from A Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson
Edited by Joel Myerson. New York: Oxford U P, 2000.
Emerson and Religion
We distinguish the announcements of the soul, its manifestations of its own nature, by the term Revelation. These are always attended by the emotion of the sublime. For this communication is an influx of the Divine mind into our mind. It is an ebb of the individual rivulet before the flowing surges of the sea of life.
This belief in the presence and power of the soul is the core of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s religious thought and the vital principle of his entire intellectual achievement. His doctrine of the soul developed in the 1820s and 1830s as he fused the Unitarian theology of self-culture with the spiritual and idealistic doctrines from several Neoplatonic, oriental, and European Romantic sources, and as his interest was kindled in the new scientific discoveries of his day. His doctrine of the soul blossomed into a passionate and visionary expression of the premises of Transcendentalism in key works of the late 1830s and early 1840s. Emerson gradually modified his religious stance during the 1840s and 1850s to accommodate the waning of his experience of ecstatic vision and to reflect his growing sense of the importance of moral action as the fundamental end of religious experience. He thus developed a more pragmatic and ethically centered theory of the religious life in which work and worship, morals and vision, became increasingly synonymous concepts.
The roots of Emerson’s religious sensibility lie deep in the soil of Puritan New England. He was the descendant of a long line of New England ministers, and son of the minister of the First Church of Boston, William Emerson. The death of his father in 1811, when Waldo was seven, left him in the care of his mother, Ruth Haskins Emerson, a deeply pious woman, and his paternal aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, a woman of powerful intellect and a profound religious sensibility who became one of his chief spiritual influences. Steeped in the older piety of Puritan New England, but an astute reader of modern philosophy and theology, Mary Moody Emerson provided her nephew with an example of a sensibility in which intellectual rigor and religious ardor were coequal aspects of the spiritual life.1 These family influences were augmented by a changing religious climate in New England during Emerson’s intellectually formative years. New England theology had evolved dramatically in the two centuries between the Puritan settlements and Emerson’s early manhood; the Calvinism of the early Puritans had been contested, modified, and in many quarters rejected entirely. Emerson’s father was among the leading ministers of the anti-Calvinist liberal party who had led most of the established churches in the Boston area to a theological stance that was characterized as ‘Arminian,” or, eventually, Unitarian. This progressive and largely optimistic faith, still struggling for its status as a legitimate and independent religious movement, was Emerson’s chief religious heritage. Rooted in older patterns of piety and belief, it was nevertheless a dynamic, evolving religious philosophy.2
The emphasis of Calvin and other Protestant theologians on the availability of saving grace to the “elect” of God inculcated a powerful, pietistic response in many, but it also left a complex set Of theological questions and psychological pressures with which later believers and theologians grappled. The place of moral action or “works” in the Christian life and in the plan of salvation was for many problematic. If salvation is entirely the work of God’s grace, what role or necessity could works play in it, if any? And if the elect are chosen by God, what place was left for the active pursuit of salvation by the individual? Finally, what assurance could the believer have of the state of his or her soul? Were there any signs, internal or external, that might provide the certainty that one had undergone a saving conversion experienced.
Such issues became extremely important to the Puritans in the late seventeenth century, when the children and grandchildren of the first immigrants began to face questions concerning their faith, their relationship with the church, and the state of their souls. Perry Miller has described this period as one of cultural crisis, in which the Puritan leadership had become “convinced that their societies were slowly degenerating” (Nature’s Nation, 51), and had responded in part by reemphasizing the concept of the “preparation for salvation,” a view of the conversion process that reserved God’s place as the final dispenser of grace but emphasized the importance of the individual’s preparing the soul, through study, self-examination, prayer, and good works, for the reception of that grace. Conversion was not necessarily an abrupt or sudden change but might be a more extended process. The nature of this process of preparation for the reception of grace thus became a central concern of New England theological thought for the next century.
The modification of the strictest form of Calvinism that the concept of “preparation” represented was also accompanied by an inclination to alter the received depiction of God and of the spiritual capacities of human nature. These Arminian tendencies became increasingly influential as an alternative to Calvinism during the eighteenth century. As Conrad Wright has pointed out, the first generation of Puritan immigrants had already moderated Calvinism to some extent through a version of “Covenant” theology that in effect bound the sovereign will of God to certain contractual obligations with his chosen people (Beginnings, 14-17). Further modifications of Calvinism continued in the 174os and I750s when opposition arose to aspects of the preaching and doctrines in the widespread revivals led by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield known as the Great Awakening. Charles Chauncy, minister of the First Church in Boston, led the opponents of the emotional preaching and excessive religious enthusiasm of the Awakening, gradually turning that critique into a reformulated liberal theology that rejected the Calvinist doctrine of innate depravity and depicted God in more compassionate terms. “By the middle 1750s,” Wright notes, “Arminians no longer pretended they were orthodox, but instead began to condemn Calvinism by name and attack its dangerous tendencies” (Beginnings, 89).
The liberals established a stronghold in Boston and by the early decades of the nineteenth century were the dominant theological party at Harvard. Controversy between the liberals and orthodox became heated in 1805 when Henry Ware was elected Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, and the controversy resulted in a split of the original congregational churches in which the Unitarians, as the liberals were now known, emerged as a new denomination.4 In “Unitarian Christianity” (1819) William Ellery Channing, the leading spokesman for the new generation of liberals, declared the separate existence of the Unitarian movement and advanced a theological program centered on the human capacity for reason and spiritual development. By the 1820s Unitarianism had a strong foundation in Boston and eastern Massachusetts, and the split of the original Puritan congregational churches was permanent.
In “Unitarian Christianity” Channing defended the human capacity to make reasoned judgments about theology, and to act as independent moral agents in meeting life’s experiences, thus rejecting the darker implications of the Calvinist doctrine of innate depravity. “Say what we may, God has given us a rational nature, and will call us to account for it,” he declared. “We may let it sleep, but we do so at our peril. Revelation is addressed to us as rational beings” (76). For Channing, this affirmation of human capacity was linked with a renewed sense of the justice and benevolence of God, a denial of the Calvinist idea of the predestined election to salvation of only a certain number of individuals. This avowal of both human capability and the justice and benevolence of God was the cornerstone of the Unitarian dissent to Calvinism, the basis from which they would build a theology that emphasized spiritual potential and ongoing self-culture as the basis of the religious life.
Channing added one further dimension to this version of Christianity, one that was decisive in his influence on Emerson. This is a harder quality to specify and explain, but Emerson termed it Channing’s “moral imagination” and referred to Channing’s 1821 Dudleian Lecture at Harvard, “The Evidences of Revealed Religion,” as a performance that exemplified this quality. It was less the specifics of Channing’s arguments in defense of Christianity than his capability to present a compelling witness to the reality of lived spiritual experience that constituted for Emerson the act of “moral imagination” that was so conclusive. Channing emphasized an “internal” evidence of Christianity as decisive, “an evidence to be felt rather than described, but not less real because founded on feeling.” Such a conviction in the reality of religious truth “springs up and continually gains strength, in those who apply it habitually to their tempers and lives” (143).
Channing thus provided the nucleus of the two vital elements of the Unitarian outlook as it had emerged in the first decades of the nineteenth century, a theology that referred inevitably to the doctrine of the “moral sense.”5 All individuals, according to this doctrine, possessed an innate capacity for moral choice, a confirmation of the indwelling of divine or godlike attributes within the soul; and although it might be weakened or overridden by the passions, it could also serve as the basis for an ongoing spiritual and moral cultivation, in which the soul would grow, in Channing’s phrase, toward an ever-increasing “Likeness to God.”
Emerson came into intellectual maturity in the 1820s, just as Channing had emerged as the Unitarians’ leading spokesman. During the 18zos, Emerson struggled with both vocational decisions and severe health problems. His brother William had chosen to enter the ministry and went to study in Germany, the center for biblical and theological studies. But after encountering the Higher Criticism of the Bible there, in which the scriptural texts were approached as historical and cultural documents and subjected to reasoned analysis, he underwent a crisis of faith and withdrew from ministerial study. Emerson, too, had felt the pull of family tradition, with his Aunt Mary’s encouragement, and his education leading him toward the ministry He struggled with the decision, however, dreading the necessary pastoral visiting and counseling involved in ministerial work because of his innate shyness, and lacking enthusiasm for the emotionless logic he associated with theological discourse. It was at this point that the example of Channing was decisive for him, providing a version of the ministry based on imaginative, highly inspirational preaching, a kind of poetry from the pulpit that fired Emerson’s vision of his own potential.
In an extraordinary moment of self-analysis, Emerson set out his doubts and hopes about his vocation in his journal in 18z4. Although he had made the decision to begin his studies for the ministry, it was clear that he lacked confidence that he had the skills to succeed. Confessing his indifference to the dry reasoning of theology, he admitted instead “a strong imagination & consequently a keen relish for the beauties of poetry,” qualities that were “the highest species of reasoning upon divine subjects.” Such thinking is “the fruit of a sort of moral imagination” such as Channing had displayed in his Duclleian Lecture (JMN, 2:238).
This inner conflict about the ministry would haunt Emerson even after he successfully began his career at the Second Church of Boston, one of the city’s oldest and most historically significant churches. Two major crises, however, attended the beginning of his career. The first was a crisis of health. In the middle 1820s, Emerson developed symptoms of tuberculosis, affecting his breathing, stamina, and vision, slowing down the pace of his studies, and, as they increased in intensity, threatening his life. He found that rest and avoiding overwork and stress were his best responses, and at perhaps his darkest hour in this crisis, he embarked on a voyage to South Carolina and Florida in 1826.6 The change of surroundings, the enforced leisure of the voyage, and the warmer climate helped him regain his strength, and he returned in 1827 to begin a round of supply preaching in various New England pulpits, and eventually to take the pulpit at the Second Church in Boston from the ailing Henry Ware, Jr., one of the best Unitarian preachers of his day. Although awkward and insecure as a pastor and adviser to his congregation, a role in which he felt uncomfortable, Emerson was an original and appealing preacher, pouring much intellectual energy and spiritual intensity into a wide-ranging series of sermons.7
During one of his engagements as a supply preacher in Concord, New Hampshire, Emerson met Ellen Tucker, whom he would marry in 1829, after he had become minister of the Second Church. Theirs was a profoundly deep and passionate bond, into which the emotionally reserved Emerson poured much ardor, and from which he received much devotion and affection. But Ellen, too, was a victim of tuberculosis, and she died in 183I. Ellen’s death shook Emerson deeply, and as Robert D. Richardson, Jr., has written, it changed him permanently, emphasizing in the most painful way the impermanent quality of happiness and achievement in the world, and thus bringing him to believe “completely, implicitly, and viscerally in the reality and primacy of the spirit” (110).
Emerson’s reaction to Ellen’s death, combined with his continuing restlessness in the role of a minister and his increasing inclination to push at the accepted boundaries of Unitarian theology, led to his resignation from his pulpit at the Second Church in 1832. Emerson requested that the church not require him to administer the Lord’s Supper, explaining that “I cannot bring myself to believe that [Jesus] looked beyond the living generation, beyond the abolition of the festival he was celebrating and the scattering of the nation, and meant to impose a memorial feast Upon the whole world” (CS, 4:187). Although his congregation was reluctant to let him resign, they could not grant his request. Emerson resigned, using this situation to help him set a new direction in his life that began with a trip to Europe in 1832–1833. Although he continued to preach for several years after his return, he had in fact launched a new vocation with his first independent public lectures in 1833–1834, lectures that contained the seed of his first book Nature (1836).
Emerson’s emergence as an original, influential thinker in the middle and late 1830s resulted from the coalescence of three strands of inquiry: his exploration of the “moral sense,” his deepening commitment to the philosophy of idealism, and his new interest in science and the study of nature. As we have seen, Emerson took the moral sense doctrine from the Unitarian tradition, a belief that he increasingly identified with both the indwelling of divinity and the power of the human imagination. Emerson’s deepened interest in philosophical idealism and what he called the “spiritual philosophy,” the second crucial concept in his intellectual emergence, amplified both the importance and the meaning of the moral sense, helping him construct a vision of a unified, organic cosmos. His idealism was grounded in a deep reverence for Plato and the Neoplatonic tradition, and his reading in the English Romantic writers Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Thomas Carlyle reinforced and extended this idealism, and led him for further confirmation to the work of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schelling, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and other German idealist philosophers.8 “Idealism sees the world in God,” he wrote in Nature, in a passage that exemplifies the mixture of poetic metaphor, philosophical speculation, and visionary energy that marked his early work. “It beholds the whole circle of persons and things, of actions and events, of country and religion, not as painfully accumulated, atom after atom, act after act, in an aged creeping Past, but as one vast picture, which God paints on the instant eternity, for the contemplation of the soul” (CW, 1:36).
The convergence of Emerson’s concept of the moral sense with his growing comprehension of idealism was supplemented by a third element, his new interest in science, one that was stimulated by his trip to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris in 1833, where he saw botanical exhibits that suggested to him both the order and the evolutionary energy of the natural world. Filled with a new ambition to become “a naturalist,” he returned to America and began to lecture on scientific topics, declaring that the greatest knowledge of natural science” is “to explain man to himself” (EL, 1:23). For Emerson, there was not a natural form “so grotesque, so savage, or so beautiful, but is an expression of something in man the observer” (EL, 1:10). The study of science was therefore not only a mode of discovery, interpretation and explanation of the external world but also, as Emerson saw it, a form of self-exploration, a means of investigation that would reinforce and extend his developing conception of the interconnections between idealism and the moral sense.9
Emerson’s Nature was his first attempt at a comprehensive and systematic expression of his emerging religious vision, taking as its subject the nature of the external world and the mind’s relationship to it. In Nature Emerson set out to explain the necessary connections among the three key strands of his thought—a belief in the human access to the moral sense, a vision of all reality as “one mind,” and a conviction that the study of nature could help reveal that comprehensive unity. He begins with a dramatic account of a revelatory or mystical experience in the natural world, in which he attains an enormously expansive vision, and also loses the sense of distinction between his own identity and that of the natural world. “Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” (CW, 1:10). Emerson’s “transparency” indicates his merger into the surrounding landscape, while his identity as an “eye-ball” suggests his continuing expansion of vision. He links this experience to a merger of his own being with God, as the divine “currents” flow through his veins.
Emerson uses this revelatory experience, a brief but intense occurrence, as a means of framing his larger inquiry about our comprehension of nature, and about its origins and purpose. He goes on to propose an ascending series of levels of understanding, “Commodity,” “Beauty,” “Language,” and “Discipline,” each step of which increasingly emphasizes the role of nature in the process of human self-understanding. In discussing nature as “discipline,” he makes it clear that nature ultimately serves as the moral manifestation of God; in understanding nature we also recognize the unity of being that underlies all moral perception. “This ethical character so penetrates the bone and marrow of nature, as to seem the end for which it was made” (CW, 1:26). Emerson’s concluding call to the revitalization of life, “Build, therefore, your own world” (CW, 1:45), was an important indication that he felt his new vision was an enabling and empowering one, capable of reinforcing the self-reliance and self-confidence of his readers, and of spurring important movements of social and political reform as the means of building the world anew.’10
While Nature found a loyal readership, especially among restless younger people who were searching for alternatives to religious and political convention, Emerson achieved greater prominence through two major public lectures at Harvard, “The American Scholar” (1837), an address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and the “Divinity School Address” (1838), a speech to graduating ministerial students at Harvard Divinity School. In “The American Scholar” Emerson described the role of the “scholar,” a term that included anyone from the poet to minister to teacher who engaged in critical study of society, nature, and the mind. He termed the scholar “Man Thinking” and defined the intellectual life in terms of growth and creativity. “To create,—to create,—is the proof of a divine presence” (CW, 1:57). By this standard, the life of the thinker was a continual quest for the new, an ever-renewing effort to reach beyond what had been achieved and known, a building on the past to go always beyond it.
This questing and experimental attitude could, however, generate intense opposition when it was applied to the subject of religion, as Emerson discovered after his “Divinity School Address.”12 “In all my lectures, I have taught one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of the private man,” he commented in his journal. “This, the people accept readily enough, & even with loud commendation, as long as I call the lecture, Art; or Politics; or Literature; or the Household; but the moment I call it Religion,—they are shocked, though it be only the application of the same truth which they receive everywhere else, to a new class of facts” (JMN, 7:342). Emerson’s address became controversial because of his lack of emphasis on the importance of the supernatural character of Jesus and the biblical miracles, and his critique of the lifeless preaching of the contemporary church. Since religion was intuitively founded on the “moral sentiment,” it could not be taken “second hand” from tradition, the church, or any other external authority (CW, 1:77, 80). The “proof” of the biblical miracles was therefore irrelevant to real religious belief.
The exaggerated reverence for “the person of Jesus” also falsified religion, Emerson argued, because Jesus should not be regarded as a supernatural being but rather as the prophet who most completely realized the divinity within every individual. Emerson thus radically democratized Jesus’ claim of divinity: “He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think’ ” (CW, 1:81).
Emerson was inviting controversy with these remarks, but he saw himself as an awakener, taking a message of encouragement for innovation to the new ministers in his audience. But his audience also included many of the Unitarian ministers in the Boston area, w ho also heard Emerson’s stinging critique of the state of contemporary preaching. “I think no man can go with his thoughts about him, into one of our churches, without feeling that what hold the public worship had on men, is gone or going” (CW, 1:88). Emerson blamed the decline on a lifeless preaching that relied on “tradition”: “it comes out of the memory, and not out of the soul; …it aims at what is usual, and not at what is necessary and eternal” (CW, 1:87). The preacher must instead be a kind of poet, “a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost” (CW, 1:90), deriving from the intensity of experience a message that would also move others. While this was a message of awakening, it was not a call to abandon the ministry or the church, or to work toward the establishment of a new religious denomination. Emerson urged his listeners “to rekindle the smouldering, nigh quenched fire on the altar” and to breathe “new life…through the forms already existing” (CW, 1:92). Even though he was finding a new vocation in his lecturing and writing, he urged those called to the ministry to bring an infusion of new energy into the church.
The reaction to the “Divinity School Address” was one of the key elements of the “Transcendentalist controversy,” one of the most significant intellectual conflicts in American religious history Andrews Norton, an influential Unitarian theologian, attacked Emerson’s “infidelity,” warning against his abandonment of the centrality of the biblical miracles and the divine nature of Jesus. Other Unitarians, though not as outraged as Norton, were uncomfortable to varying degrees with Emerson’s insistence on intuition as the basis of religious authority, his intensely poetic (and hazy, some felt) language, and his attack on the churches and their practices. Emerson gained support, however, from young intellectuals like Theodore Parker, George Ripley, Orestes Brownson, and James Freeman Clarke, who found in Emerson a convincing expression of their own restlessness with the prevalent Unitarian theology, and others like Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Christopher Pearse Cranch, and John Sullivan Dwight, who saw in Emerson a literary and aesthetic example, a man who made it seem as if a life of art and letters was indeed possible in America.13 By 1840 the Transcendentalists had decided to publish their own magazine, the Dial, which served as a medium for theology, literature, and social theory, giving this alternative movement a short-lived but influential voice in American culture. 14
In addition to his two major addresses of the late 1830s, Emerson also presented annual series of lectures on such topics as “The Philosophy of History” (1836–1837), “Human Culture” (1837–1838), “Human Life” (1838–1839), and “The Present Age” (1839–1840), extending his work as a preacher into a larger national stage. These lectures increased his public following and served as the basis for his second book, Essays (1841).15 In such early lectures as “Religion” (1837), “Holiness” (1838), and “Religion” (1840), Emerson continued to propound a theory of religion that stressed the apprehension of the moral sense and the continual effort to cultivate the innate potential of divinity within the self “The moments in life when we give ourselves up to the inspirations of this sentiment, seem to be the only real life. The mind is then all light” (EL, 2:345). He distilled this religious vision into the essays “Compensation,” “Spiritual Laws,” “The Over-Soul,” and “Circles” in Essays (1841), providing there a revitalized understanding and language for religious experience.
“Compensation,” now largely overlooked in Emerson’s canon, is his most effective exposition of the nature of the moral law, a demonstration of how every decision and act is “moral” because of its involvement in an inescapable web of cause and effect. Emerson explicates this process as a manifestation of the law of Polarity, or action and reaction,” the phenomenon by which every fact or event in nature is answered by its opposite. “An inevitable dualism bisects nature, so that each thing is a half, and suggests another thing to make it whole; as spirit, matter; man, woman; odd, even; subjective, objective; in, out; upper, under; motion, rest; yea, nay” (CW, 2:57). Emerson argues that “the same dualism underlies the nature and condition of man” (CW, 2:58), implicating itself in the inescapable consequence of every act we take. Revising the Christian theology that stressed an eventual retribution in the afterlife for acts during life, Emerson argued instead that “every act rewards itself, or, in other words, integrates itself,” moving inevitably to its sometimes unwanted or unintended completion. “Crime and punishment grow out of one stem. Punishment is a fruit that unsuspected ripens within the flower of the pleasure which concealed it” (CW, 2:60).
The universe is thus a self-regulated system, physically and morally, in which no single element or act can be isolated from its larger context. An act always carries with it the full consequences of its effect on reality, and those consequences inevitably entail what we know as “reward” and “punishment.” “Justice is not postponed. A perfect equity adjusts its balance in all parts of life” (CW, 2:60). Punishment is not a judgment from some external source such as God but a manifestation of the “balance” of reality.
This self-regulating balance arises from the deeper implication of the law of polarity, the unbreakable unity of being, in which “the universe is represented in every one of its particles.” Every part of nature is a microcosm of the entirety of nature, Emerson argues, and is thus in our practice inseparable from that entirety. “Every thing in nature contains all the powers of nature. Every thing is made of one hidden stuff” (CW, 2:59). When this law is perceived in ethical or moral terms, it means that one cannot “detach the sensual sweet, the sensual strong, the sensual bright, &c. from the moral sweet, the moral deep, the moral fair.” Self-indulgence, greed, sensuality, and all other self-centered acts are self-condemning, for they violate the soul’s law of unity. To violate this law through self-serving action is to cut oneself off from the necessary unity of things, an isolation that cannot be long sustained. “This dividing and detaching is steadily counteracted,” Emerson explains. “The parted water re-unites behind our hand” (CW, 2:61). Or, translating this concept into the law of reward and punishment, “You cannot do wrong without suffering wrong” (CW, 2:64).
The unified moral universe that we encounter in “Compensation” is extended in “Spiritual Laws” and “The Over-Soul,” both of which emphasize the necessity of recognizing the transcendent sources and ends of the natural world and of human life. In “Spiritual Laws” Emerson argues the futility of assuming that we can, through the exercise of our wills, achieve satisfactory or fulfilling ends. The better posture is one of openness and humility, based in a recognition that “there is a soul at the centre of nature, and over the will of every man, so that none of us can wrong the universe.” out of this recognition of our fundamental powerlessness, however, a new and different sense of power can emerge. “We need only obey There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word” (CW, 2:81). While these essays indicate a striking kinship between Emerson’s thinking and some of the fundamental concepts of Hinduism and other Asian religions, their roots are more in the traditions of Neoplatonism and Christian mysticism, as Arthur Versluis has shown.16 But Emerson did have a keen interest in Asian religions, originating in the 1820s and deepening throughout his life. Although initially skeptical of what he felt were the pantheistic and “superstitious” qualities of Asian religions, he found an affinity with Hinduism’s mythical representations of the indwelling of God in the individual, and the concept of the universe as the manifestation of one mind, doctrines that he had worked out on a Platonic basis, but, for which he found important confirmation in Asian scripture. Using both Western and Eastern traditions, he attempted to forge a universal religion, incorporating the truths from both. Versluis notes that Emerson shared with Thoreau a “sense of contemporaneity with all ages” and attempted in his thinking to transcend “temporal and cultural boundaries” (79).
The “soul at the centre” is the subject of “The Over-Soul,” Emerson’s extended exposition of the immanent God of the soul and nature. “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” (CW, 2:160). While this reformulation of the concept of God is a profound statement of affirmative faith, it also had its troubling qualities for many of Emerson’s readers, for it abandoned the idea of a personal deity The Over-Soul is better conceived as a source of energy, an enabling power, of which each individual is a particular manifestation. “The soul in man is not an organ, but animates and exercises all the organs; is not a function, like the power of memory, of calculation, of comparison, but uses these as hands and feet; is not a faculty, but a light; is not the intellect or the will, but the master of the intellect and the will; is the background of our being, in which they lie,-an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed” (CW, 2:161). Rather than possession or control, we must exercise a kind of vigilant watchfulness and openness to the disclosures of the soul, or its revelations, the “influx of the Divine mind into our mind” (CW, 2:166).
This stance of perpetual openness to new revelation was the focus of “Circles,” in which Emerson depicted the self as a perpetually expanding circle, whose circumference represented simultaneously the fact of attainment or accomplishment and the! need to continue it. “There is no virtue which is final; all are initial” (CW, 2:187), Emerson warned, emphasizing the danger of complacency and the always renewing need to push ahead to the next act, discovery, or goal. Emerson thus represented the spiritual life as one of process, of perpetual change and energy, in which “nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing Spirit” (CW, 2:189). in such a world, there was no secure identity except in movement and direction, and even that identity had elements of the unpredictable. “Life is a series of surprises. We do not guess today the mood, the pleasure, the power of tomorrow, when we are building up our being:’ (CW, 2:189). For Emerson, such surprises were a crucial guarantor that experience was open, and that the self could be continually renewed and refreshed. “I am only an experimenter…I unsettle all things” (CW, 2:188), he declared, emphasizing the restless condition of the soul and its necessity to resist complacency and to push forward perpetually.
This religious vision depended on both determination and energy for its enactment. While Emerson emphasized transformation and empowerment, his doctrine could leave the individual vulnerable to spiritual exhaustion and loss of purpose or direction. In “Circles” he gave the Over-Soul a new name and a new characterization, “the moral fact of the Unattainable, the flying Perfect, around which the hands of man can never meet, at once the inspirer and condemner of every success” (CW, 2:179). This paradox of achievement meant that the inspiration to further accomplishment carried with it the eventual condemnation of that accomplishment, and thus created a perpetual, insatiable longing. Emerson expressed this problem through the objection of an imagined skeptical reader who accuses him of arriving at “a fine pyrrhonism, at an equivalence and indifferency of all actions” (CW, 2:188). His philosophy undercuts the motivation to act because each act creates the conditions of its own devaluation in our desire for the new. Such a vision threatened motivation and thus moral action itself. Emerson dismissed the objection with a reaffirmation of his faith in the value of experimentation and change, but its presence in “Circles” suggests how his Transcendental optimism was, even as he articulated it, being undermined.
A second form of doubt also emerged during the early 1840s, connected with the waning of Emerson’s experience of mystical consciousness. He had based much of his faith on such intense moments of enlightenment, but he came to feel that they were unreliable and increasingly rare. Such experiences come of their own, as moments of grace, but depart just as quickly and mysteriously. They thus provide an increasingly unreliable basis faith. As he remarked in one journal entry, “We wish to exchange this flash-of-lightning faith for continuous day-light, this fever-glow for a benign climate” (JMN, 8:99). Thus he was forced in the 1840s to reexamine and test the faith he had developed, and that decade marks for him a significant intellectual turn.
Emerson’s crisis of faith was deepened by the death of his five-year-old son Waldo in 1842. Emerson’s poem “Threnody” is an elegy for Waldo, and there is also an important reference to his death in Emerson’s greatest essay, “Experience” (1842), in which he explores his changing assumptions and records his struggle against a loss of faith and optimism.17 “Where do we find ourselves?” (CW, 3:27), he begins, indicating the loss of assurance and direction that marks this new phase. “Experience” is replete with images of bewilderment, enervation, and isolation, and Emerson repeatedly depicts as fragmented and chaotic the world that he had previously shown to be an exemplum of unified purpose. “Well, souls never touch their objects,” he writes. “An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with” (CW, 3:29).
While “Experience” is ultimately an affirmative essay, the affirmation that Emerson offers is more tempered and of a different quality from the optimistic faith of his early essays. Midway though the essay he declares that happiness is “to fill the hour” (CW, 3:35), seeing in concerted action a certain release from fruitless introspection and an avenue to fulfillment that philosophy may never yield. “To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom” (CW, 3:35). While the circumstances of life are complex and unpredictable enough to prevent us from relying completely on such pragmatic remedies, “Experience” moves toward ethical purpose and pragmatic action as the most reliable reconstitution of spiritual experience. Even in the face of repeated loss and defeat, experience teaches us to maintain a courageous and tenacious patience. “Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat: up again, old heart!—it seems to say,—there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power” (CW, 3:49).
By endorsing the end of “practical power,” Emerson was placing new emphasis on the life of morally directed action, and on the larger goals of political transformation and the accomplishment of social justice. During the late 1840s and early 1850s, as his reputation and public influence grew, he elevated ethical work over mystical vision as the focus of the spiritual life and preached a religion of action, in which the devotion to a principled task became a new route to enlightenment and a new mode of worship.18 “I like not the man who is thinking how to be good,” he remarked in his journal, “but the man thinking how to accomplish his work (JMN, 15:462).
Emerson’s change in emphasis was reinforced by the climate of social experiment and political reform in the 1840s, which brought a number of his friends to regard political commitment as the fundamental measure of religion. By temperament Emerson was not inclined toward political engagement, but he came to see that in some areas, particularly slavery, it was the right and necessary step for his moment in history. He watched with sympathy and interest while friends such as George Ripley and Bronson Alcott undertook utopian communal experiments at Brook Farm and Fruitlands, and although he remained skeptical about the viability of such experiments, he shared the alienation from conventional social patterns and practices, and concurred in the hope for a social system that shared goods and power more justly, and was less competitive and materialistic.19
In later volumes The Conduct of Life (1860) and Society and Solitude (1870), Emerson criticized the materialistic and consumerist qualities of American culture and tried to redefine the American myth of success in terms of higher principle. He condemned the shallow Americanism” (W, 7:290) that focused entirely on the amassing of wealth by any means as the measure of success, and insisted that the performance of satisfying work or the accomplishment of worthwhile and helpful duties was a better measure of success. Wealth cannot be defined in purely economic terms, he explained in the essay by that title; it is better thought of as widened possibilities of living, and opportunities for deeper experience. Money can be useful in creating such opportunities, but it can also be obstructive. When it becomes an end in itself, it destroys the very possibilities of richer experience that it should have made available.
Emerson thus engaged American culture as a critic of its values and practices, calling his readers back to a principled life of plain living and high thinking (W, 7:116) and urging a renewed attention to the details of ordinary life and daily experience. His conscience was also engaged deeply by the continued existence of slavery in America, and he became an increasingly outspoken opponent of it during the 1840s and 1850s, seeing the antislavery movement as a great moral crusade. Len Gougeon has traced the stages by which Emerson became committed to antislavery, and this deepening political commitment paralleled and reinforced his new pragmatic emphasis.20 Of particular note are Emerson’s two addresses on the Fugitive Slave Law in 1851 and 1854, in which he emphasized the moral violation that slavery represented and fiercely attacked the public policy that condoned its continuation. The law, which required the cooperation of citizens and public officials in the North in the return of escaped slaves, was for Emerson “contrary to the primal sentiment of duty,” and, therefore, the resistance of all moral beings is secured to it” (AW, 58). It was for him a case in which a higher law, grounded in moral duty, must override a flawed civil enactment. “This law must be made inoperative,” he declared in 1851. “It must but whilst be abrogated and wiped out of the statute-book; it stands there, it must be disobeyed” (AW, 71).
This call to resist and disobey the law signaled the growing seriousness of the political crisis as Emerson saw it, and although he did not welcome the building tensions and the threat of disunion an war, he saw no alternative but to face it with the conviction of a religious duty, making it clear that slavery was a grave moral challenge, and identifying its eradication with the broad sweep of historical progress. “I know that when seen near, and in detail, slavery is disheartening. But Nature is not so helpless but it can rid itself at last of every wrong” (AW, 85). Emerson’s historical optimism was a crucial part of his message as an antislavery writer; for him, slavery was a fundamental violation of the natural order of the world, and could not be permanent. But its eradication, while perhaps inevitable, required the exertion of will and energy within the present generation. “Liberty is never cheap,” he remarked, admitting that “mountains of difficulty must be surmounted” in the struggle to attain it (AW, 86). But as he also added, “Liberty is aggressive. Liberty is the Crusade of all brave and conscientious men” (AW, 88). That willful aggressiveness, the historical manifestation of the moral sense through the human will, is the element of nature that ultimately can restore the rightful moral balance to the world. The “Providence” that guides the world, he says in conclusion, “will not save us but through our own co-operation” (AW, 89).
Emerson’s orientation toward moral and political action, a shift reinforced by the historical circumstances of the American political crisis, did not completely displace his continuing interest in speculative and poetic work. Although his faith in the kind of immediate mystical enlightenment represented by the “transparent eye-ball” experience waned, he increased his attention to other sources or processes of revelation, finding in the closely related categories of inspiration and symbolism important means through which the world reveals itself to us.
Emerson distilled much of his later thinking about perception and inspiration into “Poetry and Imagination” (W, 8:1-75), an essay that evolved through several versions from the 1840s until its presentation as a lecture in 1872.21 Although its specific context was literary creativity, the essay is closely related to Emerson’s continuing speculation on religious understanding, since
for him the inspiration that made poetry possible and the inspiration that we link to religious knowledge and piety were inseparable. Both poetic and religious understanding were forms of symbolic Perception, the capacity to see the connections among the separate entities of nature, and to recognize, through the perpetual expansion of such kinships, the ultimate unity of the universe. “God himself does not speak in prose” (W, 8:12), he wrote, referring to the poetic and symbolic quality of the world’s various scriptures, and to the idea he had advanced earlier in Nature, that the parts of the world themselves were symbolic, always suggesting a larger truth beyond their simple factuality. “Nature itself is a vast trope, and all particular natures are tropes” (W, 8:15), he declared, thus making perception a constant work of associating and drawing analogies. “All thinking is analogizing,” a pushing at the boundaries of the separate identities we confront to find larger categories of association. Emerson names the imagination as the “reader of these forms,” the intellectual faculty driving this “endless passing of one element into new forms, the incessant metamorphosis” (W, 8:15).
Emerson’s depiction of the power of imagination and metaphor in the perception of the ultimate nature of reality is part of a growing interest in the nature of perception that marks his later thought, a focus of one of his most ambitious projects, The Natural History of Intellect. Although he was never able to complete the project as fully as he had originally conceived it, he offered a provisional version in a series of lectures at Harvard in 1870.22 Impressed with the progress that scientists had made in their understanding of the history and processes of the natural world, Emerson believed that the same kind of intellectual model could be developed to explain the nature and processes of the mind. Moreover, he felt that progress in natural science would necessarily result in an increased understanding of the realm of the mental.
Emerson’s commitment to the work of modern science was less a divergence from the idealism that he had espoused in Nature and other early works than a way of confirming it. “I believe in the existence of the material world as the expression of the spiritual or the real,” he declared, adding that “I await the insight which our advancing knowledge of material laws shall furnish” (W, 12:5). He regarded scientific progress as the advancing ability to explain the universe in terms of the functioning of laws, thus reducing the seemingly disparate particulars of phenomena to the expression of a unified force or system. “There is in Nature a parallel unity which corresponds to the unity in the mind and makes it available. This methodizing mind meets no resistance in its attempts (W, 12:19-20).
Imagination, whether expressed in poetic metaphor or the refinement of an explanatory natural law, was the conjunction of the mind’s innate push toward the perception of unity with the corresponding revelation of unity in the physical universe. The perpetual tendency of the imagination was thus to reduce multiplicity to unity, to perceive order through chaos. Unwavering in his belief in the integral unity of the world, Emerson continued to seek and find confirmations of this fundamental belief in psychology, mythology, the natural sciences, and almost every other human expression or endeavor. It was his deepest and longest held belief, the foundation of both his religious and his ethical vision.
Even though Emerson’s belief in a fundamentally unified cosmos, ordered by law and permeated with spiritual energy, could yield much of religious significance and value, it left open one of the questions that pressed men and women the hardest in the nineteenth century, the immortality of the soul. Emerson’s “Over-Soul,” the Transcendentalist answer to the Christian concept of the deity, was explicitly impersonal, an energy or law of being that could not be reduced to human definition or analogy. While he was willing to say that “I am a better believer, and all serious souls are better believers in the immortality, than we can give grounds for” (W, 8:346), he was careful to distinguish between such a faith and the more commonly accepted notion of the continuing existence of the separate, individual consciousness. He lectured often on the subject, recognizing that the undermining of traditional Christian beliefs that resulted from modern science left many in a kind of anguished doubt. But as his late compilation “Immortality” (W, 8:321-52) suggests, he also recognized that he could offer only a limited form of assurance in calling his audience to a larger view of what immortality might mean when separated from the fate of particular individuals. Confessing that “there is a drawback to the value of all statements of the doctrine,” he registered a reluctance in “writing or printing on the immortality of the soul.” Readers come with a desire for confirmation and reassurance about their personal fate, something that he cannot provide: “the hungry eyes that run through it will close disappointed; the listeners say, That is not here which we desire” (W, 8:345).
Emerson believed that the conventional religious hope for personal immortality was a distortion of both individual identity and the nature of existence itself. His strategy therefore was to bring his readers to consider the issue from a higher perspective, one that did not so immediately involve their self-interest. Without a surrender of self-interest, one cannot understand the sense in which immortality may be affirmed. “I confess that everything connected with our personality fails. Nature never spares the individual” (W, 8:342-43). Instead, we must come to see immortality as a larger condition or quality of reality in which we have a part, or to which we contribute. Our concern must be shifted away from ourselves and directed toward something larger than us, “The soul stipulates for no private good. That which is private I see not to be good.” It is not what we believe or experience that is the basis of immortality, but what we help to create, or enact. “We have our indemnity only in the moral and intellectual reality to which we aspire. That is immortal, and we only through that” (W, 8:343).
There is a form of assurance or comfort in this view of immortality, but to obtain it we must surrender our demand for an eternally enduring separate consciousness, a demand that Emerson depicts as fundamentally shallow. “Here are people who cannot dispose of a day; an hour hangs heavy on their hands; and will you offer them rolling ages without end?” (W, 8:348). For Emerson, it is only when “the last garment of egotism falls” that the individual is “with God,” a state in which he or she “shares the will and immensity of the First Cause” (W, 8:348-49). Religious growth is in this sense an increasing capacity to displace private needs and desires with more selfless and universal ones. Immortality, then, “is not length of life, but depth of life. It is not duration, but a taking of the soul out of time, as all high action of the mind does: when we are living in the sentiments we ask no questions about time” (W, 8:347). That intensity of experience, involving as it does a commitment to a continuing energetic creativity, constitutes the religious life for Emerson. His religious vision offers one of the most challenging and original modern approaches to the question of religious faith.
1. For information on these early family influences, see Evelyn Barish, Emerson: The Roots of Prophecy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989) pp. 3–71; The Selected Letters of Mary Moody Emerson, ed. Nancy Craig Simmons (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993); Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), pp. 3–59; and Phyllis Cole, Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
2. On the origins and development of New England Unitarianism, see Conrad Wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America (1955; rpt., Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1976). For the influence of Unitarian ideas and culture on Emerson, see Lawrence Buell, Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1973); and David M. Robinson, Apostle of Culture: Emerson as Preacher and Lecturer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982).
3. On the doctrine of the preparation of the soul, see Perry Miller, “‘Preparation for Salvation’ in Seventeenth-Century New England,” in his Nature’s Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967); and Norman Pettit, The Heart Prepared: Grace and Conversion in Puritan Spiritual Life (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966).
4. On the denominational emergence of Unitarianism, see Daniel Walker Howe, The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805–1861 (1970; rpt., Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988); Conrad Wright, ed., A Stream of Light: A Sesquicentennial History of American Unitarianism (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1975); David M. Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press 1985), pp. 25–46; and Conrad E. Wright, ed., American Unitarianism, 1805–1865 (Boston: Northeastern University Press in cooperation with the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1989).
5. For discussions of the concept of “moral sense” in Emerson, see Stephen E. Whicher, Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), pp. 6–16; Jonathan Bishop, Emerson on the Soul (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), pp. 66–72; and Robinson, Apostle of Culture, pp. 50–55.
6. On Emerson’s crisis of health, see Barish, Emerson: The Roots of Prophecy, pp. 145–210.
7. On Emerson’s preaching career, see Robinson, Apostle of Culture; and “Historical Introduction” (CS, 1:1–32); Wesley T. Mott, “The Strains of Eloquence”: Emerson and His Sermons (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989); and Susan Roberson, Emerson in His Sermons (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995).
8. There is a vast literature on Emerson’s intellectual sources. The best single source for understanding how his wide reading shaped his thinking is Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Other important sources include Kenneth Walter Cameron, Emerson the Essayist, 2 vols. (Raleigh, N.C.: Thistle Press, 1945); Sherman Paul, Emerson’s Angle of Vision: Man and Nature in American Experience (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952); Henry Pochmann, German Culture in America (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957); David Van Leer, Emerson’s Epistemology: The Argument of the Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); and Leon Chai, The Romantic Foundations of the American Renaissance (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1987). For informative discussions of Emerson’s early religious development, see, in addition to Whicher and Paul, Sheldon W. Liebman, “Emerson’s Transformation in the 1820’s,” American Literature 40 (May 1968): 133–54; and Robert Milder, “Emerson’s Two Conversions,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 33 (1st Quarter 1987): 20–34.
9. For Emerson’s views of science, see Harry Hayden Clark, “Emerson and Science,” Philological Quarterly 10 (July 1931): 225–60; Robinson, Apostle of Culture, pp. 71–94; Robinson, “Fields of Investigation: Emerson and Natural History,” in American Literature and Science, ed. Robert Scholnick, (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992), pp. 94–109; and Lee Rust Brown, The Emerson Museum (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).
10. On Nature see B. L. Packer, Emerson’s Fall: A New Interpretation of the Major Essays (New York: Continuum, 1992); Robinson, Apostle of Culture, pp. 85–94; Van Leer, Emerson’s Epistemology, pp. 19–58; and Alan D. Hodder, Emerson’s Rhetoric of Revelation (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989).
11. On Emerson’s development and use of the concept of the scholar, see Merton M. Sealts, Jr., Emerson on the Scholar (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992). For a discussion of the push of the intellect for ever newer creation, see Richard Poirier, The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections (New York: Random House, 1987); and Poirier, Poetry and Pragmatism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).
12. On the “Divinity School Address” and the ensuing controversy it provoked, see Perry Miller, The Transcendentalists: An Anthology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950); C. Conrad Wright, “Emerson, Barzillai Frost, and the Divinity School Address,” in his The Liberal Christians: Essays on American Unitarian History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970), pp. 41–61, 128–31; Packer, Emerson’s Fall, pp. 121–37; Robinson, Apostle of Culture, pp. 123–37; and Robinson, “Poetry, Personality, and the Divinity School Address,” Harvard Theological Review 82 (1989): 185–99.
13. For an informative history of the Transcendentalist movement, see Barbara Packer, “The Transcendentalists,” in The Cambridge History of American Literature, vol. 2, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 329–604.
14. On the history of the Dial, see Joel Myerson, The New England Transcendentalists and the Dial: A History of the Magazine and Its Contributors (Rutherford, NJ.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980).
15. The volume was given the title Essays: First Series after Emerson published a second collection of essays in 1844 as Essays: Second Series.
16. See Arthur Versluis, American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 54–61.
17. On the significance of “Experience,” see Whicher, Freedom and Fate, pp. 109–22; Packer, Emerson’s Fall, pp. 148–211; Van Leer, Emerson’s Epistemology, pp. 143–87; and David M. Robinson, Emerson and the Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work (New York: Cambridge University Press, i993), pp. 54–70.
18. For a detailed discussion of Emerson’s move toward a more pragmatic, ethically oriented outlook, see Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), pp. 9–41; Robinson, Emerson and the Conduct of Life; James M. Albrecht, “‘Living Property’: Emerson’s Ethics,” ESQ: A journal of the American Renaissance 41 (1995): 177–217; and Michael Lopez, Emerson and Power, Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996).
19. For an informative consideration of the utopian experiments influenced by Transcendentalist thought, see Richard Francis, Transcendental Utopias: Individual and Community at Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and Walden (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1997).
20. On Emerson’s commitment to the antislavery cause, see Len Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero: Emerson, Antislavery, and Reform (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989); AW, and Eduardo Cadava, Emerson and the Climates of History (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997). For a discussion of Emerson’s influence on the antislavery movement, see Albert J. von Frank, The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson’s Boston (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998).
21. On the significance of this later work as a key statement of Emerson’s poetic theory, see Ronald A. Bosco, “‘Poetry for the World of Readers’ and ‘Poetry for Bards Proper’: Theory and Textual Integrity in Emerson’s Parnassus,” in Studies in the American Renaissance 1989, ed. Joel Myerson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989), pp. 257–312.
22. See Ronald A. Bosco, “His Lectures Were Poetry, His Teaching the Music of the Spheres: Annie Adams Fields and Francis Greenwood Peabody on Emerson’s ‘Natural History of the Intellect’ University Lectures at Harvard in 1870,” Harvard Library Bulletin, n.s., 8 (Summer 1997):1–79.
From A Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson ed. Joel Myerson New York: Oxford UP, 2000