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Ralph Waldo Emerson

a cura di B. Soressi

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B. Soressi – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston 1803 - Concord 1882), was the fourth son of a Unitarian
After losing his father in 1811, he studied at the Boston Public Latin School and
received his degree from Harvard College in 1821. Then he taught in the schools “for
young ladies”, where he remained until his entrance in the Harvard Divinity School,
from which he received his MA in 1827. Two years later he became junior pastor and
married Ellen Tucker, who died of tuberculosis only two years later. This coincides with
Emerson’s first important crisis, which ends with his resignations as pastor and with his
long trip to Europe, beginning from Malta and Sicily up to England. Develops a
friendship with Carlyle and meets Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Once came back to the Usa, in 1834 he begins a long career as lecturer. In the
following year he moves to a country house in Concord. He marries Lydia Jackson
(1802-92), who bears him five children. In 1838 he reads in public an “appeal of the
Cherokees”, who have been removed from Georgia, and pleads the same case also
through a severe letter to the Usa president Van Buren.
In 1840 comes out the first issue of The Dial, the transcendentalist review, which
Emerson will direct in 1842. In this year H.D. Thoreau begins to live in Emerson’s
house as a general handyman and a paternal figure during his friend’s long conference
tours. E. looks with a detached sympathy at the many experiments of communitarian
life of his time, such as the “neo-Pythagorean” community of his friend A.B. Alcott. He
declines the invitation to participate to Brook Farm, another famous “commune”. In
1843 he speaks in public his anti-slavery position, which leads him to risk his safety
during a discourse of 1861. In 1866 he receives a honoris causa doctorate at the
Harvard College, where he lectures the following year. In 1873 he is in Europe again.

The Sermons
In 1826 E. pronounces the first of his 171 Sermons, works in which, among many
ingenuities, one can notice an impressive open-mindedness on theological issues and
penetrating anticipations of his future thinking. The last sermon is The Lord’s Supper
(1832): here he presents his resignations as pastor, after offering a symbolistic
interpretation of the dogma of transubstantiation and after arguing against the traditional

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B. Soressi – Ralph Waldo Emerson

conception (assimilated by the Unitarians) of the consecrated bread and wine as Christ’s
body. Jesus is essentially seen as the supreme model of the educator, and he is spoiled
of any exclusive divine clothing. There emerges an idea of Christian spirituality as
freedom and as an invitation to live in love, opening oneself to the possible rituals and
forms of life, and without stiffing in specific forms or rigid institutions.
Nature (1836)
In these years E., who already in Paris is fascinated by the Jardin des plantes and
the Musée des sciences, enthusiastically reads the theorist of sciences and astronomer
Herschel, and writes natural history essays, essays on English literature, and
biographies. In 1836 comes out, anonymous, Nature, a little systematic treatise which is
central in the landscape of American Transcendentalism, that is a philosophical current
which in E,’s and Thoreau’s versions one can see as a sort of existentialism which has
pragmatist as much as idealistic and prophetic ramifications. Nature begins with an
explicit critique of post-hegelian historicism and of every “retrospective” attitude; a
critique that he will further develop in the following essays and which one can find –
almost without consistent variations, in Nietzsche’s second Untimely Meditation. The
other critique, directed against forms of “paltry empiricism” (in E.’s words), such as the
Humean ones, underlies the will to realize a form of thinking which can inspire the
future thinkers and which can invite the, to an experimental and a thinking-“poietic”
attitude toward life. This is also a sort of transfiguration of the famous “bet” of Pascal
(whose Thoughts E. read already when 9 years old). If one follows this thread, and the
persistent reference of life to writing and vice versa, one would reach – and without any
consistent gap – to the poetical pragmatism of Nietzsche and Heidegger. In fact, these
are all distinctive traits of E.’s following works. The main idea is that of preparing the
textual and spiritual soil for the coming of a future Thinker-Poet (elsewhere called
Reformer, Individual, and, as in the following paragraph, American Scholar…).

The American Scholar (1837) and Divinity School Address (1838)

These two essays are the fruit of years of fervid studies in education, in the
philosophy of culture and in philosophical anthropology (concentrated into a consistent
number of essays which perhaps would be worthwhile to reconsider). The essay of 1837
is the elaboration of an homonymous conference held at Harvard and defined by O.W.

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B. Soressi – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Holmes as “our intellectual Declaration of Independence”. Readers and scholars of any

sort are invited to build from the foundations a new authentically American culture, and
to free themselves from the eagerness to imitate at any cost the European models.
Moreover, it is suggested Gramscian ideal of a total, organic intellectual, one who can
unite both thinking and acting. The scholar must be – rather than a reader of books – an
observer of reality, of even the most ordinary and humble everydayness. The essay of
1838 draws a certainly not new image, but one which is still, in its extreme simplicity,
“scandalous” for theologians and conservatives: that of a Jesus as teacher-democratizer
of the divine status, one who teaches to each and all how to become those divine beings
that they potentially are. What is denied is the idea that the regal privileges of the divine
status would belong only to Jesus Christ or any other divinized being. This claim for an
exclusive divine status is seen as the base of “the universal decay and now almost death
of faith in society”.

Essays, I series (1841)

The Essays represent one of the richest and most mature works of E. Self-Reliance
is the center of E.’s thinking and not wrongly his most famous essay: it is the modern
version of the ancient Socratic and Stoic credo in the individual, in the resources of the
soul, and in a mind, or soul, which is at once individual and universal. This implies the
need to express, or at least to carefully follow, our “latent conviction”, our “rejected
thoughts”, even those that we would consider as most stupid or insignificant. Hence it
follows the option for the “wandering” writing style of Montaigne, the one philosopher
that E. feels as most next to him. It is an intermediate form between aphorism and
treatise, that is the Essay. So E. abandons Nature’s residual systematical purposes, and
relies more and more on his Journals, that may be considered as the foundation of his
philosophical work, as they contain many cardinal intuitions which will appear first in
the lectures, and finally in the published works. In the Journals one can find personal
intuitions and observations beside quotations and translations that go from Goethe to
Novalis, from Milton to Coleridge, from Plato to Plutarch and Plotinus, to Swedenborg,
from Vedic and Classical Indian thought to Confucian thought, to Persian poets, to
Trascendentalists such as Sampson Reed or that aunt of him, Mary Moody E., who has
also been a fundamental parental figure for E.

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B. Soressi – Ralph Waldo Emerson

In Self-Reliance and Circles it is evident a particular mode of thinking, which

Stanley Cavell calls “aversive thinking,” and which is a thinking and a theory of
individuation through a self-education to abandonment. This implies a perfectionist
ethics and the acceptation of forms of external inconsistency below which, however,
there is the consistent rout of a character, of a personality. These two essays express
what is perhaps the most radical thesis of intellectual non-conformism ever expressed
before Nietzsche. But in E. the somehow Nietzschean harshness is inscribed into a
clearly democratic attitude, which is therefore distinct from that of the German
philosopher both because less resented and less obsessed by its polemical targets, and
because E. never worries too much about setting hierarchies, and never makes
distinctions between classes of men unreachably superior and other classes of incurably
degenerate subjects. Each one is different because each one participates in his own way
of the “common-wealth” of humanity. But all are potentially equal because they can
participate of this patrimony, of this common-wealth. Even us, as Dewey did, can so
discover in E. a sort of “American Nietzsche” who is a stimulating educator in a
democratic society.
In History E. invokes the need to join together individual life and universal
history. He invites us to read history while identifying ourselves with the men of the
past and empathically, with our imagination, re-living their lives to the point of
overcoming space and time. History is, first of all, the product of single human lives and
of what is universal in them. For this reason it has to be a mean of discovery of what the
universal that unites us, and therefore a mean of discovery not only of what has been,
but also of what we all are and can be in the future.
What results is an amor fati that had been expressed through a sentence which is
also Nietzsche’s quotation-homage to E. (title page of The Gay Science): “To the poet,
to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable,
all days holy, all men divine”.
Intellect sheds light on two pre-Heideggerian aspects of Emerson’s philosophy: an
emotional theory of knowing and a conception of thinking as a “pious reception”
(something already present in Self-Reliance and The Over-Soul). Compensation and
Spiritual Laws illustrate part of E.’s vision of ethics and justice, which is founded on a
supposed omni-present and inviolable order of nature. Here is evident a compensatory

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B. Soressi – Ralph Waldo Emerson

anthropological theory: man is seen as a being who “acquires new arts, and loses old

Essays, II series (1844)

The Poet presents a prophetology marked by a democratic attitude which seems to
imply already the work of Whitman (who attended the homonymous lecture), and
suggests a theory of social transformation through poetry. In a re-reading of Plato’s
Myth of the Cave, Emerson’s Poet is seen as a “liberating god” and the one who can
realize the ideal of philosophical, scientific, and poetic revolution that is promoted in
The sense of the possibility of a scientific-cultural revolution is even stronger in
the reader of Experience, which is considered as the height of the Emersonian
skepticism. E. presents here an epistemological theory which levels the aspirations of
the previous epistemologies and opposes the previous conceptions of empiricism,
which tend to flatten on a poor form of experience such as the merely sensorial one (v.
Nature, 1836). The image of human experience becomes more complicated; to the point
that we become spectators of a proliferation of the criteria of knowledge, which are no
longer limited to Aristoteles’ or Kant’ categories. As with Heidegger, the moods and
other aspects of reality (such as “surprise”) come into play. These constitute criteria of
knowledge of the world, a way through which a world can reveal itself to us.

Representative Men (1850)

This collection of essays shows in a first instance, what could be the scope and
goal of our knowing the works and the life of the “great men”: they are worth not so
much in that they are exemplars we have to servilely imitate, but as they are stimulating
figures because representative of the potential inside each human being: Plato will
speak to the Plato that is in us, and analogously Shakespeare, and so on. One needs to
put himself in dialogue with these voices, but he also needs to use them well, avoiding
being subjected by their authoritative influence.

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B. Soressi – Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Conduct of Life (1860)

After the Essays, I and II series, this is the collection of essays that deals most
directly with anthropologic-philosophical themes, and, according to some studies, it is
one of the works that mostly inspired Nietzsche. In it there is an emphasized pragmatic
and ethical instance, a more realistic approach which also implies a more open
confrontation with the civilization of E.’s own time. Emerson is here ever more oriented
toward the foundation of a philosophy of the conduct of life centred on a culture of non-
conformity and very high ethical ideals (for example, the essay Worship, which insists
on the absolute priority of the ethico-moral quality of existence, at intervals seems to be
a modern re-writing of Plato’s Gorgias). In Fate E. attempts to find the points of
convergence between human freedom and determinism, and, in a more or less direct
way, deals with the problem of slavery as a historical fact. In Power he underlines the
importance of vital energy and of the sentiment of power as a criterion of validity, and
in Wealth he extends these themes to that of economic power.

Society and Solitude (1870) and Natural History of the Intellect

The first volume contains the homonymous essay, one of the best essays of the
later E., which portrays an individual who is divided between an indispensable but
“fatal” society and a liberating but “impracticable” solitude. In Domestic Life he
sketches a philosophy of the house and a thinking of hospitality. In 1870 E. held
lectures at Harvard (beside teachers of the caliber of C.S. Peirce – who declared himself
somehow indebted to, though critic of - Transcendntalism). These are known as Natural
History of the Intellect. Here E. originally intended to propose the “transcendentalist”
study of mind on philosophically and scientifically rigorous bases (a kind of study
which could already be found in Kant and in German Idealists such as Schelling and
an author whom E. read through J.B. Stallo’s interpretation). E., with this project,
which never completely satisfied him, aimed at rendering himself more “respectable” in
an academic environment while remaining accessible also to the non-specialists. The
result is a refined poetic-psycholoic exercise of analysis of different possible metaphors
of mind, beginning from the idea of the tree, and passing through that of electricity, up
to the psychoanalytic image of the sea, and to images which clearly anticipate William

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B. Soressi – Ralph Waldo Emerson

James’ stream of consciousness (James had been much more indebted to E. than he

The Last Published Essays

In 1875 Letters and Social Aims comes out, collecting essays written in different
periods, such as Poetry and Imagination (where he intends to follow the Provencal
conception of poetry as the gai science), Quotation and Originality (where clearly
emerges both the idea of the social genesis of culture and the tireless attempt to free
oneself from the mere repetition of the other’s discourse, something Heidegger will call
“gossip”). In Immortality E. investigates the possibility of conceiving new forms of
“intra-worldly” immortality. Miscellanies comes out in 1878: it consists of many essays,
including a part of the impressive number of historical, civil and literary addresses held
by Emerson.

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B. Soressi – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Essential Bibliography on Emerson

Cavell, S., Emerson Transcendental Etudes. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2003. This is a
collection of all the essays written on Emerson by his most profound philosophical
Kateb, G., Emerson and Self-Reliance. Thousand Oaks: Sage Press, 1995. Emerson’s
democratic individualism.
Richardson, R., Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1995. The
most up to date biography. And the author is extraordinarily careful about the textual
origin of Emerson’s thinking.
Stack, G.J., Nietzsche and Emerson: An Elective Affinity. Athens: Ohio UP, 1992.
Soressi, B., Ralph Waldo Emerson. Il pensiero e la solitudine. Roma: Armando, 2004.
An introduction to Emerson’s philosophy through Cavell’s interpretations and from a
European perspective.
Urbinati, N., Individualismo democratico. Emerson, Dewey e la cultura politica
americana. Roma: Donzelli, 1997.
Whicher, S., Freedom and Fate. An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950. A classical text on Emerson’s life and works.
Worley, S., Emerson, Thoreau, and the Role of the Cultural Critic. Albany: SUNY
Press, 2001.
Book reviewed in SWIF.

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