Who was Ralph Waldo Emerson?

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.