last the highest truth on this subject remains unsaid; probably cannot be said; for all that we say is the far-off remembering of the intuition. That thought, by what I can now nearest approach to say it, is this. When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name;—- the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude example and experience. You take the way from man, not to man. All persons that ever existed are its forgotten ministers. Fear and hope are alike beneath it. There is somewhat low even in hope. In the hour of vision, there is nothing that can be called gratitude, nor properly joy. The soul raised over passion beholds identity and eternal causation, perceives the self-existence of Truth and Right, and calms itself with knowing that all things go well. Vast spaces of nature, the Atlantic Ocean, the South Sea, — long intervals of time, years, centuries, — are of no account. This which I think and feel underlay every former state of life and circumstances, as it does underlie my present, and what is called life, and what is called death.

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¹I also feel privileged and humbled.  Quoting from Emerson is an embarrassment of riches; more a question of what to leave out than what to leave in.   And at the same time he makes me want to be a better man, to realize my own “infinitude.”  I could of course sample him for weeks, but my hope is that this taste will encourage you to go to the source.

²This essay has had a long history of being read in a superficial way to encourage selfish behavior.  Emerson himself was concerned in his own time as to how his words were being twisted, and in 1851, in his essay The Fugitive Slave Law, he states, “…self-reliance, the height and perfection of man, is reliance on God.”


Articles Contemporary

Emerson Overview pt.1

This essay originally appeared in The Ideal in the West, by David A. Beardsley  (

I think it’s safe to say that when most people consider Ralph Waldo Emerson, they think

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

of a rather avuncular producer of pithy quotes in an archaic style of writing.  Although his words still pop up with fair frequency, especially now given the presence of online quotation catalogs, I also think it’s safe to say that most people know little of Emerson’s life, or his deep connection with and expression of the Ideal.¹  He is usually labelled a Transcendentalist², along with Thoreau and others of his circle, but he never warmed to that slightly condescending term.  As he said in his lecture entitled The Transcendentalist, “The first thing we have to say respecting what are called ‘new views’ here in New England, at the present time, is, that they are not new, but the very oldest of thoughts cast into the mould of these new times….  What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842.”³  He was very aware of the tradition we have been considering, and considered himself a humble bearer of it.

Emerson was born in Boston in 1803, to a respectable Congregationalist minister, William Emerson and his wife Ruth Haskins Emerson.  He was the third of what would be six sons, and expectations for him were never very high.  His father died when he was eight, and the genteelness of their poverty was thus taken away; the family was now just poor.  But education and the life of the mind were still valued highly, and Waldo and his brothers would take turns attending the Boston Latin School, and being tutored by a remarkable collection of mostly women–family friends and relatives.  The chief among these influences was his father’s sister, Mary Moody Emerson, who Robert Richardson says “was an American Jakob Boehme.  Her everyday life was spent wrestling with angels.”4 She would write, visit, and be a presence in Waldo’s life until her death in 1863.
Waldo was accepted into Harvard at the age of fourteen and was able to attend by dint of a scholarship, working, and the support of his brother William.  In his junior year he began to keep a journal, which he would continue to do almost to the end of his life.  It soon became a repository for his deepest thoughts and his growing sense of the presence in his life of what he would later call “The Over-Soul.”  In it he is writing to himself for himself about himself.  On December 21 1823 he writes, “I say to the Universe, Mighty one! thou art not my mother; return to chaos if thou wilt, I shall still exist.  I live.  If I owe my being, it is to a destiny greater than thine.  Star by star, world by world, system by system shall be crushed–but I shall live.”5
Waldo graduated in the middle of his class, still unsure of his vocation.  His two older brothers had become teachers; he followed suit, and their pooled resources greatly helped the family’s financial outlook.  But he was still not satisfied.  Just before turning twenty-one, he notes in his journal “I burn after the ‘aliquid imensum infinitumque’ (“something great and immeasurable”) which Cicero desired.” (April 18, 1824)  While continuing to teach, Waldo returned to Harvard Divinity School and emerged “approbated to preach,” in 1826.  He had already established a reputation as a speaker by filling in various pulpits in New England, but he still suffered from what might be called an existential crisis: “My years are passing away.  Infirmities are already stealing on me that may be the deadly enemies that are to dissolve me to dirt and little is yet done to establish my consideration among my contemporaries & less to get a memory when I am gone.” (March 27, 1826)
He was also suffering from physical ill health, and the following winter he made a trip to Florida to help recover.  There he reconnected with the unnameable: “There is a pleasure in the thought that the particular tone of my mind at this moment may be new in the Universe; that the emotions of this hour may be peculiar & unexampled in the whole eternity of moral being.  I lead a new life.  I occupy new ground in the world of spirits, untenanted before.  I commence a career of thought & action which is expanding before me into a distant & dazzling infinity.  Strange thoughts start up like angels in my way & beckon me onward.  I doubt not I tread on the highway that leads to the divinity.” (April 17, 1827)
Returning to New England he continued preaching and drawing admirers–including, while in Concord New Hampshire, the beautiful young Ellen Louisa Tucker.  In December of 1828 they became engaged, and the following January Waldo was called to be minister of the Second Church of Boston.  He became the family’s main breadwinner, then chaplain of the Massachusetts legislature, then member of the Boston school committee.  As Richardson says, “Emerson the private person became more or less overnight a complete institutional person.”6
But it wasn’t to last.  In February 1831, Ellen, always frail, then tubercular, died after a long illness.  Her last words were, “I have not forgot the peace and joy.”  Emerson came undone.  By the end of the year he resigned his ministry, sold his belongings, packed up his grief and boarded a ship bound for Europe.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

His journeys started in the island of Malta, through Italy to France and then to England.  While he was escaping from the pain of Boston, he was also entering into a new world of art and religious expression.  He saw everything, he wrote in his journal, he met other writers.  In Paris, while decrying it as “a loud modern New York of a place,” he discovered at an exhibition at the Jardin des Plantes a fascination with the huge variety of the plant and animals worlds, and his relation to it.  “I feel the centipede in me–cayman, carp, eagle, & fox.  I am moved by strange sympathies, I say continually, ‘I will be a naturalist.'” (July 13, 1833)  He moved on to England, home of his own ancestors, met Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, but oddly, as mentioned before, not Thomas Taylor.  It is safe to say that at the end of his journey, he was renewed in body, mind and spirit.  He returned to Boston in October of 1833, full of ideas for a new life.
He began writing furiously, but also returned to supply preaching.  It was at one of these

"Bush," Emerson's home in Concord MA
“Bush,” Emerson’s home in Concord MA

engagements that he met Lydia Jackson of Plymouth, whom he married in 1835, and they moved into the famous boxy white house on the Cambridge Turnpike in Concord.  In 1836 he published his first book, Nature, 7 his ambitious attempt, it might be said, at a Grand Unified Theory.

Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?

Although “Nature” did not sell well initially, it was very influential among the cogniscenti of Boston, and soon Emerson found himself to be a favorite on the growing Lyceum lecture circuit.  For about the next forty years he would spend a large part of his time on the road, lecturing, the other part writing and being with friends.  He started a magazine, The Dial, with his friend Margaret Fuller, and became father to two daughters, Ellen and Edith.  In 1841, his first book of Essays was published, which included some of his most famous works, Self Reliance and The Over-Soul, and his fame increased even more.  It was a heady time, even more than his days at the Second Church, since now his life was on his own terms.
But now, as then, a death intervened.  On January 27, 1842, his son Waldo died.  Three days later he wrote in his journal, “Sorrow makes us all children again, destroys all differences of intellect.  The wisest know nothing.”  But while it would be wrong to minimize his grief–or, like some, to say that he lost his optimism–I believe he did retain his knowledge of the Good; the Good as that which endures, which is eternal, of which the body is a relic.  In his poem Threnody he asks himself in the voice of “the deep heart:”

Wilt thou not ope thy heart to know
What rainbows teach, and sunsets show?
Verdict which accumulates
From lengthening scroll of human fates,
Voice of earth to earth returned,
Prayers of saints that inly burned,–
Saying, What is excellent,
As God lives, is permanent;
Hearts are dust, hearts’ loves remain;
Heart’s love will meet thee again.

Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888)
Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888)

Of all the philosophers we have considered, Emerson was the most “in the world.”  We have not had time to look at many large aspects of his life–his abolitionist activities, his own Idealist circle, his poetry and friendships–but they can serve to instruct us that it is not necessary to withdraw from the world in order to know the Ideal.  It was the foundation of his life, the medium through which he moved and in which he rested.  And while he offers many profound descriptions of the Ideal–indeed he is often working at the edge of what is expressible–perhaps his most profound evidence is in his gift for the simple, unadorned, but penetrating Observation.  In his journal, March 29 1869, he records a meeting with his dear friend Bronson Alcott.

Alcott came & talked Plato & Socrates, extolling them with gravity.  I bore it long, & then said, that was a song for others, not for him.  He should find what was the equivalent for these masters in our times: for surely the world was always equal to itself, & it was for him to detect what was the counter-weight & compensation to us.  Was it natural science?  Was it the immense dilution of the same amount of thought into nations?
I told him to shut his eyes, & let his thoughts run into reverie or whithersoever–& then take an observation.  He would find that the current went outward from man, not to man.  Consciousness was up stream.8

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¹While I believe Emerson was a universal man, and that his revelations would have been the same wherever and whenever he appeared, there are key events in his life that I will be discussing.  For more on this, there are biographies of course (see sidebar), and my own video documentary, Emerson: The Ideal in America. (I will also just mention that I receive no income from the sale of these DVDs; all proceeds go to the RWE Institute.)
²The term Transcendentalist was originally applied to the group of German philosophers that included Kant, Hegel, Schelling and others, and this is as good a time as any to discuss why they are not included in this history.  To be honest, I have not read them extensively, but I believe that their approach to the Ideal is that of the Sophists whom Socrates ridiculed; that is to say they make it a mental concept that can be described and debated, and their writing tends to obscure it.  It becomes a subject for examination by the mind rather than the transcendent reality that produces the mind.  I believe that reading any random paragraph of one of the Germans and one by any other the writers discussed here will reveal the difference in tone and understanding.
³I promise not to let the footnotes continue to be longer than the text, but I did just want to point out the missing sentence indicated by the ellipsis above as an example of Emerson’s diving right into the subject.  In one of the best summations I know of the Ideal he says, “The light is always identical in its composition, but it falls on a great variety of objects, and by so falling is first revealed to us, not in its own form, for it is formless, but in theirs; in like manner, thought only appears in the objects it classifies.”
4Robert D. Richardson Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire, University of California Press, 1995  For more on MME, see Phyllis Cole, Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism, Oxford University Press, 1998
5Joel Porte, ed., Emerson in His Journals, Harvard University Press, 1982
6Richardson, op. cit.
7In his journal on Aug. 27, 1836, Emerson says, “Today came to me the first proof-sheet of ‘Nature’ to be corrected, like a new coat, full of vexations; with the first sentences of the chapters perched like mottoes aloft in small type!  The peace of the author cannot be wounded by such trifles, if he sees that the sentences are still good.  A good sentence can never be put out of countenance by any blunder of compositors.  It is good in text or note, in poetry or prose, as title or corollary.  But a bad sentence shows all his flaws instantly by such dislocation.”  Joel Porte, ed., op. cit.
8Joel Porte, ed., op. cit.


Abraham Lincoln (15 April 1865) Eulogy By Ralph Waldo Emerson

Abraham Lincoln (15 April 1865)

Eulogy By Ralph Waldo Emerson




This address was delivered by Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson, orator, poet and essayist, at Concord, Massachusetts, on the occasion of funeral services in honor of Mr. Lincoln, in April,

It is an epitome of the life of the martyred President, a marvelous tribute from a contemporary singularly fitted to pronounce the verdict of time upon a great leader, spoken while the shock of the assassination absorbed the minds of all alike.

The collection of Lincolniana of Mr. Judd Stewart of Plain- field, New Jersey, contains The Oratorical Year Book for 1 865, published in London 1866, in which this oration appeared. Follows a list of speeches also included in this Year Book upon the same subject: In the House of Commons On the Assassi- nation of President Lincoln by Sir George Grey, Mr. Benjamin Disraeli, Mr. W. E. Forster and Mr. J. Stansfeld; the address of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher at Fort Sumter on April 14, 1865, on which day Lincoln was shot; the speech of Mr. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, at Auburn, N. Y., on October 20, 1865, “in return for the public congratulations offered him in his escape from the assassination intended by the cowardly accomplice of Wilkes Booth;” and this oration by Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Included also is the second in- augural address of President Lincoln and his speech upon the Conclusion of the War delivered at Washington on the evening of April 11, 1865.

The title page of the book is shown in fac-simile. The re- markable photograph of Mr. Lincoln is one of several made by Gardner on April 9, 1865, the last made of the President. That of Mr. Emerson was made later in Philadelphia.

This address was printed without paragraphs and is re- printed here in the same form. It is hoped that it may be of interest to admirers of Lincoln and Emerson.Abraham_Lincoln_O-116_by_Gardner,_1865-crop

New York, December, 1914.


Abraham Lincoln
By Ralph Waldo Emerson
WE meet under the gloom of a calamity which darkens down over the minds of good men in all civilized society, as the fearful tidings travel over sea, over land, from country to country, like the shadow of an uncalculated eclipse over the planet. Old as history is, and manifold as are its tragedies, I doubt if any death has caused so much pain to mankind as this has caused, or will cause, on its announcement ; and this not so much because nations are by modern arts brought so closely together, as because of the mysterious hopes and fears which, in the present day, are connected with the name and institu- tions of America. In this country, on Saturday, every one was struck dumb, and saw, at first, only deep below deep, as he meditated on the ghastly blow. And, perhaps, at this hour, when the coffin which contains the dust of the Presi- dent sets forward on its long march through mourning States, on its way to his home in Illinois, we might well be silent, and suffer the awful voices of the time to thunder to us. Yes, but that first despair was brief; the man was not so to be mourned. He was the most active and hopeful of men; and his work had not perished; but acclamations of praise for the task he had accomplished burst out into a song of triumph, which even tears for his death cannot keep down. The President stood before us a man of the people. He was thoroughly Ameri- can, had never crossed the sea, had never been spoiled by English insularity or French dissipa- tion; a quiet, native, aboriginal man, as an acorn from the oak; no aping of foreigners, no frivolous accomplishments; Kentuckian born, working on a farm, a flatboatman, a captain in the Blackhawk war, a country lawyer, a repre- sentative in the rural legislature of Illinois — on such modest foundations the broad structure of his fame was laid. How slowly, yet by happily prepared steps, he came to his place! All of us remember — it is only a history of five or six years — the surprise and disappointment of the country at his first nomination at Chicago. Mr. Seward, then in the culmination of his good fame, was the favorite of the Eastern States. And when the new and comparatively unknown name of Lincoln was announced (notwithstand- ing the report of the acclamations of that con- vention) we heard the result coldly and sadly.

It seemed too rash, on a purely local reputation, to build so grave a trust, in such anxious times; and men naturally talked of the chances in politics as incalculable. But it turned out not to be chance. The profound good opinion which the people of Illinois and of the West had conceived of him, and which they had imparted to their colleagues, that they also might justify themselves to their constituents at home, was not rash, though they did not begin to know the richness of his worth. A plain man of the people, an extraordinary fortune attended him. Lord Bacon says, “Manifest virtues procure reputation; occult ones, fortune.” He offered no shining qualities at the first encounter; he did not offend by superiority. He had a face and manner which disarmed suspicion, which inspired confidence, which confirmed goodwill. He was a man without vices. He had a strong sense of duty which it was very easy for him to obey. Then he had what farmers call a long head; was excellent in working out the sum for himself, in arguing his case and convincing you fairly and firmly. Then it turned out that he was a great worker, and, prodigious faculty of performance, worked easily. A good worker is so rare; everybody has some one disabling quality.

But this man was sound to the very core, cheerful, persistent, all right for labour, and liked nothing so well. Then he had a vast good nature, which made him tolerant and ac- cessible to all; fair-minded, leaning to the claim of the petitioner, affable, and not sensible to the affliction which the innumerable visits paid to him, when President, would have brought to any one else. And how this good nature be- came a noble humanity in many a tragic case which the events of the war brought to him everyone will remember, and with what increas- ing tenderness he dealt when a whole race was on his compassion. The poor negro said of him, on an impressive occasion, “Massa Linkum am ebery where.” Then his broad good humour, running easily into jocular talk, in which he delighted and in which he excelled, was a rich gift to this wise man. It enabled him to keep his secret, to meet every kind of man and every rank in society, to take off the edge of the severest decisions, to mask his own purpose and sound his companion, and to catch with true instinct the temper of each company he addressed. And, more than all, it is to a man of severe labour, in anxious and exhausting crises, the natural restorative, good as sleep, and is the protection of the overdriven brain against rancour and insanity.

He is the author of a multitude of good sayings, so disguised as pleasantries that it is certain that they had no reputation at first but as jests; and only later, by the acceptance and. adoption they find in the mouths of millions, turn out to be the wisdom of the hour. I am sure if this man had ruled in a period of less facility of printing, he would have become mythological in a few years, like Aesop or Pilpay, or one of the Seven Wise Masters, by his fables and proverbs. But the weight and penetration of many passages in his letters, messages, and speeches, hidden now by the very closeness of their application to the moment, are destined hereafter to wide fame. What pregnant definitions; what unerring com- mon sense; what foresight; and on great occa- sions, what lofty and more than natural, what humane tone ! His occupying the chair of State was a triumph of the good sense of mankind and of the public confidence. This middle-class country had got a middle-class President at last. Yes, in manners, sympathies, but not in powers, for his powers were superior. His mind mastered the problem of the day; and, as the problem grew, so did his comprehension of it. Rarely was man so fitted to the event. In the midst of fears and jealousies, in the Babel of counsels and parties, this man wrought incessantly with all his might and all his honesty, labouring to find what the people wanted, and how to obtain that. It cannot be said there is any exaggera- tion of his worth.

If ever a man was fairly tested he was. There was no lack of resistance, nor of slander, nor of ridicule. The times have allowed no State secrets; the nation has been in such a ferment, such multitudes had to be trusted, that no secret could be kept. Every door was ajar, and we know all that befell. Then what an occasion was the whirlwind of the war ! Here was place for no holiday magis- trate, no fair-weather sailor; the new pilot was hurried to the helm in a tornado. In four years — the four years of battle-days — his endurance, his fertility of resources, his magnanimity, were sorely tried and never found wanting. There, by his courage, his justice, his even temper, his fertile counsel, his humanity, he stood, an heroic figure in the centre of an heroic epoch. He is the true history of the American people in his time. Step by step he walked before them; slow with their slowness, quickening his march by theirs; the true representative of this conti- nent; an entirely public man; father of his country, the pulse of twenty millions throbbing in his heart, the thought of their minds articu- lated by his tongue. Adam Smith remarks that the axe which in Houbraken’s portraits of British kings and worthies is engraved under those who have suffered at the block adds a certain lofty charm to the picture.

And who does not see, even in this tragedy so recent, how fast the terror and ruin of the massacre are already burning into glory around the victim? Far happier this fate than to have lived to be wished away; to have watched the decay of his own faculties; to have seen, — perhaps, even he, — the proverbial ingratitude of statesmen ; to have seen mean men preferred. Had he not lived long enough to keep the greatest promise that ever man made to his fellow men — the practical abolition of slavery? He had seen Tennessee, Missouri and Maryland emancipate their slaves. He had seen Savannah, Charleston and Rich- mond surrendered; had seen the main army of the rebellion lay down its arms. He had con- quered the public opinion of Canada, England and France. Only Washington can compare with him in fortune. And what if it should turn out, in the unfolding of the web, that he had reached the term; that this heroic deliverer could no longer serve us; that the rebellion had touched its natural conclusion, and what re- mained to be done required new and uncommitted hands — a new spirit born out of the ashes of the war; and that Heaven, wishing to show the the world a completed benefactor, shall make him serve his country even more by his death than his life. Nations, like kings, are not good by facility and complaisance.

“The kindness of kings consists in justice and strength.” Easy good nature has been the dangerous foible of the Republic, and it was necessary that its enemies should outrage it, and drive us to un- wonted firmness, to secure the salvation of this country in the next ages.


Digitized by the Internet Archive in 2010 with funding from The Institute of Museum and Library Services through an Indiana State Library LSTA Grant


” Iterat voces et verba cadentia tollit.” — lion. Ep. 1. 18. 12.



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Articles Contemporary

DVD Documentary on Ralph Waldo Emerson


Emerson: The Ideal In America

Written and directed by David A. Beardsley
Hosted by Jim Manley

Documentary (53 minutes) about the life and
inspirations of Ralph Waldo Emerson
DVD - Emerson: The Ideal in America
Click to purchase

Emerson: The Ideal In America

Ralph Waldo Emerson was the leading light of a circle that included Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Margaret Fuller and Bronson Alcott among others, and whose influence is still alive in the world today. Emerson: The Ideal in America is the first and only video biography of the man who is still America‘s most quoted author.

Spanning most of the turbulent 19th century, Emerson’s life took him from a financially poor but intellectually rich childhood through an education at Harvard to early success as pastor of the Boston’s Old Brick Church. But personal tragedy and his own doubts about organized religion set him on a journey of discovery that took him to Europe and deep into the philosophical traditions of the East as well as the West. Through his writings and lectures, he became one of the most influential figures of his time, inspiring presidents and other philosophers. His central message of “the infinitude of the private man” opened the eyes of the men and women who read and heard him to their own unlimited potential.

Emerson remains a vital force today. His belief in the divinity of each person and in the sacredness of nature inform the thought of people who may have never read him directly. His practice of maintaining a journal throughout his life has earned him the title “America‘s first blogger,” and both the environmental and spiritual movements can trace their origins to him.

DVD - Emerson: The Ideal in AmercaIn the tradition of Ken Burns’s The Civil War, this program makes use of archival footage as well as interviews with Emerson experts. Bay Emerson Bancroft, an Emerson descendant and President of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial Association has called it “a well-told, imaginatively presented and uplifting account of the Emerson’s life and the development of his ideas….” The producers hope that this video will help to introduce Emerson to a wider audience and a new generation.

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Anaxagoras and Universal Mind

Emerson Institute Books is pleased to announce the publication of

Anaxagoras and Universal Mind:

The Birth of Philosophy in Classical Greece

by Richard Geldard 

Anaxagoras and Universal Mind

Richard Geldard's
volume on Anaxagoras is the third and final volume in his immensely
successful account of Pre-Socratic thought. His first two volumes
brought Heraclitus and Parmenides vividly alive for a twenty-first
century audience. The final volume, every bit as brilliant as the first
two, is on Anaxagoras, whose concept of Universal Mind is the
fountainhead of western idealism as it ranges from Plato and the
Neoplatonists to Kant, Hegel, Emerson and beyond. This is an important
book, superbly written in accessible language. It makes philosophy as
lively and timely as today's newspaper, and, unlike the newspaper, it
will be relevant tomorrow. "The Presocratics looked at the cosmos as if
it were, in itself, alive." So does Geldard. His trilogy is a triumph
and a treasure.

Robert D. Richardson, author of biographies of Thoreau, Emerson and
William James and recipient of the Francis Parkman Prize, the Melcher
Book Award, and the Bancroft Prize, and was a finalist for the National
Book Critics Circle Award.

Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and online booksellers
Contact the author at

Articles Contemporary

From Kant to Emerson: A Transcontinental Exploration of the Evolution of Transcendentalism

by Kristen A. Bennett

UMASS Boston


“There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this
poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that
which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had wellnigh thought and
said.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar


When we call to mind the word “transcendentalism,” we generate images of
transparent eyeballs, Walden Pond, and perhaps the well-known profile of the
elder Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yet these simulacra remain amorphous, and
philosophically anomalous, when abstracted from the intertextual historicity in
which they evolved. The connotations associated with the foregoing images are
not limited to the 19th Century American version of
transcendentalism, but represent instead a progression of philosophical thought.
This progression originated in the work of 18th Century German author
Immanuel Kant, and was later translated by the British Romantic writer Samuel T.
Coleridge. Coleridge’s seminal interpretations of Kant were those that were most
widely ready by his contemporaries William Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle, as
well as the primary progenitor of American transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo
Emerson. Although Kant’s ideas about how we generate knowledge
greatly appealed to these authors, they contend that he should have continued to
transcend his strictly cognitive conceptions, and integrate the sensual and
emotional dimensions of the intellect. Coleridge reminds us that philosophy is,
after all: “…an affectionate seeking after the truth” (BL, IX 228).
Inspired by Coleridge’s revision of Kant’s theory, as well as the interpretive
incarnations thereof generated by Wordsworth and Carlyle, Emerson himself
translated “transcendentalism” into a uniquely American way of thinking,
and being characterized quite literally by enthusiasm. In this paper,
we will explore the contextual evolution of philosophical and literary
“transcendentalism” that culminates in Emerson’s work.


The great ‘ennobler’

May 23, 2003

The great ‘ennobler’

By Richard Higgins

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s belief in the ”infinitude” of the soul had an ”ennobling influence” on many people, as William James once observed.

James’s novelist brother, Henry, however, was not one of them. He depicted Emerson as a bloodless preacher whose ”eyes were thickly bandaged” to evil and who could not appreciate fine art nor fiction. ”There were certain chords in Emerson that did not vibrate at all,” he wrote in 1887. In fact, ”certain chords were wholly absent.”


Remembering The Emerson Who Sought God


Remembering The Emerson Who Sought God

 by Richard Higgins


t is hard to overcome strong first impressions. This helps explain why, when it comes to religion, Ralph Waldo Emerson is often seen as a borderline atheist, a pantheist, a mystic who waltzed in the spiritual ether or, as Harold Bloom has argued, an American gnostic. The first view is just wrong, and the rest can be pressed only on flimsy, evanescent evidence. The bicentennial of Emerson’s birth offers an opportunity to consider why they miss the mark and to look at the religious legacy of the man John Dewey called America’s Plato.


Emerson at 200

Cover Story

March/April 2003

Emerson at 200

Emerson’s Mirror What do we see in the legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "the most recognized and revered figure in the Unitarian movement"? His two-hundredth birthday makes this a good time to ask.

by Richard Higgins

One of the most famous public speakers of his day, Ralph Waldo Emerson drew all sorts of listeners. A scrubwoman who went to his lyceum lectures is reported to have said that she didn’t really understand him, "but I like to go and see him stand up there and look as though he thought everyone else is as good as he is." A version of this story appears in most Emerson biographies. Sometimes it is a workman or farmer who braves a snowstorm to hear Emerson talk and explains his devotion by saying, "We don’t know what he said, but we’re sure he’s giving us the best there is." As Wesley Mott, the founder and president of the Emerson Society, puts it: "People went away tremendously uplifted — and had no idea what they just heard."