Emerson Essays Made Easy

Ralph Waldo Emerson   The Complete Works.  
Vol. X. Lectures and Biographical Sketches
 
 
                  T
Shall have society of its own rank:
Be great, be true, and all the Scipios,
The Catos, the wise patriots of Rome,
Shall flock to you and tarry by your side
And comfort you with their high company.

I 1 is remarkable that of an author so familiar as Plutarch, not only to scholars, but to all reading men, and whose history is so easily gathered from his works, no accurate memoir of his life, not even the dates of his birth and death, should have come down to us. Strange that the writer of so many illustrious biographies should wait so long for his own. It is agreed that he was born about the year 50 of the Christian era. He has been represented as having been the tutor of the Emperor Trajan, as dedicating one of his books to him, as living long in Rome in great esteem, as having received from Trajan the consular dignity, and as having been appointed by him the governor of Greece. He was a man whose real superiority had no need of these flatteries. Meantime, the simple truth is, that he was not the tutor of Trajan, that he dedicated no book to him, was not consul in Rome, nor governor of Greece; appears never to have been in Rome but on two occasions, and then on business of the people of his native city, Chæronea; and though he found or made friends at Rome, and read lectures to some friends or scholars, he did not know or learn the Latin language there; with one or two doubtful exceptions, never quotes a Latin book; and though the contemporary, in his youth or in his old age, of Persius, Juvenal, Lucan and Seneca, of Quintilian, Martial, Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Elder and the Younger, he does not cite them, and, in return, his name is never mentioned by any Roman writer. It would seem that the community of letters and of personal news was even more rare at that day than the want of printing, of rail-roads and telegraphs, would suggest to us.
  But this neglect by his contemporaries has been compensated by an immense popularity in modern nations. Whilst his books were never known to the world in their own Greek tongue, it is curious that the Lives were translated and printed in Latin, thence into Italian, French and English, more than a century before the original Works were yet printed. For whilst the Lives were translated in Rome in 1470, and the Morals, part by part, soon after, the first printed edition of the Greek Works did not appear until 1572. Hardly current in his own Greek, these found learned interpreters in the scholars of Germany, Spain and Italy. In France, in the middle of the most turbulent civil wars, Amyot’s translation awakened general attention. His genial version of the Lives in 1559, of the Morals in 1572, had signal success. 2 King Henry IV. wrote to his wife, Marie de Medicis: “Vive Dieu. As God liveth, you could not have sent me anything which could be more agreeable than the news of the pleasure you have taken in this reading. Plutarch always delights me with a fresh novelty. To love him is to love me; for he has been long time the instructor of my youth. My good mother, to whom I owe all, and who would not wish, she said, to see her son an illustrious dunce, put this book into my hands almost when I was a child at the breast. 3 It has been like my conscience, and has whispered in my ear many good suggestions and maxims for my conduct and the government of my affairs.” Still earlier, Rabelais cites him with due respect. Montaigne, in 1589, says: “We dunces had been lost, had not this book raised us out of the dirt. By this favor of his we dare now speak and write. The ladies are able to read to schoolmasters. ’T is our breviary.” Montesquieu drew from him his definition of law, and, in his Pensées, declares, “I am always charmed with Plutarch; in his writings are circumstances attached to persons, which give great pleasure;” and adds examples. Saint-Evremond read Plutarch to the great Condé under a tent. Rollin, so long the historian of antiquity for France, drew unhesitatingly his history from him. Voltaire honored him, and Rousseau acknowledged him as his master. In England, Sir Thomas North translated the Lives in 1579, and Holland the Morals in 1603, in time to be used by Shakspeare in his plays, and read by Bacon, Dryden and Cudworth.
  Then, recently, there has been a remarkable revival, in France, in the taste for Plutarch and his contemporaries; led, we may say, by the eminent critic Sainte-Beuve. M. Octave Gréard, in a critical work on the Morals, has carefully corrected the popular legends and constructed from the works of Plutarch himself his true biography. M. Levéque has given an exposition of his moral philosophy, under the title of “A Physician of the Soul,” in the Revue des Deux Mondes; and M. C. Martha, chapters on the genius of Marcus Aurelius, of Persius and Lucretius, in the same journal; whilst M. Fustel de Coulanges has explored from its roots in the Aryan race, then in their Greek and Roman descendants, the primæval religion of the household. 4
  Plutarch occupies a unique place in literature as an encyclopædia of Greek and Roman antiquity. Whatever is eminent in fact or in fiction, in opinion, in character, in institutions, in science,—natural, moral or metaphysical,—or in memorable sayings, drew his attention and came to his pen with more or less fulness of record. He is, among prose writers, what Chaucer is among English poets, a repertory for those who want the story without searching for it at first hand,—a compend of all accepted traditions. And all this without any supreme intellectual gifts. He is not a profound mind; not a master in any science; not a lawgiver, like Lycurgus or Solon; not a metaphysician, like Parmenides, Plato or Aristotle; not the founder of any sect or community, like Pythagoras or Zeno; not a naturalist, like Pliny or Linnæus; not a leader of the mind of a generation, like Plato or Goethe. But if he had not the highest powers, he was yet a man of rare gifts. He had that universal sympathy with genius which makes all its victories his own; though he never used verse, he had many qualities of the poet in the power of his imagination, the speed of his mental associations and his sharp, objective eyes. But what specially marks him, he is a chief example of the illumination of the intellect by the force of morals. Though the most amiable of boon companions, this generous religion gives him aperçus like Goethe’s.
  Plutarch was well-born, well-taught, well-conditioned; a self-respecting, amiable man, who knew how to better a good education by travels, by devotion to affairs private and public; a master of ancient culture, he read books with a just criticism; eminently social, he was a king in his own house, surrounded himself with select friends, and knew the high value of good conversation; and declares in a letter written to his wife that “he finds scarcely an erasure, as in a book well-written, in the happiness of his life.”
  The range of mind makes the glad writer. The reason of Plutarch’s vast popularity is his humanity. A man of society, of affairs; up-right, practical; a good son, husband, father and friend,—he has a taste for common life, and knows the court, the camp and the judgment-hall, but also the forge, farm, kitchen and cellar, and every utensil and use, and with a wise man’s or a poet’s eye. Thought defends him from any degradation. He does not lose his way, for the attractions are from within, not from without. A poet in verse or prose must have a sensuous eye, but an intellectual co-perception. Plutarch’s memory is full, and his horizon wide. Nothing touches man but he feels to be his; he is tolerant even of vice, if he finds it genial; enough a man of the world to give even the Devil his due, and would have hugged Robert Burns, when he cried:—
  “O wad ye tak’ a thought and mend!”
He is a philosopher with philosophers, a naturalist with naturalists, and sufficiently a mathematician to leave some of his readers, now and then, at a long distance behind him, or respectfully skipping to the next chapter. 5 But this scholastic omniscience of our author engages a new respect, since they hope he understands his own diagram.
  He perpetually suggests Montaigne, who was the best reader he has ever found, though Montaigne excelled his master in the point and surprise of his sentences. Plutarch had a religion which Montaigne wanted, and which defends him from wantonness; and though Plutarch is as plain-spoken, his moral sentiment is always pure. What better praise has any writer received than he whom Montaigne finds “frank in giving things, not words,” dryly adding, “it vexes me that he is so exposed to the spoil of those that are conversant with him.” It is one of the felicities of literary history, the tie which inseparably couples these two names across fourteen centuries. Montaigne, whilst he grasps Etienne de la Boèce with one hand, reaches back the other to Plutarch. These distant friendships charm us, and honor all the parties, and make the best example of the universal citizenship and fraternity of the human mind.
  I do not know where to find a book—to borrow a phrase of Ben Jonson’s—“so rammed with life,” and this in chapters chiefly ethical, which are so prone to be heavy and sentimental. No poet could illustrate his thought with more novel or striking similes or happier anecdotes. His style is realistic, picturesque and varied; his sharp objective eyes seeing everything that moves, shines or threatens in nature or art, or thought or dreams. Indeed, twilights, shadows, omens and spectres have a charm for him. He believes in witchcraft and the evil eye, in demons and ghosts,—but prefers, if you please, to talk of these in the morning. His vivacity and abundance never leave him to loiter or pound on an incident. I admire his rapid and crowded style, as if he had such store of anecdotes of his heroes that he is forced to suppress more than he recounts, in order to keep up with the hasting history.
  His surprising merit is the genial facility with which he deals with his manifold topics. There is no trace of labor or pain. He gossips of heroes, philosophers and poets; of virtues and genius; of love and fate and empires. It is for his pleasure that he recites all that is best in his reading: he prattles history. But he is no courtier, and no Boswell: he is ever manly, far from fawning, and would be welcome to the sages and warriors he reports, as one having a native right to admire and recount these stirring deeds and speeches. I find him a better teacher of rhetoric than any modern. His superstitions are poetic, aspiring, affirmative. A poet might rhyme all day with hints drawn from Plutarch, page on page. No doubt, this superior suggestion for the modern reader owes much to the foreign air, the Greek wine, the religion and history of antique heroes. Thebes, Sparta, Athens and Rome charm us away from the disgust of the passing hour. But his own cheerfulness and rude health are also magnetic. In his immense quotation and allusion we quickly cease to discriminate between what he quotes and what he invents. We sail on his memory into the ports of every nation, enter into every private property, and do not stop to discriminate owners, but give him the praise of all. ’T is all Plutarch, by right of eminent domain, and all property vests in this emperor. 6 This facility and abundance make the joy of his narrative, and he is read to the neglect of more careful historians. Yet he inspires a curiosity, sometimes makes a necessity, to read them. He disowns any attempt to rival Thucydides; but I suppose he has a hundred readers where Thucydides finds one, and Thucydides must often thank Plutarch for that one. He has preserved for us a multitude of precious sentences, in prose or verse, of authors whose books are lost; and these embalmed fragments, through his loving selection alone, have come to be proverbs of later mankind. I hope it is only my immense ignorance that makes me believe that they do not survive out of his pages,—not only Thespis, Polemos, Euphorion, Ariston, Evenus, etc., but fragments of Menander and Pindar. At all events, it is in reading the fragments he has saved from lost authors that I have hailed another example of the sacred care which has unrolled in our times, and still searches and unrolls papyri from ruined libraries and buried cities, and has drawn attention to what an ancient might call the politeness of Fate,—we will say, more advisedly, the benign Providence which uses the violence of war, of earthquakes and changed water-courses, to save underground through barbarous ages the relics of ancient art, and thus allows us to witness the upturning of the alphabets of old races, and the deciphering of forgotten languages, so to complete the annals of the forefathers of Asia, Africa and Europe.
  His delight in poetry makes him cite with joy the speech of Gorgias, “that the tragic poet who deceived was juster than he who deceived not, and he that was deceived was wiser than he who was not deceived.” 7
  It is a consequence of this poetic trait in his mind, that I confess that, in reading him, I embrace the particulars, and carry a faint memory of the argument or general design of the chapter; but he is not less welcome, and he leaves the reader with a relish and a necessity for completing his studies. Many examples might be cited of nervous expression and happy allusion, that indicate a poet and an orator, though he is not ambitious of these titles, and cleaves to the security of prose narrative, and only shows his intellectual sympathy with these; yet I cannot forbear to cite one or two sentences which none who reads them will forget. In treating of the style of the Pythian Oracle, he says:—
  “Do you not observe, some one will say, what a grace there is in Sappho’s measures, and how they delight and tickle the ears and fancies of the hearers? Whereas the Sibyl, with her frantic grimaces, uttering sentences altogether thoughtful and serious, neither fucused nor perfumed, continues her voice a thousand years through the favor of the Divinity that speaks within her.”
  Another gives an insight into his mystic tendencies:—
  “Early this morning, asking Epaminondas about the manner of Lysis’s burial, I found that Lysis had taught him as far as the incommunicable mysteries of our sect, and that the same Dæmon that waited on Lysis, presided over him, if I can guess at the pilot from the sailing of the ship. The paths of life are large, but in few are men directed by the Dæmons. When Theanor had said this, he looked attentively on Epaminondas, as if he designed a fresh search into his nature and inclinations.”
  And here is his sentiment on superstition, somewhat condensed in Lord Bacon’s citation of it: “I had rather a great deal that men should say, There was no such man at all as Plutarch, than that they should say that there was one Plutarch that would eat up his children as soon as they were born, as the poets speak of Saturn.”
  The chapter “On Fortune” should be read by poets, and other wise men; and the vigor of his pen appears in the chapter “Whether the Athenians were more Warlike or Learned,” and in his attack upon Usurers.
  There is, of course, a wide difference of time in the writing of these discourses, and so in their merit. Many of them are mere sketches or notes for chapters in preparation, which were never digested or finished. Many are notes for disputations in the lecture-room. His poor indignation against Herodotus was perhaps a youthful prize essay: it appeared to me captious and labored; or perhaps, at a rhetorician’s school, the subject of Herodotus being the lesson of the day, Plutarch was appointed by lot to take the adverse side.
  The plain speaking of Plutarch, as of the ancient writers generally, coming from the habit of writing for one sex only, has a great gain for brevity, and, in our new tendencies of civilization, may tend to correct a false delicacy.
  We are always interested in the man who treats the intellect well. We expect it from the philosopher,—from Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza and Kant; but we know that metaphysical studies in any but minds of large horizon and incessant inspiration have their dangers. One asks sometimes whether a metaphysician can treat the intellect well. The central fact is the superhuman intelligence, pouring into us from its unknown fountain, to be received with religious awe, and defended from any mixture of our will. 8 But this high Muse comes and goes; and the danger is that, when the Muse is wanting, the student is prone to supply its place with microscopic subtleties and logomachy. It is fatal to spiritual health to lose your admiration. “Let others wrangle,” said St. Augustine; “I will wonder.” Plato and Plotinus are enthusiasts, who honor the race; but the logic of the sophists and materialists, whether Greek or French, fills us with disgust. Whilst we expect this awe and reverence of the spiritual power from the philosopher in his closet, we praise it in the man of the world;—the man who lives on quiet terms with existing institutions, yet indicates his perception of these high oracles; as do Plutarch, Montaigne, Hume and Goethe. These men lift themselves at once from the vulgar and are not the parasites of wealth. Perhaps they sometimes compromise, go out to dine, make and take compliments; but they keep open the source of wisdom and health. Plutarch is uniformly true to this centre. He had not lost his wonder. He is a pronounced idealist, who does not hesitate to say, like another Berkeley, “Matter is itself privation;” and again, “The Sun is the cause that all men are ignorant of Apollo, by sense withdrawing the rational intellect from that which is to that which appears.” He thinks that “souls are naturally endowed with the faculty of prediction;” he delights in memory, with its miraculous power of resisting time. He thinks that “Alexander invaded Persia with greater assistance from Aristotle than from his father Philip.” He thinks that “he who has ideas of his own is a bad judge of another man’s, it being true that the Eleans would be most proper judges of the Olympic games, were no Eleans gamesters.” He says of Socrates that he endeavored to bring reason and things together, and make truth consist with sober sense. He wonders with Plato at that nail of pain and pleasure which fastens the body to the mind. The mathematics give him unspeakable pleasure, but he chiefly liked that proportion which teaches us to account that which is just, equal; and not that which is equal, just.
  Of philosophy he is more interested in the results than in the method. He has a just instinct of the presence of a master, and prefers to sit as a scholar with Plato, than as a disputant; and true to his practical character, he wishes the philosopher not to hide in a corner, but to commend himself to men of public regards and ruling genius: “for, if he once possess such a man with principles of honor and religion, he takes a compendious method, by doing good to one, to oblige a great part of mankind.” ’T is a temperance, not an eclecticism, which makes him adverse to the severe Stoic, or the Gymnosophist, or Diogenes, or any other extremist. That vice of theirs shall not hinder him from citing any good word they chance to drop. He is an eclectic in such sense as Montaigne was,—willing to be an expectant, not a dogmatist.
  In many of these chapters it is easy to infer the relation between the Greek philosophers and those who came to them for instruction. this teaching was no play nor routine, but strict, sincere and affectionate. The part of each of the class is as important as that of the master. They are like the baseball players, to whom the pitcher, the bat, the catcher and the scout are equally important. And Plutarch thought, with Ariston, “that neither a bath nor a lecture served any purpose, unless they were purgative.” Plutarch has such a keen pleasure in realities that he has none in verbal disputes; he is impatient of sophistry, and despises the Epicharmian disputations: as, that he who ran in debt yesterday owes nothing to-day, as being another man; so, he that was yesterday invited to supper, the next night comes an unbidden guest, for that he is quite another person.
  Except as historical curiosities, little can be said in behalf of the scientific value of the Opinions of the Philosophers, the Questions and the Symposiacs. They are, for the most part, very crude opinions; many of them so puerile that one would believe that Plutarch in his haste adopted the notes of his younger auditors, some of them jocosely misreporting the dogma of the professor, who laid them aside as memoranda for future revision, which he never gave, and they were posthumously published. Now and then there are hints of superior science. You may cull from this record of barbarous guesses of shepherds and travellers, statements that are predictions of facts established in modern science. Usually, when Thales, Anaximenes or Anaximander are quoted, it is really a good judgment. The explanation of the rainbow, of the floods of the Nile, and of the remora, etc., are just; and the bad guesses are not worse than many of Lord Bacon’s.
  His Natural History is that of a lover and poet, and not of a physicist. 9 His humanity stooped affectionately to trace the virtues which he loved in the animals also. “Knowing and not knowing is the affirmative or negative of the dog; knowing you is to be your friend; not knowing you, your enemy.” He quotes Thucydides’s saying that “not the desire of honor only never grows old, but much less also the inclination to society and affection to the State, which continue even in ants and bees to the very last.”
  But, though curious in the questions of the schools on the nature and genesis of things, his extreme interest in every trait of character, and his broad humanity, lead him constantly to Morals, to the study of the Beautiful and Good. Hence his love of heroes, his rule of life, and his clear convictions of the high destiny of the soul. La Harpe said that “Plutarch is the genius the most naturally moral that ever existed.”
  ’T is almost inevitable to compare Plutarch with Seneca, who, born fifty years earlier, was for many years his contemporary, though they never met, and their writings were perhaps unknown to each other. Plutarch is genial, with an endless interest in all human and divine things; Seneca, a professional philosopher, a writer of sentences, and, though he keep a sublime path, is less interesting, because less humane; and when we have shut his book, we forget to open it again. There is a certain violence in his opinions, and want of sweetness. He lacks the sympathy of Plutarch. He is tiresome through perpetual didactics. He is not happily living. Cannot the simple lover of truth enjoy the virtues of those he meets, and the virtues suggested by them, so to find himself at some time purely contented? Seneca was still more a man of the world than Plutarch; and by his conversation with the Court of Nero, and his own skill, like Voltaire’s, of living with men of business and emulating their address in affairs by great accumulation of his own property, learned to temper his philosophy with facts. He ventured far—apparently too far—for so keen a conscience as he inly had. Yet we owe to that wonderful moralist illustrious maxims; as if the scarlet vices of the times of Nero had the natural effect of driving virtue to its loftiest antagonisms. “Seneca,” says L’Estrange, “was a pagan Christian, and is very good reading for our Christian pagans.” He was Buddhist in his cold abstract virtue, with a certain impassibility beyond humanity. He called pity, “that fault of narrow souls.” Yet what noble words we owe to him: “God divided man into men, that they might help each other;” and again, “The good man differs from God in nothing but duration.” His thoughts are excellent, if only he had the right to say them. Plutarch, meantime, with every virtue under heaven, thought it the top of wisdom to philosophize yet not appear to do it, and to reach in mirth the same ends which the most serious are proposing.
  Plutarch thought “truth to be the greatest good that man can receive, and the goodliest blessing that God can give.” “When you are persuaded in your mind that you cannot either offer or perform anything more agreeable to the gods than the entertaining a right notion of them, you will then avoid superstition as a no less evil than atheism.” He cites Euripides to affirm, “If gods do aught dishonest, they are no gods,” and the memorable words of Antigone, in Sophocles, concerning the moral sentiment:—
  “For neither now nor yesterday began
  These thoughts, which have been ever, nor yet can
  A man be found who their first entrance knew.”
  His faith in the immortality of the soul is another measure of his deep humanity. He reminds his friends that the Delphic oracles have given several answers the same in substance as that formerly given to Corax the Naxian:—
  “It sounds profane impiety
  To teach that human souls e’er die.”
He believes that the doctrine of the Divine Providence, and that of the immortality of the soul, rest on one and the same basis. He thinks it impossible either that a man beloved of the gods should not be happy, or that a wise and just man should not be beloved of the gods. To him the Epicureans are hateful, who held that the soul perishes when it is separated from the body. “The soul, incapable of death, suffers in the same manner in the body, as birds that are kept in a cage.” He believes “that the souls of infants pass immediately into a better and more divine state.”
  I can easily believe that an anxious soul may find in Plutarch’s chapter called “Pleasure not attainable by Epicurus,” and his “Letter to his Wife Timoxena,” a more sweet and reassuring argument on the immortality than in the Phædo of Plato; for Plutarch always addresses the question on the human side, and not on the metaphysical; as Walter Scott took hold of boys and young men, in England and America, and through them of their fathers. His grand perceptions of duty lead him to his stern delight in heroism; a stoic resistance to low indulgence; to a fight with fortune; a regard for truth; his love of Sparta, and of heroes like Aristides, Phocion and Cato. He insists that the highest good is in action. He thinks that the inhabitants of Asia came to be vassals to one, only for not having been able to pronounce one syllable; which is, No. So keen is his sense of allegiance to right reason, that he makes a fight against Fortune whenever she is named. At Rome he thinks her wings were clipped: she stood no longer on a ball, but on a cube as large as Italy. He thinks it was by superior virtue that Alexander won his battles in Asia and Africa, and the Greeks theirs against Persia.
  But this Stoic in his fight with Fortune, with vices, effeminacy and indolence, is gentle as a woman when other strings are touched. He is the most amiable of men. “To erect a trophy in the soul against anger is that which none but a great and victorious puissance is able to achieve.”—“Anger turns the mind out of doors, and bolts the door.” He has a tenderness almost to tears when he writes on “Friendship,” on the “Training of Children” and on the “Love of Brothers.” “There is no treasure,” he says, “parents can give to their children, like a brother; ’t is a friend given by nature, a gift nothing can supply; once lost, not to be replaced. The Arcadian prophet, of whom Herodotus speaks, was obliged to make a wooden foot in place of that which had been chopped off. A brother, embroiled with his brother, going to seek in the street a stranger who can take his place, resembles him who will cut off his foot to give himself one of wood.”
  All his judgments are noble. He thought, with Epicurus, that it is more delightful to do than to receive a kindness. “This courteous, gentle and benign disposition and behavior is not so acceptable, so obliging or delightful to any of those with whom we converse, as it is to those who have it.” There is really no limit to his bounty: “It would be generous to lend our eyes and ears, nay, if possible, our reason and fortitude to others, whilst we are idle or asleep.” His excessive and fanciful humanity reminds one of Charles Lamb, whilst it much exceeds him. When the guests are gone, he “would leave one lamp burning, only as a sign of the respect he bore to fires, for nothing so resembles an animal as fire. It is moved and nourished by itself, and by its brightness, like the soul, discovers and makes everything apparent, and in its quenching shows some power that seems to proceed from a vital principle, for it makes a noise and resists, like an animal dying, or violently slaughtered;” and he praises the Romans, who, when the feast was over, “dealt well with the lamps, and did not take away the nourishment they had given, but permitted them to live and shine by it.”
  I can almost regret that the learned editor of the present republication has not preserved, if only as a piece of history, the preface of Mr. Morgan, the editor and in part writer of this Translation of 1718. In his dedication of the work to the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Wake, he tells the Primate that “Plutarch was the wisest man of his age, and, if he had been a Christian, one of the best too; but it was his severe fate to flourish in those days of ignorance, which, ’t is a favorable opinion to hope that the Almighty will sometime wink at; that our souls may be with these philosophers together in the same state of bliss.” The puzzle in the worthy translator’s mind between his theology and his reason well reappears in the puzzle of his sentence.
  I know that the chapter of “Apothegms of Noble Commanders” is rejected by some critics as not a genuine work of Plutarch; but the matter is good, and is so agreeable to his taste and genius, that if he had found it, he would have adopted it. If he did not compile the piece, many, perhaps most of the anecdotes were already scattered in his works. If I do not lament that a work not his should be ascribed to him, I regret that he should have suffered such destruction of his own. What a trilogy is lost to mankind in his Lives of Scipio, Epaminondas, and Pindar. 10
  His delight in magnanimity and self-sacrifice has made his books, like Homer’s Iliad, a bible for heroes; and wherever the Cid is relished, the legends of Arthur, Saxon Alfred and Richard the Lion-hearted, Robert Bruce, Sydney, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Cromwell, Nelson, Bonaparte, and Walter Scott’s Chronicles in prose or verse,—there will Plutarch, who told the story of Leonidas, of Agesilaus, of Aristides, Phocion, Themistocles, Demosthenes, Epaminondas, Cæsar, Cato and the rest, sit as the bestower of the crown of noble knighthood, and laureate of the ancient world.
  The chapters “On the Fortune of Alexander,” in the Morals, are an important appendix to the portrait in the Lives. The union in Alexander of sublime courage with the refinement of his pure tastes, making him the carrier of civilization into the East, are in the spirit of the ideal hero, and endeared him to Plutarch. That prince kept Homer’s poems not only for himself under his pillow in his tent, but carried these for the delight of the Persian youth, and made them acquainted also with the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles. He persuaded the Sogdians not to kill, but to cherish their aged parents; the Persians to reverence, not marry their mothers; the Scythians to bury and not eat their dead parents. What a fruit and fitting monument of his best days was his city Alexandria, to be the birthplace or home of Plotinus, St. Augustine, Synesius, Posidonius, Ammonius, Jamblichus, Porphyry, Origen, Aratus, Apollonius and Apuleius.
  If Plutarch delighted in heroes, and held the balance between the severe Stoic and the indulgent Epicurean, his humanity shines not less in his intercourse with his personal friends. He was a genial host and guest, and delighted in bringing chosen companions to the supper-table. He knew the laws of conversation and the laws of good-fellowship quite as well as Horace, and has set them down with such candor and grace as to make them good reading to-day. The guests not invited to a private board by the entertainer, but introduced by a guest as his companions, the Greek called shadows; and the question is debated whether it was civil to bring them, and he treats it candidly, but concludes: “Therefore, when I make an invitation, since it is hard to break the custom of the place, I give my guests leave to bring shadows; but when I myself am invited as a shadow, I assure you I refuse to go.” 11 He has an objection to the introduction of music at feasts. He thought it wonderful that a man having a muse in his own breast, and all the pleasantness that would fit an entertainment, would have pipes and harps play, and by that external noise destroy all the sweetness that was proper and his own.
  I cannot close these notes without expressing my sense of the valuable service which the Editor has rendered to his Author and to his readers. Professor Goodwin is a silent benefactor to the book, wherever I have compared the editions. I did not know how careless and vicious in parts the old book was, until, in recent reading of the old text, on coming on anything absurd or unintelligible, I referred to the new text and found a clear and accurate statement in its place. It is the vindication of Plutarch. The correction is not only of names of authors and of places grossly altered or misspelled, but of unpardonable liberties taken by the translators, whether from negligence or freak.
  One proof of Plutarch’s skill as a writer is that he bears translation so well. In spite of its carelessness and manifold faults, which, I doubt not, have tried the patience of its present learned editor and corrector, I yet confess my enjoyment of this old version, for its vigorous English style. The work of some forty or fifty University men, some of them imperfect in their Greek, it is a monument of the English language at a period of singular vigor and freedom of style. I hope the Commission of the Philological Society in London, charged with the duty of preparing a Critical Dictionary, will not overlook these volumes, which show the wealth of their tongue to greater advantage than many books of more renown as models. It runs through the whole scale of conversation in the street, the market, the coffee-house, the law courts, the palace, the college and the church. There are, no doubt, many vulgar phrases, and many blunders of the printer; but it is the speech of business and conversation, and in every tone, from lowest to highest.
  We owe to these translators many sharp perceptions of the wit and humor of their author, sometimes even to the adding of the point. I notice one, which, although the translator has justified his rendering in a note, the severer criticism of the Editor has not retained. “Were there not a sun, we might, for all the other stars, pass our days in the Reverend Dark, as Heraclitus calls it.” 12 I find a humor in the phrase which might well excuse its doubtful accuracy.
  It is a service to our Republic to publish a book that can force ambitious young men, before they mount the platform of the county conventions, to read the “Laconic Apothegms” and the “Apothegms of Great Commanders.” If we could keep the secret, and communicate it only to a few chosen aspirants, we might confide that, by this noble infiltration, they would easily carry the victory over all competitors. But, as it was the desire of these old patriots to fill with their majestic spirit all Sparta or Rome, and not a few leaders only, we hasten to offer them to the American people.
  Plutarch’s popularity will return in rapid cycles. If over-read in this decade, so that his anecdotes and opinions become commonplace, and to-day’s novelties are sought for variety, his sterling values will presently recall the eye and thought of the best minds, and his books will be reprinted and read anew by coming generations. And thus Plutarch will be perpetually rediscovered from time to time as long as books last. 13
 
Note 1. Dr. Holmes said, in his Memoir of Mr. Emerson, that “the Essay on Plutarch has a peculiar value from the fact that Emerson owes more to him than to any other author except Plato, who is one of the only two writers quoted oftener than Plutarch. Mutato nomine, the portrait which Emerson draws of the Greek moralist might stand for his own.” There is much truth in this remark. Throughout Plutarch’s writings the gracious and humane personality is singularly apparent, and the reasons of this sympathy across the centuries are plain.
  Mr. Emerson as a boy read Plutarch, and never tired of this early friend. When I was fourteen years old, he put Plutarch’s Lives into my hand and bade me read two pages every week-day and ten every holiday. It seemed at first an irksome task, but my mother asked me to read them aloud to her, and this made it easier. Lycurgus’s training of the Spartan boys, Archimedes’s amazing military engineering in the defence of Syracuse, Hannibal’s passage of the Alps, Scipio’s magnanimity and Cæsar’s courage and genius won their own way, as my father knew they would with a boy, and, what is by no means common with authors, the personality of the writer also, as, for instance, where he drops the narrative to hotly censure the meanness of Cato the Elder in selling his slaves when they were past service. The style of Plutarch could commend itself even to a boy. Mr. Emerson loved the racy English of Morgan’s edition of the Morals of 1718, and while sure of the accurate scholarship of Professor Goodwin in his revision of the work, I think interceded with him in advance to save the old English phraseology where possible, which was done. The correction of the inaccuracies, often gross, and the clearing up of obscurities by Professor Goodwin gave him, as he says in the essay, great pleasure.
  He was sure that Plutarch was as good reading for to-day as for men or boys nineteen centuries ago. He wrote, “When I read Plutarch, or look at a Greek vase, I am inclined to accept the common opinion of the learned, that the Greeks had cleaner wits than any other people. But there is anything but time in my idea of the Antique. A clear and natural expression by word or deed is that which we mean, when we love and praise the Antique. In society, I do not find it; in modern books, seldom; but when I come into the pastures, I find antiquity again. Once in the fields with the lowing cattle, the birds, trees, waters, and satisfying curves of the landscape, and I cannot tell whether this is Thessaly and Enna, or whether Concord and Acton.”
  This paper was originally printed as an introduction to Plutarch’s Morals, edited by Professor William W. Goodwin, and published, in 1871, by Messrs. Little, Brown & Co., through whose courtesy it is included in this edition. [back]
Note 2. Jacques Amyot (1513–1593), a youth of humble parentage, went to the College of France, and there underwent great privations in his zeal for learning. He soon after was made Professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Bourges. He there translated some of Plutarch’s Lives, which he dedicated to Francis I., who was so much pleased that he gave him the revenues of the Abbey of Bellezane. Amyot’s dream was to translate Plutarch, and he went to Italy in the train of certain prelates to see the best texts. Henry II. made him tutor to his two sons, later Charles IX. and Henry III., and for his success and his translations of Plutarch’s Lives and Morals made him grand almoner and Bishop of Auxerre. This necessitated his temporarily leaving the study of the Pagan writers to learn a little divinity. His royal pupils befriended him, but in the time of the League sad reverses befell him. [back]
Note 3. Jeanne D’Albret, queen of Navarre, of whom it was said that she was “a princess with nothing of the woman but the sex, with a soul full of everything manly, a mind fit to cope with affairs of moment and a heart invincible in adversity.” [back]
Note 4. La Cité Antique, by Coulanges, is the work here alluded to. [back]
Note 5. Probably the chapter which Mr. Emerson had to skip because of its technicality was the one “Concerning Music.” [back]
Note 6. This is a favorite doctrine of Mr. Emerson’s appearing in many places, especially in “Quotation and Originality” (Letters and Social Aims), that a good quoter acquires some rights in the original. Speaking of Shakspeare’s borrowings, in Representative Men, he said, “A great poet who appears in illiterate times absorbs into his sphere all the light which is anywhere radiating.” [back]
Note 7. This recalls the paper by Oscar Wilde “On the Decay of Lying,” a suggestive article on Art, in spite of the whimsical form in which it is clothed. [back]
Note 8. Mr. Emerson spoke in “The Over-Soul” of “that flowing river which, out of regions I see not, pours for a season its streams into me.” See also the poem, “The Two Rivers.” [back]
Note 9. This passage is one of those in which the likeness spoken of by Dr. Holmes between Plutarch and Emerson is conspicuous, the latter eager for all facts the naturalist could give, but using them as keys to higher laws. [back]
Note 10. In the journal, Mr. Emerson quotes Clough’s choice,—“Plutarch’s best life is Antony, I think.” [back]
Note 11. This is characteristic of Mr. Emerson. He willingly gave to proper persons letters of introduction, but he almost never used them. He said, “My practice is to go to the inn in the town where the person I wish to see lives and send a note to him thence. He can judge by the note whether I am a person he cares to see, or no.” [back]
Note 12. This phrase pleased Mr. Emerson; he used it, slightly modified, in the first stanza of “The Poet,” where the verse
  Fell unregarded to the ground.
Unseen by such as stood around.
The pious wind took it away.
The reverent darkness hid the lay.
 [back]
Note 13. Journal, 1860. “Plutarch, the elixir of Greece and Rome,—that is the book which nations want to compose. If the world’s library were burning, I should as soon fly to rescue that as Shakspeare and Plato, or next afterwards.” [back]
 



For the theologian, see Ralph Emerson (theologian). For the botanist, see Ralph Emerson (botanist).

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson in 1857

Born(1803-05-25)May 25, 1803
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
DiedApril 27, 1882(1882-04-27) (aged 78)
Concord, Massachusetts, U.S.
Alma materHarvard Divinity School
Spouse(s)Ellen Louisa Tucker (m. 1829; d. 1832)[1]
Lydian Jackson (m. 1835)
Era19th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolTranscendentalism
InstitutionsHarvard College

Main interests

Individualism, mysticism

Notable ideas

"Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door", transparent eyeball
Signature

Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882) was an American essayist, lecturer, philosopher and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. He was seen as a champion of individualism and a prescient critic of the countervailing pressures of society, and he disseminated his thoughts through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States.

Emerson gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of transcendentalism in his 1836 essay "Nature". Following this work, he gave a speech entitled "The American Scholar" in 1837, which Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. considered to be America's "intellectual Declaration of Independence".[3]

Emerson wrote most of his important essays as lectures first and then revised them for print. His first two collections of essays, Essays: First Series (1841) and Essays: Second Series (1844), represent the core of his thinking. They include the well-known essays "Self-Reliance", "The Over-Soul", "Circles", "The Poet" and "Experience". Together with "Nature",[4] these essays made the decade from the mid-1830s to the mid-1840s Emerson's most fertile period.

Emerson wrote on a number of subjects, never espousing fixed philosophical tenets, but developing certain ideas such as individuality, freedom, the ability for mankind to realize almost anything, and the relationship between the soul and the surrounding world. Emerson's "nature" was more philosophical than naturalistic: "Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul". Emerson is one of several figures who "took a more pantheist or pandeist approach by rejecting views of God as separate from the world."[5]

He remains among the linchpins of the American romantic movement,[6] and his work has greatly influenced the thinkers, writers and poets that followed him. When asked to sum up his work, he said his central doctrine was "the infinitude of the private man."[7] Emerson is also well known as a mentor and friend of Henry David Thoreau, a fellow transcendentalist.[8]

Early life, family, and education[edit]

Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 25, 1803,[9] a son of Ruth Haskins and the Rev. William Emerson, a Unitarian minister. He was named after his mother's brother Ralph and his father's great-grandmother Rebecca Waldo.[10] Ralph Waldo was the second of five sons who survived into adulthood; the others were William, Edward, Robert Bulkeley, and Charles.[11] Three other children—Phebe, John Clarke, and Mary Caroline—died in childhood.[11] Emerson was entirely of English ancestry, and his family had been in New England since the early colonial period.[12]

Emerson's father died from stomach cancer on May 12, 1811, less than two weeks before Emerson's eighth birthday.[13] Emerson was raised by his mother, with the help of the other women in the family; his aunt Mary Moody Emerson in particular had a profound effect on him.[14] She lived with the family off and on and maintained a constant correspondence with Emerson until her death in 1863.[15]

Emerson's formal schooling began at the Boston Latin School in 1812, when he was nine.[16] In October 1817, at 14, Emerson went to Harvard College and was appointed freshman messenger for the president, requiring Emerson to fetch delinquent students and send messages to faculty.[17] Midway through his junior year, Emerson began keeping a list of books he had read and started a journal in a series of notebooks that would be called "Wide World".[18] He took outside jobs to cover his school expenses, including as a waiter for the Junior Commons and as an occasional teacher working with his uncle Samuel and aunt Sarah Ripley in Waltham, Massachusetts.[19] By his senior year, Emerson decided to go by his middle name, Waldo.[20] Emerson served as Class Poet; as was custom, he presented an original poem on Harvard's Class Day, a month before his official graduation on August 29, 1821, when he was 18.[21] He did not stand out as a student and graduated in the exact middle of his class of 59 people.[22]

In 1826, faced with poor health, Emerson went to seek a warmer climate. He first went to Charleston, South Carolina, but found the weather was still too cold.[23] He then went further south, to St. Augustine, Florida, where he took long walks on the beach and began writing poetry. While in St. Augustine he made the acquaintance of Prince Achille Murat, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. Murat was two years his senior; they became good friends and enjoyed one another's company. The two engaged in enlightening discussions of religion, society, philosophy, and government. Emerson considered Murat an important figure in his intellectual education.[24]

While in St. Augustine, Emerson had his first encounter with slavery. At one point, he attended a meeting of the Bible Society while a slave auction was taking place in the yard outside. He wrote, "One ear therefore heard the glad tidings of great joy, whilst the other was regaled with 'Going, gentlemen, going!'"[25]

Early career[edit]

After Harvard, Emerson assisted his brother William[26] in a school for young women[27] established in their mother's house, after he had established his own school in Chelmsford, Massachusetts; when his brother William[28] went to Göttingen to study divinity, Emerson took charge of the school. Over the next several years, Emerson made his living as a schoolmaster. He then went to Harvard Divinity School, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in 1828.[29] Emerson's brother Edward,[30] two years younger than he, entered the office of the lawyer Daniel Webster, after graduating from Harvard first in his class. Edward's physical health began to deteriorate, and he soon suffered a mental collapse as well; he was taken to McLean Asylum in June 1828 at age 23. Although he recovered his mental equilibrium, he died in 1834, apparently from long-standing tuberculosis.[31] Another of Emerson's bright and promising younger brothers, Charles, born in 1808, died in 1836, also of tuberculosis,[32] making him the third young person in Emerson's innermost circle to die in a period of a few years.

Emerson met his first wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker, in Concord, New Hampshire, on Christmas Day, 1827, and married her when she was 18.[33] The couple moved to Boston, with Emerson's mother, Ruth, moving with them to help take care of Ellen, who was already ill with tuberculosis.[34] Less than two years later, on February 8, 1831, Ellen died, at the age of 20, after uttering her last words: "I have not forgotten the peace and joy".[35] Emerson was heavily affected by her death and visited her grave in Roxbury daily.[36] In a journal entry dated March 29, 1832, he wrote, "I visited Ellen's tomb & opened the coffin".[37]

Boston's Second Church invited Emerson to serve as its junior pastor, and he was ordained on January 11, 1829.[38] His initial salary was $1,200 a year, increasing to $1,400 in July,[39] but with his church role he took on other responsibilities: he was the chaplain of the Massachusetts legislature and a member of the Boston school committee. His church activities kept him busy, though during this period, facing the imminent death of his wife, he began to doubt his own beliefs.

After his wife's death, he began to disagree with the church's methods, writing in his journal in June 1832, "I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers".[40] His disagreements with church officials over the administration of the Communion service and misgivings about public prayer eventually led to his resignation in 1832. As he wrote, "This mode of commemorating Christ is not suitable to me. That is reason enough why I should abandon it".[41][42] As one Emerson scholar has pointed out, "Doffing the decent black of the pastor, he was free to choose the gown of the lecturer and teacher, of the thinker not confined within the limits of an institution or a tradition".[43]

Emerson toured Europe in 1833 and later wrote of his travels in English Traits (1856).[44] He left aboard the brig Jasper on Christmas Day, 1832, sailing first to Malta.[45] During his European trip, he spent several months in Italy, visiting Rome, Florence and Venice, among other cities. When in Rome, he met with John Stuart Mill, who gave him a letter of recommendation to meet Thomas Carlyle. He went to Switzerland, and had to be dragged by fellow passengers to visit Voltaire's home in Ferney, "protesting all the way upon the unworthiness of his memory".[46] He then went on to Paris, a "loud modern New York of a place",[46] where he visited the Jardin des Plantes. He was greatly moved by the organization of plants according to Jussieu's system of classification, and the way all such objects were related and connected. As Robert D. Richardson says, "Emerson's moment of insight into the interconnectedness of things in the Jardin des Plantes was a moment of almost visionary intensity that pointed him away from theology and toward science".[47]

Moving north to England, Emerson met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle in particular was a strong influence on him; Emerson would later serve as an unofficial literary agent in the United States for Carlyle, and in March 1835, he tried to persuade Carlyle to come to America to lecture.[48] The two maintained a correspondence until Carlyle's death in 1881.[49]

Emerson returned to the United States on October 9, 1833, and lived with his mother in Newton, Massachusetts. In October 1834, he moved to Concord, Massachusetts to live with his step-grandfather, Dr. Ezra Ripley, at what was later named The Old Manse.[50] Seeing the budding Lyceum movement, which provided lectures on all sorts of topics, Emerson saw a possible career as a lecturer. On November 5, 1833, he made the first of what would eventually be some 1,500 lectures, "The Uses of Natural History", in Boston. This was an expanded account of his experience in Paris.[51] In this lecture, he set out some of his important beliefs and the ideas he would later develop in his first published essay, "Nature":

Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word; but it is not a language taken to pieces and dead in the dictionary, but the language put together into a most significant and universal sense. I wish to learn this language, not that I may know a new grammar, but that I may read the great book that is written in that tongue.[52]

On January 24, 1835, Emerson wrote a letter to Lydia Jackson proposing marriage.[53] Her acceptance reached him by mail on the 28th. In July 1835, he bought a house on the Cambridge and Concord Turnpike in Concord, Massachusetts, which he named Bush; it is now open to the public as the Ralph Waldo Emerson House.[54] Emerson quickly became one of the leading citizens in the town. He gave a lecture to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the town of Concord on September 12, 1835.[55] Two days later, he married Lydia Jackson in her home town of Plymouth, Massachusetts,[56] and moved to the new home in Concord together with Emerson's mother on September 15.[57]

Emerson quickly changed his wife's name to Lidian, and would call her Queenie,[58] and sometimes Asia,[59] and she called him Mr. Emerson.[60] Their children were Waldo, Ellen, Edith, and Edward Waldo Emerson. Edward Waldo Emerson was the father of Raymond Emerson. Ellen was named for his first wife, at Lidian's suggestion.[61]

Emerson was poor when he was at Harvard,[62] but was later able to support his family for much of his life.[63][64] He inherited a fair amount of money after his first wife's death, though he had to file a lawsuit against the Tucker family in 1836 to get it.[64] He received $11,600 in May 1834,[65] and a further $11,674.49 in July 1837.[66] In 1834, he considered that he had an income of $1,200 a year from the initial payment of the estate,[63] equivalent to what he had earned as a pastor.

Literary career and transcendentalism[edit]

On September 8, 1836, the day before the publication of Nature, Emerson met with Frederic Henry Hedge, George Putnam and George Ripley to plan periodic gatherings of other like-minded intellectuals.[67] This was the beginning of the Transcendental Club, which served as a center for the movement. Its first official meeting was held on September 19, 1836.[68] On September 1, 1837, women attended a meeting of the Transcendental Club for the first time. Emerson invited Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Hoar and Sarah Ripley for dinner at his home before the meeting to ensure that they would be present for the evening get-together.[69] Fuller would prove to be an important figure in transcendentalism.

Emerson anonymously published his first essay, "Nature", on September 9, 1836. A year later, on August 31, 1837, he delivered his now-famous Phi Beta Kappa address, "The American Scholar",[70] then entitled "An Oration, Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge"; it was renamed for a collection of essays (which included the first general publication of "Nature") in 1849.[71] Friends urged him to publish the talk, and he did so, at his own expense, in an edition of 500 copies, which sold out in a month.[3] In the speech, Emerson declared literary independence in the United States and urged Americans to create a writing style all their own and free from Europe.[72]James Russell Lowell, who was a student at Harvard at the time, called it "an event without former parallel on our literary annals".[73] Another member of the audience, Reverend John Pierce, called it "an apparently incoherent and unintelligible address".[74]

In 1837, Emerson befriended Henry David Thoreau. Though they had likely met as early as 1835, in the fall of 1837, Emerson asked Thoreau, "Do you keep a journal?" The question went on to be a lifelong inspiration for Thoreau.[75] Emerson's own journal was published in 16 large volumes, in the definitive Harvard University Press edition issued between 1960 and 1982. Some scholars consider the journal to be Emerson's key literary work.[76]

In March 1837, Emerson gave a series of lectures on the philosophy of history at the Masonic Temple in Boston. This was the first time he managed a lecture series on his own, and it was the beginning of his career as a lecturer.[77] The profits from this series of lectures were much larger than when he was paid by an organization to talk, and he continued to manage his own lectures often throughout his lifetime. He eventually gave as many as 80 lectures a year, traveling across the northern United States as far as St. Louis, Des Moines, Minneapolis, and California.[78]

On July 15, 1838,[79] Emerson was invited to Divinity Hall, Harvard Divinity School, to deliver the school's graduation address, which came to be known as the "Divinity School Address". Emerson discounted biblical miracles and proclaimed that, while Jesus was a great man, he was not God: historical Christianity, he said, had turned Jesus into a "demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo".[80] His comments outraged the establishment and the general Protestant community. He was denounced as an atheist[80] and a poisoner of young men's minds. Despite the roar of critics, he made no reply, leaving others to put forward a defense. He was not invited back to speak at Harvard for another thirty years.[81]

The transcendental group began to publish its flagship journal, The Dial, in July 1840.[82] They planned the journal as early as October 1839, but work did not begin until the first week of 1840.[83] George Ripley was the managing editor.[84] Margaret Fuller was the first editor, having been approached by Emerson after several others had declined the role.[85] Fuller stayed on for about two years, when Emerson took over, utilizing the journal to promote talented young writers including Ellery Channing and Thoreau.[75]

In 1841 Emerson published Essays, his second book, which included the famous essay "Self-Reliance".[86] His aunt called it a "strange medley of atheism and false independence", but it gained favorable reviews in London and Paris. This book, and its popular reception, more than any of Emerson's contributions to date laid the groundwork for his international fame.[87]

In January 1842 Emerson's first son, Waldo, died of scarlet fever.[88] Emerson wrote of his grief in the poem "Threnody" ("For this losing is true dying"),[89] and the essay "Experience". In the same month, William James was born, and Emerson agreed to be his godfather.

Bronson Alcott announced his plans in November 1842 to find "a farm of a hundred acres in excellent condition with good buildings, a good orchard and grounds".[90]Charles Lane purchased a 90-acre (360,000 m2) farm in Harvard, Massachusetts, in May 1843 for what would become Fruitlands, a community based on Utopian ideals inspired in part by transcendentalism.[91] The farm would run based on a communal effort, using no animals for labor; its participants would eat no meat and use no wool or leather.[92] Emerson said he felt "sad at heart" for not engaging in the experiment himself.[93] Even so, he did not feel Fruitlands would be a success. "Their whole doctrine is spiritual", he wrote, "but they always end with saying, Give us much land and money".[94] Even Alcott admitted he was not prepared for the difficulty in operating Fruitlands. "None of us were prepared to actualize practically the ideal life of which we dreamed. So we fell apart", he wrote.[95] After its failure, Emerson helped buy a farm for Alcott's family in Concord[94] which Alcott named "Hillside".[95]

The Dial ceased publication in April 1844; Horace Greeley reported it as an end to the "most original and thoughtful periodical ever published in this country".[96] (An unrelated magazine of the same name was published during several periods through 1929.)

In 1844, Emerson published his second collection of essays, Essays: Second Series. This collection included "The Poet", "Experience", "Gifts", and an essay entitled "Nature", a different work from the 1836 essay of the same name.

Emerson made a living as a popular lecturer in New England and much of the rest of the country. He had begun lecturing in 1833; by the 1850s he was giving as many as 80 lectures per year.[97] He addressed the Boston Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and the Gloucester Lyceum, among others. Emerson spoke on a wide variety of subjects, and many of his essays grew out of his lectures. He charged between $10 and $50 for each appearance, bringing him as much as $2,000 in a typical winter lecture season. This was more than his earnings from other sources. In some years, he earned as much as $900 for a series of six lectures, and in another, for a winter series of talks in Boston, he netted $1,600.[98] He eventually gave some 1,500 lectures in his lifetime. His earnings allowed him to expand his property, buying 11 acres (45,000 m2) of land by Walden Pond and a few more acres in a neighboring pine grove. He wrote that he was "landlord and waterlord of 14 acres, more or less".[94]

Emerson was introduced to Indian philosophy through the works of the French philosopher Victor Cousin.[99] In 1845, Emerson's journals show he was reading the Bhagavad Gita and Henry Thomas Colebrooke's Essays on the Vedas.[100] He was strongly influenced by Vedanta, and much of his writing has strong shades of nondualism. One of the clearest examples of this can be found in his essay "The Over-soul":

We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.[101]

In 1847-48, he toured the British Isles.[102] He also visited Paris between the French Revolution of 1848 and the bloody June Days. When he arrived, he saw the stumps of trees that had been cut down to form barricades in the February riots. On May 21, he stood on the Champ de Mars in the midst of mass celebrations for concord, peace and labor. He wrote in his journal, "At the end of the year we shall take account, & see if the Revolution was worth the trees."[103] The trip left an important imprint on Emerson's later work. His 1856 book English Traits is based largely on observations recorded in his travel journals and notebooks. Emerson later came to see the American Civil War as a "revolution" that shared common ground with the European revolutions of 1848.[104]

In a speech in Concord, Massachusetts on May 3, 1851, Emerson denounced the Fugitive Slave Act:

The act of Congress is a law which every one of you will break on the earliest occasion--a law which no man can obey, or abet the obeying, without loss of self-respect and forfeiture of the name of gentleman.[105]

That summer, he wrote in his diary:

This filthy enactment was made in the nineteenth century by people who could read and write. I will not obey it.[106]

In February 1852 Emerson and James Freeman Clarke and William Henry Channing edited an edition of the works and letters of Margaret Fuller, who had died in 1850.[107] Within a week of her death, her New York editor, Horace Greeley, suggested to Emerson that a biography of Fuller, to be called Margaret and Her Friends, be prepared quickly "before the interest excited by her sad decease has passed away".[108] Published under the title The Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli,[109] Fuller's words were heavily censored or rewritten.[110] The three editors were not concerned about accuracy; they believed public interest in Fuller was temporary and that she would not survive as a historical figure.[111] Even so, for a time, it was the best-selling biography of the decade and went through thirteen editions before the end of the century.[109]

Walt Whitman published the innovative poetry collection Leaves of Grass in 1855 and sent a copy to Emerson for his opinion. Emerson responded positively, sending Whitman a flattering five-page letter in response.[112] Emerson's approval helped the first edition of Leaves of Grass stir up significant interest[113] and convinced Whitman to issue a second edition shortly thereafter.[114] This edition quoted a phrase from Emerson's letter, printed in gold leaf on the cover: "I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career".[115] Emerson took offense that this letter was made public[116] and later was more critical of the work.[117]

Civil War years[edit]

Emerson was staunchly opposed to slavery, but he did not appreciate being in the public limelight and was hesitant about lecturing on the subject. He did, however, give a number of lectures during the pre-Civil War years, beginning as early as November, 1837.[118] A number of his friends and family members were more active abolitionists than he, at first, but from 1844 on, he took a more active role in opposing slavery. He gave a number of speeches and lectures, and notably welcomed John Brown to his home during Brown's visits to Concord.[119] He voted for Abraham Lincoln in 1860, but Emerson was disappointed that Lincoln was more concerned about preserving the Union than eliminating slavery outright.[120] Once the American Civil War broke out, Emerson made it clear that he believed in immediate emancipation of the slaves.[121]

Around this time, in 1860, Emerson published The Conduct of Life, his seventh collection of essays. In this book, Emerson "grappled with some of the thorniest issues of the moment," and "his experience in the abolition ranks is a telling influence in his conclusions."[122] In these essays Emerson strongly embraced the idea of war as a means of national rebirth: "Civil war, national bankruptcy, or revolution, [are] more rich in the central tones than languid years of prosperity."[123]

Emerson visited Washington, D.C, at the end of January 1862. He gave a public lecture at the Smithsonian on January 31, 1862, and declared:, "The South calls slavery an institution... I call it destitution... Emancipation is the demand of civilization".[124] The next day, February 1, his friend Charles Sumner took him to meet Lincoln at the White House. Lincoln was familiar with Emerson's work, having previously seen him lecture.[125] Emerson's misgivings about Lincoln began to soften after this meeting.[126] In 1865, he spoke at a memorial service held for Lincoln in Concord: "Old as history is, and manifold as are its tragedies, I doubt if any death has caused so much pain as this has caused, or will have caused, on its announcement."[125] Emerson also met a number of high-ranking government officials, including Salmon P. Chase, the secretary of the treasury; Edward Bates, the attorney general; Edwin M. Stanton, the secretary of war; Gideon Welles, the secretary of the navy; and William Seward, the secretary of state.[127]

On May 6, 1862, Emerson's protégé Henry David Thoreau died of tuberculosis at the age of 44. Emerson delivered his eulogy. He often referred to Thoreau as his best friend,[128] despite a falling-out that began in 1849 after Thoreau published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.[129] Another friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, died two years after Thoreau, in 1864. Emerson served as a pallbearer when Hawthorne was buried in Concord, as Emerson wrote, "in a pomp of sunshine and verdure".[130]

He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1864.[131]

Final years and death[edit]

Starting in 1867, Emerson's health began declining; he wrote much less in his journals.[132] Beginning as early as the summer of 1871 or in the spring of 1872, he started experiencing memory problems[133] and suffered from aphasia.[134] By the end of the decade, he forgot his own name at times and, when anyone asked how he felt, he responded, "Quite well; I have lost my mental faculties, but am perfectly well".[135]

In the spring of 1871, Emerson took a trip on the transcontinental railroad, barely two years after its completion. Along the way and in California he met a number of dignitaries, including Brigham Young during a stopover in Salt Lake City. Part of his California visit included a trip to Yosemite, and while there he met a young and unknown John Muir, a signature event in Muir's career.[136]

Emerson's Concord home caught fire on July 24, 1872. He called for help from neighbors and, giving up on putting out the flames, all attempted to save as many objects as possible.[137] The fire was put out by Ephraim Bull Jr., the one-armed son of Ephraim Wales Bull.[138] Donations were collected by friends to help the Emersons rebuild, including $5,000 gathered by Francis Cabot Lowell, another $10,000 collected by LeBaron Russell Briggs, and a personal donation of $1,000 from George Bancroft.[139] Support for shelter was offered as well; though the Emersons ended up staying with family at the Old Manse, invitations came from Anne Lynch Botta, James Elliot Cabot, James Thomas Fields and Annie Adams Fields.[140] The fire marked an end to Emerson's serious lecturing career; from then on, he would lecture only on special occasions and only in front of familiar audiences.[141]

While the house was being rebuilt, Emerson took a trip to England, continental Europe, and Egypt. He left on October 23, 1872, along with his daughter Ellen[142] while his wife Lidian spent time at the Old Manse and with friends.[143] Emerson and his daughter Ellen returned to the United States on the ship Olympus along with friend Charles Eliot Norton on April 15, 1873.[144] Emerson's return to Concord was celebrated by the town and school was canceled that day.[134]

In late 1874, Emerson published an anthology of poetry called Parnassus,[145][146] which included poems by Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Julia Caroline Dorr, Jean Ingelow, Lucy Larcom, Jones Very, as well as Thoreau and several others.[147] The anthology was originally prepared as early as the fall of 1871 but was delayed when the publishers asked for revisions.[148]

The problems with his memory had become embarrassing to Emerson and he ceased his public appearances by 1879. As Holmes wrote, "Emerson is afraid to trust himself in society much, on account of the failure of his memory and the great difficulty he finds in getting the words he wants. It is painful to witness his embarrassment at times".[135] On April 21, 1882, Emerson was found to be suffering from pneumonia.[149] He died six days later. Emerson is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts.[150] He was placed in his coffin wearing a white robe given by the American sculptor Daniel Chester French.[151]

Lifestyle and beliefs[edit]

Emerson's religious views were often considered radical at the time. He believed that all things are connected to God and, therefore, all things are divine.[152] Critics believed that Emerson was removing the central God figure; as Henry Ware Jr. said, Emerson was in danger of taking away "the Father of the Universe" and leaving "but a company of children in an orphan asylum".[153] Emerson was partly influenced by German philosophy and Biblical criticism.[154] His views, the basis of Transcendentalism, suggested that God does not have to reveal the truth but that the truth could be intuitively experienced directly from nature.[155] When asked his religious belief, Emerson stated, "I am more of a Quaker than anything else. I believe in the 'still, small voice,' and that voice is Christ within us."[156]

Emerson did not become an ardent abolitionist until 1844, though his journals show he was concerned with slavery beginning in his youth, even dreaming about helping to free slaves. In June 1856, shortly after Charles Sumner, a United States Senator, was beaten for his staunch abolitionist views, Emerson lamented that he himself was not as committed to the cause. He wrote, "There are men who as soon as they are born take a bee-line to the axe of the inquisitor. . . . Wonderful the way in which we are saved by this unfailing supply of the moral element".[157] After Sumner's attack, Emerson began to speak out about slavery. "I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom", he said at a meeting at Concord that summer.[158] Emerson used slavery as an example of a human injustice, especially in his role as a minister. In early 1838, provoked by the murder of an abolitionist publisher from Alton, Illinois named Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Emerson gave his first public antislavery address. As he said, "It is but the other day that the brave Lovejoy gave his breast to the bullets of a mob, for the rights of free speech and opinion, and died when it was better not to live".[157]John Quincy Adams said the mob-murder of Lovejoy "sent a shock as of any earthquake throughout this continent".[159] However, Emerson maintained that reform would be achieved through moral agreement rather than by militant action. By August 1, 1844, at a lecture in Concord, he stated more clearly his support for the abolitionist movement: "We are indebted mainly to this movement, and to the continuers of it, for the popular discussion of every point of practical ethics".[160]

Emerson is often known as one of the most liberal democratic thinkers of his time who believed that through the democratic process, slavery should be abolished. While being an avid abolitionist who was known for his criticism of the legality of slavery, Emerson struggled with the implications of race.[161] His usual liberal leanings did not clearly translate when it came to believing that all races had equal capability or function, which was a common conception for the period in which he lived.[161] Many critics believe that it was his views on race that inhibited him from becoming an abolitionist earlier in his life and also inhibited him from being more active in the antislavery movement.[162] Much of his early life, he was silent on the topic of race and slavery. Not until he was well into his 30s did Emerson begin to publish writings on race and slavery, and not until he was in his late 40s and 50s did he became known as an antislavery activist.[161]

During his early life, Emerson seems to develop a hierarchy of races based on faculty to reason or rather, whether African slaves were distinguishably equal to white men based on their ability to reason.[161] In a journal entry written in 1822, Emerson wrote about a personal observation: "It can hardly be true that the difference lies in the attribute of reason. I saw ten, twenty, a hundred large lipped, lowbrowed black men in the streets who, except in the mere matter of language, did not exceed the sagacity of the elephant. Now is it true that these were created superior to this wise animal, and designed to control it? And in comparison with the highest orders of men, the Africans will stand so low as to make the difference which subsists between themselves & the sagacious beasts inconsiderable."[163]

As with many supporters of slavery, during his early years, Emerson seems to have thought that the faculties of African slaves were not equal to their white owners. But this belief in racial inferiorities did not make Emerson a supporter of slavery.[161] Emerson wrote later that year that "No ingenious sophistry can ever reconcile the unperverted mind to the pardon of Slavery; nothing but tremendous familiarity, and the bias of private interest".[163] Emerson saw the removal of people from their homeland, the treatment of slaves, and the self-seeking benefactors of slaves as gross injustices.[162] For Emerson, slavery was a moral issue, while superiority of the races was an issue he tried to analyze from a scientific perspective based what he believe to be inherited traits.[164]

Emerson saw himself as a man of "Saxon descent". In a speech given in 1835 titled "Permanent Traits of the English National Genius", he said, "The inhabitants of the United States, especially of the Northern portion, are descended from the people of England and have inherited the traits of their national character".[165] He saw direct ties between race based on national identity and the inherent nature of the human being. White Americans who were native-born in the United States and of English ancestry were categorized by him as a separate "race", which he thought had a position of being superior to other nations. His idea of race was based more on a shared culture, environment, and history than on scientific traits that modern science defines as race. He believed that native-born Americans of English descent were superior to European immigrants, including the Irish, French, and Germans, and also as being superior to English people from England, whom he considered a close second and the only really comparable group.[161]

Later in his life, Emerson's ideas on race changed when he became more involved in the abolitionist movement while at the same time he began to more thoroughly analyze the philosophical implications of race and racial hierarchies. His beliefs shifted focus to the potential outcomes of racial conflicts. Emerson's racial views were closely related to his views on nationalism and national superiority, specifically that of the Saxons of ancient England, which was a common view in the United States of that time. Emerson used contemporary theories of race and natural science to support a theory of race development.[164] He believed that the current political battle and the current enslavement of other races was an inevitable racial struggle, one that would result in the inevitable union of the United States. Such conflicts were necessary for the dialectic of change that would eventually allow the progress of the nation.[164] In much of his later work, Emerson seems to allow the notion that different races will eventually mix in America. This hybridization process would lead to a superior race that would be to the advantage of the superiority of the United States.[166]

Emerson was a supporter of the spread of community libraries in the 19th century, having this to say of them: "Consider what you have in the smallest chosen library. A company of the wisest and wittiest men that could be picked out of all civil countries, in a thousand years, have set in best order the results of their learning and wisdom."[167]

Emerson may have had erotic thoughts about at least one man.[168] During his early years at Harvard, he found himself attracted to a young freshman named Martin Gay about whom he wrote sexually charged poetry.[62][169] He also had a number of romantic interests in various women throughout his life,[62] such as Anna Barker[170] and Caroline Sturgis.[171]

Legacy[edit]

As a lecturer and orator, Emerson—nicknamed the Sage of Concord—became the leading voice of intellectual culture in the United States.[172]James Russell Lowell, editor of the Atlantic Monthly and the North American Review, commented in his book My Study Windows (1871), that Emerson was not only the "most steadily attractive lecturer in America," but also "one of the pioneers of the lecturing system."[173]Herman Melville, who had met Emerson in 1849, originally thought he had "a defect in the region of the heart" and a "self-conceit so intensely intellectual that at first one hesitates to call it by its right name", though he later admitted Emerson was "a great man".[174]Theodore Parker, a minister and transcendentalist, noted Emerson's ability to influence and inspire others: "the brilliant genius of Emerson rose in the winter nights, and hung over Boston, drawing the eyes of ingenuous young people to look up to that great new star, a beauty and a mystery, which charmed for the moment, while it gave also perennial inspiration, as it led them forward along new paths, and towards new hopes".[175]

Emerson's work not only influenced his contemporaries, such as Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, but would continue to influence thinkers and writers in the United States and around the world down to the present.[176] Notable thinkers who recognize Emerson's influence include Nietzsche and William James, Emerson's godson. There is little disagreement that Emerson was the most influential writer of 19th-century America, though these days he is largely the concern of scholars. Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and William James were all positive Emersonians, while Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James were Emersonians in denial—while they set themselves in opposition to the sage, there was no escaping his influence. To T. S. Eliot, Emerson's essays were an "encumbrance." Waldo the Sage was eclipsed from 1914 until 1965, when he returned to shine, after surviving in the work of major American poets like Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane.[177]

In his book The American Religion, Harold Bloom repeatedly refers to Emerson as "The prophet of the American Religion", which in the context of the book refers to indigenously American religions such as Mormonism and Christian Science, which arose largely in Emerson's lifetime, but also to mainline Protestant churches that Bloom says have become in the United States more gnostic than their European counterparts. In The Western Canon, Bloom compares Emerson to Michel de Montaigne: "The only equivalent reading experience that I know is to reread endlessly in the notebooks and journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American version of Montaigne."[178] Several of Emerson's poems were included in Bloom's The Best Poems of the English Language, although he wrote that none of the poems are as outstanding as the best of Emerson's essays, which Bloom listed as "Self-Reliance", "Circles", "Experience", and "nearly all of Conduct of Life". In his belief that line lengths, rhythms, and phrases are determined by breath, Emerson's poetry foreshadowed the theories of Charles Olson.[179]

Namesakes[edit]

  • In May 2006, 168 years after Emerson delivered his "Divinity School Address", Harvard Divinity School announced the establishment of the Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Professorship.[180] Harvard has also named a building, Emerson Hall (1900), after him.[181]
  • The Emerson String Quartet, formed in 1976, took their name from him.[182]

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