On May 25, 1803, American essayist, lecturer, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was born, who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. He was seen as a champion of individualism and a prescient critic of the countervailing pressures of society. He disseminated his philosophical thoughts through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures.
Ralph Waldo Emerson enrolled at Harvard College at the age of 14 and throughout his time at the institute, he took jobs as teacher and was known for his activities as class poet reading various works to his classmates. Also from early age on, Emerson started to create a list of read books and poems with personal journal entries he named ‘Wide World’. Waldo Emerson moved to Floria, which critically influenced his future being. He met Prince Achille Murat with whom he had long discussions of philosophy, politics, religion and society, agreeing on many topics. Also, Emerson began writing his own poetry very intensively and made first contacts to slavery, which had a long lasting effect on the student Emerson.
He began thinking of becoming a lecturer in the 1830’s and started his career in Boston. The content of this lecture later formed the fundamentals of his famous essay ‘Nature’. The essay was published anonymously and depicted the foundation of transcendentalism, a way of non traditionally appreciating nature and the belief that only through studying nature reality can be actually understood. He divided the use of nature into four aspects being Beauty, Commodity, Language, and Discipline. The essay is known to have had a great impact on Henry David Thoreau. It essentially influenced his writing, especially his book Walden, published in 1854. Emerson became Thoreau’s mentor and together they became two of the most important transcendentalists of all times.
After the success of ‘Nature’, Emerson delivered his famous speech ‘The American Scholar’, which depicted the foundation for both, his philosophical and literary career. Emerson and befriended intellectuals hosted several gatherings, which formed the Transcendental Club. In later years, the movement established a journal, of which Margaret Fuller was occupied as an editor.
A setback to Emerson’s career as a lecturer depicted his speech at Harvard. In it he openly made his doubts on Christianity clear, for which he was proclaimed an atheist. Indeed, Waldo Emerson used to be a great Christian believer as well, but after his first wife passed away he began questioning the Church’s methods and began to turn away from his original religion. However, he recovered from this provocative lecture and gave many more until a fire at his home occurred in later years. Emerson’s health began to decline and from then on he only lectured in front of small, familiar groups. Still, he kept publishing poetry and anthologies like ‘Parnassus’.
At yovisto, you may enjoy a video discussion on Ralph Waldo Emerson and American Idealism.
References and Further Reading:
- American Transcendentalism Website
- Emerson & Thoreau
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Reading Ralph Waldo Emerson, a blog featuring excerpts from Emerson’s journals
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- You Don’t Exist – Says David Hume
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