Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston 1803-1882) was a poet and essayist associated strongly with Romanticism and one of the founders of Transcendentalism. These movements were reactions to the industrialization of the society at the turn of the 18th century, and reactions especially against the world's increasing complexity. Emerson, along with other trancendentalist poets, believed that a respect for or a return to the simplicity of the beauty of nature was required to preserve human uniqueness. Emerson graduated from Harvard University at the age of 18.

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His addresses—including "The Philosophy of History," "Human Culture," "Human Life," and "The Present Age"—were based on material in his Journals (published posthumously, 1909-1914), a collection of observations and notes that he had begun while a student at Harvard. His most detailed statement of belief was reserved for his first published book, Nature (1836), which appeared anonymously but was soon correctly attributed to him... The volume received little notice, but it has come to be regarded as Emerson's most original and significant work, offering the essence of his philosophy of transcendentalism.

Emerson applied these ideas to cultural and intellectual problems in his 1837 lecture "The American Scholar," which he delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard. In it he called for American intellectual independence. A second address, commonly referred to as the "Address at Divinity College," delivered in 1838 to the graduating class of Cambridge Divinity College, aroused considerable controversy because it attacked formal religion and argued for self-reliance and intuitive spiritual experience. [1]

Emerson especially railed against the increasingly conformity in society brought about by industrialization. Fearing especially the influence of religion, he wrote to encourage men to be different, and rejoice in their difference. Towards that end, he wrote,

"Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist," and,
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by petty statesmen."

These were both in his famous essay, "Self Reliance."

Emerson's poem "Brahma" is also well-known:

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

See also


  • Milton Birnbaum, "The Kaleidoscopic Emerson," Modern Age Volume 45, Number 1; Winter 2003 online edition
  • James Kalb, "Emerson and Us," Modern Age Volume 45, Number 1; Winter 2003 online edition


  1. Ralph Waldo Emerson