Ralph Waldo Emerson: America’s Most Influential Essayist
Emerson may have been an ordained minister and the son of an ordained minister, but he was anything but a Christian. He was the, in fact, the man credited with being the primary leader of the American transcendentalist movement and the father of it.
Actually though, transcendentalism was really nothing new in the world but hearkened back to the more ancient nature religions of the past pre-Christian eras of history. The core value of this “new” post Christian American philosophy is that both man and nature are good and that everything in nature is God and that God is diffused throughout nature. This is called pantheism. In other words, everything that exists is God and contains God and thus reality cannot be understood outside the realm of nature.
The values of individualism and self reliance were also paramount in Emerson’s transcendentalist philosophy, in which the highest state of man is to be an independent free thinker whose thought transcends the traditional norms of society. Thus the values of individualism and self reliance were important to both Emerson and his protege David Henry Thoreau and still hold sway over American people today as being perceived to be the ultimate freedom for the freedom loving American people.
Born on May 25, 1803 in aristocratic Boston, Massachusetts to a Unitarian minister father and a staunch Anglican mother, Emerson indeed became a Unitarian minister after graduating from Harvard University and Harvard Divinity School, which was in the keeping with the family tradition of his forefathers being in the ministry. But not believing in the miracles of the Bible, he got disillusioned with Christianity and left the ministry. He then began to write his very influential essays and poems and to give speeches at various colleges and universities. His first published transcendentalist essay was entitled “Nature” and he went onto deliver a highly influential speech at Harvard University entitled “The American Scholar” which the then prominent poet Oliver Wendell Holmes went on to call “America’s Intellectual Declaration of Independence” . And Emerson’s influence is still felt in the halls of higher learning today since the objective of most schools today is to teach the students the principles of independent critical thinking. In this way Emerson is still an important influence on American education, touching nearly all of us.
Emerson went on to give many important speeches which he edited into a final essay format which he divided into two groups; Essays: First Series and Essays: Second Series and some of the things that he said are as follows:
1, Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven.
2, But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.
3. The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship.
Emerson was considered to be an American mystic because of his focus on the intuition and spirit, however he was not a Christian mystic because he did not belive in a personal God.
He died on April 27, 1882 in the city of Concord, Massachusetts.