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Transcendentalist Beliefs of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Themes and Styles

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Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803 and died on April 27, 1882. Emerson was a respected poet and philosopher. He began his studies at Harvard when he was 14 years old and graduated when he was 18. Emerson voiced his opinion on many topics ranging from religion to slavery. He was a complex writer who used different styles to express his visions. He was well known for his transcendentalist beliefs regarding nonconformity, self reliance, free thought, confidence, and the importance of nature.

Emerson’s style of writing is unique (Mullin 570). He put together his journal entries to create writings and lectures that had elaborating character (Mullin 570). His essays were centered on a theme but contained many variations of the central theme (Mullin 570). Emerson had a way of writing his essays in a manner that was insightful to the reader but also revealed themselves differently to different readers (Mullin 570). “Emerson works this way: he offers an insight from his own reflection or contemplation, he tries saying it one way then another – drawing on the various guises under which he has recorded the truth in his journal” (Mullin 570-571). Emerson writes in this way to instill a sense of ownership in the reader over the ideas he or she encounters (Mullin 571). Emerson returns to previous points throughout his essays to reveal them fully to the reader (Mullin 571).

Emerson’s earlier works are characterized as optimistic (Berger). In his early career, he wrote mainly in the “optative mood” (Berger). Later in his career he turned towards political radicalism (Berger). The political radicalism shown by Emerson in the 1850s is the result of an emphasis on the relationship between the individual and cosmic power (Berger). “I suggest that these two Emersons share the same conceptual horizon–that the disengaged transcendental eyeball Emerson peddling visions of the Oversoul and the gun-toting, bloodlusting Emerson collecting donations for John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry evince an important and unacknowledged structural continuity” (Berger). These differences in style can be examined in Emerson’s “The Lord’s Supper” and “Fate” (Berger).

Although most of Emerson’s works were written in an optimistic tone, he also engaged in the gothic (Richards). “Although typically recognized for his Transcendental idealism, Ralph Waldo Emerson was also deeply engaged with the Gothic, a literary mode that prior to the Civil War ran parallel to Transcendentalism but is rarely used in the same breath with Emerson, or any other Transcendentalist for that matter” (Richards). Gothic and transcendentalism are contrasting viewpoints, however, Emerson is able to use gothic elements to enhance his writings (Richards). In his early poems, Emerson shows himself to be fascinated by death (Richards). His gothic style lays the groundwork for his transition into transcendentalism (Richards). “The Emerson who haunted Ellen’s tomb was not yet a Transcendentalist; he was, instead, captive to the Gothic condition” (Richards). Emerson, while not considered a gothic writer, used the gothic to express his views and beliefs. “Gothic power was something Emerson necessarily engaged with, worked against, and used to launch his vision” (Richards).

In Emerson’s essay “Nature”, he begins to show his appreciation for the natural world (Warren 208). It is revealed later in the essay that the work is not solely an appreciation of nature, but a “glorification of the individual man” (Warren 208). Emerson stresses that individuals should not view themselves as an aspect of nature because it will force them to see themselves as insignificant in the world (Warren 208). Warren claims, “Emerson says, man should see nature as a reflection of himself” (208). Emerson’s view of man being the center of the universe and being dominant over nature is supported by his published essays (Warren 208).

Emerson was well known for his transcendentalism. Although he used this ideology in many of his essays and writings including “Nature,” he could never perfect the definition of what transcendentalism really meant (McKusick 229). The term was formerly used by Samuel Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle who morphed it to fit their own personal beliefs (McKusick 229). By the time Emerson adopted the ideology, it was drastically changed from the original form of transcendentalism (McKusick 229). “In Emerson’s various attempts to define transcendentalism, it often sounds more like a choice of lifestyle than a well-defined ideology” (McKusick 229). Emerson was one of many transcendentalists who each had their own idea of what the term meant (McKusick 229).

“There was only one thought that could set him aflame, and that was the unfathomed might of man” (Goodman 26). Emerson’s transcendentalism disclosed the possibilities and capabilities of man (Goodman 27). He claims that we are not fully aware of our powers and capabilities (Goodman 27). To emerson, the world is ductile and flexible to the will of man (Goodman 27). Warren supports this by stating that Emerson saw man as a dominant force over nature (208).

Emerson believed in a philosophy where man trusts himself over societal constructs and tradition (Warren 208). “Emerson says that he can accept only what is in accord with himself. Other people, other traditions, however wise, can serve only to stimulate his own thinking; they can teach him nothing” (Warren 208). Emerson would rather follow the laws of his individual nature than the laws set in place by society (Warren 208). Emerson claims that the ideal man is strong and self reliant and that all men have the potential to be great (Warren 209). Emerson regards relationships with other people as unimportant (Warren 209). The only use of other people or their ideas is the absorbance into one’s own knowledge (Warren 209).

In his works such as “Lecture on the Times,” “The Transcendentalist,” and “Culture,” Emerson stresses the unimportance of others (Warren 209). “In all of his essays and lectures Emerson never treats other people as though they had any value in their own right” (Warren 209). People are only important in the sense that they can inspire the individual to perform (Warren 209). Emerson holds his position even when it comes to close relatives (Warren 209). Emerson has no sympathy for the sensibilities of others, even if his actions hurt his friends (Warren 209). “Beside the infinite, all finite objects seem unimportant” (Warren 210). Emerson justifies his position that everything only has value in regards to the self by clarifying the importance of seeing oneself in nature (Warren 210). Being a part of the Universal Being means that others should not dictate how we behave (Warren 210). Emerson states that worldly relationships have no importance compared to the relationship we have with higher things (Warren 210).

Emerson did not believe in a formalized religion (Hurth 4). He believed in individual interpretations of religion that revolved around human nature (Hurth 4). Emerson spoke of religion in his writings. He believed religion should not be institutionalized (Berger). In his works such as “Nature” he speaks of how we can grow closer to God through nature (Berger). He writes about the religious feeling and how it is unable to be standardized (Berger). The authority of scripture was irrelevant to him (Hurth 4). “He realized that if one could ground the belief in the existence of god in immediate experience, all appeals to external authority in religious matters would be rendered superfluous” (Hurth 4). The internal relationship of oneself to god and the testimonies of the heart are the important evidences of religion according to Emerson (Hurth 4).

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In Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” he encourages the abandonment of formalized religion (Goodman 18). The appropriated and formal teachings that describe Christ to American and European children strays from the values that Christ embodies such as a noble heart (Goodman 18). Emerson stresses the humanity of Christ over his divinity in his writings (Goodman 27). “Emerson’s shocking moral is that we should try not to imitate Christ but to achieve our own original spiritual relationship to the universe” (Goodman 18). Emersons unorthodox views of religion and Christ show his belief that man’s knowledge confides in oneself (Goodman 18). His consistent philosophy of self-reliance translate to his religious beliefs (Goodman 18).

Emerson’s writings exhibit a sense of liberalism, however, they differentiate from the classic liberalism of his time (Larson). “Indeed, the general assumption that liberalism engages the main preoccupations of Emerson’s thought is implausible. It leads to wishful appropriations of his texts and generates pointless disputes about his radicalism”(Larson). During the Antebellum period in America, liberalism was used to describe religious views rather than political views (Larson). Emerson’s approach to religion would be considered liberal for the time, but not politically liberal (Larson).

“Emerson was schooled in what historians today call ‘republicanism’” (Malachuk 404). He was taught three forms of modern republicanism: classical, liberal, and cosmic (Malachuk 405). He used aspects of these philosophies to create his own republican philosophy of self-reliance (Malachuk 405). Emerson immersed himself in both classical and liberal republicanism in terms of commerce (Malachuk 408). Both of these forms or republicanism agreed that the greatest threat to a republic is corruption and a person’s loss of intellectual independence (Malachuk 409).

Liberal and classical republicans differed in their views of how a republic is best nurtured and cultivated (Malachuk 209). Classical republicans saw a strict system with an agrarian economy as a means to political stability (Malachuk 209). Liberal republicans, on the other hand, believed a commercial economy would liberate a citizen’s mind and encourage him to engage in his civic duties (Malachuk 209). Emerson strayed from classical republicanism as he viewed commerce not as a corruption to virtue, but as its “handmaiden” (Malachuk 409). Although Emerson favored a more liberal form of republicanism he was not politically liberal (Larson). An example of Emerson’s lack of political liberalism is his failure to see women as individuals in relation to himself (Warren 210).

Emerson viewed women as abstractions rather than individuals (Warren 210). “Even in his own marriages, Emerson tended to think of his wife more as an abstraction than as a real person” (Warren 210). Although Emerson’s wife allowed him to experience the emotions he felt he lacked as a youth and he viewed her as an “angel,” he still believed that women were incapable of being self-reliant (Warren 210). He viewed women as the emotional counterpart to man’s intellect (Warren 210). “Not only does Emerson maintain that women have weak wills and are capricious and unstable, but he equates femininity with defectiveness” (Warren 210). Emerson argues that his philosophy of self-reliance does not apply to women, but enables man to take better care of women (Warren 212).

How did Emerson reconcile his attitude toward women with his support of the women’s rights movement? Apparently he felt able to support the call for the vote and to concede political and civil wrongs, but he could not bring himself to advocate rights that would take woman out of the home or give her autonomy as a human being. His comments reveal a fundamental inability to an see woman except in her relation to man. In 1850 he wrote to Paulina W. Davis, who had asked him to take part in a convention: “I should not wish women to wish political functions, nor, if granted, assume them.” Indicating that a woman is to be judged by how faithfully she lives up to a man’s concept of her, he continued: “I imagine that a woman whom all men would feel to be the best would decline such privileges if offered, and feel them to be rather obstacles to her legitimate influence.” A woman’s “legitimate influence,” apparently, was the use of her feminine qualities to obtain what she wanted. Writing in his journal in 1851, he observed apropos of a women’s rights convention held in Worcester that the real solution would be for all women to be healthy and beautiful. Then they would have no need to fight for their rights because all men would do their bidding. “A sound and beautiful woman,” a Venus, he said, magnetizes men. (Warren 212)

Emerson denies the individuality of woman and reinstates a common belief of the time, women are not equal to men (Warren 212). He sees no reason for women to attain political power because if they are attractive to men, then men will give them everything they need (Warren 212).

In the year 1844, Emerson took a strong stance on the abolition of slavery (Earhart). Emerson believed that all men, including slaves, were entitled their individualism (Earhart). In his speeches on abolition, individualism is stressed over association (Earhart). Emerson considered himself a representative man rather than an abolitionist (Earhart). “By fashioning himself as such a representative man he connects his desire to ‘agitate’ with a fatalistic sense of being chosen. And it is important to remember that the representative man is one who is never whole but always fragmentary” (Earhart). Emerson views himself as a “powerful and stimulating intellect, a man of great heart and mind” when he takes on the persona of the representative man (Earhart).

Emerson feels inspired as a representative man to call others to action (Earhart). “The power of moving an audience, as Emerson’s 1844 journal reveals, became increasingly attractive during the preparation of the address. He proclaims, ‘When I address a large assembly, as last Wednesday, I am always apprised what an opportunity is there: not for reading to them as I do, lively miscellanies, but for painting in fire my thought, & being agitated to agitate’’ (Earhart). Emerson realizes the power he possesses to excite an audience (Earhart). Inspiring an audience becomes a desire of Emerson’s for the first time in his career (Earhart).

Throughout Emersons career, he is able to cover a vast amount of topics in the politics of his time. His styles and expressions changed as he grew older, but his philosophy remained consistent. Ideas such as Transcendentalism, self reliance, and non-conformist religion inspired his writings and showed themselves in almost all of his works. Emerson’s ideologies and philosophical thoughts are timeless and can be applied to many situations today.

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Transcendentalist Beliefs of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Themes and Styles. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from
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