Great Thinkers: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was an American writer of both essays and poetry as well as a lecturer, who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, he was the son of a clergyman. In 1829, He married Ellen Tucker and in the same year become ordained as a minister in the Unitarian church. A few years later, he became disillusioned about his faith as a result of various things including the death of his wife Ellen and resigned from the ministry. He then traveled to Europe and met Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth who were some of the literary figures of his time. Returning home, he started lecturing and also married Lydia Jackson in 1835. In Concord, Massachusetts where Emerson now currently lived after his travels, there were other kindred spirits such as Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau and Amos Bronson Alcott. Some of his lectures such as “Nature” and “The American Scholar” were published and showed off his new philosophy. He became known in philosophical and literary circles as a prominent figure in the group now recognized as American Transcendentalists. Their key belief was that man could transcend the physical world purposefully into one of a deeper spiritual experience through looking within oneself and through nature. This is an oversimplification and might not be totally accurate so I suggest you do some research on your own. It was a bit more involved but it gives you a basic idea to start with. Emerson wrote in “Nature” “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 parcel of God.”

Some of Emerson’s essays, including “Self-Reliance,” “Friendship” and “Experience,” are among his best-known works. His beliefs and his idealism were strongly influential on the work of his protégé Henry David Thoreau and his contemporary Walt Whitman, as well as numerous others. His writings are considered major documents of 19th-century American literature, religion and thought.

This is just a whirlwind description of the life of Emerson meant to encourage you to learn more on your own. I hope you are enjoying my endeavor to introduce you to some great thinkers of the past. Let me know what you think!


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