Ralph Waldo Emerson is not often read these days. His image has suffered with the passage of time, and he is too often ignored as one more stuffed- shirt dead white male. Perhaps it is his earnestness, or his lofty tone, which sounds dissonant to ears accustomed to the cynical or ironic tones of our more earth-bound era. Perhaps it is his antiquated vocabulary, or his even more antiquated choice of topics. No pundits and no bloggers (well, few bloggers) are focusing on topics such as “Manners,” “Character,” or “Prudence.” Perhaps it is simply because his writings were force-fed on too many unwilling high school sophomores. But for those who take the time to go back and listen to his voice, his words remain full of surprise and wisdom.
A world of instant messages, SPACs, cryptocurrencies, NFTs, SUVs, and iPhones, would benefit from reflection upon Emerson’s words in his essay “Heroism,” where he comments on the “littleness of common life”:
When the spirit is not master of the world, then it is its dupe. Yet the little man takes the great hoax so innocently, works in it so headlong and believing, is born red, and dies gray, arranging his toilet, attending on his own health, laying traps for sweet food and strong wine, setting his heart on a horse or a rifle, made happy with a little gossip or a little praise, that the great soul cannot choose but laugh at such earnest nonsense.
If in our own time Emerson is underappreciated, in his own day he was considered controversial and even scandalous. His Harvard Divinity School Address managed to get him banned from Harvard for over 40 years. He had a great capacity for friendship – it is little-remembered that he supplied the land on which Henry David Thoreau built his Walden cabin. His writings were heavily influenced by his study of eastern religions, particularly his study of the Vedas. His meditations on these studies reflect some of his most interesting and powerful writing; in his essay “The Over-Soul” he wrote:
We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.
Emerson’s writing may be unfashionable these days, but it still retains a certain nobility, even an inspirational grandeur which is sadly lacking in the writings of our contemporary authors. To use an Emersonian phrase, his words speak to us with an “alienated majesty.”
I recommend G. Wilson Allen’s award-winning classic 1982 biography, Waldo Emerson.