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Emerson and Infinity

While I am working to process Tim's reflections on infinity, a topic in which all Romanticists should take an interest (since the Romantics so often did), I thought I would post a blog-o-sphere version--itself an infinite space!--of an introduction I have recently written for a new series of print-on-demand volumes being produced by a small publishing house near Baltimore. Emerson's thinking is shot through with reflections, direct and indirect, on infinite time, infinite space, and especially infinite possibility. The goal of this new series is to produce inexpensive versions of nineteenth-century editions of the "American Romantics" under the combined rubric of "Optimistic America" and the Brook Farm Revival Series. One interesting aspect of these books, published by G. W. Zouck publishing in Beckleysville, Maryland, is that the publisher will forward a percentage of the profits to a charity that continues in the spirit of the original author. For the essays of the young Emerson, already in production, profits will be sent to Doctors Without Borders and for the Walden edition, to be produced later this year, a donation will go to the Walden Woods Project. So here are some reflections (reproduced with permission) on why Emerson, even at his thorniest and most unreadable, remains crucial for Romanticists--and others--as we enter our strange new century.

Emerson for a New Era

Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the greatest thinkers America has produced. The decades from the 1830s through the 1860s saw a flowering of Emersonian ideas that helped shape new ways of thinking and produce writings whose powerful currents can still be felt today. Emerson’s optimism and his emphasis on the value of the individual are among his greatest and most abiding gifts to our culture. Thomas Jefferson had told us that all men were created equal and had promised us life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But it was left to Emerson to argue that women, African Americans and Native Americans shared the same rights as rich white men in nineteenth-century America. He showed us that freedom of thought was as important as any other kind of freedom, and he taught us that true happiness could come from surprisingly simple sources: our thoughts, our friends, a book, the sunshine. Emerson offered us belief in a divinity that resides in every human breast and a description of our material environment that links us all to the wider world.

Too liberal for the liberal Unitarians of Massachusetts, Emerson resigned from his ministry early in adulthood and never returned to any denomination. He spent the rest of his life on a spiritual quest, seeking truths that would be true at all times in all places, truths that could be understood by any person with an open mind and a generous heart. Emerson placed few limits on the powers of our new nation or on the diverse individuals who contributed to its democracy. “Self-Reliance” was not merely the title of one of his most influential essays; it was also a concept that summed up a complete philosophy of life. Just as each soul was part of the “soul” of the universe, so each American was part of the wider body politic. Likewise, the Emersonian idea of a godlike “over-Soul” allowed a wide range of believers, and even nonbelievers, to participate in new forms of religious, and secular, free thinking.

He broke with traditional systems of his time—dogmatic religion, strict educational rules, and narrow-minded two-party politics—in order to suggest that life presented limitless possibilities. He defined old words in new ways to explain his unrelenting optimism about “nature,” “self-reliance,” “the poet,” or the realm of “transcendental” ideas. For him, words like these encouraged each conscience to override the dictates of traditional rituals and social practices. A personal “inner voice” was Emerson’s guide to such intuitive knowledge, as it had been for Socrates. This voice came from a divine spark in all of us, our connection to the infinite Over-Soul; as a result, “A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the divine Soul which also inspires all men.”

Emerson sought to stake a prophetic claim for American culture. By 1836, Emerson came to be associated with a loosely organized circle of intellectuals, reformers, and writers who united themselves under the term “Transcendentalism.” He preferred the term “Idealism.” The essential point was that this innate spark of divinity resided in each individual and could be accessed by a transcendent self. The individual soul could thus be identified with the Over-Soul, the world soul, or perhaps even “God” in its ability to grant us true freedom: “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.”

More than any other figure, Emerson came to be seen as the father of Transcendentalism in America. Though many other thinkers contributed to the movement, it was Emerson’s lectures and published essays that gave form to this sometimes-amorphous range of ideas. In the process of finding his own brand of religion, Emerson had developed a set of philosophical ideals for others to follow. He eventually came to preach a gospel of almost secular salvation. The Transcendental Club, which he helped to form, was a gathering of individuals who were generally suspicious of all organized religions. Indeed, they were skeptical of organizations of any kind.

Emerson’s idea of America influenced essential ideas in others: Henry David Thoreau’s vigorous naturalism and his commitment to civil disobedience, Walt Whitman’s self-conscious and first-person “I,” Margaret Fuller’s early brand of feminism, George Ripley’s utopian experiment in rural and communal living, and Bronson Alcott’s student-centered view of educational theory and practice. Emerson also saw the imaginative artist as a kind of prophet. He says that poets—we would now say "creative writers"—have a crucial role in culture as the makers of newly minted meanings. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and their successors down to the present day would all in different and, sometimes contentious, ways agree.

Emerson’s own words became a central aspect of his legacy. In his manifesto “Nature,” he described his own moment of epiphany: “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 particle of God.” In the same essay, he notes that each of us needs to be similarly remade, “So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes.” he concludes by claiming that this idealistic enterprise has a practical result: “Build, therefore, your own world.” In “The Over-Soul,” he is even more theologically controversial, “Ineffable is the union of man and God in every act of the soul. The simplest person, who in his integrity worships God, becomes God.”

Emerson was one of those titanic figures in intellectual history whose thoughts were adopted almost immediately. His theological speculations, for example, lie behind a whole range of modern ideas about the dangers of extremism. People of differing religious, spiritual and ethical traditions might live together, accept one another’s differences, and even learn from one another. He preached against the truth of miracles. If we need miracles, we can find them within and around ourselves every day. The sun comes up each morning on schedule; the rain falls to fill the oceans and nourish the world; the life force pushes blades of grass through the sidewalk and brings new beings into existence; your hand opens and closes: these are all Emersonian miracles. What about truths contained in other great world religions? They are all in play for Emerson: the wisdom of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, the truths of the Jains, the Sufis, and the Zoroastrians. Emerson knew all these forms of belief well. He helped to introduce them to an often-skeptical American public. He sought a very modern goal, how to be spiritual without being religious.

Thoreau was Emerson’s first, and perhaps foremost, disciple. Emerson gave Thoreau a series of touchstones on which to build his own, more practical, philosophy. Thoreau built his one-room cabin at Walden Pond on land owned by Emerson. Likewise Whitman, our most American of poets, fashioned himself directly out of Emerson’s description of the “poet.” Whitman became the spokesperson of a democratic people, a seer of all things who imposed no restrictions on the worlds he described: the smallest details of everyday objects around us, the lives of ordinary people, the beauties of the human body, and the often closeted truths about our sexuality. Emily Dickinson may not have ever had a public presence, but her cryptic poems sharply reflect the concerns of her Emersonian neighbors up the road in Concord and Boston. Oliver Wendell Holmes went so far as to claim that Emerson was the author of “our intellectual declaration of Independence.” More recently, Lawrence Buell sees Emerson as a founder of one unique strain in American thought, “the environmental imagination.” Emerson’s essays continue to influence a series of authors who link the nature essay to personal memoir: Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, David Quammen, and Bill McKibben.

We need Emerson now more than ever. We need his optimism, his idealism, his belief in the individual, and his confidence that all of us can fulfill our varied potentials. When Thoreau says,” the sun is but a morning star,” he is expressing pure Emersonian optimism. When Gandhi challenges us to “be the change we wish to see in the world,” he is adapting a central ideal of Emerson. When Martin Luther King says that he has an optimistic dream of racial equality (in the midst of an admittedly racist nightmare), he is drawing on Emerson’s idea that one single human mind is often where the world starts to change, for the better. Emerson does not offer us self-help. He offers us self-knowledge and with self-knowledge, as even Socrates taught, can come much wider knowledge of the world.

Read Emerson's essays and feel the surging energy that swelled around Concord and Boston starting in the 1830s. This set of ideas, about self-reliance and love, about compensation and friendship, can help us today toward a future that is ours to shape. If, as Emerson believed, our world is “the best throw of the dice of nature that has yet been, or that is yet possible,” then it is also true that we should “require the impossible of the Future.” For Emerson, and for those of us who still dare to call ourselves optimists, an impossible future is possible. We should all get busy.

--Ashton Nichols