Sunday, April 17, 2011

Is it a New Thought or just Ancient Wisdom in modern dress - Part Three

Ralph Waldo Emerson:

The Transcendentalist

[In Emerson’s Essays] We are lifted out of the provincialisms of time as well as of space … often by the sheer magic of a paragraph come to feel that we live, move, and have our being in the wide universe of spirit, all radiance, all beauty, all good.[1]

Most famous for his lectures and essays, a leading figure in the Transcendentalist movement,[2] and considered the Father of the New Thought Movement,[3] Ralph Waldo Emerson was born to Ruth Haskins and the Rev. William Emerson[4] in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the second of five sons who survived into adulthood; three died in childhood. Just before his eighth birthday, Emerson’s father died of tuberculosis. Raised by his mother and the other women in the family, he was greatly influenced by his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, of whom he exclaimed:

Nobody can read in her manuscript, or recall the conversation of old-school people, without seeing that Milton and Young had a religious authority in their mind, and nowise the slight, merely entertaining quality of modern bards. And Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus — how venerable and organic as Nature they are in her mind![5]

Aunt Mary “introduced young Emerson to Oriental literature and classical philosophy, speculated with him about John Donne, and laughed at his riddles and puns in Greek.”[6] Her profound effect on Emerson, inspiring him with her love for reading and Nature,[7] continued until her death in 1863. At 14, Emerson went to Harvard College where, by his senior year, he began a lifelong love of poetry while serving as Class Poet.

“In the morning, solitude,” said Pythagoras. By all means give the youth solitude, that Nature may speak to his imagination, as it does never in company; and for the like reason give him a chamber alone; – and that was the best thing I found in college. (Emerson’s Journal, 1859)

After a few years of making his living as a schoolmaster, Emerson attended Harvard Divinity School and, at the age of 26, became the junior pastor of Boston’s Second Church. Three years later, after the death of his wife Ellen Luisa Tucker, he wrote in his journal, “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.”

His disagreements with church officials over the administration of the Communion service and misgivings about public prayer eventually led to his resignation in 1832: “This mode of commemorating Christ is not suitable to me. That is reason enough why I should abandon it.”

That year he took off for Europe, meeting William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle (who had a particularly strong influence on him). During that journey, in France, “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."[8]

Returning to America in late 1833, Emerson began his career as a lecturer. His first presentation, “The Uses of Natural History in Boston” developed into his first book, Nature (not to be confused with the essay of the same title written in 1844). In its introduction, he wrote on how the ideas of old do not have to be a part of the philosophy of the new:

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? …. The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.

And yet, in the chapter “Language,” he keeps a connection to the old:

This relation between the mind and matter is not fancied by some poet, but stands in the will of God, and so is free to be known by all men …. It is the standing problem which has exercised the wonder and the study of every fine genius since the world began … There sits the Sphinx at the road-side, and from age to age, as each prophet comes by, he tries his fortune at reading her riddle.

He wants us to be self reliant, to have the freedom to think on our own, using what serves us from those before, ancient and not so ancient, incorporating that wisdom with the evolution of new thoughts and philosophies.

In 1835, Emerson married Lydia Jackson.[9] On September 8, 1836, the day before the publication of Nature,[10] Emerson met with Henry Hedge, George Putnam and George Ripley to plan periodic gatherings of other like-minded intellectuals.[11] This was the beginning of the Transcendental Club, which served as a center for the movement with which he is well known. A year later he brought women in to join the club,[12] including Margaret Fuller, who was an important figure in Transcendentalism. It was at this time that he delivered his now-famous Phi Beta Kappa address “The American Scholar,”[13] his ‘Declaration of Independence’:

The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature …. The next great influence … is the mind of the Past … whether of literature, of art, of institutions, that mind is inscribed. …. Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man … Inaction is cowardice … there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action.

1837 also marked the beginning of his life-long friendship with Henry David Thoreau; of whom he once inquired, “Do you keep a journal?”

In July 1838, Emerson was invited to give the graduation address at Divinity Hall, Harvard Divinity School. “[It was there that] Emerson discounted Biblical miracles and proclaimed that, while Jesus was a great man, he was not God: historical Christianity had turned Jesus into a ‘demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo.’”[14] Outraged, the establishment and the general Protestant community denounced him as “an atheist and a poisoner of young men's minds.” He was not invited back to speak at Harvard for another thirty years.

In 1840, he and fellow Transcendentalists Bronson Alcott and George Ripley decided to begin a magazine, The Dial, with Margaret Fuller editing (Emerson would edit the final two years until 1844). His Essays (first series) were published in 1841. These writings were most influential to the New Thought Movement; we explore three of them here.

Essay: Self Reliance[15]

It is fair to say, as many do, that this is not only excellent prose, but also a definitive statement of Emerson's philosophy of individualism. The first of three epigraphs well describes the 50-paragraph tome: Ne te quaesiveris extra, “Do not seek outside yourself” (Persius).

In this essay, Emerson brings in much of his influences from Kant[16], Carlyle, and Goethe. Seizing on Carlyle’s 1827 claim “Reason discerns Truth itself, the absolutely and primitive True,”[17] Emerson teaches one to “detect and watch the gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within” and to “trust thyself” and be a “nonconformist,” as we are “redeemers and benefactors, pious aspirants to be noble clay under the Almighty effort.” He tells us that “no law can be sacred … but that of my own nature;” and that we “do not need … any secondary testimony.” One must “trust your emotion” for “there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor moving wherever moves a man; that a true man belongs to no other time or place, but is the centre of things … where he is, there is nature … a cause, a country, and an age.” He references the lives of Jesus, Luther, Wesley, Milton, and Caesar, whose histories, words and actions informed and educated him in formulating his philosophy. In the second third of the essay, Emerson talks about how “we lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us organs of its activity and receivers of its truth,” describing a connection to God that is natural and internal. Continuing, he talks about the ancient wisdom becoming the new when he writes, “whenever a mind is simple and receives a divine wisdom, then old things pass away, – means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now, and absorbs past and future into the present hour.” He does not condone casting it all away as much as listening to that voice of the Universe which separates the man-made from the divinely inspired: “That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him …. Every great man is an unique [sic].” With this he extols the need to listen to one’s self, not rehash others: “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”

Essay: Compensation[18]

In this work, Emerson delves into what is known today as the Law of Cause and Effect; a spiritual law principal to the philosophies of Buddhism, Hinduism, and other spiritual movements.[19] He begins:

Ever since I was a boy, I have wished to write a discourse on Compensation: for it seemed to me when very young, that on this subject life was ahead of theology, and the people knew more than the preachers taught. …. It seemed to me, also, that in it might be shown men a ray of divinity, the present action of the soul of this world, clean from all vestige of tradition, and so the heart of man might be bathed by an inundation of eternal love, conversing with that which he knows was always and always must be, because it really is now.

In this essay, he speaks of a dualism, though not in reference to an outside Power. You might say he speaks of two sides of a single coin. He describes this duality as “the ebb and flow of the sea, day and night, man and woman, in a single needle of the pine, in a kernel of corn, in each individual of every animal tribe … the entire system of things gets represented in every particle.” He tells us “[the] soul, which within us is a sentiment, outside of us is a law.” He continues later with a paragraph of Biblical and literary sayings that was and still remains in the vernacular such as: “Tit for tat; an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth; blood for blood; measure for measure; love for love …. Give and it shall be given you …. What will you have? quoth God; pay for it and take it …. It is thus written, because it is thus in life.” And he goes on to prove the point that the Universe works the same way: “Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed.”

Essay: Over-Soul[20]

Emerson reveals his pantheistic colors and distaste of duality (as in a God or Power separate from mankind). His journals show he was reading the Bhagavad-Gita[21] and Henry Thomas Colebrooke's essays on the Vedas at this time, once stating: “The Bhagavad-Gita is an empire of thought and in its philosophical teachings Krishna has all the attributes of the full-fledged monotheistic deity and at the same time the attributes of the Upanisadic absolute …. I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad-Gita.” Charles Braden said that evidence of Emerson’s reading of the philosophies of the Orient occurred when he wrote, “There is no bar or wall in the soul where man, the effect, ceases, and God, the cause, begins. The walls are taken away. We lie open on one side to the deeps of spiritual nature, to the attributes of God.”[22]

In short, evidence of Emerson’s influences from Ancient Wisdom and beyond is plentiful. In Studies in New England Transcendentalism, Harold Clarke Goddard made an accounting of the number of times Emerson quoted many of these thinkers and writers:

Shakespeare, 112; Napoleon, 84; Plato, 81; Plutarch, 70; Goethe, 62; Jesus, 54; Swift, 49; Bacon, 47; Milton, 46; Newton, 43; Homer, 42; Socrates, 42; Swedenborg, 40; Saadi, 30; Luther, 30; Webster, 27; Aristotle, 25; Hafiz, 25; Wordsworth, 25; Saint Paul, 24; Dante, 22; Chaucer, 20; Coleridge, 20; Michelangelo, 20.

Though he died in 1882, his influences continue through not only the New Thought Movement and other metaphysical liturgy, but with the likes of Nietzsche: “Behold, it saith, I am born into the great, the universal mind. I, the imperfect, adore my own Perfect … the soul is the perceiver and revealer of truth” – a truth born in the before, learned from the past, and projected into the future through the present form of Ralph Waldo Emerson

[1] From Andrew George’s Introduction to Emerson’s Essays

[2] A movement in literature and philosophy that emerged in New England in the 1830s and 40s, protesting the general state of culture and society and, in particular, that of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity School. Its core beliefs included an ideal spiritual state that "transcends" the physical or observed and is realized only through an individual's intuition; a knowledge that is a priori rather than a posteriori (i.e. religion). Other major figures in the movement were Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody.

[3] Spirits in Rebellion, Braden, p. 35

[4] A Unitarian Minister. Considered Liberal Christians, a non-Trinitarian theology. Per Rev. Samuel J. May of the American Unitarian Association, Boston, 1867: “[They] have no formula of faith; no system of doctrines; no list of articles prescribed by...human authority...believe...that each and every rational and moral being, male and female, is under the highest obligation to form his or her own opinions about religion [free will]...believe with the Apostle Paul (Rom. viii. 14), that, “as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God”...that Jesus of Nazareth was led by the Spirit of God...was the most excellent person who has ever lived upon earth...the best teacher of true religion...the character of God and his purposes respecting man and that the moral precepts he gave were more nearly identical with perfect righteousness...”seek first the kingdom of God.” Prayer is a universal practice and they reject predestination, eternal damnation or the need for salvation...human nature is neither inherently corrupt nor depraved (original sin), but capable of both good and evil, as God intended.

[5] Mary Moody Emerson, from a paper read before the Woman's Club, Boston1869, under the title “Amita.”

[6] “The Simple Life: Plain Living And High Thinking In American Culture,” David E. Shi, 2007, University of Georgia Press

[7] The “Amita” paper: “...she was driven to find Nature her companion and solace. She speaks of "her attempts in Malden, to wake up the soul amid the dreary scenes of monotonous Sabbaths, when Nature looked like a pulpit."

[8] Emerson: The Mind on Fire, Robert D. Richardson, Jr., 1995, University of California Press. The Jardin des Plantes, in Paris, is the main botanical garden in France.

[9] They had four children: Waldo, Ellen, Edith, and Edward Waldo Emerson.

[10] Included one of the tenets of Transcendentalism and New Thought, the Divinity of Man, when he wrote, “A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world.” In the chapter “Spirit,” he writes, “Who can set bounds to the possibilities of man … we learn that man has access to the entire mind of the Creator, is himself the creator in the finite.”

[11] Emerson: The Mind on Fire Berkeley, Robert D. Richardson, Jr., 1995, University of California Press

[12] “The Transcendentalists championed the enfranchisement of women. The beginnings of this reform can be traced to them more definitely than any source...Men and women were all alike human beings...and should enjoy equal rights” - Braden, Spirits in Rebellion, 1963

[13] An Oration delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at Cambridge, August 31, 1837

[14] Buell, Lawrence (2003) Emerson Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

[15] Emerson’s Essays: First & Second Series Complete in One Volume. Edwin Irwin, ed.

[16] Immanuel Kant was an 18th century German philosopher and geographer who believed one ought to think autonomously, free of the dictates of external authority. He introduced the terms transcendent and transcendental meaning to that which goes beyond (transcends) any possible knowledge of a human being. These concepts were important to Coleridge, Wordsworth and Carlyle; who exchanged ideas with Emerson.

[17] Multiple secondary sources

[18] Emerson’s Essays: First & Second Series Complete in One Volume. Edwin Irwin, ed.

[19] Hinduism calls it Karma. Buddhism describes it in the second Noble Truth as Paticca-samuppada (dependent arising). In Galatians 6:7, Paul wrote, "For whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap." Many metaphysicians call it the Law of Attraction. It is also found in Newton’s third law, which states that for every action there is an equal, and opposite reaction.

[20] Emerson’s Essays: First & Second Series Complete in One Volume. Edwin Irwin, ed.

[21] Hindu texts stressing the relationship of The Brahman (the universal spirit) and the Atman (the individual Self). These had a large influence on Schopenhauer, Descarte and Spinoza.

[22] Spirits in Rebellion, Braden, 1963, pg. 37

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