Who was Ralph Waldo Emerson?

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 15 Comments

Who was Ralph Waldo Emerson? This blog started with Emerson, but quickly turned toward the Pragmatists. Now, however, I am turning back for a time. I want to explore with you this great man of letters and the ideas that he held. Emerson is the intellectual ground under our feet. He set the trajectory of our mind’s development. As Harold Bloom the twentieth century literary critic put it, “The mind of Emerson is the mind of America.” We can agree or disagree, but if we are American we cannot escape the grooves of thought that Emerson excavated. Emerson is a unique American thinker. Who was Ralph Waldo Emerson?

He called himself a poet. Many see him as a philosopher or essayist and others as a profit or a mystic. I must admit that I see him as a mystic and by his own definition a mystic is someone “who lead us into another region, – the world of morals or of will. What is singular about this region of thought is its claim. Wherever the sentiment of right comes in, it takes precedence of every thing else. For other things, I make poetry of them; but the moral sentiment makes poetry of me.”

A mystic to Emerson was a master of the realm of will, volition and choice – a seer of moral truth and higher value. Mystics teach us how to be and how to live. They instruct in the art of here and now. They are spiritual teachers and they are able to convey the true nature of moral value, not from rules or dogma found in books, but from the immediacy of the experience that flows from their own moral awakening. Emerson himself described the function of a real teacher in his essay Spiritual Laws this way:

“The man may teach by doing, and not otherwise. If he can communicate himself, he can teach, but not by words. He teaches who gives, and he learns who receives. There is no teaching until the pupil is brought into the same state or principle in which you are; a transfusion takes place; he is you, and you are he; then is a teaching; and by no unfriendly chance or bad company can he ever quite lose the benefit.”

Emerson was, as I read him, a mystic and a spiritual teacher. His teaching made poetry out of his own life and out of the lives of those around him. He lived most of his life in Concord Massachusetts and he gathered around him a remarkable group of intellectuals. During the decades of the early and mid eighteenth century he inspired the birth of American culture. His contribution to the development of the American mind cannot be overestimated. “The mind of Emerson is the mind of America.”

Emerson developed a profound evolutionary philosophy well ahead of the curve. He was writing about evolution three decades before Darwin would publish On the Origin of Species. He detailed how spirit became manifest in the continuous transformation of the universe well before Rudolf Steiner, Henri Bergson, Sri Aurobindo or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin were even born. How did he come up with his magnificent vision of reality? By the power of his intuition.

Emerson was a champion of intutition. Those who gathered around him were called to trust in the truth of intellectual instinct. In his essay Self-Reliance Emerson instructs us to find “the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded?” To Emerson there is a deep universal self from which all intuition flows. It is a knowledge that arises of its own accord, it comes to us spontaneously and when it does we know it can be trusted beyond the need for external verification or empirical proof. Intuition is our direct connection to the “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.”

I am opening a new chapter for the moment in this blog. Emerson was the great mind that ruled the generation before the Pragmatists Peirce, James and Dewey. As I will show you his influence certainly passed on to that generation even though they rejected many of his ideas.

If you judge Emerson as a philosopher you will likely judge him poorly. He was criticized for being vague, difficult to understand and often contradictory. If you judge him as a mystic and a creator of culture you can only stand in awe of his achievements. I intend to take you into the mind of this, my earliest hero, at least to the degree that I can. I hope to show you that he anticipates almost all of the evolutionary spirituality that we find today. Lastly, I want to spark a debate about the power of intuition and the plausibility of the existence of a central source of human knowledge.

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Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Dear Jeff, thank you for your beautiful blog. I am very grateful for it,I wrote down some things of Steiner (underneath), it all seems to connect and I look very much forward to the next blogs.. Our thinking is not individual (as is perceiving or feeling), it is universal. Because we are imprisoned in an area that we perceive as our personality, we do not perceive its absolute power. While we perceive or feel we are separate beings, but during thinking we are that all-encompassing, one being that permeates everything. When we would be aware of that, we would understand… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Agreed for learning more about Emerson, who sounds indeed incredibly great [ and whom I have not read; probably because of the poetry, not easy for a French]. For the debate “ about the power of intuition and the plausibility of the existence of a central source of human knowledge”, a few people [ at least Jeff and a few others] should read Steiner’s “Philosophy of freedom” first. A debate on this subject without this book would be as if having a debate about General Relativity without Einstein. I promise Chuck to verify all my premises… this I can do… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago

I just ordered a copy of Steiner’s book… I look forward to it, although I wonder if he invented intuition in the way that einstein invented relativity…. :)

Steve
Steve
10 years ago

Thanks Jeff for this illuminating post on Emerson. I think your distinction of calling him a mystic rather than a philosopher is an important and helpful one. Emerson was one of my first heroes also, along with Walt Whitman. I couldn’t find any English writer when I was in my early twenties that spoke to my own search for that unlimited possibility as they both did. I think they were both mystics in a uniquely American way, and yes, its fascinating to realize how much the American mind has been shaped by them, especially Emerson. I’m really looking forward to… Read more »

Bob
Bob
10 years ago

Surprising there are not more blogs identified with RWE. Another quote from Bloom sort of – Emerson got everything right – actually he was recycling a quote about Oscar Wilde. I have spent some time exploring the evolution of RWE thought. The pragmatist bent that is so often referred to – James, Rorty etc – doesn’t make any sense to me. I offer up Krishnamurthi and any book/discussion regarding the Anthropic Prinicple. More later.

Bob

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Hi Jeff,
I am really curious on the effect this book [Steiner’s P of F] will have on you in particular and on all people on this blog.
That’s why I insisted so much. I just had to insist, it was kind of stronger than myself…

God knows why sometimes spiritual passion with devotion can take us like this…
Steiner in one book has completely overwhelmed my soul. Very impressive.

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

This morning I found that focusing on the process of thinking instead of thought itself, goes deeper than being aware of thought. It is profound meditation.

Magali
Magali
10 years ago

Hi Catherine I just could not stay out and ordered the book of Steiner as well (in Portuguese though)! So I guess I will be able to catch this train of thought with you.

Elizabeth
10 years ago

Thank you for your brilliant posting. Conscious evolution needs further definition and a deeper understanding of what the shift entails. Our understanding of it as a term is exactly the thinking that we are evolving from. Conceptual understanding not embodied and put into action becomes a meaningless slogan and loses it’s vitality as an evolutionary activator. Would you allow me to quote you and link to your site on my forthcoming blog?

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

“Conceptual understanding not embodied and put into action becomes a meaningless slogan and loses it’s vitality as an evolutionary activator.”

I would rather say:

concept + desire = action

Concept is prior to action. It needs desire as a firing up …

Lynn
Lynn
10 years ago

Thank you for these delightful, inspiring, cogent essays on Emerson. Now, I’m primed to read Emerson all over again!

One small point – perhaps in this essay you meant “prophet” rather than “profit”?

Please keep writing!

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago
Reply to  Lynn

that is Emerson’s quote and I think he meant “profit” as in the “betterment” of man.

KK.Gopinadh
KK.Gopinadh
10 years ago

He is a poet…a mystic

lol
lol
10 years ago

this is poo

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