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The ideology of Ralph Waldo Emerson is characterized as the first departure of Secular Humanism in American history. He is most well known for being the founder of the Transcendental Movement that flourished in New England during the nineteenth century. As an essayist, lecturer, and poet he produced an immense literary portfolio that has earned him the distinction of American Iconoclast. The significance of Emerson’s thoughts, comments, and proposals reveals two inevitable truths. First, that Human Nature as it has evolved is grossly fragmented and in desperate need of mending. Second, in the course human events, that History does more than just “tend” to repeat itself. During the time of Emerson’s life and the majority of his work, there was a momentous opportunity to prove the second truth to be false. Yet, in order for a change in History’s tendency to repeat itself, a metamorphosis in Human Nature is prerequisite.
This is where the bulk of the literature of “‘St.Ralph, the Optimist’” comes into play (McMichael 807). His concentration revolved around the science of the Soul as it applies to Social philosophy. Through this perspective of a person’s role in the order of society, Emerson espoused his own interpretation of the philosophic branches Metaphysics/Epistemology, Ethics, Aesthetics, and Logic. Emerson’s amalgamation of systems is his Secular Humanism. These endeavors ultimately set up the development of a new school of thought, Spiritual Philosophy.
Emerson is a conduit for all of the preceding speculation in the course of human history. He rejects the rationalism of Crevecoeur and Jefferson, but embraces their progressive idealism and love of the natural world. After three years as a Unitarian minister, he cast aside his former convictions to pursue an even higher purpose. In doing so, he left behind the Puritanical rhetoric of “King Winthrop” and the curmudgeon Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards both of whom set up the religious foundations for our nation and Emerson’s former faith (McMichael 94; Spiller 363). He borrowed from European Romanticism and Idealism through the works of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Kant, and Carlyle (McMichael 807). These influences are easily discernible throughout Emerson’s catalogue of literature. The ideas presented by his predecessors provided a platform upon which he could express the magnanimous overture titled Nature.
Nature was published in 1836 and contains in it the fundamental basis for Emerson’s Metaphysical/Epistemological approach. The opening poem is a puzzle riddled with clues as to the proceeding pages of the book. He proclaims that Nature is “[a] subtle chain of countless rings [t]he next unto the farthest brings” (Emerson 808). This line means that everything is contiguous and interwoven, and all matter is relative only to the form or shape we perceive it to be in at this particular moment. It eludes to the notion of an infinite circular evolution in the natural world that most often goes unrecognized or questioned. To emphasize his point further, Emerson reiterates this circular evolution and elicits an image much closer to home when he says “And, striving to be man, the worm [m]ounts through all the spires of form”(808). He knocks the human race down a few rungs on the evolutionary ladder by connecting the aspiration of the worm becoming man and in the same breath commands respect for Nature’s omnipotence. The illustration appears to have imbued the Buddhist belief in reincarnation of the spirit into his theory. Yet, in a Neo-Platonic fashion Emerson employs a metaphysical conceit to portray his concept of reality. With an economy of words, the thread of unity is sewn through Nature to weave together this inherent duality. This image is only the beginning of his Metaphysical/Epistemological maze. The introductory page contains more clues useful in deciphering Emerson’s encrypted enigma.
The first paragraph is a cry for the revolution (or the evolution ) of the perspectives we apply to the world. Emerson yearns to have “an original relation to the universe….and philosophy of insight and not of tradition” (Emerson 809). Here is his rejection of rationalism and alleged practicality of the Founding Father’s revisionist historical view. This change that he seeks to find doesn’t appear to be tremendously outrageous, but it does require the suspension of any sort of myopic skepticism that desires the security of the status quo. His Romanticism initiates and indoctrinates this specific call for an omniscient set of principles to guide such an inflated request. The suggested metaphysical approach is crystallized when Emerson states that “the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul” (809). Repeated again is the connection of the substance within ourselves to the seemingly external matter of the natural world. The most important link is to understand that contemplation of these ideas must come from within and be plugged into the open channel that is Nature.
I choose to posit the propinquity of Emerson’s Metaphysics to his Epistemology due to the evolutionary correlations found so often in his literature. He shifts his focus outward to “the currents of the Universal Being [that] circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” (Emerson 811). Now remember that this connotation of God is not the traditional Christian sense or understanding because of his departure from any religious dogma. This dynamic interpretation is the thread which conjoins Nature, mankind, and a ‘Higher Power’ or God.
To gain a refined insight into this proclamation, excerpts from Emerson’s Essays:First Series illuminates his transcendent destination. In the essay “Circles” a key point is magnified. He utilizes a progressive gradation of metaphors in the opening lines to draw a parallel of circles from man to Nature and then ultimately intertwines “the nature of God as a circle whose center was everywhere and its circumference is nowhere”(Emerson 158). Again, the course repetitiously circumnavigates through Nature and a ‘Higher Power’ back to man which consequently is the genesis and exodus all of speculation. Yet, to alter the point of convergence to Emerson’s Epistemology we need only travel a few paragraphs further for the master link. If we combine the premise that “The key to every man is his thought” from “Circles” with the notion that “[i]n proportion to the energy of his thought and will, he takes up the world into himself” from Nature , we can derive “the analogy that marries Matter and Mind”(Emerson 159; Emerson 814, 821). The latent power of such a union is detailed in his monumental essay “The Over-Soul.”
There is an extraordinarily open interpretation to Emerson’s ideal expression which he labels “The Over-Soul” to which many skeptics become scoffers upon inspection. A notion such as this is the veritable safety net for humankind that essentially no individual or group can deny. Some choose to refer to this power as God, Allah, or The Universal Being like Emerson had previously done in much of his writings before the publication of this particular essay. The phenomenon that is the “Over-Soul” is the same exact type of energy that both man and Nature are composed of, yet it is the spiritual connection between the two earthly entities. In describing this omnipotent source, he says that it “is the great nature in which we rest…..that unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other” (Emerson 141). Obviously, the power he speaks of is not religious in relation to any specific anthropomorphic doctrine or dogma. It is the force that so many of the religions of the world desperately seek to personify in their ostensibly pusillanimous conversions. This is where the citadel of evidence for Emerson’s Secular Humanism is found. This “Over-Soul” is the unification “which inheres in everyone and everything and is always accessible to us whether we sense it or not” (Buell 177). In outward appearance, the “Over-Soul” is the quintessential fact that connects his ontological proposal to his Epistemology, but it is only a beginning. We have previously established that linking to Nature is where we find it, but how do we unleash the power of this unification? How do we plug in to this munificent ‘Soul-Browser’ ?
Before proceeding further, we need to return to one of Emerson’s Romantic contemporaries to observe the synthesis of this influence. S.T. Coleridge, in his Aids To Reflection stated that “Reason is the power of universal and necessary convictions, the source of truths above sense, and having their evidence in themselves” (Coleridge 536). This “Reason” had a resounding impact on the course of action Emerson proposes, but the influence is based on rejection rather than acceptance. He rejects it because the traditional meaning of Reason often related to the British Empirical application of the term. In a typical Transcendental way, Emerson “insisted on genuine reliance on ideas, as opposed to the sensationalism of the Lockean system,” thus encouraging him to find a more direct spiritual method (Yannella 11).
Having set up this foundation, let us now investigate Emerson’s impressions and formulations. “The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call spontaneity or instinct” (Emerson 33). In his quest for such means , Emerson postulates a concept that transcends Reason and is appropriated by the amount of introspection one applies to the face in the mirror. He calls for us to look no further than the innate drives which control our lives. In the very next sentence of this classic essay “Self-Reliance,” Emerson follows up by stating that “We denote this primary wisdom as intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions” (33). Intuition is the Soul’s guide to dialing up the “Over-Soul” on the Spiritual Internet. It is this connection from our instinctual wisdom to the natural world that provides the bridge from the Metaphysics to the Epistemology of Ralph Waldo Emerson. By replacing Reason with Intuition, we are able to avoid the pitfalls of conventional Philosophy that keep people trapped in their head and not in their heart. Tuition is how we ought to perceive or think about knowledge. We should use Intuition to learn how it relates to our universal understanding through the “Over-Soul.” The circular logic that permeates Emersonian Philosophy turns up again, here as we investigate his Epistemology. This process of thought is that of true perception, of true understanding, and of insurmountable faith. “In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin” is the encapsulating fact that is Emerson’s Epistemology (Emerson 34).
In “New England Reformers,” the finale of his Essay:Second Series, Emerson argues that “no society can ever be so large as one man”(332-33). This emphasis on the individual is rooted in the view we have just inspected. By agreeing with his statement, the concession is made that the responsibility for all change in society begins with the individual. By extrapolating that idea, we can also infer from a change in society that the entire world will change as well.
It appears that by consolidating a few lines and ideas extracted from his writings, that one can trace a branch of Emerson’s ideals. Yet, this is by no means a detailed portrait of the forest which is his Spiritual Philosophy. Having a comprehensive understanding of this Metaphysical/Epistemological approach is the keystone in the arch of his Spiritual Philosophy. This has been an exercise to prepare one’s eyes to see from a different light the perspective that may concluded upon their own investigation. By surveying the vast expanse of his literature and closely examining the encrypted didactic themes, it will becomes as clear as Waterford crystal how crucial his philosophy was in Nineteenth century America. An estimation of the impact of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Philosophy is surely quite impossible. This is due to the imperceptible truth that there aren’t any originators of intangible spiritual principles, only excavators and innovators. To envisage that we can hear in the now-frontier our nation’s prophet is a common by-product of suspending doubt long enough to hear the message of this Mystic.
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