Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson (Part Four | Plato to Thoreau)

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

The last eight essays included in this collection are rather different from the previous sixteen as these essays are more biographical in nature. Essays on Plato, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Thoreau are used as anecdotal evidence for how philosophers, poets, and politicians fit into the world. I would have to say that these essays were my least favorites in this collection, but that does not mean I did not find some interesting tidbits to mull over. In his essay Plato; or the Philosopher Emerson says, “What is not good for virtue, is good for knowledge” (pg. 297), which one could argue is my own personal motto considering I love learning about (what my mother has dubbed) ‘deviant behavior’.

“Great men are more distinguished by range and extent than by originality…A poet is no rattle-brain, saying what comes uppermost, and, because he says every thing, saying at last something good; but a heart in unison with his time and country. There is nothing whimsical and fantastic in his production, but sweet and sad earnest, freighted with the weightiest convictions and pointed with them most determined aim which any man or class knows of in his times.” (Shakespeare; or, the Poet, pg. 316)

Emerson also attempts to address the question of originality in poetry, namely the originality of one William Shakespeare. Emerson says in Shakespeare; or, the Poet that “Shakespeare knew that tradition supplies a better fable than any invention can. If he lost any credit of design, he augmented his resources; and, at that day, our petulant demand for originality was not so much pressed” (pg. 319). I was struck by how he felt originality at the time did not matter rather the importance was availability to the masses. The final essay in this series, Napoleon; or, the Man of the World, focuses on role politicians play in society and how they generate their power by swaying people are just like them. In Napoleon’s case, he became France and then European “because the people who he sways are little Napoleons” (pg. 331).

These essays blend perfectly into Emerson’s essay entitled Illusions as the illusions we have about great men allow us to see past their faults or fall under their sway. In this essay, Emerson explains how illusions, imaginations, admirations, and sentiments drive us (Illusions, pg. 407). Illusions are what keep us mysterious and retain the interest of others as “men who make themselves felt in the world avail themselves of a certain fate in their constitution, which they know how to use. But they never deeply interest us, unless they lift a corner of the curtain, or betray never so slightly their penetration of what is behind it” (Illusions, pg. 410).  This line, of course, harkens back to some of Emerson’s other essays.

“The element running through entire nature, which we popularly call Fate, is known to us as limitation. Whatever limits us, we call Fate. If we are brute and barbarous, the fate takes a brute and dreadful shape.” (Fate, pg. 375)

There was one essay in this set that stood out – Fate. Emerson characterizes Fate as a man-made limitation; we see Fate as something upon which we can blame our struggles and/or failures even though “these shocks and ruins are less destructive to us, than the stealthy power of other laws which act on us daily” (pg. 369). We forget how strong we are as people and if only we could remember that, remember that Fate is “the meter of the growing man” we could “stand against Fate, as children stand up against the wall in their father’s house, and notch their height from year to year” (pg. 380). Certainly a different way of looking at things!

The final essay in this collection, Thoreau, serves as a biography of Henry David Thoreau. I thought it would be a good introduction to another philosopher who is also well-known for his emphasis on nature, but Emerson’s essay left with a more negative image than I anticipated. At one point in the essay, Emerson’ mourning for the loss of Thoreau’s “rare powers” (pg. 429) takes on a snide tone as he criticizes Thoreau for being — to put it bluntly — lazy. In saying that “with his energy and practical ability he seemed born for great enterprise and for command” (pg. 429), it seems like Emerson is saying that Thoreau never reached his full potential. Or, maybe I’m just reading too much into a single sentence.

At the conclusion of this collection, I have to say that reading these essays has been a delight. Sometimes a difficult book finds you at just the right time. Thank you, Emerson, for your thought-provoking essays. I have enjoyed mulling over each and every idea.

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