BECK index

Emerson’s Transcendentalism

by Sanderson Beck

Emerson’s Education & Nature
Emerson’s Lectures & The Dial
Emerson on War, Peace & Reform
Emerson on History & Self-Reliance
Emerson on Compensation & Spiritual Laws
Emerson on the Over-Soul, Circles & Art
Emerson from 1841 to 1844

United States Democracy & Slavery 1801-1844 has been published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

Emerson’s Education & Nature

      Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on 25 May 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts as the son of a Unitarian minister who died in 1811. His aunt Mary Moody Emerson, who took over raising him, influenced him greatly by her wide reading and her critical intelligence. She urged him to read Plato, Plotinus, Marcus Aurelius, Coleridge, Herder, Locke, Madame de Staël, Channing, Byron, and others. Emerson would also study Hume and Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. In 1812 he attended a public Latin school, and he read classics and Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. In 1816 he chose to be called “Waldo.” He entered Harvard in 1817 study and read Greek and Latin authors as well as Shakespeare, Montaigne, Hume, Swift, Addison, Boswell, and others. The Harvard teachers who influenced him were Edward Everett, George Ticknor, and Edward Tyrrel Channing.
      In January 1820 Emerson began a journal he called “The Wide World.” He would write in his journals for more than a half century, and for the next five years he wrote down the books he read that included great playwrights and Scott’s novels. He also read More, Bacon, Johnson, Burke, Jeremy Taylor, Gibbon, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Cotton Mather, and The Federalist. His essay “The Character of Socrates” won second prize in the Bowdoin contest, and the next year “The Present State of Ethical Philosophy” also came in second and discussed Hobbes, Cudworth, Clark, Price, Butler, Reid, Paley, Smith, and Stewart; but he criticized the “apostles of peace and religion” who were arming European nations for an obstinate and pernicious contest” with fatal hostility. In March 1821 he was impressed by William Ellery Channing’s lecture on “Evidences of Revealed Religion.”
      Emerson graduated from Harvard College in 1821, and as class poet he read an original poem. He taught at his brother William’s school for young ladies until the family moved to Roxbury in May 1823. In November 1822 he published in the Unitarian review, The Christian Disciple, his first essay, “Thoughts on the Religion of the Middle Ages,” about the decay and decline of civilization into barbarism. In April 1824 he decided to dedicate himself to the church, and Channing recommended 14 books on recent English spirituality. In December 1824 Emerson closed the girls school he was teaching to prepare for Harvard’s divinity school which he entered in February 1825. That year he suffered from an eye disease and headaches.
      On 11 June 1826 he wrote his first sermon “Pray without Ceasing” and preached it on October 10 to the Middlesex Association which approved his license to preach. That year Sampson Reid, a disciple of Swedenborg, published his Observations on the Growth of the Mind which would influence Emerson’s transcendental philosophy. Emerson had lung trouble, and in December he went to Charleston, South Carolina and then to St. Augustine, Florida in January 1827. That month he wrote the word “Transcendentalism” in his Journal. In May he preached in Virginia and Philadelphia. On June 3 he began giving sermons weekly in Concord and other towns. On Christmas Day he preached in Concord, New Hampshire and met the beautiful 16-year-old Ellen Tucker. She had tuberculosis when they married on 10 September 1829; she died 17 months later.
      In January 1829 Emerson became a Unitarian minister at the Second Church in Boston with a salary of $1,200 a year, and he was ordained on March 11. When Henry Ware resigned in October 1830, Emerson became the primary minister for $1,800 a year. He bought some books and borrowed many from the Harvard College Library, the Boston Library Society, and the library of the Boston Athenaeum. In the summer he was appointed chaplain of the state senate. He served on the school committee and visited three schools regularly. Some parents demanded that he reform the harsh discipline at the Mayhew School. Emerson opposed the policies of President Andrew Jackson and dined with John Quincy Adams.
      Emerson read the 3-volume Histoire compare des systèmes de philosophie and Self-Education by Joseph de Gerando who included Hindu, Chinese, and Persian ideas. In 1831 Emerson read Victor Cousin’s Cours de l’histoire de la philosophie which introduced him to the Bhagavad-Gita. Emerson also read many scientific works. He began to doubt his beliefs and profession as a minister, and he decided to resign because of the Eucharist.
      In the spring of 1831 Emerson let the abolitionist Samuel May speak at the Second Church. By the fall Emerson was questioning the value of “religious shows,” and he wrote to the church committee that he had changed his opinion about the Lord’s Supper. He offered his resignation in September and preached about self-reliance. He agreed with Fénelon who taught that the soul does not need the aid of form and method. In October he was relieved of his duties except for providing preachers for the rest of the year.
      Emerson sailed to Europe and arrived at Malta in February 1833. He visited towns in Sicily before going to Naples and Rome where he witnessed religious events during Easter week. He admired Raphael’s painting “The Transfiguration.” He went to museums and churches and moved on to Florence and Milan. He traveled quickly through Switzerland stopping at Geneva and reaching Paris on June 20. He was influenced by Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection and met him. Emerson admired Thomas Carlyle’s essays “The State of German Literature,” “Signs of the Times,” and Characteristics,” and he was most eager to see him. They met and talked on August 16 at Edinburgh where he preached in the Unitarian Chapel on Sunday. Carlyle considered Emerson too visionary and impractical, but his wife Jane thought he was angelic. Emerson also visited the poet Wordsworth, and he returned to New York on October 7.
      On November 5 Emerson delivered his first lecture in the series on “The Uses of Natural History.” He said that the naturalist serves health and the cultivator and reveals the truth. His cousin Orville Dewey asked him to preach for a month in his Unitarian church in New Bedford, and Emerson spent three months there learning about the inner light from Quakers. He read William Penn’s works and other Quaker writings. At the Second Church in October and November he gave a series of lectures on “The Uses of Natural History” and then on “Water” at the Boston Mechanic’s Institution on 17 January 1834. He preached in Bangor, Maine in July and for a month at New York during autumn. From October through the winter he boarded in Concord with his step-grandfather Ripley.
      Emerson was especially influenced by the essays of Montaigne and the Moralia by Plutarch. Starting on 29 January 1835 he gave a series of weekly lectures on the lives of Michelangelo, Luther, Milton, George Fox, and Edmund Burke at the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Emerson had met Lydia Jackson in February 1834, and they married in September 1835. In July he had bought a house in Concord for $3,500. In August he gave his lecture on taste in English literature to the American Institute of Instruction in Boston, and in November he began his series of ten weekly lectures on English literature. He considered John Locke respectable and admired the prose of Coleridge. That summer Emerson met Amos Bronson Alcott, a farmer who had become a radical schoolmaster. From May 1835 to February 1838 Emerson was the Unitarian minister to Lexington’s East Village parish and preached twice on Sundays 24 times a year.
      Emerson’s first book, Nature, was published in June 1836, and it sold 500 copies in one month. This first great work shows already why Emerson may be America’s greatest writer or philosopher (in my humble opinion). Nature begins boldly with this:

Our age is retrospective.
It builds the sepulchres of the fathers.
It writes biographies, histories, and criticism.
The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face;
we, through their eyes.
Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?
Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition,
and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?...
Let us demand our own works and laws and worship….
Whenever a true theory appears, it will be its own evidence.
Its test is, that it will explain all phenomena.
Now many are thought not only unexplained but inexplicable;
as language, sleep, madness, dreams, beasts, sex.
Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul.
Strictly speaking, therefore, all that is separate from us,
all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art,
all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE.1

Emerson may not have known it at the time, but this philosophy is very similar to Hinduism especially the Samkhya philosophy that divides the universe into Spirit and Nature. He found a hidden relation between humans and plants. In the section “Commodity” he noted that Nature ministers to us not only as material but also as process and results. Human technology is extending nature by using steam and railways. In “Beauty” he suggested that humans love the beauty in nature, and the ancient Greeks conceived the universe as an orderly and meaningful cosmos. Emerson considered the eye the best artist. He found perceiving nature a delight because the presence of the spiritual is essential. He wrote,

Beauty is the mark God sets upon virtue.
Every natural action is graceful.
Every heroic act is also decent,
and causes the place and the bystanders to shine.
We are taught by great actions that
the universe is the property of every individual in it.
Every rational creature has all nature for his dowry and estate.
It is his, if he will.
He may divest himself of it; he may creep into a corner,
and abdicate his kingdom, as most men do,
but he is entitled to the world by his constitution.
In proportion to the energy of his thought and will,
he takes up the world into himself.2

      In “Language” he discussed words as signs of natural facts which are symbols of the spiritual. Words with moral significance often have their origins in material description such as “right” from “straight” and “wrong” from “twisted” (or crooked). The word “heart” means “emotion” and “head” implies “thought.” Spirit is the creator of life itself. Emerson warned that corrupt people can degrade language, and he described the process.

A man’s power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it,
depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth,
and his desire to communicate it without loss.
The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language.
When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas
is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires,
the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise,—
and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth,
the power over nature as an interpreter of the will,
is in a degree lost;
new imagery ceases to be created,
and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not.3

Emerson noted how physical laws reflect ethical principles such as “the whole is greater than its part,” and “reaction is equal to action.” Also many wise proverbs come from natural facts.
      In the section “Discipline” he described how natural facts and experiences teach us moral and other lessons. He reminded us that good thoughts are no better than dreams if one does not act on them. As we explore the universe, what we learn points us to what we do not yet know. Every event exercises our will.
      In “Idealism” Emerson merged the natural with the spiritual. He defined imagination as the use reason makes of the material world and finds their beauty expressed in poetry. He wrote,

The perception of real affinities between events,
(that is to say, of ideal affinities, for those only are real,)
enables the poet thus to make free
with the most imposing forms and phenomena of the world,
and to assert the predominance of the soul.4

He found that a true philosopher and a true poet both aim for truth and beauty. By seeing the unveiled nature of justice and truth we perceive the relation between the absolute and the conditional. By understanding the relation of space and time to matter we grasp the absolute and realize our immortality by perceiving the truth. Thinking understands the world as phenomenal; but virtue subordinates that to the mind, and “idealism sees the world in God.”
      In “Spirit” he wrote of the world as a divine dream from which we may awaken to glories.

We learn that the highest is present to the soul of man,
that the dread universal essence, which is not wisdom,
or love, or beauty, or power, but all in one, and each entirely,
is that for which all things exist, and that by which they are;
that spirit creates;
that behind nature, throughout nature, spirit is present;
one and not compound, it does not act upon us from without,
that is, in space and time, but spiritually, or through ourselves:
therefore, that spirit, that is, the Supreme Being,
does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us,
as the life of the tree puts forth
new branches and leaves through the pores of the old.
As a plant upon the earth, so a man rests upon the bosom of God;
he is nourished by unfailing fountains,
and draws, at his need, inexhaustible power.5

      In the last section on “Prospects” Emerson explained,

The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps,
is, because man is disunited with himself.
He cannot be a naturalist, until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit.
Love is as much its demand, as perception….
Is not prayer also a study of truth,—a sally of the soul into the unfound infinite?
No man ever prayed heartily, without learning something.
But when a faithful thinker,
resolute to detach every object from personal relations,
and see it in the light of thought, shall, at the same time,
kindle science with the fire of the holiest affections,
then will God go forth anew into the creation.6

Emerson’s Lectures & The Dial

      Emerson became friends with the precocious Margaret Fuller when she visited his family for three weeks in July and August 1836. He bought a 15-volume set of Goethe’s works. He also read writings by Jakob Boehme and Confucius. His wife Lydia welcomed the Grimké sisters to their home, and Emerson presented an address on slavery in a Concord church. He became the sage of Concord, and the literary colleagues gathering around him became known as the Transcendental Club and included Henry Hedge, George Ripley, Bronson Alcott, James Clarke, Orestes Brownson, Convers Francis, and divinity students. In October they began having weekly meetings, and topics for each were “American Genius—the causes which hinder its growth,” “Education of Humanity,” “What is the essence of Religion as distinct from morality?” “Does the species advance beyond the individual?” “Is Mysticism an element of Christianity?” “On the character and genius of Goethe,” “Pantheism,” and “Inspiration of the Prophet and Bard.”
      In December he began another series of ten lectures on the “Philosophy of History.” The second lecture on “Humanity of Science” was given on December 22. He observed that when peoples’ lives unite with nature, they will concur with creative law. When science is studied with piety, the soul comes alive with moral sentiments from spirit enabling humanity to advance as the intellect opens and commands nature. The heroes of science combine the accuracy of study with sympathy for humans. His tenth lecture on “Ethics” was given on 17 February 1837. He suggested that we are always learning from nature and that as long as we live, we will learn. He showed how proverbs express ethical principles.

An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth; blood for blood;
measure for measure; love for love.
Give and it shall be given to you.
He that watereth shall be watered himself.
“What will you have?” quoth God; “Pay for it and take it.”
Who doth not work, shall not eat.
Nothing venture, nothing have.
It is written on the tomb of a Shah of Persia,
“Thou shalt be paid exactly for what thou hast done; nor more; no less.”
Curses are chickens that come home to roost.
Thefts never enrich, Alms never impoverish,
and Murder will speak out of stone walls.
Self-abasement is self-exaltation.
Giving is receiving. The lover is loved.
A perfect compensation adjusts itself
through all the parts of material and of moral nature.
Darkness answers to light, heat to cold, ebb to flow, reaction to action.7

He wrote that no person ever had a point of pride that did not injure oneself, and no one ever had a defect that was not somehow made useful.
      On June 10 Emerson gave an address at the opening of the Green Street School in Providence, Rhode Island and said,

The great object of Education should be commensurate with the object of life.
It should be a moral one; to teach self-trust;
to inspire the youthful man with an interest in himself;
with a curiosity touching his own nature;
to acquaint him with the resources of his mind,
and to teach him that there is all his strength,
and to inflame him with a piety towards the Grand Mind in which he lives.
Thus would education conspire with the Divine Providence.8

      In the winter of 1837-38 Emerson delivered ten lectures on “Human Culture” at the Masonic Temple. In the first lecture on December 6 he began,

There is a historical progress of man.
The ideas which predominate at one period
are accepted without effort by the next age,
which is absorbed in the endeavor to express its own.9

      On April 6 the US Army was ordered to expel the Cherokees, and on the 22nd at a Concord meeting Emerson read an “appeal of the Cherokees” and opposed the US Government’s policy. That month he became friends with young Henry David Thoreau who was soon welcomed into the Emerson family.
      Emerson’s speech on August 31 to 215 Phi Beta Kappa members at Harvard was published as The American Scholar. Invited because of his book, Nature, he once again turned to the soul and the spiritual light that reveal natural laws which can expand knowledge and make it creative. To the ancient precept, “Know yourself,” he added the modern “Study nature.” He said,

The one thing in the world of value is the active soul,—
the soul, free, sovereign, active.
This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him,
although in almost all men obstructed, and as yet unborn.
The soul active sees absolute truth and utters truth, or creates.
In this action it is genius; not the privilege of here and there a favorite,
but the sound estate of every man.
In its essence it is progressive.10

The scholar by painstaking observation guides people by showing them facts among appearances. He went on,

He is to find consolation in exercising the highest functions of human nature.
He is one who raises himself from private considerations
and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts.
He is the world’s eye.
He is the world’s heart.
He is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism,
by preserving and communicating heroic sentiments,
noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history.
Whatsoever oracles the human heart, in all emergencies,
in all solemn hours, has uttered as its commentary
on the world of actions,—these he shall receive and impart.
And whatsoever new verdict Reason from her inviolable seat
pronounces on the passing men and events of to-day,—
this he shall hear and promulgate….
Free should the scholar be,—free and brave.
Free even to the definition of freedom,
“without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution.”
Brave; for fear is a thing which
a scholar by his very function puts behind him.
Fear always springs from ignorance.11

      Emerson spoke to the senior class of the Divinity College in Cambridge on 15 July 1838. His advice included this:

The intuition of the moral sentiment
is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul.
These laws execute themselves.
They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance.
Thus in the soul of man there is a justice
whose retributions are instant and entire.
He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled.
He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted.
He who puts off impurity, thereby puts on purity.
If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God;
the safety of God, the immortality of God,
the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice.
If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself,
and goes out of acquaintance with his own being.12

      On July 24 he spoke on “Literary Ethics” to the Literary Societies of Dartmouth College. He said,

The man of genius should occupy the whole space between God or pure mind,
and the multitude of uneducated men.
He must draw from the infinite Reason, on one side;
and he must penetrate into the heart and sense of the crowd, on the other.
From one, he must draw his strength; to the other, he must owe his aim.
The one yokes him to the real; the other, to the apparent.
At one pole, is Reason; at the other, Common Sense.
If he be defective at either extreme of the scale,
his philosophy will seem low and utilitarian;
or it will appear too vague and indefinite for the uses of life.13

      Emerson’s lecture series on “Human Life” began on 5 December 1838 with “The Doctrine of the Soul” and covered “Home,” “The School,” “Love,” “Genius,” “The Protest,” “Tragedy,” “Comedy,” “Duty,” and “Demonology.” Then he repeated this series in Concord. In “Genius” on January 31 he suggested that genius is spontaneous as the voice of the soul that exhibits the truth, repairs decay, is surprising, humane, affectionate, sporting, and representative.
      In September 1839 members of the Transcendental Club began planning to put out a magazine, and in November they selected Margaret Fuller to be the editor. The Dial #1 came out on 1 July 1840 and included Emerson’s “The Editors to the Reader,” Fuller’s “A Short Essay on Critics,” George Ripley’s “Brownson’s Writings,” W. H. Channing’s “Ernest the Seeker,” “The Divine Presence in Nature and in the Soul” by Theodore Parker, Thoreau’s poem “Sympathy,” and Alcott’s “Orphic Sayings.” Dial #2 in October contained Emerson’s “Thoughts on Modern Literature” and his poem “Woodnotes.” Dial #3 in January 1841 had Parker’s “German Literature” and Emerson’s poem “The Sphinx.” Parker also had “Thoughts on Labor” in #4 in April 1841. Dial Volume 2 #1 in July began with Fuller’s 40 pages on “Goethe,” and #2 in October included her lives of Haydn, Mozart, Handel, Bach and Beethoven. Parker’s “Primitive Christianity” appeared in #3 in January 1842, and in #4 in April he had “Thoughts on Theology” and reviews. Fuller resigned, and Emerson edited the last two volumes that came out between July 1842 and April 1844. Volume 3 #1 included Thoreau’s “Natural History of Massachusetts.” Fuller’s 47-page “The Great Lawsuit, Man versus Men. Woman versus Women” began Volume 4 #1 in July 1843, and “The Modern Drama” by her was in #3 in January 1844 which also included “The Preaching of the Buddha.”

Emerson on War, Peace & Reform

      On 12 March 1838 Emerson delivered his lecture on “The Peace Principle” at the Boston meeting of the American Peace Society which in May 1849 would be published under the title “War” and contains his thinking on the issues of war and peace. He described war as “an epidemic insanity, breaking out here and there like the cholera or influenza, infecting men’s brains instead of their bowels.”14 He could see that violence was dangerously contagious. For Emerson war is part of wild and primitive societies, and the primitive stages of religion lead to religious wars. “It is the ignorant and childish part of mankind that is the fighting part.”15 Cruelty and violence are juvenile, and the mature spirit renounces them. Like others, Emerson noted that trade works against war because it gives people contact, knowledge, and familiarity with their enemies. The development of learning, art, and religion make war seem like fratricide, and he added that it is. History depicts the slow mitigation and decline of war. Yet the doctrine of the right of war still remains.
      Emerson asked the perennial question: Cannot we have love instead of hate, peace instead of war? This idea, he pointed out, was not invented by Saint Pierre nor Rousseau, but it is “the rising of the general tide in the human soul,—and rising highest, and first made visible, in the most simple and pure souls, who have therefore announced it to us beforehand; but presently we all see it.”16 Societies have been formed on this thought, and the hopes and prayers for peace are preparing for its actualization. Though it appears to be visionary to most, the idea is growing in influence and is inevitable. “War is on its last legs; and a universal peace is as sure as is the prevalence of civilization over barbarism, of liberal governments over feudal forms. The question for us is only How soon?”17
      What is good and true will eventually prevail. The wise learn to trust ideas over circumstances, for appearances depend on the mind. “Every nation and every man instantly surround themselves with a material apparatus which exactly corresponds to their moral state, or their state of thought.”18 Our war establishments “only serve as an index to show where man is now; what a bad, ungoverned temper he has; what an ugly neighbor he is; how his affections halt; how low his hope lies.”19 However, friendly attitudes can change all this and make weapons things of the past to be displayed only in museums. Emerson delineated three stages of cultivation in regard to war and peace.

At a certain stage of his progress, the man fights,
if he be of a sound body and mind.
At a certain higher stage, he makes no offensive demonstration,
but is alert to repel injury, and of an unconquerable heart.
At a still higher stage, he comes into the region of holiness;
passion has passed away from him;
his warlike nature is all converted into an active medicinal principle;
he sacrifices himself, and accepts with alacrity
wearisome tasks of denial and charity;
but, being attacked, he bears it and turns the other cheek,
as one engaged, throughout his being,
no longer to the service of an individual but to the common soul of all men.20

      Emerson answered the criticism of nonresistance even to the extent of not defending oneself or one’s family against robbers and assassins. This, he said, only looks at the passive side of the friend of peace. Lovers of peace obviously do not choose to be plundered or slain; if they accept martyrdom, it is for

some active purpose, some equal motive, some flaming love.
If you have a nation of men who have risen to that height of moral cultivation
that they will not declare war or carry arms,
for they have not so much madness left in their brains,
you have a nation of lovers, of benefactors, of true, great and able men.
Let me know more of that nation;
I shall not find them defenseless, with idle hands swinging at their sides.
I shall find them men of love, honor and truth; men of an immense industry;
men whose influence is felt to the end of the earth;
men whose very look and voice carry the sentence of honor and shame;
and all forces yield to their energy and persuasion.21

A peaceful nation is protected by its spiritual power because everyone is its friend. In individual cases it is extremely rare that a person of peace ever attracts violence. Yet Emerson added that the wise do not decide in advance how to respond, but they follow the guidance of Nature and God.
      Emerson observed that organizing societies, passing resolutions, and publishing manifestoes are not too effective, especially when the participants do not practice what they preach when put to the test. He preferred private conviction to public opinion; our hope is in “increased insight, and it is to be accomplished by the spontaneous teaching, of the cultivated soul, in its secret experience and meditation.”22 Thus humans can expel their devils, transmute their bestial nature, hear the voice of God, and go forward in their right minds. Nor is fear the right motive for peace; nothing great can be attained by cowards. Courage must be transferred from war to the cause of peace. Individuals are responsible for themselves and should not ask for protection from the state. The person of principle cannot be coerced into any wrongdoing and will not compromise one’s freedom and integrity. The cause of peace is not for the cowardly preservation of the safety of the luxurious and the timid. Peace must be maintained by true heroes, who are willing to stake their lives for their principle and who go beyond the traditional hero in that they will not threaten another person’s life—

who have, by their intellectual insight or else by their moral elevation,
attained such a perception of their own intrinsic worth
that they do not think property or their own body a sufficient good to be saved
by such dereliction of principle as treating a man like a sheep.23

      Emerson placed his faith in “the search of the sublime laws of morals and the sources of hope and trust, in man, and not in books, in the present, and not in the past,”24 and he hoped that these would bring war to an end. The way this happens is of little importance, although he predicted that society and events point toward a Congress of Nations. Once the mind accepts the reign of principles the modes of expression are easily found. At the end of this excellent talk on war Emerson asked his readers if it shall be war or peace.

      On 25 January 1841 Emerson gave the lecture “Man the Reformer” to the Mechanics’ Apprentices’ Library Association in Boston as a response to Ripley’s Brook Farm community and criticism of transcendentalism by Orestes Brownson. He urged everyone to be open to divine illumination and to intercourse with the spiritual world on one’s daily walk. Yet he saw a society with many evil customs, timidities, and limitations that need reform. He was concerned about the “system of selfishness” that is not in touch with the “high sentiments of human nature.” He warned against the serpent that reaches into all human practices.

Each has its own wrongs.
Each finds a tender and very intelligent conscience a disqualification for success.
Each requires of the practitioner a certain shutting of the eyes,
a certain dapperness and compliance, an acceptance of customs,
a sequestration from the sentiments of generosity and love,
a compromise of private opinion and lofty integrity.
Nay, the evil custom reaches into the whole institution of property,
until our laws which establish and protect it,
seem not to be the issue of love and reason, but of selfishness.25

He suggested doing without rather than acquiring things at to great a cost. He said,

Let us learn the meaning of economy.
Economy is a high, humane office, a sacrament,
when its aim is grand; when it is the prudence of simple tastes,
when it is practised for freedom, or love, or devotion.26

Emerson recommended these reforms:

We are to revise the whole of our social structure,
the state, the school, religion, marriage, trade, science,
and explore their foundations in our own nature;
we are to see that the world not only fitted the former men,
but fits us, and to clear ourselves of every usage
which has not its roots in our own mind.
What is a man born for but to be a Reformer,
a Remaker of what man has made;
a renouncer of lies; a restorer of truth and good,
imitating that great Nature which embosoms us all,
and which sleeps no moment on an old past, but every hour repairs herself,
yielding us every morning a new day, and with every pulsation a new life?
Let him renounce everything which is not true to him,
and put all his practices back on their first thoughts,
and do nothing for which he has not the whole world for his reason.27

He advised,

Let our affection flow out to our fellows;
it would operate in a day the greatest of all revolutions.
It is better to work on institutions by the sun than by the wind.
The state must consider the poor man, and all voices must speak for him.
Every child that is born must have a just chance for his bread.
Let the amelioration in our laws of property
proceed from the concession of the rich, not from the grasping of the poor.
Let us begin by habitual imparting.
Let us understand that the equitable rule is,
that no one should take more than his share,
let him be ever so rich.
Let me feel that I am to be a lover.
I am to see to it that the world is the better for me,
and to find my reward in the act.
Love would put a new face on this weary old world
in which we dwell as pagans and enemies too long,
and it would warm the heart to see how fast the vain diplomacy of statesmen,
the impotence of armies, and navies, and lines of defence,
would be superseded by this unarmed child….
This great, overgrown, dead Christendom of ours
still keeps alive at least the name of a lover of mankind.
But one day all men will be lovers;
and every calamity will be dissolved in the universal sunshine.28

Emerson on History & Self-Reliance

      Emerson’s first series of Essays were published on 20 March 1841, and that spring Thoreau moved into the Emerson’s home. In “History” Emerson wrote,

The identity of history is equally intrinsic, the diversity equally obvious.
There is at the surface infinite variety of things;
at the center there is simplicity of cause.
How many are the acts of one man in which we recognize the same character!29

Understanding history helps us live more fully. He wrote,

Thus in all ways does the soul concentrate
and reproduce its treasures for each pupil.
He, too, shall pass through the whole cycle of experience.
He shall collect into a focus the rays of nature.
History no longer shall be a dull book.
It shall walk incarnate in every just and wise man.
You shall not tell me by languages and titles
a catalogue of the volumes you have read.
You shall make me feel what periods you have lived.30

Broader and deeper we must write our annals,—from an ethical reformation,
from an influx of the ever new, ever sanative conscience,—
if we would trulier express our central and wide-related nature,
instead of this old chronology of selfishness and pride
to which we have too long lent our eyes.31

      Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” is one of his most brilliant essays and deserves much quoting of his own words. Near the beginning he wrote,

To believe your own thought,
to believe that what is true for you in your private heart
is true for all men,—that is genius.
Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense;
for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—
and our first thought is rendered back to us
by the trumpets of the Last Judgment….
There is a time in every man’s education
when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance;
that imitation is suicide;
that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion;
that though the wide universe is full of good,
no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him
but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground
which is given to him to till.
The power which resides in him is new in nature,
and none but he knows what that is which he can do,
nor does he know until he has tried….
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.
Accept the place the divine providence has found for you,
the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.
Great men have always done so,
and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age,
betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy
was seated at their heart, working through their hands,
predominating in all their being.32

Emerson appealed to every person to find their own way, their own talents without conforming to others.

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.
He who would gather immortal palms
must not be hindered by the name of goodness,
but must explore if it be goodness.
Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind….
What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.
This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life,
may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness.
It is the harder, because you will always find
those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it.
It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion;
it is easy in solitude to live after our own;
but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd
keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.33

He suggested rejecting “foolish consistency,” and he found that character teaches above our wills. Genuine actions explain themselves, but conformity explains nothing. “Greatness appeals to the future,” and “the force of character is cumulative.” Each of us can stand for humanity, and he recommended kindness and truth. A true person “is a cause, a country, and an age” and needs infinite space to accomplish the design. Institutions tend to be the shadow of one man. He predicted that when private persons act with original views, then the actions of kings will lose their luster. He wrote,

The magnetism which all original action exerts
is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust.
Who is the Trustee?
What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded?
What is the nature and power of that science-baffling star,
without parallax, without calculable elements,
which shoots a ray of beauty even into trivial and impure actions,
if the least mark of independence appear?
The inquiry leads us to that source,
at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life,
which we call Spontaneity or Instinct.
We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition,
whilst all later teachings are tuitions.34

      Discerning justice is discerning truth. The soul is inspired directly from divine spirit and needs no profane assistance. An uncluttered mind will receive divine wisdom as old things pass away. When we live truly, we will see truly. The person who lives with God has a sweet voice, and the soul that is raised over passion identifies eternal causation and the existence of truth and justice. Virtue is what makes all things real. Let us have the courage to speak the truth and obey eternal laws more than external laws. Emerson wrote,

If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier.
If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should.
I will not hide my tastes or aversions.
I will so trust that what is deep is holy,
that I will do strongly before the sun and moon
whatever inly rejoices me, and the heart appoints.35

Observing the current society Emerson felt the need to find an ethics in trusting oneself by a spiritual connection. He predicted that self-reliance would bring about a revolution in human relations, education, and ways of living. He gave this advice on prayer:

Prayer that craves a particular commodity,—
any thing less than all good,—is vicious.
Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.
It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul.
It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good.
But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft.
It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness.
As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg.
He will then see prayer in all action….
Another sort of false prayers are our regrets.
Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will.
Regret calamities, if you can thereby help the sufferer;
if not, attend your own work, and already the evil begins to be repaired.36

The gods and people welcome a self-helping person, and Zoroaster said that the blessed immortals are swift to guide the persevering mortal.
      Emerson considered travelling to amuse oneself “a fool’s paradise” because one is travelling away from oneself. He advised against imitating others because you can present yourself better by what your Maker teaches you. Emerson believed that every great person is unique. Live nobly and follow your heart. Do not rely on property or governments that claim to protect it. Worthy people do not esteem others for what they have but for what they are. Emerson concluded this essay by writing, “Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”37

Emerson on Compensation & Spiritual Laws

      Emerson’s essay “Compensation” gives a marvelous description of the spiritual principle also known as karma in eastern civilization that measures every action with its consequences. After a poem his essay begins,

Ever since I was a boy, I have wished to write a discourse on Compensation:
for it seemed to me when very young,
that on this subject life was ahead of theology,
and the people knew more than the preachers taught.
The documents, too, from which the doctrine is to be drawn,
charmed my fancy by their endless variety,
and lay always before me, even in sleep;
for they are the tools in our hands, the bread in our basket,
the transactions of the street, the farm, and the dwelling-house,
greetings, relations, debts and credits,
the influence of character, the nature and endowment of all men.38

He gives many examples of how this spiritual law works in our lives. He wrote,

Though no checks to a new evil appear, the checks exist, and will appear.
If the government is cruel, the governor’s life is not safe.
If you tax too high, the revenue will yield nothing.
If you make the criminal code sanguinary, juries will not convict.
If the law is too mild, private vengeance comes in.
If the government is a terrific democracy, the pressure is resisted
by an overcharge of energy in the citizen, and life glows with a fiercer flame.39

The spiritual nature of the universe is shown to be ethical in all our experiences.

Thus is the universe alive.
All things are moral.
That soul, which within us is a sentiment, outside of us is a law.
We feel its inspiration; out there in history we can see its fatal strength.
“It is in the world, and the world was made by it.”
Justice is not postponed.
A perfect equity adjusts its balance in all parts of life….
The world looks like a multiplication-table, or a mathematical equation,
which, turn it how you will, balances itself.
Take what figure you will, its exact value,
nor more nor less, still returns to you.
Every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded,
every wrong redressed, in silence and certainty.
What we call retribution is the universal necessity
by which the whole appears wherever a part appears….
Every act rewards itself, or, in other words, integrates itself,
in a twofold manner; first, in the thing, or in real nature;
and secondly, in the circumstance, or in apparent nature.
Men call the circumstance the retribution.
The causal retribution is in the thing, and is seen by the soul.
The retribution in the circumstance is seen by the understanding;
it is inseparable from the thing, but is often spread over a long time,
and so does not become distinct until after many years.40

The Greeks understood retribution as “nemesis.” Emerson explained,

A man cannot speak but he judges himself.
With his will, or against his will,
he draws his portrait to the eye of his companions by every word.
Every opinion reacts on him who utters it….
You cannot do wrong without suffering wrong….
The exclusive in fashionable life does not see that
he excludes himself from enjoyment, in the attempt to appropriate it.
The exclusionist in religion does not see that
he shuts the door of heaven on himself, in striving to shut out others.
Treat men as pawns and ninepins, and you shall suffer as well as they.
If you leave out their heart, you shall lose your own.
The senses would make things of all persons;
of women, of children, of the poor….
All infractions of love and equity in our social relations are speedily punished.
They are punished by fear.
Whilst I stand in simple relations to my fellow-man,
I have no displeasure in meeting him.
We meet as water meets water, or as two currents of air mix,
with perfect diffusion and interpenetration of nature.
But as soon as there is any departure from simplicity,
and attempt at halfness, or good for me that is not good for him,
my neighbour feels the wrong;
he shrinks from me as far as I have shrunk from him;
his eyes no longer seek mine; there is war between us;
there is hate in him and fear in me.
All the old abuses in society, universal and particular,
all unjust accumulations of property and power,
are avenged in the same manner.
Fear is an instructer of great sagacity, and the herald of all revolutions.
One thing he teaches, that there is rottenness where he appears….
Fear for ages has boded and mowed and gibbered over government and property.
That obscene bird is not there for nothing.
He indicates great wrongs which must be revised.41

Emerson advised,

A wise man will extend this lesson to all parts of life,
and know that it is the part of prudence to face every claimant,
and pay every just demand on your time, your talents, or your heart.
Always pay; for, first or last, you must pay your entire debt.
Persons and events may stand for a time between you and justice,
but it is only a postponement.
You must pay at last your own debt.
If you are wise, you will dread a prosperity which only loads you with more.
Benefit is the end of nature.
But for every benefit which you receive, a tax is levied.
He is great who confers the most benefits….
But because of the dual constitution of things,
in labor as in life there can be no cheating.
The thief steals from himself.
The swindler swindles himself.
For the real price of labor is knowledge and virtue,
whereof wealth and credit are signs.
These signs, like paper money, may be counterfeited or stolen,
but that which they represent,
namely, knowledge and virtue, cannot be counterfeited or stolen.
These ends of labor cannot be answered but by real exertions of the mind,
and in obedience to pure motives.
The cheat, the defaulter, the gambler,
cannot extort the knowledge of material and moral nature
which his honest care and pains yield to the operative.
The law of nature is, do the thing, and you shall have the power:
but they who do not the thing have not the power.
Human labor, through all its forms,
from the sharpening of a stake to the construction of a city or an epic,
is one immense illustration of the perfect compensation of the universe….
The league between virtue and nature engages all things
to assume a hostile front to vice.
The beautiful laws and substances of the world persecute and whip the traitor.
He finds that things are arranged for truth and benefit,
but there is no den in the wide world to hide a rogue….
The law holds with equal sureness for all right action.
Love, and you shall be loved.
All love is mathematically just,
as much as the two sides of an algebraic equation.
The good man has absolute good,
which like fire turns every thing to its own nature,
so that you cannot do him any harm.42

Emerson recognized that sometimes good people seem to suffer temporarily, but they receive compensation. He wrote,

The martyr cannot be dishonored.
Every lash inflicted is a tongue of fame;
every prison, a more illustrious abode;
every burned book or house enlightens the world;
every suppressed or expunged word
reverberates through the earth from side to side.
Hours of sanity and consideration
are always arriving to communities, as to individuals,
when the truth is seen, and the martyrs are justified….
There is a deeper fact in the soul than compensation, to wit, its own nature.
The soul is not a compensation, but a life.
The soul is.
Under all this running sea of circumstance,
whose waters ebb and flow with perfect balance,
lies the aboriginal abyss of real Being.
Essence, or God, is not a relation, or a part, but the whole.
Being is the vast affirmative, excluding negation, self-balanced,
and swallowing up all relations, parts, and times within itself.
Nature, truth, virtue, are the influx from thence….
There can be no excess to love; none to knowledge; none to beauty,
when these attributes are considered in the purest sense.
The soul refuses limits, and always affirms an Optimism, never a Pessimism.43

Emerson expresses his own views.

There is no tax on the good of virtue; for that is the incoming of God himself,
or absolute existence, without any comparative….
I no longer wish to meet a good I do not earn,
for example, to find a pot of buried gold,
knowing that it brings with it new burdens.
I do not wish more external goods,—
neither possessions, nor honors, nor powers, nor persons.
The gain is apparent; the tax is certain.
But there is no tax on the knowledge that the compensation exists,
and that it is not desirable to dig up treasure.
Herein I rejoice with a serene eternal peace.
I contract the boundaries of possible mischief.
I learn the wisdom of St. Bernard,—
“Nothing can work me damage except myself;
the harm that I sustain I carry about with me,
and never am a real sufferer but by my own fault.”44

      Emerson continued to discuss the spiritual life in “Spiritual Laws.” Here are a few highlights:

A little consideration of what takes place around us every day would show us,
that a higher law than that of our will regulates events;
that our painful labors are unnecessary, and fruitless;
that only in our easy, simple, spontaneous action are we strong,
and by contenting ourselves with obedience we become divine.
Belief and love,—a believing love will relieve us of a vast load of care.
O my brothers, God exists.
There is a soul at the centre of nature, and over the will of every man,
so that none of us can wrong the universe.
It has so infused its strong enchantment into nature,
that we prosper when we accept its advice,
and when we struggle to wound its creatures,
our hands are glued to our sides, or they beat our own breasts.
The whole course of things goes to teach us faith.
We need only obey.
There is guidance for each of us,
and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.
Why need you choose so painfully your place, and occupation, and associates,
and modes of action, and of entertainment?
Certainly there is a possible right for you
that precludes the need of balance and wilful election.
For you there is a reality, a fit place and congenial duties.
Place yourself in the middle of the stream of power and wisdom
which animates all whom it floats, and you are without effort
impelled to truth, to right, and a perfect contentment.
Then you put all gainsayers in the wrong.
Then you are the world, the measure of right, of truth, of beauty.45

What a man does, that he has.
What has he to do with hope or fear?
In himself is his might.
Let him regard no good as solid, but that which is in his nature,
and which must grow out of him as long as he exists.
The goods of fortune may come and go like summer leaves;
let him scatter them on every wind
as the momentary signs of his infinite productiveness. 
He may have his own.
A man’s genius, the quality that differences him from every other,
the susceptibility to one class of influences, the selection of what is fit for him,
the rejection of what is unfit, determines for him the character of the universe.
A man is a method, a progressive arrangement;
a selecting principle, gathering his like to him, wherever he goes.
He takes only his own out of the multiplicity
that sweeps and circles round him.46

“What has he done?” is the divine question
which searches men, and transpierces every false reputation….
As much virtue as there is, so much appears;
as much goodness as there is, so much reverence it commands.
All the devils respect virtue.
The high, the generous, the self-devoted sect
will always instruct and command mankind.
Never was a sincere word utterly lost.
Never a magnanimity fell to the ground,
but there is some heart to greet and accept it unexpectedly.
A man passes for that he is worth.
What he is engraves itself on his face,
on his form, on his fortunes, in letters of light….
Virtue is the adherence in action to the nature of things,
and the nature of things makes it prevalent.
It consists in a perpetual substitution of being for seeming,
and with sublime propriety God is described as saying, I AM.47

Emerson on the Over-Soul, Circles & Art

      Emerson’s essay, “The Over-Soul,” describes his mystical views of the relationship between the human soul and the divine presence. I found the following passages especially helpful:

The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present,
and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest,
as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere;
that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained
and made one with all other;
that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship,
to which all right action is submission;
that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents,
and constrains every one to pass for what he is,
and to speak from his character, and not from his tongue,
and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand,
and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty.
We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles.
Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence;
the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related;
the eternal ONE.
And this deep power in which we exist,
and whose beatitude is all accessible to us,
is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour,
but the act of seeing and the thing seen,
the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one.
We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree;
but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.
Only by the vision of that Wisdom can the horoscope of the ages be read,
and by falling back on our better thoughts, by yielding to the spirit of prophecy
which is innate in every man, we can know what it saith.48

Of this pure nature every man is at some time sensible.
Language cannot paint it with his colors.
It is too subtile.
It is undefinable, unmeasurable, but we know that it pervades and contains us.
We know that all spiritual being is in man.
A wise old proverb says, “God comes to see us without bell;”
that is, as there is no screen or ceiling
between our heads and the infinite heavens,
so is there no bar or wall in the soul
where man, the effect, ceases, and God, the cause, begins.
The walls are taken away.
We lie open on one side to the deeps of spiritual nature, to the attributes of God.
Justice we see and know, Love, Freedom, Power.
These natures no man ever got above,
but they tower over us, and most in the moment
when our interests tempt us to wound them.49

This is the law of moral and of mental gain.
The simple rise as by specific levity, not into a particular virtue,
but into the region of all the virtues.
They are in the spirit which contains them all.
The soul requires purity, but purity is not it;
requires justice, but justice is not that;
requires beneficence, but is somewhat better;
so that there is a kind of descent and accommodation felt
when we leave speaking of moral nature, to urge a virtue which it enjoins.
To the well-born child, all the virtues are natural, and not painfully acquired.
Speak to his heart, and the man becomes suddenly virtuous.50

But beyond this recognition of its own in particular passages
of the individual’s experience, it also reveals truth.
And here we should seek to reinforce ourselves by its very presence,
and to speak with a worthier, loftier strain of that advent.
For the soul’s communication of truth is the highest event in nature,
since it then does not give somewhat from itself,
but it gives itself, or passes into and becomes that man whom it enlightens;
or, in proportion to that truth he receives, it takes him to itself.51

Ineffable is the union of man and God in every act of the soul.
The simplest person, who in his integrity worships God, becomes God;
yet for ever and ever the influx of this better and universal self
is new and unsearchable.
It inspires awe and astonishment.
How dear, how soothing to man, arises the idea of God,
peopling the lonely place,
effacing the scars of our mistakes and disappointments!
When we have broken our god of tradition,
and ceased from our god of rhetoric,
then may God fire the heart with his presence.
It is the doubling of the heart itself,
nay, the infinite enlargement of the heart
with a power of growth to a new infinity on every side.
It inspires in man an infallible trust.
He has not the conviction, but the sight, that the best is the true,
and may in that thought easily dismiss all particular uncertainties and fears,
and adjourn to the sure revelation of time, the solution of his private riddles.
He is sure that his welfare is dear to the heart of being.
In the presence of law to his mind, he is overflowed with a reliance so universal,
that it sweeps away all cherished hopes
and the most stable projects of mortal condition in its flood.
He believes that he cannot escape from his good.52

      Even Emerson’s essay “Circles” contains extraordinary ideas. Consider these.

The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second;
and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.
It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world.
St. Augustine described the nature of God
as a circle whose centre was everywhere, and its circumference nowhere.
We are all our lifetime reading the copious sense of this first of forms.
One moral we have already deduced,
in considering the circular or compensatory character of every human action.
Another analogy we shall now trace; that every action admits of being outdone.
Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth,
that around every circle another can be drawn;
that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning;
that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon,
and under every deep a lower deep opens.
This fact, as far as it symbolizes the moral fact of the Unattainable,
the flying Perfect, around which the hands of man can never meet,
at once the inspirer and the condemner of every success,
may conveniently serve us to connect
many illustrations of human power in every department.53

The key to every man is his thought.
Sturdy and defying though he look, he has a helm which he obeys,
which is the idea after which all his facts are classified.
He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea which commands his own.
The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small,
rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end.
The extent to which this generation of circles, wheel without wheel, will go,
depends on the force or truth of the individual soul.
For it is the inert effort of each thought,
having formed itself into a circular wave of circumstance,—
as, for instance, an empire, rules of an art, a local usage, a religious rite,—
to heap itself on that ridge, and to solidify and hem in the life.
But if the soul is quick and strong, it bursts over that boundary on all sides,
and expands another orbit on the great deep,
which also runs up into a high wave, with attempt again to stop and to bind.
But the heart refuses to be imprisoned;
in its first and narrowest pulses, it already tends outward with a vast force,
and to immense and innumerable expansions.
Every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series.
Every general law only a particular fact
of some more general law presently to disclose itself.54

Life is a series of surprises.
We do not guess to-day the mood, the pleasure,
the power of to-morrow, when we are building up our being.
Of lower states,—of acts of routine and sense,—we can tell somewhat;
but the masterpieces of God, the total growths and universal movements
of the soul, he hideth; they are incalculable.
I can know that truth is divine and helpful;
but how it shall help me I can have no guess,
for so to be is the sole inlet of so to know.
The new position of the advancing man
has all the powers of the old, yet has them all new.
It carries in its bosom all the energies of the past,
yet is itself an exhalation of the morning.
I cast away in this new moment
all my once hoarded knowledge, as vacant and vain.
Now, for the first time, seem I to know any thing rightly.
The simplest words,—we do not know what they mean,
except when we love and aspire.55

      Emerson’s first paragraph in “Art” foresaw the development of impressionism and expressionism.

Because the soul is progressive, it never quite repeats itself,
but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole.
This appears in works both of the useful and the fine arts,
if we employ the popular distinction of works
according to their aim, either at use or beauty.
Thus in our fine arts, not imitation, but creation is the aim.
In landscapes, the painter should give
the suggestion of a fairer creation than we know.
The details, the prose of nature he should omit,
and give us only the spirit and splendor.
He should know that the landscape has beauty for his eye,
because it expresses a thought which is to him good:
and this, because the same power which sees through his eyes,
is seen in that spectacle; and he will come to value the expression of nature,
and not nature itself, and so exalt in his copy, the features that please him.
He will give the gloom of gloom, and the sunshine of sunshine.
In a portrait, he must inscribe the character, and not the features,
and must esteem the man who sits to him as himself
only an imperfect picture or likeness of the aspiring original within.56

Emerson from 1841 to 1844

      On 11 August 1841 Emerson gave the address “The Method of Nature” to the Society of Adelphi at Waterville College in Maine. He said,

Where there is no vision, the people perish.
The scholars are the priests of that thought
which establishes the foundations of the earth.
No matter what is their special work or profession,
they stand for the spiritual interest of the world,
and it is a common calamity if they neglect their post in a country
where the material interest is so predominant as it is in America.57

An individual man is a fruit
which it cost all the foregoing ages to form and ripen.
The history of the genesis or the old mythology
repeats itself in the experience of every child.
He too is a demon or god thrown into a particular chaos,
where he strives ever to lead things from disorder into order.
Each individual soul is such, in virtue of its being a power
to translate the world into some particular language of its own;
if not into a picture, a statue, or a dance,—
why, then, into a trade, an art, a science, a mode of living,
a conversation, a character, an influence.58

      On December 2 he began his series of eight weekly lectures on “The Times” at the Masonic Temple in Boston. In the introductory lecture Emerson began,

The times, as we say—or the present aspects of our social state,
the Laws, Divinity, Natural Science, Agriculture, Art, Trade, Letters,
have their root in an invisible spiritual reality.
To appear in these aspects, they must first exist,
or have some necessary foundation.
Beside all the small reasons we assign,
there is a great reason for the existence of every extant fact;
a reason which lies grand and immovable,
often unsuspected behind it in silence.
The Times are the masquerade of the eternities;
trivial to the dull, tokens of noble and majestic agents to the wise;
the receptacle in which the Past leaves its history;
the quarry out of which the genius of to-day is building up the Future.
The Times—the nations, manners, institutions, opinions, votes,
are to be studied as omens, as sacred leaves,
whereon a weighty sense is inscribed,
if we have the wit and the love to search it out.
Nature itself seems to propound to us this topic,
and to invite us to explore the meaning of the conspicuous facts of the day.
Everything that is popular, it has been said,
deserves the attention of the philosopher: and this for the obvious reason,
that although it may not be of any worth in itself, yet it characterizes the people. 
Here is very good matter to be handled, if we are skilful;
an abundance of important practical questions
which it behooves us to understand.
Let us examine the pretensions of the attacking and defending parties.
Here is this great fact of Conservatism, entrenched in its immense redoubts….
The fact of aristocracy, with its two weapons of wealth and manners,
is as commanding a feature of the nineteenth century,
and the American republic, as of old Rome, or modern England.59

He reflected on his times.

The two omnipresent parties of History,
the party of the Past and the party of the Future,
divide society to-day as of old.
Here is the innumerable multitude of those
who accept the state and the church from the last generation,
and stand on no argument but possession….
But this class, however large, relying not on the intellect but on instinct,
blends itself with the brute forces of nature, is respectable only as nature is,
but the individuals have no attraction for us.
It is the dissenter, the theorist, the aspirant,
who is quitting this ancient domain to embark on seas of adventure,
who engages our interest….
The present age will be marked by its harvest of projects
for the reform of domestic, civil, literary, and ecclesiastical institutions.
The leaders of the crusades against War, Negro slavery, Intemperance,
Government based on force, Usages of trade, Court and Custom-house Oaths,
and so on to the agitators on the system of Education and the laws of Property,
are the right successors of Luther, Knox, Robinson,
Fox, Penn, Wesley, and Whitfield….
The political questions touching the Banks; the Tariff;
the limits of the executive power;
the right of the constituent to instruct the representative;
the treatment of the Indians; the Boundary wars; the Congress of nations;
are all pregnant with ethical conclusions.60

      In “The Conservative” Emerson said,

There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism,
joined with a certain superiority in its fact.
It affirms because it holds.
Its fingers clutch the fact, and it will not open its eyes to see a better fact.
The castle, which conservatism is set to defend,
is the actual state of things, good and bad.
The project of innovation is the best possible state of things.
Of course, conservatism always has the worst of the argument,
is always apologizing, pleading a necessity,
pleading that to change would be to deteriorate;
it must saddle itself with the mountainous load
of the violence and vice of society, must deny the possibility of good,
deny ideas, and suspect and stone the prophet;
whilst innovation is always in the right,
triumphant, attacking, and sure of final success.
Conservatism stands on man’s confessed limitations;
reform on his indisputable infinitude;
conservatism on circumstance; liberalism on power.61

      Emerson attempted to explain his spiritual philosophy in “The Transcendentalist.” He admitted that what he called transcendentalism may be new in New England, but it is an idealism that is very old. The light is always the same and reveals itself. The idealist recognizes that consciousness is what is most real in contrast to the materialists who consider it a result of sense perception from the physical world. The oriental mind is attuned to this philosophy, and he gave Buddhism as an example. Emerson used the term “transcendental” which Immanuel Kant had initiated in response to the empirical philosophy of John Locke. Kant endeavored to show that intuitive ideas transcend sensory perception in important ways. Emerson said,

The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual doctrine.
He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness
of the human mind to new influx of light and power;
he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy.
He wishes that the spiritual principle
should be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end,
in all possible applications to the state of man,
without the admission of anything unspiritual;
that is, anything positive, dogmatic, personal.
Thus, the spiritual measure of inspiration
is the depth of the thought, and never, who said it?62

Emerson believed that transferring the world into consciousness explains the origin of ethics. He found that in his time some people were respecting intuition as the authority over experience and were expressing it in conversation and poetry.
      Emerson and Thoreau discovered Hindu, Chinese, and Persian writings that included the four Confucian classics, the Laws of Manu, and Zarathushtra. In 1843 Emerson went on a lecture tour, and he met Lucretia Mott in Philadelphia. She had given a dramatic antislavery address in Washington. On February 17 he spoke at the New York Society Library on “New England: Genius, Manners, and Customs,” and he praised Massachusetts for mandating primary education since 1647. During the summer Margaret Fuller inspired him to translate Dante’s Vita nuova (New Life). Emerson in September bought some more land that included the north shore of Walden Pond.
      On 7 February 1844 Emerson read his lecture on “The Young American” to the Mercantile Library Association in Boston. He noted the desire for building roads and praised the value of free trade; but what was helping Americans most was developing education.
      At the Concord Courthouse on August 1 Emerson delivered his address “Emancipation in the British West Indies.” He said,

The history of mankind interests us
only as it exhibits a steady gain of truth and right,
in the incessant conflict which it records,
between the material and the moral nature.
From the earliest monuments, it appears,
that one race was victim, and served the other races.63

He noted how the Egyptians enslaved Negro captives but did not mention that in India the caste system was devised to discriminate most against those with the darkest skin. He recounted the history of how the British gradually abolished slavery, first from England in 1772. Then on 6 July 1783 six Quakers met in London to work for the liberation of the slaves in the West Indies. In 1791 about 300,000 British pledged to abstain from using articles made in those islands. In March 1807 the British outlawed the slave trade. The American Colonization Society informed them that 200,000 had been deported from Africa in 1821. After a million people signed their names to a petition, a bill was introduced in May 1833, and the British Parliament announced the end of slavery in British colonies to begin on the first of August 1834. A year later a report found that no white person had been injured and only one black out of 800,000. The two remaining years of apprenticeship were abolished on 1 August 1838.
      Emerson suggested that the United States could follow their example by buying the freedom of the slaves from their plantation owners. He also opposed the annexation of Texas.

      He published his second series of Essays on 19 October 1844, three days before the Millerites expected the end of the world. In his essay “Politics” Emerson wrote,

The theory of politics, which has possessed the mind of men,
and which they have expressed the best they could
in their laws and in their revolutions,
considers persons and property as the two objects
for whose protection government exists.
Of persons, all have equal rights, in virtue of being identical in nature.
This interest, of course, with its whole power demands a democracy.
Whilst the rights of all as persons are equal,
in virtue of their access to reason, their rights in property are very unequal.
One man owns his clothes, and another owns a county.
This accident, depending, primarily, on the skill and virtue of the parties,
of which there is every degree, and, secondarily, on patrimony,
falls unequally, and its rights, of course, are unequal.
Personal rights, universally the same,
demand a government framed on the ratio of the census:
property demands a government framed on the ratio of owners and of owning.64


1. Essays & Lectures by Ralph Waldo Emerson, p. 7-8.
2. Ibid., p. 16.
3. Ibid., p. 22.
4. Ibid., p. 36.
5. Ibid., p. 41.
6. Ibid., p. 47.
7. The Selected Lectures of Emerson, The ed. Bosco & Myerson, p. 40-41.
8. Ibid., p. 48.
9. Ibid., p. 54.
10. Essays & Lectures by Ralph Waldo Emerson, p. 57.
11. Ibid., p. 63-64, 65.
12. Ibid., p. 76-77
13. Ibid., p. 109.
14. “War” by Ralph Waldo Emerson in Complete Writings, p. 1139.
15. Ibid., p. 1140.
16. Ibid., p. 1142.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid., p. 1143.
19. Ibid., p. 1144.
20. Ibid.
21. Ibid., p. 1145.
22. Ibid., p. 1146.
23. Ibid., p. 1147.
24. Ibid.
25. Essays & Lectures by Ralph Waldo Emerson, p. 138.
26. Ibid., p. 144.
27. Ibid., p. 146.
28. Ibid., p. 148-49.
29. Ibid., p. 242.
30. Ibid., p. 255.
31. Ibid., p. 256.
32. Ibid., p. 259-60.
33. Ibid., p. 261, 263.
34. Ibid., p. 268-269.
35. Ibid., p. 273.
36. Ibid., p. 275-276.
37. Ibid., p. 282.
38. Ibid., p. 285.
39. Ibid., p. 288-289.
40. Ibid., p. 289-290.
41. Ibid., p. 294-295.
42. Ibid., p. 295-297.
43. Ibid., p. 299-300.
44. Ibid., p. 300-301.
45. Ibid., p. 309.
46. Ibid., p. 311-312.
47. Ibid., p. 319-320.
48. Ibid., p. 385-386.
49. Ibid., p. 387.
50. Ibid., p. 389.
51. Ibid., p. 392.
52. Ibid., p. 398.
53. Ibid., p. 403.
54. Ibid., p. 404-405.
55. Ibid., p. 413.
56. Ibid., p. 431.
57. Ibid., p. 115.
58. Ibid., p. 122-123.
59. Ibid., p. 153, 154.
60. Ibid., p. 157-159.
61. Ibid., p. 174.
62. Ibid., p. 196.
63. “Emancipation in the British West Indies” by Ralph Waldo Emerson in Complete Writings, p. 1124.
64. Essays & Lectures by Ralph Waldo Emerson, p. 560.

Copyright © 2020-2021 by Sanderson Beck

United States Democracy & Slavery 1801-1844 has been published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

United States & Civil War 1845-1865

Jeffersonian Democracy 1801-1809
Madison & the War of 1812
US Era of Monroe & J. Q. Adams 1817-29
Native Tribes, Removal & the West
Jacksonian Democracy 1829-37
US Depression, Van Buren & Tyler 1837-44
US Slavery & Abolitionists 1801-44
Women Reforming America 1801-44
American Philosophy & Religion 1801-44
Emerson’s Transcendentalism
Literature of Irving, Cooper & Whittier
Summary & Evaluating America 1801-44

World Chronology to 1830
Chronology of America

BECK index