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Transcendentalism and Education

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

Another area in which the influence of the Concord Idealists is still felt is that of education.  The approach they brought to it is a logical outcome of the views we have seen regarding the soul; the self of each person and its immortality.

This in turn is derived from the view of Socrates, who of course also believed in the immortality of the soul.  In The Meno he attempts to demonstrate that at least some of the knowledge we exhibit in our lives comes from experiences we have had in previous ones, especially knowledge of virtues and the unchanging such as seen in mathematics.

 “…since the soul is immortal and often born, having seen what is on earth and within the house of Hades, and everything, there is nothing it has not learnt; so there is no wonder it can remember about virtue and other things, because it knew about these before.  For since all nature is akin, and the soul had learnt everything, there is nothing to hinder a man, remembering one thing only–which men call learning–from himself finding out all else, if he is brave and does not weary in seeking; for seeking and learning is all remembrance.¹”

Just as the the Idealists were consistent with this belief derived from Plato (and their own experience), it should be remembered that the state of education in the early 19th century was consistent with the prevailing Calvinist religious views of the time.  This held that since humans were afflicted with original sin, children were even worse and had to be disciplined with corporal punishment: “Spare the rod and spoil he child.”  Teachers were expected to administer beatings as part of the job.  Robert Richardson, in his biography of Henry David Thoreau, talks about Thoreau’s first job after graduating from Harvard, in the Concord Public Schools: “A famous anecdote tells how one of the Concord school board members, Nehemiah Ball, went one day to observe Thoreau’s teaching, called him into the hall, and reprimanded him for not using the cane.  Stung and angered past self-possession, the impulsive twenty-year-old teacher went back into the classroom, picked out six students at random–rather as one deals with a mutiny in the army–and proceeded to beat them.  He then quit the job.  It was all terribly sudden.  His entire career in the public schools was auspiciously launched and catastrophically concluded before a month had passed since commencement.²”  If this was the case in “enlightened” Concord, one can only imagine conditions elsewhere.

Although there was an effort to make education universal, for most children subjects were limited to the very utilitarian–the three R’s–and learning was done purely by rote.  Classrooms were very spare and, especially in rural areas, children of different ages were all crammed together into the proverbial one-room schoolhouse.  By contrast, the approach of the Idealists is summed up well in a passage from Emerson’s essay, “Education:”

     I believe that our own experience instructs us that the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret. By your tampering and thwarting and too much governing he may be hindered from his end and kept out of his own. Respect the child. Wait and see the new product of Nature. Nature loves analogies, but not repetitions. Respect the child. Be not too much his parent. Trespass not on his solitude.

The figures who were most central to the change from education by fear to education with love were Amos Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who for a time in the early 1830’s collaborated in the experiment known as the Temple School.

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, 1804-1894
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, 1804-1894

Peabody was born into a prominent New England family, just about a year after Emerson’s birth.  She had two sisters who were also accomplished in their own right: Sophia was an artist who married Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mary Tyler, an author who shared Elizabeth’s interest in childhood education and later married the educator Horace Mann.  Elizabeth never married, and was in many ways a model for the independent woman of that time or any other.  Among other ventures, she started a bookstore in Boston which became a salon and meeting-place for people interested in the “new ideas,” and which also hostessed Margaret Fuller’s “Conversations.”  She was also for a time the publisher of “The Dial,” the circle’s attempt at producing a magazine.

Amos Bronson Alcott, 1799-1888
Amos Bronson Alcott, 1799-1888

Bronson Alcott was born in 1799, and entirely self-educated.  He was not born into the Concord circle but was adopted by it, especially Emerson, starting in 1835. His remarkable career of failures has been well-documented, and won’t be repeated here, but his adherence to his own vision of the Ideal in the face of it is just as remarkable. Robert Richardson says of him, “Alcott now and for the rest of his life believed that the world of spirit is the only real world, and like William Blake he lived almost entirely in that world.³” He was apparently a remarkable presence and an entrancing speaker, but as was the case with Margaret Fuller (“My voice excites me; my pen never.”), this did not translate into good writing. However, this does not seem to have concerned him in the least.4

Title Page for "The General Principles of Spiritual Culture" by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
Title Page for “The General Principles of Spiritual Culture” by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody

Had he been a better writer, and also not so focused on children (still a good way to doom yourself to obscurity), he might have had an equal stature with Emerson and Thoreau.  Now of course he is known mostly as the father of Louisa May Alcott.  But reading the books which Elizabeth Peabody published as records of his methods at the Temple School, his approach still comes through as radical.  He actually asks questions of the children, and then takes seriously their answers–especially on the subjects of God and the spirit (which of course would never be allowed today).

It would be rather easy to cherry-pick some quotes from these books as evidence of the remarkable insights the children can express when given the opportunity and the safe environment, but a real appreciation for his method comes only upon reading a number of the conversations.  These are still most easily available in a reissue of Alcott’s Conversations with Children on the Gospels, which was edited and reissued in 1991 by Alice O. Howell under the title How Like and Angel Came I Down.  She offers this assessment of Alcott’s work in her introduction:

Alcott pioneered the idea of nonsectarian “spiritual culture” of children.  We must not be deceived by the titles of his work into thinking that he was teaching Sunday School.  He was not.  He was applying a methodology of teaching used both by Socrates and Jesus Christ: the dialogue.  For this Alcott was accused both of heresy and blasphemy.  However, he was the first American teacher to have apprehended what Jung later was to call the “Collective Unconscious.” “The world of the Spirit is the inward life of all things,” is the way Alcott put it.  And he felt that young children, not yet cut off, had ready access to it.  For him, as for Wordsworth, the child came “trailing clouds of glory.”  Exposing them to those words of wisdom found in the works of the great philosophers and in the Gospels of the New Testament, he thought, would prove how we limit children by not grasping that the soul dwells, in part, always connected to the realm beyond time or space that we call eternity or what we recognize today as the unus mundus.  The remarkable results of the experiment are the content of this book.5

It’s unfortunate that sectarianism still prevails so completely that a school of this sort is difficult to imagine today, at least in the public sector.  But the spirit of Alcott and Peabody and others who worked with them still comes through in the attempts by schools to accommodate and teach all children of different backgrounds and different capabilities.  And even though educators are always under extreme pressure to teach only those things that can be readily tested and quantified, those who attempt to educe the spiritual qualities of compassion, creativity and self-realization are carrying on the work in which Alcott and Peabody labored in such obscurity.

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¹Plato, The Meno, from The Complete Texts of Great Dialogues of Plato, W.H.D. Rouse, trans., New American Library, 1970

²Robert D. Richardson Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, University of California, 1986, p. 5.

³Robert D. Richardson Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire, University of California, 1995, p. 212

4 Thoreau says of Alcott in Walden: His words and attitude always suppose a better state of things than other men are acquainted with, and he will be the last man to be disappointed as the ages revolve.  He has no venture in the present.  But though comparatively disregarded now, when his day comes, laws unsuspected by most will take effect and masters of families and rulers will come to him for advice.–“How blind that cannot see serenity!”

5 A. Bronson Alcott, How Like an Angel Came I Down, edited by Alice O. Howell, Lindisfarne, 1991, p. xviii

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Transcendentalism and Spirituality

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

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

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Emerson Overview pt. 2

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

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.”

 

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Emerson Overview pt.1

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

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.

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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

Synopsis:
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.

Thanks for your support!


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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.

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The Escape From All False Ties

This article was prepared for the 2005 ALA Convention in Boston in celebration of the publishing of The Conduct of Life volume in Harvard’s series of the Collected Works.

Also see:
Escapar de Vinculos Falsos (Spanish translation)

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Overcoming the Oversoul: Emerson’s Evolutionary Existentialism

This recent article by Harold Fromm appears in the Spring 2004 issue of The Hudson Review. It is both a review of Laurence Buell's Emerson and a thoughtful examination of Emerson's relation to Darwin's theory of evolution. Â

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On the unity of all things

Richard Wilbur, one of great living Emersonian poets, had this to say about  the nature of poetry:

 “I think that all poets are sending religious messages, because poetry is, in such great part, the comparison of one thing to another… and to insist, as all poets do, that all things are related to each other, comparable to each other, is to go toward making an assertion of the unity of all things.”

We can alwys tell when a poet or writer is “Emersonian” by their grasp of  unity.

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Reminiscences of Ralph Waldo Emerson By Louisa May Alcott

Reminiscences of Ralph Waldo Emerson
By Louisa May Alcott

Reminiscences of Ralph Waldo Emerson

A s I count it the greatest honor and happiness of my life to have known Mr. Emerson, I gladly accede to a request for such recollections as may be of interest to the young readers for whom I write.

My first remembrance is of the morning when I was sent to inquire for little Waldo, then lying very ill.

His father came to me so worn with watching and changed by sorrow that I was startled, and could only stammer out my message.

“Child, he is dead,” was his answer.