Read an Excerpt
From Peter Norberg's Introduction to Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson
In the face of this new materialism, Emerson feared that America was losing its most valuable resourcethe individualas men and women increasingly defined themselves in terms of their professions and their possessions. "The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars," he lamented in "The American Scholar." "The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute-book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship". The alienation that results from conformity could be overcome only by a radical break with custom and tradition. "If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible society, vote with a great party either for the Government or against it," he wrote in "Self-Reliance," ". . . under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are. . . . But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself" . For Emerson, our ability to think and act on our own terms was ultimately the strongest corrective to conformity. "In all of my lectures," he wrote in his journal in 1840, "I have preached one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of the private man" (Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, vol. 7, p. 342; see "For Further Reading"). By keeping this a continual refrain throughout his career, he placed the individual at the center of American culture as a critical counterforce to the mentality of mass consumerism. Today, when the pressures placed on individuals to conform to the material values of American culture are perhaps stronger than ever, readers young and old will find Emerson's essays a resource for personal, intellectual, and professional renewal.
The emphasis Emerson placed on the individual was grounded in his theological beliefs. Human life, as well as nature, was a manifestation of divinity. In moments of genuine inspiration or original action, the individual did not think or act from himself but was a conduit for what Emerson variously referred to as "Supreme Mind," "Universal Being," or "the Over-soul." "We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us organs of its activity and receivers of its truth," he wrote in "Self-Reliance." "When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams". This fact is easy to overlook in an increasingly secular world, but it is essential for understanding the difference between Emersonian self-reliance and what Albert J. von Frank has termed the "predatory individualism" of the expansionist era.
Equally important is some knowledge of Emerson's personal experience of the transient nature of human life. From his childhood until the middle of his life, Emerson lived through the tragic loss of those closest to him. His father died less than two weeks before Emerson's eighth birthday; his three-year-old sister, Mary Caroline, when he was ten. His first wife, Ellen Tucker, suffered from tuberculosis, and Emerson probably knew she would die young when they married. Still, when she succumbed to the disease at the age of nineteen, before their second wedding anniversary, he was devastated.
Tuberculosis was widespread in New England. Emerson showed symptoms of it himself. It claimed the lives of two of his brothers, Edward at the age of twenty-nine and Charles at thirty-two. They were his closest confidants. Following Charles's funeral, Emerson is reported to have said, "When one has never had but little societyand all that society is taken awaywhat is there worth living for?" Finally, in 1842, when Emerson was thirty-eight and happily married to his second wife, Lydia Jackson, their eldest son, Waldo, died of scarlet fever. He was five. Emerson's optimistic affirmations of the individual take on new urgency when read in light of this litany of loss.
When he writes in Nature that our "relation to the world . . . is not to be learned by any addition or subtraction or other comparison of known quantities, but is arrived at by untaught sallies of the spirit, by a continual self-recovery, and by entire humility", the "self-recovery" he speaks of is not simply a return to one's sense of self. It is a recovery from our failures, and especially from the failure of what we thought we knew, in the face of experiences that indicate otherwise. At times in his essays, Emerson will entertain the deepest skepticism. "No picture of life can have any veracity that does not admit the odious facts", he wrote in "Fate." Among these facts is the awful truth that not just our knowledge, but our loves and friendships are partial and temporary. "Souls never touch their objects," he wrote in "Experience." "An unnavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with". And yet, in the face of these facts, Emerson still affirms the beauty and value of human life. Confronting the mixed bag of human experiencewhat he jokingly calls "the pot-luck of the day"he insists that "if we will take the good we find, asking no questions, we shall have heaping measures". These are not the words of an idealistic dreamer, as Emerson has sometimes been portrayed. They are an expression of his confidence in man's ability to meet and master his circumstances; they are a call for a pragmatic engagement of the world in which we find ourselves.