Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson (Part Two | Nature to Spiritual Laws)

40290Emerson.qx5.EGFiction — print. Edited by Peter Norberg. Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. 520 pgs. Purchased.

I was surprised to find that many of the first eight essays in this collection are actually written transcripts of Emerson’s speeches and orations delivered before college students and professional organizations. The American Scholar, which my class read during my junior year of high school, was delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge in 1837. A year later, Emerson delivered An Address before the graduating class in the Divinity College at Cambridge. Man the Reformer was a lecture read before the Mechanics’ Apprentices’ Library Association in Boston in 1841, and Emerson delivered The Transcendentalist at the Masonic Temple in Boston in 1842. My lack of knowledge about Emerson had led me to believe he was some kind of recluse who lived in the woods rather than a master orator.

The first and longest speech in these eight essays is Nature, a rather misleading title. The essay is not necessarily about the natural world but rather about the interaction between God and nature. Emerson says that “nature is the symbol of spirit” (pg. 21) and “the use of natural history is to give us aid in supernatural history; the use of the outer creation, to give us language for the beings and changes of the inward creation” (pg. 21). Nature is not twigs and flowers but rather a higher being that gives us the words and language needed to construct the supernatural influences (mainly God) in our lives. Moving past the construct of religion with a reverence for nature emancipates us (pg. 34) and “presents the world in precisely that view which is most desirable to us” (pg. 39-40).

As I mentioned above, The American Scholar is the only essay in this collection that my literature class read during my junior year of high school. I never understood why my teacher selected this particular essay considering it is not nearly as well-known as some of his other essays until I reread this essay. It is one of Emerson’s more motivational essays explaining how society continues to divide men (and women, one can guess) into parceled, understandable units that degenerate his thinking processes.

“In this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victory of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.” (pg. 51)

Anyone can become a scholar, but everyone can have their mind and personality swayed by another’s thinking. Of course, Emerson being a preacher suggest that a nation of Man Thinking “will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspirited by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men” (pg. 66). But isn’t this also another’s thinking? Maybe only if you believe in organized religion? Regardless, the moral of this address is that anyone can be a scholar as long as they take away you’re their own experiences and thirst to learn more. The moral of this essay was repeated in An Address and Man the Reformer.

The Transcendentalist is considered the penultimate essay on Transcendentalism, a belief system that espouses a non-traditional appreciation of nature. Emerson divides thinking people into two sects, Materialists and Idealists. The first class bases their thoughts on experience, focusing on facts, history, and force of circumstances while the second on consciousness, “the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture” (pg. 98). His division makes me want to rail against my training as a (pseudo)scientist and become an idealist because his description of materialists makes the later sound rather unpleasant. As though basing your arguments on history and fact make you a dud and stuck in a rut.

“The materialist, secure in the certainty of sensation, mocks at fine-spun theories, at star-gazers and dreamers, and believes that his life is solid, that he at lease takes nothing for granted, but knows where he stands, and what he does.” (pg. 99)

Self-Reliance is arguably my favorite essay of these eight. Emerson’s argument for allowing people a private place to work through their emotions and questions about life really stuck a chord with me. It could be why I haven’t been all that distraught to be removed from friends and family for the past eight weeks. I finally have the private, personal space to reflect who I am, where I am heading, and who I want to be. This space allows for self-reflection and development of a backbone of sorts so that people can maintain their nonconformity when they return to a society that will attempt to whip them with their displeasure (pg. 119). Individuals cannot develop self-trust whilst existing in society because “the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past act, and we are loath to disappoint them” (pg. 119). The struggle now for people emerging back into their previous societies will be to maintain the self-confidence and self-assure they have developed during their period of self-reflection.

“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” (pg. 118)

The last two essays – Compensation and Spiritual Laws – were harder for me to comprehend and thus appreciate. Both seemed repetitive given the previous six essays. Anyways, you can read most of these essays for free in the public domain. Penn State has published most of the essays referenced in this post in a PDF as a part of its Electronic Classics Series.


  1. Jillian ♣

    I can’t wait to read these. I read The Transcendentalist a couple months ago and own the annotated collection. 🙂


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