RALPH WALDO EMERSON

00t/20/arve/g2327/054  My man!   Although known today mostly for his quotable quotes, (of which Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations lists 150!),  he was a real mover and shaker in his day.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

The only reward of virtue is virtue.

Life is not so short but that there is always time enough for courtesy.

He was The Man of Transcendentalism, along with names you may recognize such as Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Amos Bronson Alcott (papa to Louisa May).   The Transcendentalists stressed individual intuition over tradition and institutional authority as the path to knowledge.  They placed great emphasis on nature as a source of spiritual insight.

The dude had a radical streak, even though we think of him today as kind of ponderous and preachy, but he was banned from speaking at Harvard for 3 decades because of a speech he gave to Harvard Divinity School students in which he questioned common assumptions of organized religion.  Even though his ideas now seem familiar, we have to keep in mind that his original ideas back in the late 1800’s were unique and unconventional for his day.

Phillip Lopate, who is a noted fiction writer, essayist, poet and film critic, says of Emerson that he wrote some of the best reflective prose we have;  he was a hero of intellectual labor.    [Just an aside:  I love the phrase intellectual labor.   Isn’t that just loaded with meaning! Wouldn’t you like to be described as a hero of intellectual labor? Yeah.  Me, too.]

Nature, written in 1836, explores his basic heart-felt belief that it is our own experiences from which we should draw our knowledge.  He asserts that all our questions about the order of the universe — about the relationships between God, man, and nature — may be answered by our experience of life and by the world around us. Each individual is a manifestation of creation and as such holds the key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe. Nature, too, is both an expression of the divine and a means of understanding it.

He defines nature  as everything separate from the inner individual — nature, art, other men, our own bodies. In common usage, nature refers to the material world unchanged by man. Art is nature in combination with the will of man.

“Build therefore your own world.”

“Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you

“The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”

See why I find him so interesting?   We are a manifestation of creation (and being the latest in nine generations preachers, yes, he meant God).  And Art is nature in combination with the will of man.   Isn’t that just beautiful?

Emerson is not Twitter posts, nor is he Facebook statuses.   He is a deeply thoughtful writer, and works to poke our sleeping minds into wakeful awareness.  He is so worth reading.

In Self Reliance,  Emerson stresses the need for each individual to avoid conformity and false consistency, and follow his or her own instincts and ideas. It is the source of one of Emerson’s most famous quotations: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”.  He is certain that inside every individual is genius,  and this genius is expressed in the person’s self-worth.

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”

The final essay I want to bring to your attention is The Over-Soul.  Some consider it his finest work.   If you like your philosophy a little bit on the metaphysical side, you will find great pleasure in this work.  It is about the soul – its existence and nature, the relationship of one soul to another, discusses the relationship of the soul to the ego, and the soul to God.   It is something of a prose poem, clearly influenced by Eastern thought and religions, and delightful to read.

“The soul is the perceiver and revealer of truth. We know the truth when we see it, let skeptic and scoffer say what they choose.”

“That which we are, we shall teach, not voluntarily, but involuntarily. Thoughts come into our minds by avenues which we never left open, and thoughts go out of our minds through avenues which we never voluntarily opened.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Read.  Think.  Read again.  Think again.

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