Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Practical Mystic
Ralph Waldo Emerson
by Eileen Holland
The last lesson in life is a voluntary obedience, a necessitated freedom. When a person’s illuminated, when his heart is kind,
he throws himself joyfully into the sublime order and does with knowledge, what the stones do by structure."
R.W. Emerson – “Worship”
Mr. Emerson, often called the first philosopher of the American spirit could be considered a radical – a mild, frail, friendly, civil, respected citizen of Concord, Massachusetts – but a radical, nevertheless. The inspiration of his spiritual philosophy, the depth of his intellectual thought and the mystical union he found with nature all found expression in the things of common life and the conduct of society. He was not blind to the ‘fool-part” of mankind and the evils of the world and he found the “religions of men” not up to the task of changing things. The core of his beliefs were that individualism is to be accompanied by personal responsibility to universal, spiritual laws and that equal laws established by civil government should also contain provision for dignified social good for all citizens.
In the ongoing research into the lives of mystic and/or geniuses as encouraged by Gopi Krishna, the similarity of the characteristics and experiences that suggest an awakened Kundalini in these subjects is astonishing. As Gopi Krishna wrote in The Biological Basis of Religion and Genius, “There are unmistakable external signs also by which this change can be detected and even measured. When transformed, the initiate must become a genius or a virtuoso of a high order, with extraordinary power of expression both in verse and prose or extraordinary artistic talents. Some of the ancient prophets and seers are the historical examples of this metamorphosis. Precognition, powers of healing, psychic talents and other miraculous gifts may develop simultaneously along with genius. A modern intellectual with a healthy constitution and noble attributes of character can bloom into a spiritual prodigy, a man of such extraordinary gifts and talents that he can shine as an idol before the admiring eyes of the multitudes, with a power of fascination and appeal possessed only by the most magnetic of men. In this way the metamorphosis effected can bear striking testimony to the efficacy of processes generated by Kundalini.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson is no exception to this phenomenon.
Early precocity, a surge of creative output at the age of 30 and into the mid-30s, enhanced concentration and a non-diminished capacity for work in later life are chronological factors that appear consistently in the lives of these remarkable people. Born in 1803, Emerson’s biographers tell us that at age 3 he could read, at age 10 he read Plato and entered Boston Latin High School, at age 14 he entered Harvard University and age 18 he took his degree. He taught his first class at age 14 and learned the Greek language in order to study the classics in the original. Emerson was known in infancy for his surprising memory. Never “one of the boys” even as a child, he was different, detached but without arrogance or unkindness. At age 8, VanWyck Brooks describes this unusual child, “He was always listening…an obscure little boy, chubby, awkward, affectionate as a puppy, with a sluggish mind, a mind heavy and overcast like a summer sky charged with electricity. At a word, a gesture, at the trembling of a petal, the flutter of a bird’s wing…a flash of lightning traversed him. His eyes blazed, than all was cloudy once more. A shrinking, retreating little creature, but full of wonder, he was all suggestibility. Everything he saw and heard seemed to unite in a harmony that amused and elated him.”
Evidence of the creative surge in his 30s is documented by almost all of Emerson’s biographers. At 33 he wrote Nature , considered to be his most exceptional work, containing, in the words of O.W. Firkins, the “fervor of bodily youth mixed with the elation of spiritual discovery”. George Edward Woodbury comments that “1836 through 1865 was the active portion of his life and included the maturity of his genius”. Woodbury goes on the say that Emerson compiled a series of essays, the first published in 1841, the second in 1844. There were 21 essays in all. He had written 100 journals by 1839, most of these containing the material for his writings. Robert D. Richardson, Jr. also mentions that Emerson came to maturity as a poet in 1834(age 31) and several of his best, most characteristic poems were written at this time. Both Richardson and Richard G. Geldard mention the extraordinary clarity, intellectual energy, depth and range of the work. Geldard marvels at Emerson’s output “as much for it vision and revelation as it volume”. Richardson tells us “from 1837, Emerson was reading, thinking, writing and talking at white heat. He…was euphoric, full of energy…his journals exuberant, brilliant, expansive. He sustained the creative outburst for several months while dealing with a growing family, financial difficulties, arrangements and correspondences.”
Emerson’s capacity for work emerged in his 30s and continued into his late life work. Much like Victor Hugo, he was subject to great bursts of creative energy followed by periods of lethargy. Emerson formed the “Saturday Club”, members including Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Lowell, Henry James and Hawthorne, where literature, natural history and philosophy were discussed. New books, lectures, projects, correspondence, journals were produced with seemingly unlimited energy. Yet, as Brooks almost poetically describes it, “Mysterious, ungovernable, these periods – moments of the soul. There were fortunate hours when things sailed dim and great through his head, hours when the right words came spontaneously like the wreath of morning wind, when he could not sit in is chair for the joy that brought him bolt upright and sent him striding about the room, when he had not the composure to set down the thoughts that thrilled him. He was like the maple tree in spring when the sugar flows so fast that one cannot get tubs enough to contain it. And then came hours of pain, sterility, ennui where he could not work.” We have referred to this phenomenon in previous papers on Jefferson, Whitman, Hugo and Mahadevi. This suggests that the Kundalini energy is awesome in its powerful expression and can create physical difficulties if not properly understood and contained. Gopi Krishna wrote repeatedly on this very subject.
Emerson was lecturing to a country in its pioneering age and the excitement of it all dispelled much of his apathy. His lecturing continued into old age hardly stopped by the decline of his faculties. In 1865 at the age of 62 he gave 77 lectures, in 1867, 80 lectures and he traveled widely making 2 western trips through 14 of the United States. In 1872, he sailed for England, traveled through Europe and Egypt including a 30 day trip up the Nile. A passenger on the ship returning from Europe wrote, “Emerson was the greatest talker in the ship’s company. He talked with all men and yet was fresh and zealous for talk at night.” On one trip to California, Emerson astonished his young companions by “being so cheerful and agreeable all the time without getting tired.” Richard Garnett noted, “the discourses of his later years…indicate a period of diminished mental activity but not of decay. He did not mechanically repeat himself but brought himself closer to his audiences with his self-possession and serenity, his message as always, the universality of spiritual laws and man’s duty to yield egotism to the Universal Soul.”
Often in the case of these highly creative, ground-breaking individuals there is a genetic history of intellectual stability along with periodic mental aberrations or eccentric behaviour patterns. All of Emerson’s male ancestors were collegians, scholars and philosophers with strong moral determination. Phillips Russell describes this ancestry as “eight generations of ministers or other bookish men, introspective and dreaming of another and better world and all married to devout women. His great-grandfather Joseph prayed nightly that his children would not grow rich. His grandfather William was a poet in his quiet hours, a minister who encouraged the American Revolution and served as Chaplain in the army, dying of fever at Ticonderoga. His father William was a minister, deeply religious, with great faith in God’s providence. He died at an early age leaving Emerson’s mother to raise her young family.”
There is some confusion as to the number of siblings in the Emerson family (some say seven, some six, some five). It appears that Emerson had six brothers and one sister, two of the brothers and the sister dying in childhood. Of his four remaining brothers, Bulkley was mentally deficient all of his life, Edward, a brilliant, ambitious boy who studied Law with Daniel Webster, broke down mentally and physically and died at age 29. Charles, also bright and ambitious suffered dark and brooding melancholia and died of tuberculosis at 26. William, the oldest, lived to 87. He was considered the most gifted but it was felt by some that his becoming a lawyer was a failure of sorts, i.e. he took refuge in the standing order of things and did not reach his full potential.
Emerson was heavily influenced by women. His mother Ruth has been described as graceful, patient and devoted. She was very spiritual, a practicing Christian not locked into dogma. She spent her mornings in prayer and contemplation, was well-read and taught her children love of nature and respect for life. His mother’s friend Sarah Ripley was Emerson’s life-long friend and mentor. She knew Latin, Greek, French, Italian and German. She knew literature, language and math and supervised Emerson’s education. But he was the spiritual child of Mary Moody Emerson, his father’s sister whom he described as “aunt of genius”. She was an eccentric, fiery spinster who wrote constantly of her “mystical dreams and submission to the eternal”. She has been described as a woman infused with religious, intellectual and poetic instinct, a woman of incomparable originality, free and open thinking and spiritual depth. She was also frustrated by the conditions of her feminine state. She dared her nephew to be great.
Of Emerson’s own mental health, his early years were marked by eccentricities. He was given to physical weakness, avoiding his studies and adopted a certain “silliness” (as he called it) as a defense against the demands made on him and his brothers. He suffered periodically from depression, bouts of apathy and even indifference to life. He was highly sensitive, overwhelmed by powerful types and forced to live in the country as the streets of the cities made him desolate. In his late teens and early twenties he was so conflicted by his thoughts on God, life, evil and studying for the ministry, he collapsed and was sent to his uncle’s farm to recover.
Although unassuming in appearance and subject to these physical weaknesses, Emerson displayed the personal magnetism and charisma that marks the exceptional human being that both Gopi Krishna and Dr. Maurice Bucke have noted in their studies of the subject. Emerson’s voice, facial features, eyes, his demeanor have all been described in powerful terms by his early biographers and contemporaries. Alcott and Lowell described his voice as “entirely liberated…with a drift we cannot and would not resist”. Brooks found that “Life, at the sound of his voice, sprang out of apathy and faith out of belief…when he spoke there was a flash in his expression that vaguely suggested some strange inner power”. Charles Woodbury wrote about his “shrewd, wise face…which was not like any other…his eyes, whatever they looked at, they looked into…his look was illuminated. No one after meeting him was ever the same again”.
Hawthorne, who passed him frequently on walks around Concord, spoke of the “pure intellectual gleam diffusing about his presence like a garment of a shining one”. George Santayana, in a critical essay, summed up Emerson’s natural force and magnetic quality in these ultimate terms, “People…flocked to him and listened to his word, not for the sake of its absolute meaning as for the atmosphere of candor, purity and serenity that hung about it, as about a sort of sacred music. They felt themselves in the presence of a rare and beautiful spirit who was in communion with a higher world”.
In all the research on mystics and geniuses, the presence of heightened sexuality or erotic expression are undeniable characteristics. Gopi Krishna wrote at great length to explain the connection between an awakened Kundalini and sexual energy. In Kundalini in Time and Space he writes, “Love between the sexes and the rapture of the union between them are the greatest gifts of Heaven to man…the love that makes a beloved the dearest object in the world, when directed upward to rejuvenate the brain, creates that intense longing for Divine encounter, which has been a prominent feature of mystical life. It is this upward flow of and ambrosial essence into the brain that has been the source of all the eloquence, personal magnetism, psychic faculties or the healing touch displayed by great Illuminati of the past and present.”
Emerson’s sexuality appears to have been healthy and connected to his sense that life itself was an ecstasy. There are several references that in his youth he “fell in love” with a young man at Harvard but the references were brief and no one has claimed it was homosexual in nature. His passion for his first wife, Ellen Tucker, was deep and his devastation at her untimely death was intense. His second marriage produced four children (two boys, two girls) and his relationship with Lidian was one of deep respect and affection. But there was a sense of balance which tempered his life, a self-awareness perhaps influence by his early lack of strength and energy or perhaps the New England sense of propriety inherent in him. An interesting example of his need to avoid dogmatic “rules” along his spiritual journey was his need for moderation. His so-called “low animal spirits” which one biographer referred to, precluded a robust, extravagant life. Emerson found that the slightest irregularity, were it only the drinking of too much water on the preceding day, disturbed the delicate poise that composition demanded, whereas in the case of another enlightened genius, Victor Hugo, copious amounts of wine, women , food and little sleep seemed to have little impact.
Emerson loved Walt Whitman and despite a slight embarrassment at the openly lusty nature of his poetry, recognized the enlightened genius of the man. Emerson’s own essay, Love, dispels any doubt about his own sexuality and is filled with erotic images. He calls love and attraction:
a divine rage and enthusiasm, the hey-day of the blood,
a throbbing experience. It seizes on man at one period
and works a revolution in his mind and body, unites
him to his race…carries him with new sympathy into
nature, enhances the power of the senses, opens the
imagination, adds to his character heroic and sacred
attributes, establishes marriage and gives permanence
to human society.
He describes it further, his words soaring:
The passion rebuilds the world for youth. It makes
all things alive and significant. Nature grows
conscious. Every bird on the boughs of the tree
sings now to his heart and soul…the clouds have
faces…the trees of the forest, the waving grass,
the peeping flowers have intelligence…Behold,
there in the wood the fine madman! He is a
palace of sweet sounds and sights, he dilates;
he is twice a man…he walks with arms akimbo;
he soliloquizes; he accosts the grass and trees;
he feels the blood of the violet, the clover and
the lily in his veins; and he talks with the
brook…the heats that have opened his perceptions
of natural beauty have made him love music and
verse;…The like force has the passion over all
his nature…it makes the clown gentle and gives
the coward heart. In giving himself to another it
still more gives him to himself. He is a new man.
He is somewhat…He is a person. He is a soul!
In his work The Real Nature of Mystical Experience Gopi Krishna writes, “in the highest states of mystical ecstasy every object springs to life and the whole of Nature becomes alive. One incredible living, feeling Ocean of Being connects the mystic with every object in the Universe.” He goes on to say that it “it is not an altered state of consciousness…has nothing to do with sorcery, magic, miraculous happenings, weird adventures in the realm of the paranormal, bizarre visionary fantasies of any kind. In the genuine illuminative state, there is no clouding of the intellect, no riot of colors, no encounters with strange creatures, no weird or bizarre scenes, but only an indescribable state of glory, happiness and love, coupled with the direct experience of an All-pervading Extended Consciousness or an Almighty Omnipresent Cosmic Being.”
These mystical and inspirational experiences are often accompanied by an ethereal sound or brilliant light. Often they are accompanied by visions, psychic insights and the gift of prophecy. There are abundant examples in Emerson’s writings and life experiences which puts him firmly in the company of these great teachers who were blessed with an expanded consciousness.
George Edward Woodbury in his 1968 biography quotes Lowell as he describes Emerson’s lectures, “…every word seemed to have just dropped from the clouds. He looked far away over the heads of his hearers, with a vague kind of expectation, as into some private heaven of invention and the winged period came at last, obedient to his spell.”
In 1832, while in Europe, Emerson visited the Jardin de Plants where he had an intense mystical experience. Brooks describes it – “He felt the centipede on him, the cayman, the eagle, the fox. He was moved by mysterious sympathies. He was one with all these creatures. Nature was a living whole.” Emerson himself called these experiences an “influx of deity into the soul” saying that they were memorable landmarks of the soul and “during them the soul is conscious of an unusual and immense fullness of life; all that is temporal, carnal and accidental is burned away in the flame of the experience and the soul is touched with a certain mania, a ravishment.” He felt ecstasy was normal to all men but called the experiences of inner light private experiences.
Over and over in his essays, lectures and journals, Emerson says we can know through intuition and moment-to-moment awareness, not just reflection. In The American Scholar – 1837, he wrote:
It is one central fire, which flaming now
out of the abyss of Etna…and now out of
the throat of Vesuvius…It is one light which
beams out of a thousand stars. It is one
soul that animates all men.
In Nature, he continues:
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 eyeball. I am
nothing. I see all; the currents of the
Universal Being circulate through me. I
am part and parcel of God.
He wrote in his journals of dreams and visions where he walked with a pandit called “Osman” – here he experienced expanded states of consciousness and wrote much of his prose and poetry. There is, of course, controversy and conflicting opinions of Emerson’s genius and mystical experiences. William James, the philosopher says, “Emerson’s vision is the head-spring of all his outpouring, no previous artist expressed truth in such penetratingly, persuasive tones; posterity will reckon him a prophet. His life was one long conversation with the invisible divine.” Henry Parker, on the other hand, called Emerson an heretical pseudo-mystic because of his belief that the soul of man is not merely like God but is the same substance as God. Parker doesn’t believe Emerson to be a true mystic, he just had “mystical feelings”.
Protap Mozoombar in his Lectures at the Concord School of Philosophy sees Emerson to be in the second stage of spiritual development, i.e. insight – “All at once, in this stage of Vedic theology, the solid universe vanishes as an illusion and religion soars sublime…who but Emerson, in the West, represents this illumined, spiritual introspection? Nature…unsealed his insight into that grander heaven and earth within himself.”
Emerson prophesied what he called the “American Adam”. In a speech in New York City before he even knew of Walt Whitman, he said, “the next great poet will be Yankee born…He is in the forest walks, in paths completed with leaves of chestnut, oak and pine…He visits without fear the factory, the railroad and the wharf.” When Emerson received Leaves of Grass years later he was astounded and one of the very few men of letters enthusiastic about Whitman’s ecstatic poetry.
In his lecture The Peace Principle , Emerson predicted a new era of international law and cooperation and a Congress of Nations as a forum for settling disputes. In his essay on Worship, much like Gopi Krishna has suggested, Emerson called for a religion that will have the same reality test as science.
Phillips Russell recounts that while in his 20s, Emerson wrote long notes in his journal on abstract subjects such as history, genius, justice and society. One of his entries on invention indicates that he foresaw the phonograph and radio and he predicted an engine “which the scholar might put in a pin and hear poetry, two pins and hear a song.”
In Emerson,The Mind on Fire Richardson comments, “Emerson’s connectedness was one of the central insights of his life. Not only did it never leave him it never lost its sweet urgency, its sensuous hold on him, his ability to lift the common moment of every day life on the updrafts of awareness, that is…mystical experience.”
The first should be the first to serve
Teachers who act on what they teach
Judges who first the law observe
And preachers true to what they preach.
The Wise should be the first to gain
More knowledge of the “Other Coast”
And Great who ease distress and pain
And add to human welfare most.
These observations by Gopi Krishna in The Way to Self-knowledge of what true enlightenment in a human being is, could be an apt description of the moral code that directed Emerson’s life; the characteristics of humanity, idealism and compassion that ruled his every action. Edwin Mead, in his lectures on Emerson at the Concord School of Philosophy in the late 1800s, says, “Emerson saw morality as Karmic Law…he believed that we exist to an absolutely defined end and that morality was a law of the Universe.” Emerson himself saw the Universe as alive and all things moral. “The soul,” he wrote, “which within us is a sentiment, outside of us is law…The constitution of the Universe is on the side of the man who wills to do right. It is of no use to vote down gravitation or morals.”
Also in the Concord lectures, Mozoombar commented, “It is good for me to hear of his broad, warm, many-sided humanity. Did he not welcome work, spirituality, aspiration, obscure excellence from every quarter of the globe into his house? Did he not identify himself with every good movement however unpopular, which had for its object the amelioration of his race?’
Charles Woodbury, writing in 1890 said, “he (Emerson) believed that the intellect and the moral sentiment should not be separated. Crass instincts he could forgive and he had an almost divine patience with weakness and even indolence, but none with dishonesty.”
In his book Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Stephen Whicher points out, “Emerson believed in the dignity of human life…Man possesses, Emerson felt, an unlimited capacity for spiritual growth and is surrounded by influences that perpetually call on him for the best he had – of insight and greatness and virtue and love…” Being the “practical mystic” that he was, Emerson had the habit, writes Phillips Russell, “of approaching issues with reason and intellectual rationality and sometimes plain indifference but there were some issues where he moved from that to moral outrage – slavery and the treatment of native Americans were two such examples. His knowledge of human nature was large. He created no school, wanted no followers because he saw how clearly the human mind becomes content to cling to and solidify itself around a body of opinion.” Russell also tells the wonderful story of Thoreau challenging Emerson on his “New England reticence”. In 1844, the question of the annexation of Mexico was heating up and although Emerson felt it was inevitable, he also felt that an upright community should maintain its integrity and honor its treaties. He took part in anti-annexation protests but never burned like Alcott and Thoreau. Henry went to jail rather that pay taxes to a government who engaged in plundering territories, protected slave-owners and uprooted indigenous peoples. Emerson went to visit Thoreau in jail. “Why are you in there, Henry?” Emerson asked. “Why are you out there?” retorted the grouch of Walden Woods.
In his lecture The Peace Principle, Emerson surprised people by seeming to praise war. He spoke of it as an “instinct for self-help, a perpetual struggle to be, to resist opposition, to attain freedom, the right to be a self-defended being”. But then Emerson moves on in the same speech to say the war “reflects only the primitive and early parts of human development. The sympathy with war is a juvenile and temporary state.” Then he challenges his audience to look on peace as an even more heroic endeavor than war.
Richard Garnett in his 1888 biography of Emerson quotes from a letter a shocked Emerson wrote from England regarding the poverty rampant in that industrialized country. “My dearest little Edie (his daughter) costs me a pretty penny. I cannot go up to the street but I shall see some woman in rags with a little creature just of Edie’s size and age, but in coarsest, ragged clothes and barefooted, stepping beside her and I look curiously into her Edie’s face with some terrors let it should resemble mine and the far-off Edie wins from me the half-penny for this near one.”
Emerson’s views on slavery and the displacement of indigenous peoples were a reflection of his personal integrity and sense of responsibility. He called the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) a law every man should break. His home was one of the “safe houses” for the Underground Railroad. Emerson’s open letter to President Martin Van Buren, published in Concord, Washington and other cities contained the outrage of all democratic, socially responsible human beings. He expressed the moral conscience of a nation over the expulsion of the Cherokee nation in 1838. Eighteen thousand Cherokees were driven away from their villages and fields in Georgia and on this “Trail of Tears” they were forced into carts, wagons and boats and dragged over mountains and rivers to a wilderness beyond the Mississippi. In his open letter, Emerson calls it “a dereliction of all faith and virtue, such a denial of justice and such deafness to screams of mercy never heard in times of peace and the dealing of a nation with its own allies, since the world was made.” And in a private letter, Emerson takes Van Buren to task…”The soul of man, the justice and mercy that is the heart’s heart in all men, from Maine to Texas, does abhor this business. How could we call this conspiracy…our government, or the land cursed by their parting and dying imprecations our country anymore? You, sir, will bring down that renowned chair in which you sit into infamy if your seal is set to this instrument of perfidy; and the name of this nation, hitherto the sweet omen of religion and liberty, will stink to the world.”
In The Real Nature of Mystical Experience, Gopi Krishna says, “Our earthly existence, divided into days and nights might be symbolic of our eternal cycle of birth and death” and further on, “Every mystical experience is a testament to our eternal life.” There is no doubt that this will lead to a sense of immortality, a loss of fear of death and a humble detachment from the temporal life. Emerson said, “The soul knows no persons.” In his journal dated December 21,1823 when he was just 20 years old he wrote, “I say to the Universe, Mighty One! Thou art not my mother. Return to chaos, if thou wilt, I shall still exist. I live. If I owe my being, it is to a destiny greater than thine. Star by star, world by world, system by system shall be crushed – but I shall live.” Later, in an entry dated in 1837, Emerson expanded on his sense of immortality “…as soon as any soul has learned always to take sides with Reason against himself, to transfer his ME from his person, his name, his interest, back upon Truth and Justice, so that when he is disgraced and defeated and fretted and disheartened, and waste by nothings, he bears it well, never one instant relaxing his watchfulness; and as soon as he can get a respite from the insults of the sadness, records all these phenomena, pierces their beauty as phenomena and like a God, oversees himself.”
Richard Geldard in his 1993 book The Esoteric Emerson points out the “Emerson’s detachment from the surface of things affirms the material world as illusory. In Nature he says that the essential ‘ME or self is mind, the subtle substance embodying the laws of spiritual order’ – this was his perception of the Divine source and of the life of the mind as an active instrument of that source.”
VanWyck Brooks tells the story of Emerson riding to Maine to lecture and listening to the Boston merchants traveling there boasting that they could buy all of Maine and have millions left. “But,” said Emerson, “they didn’t seem to consider that the values of Boston were artificial values, the values of luxuries, furniture, inflated prices of land and lots and houses, while the values of Maine (the great natural expanses of mountains, rivers, woods) were primary and necessary and therefore permanent under any state of society.”
Emerson seemed to live in a practical state of detachment and like the great Krishnamurti had learned to live with “what is as it is”. “I have a house,” Emerson wrote, “a closet which holds my books, a stable, a garden, a field; are these, any and all, a reason for refusing the angel who beckons me away, as if there were no skylight elsewhere that could reproduce for me as my wants require?” This state of awareness rendered him capable of seeing that everything has its beauty, even a corpse. Weeks after the death of his first wife Ellen, he walked to West Roxbury where she was buried and opened the coffin. Perhaps most thought him mad with grief but it could be that he had begun to live with “what is” on a profound level. “Grief,” he wrote in his journal in later years, “will make us idealists. In the death of my son now more that two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate – no more. I cannot get it nearer to me.” “He means,” his biographer, George Woodbury says, “ that his own soul has suffered no loss, as if it were his own ‘eternal part’ that was made plain to him in the experience. His natural grief, however, was not the less and the death of his beloved Waldo at five years of age was the greatest shock of his life.” When Emerson said the “soul knows no persons” Woodbury concludes, “The death of his brothers, the death of his first wife, the death of his son, lowered the value of personality by showing its transitoriness.” In Emerson’s 1841 discourse on The Method of Nature, this sense of detachment was summed up. “Man is not born for prosperity, but to suffer for the benefits of others, like the noble rock-maple which all around our villages bleeds for the service of man.”
Belief in God, a sense of the “Oneness” of all nature and the experience of an expansion of consciousness bearing witness to a Divine manifestation are sure signs of an enlightened mystic/genius. These particular characteristics are so in abundance with regard to Ralph Waldo Emerson it would require several books to convey them. Choosing the examples for the purpose of this paper created the difficulty of having to leave so many out.
In his work, Spiritual Laws, Emerson wrote:
A little consideration of what takes place around us every day would show us
that a higher law than that of our will regulates events; that our painful labors are
unnecessary and fruitless; that only in our easy, simple, spontaneous action we strong,
and by contenting ourselves with obedience we become divine. Belief and love will relieve
us of a vast load of care. O my brothers, God exists. There is a soul at the center of
nature and over the will of every man, so that none of us can harm the universe. It has so
infused it strong attachment into nature that we accept its advice, and when struggle to
would its creatures, our hands are glued to our sides, or they beat their own breasts.
The whole course of things goes to teach us faith. We need only obey. There is
guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right words.
Emerson was, like many enlightened individuals, in revolt against rituals and forms in religion and after much struggle left his ministerial studies. He was influenced by Plato and the German philosophers among others. “Emerson saw that anterior to all things was an Ineffable Oneness,” says Phillips Russell, “and to know this was impossible within the intellect; and that at the core of things beneath their apparent differences in structure, lay an unbreakable unity.” Deeply influenced by Eastern thought, Emerson also read widely including the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. Russell also detailed Emerson’s creed…”that the world is not the product of manifest power, but of one Will, one Mind and that one Mind is everywhere active…”
Paralleling Gopi Krishna’s teaching on Kundalini as the hidden source of all our thoughts, desires, passions and feeling; the All-pervading, mysterious element of Creation, Emerson explains in The Over-Soul that “the soul of man is not an organ, but animates and exercised all the organs; it is not a function like memory, calculation or comparison but uses these as hands and feet; it is not a faculty, but a light; it is not the intellect or the will but the master of the intellect and will…” and from his poem, The Sphinx –
“Sea, earth, air, sound, silence
Plant, quadruped, bird
By one music enchanted
One deity stirred”
In his 1995 book Emerson: The Mind on Fire, Robert D. Richardson touches on this universality of belief in God and the fact that rites, rituals, formal worship and church religion are not what the religious impulse is all about. “God,” he quotes Emerson, “builds his temple in the heart on the ruins of churches and religions...we are born believing. A man bears beliefs as a tree bears apples.” After a meeting in New Bedford, Massachusetts with Mary Rotch, a Quaker whose experiences with an inner light affected him deeply, Emerson wrote of his own experience of expansion while sitting in a sunny room at Mt. Auburn in Cambridge – I opened my eyes and let what would pass through them into the soul. I saw no more my relation to Cambridge or Boston. I heeded no more what minute or hour the…clocks indicated. I saw only the noble earth on which I was born, with the great star that warms and enlightens it. The pines glittered and challenged me to read their riddle, the oak leaves turned their little somersaults, the wind bustled high overhead…” Again in his poetry, the sense of expansion and oneness flow:
“Again I saw, again I heard
The rolling river, the morning bird
Beauty through my senses stole
I yielded myself to the perfect whole”
In his introduction to a collection of Critical Essays on Emerson, Milton Konvitz makes this observation – “For Emerson, then, there is no antithesis between the practical and theoretical, between the humanistic and the scientific, between religion and science, between value and fact – as there is none between inner and outer, between man and nature, between character and event…Man is One, Mind is One, Nature is One, the World is One. This, perhaps, is what the Bible means by its great affirmation of the oneness of God; for there is a single order, one set of laws that operates for man, as well as for beast and star, in the marketplace as well as the body.”
Emerson invites us:
Come out of your warm angular house…
into the cold, chill, instantaneous night,
In the instant you leave far behind all
human relation, wife, mother and child
and live only with the savages – water,
air, light, carbon, lime and granite. I
become a moist, cold element. Nature
grows over me. Frogs pipe; waters far
off tinkle; dry leaves hiss; grass bends
and rustles; and I have died out of the
human world and come to feel a strange
cold, aqueos, terraqueos, aerial, ethereal
sympathy and existence.
If we accept the theory that the human brain is still in a state of evolutionary transformation, it is not a great leap to see that the intellect will become greatly enhanced and that a channel of perception will be opened enabling us to understand the world in which we live on an extraordinary level. Gopi Krishna in Reason and Revelation explains, “There is no other explanation for the appearance of genius, with its products and creations, all tending to extend the area of man’s knowledge, to increase his sensibilities, to improve his aesthetic sense and to refine his emotions in a wholesome way…extraordinary individuals have been born, who, in one branch of knowledge or the other, or in one art or the other, excelled the rest, discovered new truths, made fresh discoveries, created new masterpieces of art and found new methods for a happier social or political life of man, lifting the race higher and higher up towards a target which is still beyond our sight.” Evelyn Underhill sums it up as eloquently, “In the born mystic these powers are great and lie very near the normal threshold of consciousness. He has a genius for the transcendental – or as he would say, a divine discovery, in much the same way as his cousins, the born musician and poet, have a genius for musical or poetic discovery. In all three cases, the emergence of these powers is mysterious; and not least so to those who experience it.”
In his 1968 biography, George Edward Woodbury describes Emerson’s genius this way, “Emerson was not a great writer but he was a writer with greatness of mind; he was not a great poet but a poet with greatness of imagination…It is not by intellectual light but by this immense moral force that his genius works in the world…No man rises from reading him without feeling more unshackled…One has often in reading him that feeling of eternity in the thought which is the sign royal of greatness. It is in his poems that I feel it most, and find there the flower of his mind…The excellence of his prose…is in the perfect turn of short sentences, his eloquence…his thought sinks into the mind and haunts the memory…He had no constructive but only an ejaculatory genius…its original power…owes little to the form.”
Richard Geldard describes this uniqueness of expression in Emerson’s essays – “In Nature was presented a kind of writing that was unlike essays and poetry. It lay somewhere in between because it constituted the language of a literary visionary.” Emerson’s belief in the union of science and religion is also a radical departure. “In our secular world,” continues Geldard, “Emerson’s ‘world view’ is lumped into so-called paranormal phenomena and is often discredited as sentimentalism. In science the 'subtle' is merely what has yet to be fixed by experimentation and demonstrable proof. For Emerson, 'subtle' meant 'unseen', what had to be intuitively known. It also meant 'real' and he defined it as a source of energy by which life was generated and sustained.” Geldard presents another of Emerson’s radical thoughts – “…the mind seen as a universal faculty whose characteristics and powers were to be the foundation of an evolved human nature.”
When Jerome Loving compares Emerson and Whitman, he observes, “Both overcame the stifling influence of their culture to accept the challenge of producing a literature that was uniquely American.” If Emerson’s thoughts were not considered original by some, there was originality and beauty in their expression. Even critics such as George Santayana concedes, “His grasp was not particularly firm, he was far from being…a Plato or Aristotle…but his mind was endowed with unusual plasticity, spontaneity and liberty of movement…he was like a young God making experiments in creation.”
Stephen Whicher calls Emerson’s idea of man’s entire independence one of the most startling new notes in American literature – “The aim of this strain in his thought is not virtue, but freedom and mastery. It is radically anarchic, overthrowing all the authority of the past, all compromise or cooperation with others, in the name of the Power present and agent in the soul.” Phillips Russell recalls Emerson’s view that man should have an original relation to the Universe – “our own revelation, our own history”. In examining Emerson’s poetry Russell says, “Emerson was at his best in the verse which is sometimes contemptuously called ‘free’ and in which medium of expression he was the predecessor and path-breaker for young poets who arrived one, two and three generations later.”
To my mind, Emerson’s idea of political morality is still a rare, radical and mostly untried vision. The crisp turn of phrase that holds a universe of truths still jump off the page at modern readers of Mr. Emerson’s thought:
“Your goodness must have an edge to it.”
“The sole purpose of books is to inspire.”
“Nothing can give you peace but yourself.”
“A man is fed, not that he may be fed, but that he may work.”
“The faith that stands on authority is not faith.”
“Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.”
“All I have seen teaches me to trust the creator
for all I have not seen.”
“Bad times have a scientific value. These are
occasions a good learner would not miss.”
“Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes.”
“Don’t be too timid or squeamish about your actions.
All life is an experiment.”
“Have no regrets.”
“God enters by a private door every individual.”
“Let us be silent-so we may hear the whisper of the Gods.”
These words are not abstractions. They are the “Practical Mystic’s message to us coming down through the ages. We ignore them at our peril.
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Brooks, VanWyck, The Life of Emerson, E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc., N.Y.,1932
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Representative Men, Seven Lectures, Houghton Mifflin Co., The Riverside Press, Cambridge, MA, 1903.
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Garnett, Richard, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walter Scott, London and W. J. Gage and Co., Toronto, 1888
Geldard, Richard G., The Esoteric Emerson: The Spiritual Teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lindesfarne Press, Hudson, N.Y., 1993
Konvitz, Milton R. & Whicher, Stephen E., eds., Emerson: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood, Cliffs, N.J., 1964
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Russell, Phillips, Emerson, The Wisest American, Blue Ribbon Books Inc., 1929
Sanborn, F.B. , ed., The Genius and Character of Emerson: Lectures at the Concord School of Philosophy, James R. Osgood & Co., Boston, 1885
Stein, William Bysshe, ed., Two Brahman Sources of Emerson and Thoreau (Rajah Ramnohim Roy and William Ward), Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, Gainesville, FL, 1967
Whicher, Stephen E., Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1953
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Woodbury, George Edward, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Haskill House Publishers Ltd., N.Y., 1968