Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalism Movement

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882)

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882)

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.

“He who is in love is wise and is becoming wiser, sees newly every time he looks at the object beloved, drawing from it with his eyes and his mind those virtues which it possesses.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Address on The Method of Nature (1841)

Ralph Waldo Emerson – Early Years

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in a vicarage as the son of William Emerson (1769-1811) and Ruth Haskins (1768-1853). He was the third of eight children. Emerson’s father was a Unitarian pastor and died at the age of 42 when Emerson was eight years old. After his father’s death, Emerson’s intellectual education lay with his aunt Mary Moody Emerson. 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. After the death of his wife he went on a trip to Europe, where he met Thomas Carlyle, William Wordsworth [8] and Samuel Taylor Coleridge [7] between 1832 and 1833. On this journey Emerson also became acquainted with German idealism and Indian philosophies, which would later leave traces in his work.


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‘, published in 1836 at the age of 33. In this collection of essays he represented his belief that people should live in a simple way and in harmony with nature. In Nature he saw the true source of divine revelation. At the same time, he emphasized the importance of the creative activity of man as a driving force for a fundamental renewal and source of freedom and self-determination of the individual. So Nature ended with Emerson’s famous appeal: Build, therefore, your own world! Emerson no longer understood the divine as an external or higher power, but saw it as transferred into man himself. In Nature he developed one of the basic figures of his thinking, the transcendentalist triad, which includes self, nature and oversoul. According to Emerson, the Over-Soul is not an autonomous entity detached from the world of phenomena, but as effective in this as it is in the human mind. According to Emerson, man can therefore participate directly in the divine both through observation of nature and introspection. The essay is known to have had a great impact on Henry David Thoreau.[5] 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.

The American Scholar

“Every revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind and when the same thought occurs in another man, it is the key to that era.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: First Series (1841)

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. His works began to become more successful from 1850, including Conduct Of Life (1860) and Society And Solitude (1870). In 1864 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Invitations to lectures, the award of honorary doctorates and the election to the Supervisory Board of Harvard University, which had suspended him at a young age, also showed the later academic recognition of Emerson.

Doubts on Christianity

“These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: First Series (1841)

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‘.

Against Slavery

Emerson was a declared opponent of slavery and had already been in intellectual exchange with Abraham Lincoln before the outbreak of the American Civil War. Along with his friend Charles Sumner and James Russell Lowell, he was an early member of the Saturday Club founded in Boston in 1855, a group of writers, philosophers and intellectuals who openly opposed slavery. During the American Civil War, Emerson visited Washington, D.C., gave public speeches and met President Abraham Lincoln, for whom he had already voted in the previous election in 1860. While he and Lincoln shared essential attitudes to abolitionism, Emerson was disappointed that Lincoln placed the preservation of the Union of the United States above the abolition of slavery. After Lincoln’s murder in 1865, Emerson delivered the eulogy at his funeral, acknowledging his pragmatic and timely approach to slavery and praising him as an extraordinary statesman.[6]

Later Years

Starting in 1867, Emerson’s health began declining; he wrote much less in his journals. Beginning as early as the summer of 1871 or in the spring of 1872, he started experiencing memory problems and suffered from aphasia. By the end of the decade, he forgot his own name at times and, when anyone asked how he felt, he responded, “Quite well; I have lost my mental faculties, but am perfectly well“. After the fire in his house in 1872, Ralph Waldo Emerson began to withdraw more and more from public life. In late 1874, Emerson published an anthology of poetry called ParnassusHe died in Concord, Massachusetts on April 27, 1882 at age 78.

Emerson and Concord: America Discovers Idealism, AN evening with Robert Richardson, [10]

References and Further Reading:

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