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World's Great Philosophers:
 Descartes

 Hobbes And Locke

 Spinoza

 Berkeley And Hume

 The Germans

 Condillac

 Emerson

 Comte

 Spencer

 Read More Articles About: World's Great Philosophers

Emerson

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The system which was founded by Kant was called Transcendentalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson called him-self a Transcendentalist and the ideas which he developed in the promiscuous and disconnected writings which he left behind have been called Transcendentalism, perhaps through courtesy, by others. It may be truly said that Emerson is the only philosopher that America has been able to produce thus far. Philosopher he was in the Greek sense rather than in the modern sense. In fact, Emerson has been happily characterized as having a Greek head upon French shoulders.

If we accord to Aristippus, to Epicurus, to Diogenes of Sinope, and to other ancients, the title of philosopher, we are scarcely justified in restraining Emerson from sharing the honor. Emerson left no system. We can hardly say that there are any "Emersonians." He did not develop a method. He left no systematic attempt to solve the origin and the destiny of the universe and of man. His thoughts were embodied in unconnected essays, in poems and in lectures which were afterward published in book form. But that Emerson was a thinker few will be able to deny. He was born in 1803 at Boston, and died in 1882. Entering Harvard College at a very early age, he took his degree from that institution. He studied for the ministry of the Unitarian church and took charge of a congregation in Boston. He was not long destined, however, to fill the function of a religious preacher or teacher, owing to certain changes in his opinions concerning essential doctrines. Withdrawing from the church, he retired to a farm in the neighborhood of Concord, and there he spent the remainder of his life, writing, thinking, and poetizing, with now and then the diversion of a lecturing tour, until his death. The only "school of philosophy" which America can really be said to possess is that which is known as the "Concord School of Philosophy," and among those who delight in metaphysics or philosophy of any kind, that name is almost as familiar as many of the other great schools founded in more ancient times.

It is a fact that honored though he is in his own country, Emerson is far more widely known and far more keenly appreciated in England than he is in the United States. A distinguished English writer said of him, while Emerson was still alive, that although he was "a kind of Plotinus-Montaigne, uniting the shrewd wit of the Gascon with the golden dreams of the Egyptian, he yet must chiefly be estimated as an American, whose works are natural growths from the soil of a new world, springing into life with native grace and power, and not predetermined either in form or substance by the fashion of ancient conventionalities. The peculiar position of America, where civilization and barbarism meet upon the boundaries of realms unconquered by man, naturally favors the growth of a genius like Emerson's, which raises again those fundamental problems of human thought which struck the first denizens of the earth; while questioning the universe with the childlike simplicity of the earlier sages, at the same time meditates, balances, and judges with tact and shrewdness learnt from the ways of a world no longer in its infancy.

"The comparison usually drawn between Emerson and Carlyle, entirely overlooks these peculiar native characteristics of his genius. Living in the same era, and both demanding a return from its outward shows to their own realities; both despising the marshaling of free minds into regiments, and the converting of education into a mere platoon exercise of accustomed movements; both overwhelmed with intense consciousness of the mysterious bounding all human knowledge, and standing face to face with the same infinite problems there must necessarily be various points of contact between the free lines of their independent thoughts.

"But Emerson is not an American Carlyle. The music of the winds sweeping through his native foi ests is heard in his works. As a citizen of a new republic he stands like an inhabitant of the elder world nearer the portals of the dawn of time, while Carlyle is more oppressed with the weight of forms established by the authority of Centuries.

"The poet Lowell broadly indicates the difference between the two men as that between Fuseli and Flaxman —the one paints bundles of muscles and thews, the other draws lines straight and severe, a colorless outline. The generalities of Carlyle, notes the same poet, require to be seen in a mass the specialties of Emerson gain by enlargement. The one sits in a mystery and looks around him with a sharp common sense, the other views common sense things with mystical hues; the one is more burly, the other rapid and slim. The one is two-thirds Norse-man, the other half Greek."

As Emerson occupies a unique position in this volume, and as we have said, he is the only thinker produced by the United States to whom can be truly accorded the title of philosopher, it might be well to let us Americans look at him through the eyes of his foreign critics. The writer we have already quoted continues :

"He is a thinker in the same sense in which Beethoven was a musician; it is evident on the first glance that Emerson seeks to solve the riddle of the universe for himself, and is content with no traditional answer. Why should we not enjoy, he asks, an original relation to the universe? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around us and through us, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation in masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? He insists on man's individuality, and protests against the crushing our separate beings into indolent conformity with the majority. Let a man know his worth and keep things under his feet. Let him not peep, or steal, or skulk up and down with the air of an interloper in the world which exists for him. Beneath opinions, habits, customs, he seeks the spirit of a man. The only thing in the world, in fact, is the soul free, sovereign, active. The history of the world can only be understood as it is lived through our own spiritual experience. It is no slight sign of the greatness of the thinker, that he can leave the amenities of the city and the quietudes of the forest to stand upon the anti-slavery platform. The subordination of the pursuit of a thought to the love of a duty thus manifested, may be accepted as the crowning lesson in the life and works of Emerson."

Soon after the death of his first wife they had been married but three years the American philosopher paid a visit to Europe, traveling through France and Italy, and afterward to England. There he ,met Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle. The friendship between the last named writer and Emerson was deep and touching. On his return to America he took up his residence at Concord and then was it that he founded his school. He was married again in 1835, and for fifty years he lived a life that can be. almost compared with that of Epicurus. He de-voted himself to study, meditation, the writing of his essays, the preparation of his lectures, horticulture, and other such occupations as naturally suggested themselves to one of his way of living.

In 1836 the "Transcendental Club" sprang to being, and in the same year there issued from the press Emerson's book Nature. He became a contributor to Dial, which was the special publication of Margaret Fuller, and which lasted for four years. Returning to England in 1847, Emerson appeared upon the lecture platform in London, Manchester, and other cities, and in the following year he paid a visit to Paris. It is hardly necessary to touch here on the part he played in the great movement for the abolition of slavery in the United States. In this he showed the courage that is born of true wisdom and the high ideals that are really transcendental, if anything deserves that name.

If there is any writer in the whole range of ancient or modern literature who deserves the name of optimist, Emerson is the man. Nothing could dash his supremely sunny spirit. No cloud was dark enough to cast a shadow upon the brightness of his intellect. He bade men to hope when there was small possibility of hope. He clung to his ideals in spite of realities that were calculated to supremely depress the most hopeful. When men condemned the strange and materialistic doctrines which were being freshly taught by the growing science of the Nineteenth Century; when supersensitive religionists were sure that the whole fabric of their faith was being pulled down about their heads by the men with the microscopes and the laboratories in Europe; when achievements of modern investigation were being denounced from many prominent pulpits over all the world, Emerson was the only man of his kind who gladly hailed the new spirit of investigation and accompanied it, as Professor Tyndall said, with the riotously joyful dance of a Bacchanal. To sum up his "philosophy" we may repeat his, probably, most popular saying, "Hitch your wagon to a star."

Emerson was above all an individualist. Going on his way through life, helping himself, depending upon the exertions of his own hands and brain for the goods of this world, and drinking from the deep well of faith which he had within his own being, he could not abide the doctrine of the socialist who looked to others than himself for his happiness in this life. To him the individual was everything; the soul was all. He spoke of "moral sentiment" to persons who could not in any manner whatever understand what he meant. If he is an idealist he is not the idealist of the schools. If he is a transcendentalist, he is a transcendentalist of some kind that has not yet been clearly defined, either by himself or by any of those who followed him. He did not launch out into any systematic or clearly thought-out speculation as to mind, and time, and space. It is true he sometimes thought of these things, but he was careful not to attempt to draw out from the tangle of their subtlety any concept which he could advance as his own.

His writings, for the most part, are beautiful words. When we attempt to analyze them we find that it is impossible to bring out of them any continuity of thought or any theory of things beyond those which are to be found in the caroling of a bird. Philosopher, therefore, we can only call Emerson by courtesy; or else place him in the class we have already indicated among the thinkers of Greece.

In 1872, Emerson's house was destroyed by fire, the result of which was a great shock to his mind. To recover his health he went for a short time to Europe, but his memory failed rapidly, and it may be said that he never recovered the vigor or the clarity of his intellect. The serenity and peacefulness of his life may be alone compared to those of the life of the garden-philosopher, who taught that in repose of mind alone could man find pleasure.

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