Ralph Waldo Emerson, through his literature and speeches that were groundbreaking in both style and matter, played the most vital role of any writer of his time in defining what was to become the American spirit. Through his love and appreciation of nature, and his bold, unreserved style, Emerson was able to breathe new life into the previously stagnant state of American literature and intellectualism. In so doing, Emerson helped to grow from the ground up a national identity that was to benefit scholars and all men of thought for decades to come.
Despite his later innovations in the field of American literature and intellect, Ralph Waldo Emerson was the product of traditional origins. Raised without the benefit of a father’s protection and influence in his life, Emerson persevered and enjoyed some success, even attending Harvard at the age of fourteen. Though the merit of this fact alone would seem to indicate Emerson’s above-average intellect, he did relatively poorly at Harvard, and was forced to drop out due to declining grades. He subsequently followed the trend set by nine consecutive generations of Emerson’s, becoming a Unitarian minister. He was quite successful in this role for a time, becoming known for his interesting and unorthodox sermons. However, he became increasingly disillusioned with the strictures of the Unitarian church, feeling it to have become to coldly logical and unfeeling – in his words, “corpse-cold” (481).
His primary argument against the tenants of the Unitarian faith resided in his frustration with its forms, or the unfeeling, empty rituals that its services seemed to Emerson to be composed of. Weary of the convoluted ceremonial aspects that so defined not only the Unitarian church, but indeed many of major Christian religions of the period, Emerson sought instead a more personal, almost mystical relationship with God. He would later come to view even the essential notion of God, or a higher power in an almost Deist light, linking to evidence of a higher power to its visible manifestations in nature, and in reason; this unorthodox concept of God is prominent in his first major published work, Nature:
“Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine. This universal soul, he calls Reason: it is not mine, or thine, or his, but we are its; we are its property and men. And the blue sky in which the private earth is buried, the sky with its eternal calm, and full of everlasting orbs, is the type of Reason. That which, intellectually considered, we call Reason, considered in relation to nature, we call Spirit. Spirit is the Creator. Spirit hath life in itself. And man in all ages and countries, embodies it in his language, as the FATHER” (495).
In this lofty statement, Emerson asserts that man is guided by his own, natural set of ideals (such as Justice and Truth) that are fixed within him just as are the stars in the sky. Also like the stars, these aspects of being are permanent, and ruled by natural laws, or Reason. Reason, or the capability for abstract thought and the understanding of values such as Love and Freedom, Emerson explains, is universal to all men; it is the trait that links all mankind in a kind of collective conscious. However, it is Emerson’s analogy of nature and Reason with God that is most telling of his unconventional, even revolutionary views on religion. He asserts that that which he calls Reason, when bent in the direction of nature, is Spirit, and this Spirit is itself the Creator, or Father. He states that forces internal to mankind as individuals and as a whole, those of Reason and Spirit, are paramount to any conventional view of God. In essence, man is his own creator, and through his Reason, forges his own destiny. This perspective on the higher power, and on the importance of man’s individuality is characteristic of Emerson’s theology on the whole. In this light, it is no wonder that he became disenchanted with the Unitarian faith.
Due largely to this disillusionment with the forms and institutions of the church, as well as the recent death of his wife and the declining health of his brother, Emerson stepped down from his ministry and left the continent for Europe for a period of ten years. Upon his return, he began a series of lectures on anthropological topics dealing largely with human life and its state in the present day. These lectures drew him some acclaim and attention as a lecturer, due primarily to his exceptional style and unconventional outlook on topics such as nature and the emphasis he placed on experience.
It was this attention to the importance of experience, of action, around which orbited his most renowned lecture ever given. In 1837, he was the keynote speaker at Harvard on Phi Beta Kappa Day. It is perhaps ironic that a man who performed so poorly during his time spent as a student at Harvard should return, years later, a prominent and respected intellectual, to deliver perhaps the most famous commencement speech of all time. His speech was met with a wide range of responses, ranging from surprise and wonder to shock and outrage. However, regardless of the response it received at the time, Emerson’s lecture, “The American Scholar,” carried great heft, a ringing clarion call to scholars, and indeed all men of the day, to transcend the old schools of thought and define a new cultural identity. He urged the graduating class to let go of the dusty tomes to which they had been taught to clung, to cease regurgitating the thought of men who had lived and died long before they themselves were born and to form their own opinions.
These concepts may seem commonplace in modern society; originality is generally encouraged in education and literature, and individuality is a valued asset. However, that was simply not true of Emerson’s America, where scholars were reared on the classics: the thoughts of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and Sir Francis Bacon took precedence over any original thought that scholars might produce themselves. This was largely because it was reasoned that the “Age of Inspiration” was dead, and that all possible original ideas and inventions had already been discovered. In Emerson’s mind, no idea could be more wrong or misguided. Emerson asserts that scholars are products of the age in which they live; they do not learn in a vacuum, but are, rather, products of both their natural and intellectual environment. Thus, “each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this” (516).
Also, Emerson urged scholars to establish a new cultural identity. Up to the point at which Emerson delivered “The American Scholar,” America was severely lacking in its own national voice. Emerson stressed the value of one’s own experience in forming one’s intellectual and moral identity. Essentially, he exhorted scholars not to be content to be bookworms, and instead to foster originality and take part in the spirit of determined individualism that defines the American spirit Aside from a breaking with the past in order to form a national identity, Emerson also stresses the importance of weaning oneself from reliance upon foreign intellect that had so dominated American learning. America was in a fledgling state, and as such, had not yet produced a base of local literature and philosophies to match those of the longer-established empires of Europe. Emerson asserted that if America was to find its own voice in the world, the scholars to whom he delivered his address had a duty to themselves and their country to define and revel in their own identity, and cease to “be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests” (514).
Through his unique and innovative perspective, Ralph Waldo Emerson revolutionized American thinking and learning. His lectures and published works on such topics as mankind, nature, religion, and learning have shaped the subsequent course of American history. Emerson helped scholars and laymen alike abandon convention to seek their own identity through action and experience, thereby shaping the American zeitgeist for years to come.