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In 1845 Ralph Waldo Emerson began a series of lectures and writings in which he limned six figures who embodied the principles and aspirations of a still-young American republic. Emerson offers timeless meditations on the value of individual greatness, reconnecting readers with the everyday virtues of his “Representative Men”: Plato, in whose writings are contained “the culture of nations”; Emanuel Swedenborg, a “rich discoverer” who strove to unite the scientific and spiritual planes; Michel de Montaigne, “the frankest and honestest of all writers”; William Shakespeare, who “wrote the text of modern life”; Napoleon Bonaparte, who had the “virtues and vices” of common men writ large; and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who “in conversation, in calamity…finds new materials.”
This Modern Library Paperback Classic reflects the author’s corrections for an 1876 reprinting.
Emerson is like Henry Adams--very confused most of the time and attempting to confuse his readers to make himself feel more comfortable. The grandiose style makes them look brilliant, unless you are brilliant and notice that it's a bunch of stupidity most of the time. His essay on Montaigne, the Skeptic, is the classic here and is a welcome addition to any collection of secondary sources on the French essayist. He makes some valid points about Shakespeare, most of his essay about Plato is worthwhile.That gets him four stars. But I'm subtracting one for his essay on Swedenborg, which is horrible. If I had balls, I'd subtract TWO stars for it. The problem is, if you haven't already read these authors, these essays make no sense; and even if you have, they add next to nothing to your knowledge of them. They don't help you make sense of them. They may even help you lose sense of them, if you're dumb enough to value Emerson over the authors themselves.And who on Earth would put Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Goethe--and Napoleon--together? The categorization itself is the height of stupidity. And they're mostly in chronological order, but then he places Swedenborg before Montaigne rather than between Shakespeare and Napoleon, which makes no sense at all.Most importantly, why in God's name would he give Swedenborg the longest essay and not any of the others?Alas, because he is confused by the Swede and is using the press to try and sort his own thoughts out.Oh, well.read more
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