Friday, 8 February 2013

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Joseph Smith - the Greater New England origins of successful modern Western spirituality and religion


Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803-1882 - Born in Boston and lived in Concord Massachusetts.

Joseph Smith 1805-1844 - Born in Vermont, raised in upstate New York.

I haven't blogged much about him, but I am - or was - something of an expert on Ralph Waldo Emerson and his circle, especially Thoreau - having read... some hundreds of books? on the subject.

By contrast, I have only recently read about Joseph Smith (founder of Mormonism); and it took me quite a while before I suddenly realized that they were almost exactly the same age and lived in the same region of Greater New England.


Despite this, in most senses the two men were about as different as could be, and inhabited extremely different worlds.

Emerson was upper class, highly educated and widely read, literate and an extraordinarily powerful preacher/ lecturer; while JS was none of these.

Emerson's world was intensely cultivated and inhabited by famous intellectuals and artists; JS's world was raw, violent, in near turmoil - I was particularly struck by the continual, daily - almost hourly - possibility and actuality of unrestrained 'vigilante' mob violence.

(e.g. Shortly after he founded the Mormon Church, JS was severely beaten, tarred and feathered by a mob; and his castration was planned, he was stripped and tied to a board but at the last moment the doctor brought along for the purpose could not bring himself to do it. Emerson only encountered any such things in the pre-Civil War heights of anti-abolitionism.)


Even in economic terms there was a stark contrast - Emerson's world was one of considerable security (by world historical standards) and for his early decades there was near zero poverty in Concord (Emerson was astonished by the poverty and depravity he saw in the much richer and more powerful cities of England); while Smith was himself poor, often hungry and lacking basic necessities; surrounded by poverty - families were continually uprooting and seeking subsistence, 'borrowing, begging etc.


So much for the differences. Yet the similarities in terms of magnitude of international spiritual/ religious influence are striking.


Emerson came from a Ministerial Calvinist (Puritan) background which moves through Unitarianism into Deist transcendentalism, and then a non-supernaturalist spiritualism focused on subjective sensations.

Thus Emerson, and his 'disciple' Thoreau, are spiritual and indeed lineal fathers of that vast modern phenomenon of Liberal New Age spirituality which dominate modern 'religious' seeking and expression

Emerson's spiritual influence was extremely large in scale, but diffuse in effect and tailing-off into mere entertainment and distraction.


Joseph Smith has been hardly less successful in terms of influence, leaving the only Western form of Christianity that has retained its devoutness, grown rapidly in size by winning converts and above replacement fertility, and has thriven among the educated and successful.

However the nature of influence was very different in each instance.

Smith's influence was numerically much less than Emerson's; but was spiritually much more concentrated and powerful - objectively transforming the lives of his followers. 


(As a side point, both Emerson and Smith had famous disciples: Henry David Thoreau and Brigham Young - who both provided a form of influence that was clearer and simpler and therefore more easily transmitted than the master's original doctrines.)


The US has been, since the early 1800s, the creative centre for new movements in Western religion - and Emerson and Joseph Smith were perhaps the most important of enduring influences. The very difference between their legacies is remarkable: Emerson having been assimilated into the mainstream mass media expressions of 'mind, body and spirit', self-help and esteem boosting; while JS's remains focused, hard-edged, tough and private.


So, what would each think of the other, and who would me most pleased with how things had turned-out?

I think Joseph Smith would have been satisfied, probably delighted, with his legacy church; while Emerson would have been utterly appalled at how transcendentalism had turned-out.

Transcendentalism turned-out exactly the way that Emerson's most vehement critics at Harvard and among the Calvinists and stricter Unitarians said that it would turn-out - except even worse: a chaos of irrationalist emotional subjectivity which justifies anything, or nothing.


Emerson's legacy includes not just the shallow, selfish and self-indulgent spiritual seekers of today, but Nietzsche and his various spawn.

I suspect that if Emerson could have forseen how things would have turned-out; he would have recognized and repented his error, and returned to some orthodox form of Christianity (perhaps Roman Catholicism).

And what a difference that might have made - to have America's first and most influential literary-philosophical genius on the side of tradition instead of progressivism...



Anonymous said...

>>Emerson's legacy includes not just the shallow, selfish and self-indulgent spiritual seekers of today, but Nietzsche and his various spawn.<<

I think the European part of all this awfulness comes from German Romanticism, which seems to have given us both communism and nazism, and as Steve Sailer has noted recently hippie nature worship.

Bruce Charlton said...

Indeed - and the term Transcendentalism came to Emerson via (a misunderstanding of?) Kant via Coleridge via his friend (the Germanist) Frederic Henry Hedge

But this was a minority elite interest in Europe until it came back from the USA post-WWII with first The Beats, then the Hippy generation, then New Age.

JRRT Reader said...

Dr. Charlton-it might give you some comfort to learn that despite Emerson's admittedly large reputation, he isn't especially frequently read or considered interesting in literary circles and not even so much as one might imagine in philosophical ones. At least in the US. Of course, this might be less so for New England where some folks might consider him "one of our own". It's a classic example of that phrase about "a "genius" who is widely praised but rarely read".

It must be noted, though, that those writers who are often read are scarcely much better. I do have remark that it seems Emerson is so well-known among educated people in Europe, as he's really only a matter for specialists in the US.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JRRTR - I would be very surprised if Emerson *was* read much nowadays because his writing is so condensed and aphoristic. I have probably read most of what he wrote (including journals and letters) but would not describe any of it as immediately appealing or easily digestible. It is clear enough why it is Thoreau who continues to be read (albeit mostly Walden, but also selections of the journals).

Nonetheless Emerson's influence was vast and undeniable, and among the greatest writers of subsequent generations (Whitman and Frost, for instance) which makes him a great writer whatever we think about him!

Indeed, I feel bad that Emerson isn't more read! Even though his overall philosophy was wrong, he said so many specific things so very well (that is indeed his greatness - as a writer of sentences), and he was such a wonderful human being in terms of his character, that it would be a terrible waste if his writings were ignored.

JP said...

Transcendentalism turned-out exactly the way that Emerson's most vehement critics at Harvard and among the Calvinists and stricter Unitarians said that it would turn-out - except even worse

Heh, you can say the same of abolition -- it turned out exactly the way its most vehement contemporary critics said that it would, except even worse.

This week, a Catholic priest asserted that slavery was "inherently sinful". My observations that an institution that persisted for tens of thousands of years, in nearly every human culture, could not be inherently sinful, that Christians did not regard slavery as inherently sinful for 1800 years, and that slavery is not denounced as sinful in the Bible, found little favor.

JRRT Reader said...

I have to admit that I am far from anything approaching an expert on Emerson, though I have some acquaintance with him and the Transcendentalists. I would be dishonest were I not to acknowledge that in my own estimation (as well as that of those with whom I'm more or less in accord with philosophically), those thinkers had a unfortunate influence intellectually, politically, and socially on 19th C. America. Their ties with the more radical brands of Abolitionism, which are also distasteful. Mind you, I am absolutely not speaking in favor of slavery, but the Abolitionists had far in mind than ending that practice.

How exactly would you go about separating the good from bad in that school?