English Literature
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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The Life and Legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a celebrated figure of the modern era, renowned for his multi-faceted talents as a lecturer, essayist, poet, theologian, and philosopher. His influential contributions have played a crucial role in shaping American culture and literature. Let's delve deeper into the story of this iconic man and his work.

Formative Years and Education

Born in Boston on May 25, 1803, Emerson was raised by his mother after his father, a prominent Unitarian minister, passed away when he was only eight. He attended Boston Latin School and then Harvard Divinity School, where he was a mediocre student. After graduating, he worked briefly as a teacher before following in his father's footsteps and becoming a Unitarian minister at the young age of 21. However, he soon became disillusioned with both the job and the Unitarian faith.

  • Fun Fact: After the death of his first wife in 1829, Emerson went through a personal crisis that led him to quit his job and embark on a year-long journey to Europe. There, he immersed himself in literature, art, and culture.

The Birth of Transcendentalism

Upon his return to the United States in 1833, Emerson settled in Concord, Massachusetts, and began his career as a lecturer and essayist. In 1835, he married Lydia Jackson and published his first book, "Nature," in 1836. This text introduced some of his core ideas, including idealism and unity, although it was not received well by a wider audience at first.

  • However, "Nature" did attract a group of followers who regularly gathered at Emerson's home. This group, known as Transcendentalists, included prominent writers and intellectuals such as Bronson Alcott, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, and Henry David Thoreau.
  • The Transcendentalists believed in the significance of individual free will and the divine nature of the natural world. They expressed their beliefs through the magazine "The Dial" (1840-1844), which they established as a platform for their ideas.

Rise to Prominence

Emerson rose to widespread recognition with the publication of his "Essays, First Series" in 1841, and his fame brought about increased controversy. For instance, his 1838 Divinity School Address sparked a debate with its critique of Christianity's reliance on tradition and history, resulting in him not being invited back to speak at the school for three decades.

  • Emerson was vocal about social and political issues such as the Indian Removal Act, the Mexican War, and the Fugitive Slave Act. However, these views were primarily expressed in private, as his lectures and essays focused more on personal and abstract themes.
  • Throughout the 1840s, Emerson maintained a busy schedule of lectures, and he also published his "Essays, Second Series" in 1844 and a collection of poems in 1846. In 1847, he embarked on a year-long lecture tour of Europe.

Final Years and Lasting Impact

In the 1850s and 1860s, Emerson continued to write and lecture, becoming a prominent public intellectual. However, in the 1870s, he began to show signs of declining health and senility. He eventually stopped writing altogether and passed away from pneumonia on April 27, 1882. He was laid to rest at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, leaving behind an enduring legacy.

The Enduring Contributions of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson's ideas and writings have left a lasting imprint on education, morality, religion, and literature, particularly in the realm of poetry. Below are brief summaries of six of his most significant essays.

  • "Nature" (1836): In this work, Emerson delves into the concept of idealism and the interconnectedness of all things in nature.
  • "Self-Reliance" (1841): This essay highlights the importance of individualism and self-reliance in a society that pressures conformity.
  • "The American Scholar" (1837): Focusing on the role of education in society, this essay champions independent thinking and intellectual freedom.
  • "Divinity School Address" (1838): Through this controversial speech, Emerson challenges long-held religious beliefs and advocates for a more personal spiritual experience.
  • "The Poet" (1844): In this piece, Emerson celebrates the role of the poet in society and the power of imagination and creativity.

The Revolutionary Thoughts of Ralph Waldo Emerson and their Impact on American Literature and Philosophy

Renowned philosopher and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson published his influential book-length essay "Nature" in 1836, where he delved into various philosophical and religious concepts. Inspired by great thinkers and poets, Emerson presents his unique perspective, incorporating elements of Christianity and Hinduism.

Emerson begins by defining nature as everything that is "NOT ME," including both the physical world and human creations. He points out the paradoxical nature of our constant surroundings yet perceived distance from nature. He believes that to truly understand nature, one must have the eyes and heart of a child and become a "transparent eye-ball." Emerson identifies four main purposes of nature - commodity, beauty, language, and discipline - seeing it as the source of all moral, intellectual, religious, and artistic truths.

The rest of the essay addresses the philosophical debates around idealism and the existence of the world independent of human consciousness. Emerson concludes that idealism holds true, as the world is a manifestation of the "universal essence" of matter, God, and humanity. He urges us to immerse ourselves in nature to gain a deeper understanding of God, the world, morality, and ourselves.

In "The American Scholar," originally a Phi Beta Kappa address, Emerson discusses three sources of knowledge - nature, books, and action. He gives nature the highest priority, stating that our observation of it is the basis of natural laws, which also teach us about the mind. For Emerson, "Its [nature's] beauty is the beauty of his [man's] own mind. Its laws are the laws of his own mind." He emphasizes the importance of active involvement as a vital part of our education, with books being a significant source of knowledge if used correctly.

In his "Divinity School Address" delivered to the senior class at Harvard Divinity School, Emerson praises nature's beauty and its role in shaping our inclination towards virtue. He argues that this inclination is natural and cannot be taught or communicated, and seeking goodness makes us "strong by the whole strength of nature." He also criticizes what he refers to as "historical Christianity," which he believes has deviated from Jesus' true teachings and emphasizes the importance of leading by example rather than being "spectral" preachers.

Emerson's ideas sparked controversy, with some accusing him of atheism. However, his influence on American literature and philosophy remains significant, with his revolutionary thoughts challenging traditional beliefs and inspiring generations to come.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a renowned American philosopher, was banned from speaking at Harvard for over 30 years after refusing to retract his criticism. In his famous essay "Self-Reliance," Emerson presents his most significant contribution to ethical theory, urging individuals to trust their instincts and intuition by tapping into their "divine idea." However, this can be challenging due to the pressure to conform to societal norms and desire for consistency, which Emerson dismisses as "foolish." He believes that self-reliance is a reliance on God and each other, emphasizing the importance of individualism and free expression in his works.

In his essay "The Poet," Emerson criticizes the poetry of his time for being too focused on following formal rules rather than conveying meaningful truths. He argues that a "meter-making argument" is what truly makes a poem, paving the way for free-verse poetry. And in his essay "Experience," written after his son's sudden death, Emerson explores the various factors that shape our experiences, such as "illusion," "subjectiveness," and "surprise."

Emerson's Philosophy on Science, Metaphysics, and Ethics

Emerson's philosophy is reflected in his essays, where he delves into various topics. He sees existence as a process, with nothing being permanent and everything being a single unity, making us all identical to each other and nature. However, he does not offer an explanation for this paradox.

Ethically, Emerson looks to heroes or "Representative Men" for virtues, celebrating life, youth, energy, and creativity. His philosophy emphasizes self-reliance, trust, and reasonable skepticism as central virtues.

The Connection Between Emerson's Views on Religion and Education

Emerson believed that institutions like schools and churches should have a practical purpose in life and contribute to the development of positive values. He saw a common premise between his philosophy of education and religion, prioritizing activity, creativity, and inspiring action and engagement in both.

Emerson and Hinduism

During his time at Harvard, Emerson developed a fascination with Hinduism and India. Despite not being able to read Sanskrit or access sacred Hindu texts, he immersed himself in whatever translated excerpts and paraphrased versions he could find. In 1845, he finally obtained English translations of the Bhagavad Gita and the Vishnu Purana, which were not readily available in the United States at the time.

Emerson's exposure to Hindu texts influenced his ideas on the unity of God, nature, and humanity, his rejection of formal systems, and the power and responsibility of the individual. He occasionally referred to Hindu gods and stories in his essays.

The Bhagavad Gita According to Emerson

In his book Representative Men, Emerson positioned the Bhagavad Gita alongside other timeless works such as Plato's dialogues. He saw a parallel between Plato and the Gita, with both presenting opposing views of entire cultures and the individuals within them. While Plato represented diversity and uniqueness, Emerson saw the Gita as embodying unity and oneness. This sparked his interest in exploring concepts such as caste and culture, power and distribution, and fate and free will, which he continued to contemplate throughout the 1850s and 60s.

The Poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson's collected poetry received praise during his lifetime and remains popular today. Two of his most renowned works are "Concord Hymn" and "Brahma."

"Concord Hymn" (1837)

Written for the completion of a monument commemorating the start of the American Revolution at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the poem famously declares:

"Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Pioneer of American Literature and Philosophy

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a prominent American lecturer, essayist, and poet who played a crucial role in shaping literature and philosophy in the mid-19th century. Born in Boston in 1803, he rose to fame in the 1840s and became a highly influential thinker in America.

The American Revolution: A Humble Beginning with a Profound Impact

The American Revolution started with humble beginnings but would have a profound impact on world history, making it a crucial part of the nation's history and identity.

The poem "Concord Hymn" by Emerson, written in four quatrains with alternating rhyme scheme and iambic tetrameter, captures the spirit of the Revolution with its use of the word "Hymn" in the title. This form and word suggest a sense of singing and a religious or spiritual significance to the event.

Over 50 years after the Revolution, the poem acknowledges the disrepair of the bridge where the Battle of Concord took place. The speaker hopes that the new monument will preserve the heroism of the Revolution's fighters for generations to come.

'Brahma' (1856): A Reflection of Emerson's Philosophies

In his poem "Brahma", influenced by his interest in Hinduism, Emerson expresses his key philosophical ideas. The speaker is the god Brahma, proclaiming:

"Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame."

The poem illustrates Emerson's belief in metaphysical unity, where things that seem opposite, like distance and nearness, or light and darkness, are actually identical. It also highlights his belief that socially constructed ideas, like shame and fame, are also based on this principle of unity. The poem concludes by addressing the reader:

"But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven."

In the context of Emerson's views on religion and morality, the "lover of the good" represents someone who blindly follows societal and religious beliefs, while the active and creative principle embodied by Brahma represents the true good, requiring us to reject conventional ideas.

Emerson's Notable Quotes

  • "All sensible people are selfish, and nature is constantly pushing for fair terms in every contract." - "The Conduct of Life" (1860)
  • "People wish to be settled: it is only when they are unsettled that there is any hope for them." - "Circles" (1841)
  • "The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one." - "Friendship" (1841)
  • "It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person: 'Always do what you are afraid to do.'" - "Heroism" (1841)
  • "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by small statesmen, philosophers, and theologians. A great soul has no use for consistency." - "Self-Reliance" (1841)
  • "Is it so bad to be misunderstood? Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus, Luther, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton - all great minds have been misunderstood. To be great is to be misunderstood." - "Self-Reliance" (1841)
  • "Men are conservative when they are least vigorous, or after a luxurious meal." - "New England Reformers" (1844)
  • "What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." - "Fortune of the Republic" (1878)
  • "Hitch your wagon to a star." - "Society and Solitude" (1870)

Emerson's Key Contributions

Emerson's lectures and essays are some of his most significant works, including "Nature" (1836), "The Divinity School Address" (1837), "Self-Reliance" (1841), "The American Scholar" (1841), and "Experience" (1844). These works explore his metaphysical ideas of process and unity, his ethical belief in self-reliance, and his criticisms of the education system and Christianity. These ideas laid the foundation for Transcendentalism, an influential American intellectual movement.

Emerson's Notable Poems

In addition to his prose works, Emerson was also a renowned poet. Some of his most famous poems include "Concord Hymn", which immortalized the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and "Brahma".


  1. Baym, N. (General Editor).The Influence of Hinduism on Ralph Waldo Emerson's Philosophy
  2. In 19th century America, the merging of Eastern and Western philosophies had a significant impact on literary figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. This can be observed in his writings, particularly in his essay "Nature" and his interest in Hinduism.
  3. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B 1820-1865, published in 2007, highlights Emerson's incorporation of Eastern beliefs into his works. In his essay, Emerson expresses the idea of a universal soul, similar to the Hindu concept of Brahman.
  4. In the 1990 article "East-West Philosophy in Nineteenth-Century America: Emerson and Hinduism," Russell Goodman delves into the influence of Hinduism on Emerson. He explains how Emerson's beliefs were shaped by the Hindu scriptures, particularly the Bhagavad Gita.
  5. Further analysis of Emerson's philosophy can be found in Russell Goodman's 2020 work, "Ralph Waldo Emerson," published in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This article delves into Emerson's transcendentalist ideas and his belief in the interconnectedness of all beings, which echoes the Hindu concept of oneness.
  6. Additionally, Neal Tolchin's 2005 piece, "Ralph Waldo Emerson," in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Criticism and Theory, examines Emerson's literary style and the influence of Hinduism on his writings. Tolchin explains how Emerson's use of Hindu terminology and concepts, such as maya and atman, demonstrate his fascination with Eastern philosophies.
  7. In conclusion, the incorporation of Hindu beliefs in Ralph Waldo Emerson's philosophy played a significant role in shaping his transcendentalist ideas. This can be observed in his works, as well as in scholarly analyses of his writings.

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