Saturday, 16 April 2011

Ralph Waldo Emerson - my changing evaluations


Around 1995-1999 Ralph Waldo Emerson was probably my number one spiritual mentor  - the period culminated in a pilgrimage to Emerson's house in Concord, Massachusetts through which I wandered as if in a dream.

I never found him easy to read nor to understand, never found myself able to read much at a stretch; but I regarded Emerson as a great soul and an example of how to live - I consciously modelled my life on his.

As well as Emerson's essays, journals and letters; I read great quantities of biographies and memoirs - of which there are exceptional numbers in exceptionally high quality.


The first biography which made a really big impact was Robert D Richardson's Emerson: the mind on fire (1995).

My memories of the under-employed summers of 1996 and 1997 are sitting in the back garden on a blanket under the tree, reading this book, again and again.


Richardson provides a handy list of Emerson's key ideas (which did not change through his mature life). I would then have subscribed to all of these ideas, insofar as I understood them:

1. The days are gods. That is, everything is divine.
2. Creation is continuous. There is no other world; this one is all there is.
3. Every day is the day of judgment.
4. The purpose of life is individual self-cultivation, self-expression, and fulfillment.
5. Poetry liberates. Thought is also free.
6. The powers of the soul are commensurate with its needs; each new day challenges us with its adequacy and our own.
8. Fundamental perceptions are intuitive and inarguable; all important truths, whether of physics or ethics, must at last be self--evident.
9. Nothing great is ever accomplished without enthusiasm.
10. Life is an ecstasy; Thoreau has it right when he says, “Surely joy is the condition of life.”
11. Criticism and commentary, if they are not in the service of enthusiasm and ecstasy, are idle at best, destructive at worst. Your work, as Ruskin says, should be the praise of what you love.”


Now I would regard them all - except perhaps number 11 - as wrong, profoundly wrong, dangerously wrong!

They were fine for Emerson himself, a good and gentle man who was brought up as a strict Calvinist then as a mild Unitarian - but lethal for elite consumption in a secular and materialist society - where indeed such ideas are more or less mainstream among people who have anything like a spirituality.


Emerson was reacting against the harshness and legalism of Calvinism, and against the arid rationality of  Unitarianism - and these were, indeed, indefensible.

It is the old, old story of heresy piled upon heresy - each new heresy forged by a genius who achieves remarkable results, great things; but who is followed by generations of disciples that progressively reveal the dark side of the Master - the incoherence, nihilism, selfishness and pride (that above all) which lies beneath the superficially exciting and liberating message.


I still read and enjoy Emerson, albeit in a bracketted and more selective way, and love to daydream of that brief decade or two of fresh, innocent New England Transcendentalism; but can never again let myself fall wholly under his intoxicating spell - or, at least, not for long.



TJIC said...

This paragraph

"It is the old, old story of heresy piled upon heresy - each new heresy forged by a genius who achieves remarkable results, great things; but who is followed by generations of disciples that progressively reveal the dark side of the Master - the incoherence, nihilism, selfishness and pride (that above all) which lies beneath the superficially exciting and liberating message."

is perfect.

The "old story" - I like that.

The irony of the avante garde is that their schtick is actually the oldest thing in the book.

The Great and Powerful Oz said...

Emerson, like Shakespeare, was meant to be spoken rather than read. I've read through some of his works as well.

He was a Unitarian minister for a short while, but left after his first wife, who was 14 when they married, died of tuberculosis.

A truly amazing writer and lecturer, but I have never seen anything that really described him as a nice person. This was typical of Unitarians of the time.

Unknown said...


What is wrong with #3? In a very real and literal sense, the end of time is the unfolding present moment.

The end of time is not all that is.

SonofMoses said...

Dear Bruce,
I was intrigued by your reading of Emerson, and I am sympathetic to your main point: his influence was of varied benefit. The man himself, however, was a very fine and rare human being, which I think you acknowledge.
Round about the time you were under the tree, I was researching my own book on Emerson, which I later published privately and gave talks on in Concord itself (although I am English).
I find the 11 ‘key ideas’ given by Richardson to be facile. Some of them are not worth commenting on, being mere selected random quotes from a huge and varied oevre.
Emerson NEVER dealt in finite lists, philosophical systems or categories.
I can only touch briefly on the inadequacies of Richardson’s points.
Point 1: Emerson had more somber reckonings than are expressed by this random ‘days are gods’ quote. He was well aware of the consequences of the Great Fall of Man.
Emerson was a Platonist from his youth, so that takes care of point 2.
I don’t know where R. got point 3.
Yes, point 4 is the key to the New Age. At the least, it is a response to Our Lord’s parable of the talents.
Point 5, again random. But you yourself find Tolkein’s poetry liberating, not least, I should imagine, because it speaks to the un-abstract intelligence, what Emerson termed Reason, as opposed to the mere Understanding.
Point 6, I have the faith to agree with, though only when free of the pride you so rightly speak of. Emerson was a pure and humble man. The tradition he was born into took care of that. I completely agree with you that without such an upbringing his ideas are potentially dangerous.
What happened to point 7?
Point 8, like 6, I would like to hear your objections to.
Same with point 9. Enthusiasm, etymologically, signals divine inspiration, the Muse, the Holy Spirit.
10, like 4, could be misunderstood, but in the right hands there is truth in it. The joy of the 18th & 19th century Hassidic saints comes to mind.
11 you have already given the seal of approval.
One of the keys to understanding Emerson’s life and works is the falling off of the quality of his work after about 1840, after publishing the First Series of Essays. Thereafter his writing became repetitive, much more materialistic and less inspired. My own book took as its central theme an explanation of why this was so. This distinction has led to much misunderstanding.
I would love to hear your response to these points.

The Crow said...

The true master discourages the disciple.
Followers of anything, are followers.
Apt to turn against that which they follow. This always being somebody else's truth.
The true master, also, creates a way, for himself to fit the world, rather than for the world to fit him.
A tricky nuance few can grasp.

Alex said...

One of Emerson's admirable inclinations was to identify with the assumptions of his own society - which is in contrast to the tendency of European intellectuals who, almost as a rule, have suffered from 'oikophobia'. (I believe Roger Scruton invented, or rediscovered, this word which refers to the repudiation of traditions and conventions associated with 'hearth and home'.)

Bryan said...

I can't find this list anywhere. Where is it?! (Thanks!)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bryan - the list is in Robert D Richardson's "Emerson: the mind on fire" (1995). It is one of the best biographies I have ever read (and I have read a *lot* of biographies!)