25 May 2003
celebration of Ralph Waldo Emerson on the occasion of the bicentennial
of his birthday. Taken from God in Concord by Richard G.
passages are from Geldard. E: passages are from Emerson.
EMERSON | WHERE'S WALDO?
Spiritual rebel with a radical agenda. Ripped power from fear. Believed transcendence was an instinct and a birthright. Used the force of image to point at truth. Reached across the abyss and pulled back metaphor. Translated the Great Silence into profound spiritual assertions. Never rested on last night's insights. The enemy of habit and banality. Not only ahead of his time but ahead of our time, too. He held life fluid. Turned dogma into magma. Everything volatized in his gaze. The mind on fire. He trusted his intuition. Never have deep humility and towering self-confidence coexisted so happily inside one mind.
More links below.
Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? ... Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past?
I have sometimes thought that in order to be a good minister it
was necessary to leave the ministry.
Emerson pictured himself going door to door describing, to anyone who
would listen, the bliss he enjoyed as a solitary believer.
The infinitude of the private man.
Cast behind you all conformity.
He believed we are all part of the great Diaspora, set free from deadly
tradition and the boundaries of race, religion, and even culture.
Nothing is sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.
Emersons great thesis is that we are one with the laws of the
He was by his own account, An endless seeker with no past at my
Mind expands as it proceeds.
The genius of man is a continuation of the power that made him
and is not done making him.
The Laws of mind are devoid of personality.
As long as the soul seeks an external God it can never have peace.
We are Pagans, suckled in a creed outworn.
Let man not resist the law of his mind and he will be filled with the
divinity which flows through all things.
The bridge over the abyss shall not carry the weight of personality.
I must unfold my own thought.
Not all people have the same spiritual rank.
A solitary adversary to habit and banality.
Tried to reinvent Imagination as a faculty to uncover the truth of reality.
Confronting him was the task of presenting an exalted vision of human
Wondering who in Concord would be interested in his ruminations, he realized that perhaps no one would.
A profound thought will lift Olympus.
Everything is an emanation, and from every emanation is a new emanation. ... If anything could stand still, it would be instantly crushed and dissipated by the torrent which it resisted, and if it were a mind, would be crazed.
The Emerson home in Concord.
SEEKER WITH NO PAST AT HIS BACK
Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?
Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of
tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of
theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream
around and through us, and invite us, by the powers they supply, to
action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones
of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its
faded wardrobe? The sun shines today also. There is more wool and flax
in the fields. There are new men, new lands, new thoughts. Let us demand
our own works and laws and worship.
The original relation to the universe lies in our
self-reliant intuition and, if not rejection, at least a careful monitoring
of all religious and philosophic formalities. The philosophy of
insight is the most challenging way to be in the world because
we have not been formally taught to rely on our own perceptions.
Respect yourself. You have first an instinct, then an opinion,
then a knowledge
by trusting it, it shall ripen into thought
and truth and you shall know why you believe.
Most of the journals after 1838 contain references to the limitations
of the human condition, outlining in sometimes blunt frankness the failings
of himself, family, friends and strangers in their effort to absorb
the newness of idealism as a practice.
Continually finding himself
in what he called the prone position, he nonetheless sought in life
and eloquence to stand erect, to represent the spiritual reality of
the human condition.
In regards Emerson and his circle of friends: What drew all these
figures together was the conviction among them that the life of the
mind is the central fact of human existence. It was also more than a
conviction, finally. Life was for them an ongoing discovery of the essential
fact that human beings possess a mind and can live successfully according
to its revealed laws, rather than according to the dictates of any external
authority or set of opinions. The mind awake was the ultimate goal and
reality to be sought and nurtured.
He is another Heraclitus, a solitary adversary to habit and banality,
making assertions others would claim to be madness. He wrote and spoke
for those who could hear his particular melody or strain of thought.
Who responded and who didnt was a mystery and always will
There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile.
Permanence is but a word of degrees.
The law dissolves the fact
and holds it fluid.
Even a seer can have a bad hair day.
SPOKE OR HEARD TRUTH
Truth is such a flyaway, such a slyboots, so untransportable and
unbarrelable a commodity, that it is as hard to catch as light.
And so it happens with our philosophy. Translate, collate, distill all
the systems, it steads you nothing. But the first observation you make,
in the sincere act of your nature, though on the veriest trifle, may
open a new view of nature and man
a profound thought will lift
Emersons early declaration that he had never spoken the
truth, read it, or heard it spoken placed its nature and quality at
a goodly distance from individual human articulation.
We understand nothing; our ignorance is abysmal the overhanging
immensity staggers us
we stagger and grope.
Although he claimed never to have heard or read or spoken the
truth, because such purity could never be perceived directly, he did
know that some semblance of the truth breached the space from the Abyss
to his mind.
AS A WAY OF WRITING
Assertions were the key. Trust in the incisive observation, incisively
expressed. Any interpolation that had the feel of explanation about
it diminished its truth as much as weakened its impact.
Confronting him was the task of presenting an exalted vision of
His method was to make assertions on the basis of intuitive conviction
arising from his fundamental nature and then to affirm those intuitive
assertions within his experience.
Emersons struggle to make a connection, to bridge the chasm
of understanding, reaches an important state in 1824, in (his journal
called) Wide World 13. Here he realizes that all attempts at
understanding must finally be fleshed out in language, specifically
metaphor. Human beings seize upon images.
The truest state of mind, rested in, becomes false. Thought is
the manna which cannot be stored. It will be sour if kept, and tomorrow
must be gathered anew.
Emerson tried to build a bridge from humanity to divinity through powerful
assertions. His beginning began with a strong statement of self-trust.
To form a bridge across the chasm of infinitude. Forming accurate nuances
from the Great Silence.
G: Emersons assertions arise from an internal dialogue between imagination and intuition, and they burst forth onto the page as metaphoric approximations of his intensely observed experience. To this extent Emerson never argues a point, nor does he address both sides of an issue in formal argument or employ logic or build a system. His refusal to debate or explain maintained a purity of expression.
He had no interest in doctrinal debates. The Trinitarians and
the Unitarians could nit-pick all they wanted. He would focus on the
essentials." It was his goal to elevate his thought to eloquence.
"Emerson has no interest in logical attacks up the summit of deity.
His instincts will take him into a Gnostic poesy and to the conclusion
that spiritual facts are their own evidence.
The act of reflection allowed him to hear the still, small voice
to which is wished to be obedient. If the messages did not cohere as
argument, he was not concerned. His interest was in revelation, not
His emphasis was on 'discoveries or stimulating thoughts'
Emerson was a seeker in a territory he marked off as a new thing in
Marching off into the abyss to seek a proper fit there,
he intended to report back what he discovered.
He realized the task of writing would not reveal the truth
no one could do that but rather could only direct attention to
where truth resides.
He called his startling insights lustres. His art
instigates rather than explains.
The first step in this Gnostic influx is a subtle but crucial
shift in perception. We are not to seek the divine externally, especially
in mythic personality. We are rather to seek it deep within, at a point
or a place where the personal ego does not exert control over image-making.
For Emerson being in the moment while at the same time keeping
his proverbial wits about him that is, in a state of reflective
self-awareness meant that the act of thinking and the act of
writing took place in the same moment.
We cant really call Emerson a philosopher since he never explained
or supported or argued for his assertions. Emersons decision
not to enter the marketplace as a philosopher per se but rather
as an essayist and poet reflects his concern to reinvent Imagination
as a faculty to uncover the truth of reality.
BLADE OF INSIGHT
As a writer, Emersons most outstanding quality of mind was
his power of discrimination. That quality which we can further define
as discerning judgment separating fact from opinion as opposed
to mere refined taste allowed him to insert the sharpened blade
of his insight between the layers of human experience. As such we are
dependent still upon that power and only need to learn how to read him
well. Close reading develops our own powers of discrimination, which
in turn we may apply to our own experience.
The method of nature, who could even analyze it? That rushing
stream will not stop to be observed.
The bird hastens to lay
her egg; the egg hastens to be a bird. The wholeness we admire in the
order of the world is the result of distribution. Its smoothness is
the smoothness of the pitch of the cataract.
KNOWING WHAT TO LEAVE BEHIND
Emerson tells us, We are all part of the great Diaspora, set free
from deadly tradition and the boundaries of race, religion, and even
culture to become children of the planet
or the universe. If
a myth or a tradition is able to expand to these dimensions, then it
may have a place in our journey. If not, it must be abandoned.
Emersons abandonment was the escape from false ties and the courage
to be what he was and might become. Writing was the proper expression
of his genius. In it, he continued his abandonment by insisting on being
true to his moments of inspiration, wherever they led. His refusal to
debate the issues that emerged from his writing was his affirmation
of their authenticity.
We are told that protection from the powers of darkness, from
death itself, is found only in obedience to the genius which calls.
To do anything else to explain, to justify is deadly.
We all hope, of course, that our abandonment is better than Whim at
last, but we can never be sure.
Everything is an emanation, and from every emanation is a new
emanation and that from which it emanates is an emanation also. If anything
could stand still, it would be instantly crushed and dissipated by the
torrent which it resisted, and if it were a mind, would be crazed.
For Emerson, The laws of the mind, properly seen and understood,
coincide with the ecstatic powers of natures emanations. These
are not dark and destructive forces. Our task is to find the freedom
to let go of the demands of the individual ego and become one with such
. It is not capacity that it is limited, its courage.
Once awakened to the life of the mind, the seeker wishes to maintain
a certain progress. Unlike the discovery of a fixed piece of actual
territory, the opening of the life of the mind creates a vast sense
of space that asks to be filled. The philosopher enters this newly opened
space to seek greater insight.
G: Bringing the attributes of God through the Mind into the experience of human life such an ambition was bound to bring with it failure and disappointment, and the journals reflect that tone often. But this God was not a personal being, not a limited personality. Here is Emersons position on the issue. The Mind and the Soul are part of the great law of the cosmos and are both universal in aspect and function. The Great Consciousness, or Over-Soul, pervades matter, animating it with life and infusing it with the potential for personal transformation. The human being is the best transformational organ on the planet. Limitation consists in an unwillingness to perceive or an inability to awaken sufficiently to progress. Endowment in this arena is ubiquitous but unequal.
When Emerson spoke of the need to let out all the reins,
it was in relation to becoming one with the emanations of nature.
IDEA OF RELIGION
Away with this succumbing and servility forever. I will not be
warned of the sacredness of traditions. I will live wholly from within.
I can have no sacred law but that of my nature.
It was never Emersons intent to project into Nature a new Godlike
human entity that would be the measure of all things. Messiah hunters
beware. He was interested in human self-recovery, in restoring to every
human being a measure of the strength and insight to which our natural
evolution entitles us. In his vision human beings are not essentially
flawed, but he saw clearly that the mythus of Christianity, indeed in
all religions, imposing a hierarchical order, stifles our natural powers.
We are all very sensible it is forced on us every day
of the feeling that churches are outgrown; that a technical theology
no longer suits us. It is not the ill will of people no, indeed,
but the incapacity for confining themselves there. The church is not
large enough for man; it cannot inspire the enthusiasm which is the
parent of everything good in history, which makes the romance of history.
For that enthusiasm you must have something greater than yourselves,
The snowstorm was real; the preacher merely spectral.
knows that religion is imagined and must always be re-imagined.
The problem with religion is that it intrudes a limited personality
into the highest spiritual place, which nothing but spiritual energy
or infinite possibility can fill. Emersons severe
assessment of our popular religious myth-making makes the important
point that in order for our own spiritual will to function properly,
we cannot allow to intrude upon it another individualized will.
The harmful rule of religion, which Emerson called idol worship says,
You shall not own the world; you shall not dare, and live after
the infinite Law that is in you
He did not wish to humanize religion. Emerson saw the immense powers
of consciousness residing outside the individual as something like a
stream of power into which we tap, like stepping down high-tension power
line for ordinary household use.
puzzles us to think of consciousness as a powerful, spiritual, supreme
reality somehow beyond us but here and available for our use, but that
was the stance Emerson took toward the infinite, the unknown, the abyss,
the great silence from which Emerson captured and distilled his startling
sentences. Whether it was a creative stance or a true belief is hard
to determine. Perhaps it was both.)
From his experience and from the intuitions of his creative talent
as a writer, he pursued a vision and crafted a language of the human
relation to and movement toward transcendent divinity, impersonal
and incomprehensible though it was.
The whole world is in conspiracy against itself in religious matters.
The best experience is beggarly when compared with the immense possibilities
The character of each man shall form his Imagination. The Beings
of the imagination shall become objects of unshaken faith, that his,
to his mind, Realities.
Emerson maintains a fundamental faith in the actual existence
(in some form) of deity, which human beings approach by virtue of Imagination
and truth-seeking working together.
Emerson believed that, The truth path to spiritual reality lay
in and through the structure of the human mind.
As Emerson said, questions concerning the anatomy of angels never
presented a practical problem for anyone. Some, of course, find solace
in the narrow truth, convinced that their religion is authentic and
all others are clever counterfeits. It seems to make the simple-minded
content to feel they have a small piece of the truth that billions of
others do not share at their eternal peril.
There are two objects between which the mind vibrates like a pendulum;
one, the desire for Truth; the other, the desire for Repose. He in whom
the love of Repose predominates, will accept the first creed he meets,
Arianism, Calvinism, Socinianism; he gets rest and reputation; but he
shuts the door on truth. He in whom the love of Truth predominates will
keep himself aloof from all moorings and afloat. He will abstain from
As we see in the journals after 1838, his primary interested shifted
away from theology per se and concentrated on the potential genius
of human nature. He had scanned the horizon over the chasm between the
divine and human worlds and had done his best to describe what he saw
No myths or sentimental personifications could or should
fill the intervening gulf. The task was to discover and describe the
capacities of divinity in human character.
G: Can we forgo the deadly past and make bold steps into the Transcendent and Unknown? This abyss yawns forever before the human condition, asking for courageous crossing but chilling the heart with its dark, frightening depths. And yet here Emerson takes his stand.
For the sake of this new yet unapproachable America in the new
millennium, the presence of a sincere, authentic, and archetypal God
in Concord is more crucial for our health and survival than is a God
in Jerusalem, Rome, Dallas, or Salt Lake City. I do not mean, of course,
that we should worship Emerson a man who spent his life telling
us not to follow much less worship him. I mean we should emulate his
high degree of self-trust.
E: I am of the oldest religion. Leaving aside the question which was prior, egg or bird, I believe the Mind is the creator of the world, and is ever creating that at last Matter is dead Mind; that Mind makes the senses it sees with; that the genius of man is a continuation of the power that made him and is not done making him.
Aside from Geldard's book, see Emerson: The Mind on Fire, by Robert D. Richardson Jr. First rate!
Geldard also wrote, The Esoteric Emerson, which I have on order.
I am currently reading, Understanding Emerson: 'The American Scholar' and His Struggle for Self-Reliance, by Kenneth Sacks. It's proving very interesting so far.
Let's not overlook Robert Ingersoll, another free-thinking American who wrote and spoke about belief. Freedom was what he preached; he wanted the shackles off everywhere; he wanted men to think boldly about all things.
This is Ingersoll's self-reliant stance toward religion:
When I became convinced that the Universe is natural that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave.
There was for me no master in all the wide world not even in infinite space. I was free free to think, to express my thoughts free to live to my own ideal free to live for myself and those I loved free to use all my faculties, all my senses free to spread imagination's wings free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope free to judge and determine for myself free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the inspired books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past free from popes and priests free from all the called and set apart free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies free from the fear of eternal pain free from the winged monsters of the night free from devils, ghosts and gods.
For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings no chains for my limbs no lashes for my back no fires for my flesh no master's frown or threat no following another's steps no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.