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Ralph Waldo Emerson - Biography

Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882) American essayist, philosopher and poet who influenced the likes of Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr proclaimed Emerson's first major work, Nature, as America's "Intellectual Declaration of Independence" and it is very true that the uniqueness and vitality of Emerson's thought motivated much of the development of American intellectual life which places emphasis on optimism and individuality. Emerson had no designs to be a philosopher but through his works he drew together Eastern thought championing unity and the divine nature of the spiritual inner self with the continental metaphysics of material existence including Hegel, Saint Augustine, Sir Francis Bacon and Coleridge among others. He felt that there was a presence of dialectic in the world between good and evil and that it is each person's individual goal to break free from this to heighten their inner self. This view of Emerson's was the budding of the American Transcendentalist movement.

Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1803. His father was a Unitarian minister who died when young Emerson was only eight. Emerson began keeping journals at a young age, these journals would in turn provide him with a wealth of material for his later works. He entered Harvard College after studying classics at Boston Latin School, and graduated in 1821 continuing to the Divinity School there in 1825. At the time, American academics were undergoing controversy as translations of Hindu and Buddhist poetry were making the rounds as well as works from German critics. This controversy can be seen to be of much influence on Emerson as his thought developed through his later works. In 1829 he married Ellen Louisa Tucker and was ordained minister in the Second Church in Boston. Emerson continued to question Christian faith and in 1832 he resigned his post. The death of Ellen Louisa a few years after their marriage also influenced his religious beliefs and most likely influenced this decision as well. He moved to Concord, Massachusetts and spent years travelling and studying. It was in Paris at a botanical exhibition that Emerson found a calling as a naturalist and when he returned to the United States he took part in lecturing as a part of the lyceum movement. He also married his second wife, Lydia Jackson in 1835 with whom he would have four children.

The following year Emerson published Nature (1836) which speaks of nature as inspiration and source of humanity's fulfillment. He writes in the introduction:

Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man's condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?

All science has one aim, namely, to find a theory of nature. We have theories of races and of functions, but scarcely yet a remote approach to an idea of creation. We are now so far from the road to truth, that religious teachers dispute and hate each other, and speculative men are esteemed unsound and frivolous. But to a sound judgment, the most abstract truth is the most practical. 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.

Emerson continued to give speeches along with beginning to gain notoriety as an essayist. A couple notable ones in the period of the late 1830s and into the 40s attacked dependence on continental thought, "The American Scholar" and he created even more controversy with his "Divinity School Address." In this address given in 1838 he renounces traditional Christianity with rhetorical blows like, "Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love." It can easily be seen how terribly controversial this could be taken at a divinity school, and it very much was. But this address also laid out Emerson's developing Transcendentalist philosophy, "That is always best which gives me to myself. The sublime is excited in me by the great stoical doctrine, Obey thyself. That which shows God in me, fortifies me."

Emerson continued to give speeches along with beginning to gain notoriety as an essayist. A couple notable ones in the period of the late 1830s and into the 40s attacked dependence on continental thought, "The American Scholar" and he created even more controversy with his "Divinity School Address." In this address given in 1838 he renounces traditional Christianity with rhetorical blows like, "Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love." It can easily be seen how terribly controversial this could be taken at a divinity school, and it very much was. But this address also laid out Emerson's developing Transcendentalist philosophy, "That is always best which gives me to myself. The sublime is excited in me by the great stoical doctrine, Obey thyself. That which shows God in me, fortifies me."

The "Divinity School Address" won Emerson no small fame, albeit as an atheist. He continued to write many prominent essays of which the best-known are "Self-Reliance," "The Over-Soul," and "The Poet" and where included in his second series of essays. Also during the 1840s he began The Dial, the official publication of Transcendentalism, with Margaret Fuller and it served as a publication for many of his essays and lectures in print. Not only Emerson's writings were highlighted here in what Emerson called "a medium for the freest expression of thought on the questions which interest earnest minds in every community," but also Amos Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau (along with Fuller as well) were introduced to the American public. In 1847, Emerson travelled Europe on a year-long lecture tour. It is worthy of note that it was Thoreau that watched over Emerson's family while he was travelling and that it was on Emerson's property that the infamous Walden Pond cabin was built.

Emerson continued to be prolific in his essay writing and lecturing although it can be seen that his idealism gives way to more and more ideas of mortal limitations. In “The Conduct of Life” (1860) he writes poetically: "Will you say, the disasters which threaten mankind are exceptional, and one need not lay his account for cataclysms every day? Aye, but what happens once, may happen again, and so long as these strokes are not to be parried by us, they must be feared.
"But these shocks and ruins are less destructive to us, than the stealthy power of other laws which act on us daily. An expense of ends to means is fate; — organization tyrannizing over character. The menagerie, or forms and powers of the spine, is a book of fate: the bill of the bird, the skull of the snake, determines tyrannically its limits. So is the scale of races, of temperaments; so is sex; so is climate; so is the reaction of talents imprisoning the vital power in certain directions. Every spirit makes its house; but afterwards the house confines the spirit."

In 1882 Emerson caught a cold that developed into pneumonia and he died peacefully at home. He was buried at what is now known as Author's Ridge in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American essayist, philosopher and poet. (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882)