Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his many quotations have provided me with so much inspiration over these months - to believe in ourselves and to continue to struggle against such adversity.

“The secret of education is respecting the pupil.”

“As long as a man stands in his own way, everything seems to be in his way.”

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.”

“You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”

“I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.”

“The only way to have a friend is to be one.”

“Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.”

“It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life, that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, American poet, essayist and philosopher was born in 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts. After studying at Harvard and teaching for a brief time, Emerson entered the ministry. He was appointed to the Old Second Church in his native city but soon became an unwilling preacher. Unable in conscience to administer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper after the death of his 19 year old wife from tuberculosis, Emerson resigned his pastorate in 1831.

The following year, he sailed to Europe, visiting Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Carlyle, the Scottish born English writer, was famous for his explosive attacks on hypocrisy and materialism, his distrust of democracy and his highly romantic belief in the power of the individual. Emerson’s friendship with Carlyle was both lasting and significant; the insights of the British thinker helped Emerson formulate his own philosophy.

On his return to New England, Emerson became known for challenging traditional thought. In 1835, he married his second wife, Lydia Jackson and settled in Concord, Massachusetts. Known in the local literary circle as ‘The Sage of Concord’, Emerson became the chief spokesman for Transcendentalism, the American philosophic and literary movement. Centred in New England during the 19th century, Transcendentalism was a reaction against scientific rationalism.

Emerson’s first book, Nature (1836), is perhaps the best expression of his Transcendentalism, the belief that everything in our world, even a drop of dew, is a microcosm of the universe. His concept of the Over-Soul, a Supreme Mind that every man and woman share, allowed Transcendentalists to disregard external authority and to rely instead on direct experience. ‘Trust thyself’, Emerson’s motto, became the code of Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau and W. E. Channing. From 1842 to 1844, Emerson edited the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial.

Emerson wrote poetic prose, ordering his essays by recurring themes and images. His poetry is often called harsh and didactic. Among Emerson’s most well known works are Essays, First and Second Series (1841, 1844). The First Series includes Emerson’s famous essay, ‘Self-Reliance’, in which the writer instructs his listener to examine his relationship with Nature and God and to trust his own judgment above all others.

Emerson’s other volumes include Poems (1847), Representative Men, The Conduct of Life (1860) and English Traits (1865). His best known addresses are The American Scholar (1837) and The Divinity School Address which he delivered before the graduates of the Harvard Divinity School, shocking Boston’s conservative clergymen with his descriptions of the divinity of man and the humanity of Jesus.

Emerson’s philosophy is characterized by its reliance on intuition as the only way to comprehend reality and his concepts owe much to the works of Plotinus, Swedenborg and B√∂hme. A believer in the ‘divine sufficiency of the individual’, Emerson was a steady optimist. His refusal to grant the existence of evil caused Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James, Sr., among others, to doubt his judgment. In spite of their scepticism, Emerson’s beliefs are of central importance in the history of American culture.

Ralph Waldo Emerson died of pneumonia in 1882.