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Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Emerson once dreamed that the world shrunk into an apple. An angel told him to eat it, and so he did. A fitting image of transcendentalist thought! The world is so small we can eat it; the mind prevails,"there was never any thing that did not proceed from a thought"; a single human being can do anything.

By most accounts Emerson was a great American, a great speaker, and a great man. He was a transcendentalist, a nature writer, a Unitarian minister, a teacher, a literary figure, a speaker (yes, that was his profession!), a poet. He was anti-slavery, anti-establishment, pro-women's rights (all when it was "unfashionable"); and, even through family deaths and sorrows, he was a champion of unbridled and unparalleled optimism. But what impresses me most is the degree to which he thought for himself, went his own way, and fearlessly lived.

At 24 Emerson visits the South. He's at a bible study. He can hear a slave auction outside. He and his wife, part of the Underground Railroad in Boston, would always be vocal against slavery. On the Emancipation Proclamation he said: “[Lincoln] has been permitted to do more for America than any other American man.” When the war was only about saving the Union, he wouldn't’t let his son enlist. He supported John Brown. In 1844 even the churches wouldn't open their doors for his speeches, which fueled his distrust of organized religion: “God builds his temple in the heart, on the ruins of churches and religions."

On the unity of all persons: “There is one mind common to all individual men” Like Thoreau's chant "Simplicity!" Emerson's chant was "Identity, identity! Friend and foe are one stuff, and the stuff is such and so much that the variations of surface are unimportant.” On us and Nature: “There is a relation between man and nature so that whatever is in matter is in mind.” On beauty: “all is in each” and “the standard of beauty is the entire circuit of natural forms—the totality of nature.” He was so convinced in the power of a single individual that he said "properly there is no history, only biography." In other words, if you want to learn history, read a bunch of biographies--history is nothing but a list of great and terrible people. But we are all potentially great people: “each fine genius that appears is already predicted in our constitution.” In a stoic and Christian way, he thought groups of people only make things worse. After witnessing the French Revolution, he says “It is always becoming evident that the permanent good is for the soul only and cannot be retained in any society or system...the world is always childish." On courage, peace, and nonviolence Emerson was like Martin Luther King Jr: "Courage is grounded always on a belief in the identity of the nature of my enemy with my own [nature], that he with whom you contend is no more than you."

Yes I recommend this biography, but it's a commitment (due to length).


Emerson: Mind on Fire

Posted by Matt Smith at 04/20/2012 08:48:18 AM