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Ralph Waldo Emerson: A bridge to the Spirit of the World Ralph Waldo Emerson: A bridge to the Spirit of the World
by Rene Wadlow
2023-05-25 06:28:12
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As Life and Nature are not great with reference to the Present only,
but greater still from what is yet to come, out of that formula for Thee I sing.
Walt Whitman

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) whose birth anniversary we mark on 25 May, stressed the need for thinking and writing in an American style, separate from that of England which dominated American culture at that time - an early voice for "America First". He called for a poetry "of insight and not of tradition".  Yet at the same time, he knew that the "Oversoul" - the 'Thee' for which Walt Whitman sang, transcended all frontiers.

ralph01_400Emerson was a leader of what is often called "American Transcendentalism " - a vision of a cosmic force whose immanent nature courses its way  upward through all creation toward its source.  The Transcendentalists held that the sacred, which transcends the world but manifests itself in this world, thereby sanctifying it and making it real.  God's immanent presence in the creation is an ongoing process of progressive spiritual evolution. Walt Whitman that Emerson recognized as a intellectual and spiritual kin, gives these ideas a more poetic form. Evolutionary theory and democratic thought led Whitman to a new understanding of the divine-human relationship.(1)

Emerson came from a long line of Protestant ministers.  His father was a Unitarian minister, a New England reform movement that stressed the human rather than the divine nature of Jesus.  William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) was the leading Unitarian minister of his day, placing an emphasis on a God of love rather than a God of judgment.  Two of his nephews, Ellery Channing and William Henry Channing were close friends of Emerson.

Emerson went to Harvard University and then to Harvard Divinity School.  He was a minister from 1829 to 1832 but then resigned.  He was not attuned to the ritual aspect of a minister's work.  Thus he turned from preaching in a church service to lecturing and writing.  Many of his essays were first given as lectures - usually some 80 a year.  It is estimated that he gave 1500 lectures.  He was a good speaker, and people returned faithfully to his lectures. "Nature" "Self-Reliance" "Experience" are some of his best known.  Many dejected secular people have gone to them regularly to see the world in renewed terms of beauty and harmony.

Emerson lived in Concord, a town near Boston. A good number of writers, teachers and people interested in social reform lived there. Emerson was known for the conversations that took place in his home or in that of his friends.  Henry David Thoreau, (1817-1862) who was later recognized as an important thinker had lived in Emerson's Concord home, before building a little house on a piece of land owned by Emerson at Walden Pond.

Emerson did much in his lectures and essays to introduce Indian thought to the United States. (2)  He was a strong American voice that was also open to the world and to the forces of the Spirit.



1) See the fine biography by Van Wyck Brooks who sets Emerson in his New England milieu at a high point in New England's cultural life: Van Wyek Brooks. Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1932)

2) See Carl T. Jackson. The Oriental Religions and American Thought (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981)


Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens

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