A reporter asked a scrubwoman who always attended Emerson’s
lectures whether she understood them. "Not a word," she replied, "but I
like to go and see him stand up there and look as though he thought
everyone was as good as he is."
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) began his career as a
Unitarian minister but became the preeminent lecturer, essayist and
philosopher of 19th century America. He was a key figure in the "New
England Renaissance," as an author and through association with the
Transcendental Club and other writers—notably Henry David Thoreau and
Margaret Fuller—who gathered at his home in Concord, Massachusetts.
The Transcendentalists opened the liberally religious to
science, Eastern religions and naturalistic mysticism. Emerson’s oration
at Harvard in 1837, "The American Scholar," challenged listeners to
stop imitating Europe and to ground their ideas in American resources,
sincerity and realism. It has been called "America's Intellectual
Declaration of Independence."
In his “Divinity School Address” in 1838, he protested a
stale, inherited Christianity, calling for fresh religious inspiration.
"Cast conformity behind you, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity."
Emerson considered his ideas consistent with Jesus’ teachings. He spoke
against slavery, urged greater freedom in worship, and championed
woman's rights, more freedom and scope in university education, and
purer methods in politics and trade.
Emerson’s fame came primarily through Chautauqua lectures
and two collections of Essays. The great teaching for which he is best
remembered is self-reliance—to listen to and heed the still, small voice
of God within and to master passion and temper. He regarded the true
self as capable of experiencing and knowing the Divine, present in all
creation—the God within, not the God of authority and tradition.
He believed we know God first and mainly through the moral
law within. "It is by following other men's opinions that we are misled
and depraved." Emerson’s optimism was the fruit of a long, hard
personal struggle. His self-reliance is the ability to affirm all
creation even while coming to terms with manifest evil.
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be
useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some
difference that you have lived and lived well.”
“Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.”
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.”
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