The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson - by R.W. Emerson Institute, Jim Manley, Director -

Influences and Old Friends


The Death of Socrates by David
The Death of Socrates by David

The philosopher Socrates remains, as he was in his lifetime (469–399 B.C.E.), an enigma, an inscrutable individual who, despite having written nothing, is considered one of the handful of philosophers who forever changed how philosophy itself was to be conceived. All our information about him is second-hand and most of it vigorously disputed, but his trial and death at the hands of the Athenian democracy is nevertheless the founding myth of the academic discipline of philosophy, and his influence has been felt far beyond philosophy itself, and in every age.


Plato, from "The School of Athens" by Raphael
Plato, from “The School of Athens” by Raphael

Plato, born Aristocles, (429-347 B.C.E.) is, by any reckoning, one of the most dazzling writers in the Western literary tradition and one of the most penetrating, wide-ranging, and influential authors in the history of philosophy. An Athenian citizen of high status, he displays in his works his absorption in the political events and intellectual movements of his time, but the questions he raises are so profound and the strategies he uses for tackling them so richly suggestive and provocative that educated readers of nearly every period have in some way been influenced by him, and in practically every age there have been philosophers who count themselves Platonists in some important respects.


Plotinus from "The School of Athens" by Raphael
Plotinus from “The School of Athens” by Raphael

Plotinus (204/5 — 270 C.E.), is generally regarded as the founder of Neoplatonism. He is one of the most influential philosophers in antiquity after Plato and Aristotle. The term Neoplatonism is an invention of early 19th century European scholarship and indicates the penchant of historians for dividing ‘periods’ in history. In this case, the term was intended to indicate that Plotinus initiated a new phase in the development of the Platonic tradition. What this ‘newness’ amounted to, if anything, is controversial, largely because one’s assessment of it depends upon one’s assessment of what Platonism is. In fact, Plotinus (like all his successors) regarded himself simply as a Platonist, that is, as an expositor and defender of the philosophical position whose greatest exponent was Plato himself.

Marsilio Ficino

Marsilio Ficino and the Sacrament of Color

(Latin name: Marsilius Ficinus; 1433-1499) was one of the most influential humanist philosophers of the early Italian Renaissance, an astrologer, a reviver of Neoplatonism who was in touch with every major academic thinker and writer of his day, and the first translator of Plato’s complete extant works into Latin. His Florentine Academy, an attempt to revive Plato’s school, had enormous influence on the direction and tenor of the Italian Renaissance and the development of European philosophy.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


(1749-1832), German poet, dramatist, novelist, and scientist, b. Frankfurt. One of the great masters of world literature, his genius embraced most fields of human endeavor; his art and thought are epitomized in his great dramatic poem Faust. It is exceedingly difficult to overstate the importance of Goethe in the 19th century. In many respects, he was the originator of, or at least, the first to cogently express many ideas which would later become linguistics. Emerson regarded Goethe as a giant of his time.

Thomas Taylor by Richard Evans

Thomas Taylor

(1758 – 1835), known as the English Platonist, was the first to translate into English the complete works of Plato and Aristotle. He also translated many of the later Platonists and some of the remaining fragments of the earliest Greek writings, such as the Orphics, and the Pythagoreans. These translations, together with his original works, represent the most comprehensive survey of the philosophical thought of European antiquity. Emerson learned his Plato from Taylor’s translation, published in London, in 1803.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge


(1772-1834) Poet and philosopher, Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection was important to the Idealist movement in America, with its definition of Reason and Understanding and emphasis upon intuitive insight. Emerson visited Coleridge in London in 1833, a year before the aged poet died.

William Wordsworth


(1770 – 1850) was a major English romantic poet who, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, helped to launch the Romantic Age in English literature with their 1798 joint publication, Lyrical
Ballads. Wordsworth’s masterpiece is generally considered to be The Prelude, an autobiographical poem of his early years that was revised and expanded a number of times. It was never published during his lifetime, and was only given the title after his death. Up until this time it was generally known as the poem “to Coleridge”. Wordsworth was England’s Poet Laureate from 1843 until his death in 1850.


Thomas Carlyle

(1795-1881) was a Scottish essayist, satirist, and historian, and friend to Emerson, was hugely influential during the Victorian era. Coming from a strictly Calvinist family, Carlyle was expected by his parents to become a preacher. However, while at the University of Edinburgh, he lost his Christian faith; nevertheless, Calvinist values remained with him throughout his life. This combination of a religious temperament with loss of faith in traditional Christianity made Carlyle’s work appealing to many Victorians who were grappling with scientific and political changes that threatened the traditional social order.


Amos Bronson Alcott

When Ralph Waldo Emerson met Alcott in Boston in the late 1830’s, he was so impressed with his intellect and innovative ideas that he convinced him to move to Concord and join his circle of friends.  There, Alcott turned to farming, lecturing, and writing to support his family, but his efforts were limited in their effectiveness. A few years later, with his English Transcendental friend, Charles Lane, Bronson founded the short-lived experimental Utopian community, Fruitlands, in Harvard, Massachusetts. Following the failure of the Fruitlands endeavor, Alcott sank briefly into the one interlude of despondency in his otherwise confidently optimistic life. Alcott’s ideas were instrumental in forming Emerson’s thought as recorded in the transcendental seminal work, Nature.


Margaret Fuller

(1810-1850) “possessed more influence on the thought of American women than any woman previous to her time.” So wrote Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in their 1881 History of Woman Suffrage. Author, editor, and teacher, Fuller contributed significantly to the American Renaissance in literature and to mid-nineteenth century reform movements. A brilliant and highly educated member of the Transcendentalist group, she challenged Ralph Waldo Emerson both intellectually and emotionally. She died tragically in a ship accident off the coast of Long Island, NY in a hurricane.


Henry David Thoreau

(1817-1862) was an American author, naturalist, transcendentalist, tax resister, and philosopher who is best known for Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay, Civil Disobedience, an argument for individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state. Thoreau’s books, articles, essays, journals, and poetry total over 20 volumes. Among his lasting contributions were his writings on natural history and philosophy, where he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern day environmentalism. He was a close friend of Emerson and lived for a time in a cabin on Emerson’s land at Walden Pond.

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson