Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the titans of American Romanticism. Obsessed with freedom, he developed a conception of political democracy that motivated generations of political philosophers. Equally obsessed with the inherent value of nature, he laid the intellectual groundwork for the conservation movements that would blossom in the late 19th century with the establishment of America’s National Parks.
Emerson was always suspicious of philosophy, particularly of the professional philosopher’s habit of looking down on common sense. He was also unpersuaded by the notion of philosophical truth as something value-free, abstracted from the human domains of power, emotion, and desire. Philosophers, Emerson argued, are still human and subject to the same historical and cultural forces that shape all human thought and action.
For Emerson, the goal of philosophy was not to seek absolute truth but to promote human freedom. And his conception of freedom was a peculiarly American one: intensely individualistic, iconoclastic, and democratic. This was not the aristocratic freedom of Kant, who had argued (persuasively, to many) that freedom consisted in the capacity to obey the dictates of reason. For Emerson, reason was only one more human creative endeavor alongside the arts, literature, and the enjoyment of natural beauty. Emerson might be thought of as the first in a longstanding tradition of American anti-philosophers.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was raised in a well-to-do family in Boston, MA. His father was a Unitarian minister and prominent public figure in post-Revolution Boston, and his religious upbringing influenced the development of his transcendentalist thinking (see next section). Like the sons of other wealthy Bostonians at the time, Emerson attended Harvard, ultimately graduating with a degree from the Divinity School alongside his Bachelor’s. He worked for a few years as a pastor, but was disappointed with the church. Instead of seeking knowledge of God, he wrote, “we worship the dead forms of our forefathers.” In abandoning the ministry, Emerson lived out one of his most cherished principles –rejecting tradition whenever it conflicts with personal conscience. After leaving the ministry, he worked as a lecturer and traveling scholar, mostly in New England but also in Europe and the western states.
Tragically, Emerson’s mind deteriorated as he aged and he lived for several years with only a limited ability to speak or remember things. But his books and essays had made him a global celebrity and he continued to travel the world, meeting fellow scholars and public figures, even though he could no longer carry on much of an intellectual conversation. He died in 1882 at the age of 78.
The title of one of Emerson’s most well-known essays captures the spirit of his philosophy: self-reliance. The essay is part political manifesto, part spiritual guidebook, and part epistemological treatise. In all four dimensions, its defining characteristic is its insistence on the self as the wellspring of human goodness. Politically, it envisions a system in which human individuals are free to create the institutional conditions in which they live. Cornel West refers to this as “creative democracy” and praises the idea while simultaneously criticizing its blindness to the historical realities of politics. Spiritually, it invokes an idea of the self as a wellspring of spiritual strength and moral clarity. It also views self-knowledge as the most important form of knowledge, perhaps a necessity for clear knowledge of anything in the outside world. (This is the epistemological angle.) If we think of the mind as an instrument for observation, then of course our first task should be to understand the instrument – what sort of scientist would try to use a microscope without first understanding how it works?
Though it has inspired generations of American individualists, Self-Reliance has also been roundly criticized for being unrealistic, particularly in its politics. Human political projects are always the product of collective effort, in which individual introspection and self-seeking are subordinated for the betterment of the whole society. Emerson himself is a product of this sort of collective politics: his political freedoms came from the labor of the American revolutionaries, his literary abilities came from the labor of teachers and university administrators, and the food that fueled his pen came from the labor of farmers and grocers. Given how tightly Emerson was enmeshed in the skein of human connection, is he hypocritical for exhorting humans to pursue absolute individuality?
Of course, Emerson might agree with the claim that humans are inherently bound into communities, and still maintain that individualism is the best way of life as far as it’s possible to achieve it. More fundamentally, he might argue that collective political efforts can be a way of exploring the self – though at every stage in this process one would have to maintain clarity on which ideas belong authentically to the self, and which are inauthentic projections of the group. Not an easy thing to do!
Transcendentalism is an eclectic philosophical and spiritual movement influenced by European Romanticism (with its embrace of nature and the emotions against the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason and civilization), by American democratic culture, and by a mystical, culturally decontextualized reading of Hindu scriptures. Emerson wasn’t the founder of transcendental philosophy, but he was the person most responsible for introducing it into American philosophy.
Emerson’s transcendentalism was distinct in its extreme individualism. Other transcendentalists embraced the role of communities in fostering the Romantic spirit, and their movement was closely intertwined with the growing Unitarian church. Emerson, on the other hand, was never satisfied with this sort of collectivist transcendentalism. He believed individuals needed only to look within themselves for spiritual guidance, and that any outside influence would merely get in the way.
It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
Fierce individualist though he was, Emerson did not tell his readers to abandon human company and run off into the woods to live alone. He argued that independence – “self-reliance” – is not a physical state of being but a frame of mind. To be truly independent is not to be alone all the time, but to be among others without becoming them.
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 eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.
Emerson’s individualism was never about solipsism or self-obsession (what he here calls “mean egotism”). Although some readers take Emerson’s philosophy as an excuse to be dismissive of the needs of others, that isn’t what he advocated. The image of a “transparent eye-ball” evokes an idea of a self that knows and perceives yet is empty. Paradoxically, the pursuit of solitude (and sensory contact with nature) ultimately yields a dissolution of the ego into the universal whole.
In Pop Culture
Parks and Recreation
There’s a lot of Emerson in the work of Nick Offerman, who plays Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation. His book, Paddle Your Own Canoe hits two of Emerson’s main themes: self-reliance and an appreciation for nature. Offerman discusses this kind of thing frequently in his standup routines, and a lot of that fierce individualism comes through in his portrayal of Ron Swanson.