Emerson's Nature and Self-Reliance
A Biographical Sketch

Essay by
Natalie G. Britton
December 2013

Passion's fire, mental light

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.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Essays: First Series  (1841)

Emerson championed the indispensable need for humanity to embrace individualism in order to better society as a whole. His relentless hunger to learn and his unprecedented philosophy placed him in the forefront of the predominant intellectual movement in American history: Transcendentalism. As leader of this 19th Century movement, Emerson pioneered "self-reliance, of the adequacy of the individual, and of the importance of the active soul or spirit" (Richardson 3-4): concepts that continue to fashion American society.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts on May 25, 1803 to Rev. William Emerson and Ruth Haskins (Myerson). The Emersons were "descendants of a number of noteworthy New England ministers", and Ralph's father was a prominent minister of First Church, Boston (Schulman). Rev. Emerson was esteemed for preaching Unitarianism to his congregation and for his relationships and active involvement with the "Boston intellectuals of the era" (Schulman). Less than two weeks short of Ralph's eighth birthday, his father passed away from stomach cancer, leaving Ruth responsible to bring in a sufficient income (Myerson). Thereafter Mary Moody Emerson, William's unmarried sister, often visited Ruth and her six children to assist the family. Aunt Mary took a sudden interest in Ralph's education, and her lifelong influence over his studies would notably shape Ralph's individuality and ideology (Schulman).

With a family history highly valuing education and the learning process, the Emersons were well educated, though quite poor. At the age of 14, Emerson began at Harvard University, studying "the same set of required courses everyone else did", such as Greek, Latin, English, mathematics, Roman history, American Constitutional Government, physics, astronomy, chemistry, political economy, and philosophy (Richardson 7). One of his former classmates and a later president of Harvard recalled of Emerson that he "was only a fair scholar" (Richardson 6). "Emerson did not shine in the things Harvard then knew how to measure" and his studies and academic achievements were not considered exceptional; however, Emerson was cultivating a lifestyle that would prove favorable for his future breakthroughs. "His extracurricular reading was at least three times as extensive as his reading for courses, and he was already in the habit of getting up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning to tend his correspondence and write in his journals" (Richardson 6). By his junior year in college, Emerson, who now liked to go by the name of Waldo, had gained a new sense of identity and ambition, a profound interest in the imagination, and a fervent commitment to writing (Richardson 11). After his last year and a half at Harvard, Waldo's new aim in life was not to answer the question "'What can I know' but 'How should I live'" (Richardson 16).

Upon graduation from Harvard, Emerson returned to live with his mother in Boston. His older brother William had established a school for girls based out of the family's home, and Emerson began to work as a schoolteacher as well as a tutor (Richardson 29). Emerson continued his personal studies, immersing himself in books, drafting essays of his own, and furthering the writings in his journals (Richardson 29). As his twenty-first birthday approached, Emerson grew restless, wanting to pursue more than his current situation had to offer. In one of his journals he wrote: "I am beginning my professional studies ... and I deliberately dedicate my time, my talent, and my hopes to the Church" (Richardson 55). Emerson gave up teaching and began to study theology and divinity, initially through independent study focusing specifically on the Bible (Richardson 57). In February of 1824, Emerson moved back to Cambridge and registered for Harvard's School of Divinity. But not even a month into his studies, Emerson's schooling came to a halt as his eyes were failing him with the disease uveitis, likely originating from tuberculosis (Richardson 63). His life paused for the next nine months, and he underwent several operations to repair his eyes; after his recovery he successfully resumed his studies (Richardson 63).

By 1829, the Second Church in Boston voted in, and soon after ordained, Emerson as a minister of their church. Though he had actively pursued the role of a minister and fervently studied theology, his newly secured position in the church was not met with great anticipation: it "meant the end of Emerson's freedom" (Richardson 90). His primary roles, now as a minister, were "preaching, prayer, performing the sacraments, and pastoral care"; but, while he enjoyed preparing his sermons and preaching to the members of the church, Emerson was "hopeless" in regards to pastoral responsibilities (Richardson 90). His tactics in preaching were different from what his congregation was familiar with and soon became the source of many complaints:

... Emerson did not often refer to Scripture … because the Bible was no longer for him an object of study; it was an example for emulation. He was interested in his own primary, personal religious experience and that of his parishioners, not in repeating and deferring to the reported religious experiences of long-departed historical personages. (Richardson 90; italics added)

The theology Emerson taught and his sermons, which were not solely influenced by the Bible or his theological studies, were beginning to disconnect from the contemporary Christian religion of the era.

Melding all the work he had read from philosophers, poets, and literary writers and his own studies and personal convictions, by 1830 Emerson began working out a new, modern theology:

He started from the premise that "Christianity is validated in each person's life and experience or not at all" ... Emerson insisted that "every man makes his own religion, his own God." To the question "What is God?" he now replies, "the most elevated conception of character that can be formed in the mind. It is the individual's own soul carried out to perfection." (Richardson 97)

Thereafter, this new "truth" would be the new foundation for all of Emerson's messages in the church. He made an effort to "relocate and reconstitute theology starting with human nature", as he would preach, "We must do nothing without intention … To believe your own thought, that is genius. … There is in every human mind a power greater than that mind" (Richardson 99). Emerson was beginning to embrace and spread the principles of self-reliance and individualism.

During the time Emerson began to explore and develop his new theology while still a minister, his wife, Ellen Tucker, whom he married on September 30, 1829, was dying of tuberculosis (Myerson). Her body finally gave out and his beloved passed away February 8th, 1831, leaving Emerson in a dark and saddened state (Myerson). However, Ellen's death, ironically, "freed him ... [and] cut Emerson loose. Excluded from conventional happiness, he abandoned conventional life. He redoubled his efforts, albeit with a touch of panic, to live his own life and think his own thoughts" (Richardson 118). Without Ellen's influence over Emerson, his devotion to the church and its doctrines weakened, his restlessness with his position as a minister continued to grow, and his newfound theology was taking precedence.

Emerson's break from the church began with his "specific rejection of the idea that the center of Christianity is the fall of humankind in Adam and Eve and the redemption of humanity through the sacrifice of Christ" (Richardson 125). This fundamental truth in Christianity encouraged church members to participate in Communion, which is a sacrament used to remember Jesus' sacrifice for mankind. Yet Emerson thought the ceremony to be meaningless as it "reduced Communion to eating and drinking", and his perspective on the tradition led him to resign as a minister (Richardson 125). But "it is not quite true, however, to say that Emerson left the church over the issue of Communion. Emerson's disagreement with his church was simply the occasion for announcing and formalizing a separation that had already occurred". (Richardson 125)

After a spontaneous trip to Europe, where his new beliefs were further shaped and enhanced by famous European philosophers and writers, Emerson returned to the United States and moved to Concord, Massachusetts in October 1833 (Myerson). By 1835 Emerson fell in love with and married Lydia Jackson, with whom he would eventually have four children (Myerson). Relieved of his former responsibilities of the church, Emerson invested his time in intensifying his studies of the sciences and nature and solidifying his philosophy. In 1835, Emerson gladly embraced a new career as a lecturer, being "free and able at last to represent no one but himself" as he wrote in his journal: "Henceforth I design not to utter any speech, poem or book that is not entirely and peculiarly my work" (Richardson 186). Emerson's powerful lectures and ideas provoked and rallied intellectuals from all around to gather in Concord, Massachusetts.

By 1836, the assembly of intellects and their influence on society led to "the public recognition of a new movement, Transcendentalism, in which Emerson was an active participant" as well as a forerunner (Myerson). The cultural movement was powered by two occurrences within the same year: the formation of the Transcendental Club and the publication of Emerson's first book, Nature (Packer 48). The "impetus" of the club, which Emerson originally called the "Hedge Club", was, for the dissident graduates who attended the meetings, a "protest against the arid intellectual climate of Harvard and Cambridge" (Richardson 245). Over the next few years the symposium served as a forum for new ideas for the Transcendentalists (Myerson).

Nature functioned as the movement's manifesto, giving language to the philosophy and beliefs of Transcendentalism, "espous[ing] organicism in art and view[ing] Nature as the divine teacher of man" (Myerson). The majority of Nature "explores the relationship of nature to human beings, [as it] describes a series of nature's gifts, benefits, and lessons": in the chapter "Commodity", Emerson wrote of the many ways nature provides a reservoir of raw materials for human use (Richardson 230). Next, he spoke of beauty and the ways in which nature provides the only standards of beauty. He described the highest degree of beauty to be found in relations: "Nothing is quite beautiful alone: nothing but is beautiful in the whole" (Emerson 12). While "aesthetics are grounded in nature", so is language: "The real reason the writer can so successfully use nature for image and trope, noun and verb, is because nature itself is a language, an expression of the laws of forms or ideas that lie behind and beneath the visible world" (Richardson 230-31). His chapter "Discipline" emphasized the ways in which nature "educates, informs, and endows", and in doing so, he began to shift the focus of his book from the ways nature serves humanity to the question "What is Nature?" (Richardson 231).

Emerson's ingenuity in Nature can be seen in his interpretation of nature at its best: it is "'the present expositor of the divine mind,' a manifestation of divinity in the physical world. The perception of this divinity is often accomplished through an intuitive ... merging of viewer and object" (Myerson). However, Emerson argues "the reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself" (Emerson 48). Thus, Nature provokes a specific response from its readers, especially the members of the Transcendentalist Movement: to do whatever it takes to get in touch with one's self. In order to answer this call of action, Emerson encourages his readers "to go into solitude [because] a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society" (Emerson 1). In nature and solitude, man can unite with himself, and, consequentially, with the divine.

Through writings and lectures Emerson created or evoked the principles of Transcendentalism and forever marked America: "Transcendentalism was not only a literary, philosophical, and religious movement; it was also, inescapably, a social and political movement as well" (Richardson 250). The ideology of transcendentalism is complex with many layers, but its underlying themes are: "that the spark of divinity lies within man ... [and that] this belief in the Inner Light led to an emphasis on the authority of ... Self-Reliance ... [By] meditation, by communing with nature, [and] through work and art, man could transcend his senses and attain an understanding of beauty and goodness and truth" (Hampson). Emerson's influence over his enthusiast supporters created the momentum for the nation's most profound intellectual movement.

After his anonymous publication of Nature, Emerson continued to lecture and write, further spreading the seeds of Transcendentalism. One of his famous lectures was "The American Scholar", delivered at Harvard in 1837 before the Phi Beta Kappa Society (Myerson). His oration was a call for literary independence, urging the scholars to think for themselves rather than to be "the parrot of other men's thinking" (Myerson). One of Emerson's most controversial speeches was his "Divinity School Address" at Harvard in 1838, in which he formally attacked historical Christianity and proposed a "personal religious consciousness ... a declaration of the divinity of the human" (Richardson 288).

Emerson published many of his essays, with the first volume including his most famous: "Self-Reliance" (Myerson). This is not, as many suppose, "the blueprint for selfishness or withdrawal; it is not anti-community. It recommends self-reliance as a starting point — indeed the starting point — not as a goal" (Richardson 322). Emerson claims that a better society can only evolve through "a voluntary association of fulfilled individuals", and self-reliance is the means to an individual's content (Richardson 322). In addition to "The American Scholar" and "Self-Reliance", the many influential lectures, essays, and poems, justify Emerson's accolades as one of America's greatest literary figures.

From 1867 Emerson's health began failing, and from 1871 his memory as well; he continued to teach, even if he had to lecture from his chair. On April 27, 1882, at age 79, Emerson died peacefully in his sleep; yet the legacy of his luminous, self-reliant nature still shines as a beacon for us today. Not only did Ralph Waldo Emerson ignite his generation with a passion to activate their intellect, but he also offered his society and all those who follow tools by which success, according to his standards, can be achieved. On a large scale, he lived a life of purpose and fulfillment, transforming New England society in the 19th Century and the American culture thereafter. More personally, Emerson turned "out to have been a good neighbor, an activist citizen, a fond father, a loyal brother, and a man whose many friendships framed his life" (Richardson xi). His life was a sincere success and a testament for all to see the power that truly lies within the human mind.


© 2013 Natalie G. Britton

Works Cited
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. 1836. Renaissance Classics, 2012. Print.
  • —. Self-Reliance. Ralph Waldo Emerson – Texts. 3 Sept. 2009. Web: 8 Dec. 2013.
  • Hampson, Thomas. The American Renaissance & Transcendentalism. Public Broadcasting Service. n.d. Web: 8 Dec. 2013.
  • Myerson, Joel. Ralph Waldo Emerson. American National Biography Online. Feb. 2000. Web: 2 Dec. 2013.
  • Packer, Barbara. The Transcendentalists. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007. Print.
  • Richardson, Robert. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Print.
  • Schulman, Frank. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Society. 6 Dec. 2001. Web: 2 Dec. 2013.

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