“Yet no man can write so much and so honestly and not reveal himself in some measure. We can see enough to sense in him an unusually large gap, even a contradiction, between his teaching and his experience. He taught self-reliance and felt self-distrust, worshiped reality and knew illusion, proclaimed freedom and submitted to fate.”
-Stephen E. Whicher, Emerson’s Tragic Sense
The purposes of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words are heavily debated. A man with many thoughts, and an ability to display his thoughts in such artistic expression sometimes elicits unfavorable attention. Joel Porte puts it best in the title of his persuasive text, The Problem of Emerson. Emerson’s work has developed a band of dedicated followers that aspire to comprehend, and grow from his arguments, but for those same reasons Emerson’s texts have also been met with much critique and misunderstanding.
One of the more reoccurring issues that surface when noting the criticism surrounding Emerson is his seemingly contradictory lifestyle. To clarify; Emerson is a great enthusiast of thought and action. In his 1837 address The American Scholar, Emerson chronicles the process towards becoming “Man Thinking” [Emerson 2001, 57]. In his later essays, particularly the Conduct of Life series like Fate, he expands on his earlier discoveries, and the cause and effect importance that the “Man Thinking” has on the American society. Focusing on Fate, an essay in which Emerson struggles with the back and forth notion that fate and limitations are in a constant power struggle with thought, the reader discovers that Emerson’s purpose of the development of strong thought is that it should lead to action. “Whilst the man is weak, the earth takes him up. He plants his brain and affections. By and by he will take up the earth, and have his gardens and vineyards in the beautiful order and productiveness of his thought” [Emerson 2001, 276].
In Emerson’s time many of his contemporaries and colleagues struggle with the notion of his ability to dispense great words of thought and action, but feel as though he comes up short on his ability to ‘practice what you preach.’ Len Gougeon specifically uses the example of former Harvard President Charles Eliot’s opinions about Emerson’s ability to articulate great thought and inspire movement, but that he takes little act in reforming. “Although a prophet and inspirer of reform, Emerson was not a reformer. He was but a halting supporter of the reforms of his day; and the eager experimenters and combatants in actual reforms found him a disappointing sort of sympathizer” [Emerson 2001, 762].
Stephen Whicher’s addresses Emerson’s perceived lack of action in his piece Emerson’s Tragic Sense in which he explains his issues with Emerson’s lack of presence in his writing. The problem is that Emerson often addresses the necessity for a man to embrace his true nature or unattained inner power. Whicher’s argument lies in the sense that he believes that Emerson spoke of the uninfluenced mind, while not being entirely uninfluenced. Stemming from Emerson’s thoughts on self-reliance Whicher notes examples in Emerson’s writing in which he believes “self-reliance . . . is God-reliance, and therefore not self-reliance” [Emerson 2001, 664]. However, Whicher additionally notes Emerson’s awareness of his personal struggle with the religion and his questioning of its teaching. “His early journals often show manly courage and good sense”[Emerson 2001, 665].
“A score of words & deeds issue from me daily, of which I am not the master. They are begotten of weakness & born of shame. I cannot assume the elevation I ought –but lose the influence I should exert among those of meaner or younger understanding, for want of sufficient bottom in my nature, for want of that confidence of manner which springs from an erect mind which is without fear and without reproach” [Emerson 1960-82, 2: 487]
Emerson is faced with limitations, and preaches the beliefs and scripts of others, of which are not of his own convictions. His tone is helpless and regretful of the situation he is placed in. Emerson is aware of the solution, and that he needs to abandon the influence of expectations. In doing so it will allow him to inspire those young minds not to conform to societal conventions. Emerson creates a platform of his own based off of his true nature and thought in which he will gain confidence in the words that he speaks; therefore, having no regrets.
An interesting and inspiring fact about Emerson’s personal life is that during his twenties and into his thirties, he is very ill [Emerson 2001, 791]. With questionable health, Emerson gains courage in his reasoning. A reader can joke that perhaps he becomes deranged, but that is not the situation, and if anything a reader should claim that he finds mental clarity. In a journal entry dated October 9, 1832 Emerson expresses his new outlook on the presence of God in his life:
“I will not live out of me
I will not see with others’ eyes
My good is good my evil ill
I would be free – I cannot be
While I take things as others please to rate them
I dare attempt to lay out my own road
That which myself delights in shall be Good
That which I do not want – indifferent,
That which I hate is Bad. That’s flat
Heneforth, please God, forever I forego
The yoke of men’s opinions. I will be
Lighthearted as a bird & live with God.” [Emerson 1982, 86]
There is a shift in his tone. It is strong and exact. The clipped phrases do not drag out, into a lengthy grappling of thoughts. He is decisive. Emerson will no longer be limited by what he does not trust in. He will be brave and break away from the oppression of limitations, and begin his own platform of his own convictions. Looking forward, he still remains with God, but will do so in away that he can be free, discarding any influences in his path. Emerson’s devotion to God is sometimes perceived as surrendering to a higher influence, but what goes unrecognized is his inner strength in breaking away from traditional conventions of worship. In 1832 Emerson takes an active leap of faith by resigning from the church, and on Christmas day he boards a ship to Europe [Emerson 2001, 791].
All historical and influential minds of the past are subject to criticism. Many readers of Emerson find him lacking in his ability to act, but a question must be considered: What constitutes action? Emerson is a writer, and holds high regard for the power of words. While he may appear to be physically passive, it does not imply that he conducts his life without action. Emerson writes with a purpose that many of his followers have noted. Cornell West touches on the purpose of Emerson’s writing in The Emersonian Prehistory of American Pragmatism. “The primary aim in Emerson’s life and discourse is to provoke” [Emerson 2001, 743].
The very definition of provocation is “to arouse to a feeling or action . . . to stir up purposely” [Merriam-Webster 2013]. Emerson is very aware of the power that words can have on a reader and listener when phrased in a particular way that engages thought and remembrance. “Nothing so marks a man as imaginative expression. A figurative statement arrests attention, and is remembered and repeated” [Emerson 2001, 298]. Many individuals that have written pieces on Emerson reference his ability to draw in a crowd of listeners. As George Santayana notes in his piece about Emerson, “they flocked to him and listened to his word, not so much for the sake of it’s absolute meaning as for the atmosphere or candour, purity, and serenity that hung about it, as about a sort of sacred music” [Emerson 2001, 633]. Therefore, Emerson is very aware of his most valuable course of action, and is aware that the shock value of what he says will engage an individual to listen. What many critics fail to remember is that Emerson does not wish to influence society by saying ‘follow me.’ His purpose is to inspire the individual to ‘follow yourself.’
However, other critics are not convinced of his purpose, and believe that Emerson misuses his respected and elevated status to corrupt his followers. In his reviews, Andrew Norton provides his opinions of Emerson’s use and conduct of his opportunity to speak at the Harvard Divinity College graduation in 1837. He states that not only did Emerson insult religion, but also the instructors of the institution. Claiming that because he was invited to speak by the graduates “that these gentlemen . . . have become accessories, perhaps innocent accessories, to the commission of a great offense,” and goes on to refer to Emerson’s words as “incoherent rhapsody” [Emerson 2001, 599].
However, Emerson’s words are not meant to be an undecipherable string of commentary. It is done deliberately to engage a reader or listener towards personal awareness. As Richard Poirier notes in his book Poetry and Pragmatism:
“Within every single word, language can create that vagueness that puts us at rest inside contradictions, contradictions which, if more precisely drawn, would prove unendurable. We willingly live with the fact that by its beneficent betrayals language constantly delivers us to ourselves, and makes us known to others, within a comforting haze.” [Emerson 2001, 769]
Therefore, what can be considered to be incoherent is meant to actually bring forth a type of clarity. Not an exact clarity, but the recognition that there are balances in the world to be examined through thought.
In his piece on Emerson, Joel Porte describes how “the alert reader can discover, and take much pleasure in discovering, remarkable verbal strategies, metaphoric patterns, repetitions, and developments of sound, sense, and image throughout Emerson’s writing” [Emerson 2001, 685]. His use of language is clever, and allows for him to weave such intricate thought patterns to keep the reader questioning and engaged. One of the most commonly implemented tools that Emerson uses in his writing is metaphor.
“Meek young men grow up in colleges & believe it is their duty to accept the views which . . . books have given & grow up slaves”
-R.W. Emerson, The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson [5: 365]
“But I wish to say – at least let our theory not be slavish: let us hope infinitely & accustom ourselves to the reflection that the true Fall of man is the disesteem of man; the true Redemption selftrust; the growth of character is only the enlargement of this, & year by year as we come to our stature we shall inherit not only forms & churches & communities but earth & heaven.”
-R. W. Emerson, The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson [2: 213]
“Forget the past. Be not the slave of your own past.”
-R.W. Emerson, Selected Journals 1820-1842 
One of the most reoccurring and brazenly controversial of Emerson’s metaphors is his insight that all men are slaves. In a time when the word slavery was closely linked with the actual enslavement of person based off of race, some might feel as though his constant use of the word slave is distasteful, and possibly a little racist. How dare he compare the influence of thought on man to the atrocities facing the African American nation? As noted by Cornell West, he is referred to as a “mild racist” [Emerson 2001, 746]. What that means exactly is hard to define, but West believes it to mean “he is a racist in the American grain in that his notion of human personality is, in part, dependent on and derived from his view of the races” . It is well documented that Emerson made it a priority to study the understanding behind any assumptions associated within the differences of races.
“Emerson spent a significant amount of time and energy keeping up with the science of his day. His purpose seems to have been to be assured that the best knowledge available about nature buttressed and supported his idealism. An Important part of his reading focused on “whence came the Negro?”” [Emerson 2001, 746]
It is the basic requirement of any successful debater to have a comprehension, and be able to defend both views of an argument. In order to weed out a problem one must locate the roots. In Emerson’s dedication to staying current with his scientific knowledge, he studies the very same information being rooted into the young and impressionable. His assumption is that in studying the very reasons that certain races are fit to be slaves, the young minds are in fact becoming slaves themselves. Emerson uses the metaphor of slavery not to be cruel and inconsiderate, but in hopes to inspire the strong-willed minds to see what he sees.
Emerson use of the metaphor of slavery is antagonistic throughout his essay Fate. It is not an essay about slavery rather it is an essay that uses the metaphor of slavery to draw in the reader’s attention. As is common with Emerson’s writing, he often makes a bold statement, and has the reader convinced of his content. In the opening lines of Fate Emerson informs the reader of the extreme limitations set forth, and his inability to reach them let alone over come them. However, Emerson quickly begins his dissection of this notion of unchangeable fate, which allow him to redirect the reader/listener from concise decision to question the credibility behind that position. Emerson uses this verbal strategy repeatedly throughout Fate in conjunction with the metaphor of slavery:
“Nor can he blink the freewill. To hazard the contradiction, – freedom is necessary. If you please to plant yourself on the side of Fate, and say, Fate is all: then we say, a part of Fate is the freedom of man. Forever wells up the impulse of choosing and acting in the soul. Intellect annuls Fate. So far as a man thinks, he is free. And though nothing is more disgusting than the crowing about liberty by slaves, as most men are, and the flippant mistaking for freedom of some paper preamble like a “Declaration of Independence,” or the statute right to vote, by those who have never dared to think or to act, yet it is wholesome to man to look not at Fate, but the other way: the practical view is the other. His sound relation to these facts is to use and command, not to cringe to them. “Look not on nature, for her name is fatal,” said the oracle. The too much contemplation of these limits induces meanness. They who talk too much of destiny, their birth-star, &c., are in a lower dangerous plane, and invite the evils they fear.” [Emerson 2001, 269]
Emerson uses metaphor to antagonize his readers. He makes his case to the reader of Fate the choice to side with fate and follow the conduct of life already set in place, but in doing so they are not thinking for themselves. The intended effect that is understood through Emerson’s language is that he truly wants to engage the reader. He finds something that all of the individuals listening want, like the allusion of great power that can overcome Fate. Once he discovers their desires and peaks their interests, he says you cannot have it because you are all slaves. Americans endeavor to the notion of freedom as is set forth by what they know, but it is only an illusion because without personal thought or action the freedom they speak of is conventional and limiting. Those individuals that invest too deeply in limitations loose their freedom, essentially making them slaves.
Emerson’s bold statements demand attention and cannot be ignored. This provokes the reader/listener to to make connections in their own lives, causing the thoughts that allow for individuals to create progression. The purpose of his antagonistic metaphor is to inspire idle minds to think, which compels the thinking man towards action.
There will always be readers of Emerson that find the purpose of his words contradictory of his own action. There will always be readers that look for ways in which his action is embedded into the words he put on paper or spoke to crowds. In all honesty, Emerson would be very happy with both analyses. The purpose of his writing and lesson is not to convince a reader. If there is one definite lesson to be learned from studying Ralph Waldo Emerson it is to never be definite about anything. Complacency in thought leads to limitations. Conformity attempts to suppress individual thought. Emerson himself is never settled in his reasoning.
“He was not a prophet who had once for all climbed his Sinai or his Tabor, and having there beheld the transfigured reality, descended again to make authoritative report of it to the world. Far from it. At bottom he had no doctrine at all. The deeper he went and the more he tried to grapple with fundamental conceptions, the vaguer and more elusive they became in his hands. Did he know what he meant by Spirit or “Over-Soul”? Could he say what he understood by the terms, so constantly on his lips, Nature, Law, God, Benefit, or Beauty? He could not, and the consciousness of the incapacity was so lively within him that he never attempted to give articulation to his own philosophy. His finer instinct kept him from doing that violence to his inspiration.” [Emerson 2001, 633]
With respect to reform, Emerson knows that his greatest contribution to a movement is found within his words. He is never settled in his own beliefs, and would never aspire to be settled, he will not tell his audience what to think. Telling people what they want to hear is never his purpose. The true action of Emerson’s life lies in his ability to provoke individual thought and action in others. One can only act off of one’s own convictions, and Emerson’s convictions are found in his beliefs that language grabs hold of interest, and inspire a man to think.
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Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. R. L. Rusk. Vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. Print.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Joel Porte. Emerson in his journals. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1982. Print.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Joel Porte, and Saundra Morris. Emerson’s prose and poetry: authoritative texts, contexts, criticism. Norton Critical Edition ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. Print.
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