Ralph Emerson was an influential American poet, writer who pioneered the movement of transcendentalism. He americanized European literary romanticism by inspiring Americans to find inspiration in America’s own natural surroundings. Drawing on English and German Romanticism, Neo-Platonism, Kantianism, he came up with metaphysics of process, and epistemology of moods, and an “extentialist” ethics of self-improvement. He successfully found his advocates and disciples in the form of David Thoreau, John Dewey, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Much like Emerson, they all treated the themes of power, fate, and the uses of poetry, history and the critique of Christianity. He was fascinated by the idealist philosophy of Kant which he approached through the writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.
We have seen that Americans have an ambivalent vision of Europe, made of rejection and attraction. As explained by Cushing Strout, Europe has been for them "stern father and kind mother, a formidable enemy and brave ally, and helpful teacher reluctant pupil, perpetual stimulus, perpetual irritant (Strout, p.72). If they were horrified by the political and social system of the old continent, which was feudal and backward, they still had thirst for culture and history ranging through more than millennia. The Romantic Movement has strongly influenced the American literary imagination, which discovered a new sympathy for the medieval past and the folklore and ancient customs. This has given rise to a vision of a sophisticated contrast, or mythology, of America and Europe.
For the Americans, Europe was becoming a symbol romantic charm dedicated by ancient ruins, picturesque scenes and strange customs but nevertheless charming. This new way of seeing Europe allowed Americans to accentuate the contrast between the Old and New Worlds without creating new tensions. In fact, if Europe is rejected for its obscurantism, the Europe of the past became attractive in its demarcation of the present. As for America, it remains the country's future, freedom and virtue, while its simplicity and pragmatism stifle conventional romantic impulses. In this way, the Americans developed a sense of dependence vis-à-vis a European civilization that was richer and older. American romance blooms in the second decade of the nineteenth century, it supports the primacy of emotion and imagination over reason, the glorification of the individual (The American is individualistic, but fears to single out so far), the sensitivity discovered the beauties of nature, and a new optimism that promotes political and social reforms and expresses its confidence in the collective destiny of occidental culture.
This movement was born in the Boston area and was called transcendentalism, and it perpetuates an optimistic doctrine, that is liberating and progressive; opening up wide scope for artistic inspiration. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was one the two main representatives, with Ralph Waldo Emerson. The latter, scholar and extraordinary intellectual, attempted to give credence to individualism personified in an American materialism and standardized it. To do this, Emerson "seeks to give direction to thought, and in so doing, in good spirits, he sets a course for the individual and seeks to transform the whole society.”(Strout, p.72)
In his book English Traits (1856), Emerson wants to describe not the entire English character but some of its characteristics. In doing so he attempts to resolve a major problem, that is to say how a small country like Britain could become the center of the most powerful Empire the of the time. In this description of the English character – that is based on both his visits to Britain in 1833 and 1847 – he shows the respect he owes to England, while perceiving its limits. The reason for his first journey was both personal and intellectual. On the one hand, he left the country to overcome the death of his wife and escape some problems within his ministry on the other hand, he visited Britain because he knew America was strongly influenced by the British schools of thought: “In all that is done or begun by the Americans towards right thinking or practice, we are met by a civilization already settled and overpowering. The culture of the day, the thoughts and aims of men, are English thoughts and aims.” (Emerson, p. 208)
In both cases the trip to Europe allowed him to take a certain distance vis-à-vis his country, seeking what it means to be "a citizen of a country that has been a colony and then itself on the verge of becoming an empire, by dissenting opinions about the kind of future'68. The first chapter of his book on the first visit of the writer in Britain and recounts the visits by four British writers Emerson capital – Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Thomas Carlyle (1795 - 1881) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850).
Very quickly, we understand the tone of the chapter: the intellectual leaders of the Anglo-Saxon world, although they are distinguished by their thoughts, have nothing to offer to the Americans. If Emerson is initially disappointed and uncomfortable with this revelation, it is a liberating disappointment because it has already rejected the orientation of the ecclesiastical tradition of New England, and now his British mentors have proved to have nothing to offer at a crucial juncture to him in his life. Each chapter in English Traits (1856) is devoted to a different facet of the English character. In this way, Emerson through the many qualities he recognizes in the English people - such as his pragmatism, his energy, his openness, endurance, loyalty and independence - while demonstrating the lack of project costs. He cannot help to see that Great Britain, “even at its height as an empire and as the exemplar of industrial technology, could not provide leadership for the future” (Emerson, p.150). Emerson is having contradictory feelings vis-à-vis England, he recognizes the superiority of the nation and the British Empire over all other European nations, yet he sees the lack in English as clearly as they do not feel the need for U.S. estate.
Unlike most American travelers who indulge in a terminal admiration of the picturesque natural and cultural sites in Europe, Emerson was unmoved, even disappointed, and yearned for something more natural and capacious. There was an awareness of the immaturity of his countrymen, who were not yet ready to take over global leadership, and that makes their ability to assume the latter skeptical.
According to Emerson America had the advantage of a vast territory with unlimited wealth, led by people in the same vein as the Anglo-Saxon Britain. The seat of the race Anglo-Saxon is now in America, whose natural advantages are such that rivalry is impossible. And Great Britain, now "an old and exhausted island, must one day be contented, like other parents, to be strong only in her children. But this was a proposition which no Englishman of whatever condition can easily entertain” (Emerson, p.320)
In addition, despite his criticism of the American system - of its materialism, fierce competitiveness business, the inhumane treatment of African Americans and Native Americans - Emerson judged his country as more a humane and democratic one than as European nations, according to him are backward-looking. Finally, the author realizes that America is free to break the bonds that connect it again to Britain and Europe.
Emersonian transcendentalism was a radical departure from the mediation of the religious institution to give prominence to the individual in the exercise of his will to grow in him the divine and carry his earthly life in harmony with the principles of universal and timeless - the moral sense – through which he intuits the bottom of himself. However, the Emersonian theories did not remain confined to the religious sphere as developments experienced in the social and political sphere also influenced greatly the American consciousness in the name of the great moral principles. The teachings of Emerson accentuate the role of individual conscience against the destructive institutions that curb fundamental freedom of individuals. "Self-Reliance" and "The American Scholar" and "Politics" postulate the resistance of the individual illuminated by the universal moral law against the dominant culture.
The courageous stance against slavery in Emerson, for the emancipation of the Indians and the cause of women, the "resistance" by Henry David Thoreau slave to the government, new teaching methods of Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Peabody , proto-feminist theories of Margaret Fuller, not to mention the poetic audacity of Walt Whitman, to mention only the most famous disciples of Emerson. He practiced all the precepts of transcendentalism and advocated for social reforms and the advent of the individual freed from institutional constraints, independent, autonomous and morally accountable. Although it has not survived as a religious and philosophical movement in the late 18th century, demolished by the progress of pragmatism and rationalism, he was - and remains - one of the major influences that shaped the conscience of America. As a result, the American version of Romanticism began to dominate in the country dwindling down the effects of English Romanticism.(Allen, 233)
Emerson laid the foundation stone of the so-called Emersonian transcendentalism, which was actually a form of idealism: the English Romantics had already extolled the sublime to the kind in that it allows an emotional communion that goes beyond the intellect to open to the individual conscience to the non-rational apprehension of spiritual truths superior sources of engineering and artistic creativity. The approach assumes an Emersonian assimilation of nature with the religious concept of revelation: in contrast to Unitarian theology that saw nature as simple testimony of God's creation, Emerson describes nature as the privileged place where the conscience of each individual communicates with the great and timeless universal laws that govern the cosmic macrocosm as well as the human microcosm (see extract from Nature). That reveals the nature is that we are part of a great absolute and universal, and that nothing exists outside it. In sum, rather than a God distinct from his creation, the God of Emerson is present everywhere at once to the man, himself divine. To connect with the divine perfection represented by the eternal and timeless cosmic laws that govern nature as well as the human mind, there is no need of churches, sermons, Bible or dogma: it is by solitary contemplation of natural beauty, the silence and introspection, that the individual comes to feel intuitively the back of his own belonging to the whole.(Emerson, 45)
What we perceive the physical world is basically a mirror of reality, meta-physics that governs the world of human experience through a network of laws which we all depend. So, between physical and human nature came a network of connections that makes the two concepts meet. Intimately understanding the truth of nature is ultimately to understand the truth of nature. Learning to perceive the great laws that govern the universe is akin to tracing the behavior of their teachings. Hence the analogy drawn by Emerson between physics and ethics is: the Axiom of physics translates the laws of ethics (Ibid, 38). All the laws which govern the occurrence of natural phenomena can be described as moral laws when they find themselves behind the lines of men.
This distinction, which recalls the division made by the post-Kantian and adopted by Coleridge in Aids to Reflection, advocates a cognitive approach almost mystical. Knowledge of physical laws revealed to be a fundamental consciousness transcended ego, abolished the limitations of space and time, and frees the mind of contingency. Because there is a similarity between the natural laws governing physical phenomena and moral laws that affect the individual conscience. The reason makes man aware that these laws at work in the mechanics of visible and invisible phenomena proceed, ultimately, the same spirit of nature:
“All things are moral and exchange Have in Their boundless year unceasing reference to spiritual nature. (Ibid, 41)
“All things are moral and exchange Have in Their boundless year unceasing reference to spiritual nature. (Ibid, 41)
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. English Traits, New York, Casimo Classics, 18-56, 2007.
Strout, Cushing. The American Image of the Old World, New York, Harper & Row Publishers,1963. p.72
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Penguin Classics Ralph Waldo Emerson Selected Essays. Penguin Classic Paperback, 1982, p.45-69
The Norton Anthology English Literature The Major Authors,Seventh Edition, 2000. p.34-88
Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson. New York: Viking Press. 1981, p.233
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