Reviving Emerson

by Bob Schwartz

Ralph Waldo Emerson
It is time to bring Emerson back from the dead and ignored.

Up until the late 20th century, at least one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays—usually the one titled Self-Reliance—was a staple of many high school curricula. So was the work of his fellow 19th century Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau—though it was mostly Thoreau’s nature paean Walden, rather than On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Maybe they are still there, but with our changing definition of what constitutes an American liberal arts education—if we consider that worthwhile at all—they have likely disappeared.

In the middle of the 19th century, the philosophical/political/religious/social/literary movement known as Transcendentalism gave birth to new ways of thinking and acting in America. Among the many intellectuals and activists associated with it, such as Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, none was more famous or prolific than Emerson. Transcendentalism gave new legitimacy to questioning the authority of convention and history. In the 1960s we would call this counterculture, and it is no coincidence that Thoreau became a guiding light to many in that generation.

Books and essays by the hundreds are devoted to Transcendentalism (see this entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). They agree that pinning down exactly what Transcendentalism was and what it became over the years is a challenge. The same is said about Emerson, who unapologetically might contradict himself or change particular views over time.

With all that fluidity and vagueness, a few points of it are clear. According to Transcendentalism, we are driven to improve and grow, to aspire and rise higher. What drives us there is spiritual, but not in any conventional, narrow or simplistic sense. What we do is as important as what we believe and say. We must act, believe and speak as individuals, but knowing the nature of our particular individuality requires work and solitude. This life, this world, this existence are all-encompassing processes and not things—a concept that would later be refined as  a core of modern philosophy, but that had its origins in the most ancient roots.

All of the work of the Transcendentalists is in the public domain and widely available free online. Though more people are familiar with Thoreau, or at least some of his concepts, Emerson is a good place to start. In his Essays (First Series) you will find Self-Reliance. In it you will find what we might consider a libertarian distrust of the crowd and of the government, something shared with Thoreau. But this is an enlightened sort of selfness, different than modern mutations, because it makes no distinction between the one and the all, that is, if I do what is good for me but is not good for all, it is by definition no good at all. Figuring out how that exactly works is the mission of the Buddha, of Jesus, of just about every philosopher who urges us to find our unique self and act in the benevolent context of community, country and cosmos. Emerson was one of the first to say this in American, as an American, in America. Maybe he got lost in the rush to the shiny and new, but he’s still there, just waiting to be discovered.