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, 09 November 2008 16:30
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in 1803 and died in 1882. At the age of eight, he became fatherless. After an austere youth and studies at Harvard, he first became an Unitarian minister in Boston before evolving into the famous essayist, poet (he said: « I am born a poet, of a low class without doubt, yet a poet. That is my nature and vocation. ») and popular philosopher that we know. After marrying Lydia Jackson in 1835, he settled in Concord near Boston. The year 1836 was marked by the publication of his essay on Nature. He was thus to be greeted by the young generation who saw in him the new mentor of America. Thoreau was his neighbor and disciple, and became during his life a living illustration of the principles advocated by Emerson, particularly through his book Walden. In 1837, "The American scholar" is a speech in favour of the defense of a real American culture which, according to James Russell Lowell, "cut off the cable which linked America to British thought".
He not only remains as the "philosopher of optimism" of the 19th century, but also as a champion of feeling for nature. He was inspired by Romanticism, Neo-Platonism, Kantianism, and Hinduism, and developed an "existentialist" ethics of self-improvement. His essay "SelfConfidence" provided the basis of a new identity for America. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were contemporaries and friends. They both belonged to the current of Transcendentalism, which defends the immanence of the All in each element, even the minutest, and within oneself. It is linked not only to German romanticism and idealism but also to the great Asian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism). It is not transcendence by means of the supernatural, but an inner transcendence. It consists in a transformation of the interiority by a mystical or poetical experience, by an experience of being one with nature. The individual and his action are seen as the essential factotrs in morals
in science. God is deemed to be closer to the Atman (Hindu conception).and politics. They also advocate self-discipline in daily life. He first notes that when one want to be alone. and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!" All the objects in nature entail such an impression of wisdom. Nature: Emerson first sought an answer to the question of the place of man in a "science" of nature. yet holds connexions and living communications with the earth. how would men believe and adore. which is beyond human personality. He says: "His intercourse with heaven and earth becomes part of his daily food. is itself a revelation of an omnipotent mind! God delights to diffuse himself everywhere ». Transcendentalism was born close to the Unitarian church. one can look at the stars because they inspire a feeling of respect. 1828: «How much of God may be seen in the structure of a simple leaf. the universal soul or spirit. In the presence of nature. His essay. where rituals are not considered to be as important as the inner experience and as outward behavior. slavery or alcoholism. and even in religion. which. The commitment of the believer has to lead to action: against poverty. William Ellery CHANNING. 1. He add: "If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years. and through these sympathies with the universe. was published in 1836. It is a humanistic and social religion. Nature: it is an experience of solitude." This power of ecstasy is not due . and the distant sun. the clouds. mainly established in New England. and is the main text by Emerson and about transcendantalism. the air. It is divided into 8 parts. Nature. and the Holy Spirit) which is not present in the Bible and insist on the human nature of Jesus. Likeness to God. ignorance. in spite of real sorrows. The Unitarians contest the Trinity (God. Transcendentalism does not recognize either the Trinity or God as a person. happiness and simplicity. a wild delight runs through the man. Emerson insists on the importance of this link between man and nature. though so frail as to tremble in every wind. because they remain inaccessible. Jesus.
Fêtes Galantes]. We can take the example of the ploughman: his activity is always linked to nature. "Language is a third use which Nature subserves to man". The wind sows the seed. Beauty: he divides it into three elements: first. Spirit primarily means wind. and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man". as a relief for men. the ice. to the season. 5. as they are for Plato. Discipline: Every material event is a lesson which the soul has to take as a spiritual lesson. "Right means straight. Commodity: Nature is perfectly fitted for human beings. but to the human. when the latter writes. In fact. beauty as "the mark God sets upon virtue". he note that words are signs of natural facts. for instance "your soul is a selected landscape" [votre âme est un paysage choisi. For instance. the wind blows the vapor to the field. and beauty. However. both are complementary. Goodness and Beauty are the same thing ("Truth. Concerning this aspect. This can be compared to the symbolism in poetry. 4. like that of Paul Verlaine. Language: for Emerson. Then. that he sees beauty and virtue "when Leonidas and his three hundred martyrs consume one day in dying. and goodness. condenses rain on this. the sun evaporates the sea. the rain feeds the plant. 2. his vision does not reject industry as being in contradiction with nature: for him. wrong means twisted. he provided a really romantic explanation of the phenomenon. as Emerson said: "All the parts incessantly work into each other's hands for the profit of man. Then. transgression.only to nature. To finish. on contact with nature. he realizes the existence of a universal symbolism. are but different faces of the same All"). for instance. The ploughman has to follow the constancy of nature as a discipline to achieve . the crossing of a line". when he says: "Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact". when he says. Finally. Emerson seems to have an idyllic vision of nature as something which is alive and surrounds men and which is at their service. Discipline can be defined as a capacity to make one's actions dependent on some key principles. 3. saying for instance that "The production of a work of art throws a light upon the mystery of humanity". beauty as a pleasure in perceiving natural forms. Emerson adds that we have to use the pleasure of nature with some moderation because "Nature always wears the colors of the spirit". he considers beauty as an object of the intellect. the plant feeds the animal. His conceptions of values are really close to those of the Greeks: for him Truth. on the other side of the planet. to the harmony between the two. we become an integral part of God. and the sun and moon come each and look at them once in the steep defile of Thermopylae". First.
Whereas the Ancients considered man as one element among others in the Cosmos. Another important idea in this chapter is the pragmatism demanded by Emerson: his idealism is a practical idealism when he says: "good thoughts are no better than good dreams. Indeed. 8. to be in contact with nature: trees are sparse. Emerson does not consider nature as miserly or cursed. Emerson is also heir to the galileo-cartesian revolution in which man stopped considering himself as an element like any other in nature. but as the master and owner of it (Descartes). For instance. so long as we can see far enough". thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you. Adam will have to work to harvest the fruits of the soil. unless they be executed". forests even more and sometimes. Like Bacon. To finish. in cities today. the attorney comes out of the din and craft of the street.)We are never tired. he says: "The tradesman.his work. God says "cursed is the ground because of you. in the chapter about Beauty. 6. This also represents an important value in Americans thoughout this period. in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. but in the service of man.. In the chapter Language he says that the life of cities is artificial and curtailed. Spirit: The essential for man is to recognize the Spirit in nature. We may observe that the US was the first country to open National Parks to preserve nature. Idealism: Emerson is opposed to a Christian vision of nature. Actually. It receives the dominion of man as meekly as the ass on which the Saviour rode. and sees the sky and the woods. like resistance or inertia. On the contrary. he finds himself (. 7. in this chapter. he . men have to be inspired by nature in their moral being and follow nature's principles. In Genesis. after the fall of Adam and Eve from Eden. It is made to serve. In the chapter about nature. everybody is not able to "see far enough". Emerson poses a really current problem when he refers to the benefits of nature on the human soul. It offers all its kingdoms to man as the raw material which he may mould into what is useful". when he explains that nature helps to free us from daily worries.. even the sky is not accessible because of pollution. Prospects: Emerson concludes his essay by offering to build man's spirituality by a new vision of nature. he opposes the philosophy of the Ancients when he says: "Nature is thoroughly mediate. and you shall eat the plants of the field". and is a man again. But. This is characteristic of an essentially American vision of the subject. Emerson thinks that we have to question nature to make it confess its secrets. a nature in a state of wildness. the first American settlers were confronted with a virgin space. We can compare his thought with that of the 2àth century German thinker and sociologist Mannheim: a utopia only exist if it is implemented. In their eternal calm.
I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar. I embrace the common. but of migration.. in daily life. According to Emerson. or Provençal minstrelsy. He insists on the fact that perceptions are more reliable than thoughts: there exists a world of thinking as in the cavern of Plato. He refuses a society where giving alms is a necessity. what is Greek art. Indeed. the independence of American thought requested by Emerson is a claiming of the common. It is not an answer to the problem of knowledge. for instance. what is doing in Italy or Arabia. the concrete. today. and Americans are finally not settlers but migrants (Thoreau says in Walden: « I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there »). Indeed. Here lies the optimism of Emerson. and you may have the antique and future worlds». Emerson also claims for the pursuit of a better me. as in Plato's philosophy. the process of migration is really better accepted in the United States than in Europe. it could be interesting to emphasize the influence of Emerson's work on the definition of an American identity. In his essay Experience. he asks "Where do we find ourselves?" and an answer might be that the American philosophy is based on the concept of the "common". by the intelligibility of the daily. American people do not hesitate in moving from one end of the United States to the opposite end for their work or to start a new job. he brings up a real problem: are the persons who do not have access to nature condemned never to return to reason. the romantic. following its own forms. he specifies: "I ask not for the great. Emerson defends a practical idealism. Emerson refuses philanthropy. an improvement of the self. This demand for the popular. America has the capacity to re-invent tragedy. nor escape mean egotism? As we yet studied Thoreau's philosophy on Nature and Transcendentalism. Emerson and Thoreau are not philosophers of the American identity. the original America does not exist and never existed.)Standing on the bare ground. not from an egoistic point of view. thus maintaining the latter in a state of inferiority. as it can re-invent Kantian philosophy. the low. because it is given to a person in a context of inequality.writes that "In the woods.all mean egotism vanishes". a change. but with the new idea of an improvement.. but the only world where I can change things is the common world. -. -my head bathed by the blithe air. we return to reason and faith. but because he considers that "a charitable dollar is a mean dollar". (. In The American Scholar. Give me insight into to-day. and uplifted into infinite space. the common is built in opposition with the elitism of European culture. In Emerson's philosophy. the common. but a means to re-think the question of the relationship with the world. . the remote. As we have seen in the chapter concerning discipline. and so is against charity and in favor of social action.
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