Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson (Part Three | Friendship to Uses of Great Men)

The next eight essays in this collection largely focus on the nature of friendship and the use of language to facilitate relationships. The emotions developed through these interactions and felt towards others in poetry and common speech are “likened to the material effects of fire; so swift, or much more swift, more active, more cheering are these fine inward irradiations. From the highest degree of passionate love, to the lowest degree of good will, they make the sweetness of life” (pg. 173).

Emerson takes a very negative stance towards friendship, calling it “too good to be believed” (pg. 175) in his essay entitled, appropriately, Friendship. Our friendships with others are often built upon an unstable foundation, one that we cannot always see and are often discovered only after the friendship is over. Yet, “when they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know” (pg. 177), and we will spend our whole lives searching for friendships of this quality.

“We walk alone in the world. Friends, such as we desire, are dreams and fables. But a sublime hope cheers ever the faithful heart…” (Friendship, pg. 183)

In order to avoid the heartache of a lost friendship, we must demand friendship of higher style. Do not surround yourself with people you merely tolerate or are settling with in your friendship; “we must have society on our own terms, and admit or exclude it on the slightest cause” (pg. 184). This late quote reminded me so much of Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance, which I previously discussed. Furthermore, in The Over-Soul, Emerson reminds us that “persons are supplementary to the primary teaching of the soul” (pg. 191), meaning we should focus on finding ourselves before finding others. This statement is also reiterated in Uses of Great Men when Emerson says “man is endogenous, and education is his unfolding” (pg. 282). Moments in Circles and Experience are also very reminiscent of Self-Reliance.

“Men cease to interest us when we find their limitations. The only sin is limitation. As soon as you once come up with a man’s limitations, it is all over with him. Has he talents? has he enterprises? has he knowledge? it boots not. Infinitely alluring and attractive was he to you yesterday, a great hope, a sea to swim in; now, you have found his shores, found it a pond, and you care not if you never see it again.” (Circles, pg. 205)

I found myself nodding in agreement with Emerson’s statement in The Over-Soul that “the faith that stands on authority is not faith. The reliance on authority, measures the decline of religion, the withdrawal of the soul” (pg. 200). I can see now how he received much criticism for his declaration that his parishioners are more concerned about receiving communion rather than living out a Christian life. After all, what religion is not structured upon authority and consequences?

Emerson holds a similar notion to government in his essay entitled Politics. The theory of politics says government exists for the protection of persons and property, and “of persons, all have equal rights in virtue of being identical in nature” (pg. 257). Government has now become an authoritative figure throwing its weight behind laws to property, which allows “the rich to encroach on the poor, and to keep poor” (pg. 258). Rather than advocating for the refocusing of government, Emerson says “the less government we have the better – the fewer laws, and the less confided power” (pg. 263). Democracy, of course, has been argued as exempt from this issue, but Emerson says that democracy in and of itself is not perfect. Instead, democracy has become as soft spot for people because it is presented as “better for us because the religious sentiment of the present time accords better with it” (pg. 259).  Certainly a lot to mull over!

Book Mentioned:

  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Ed. Peter Norberg. Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. Print. 520 pgs. ISBN: 159308076X. Source: Purchased.
Book Cover © Barnes & Noble Classics. Retrieved: May 23, 2012.
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