Emerson’s Call to Greatness

When I ask myself who was Ralph Waldo Emerson the answer that comes to my mind is that he was a call to greatness. Throughout all of his writing what can be heard is a never ending call to be great, to rise up to the highest pinnacle of humanity and to represent that possibility for others. Emerson realized that as human beings we symbolize possibilities for each other. When we see someone of greatness they represent that possibility and they pull on us to meet them in that quality. Emerson believed that  great human beings, through their example, lead the progression of history and culture forward. He called all those around him to become worthy representatives of greatness. In his later work called Representative Men he wrote:

“Men have a pictorial or representative quality, and serve us in the intellect. Boehme and Swedenborg saw that things were representative. Men are also representative; first, of things, and secondly, of ideas.”

There are different types of great individuals. They can be great poets, statesman, scholars, or mystics, but what is important is their greatness.  It is through being true to your own vocation that allows you to achieve the status of greatness. You can recognize your own vocation by discovering what you have talent for. Your talents have been bestowed upon you for the fulfillment of your vocation.

Achieving greatness does not come through an act of personal will. Emerson believes that those who aspire to greatness must allow the larger spirit of humanity to work through them. Success in this lofty endeavor rests not in the personal will but to the  degree that the efforts of the individual run parallel “to the course of thought, which found in them an unobstructed channel.”

At each time in history a certain trajectory of thought was playing itself out in human history. The great individual is the one who allows that thought to advance itself through their actions. As Emerson envisions it, if one is able to do this there is little effort involved in the activity. He writes, “Place yourself in the middle of the stream of power and wisdom which animates all whom it floats, and you are without effort impelled to truth, to right, and a perfect contentment.”

This is our mandate as human beings. We must discover our true vocation and then allow our talents to be used by the universal spirit, what Emerson referred to as the Over-Soul, for the betterment of humankind. The Over-Soul needs us to continue its work in unfolding the universe. According to Emerson, “The fact that I am here certainly shows me that the soul had need of an organ here.” He goes on to ask of himself, “Shall I not assume the post? Shall I skulk and dodge and duck with my unseasonable apologies and vain modesty, and imagine my being here impertinent?”

For Emerson we are each here to strive for greatness and in so achieving to inspire others to strive for their own greatness. In this way the entire human race is uplifted in a never-ending ascent to a perfected state. These are the core elements that Emerson would develop over the course of his life time into a powerful and original Evolutionary Spirituality. In so doing he would himself become a “representative man” and he would inspire generations of thinkers, in America and abroad. The later more modern philosophy of the Pragmatists would borrow heavily from the fundamental thoughts that Emerson brought to the table.