Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Happy 200th Birthday to

Ralph Waldo Emerson

(May 25, 1803 - April 27, 1882)

by Peter Y. Chou

Ralph Waldo Emerson: Enlightened Sage


It's Emerson's 200th Birthday— and there's no postage stamp honoring the bicenntenial of his birth. He's not only America's most notable essayist, naturalist, philosopher, and poet but also a citizen of the world. His motto "Hitch your wagon to a star" shows that his mind was not constrained by the horse & buggy of his day, but soared high above the universe. The first time I encountered Emerson was as a stamp collector— He appeared in the Famous American series of 1940— a mint set of the 35 stamps was advertised in the Sunday New York Times for $5, much too expensive for a schoolboy in the mid-1950s. However I did get copies of the 1¢ Washington Irving, 2¢ James Fenimore Cooper, and 3¢ Emerson. I read The Last of the Mohicians and Cooper was my favorite author back then. I don't remember reading Emerson except jotting down some inspiring quotes of his as an undergraduate at Columbia. When I was at Cornell as a chemistry graduate student, I bought Phillips Russell's Emerson: The Wisest American (Brentano's Publishers, NY, 1929) on the Cornell Bookstore's used book shelf for only a dollar. I was intrigued by the title, and perhaps by the opening story in Chapter 1: It was Emerson's 59th birthday, and he and his son Edward was trying to put his calf, into its barn. The son grasped an ear while the father pushed from behind. But after much huffing and puffing, the heifer remained firm and refused to give an inch. Nothing in Emerson's voluminous readings of science and literature told of an effective way of pushing a calf into a barn. Emerson had no physical strength but he had plenty of persistence. So he told his son to try again, and still got nowhere. Just then, an Irish servant came by. With an amused glance, she put a finger into the animal's mouth, and the calf, seduced by this maternal imitation, at once followed her into the barn. Emerson returned to the house and after cleansing his hands of their hairy bovine smell, recorded the incident in his journal, adding this telling declaration: "I like people who can do things." What I enjoyed about this story is that despite Emerson's great bookish learning, he valued experience as the way to wisdom. By practicing this philosophy of self-reliance all his life, he grew in wisdom as he aged.

Emerson's Literary Ethics & Compensation

During the summer of 1964, I read "Literacy Ethics", an address delivered by Emerson before Literary Societies of Dartmouth College, July 24, 1838 It appeared in Emerson's Nature; Addresses and Lectures. The first paragraph grabbed my attention when Emerson said "that a scholar is the favorite of Heaven and earth, the excellency of his country, the happiest of men. His duties lead him directly into the holy ground where other men's aspirations only point." I didn't know why I was always happiest when I'm in the library tracking down beautiful quotations, browsing through ancient books for words of wisdom, or finding the viewpoints of my favorite poets or philosophers on perplexing problems of life. Emerson tells me that I'm on holy ground and this is the joy of the research scholar. Now I learn that the scholar's resources "are co-extensive with nature and truth, yet can never be his, unless claimed by him with an equal greatness of mind." When the scholar realizes that his intellectual power is not his, then he's in awe of its infinitude and impersonality. Only then can you be "a successful diver in that sea whose floor of pearls is all your own." Emerson warns the scholar to see the daybreak not as "Homeric, or Shakspearian, or Miltonic, or Chaucerian pictures", but greet the morning afresh with a mind "as large as nature." To do this, "He must be a solitary, laborious, modest, and charitable soul. He must embrace solitude as a bride. He must have his glees and his glooms alone." Emerson's address ends with the exhortions:

You will hear, that the first duty is to get land and money, place and name. 'What is this Truth you seek? what is this Beauty?' men will ask, with derision. If, nevertheless, God have called any of you to explore truth and beauty, be bold, be firm, be true. When you shall say, 'As others do, so will I: I renounce, I am sorry for it, my early visions; I must eat the good of the land, and let learning and romantic expectations go, until a more convenient season;'— then dies the man in you; then once more perish the buds of art, and poetry, and science, as they have died already in a thousand thousand men. The hour of that choice is the crisis of your history; and see that you hold yourself fast by the intellect. It is this domineering temper of the sensual world, that creates the extreme need of the priests of science; and it is the office and right of the intellect to make and not take its estimate. Bend to the persuasion which is flowing to you from every object in nature, to be its tongue to the heart of man, and to show the besotted world how passing fair is wisdom. Forewarned that the vice of the times and the country is an excessive pretension, let us seek the shade, and find wisdom in neglect. Be content with a little light, so it be your own. Explore, and explore."

Tears welled up in my eyes when I read this, and my heart said "Yes!" to Emerson that I'll be a true scholar always exploring for beauty, truth, and wisdom so as to keep the garden of art, poetry, and science alive for the world. And Emerson closes his speech with these thought-provoking words:

Thought is all light, and publishes itself to the universe. It will speak, though you were dumb, by its own miraculous organ. It will flow out of your actions, your manners, and your face. It will bring you friendships. It will impledge you to truth by the love and expectation of generous minds. By virtue of the laws of that Nature, which is one and perfect, it shall yield every sincere good that is in the soul, to the scholar beloved of earth and heaven."

Looking back on that day when I felt Emerson was speaking directly to me, I pledged my youth to truth, the journey to wisdom has been a truly joyous ride. Mentors in art, poetry, science and spirit came in abundance to guide me. Friends far and near helped in my spiritual quest for enlightenment. My life's experience has borne out Emerson's vision that the scholar is indeed blessed— beloved of heaven and earth.

My copy of Emerson's Compensation was published by Thomas Y. Crowell Co., New York, a slim 36-page volume with a beautiful engraved portrait of Emerson facing the ornate title page. The cover has a landscape of a lakeside with tall trees, hills in the distance, and brushstrokes of white clouds. It's a truly meditative scene, an impressionistic painting or photograph. But reading this book around 1966 (My brother wrote Xmas 1966 on the front page when I gave it to him), I learned valuable insights from Emerson about divine justice. Emerson does not use the word karma in this book, a Buddhist term which I had not come across until a year later. Emerson notes the polarity or dualism that underlies nature and condition of man:

The same dualism underlies the nature and condition of man. Every excess causes a defect; every defect an excess. Every sweet hath its sour; every evil its good. Every faculty which is a receiver of pleasure has an equal penalty put on its abuse. It is to answer for its moderation with its life. For every grain of wit there is a grain of folly. For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something. If riches increase, they are increased that use them. If the gatherer gathers too much, nature takes out of the man what she puts into his chest; swells the estate, but kills the owner. Nature hates monopolies and exceptions.

Cosmic Consciousness

In Richard Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness (1901), Emerson is listed among those who have experienced a lesser form of cosmic consciousness. Others in this group include Socrates, Pascal, Spinoza, Wordsworth, Pushkin, Tennyson, Thoreau, and Ramakrishna. Bucke did not have access to Emerson's Journals (published 1909) at the time, so his assessment was incomplete. A recent study Emerson and Zen Buddhism (2001), by John G. Rudy concludes that Emerson's essays and addresses are similar to Zen masters' teachings. They help us through a self-emptying process that brings us to our original face before our parents were born. My hunch that Emerson had experienced full cosmic consciousness came around 1989. I was reading Bliss Perry's The Heart of Emerson's Journals (1926), when I came across Emerson's September 1, 1833 entry from Liverpool. Emerson had journeyed to Italy, Switzerland, France, England, and Scotland. He had met Landor, Coleridge, Carlyle, and Wordsworth. Emerson's assessment of these "wise men"— "they would be remembered as sensible, well-read, earnest men, not more. Especially are they all deficient, all these four,— in different degrees, but all deficient,— in insight into religious truth. They have no idea of that species of moral truth which I call the first philosophy."

When I checked the dates of these well-known European writers— Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864), 58 years old [Poems (1795), Imaginary Conversations (1824-1829)], Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1792-1834), 61 years old [13 books including Rime of Ancient Mariner (1789), The Friend (1818), Kublai Khan (1816), Biographia Literaria (1817)], Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), 38 years old [7 books including translation of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1824), Life of Schiller (1825), Essays on Burns (1828), On History (1830)], William Wordsworth (1770-1850), 63 years old [8 books including Lyrical Ballads with Coleridge (1798), Tintern Abbey (1798), Intimations of Immortality (1803-06), The Excursion (1814)], I ask myself— how a 30-year old Emerson with no books published yet in 1833 [Nature (1836), Poems (1840), Essays (1841)] could pass judgment on seasoned writers that were double his age (except Carlyle)? In particular, where did Emerson experience the "insight into religious truth" that he found deficient in these men? I believe that Emerson was enlightened by his wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker, his first true love. Her premature death shook up Emerson deeply, and in his despair and sorrow, he experienced a spiritual awakening that is more profound than all his book learning. This led to his enlightenment at the Mount Auburn Cemetery on April 11, 1834 where he experienced Zeus or Jupiter consciousness: "It was Day— that was all Heaven said."

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© Peter Y. Chou, WisdomPortal.com
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: peter@wisdomportal.com (5-25-2003)