A birthday gift for Ralph Waldo Emerson on his 210th birthday;
presented at St. Philip’s on Sunday, May 26, by his friend and student Ron Lancaster
The year was 1803. The day was … yesterday, May the 25th. And on this day, Beethoven was writing his 3rd Symphony. Goethe was just starting on Faust, and Blake was finishing Jerusalem. Goya was working in pen and ink, and Turner was painting seascapes. Lord Byron was still a schoolboy, but Napoleon was an Emperor and Thomas Jefferson was the President of seventeen states.
Also of note, was the birth of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I am here today to help celebrate that event in story and praise. Personally, Waldo has meant much to my own development. I discovered him when I was a mere lad—about 40 years old. I had been noticing references to him over the years but I still thought he was just some old stodgy preacher. But when I read in Walt Whitman’s own journals that it was Emerson who affected him more than any other person, I decided to give him a read.
Well, I started reading, and I still haven’t finished, and over 30 years have passed. He is one of those rare thinkers that I return to time and again for sustenance. He showed me doors that I was sure were walls. Whitman had said “I was simmering, simmering, simmering. Then Emerson bought me to a boil.” From there, he went out and lived a different and beautiful life. To me, Waldo’s writing is kindling to start fires in simmering hearts.
Emerson developed the habit of writing journals about his life from early on. His published journals take up 16 dense volumes, and that did not include the 17 that were lost from his youth. Thus we have his whole history of thought from a young age. In addition, Waldo kept books of notes on everything he read. There are 45 books of notes, with quotes from every imaginable source, many in Latin, Greek, and French, all of which he spoke. For me, these books of notes and journals, taken together and studied in tandem, are a dazzling source of inspiration and education. These are writings that he had not intended to publish, but which show his mind growing and glowing like no other set of documents produced by any man. I know that there have been many excellent writers in our history, but few ever worked more diligently or with more intellectual fire than Emerson. Apparently, he was virtually never idle. His literary canon is immense, taking up many shelves in the library. He was always reading, thinking, and writing.
His influences were varied. He was well versed in the Bible, as well as the writings of the Hellenistic world, Plato, Pythagoras, Plutarch, and the like. Also, Emerson was a avid reader of the Indian scriptures and early Buddhist literature. These philosophic approaches cross-pollinated in his mind and can be seen weaved throughout his writings in gilts and glimmers. This lofty class of prophets and oracles, the high priesthood of pure spiritual reason, pushed him forward.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston to a tradition of ministers going back eight generations to 1635 in England. His father was one of the founders of the Unitarian Christian Church, a liberal offshoot of strict Calvinism. Waldo set his sights early on the pulpit. He probably never considered any other path. It was the family business. He graduated from Harvard School of Divinity, and because of his prestigious family ties as well as a remarkable ability at presenting sermons that could quietly stir his congregation, he was appointed minister at the Second Church of Boston.
Indeed, Emerson was a great orator, perhaps the greatest of his age. People reported that his high sweet voice carried well and his skill at modulation and variation made him more the violin than the bass drum. His audience remained intensely quiet to catch his every word. He could make a grown man swoon as he touched their deepest longings. For almost his entire life, Emerson made a living from the pulpit and lecture halls of America.
In his recently published four-volume set of sermons, Waldo showed a remarkable ability at the use of words to make people think and feel better for it. They are the work of a true man of God, sent to inspire our spirits and buoy our hopes, and he was only in his twenties at the time. This was an early witness to his powerful essays that were to come later. The pews and chairs were full when he stood up to speak.
As a minister he thrived, at least outwardly. Inwardly, it was a different story. In the secret world of his mind, Waldo chafed at his harness. In his journal for 1830, he talks about feeling rebellion at the “official goodness” of clergymen. Emerson thought that a particular religion or sect limits a person’s thinking capacity and so he tried to steer his teachings away from narrowness of some Christian concepts of sin and hell and begin to insert little doses of the Greek and Eastern mystics. He enfolded new ways of looking at the usual stale ideas into his sermons, which made him the darling among the freethinking New Englanders.
In one sermon he informed his flock, “Our misfortunes are our best friends. Difficulty and affliction are our needful masters which God has provided for the teaching of man.”
In 1831, Ellen, his young wife of two years, passed away. This was a crushing blow for him, but still a signal event for Waldo, because even amid his suffering, he knew he was now free to make use of other pursuits, having no family to care for or other ties. He gave up his position as minister and immediately left for Europe to travel and think about the course of his life. His journals from this trip are bursting with a fresh energy, free of the yoke of church duties.
While in Europe, Emerson set the course for the rest of his life. He decided to remain a preacher, but an itinerant one without a parish to weigh him down, to give sermons and lectures where he could, and to write essays
It was in 1834, with the publication of his first nest of essays, called Nature, that Emerson gained fame the world over. Now the birth of a new and fresh bard appeared on the scene. Before Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson was a New England secret. He self-published his little book, and it sold about 500 copies in America, but soon it was picked up and pirated by four publishers in England, where it quickly was a best seller.
He viewed nature as a grand metaphor for God. His work Nature is in essay form, but more rightly they are a group of prose/poems. Waldo was a poet, every bit of it. But his greatest poems were written in longhand, not the shorthand of traditional poets. They were music and flair betrothed to logic and relevance. He penned, “Health, appetite, and attention impart the sweetness in sugar, bread and meat.”
Emerson was not a furrowed-browed biologist or a camper living among tribes of oak and spruce. He experienced nature everywhere, and in fact, saw himself as nature, his senses the midpoint between soil and soul. One of his main ideas was that all nature needs to be seen to be appreciated. He writes: “Nature offers every morning her wealth to man. She is immensely rich; we are welcome to her entire goods … To the idle blockhead nature is poor, sterile, inhospitable. To the gardener her loam is all strawberries, pears, pineapples. To the miller her rivers whirl the wheel and weave carpets and broadcloth. To the sculptor her stone is soft; to the painter her plumbago and marl are pencils and chromes … Many eyes go through the meadow, but few see the flowers.”
See, that is poetry and a kind of metaphysics where objects and their uses jump out of their molds to reveal a passionate and practical God. The same year that Nature was published, Darwin began his work, Origin of the Species, to eventual acclaim.
But the two men differed on this issue of nature. The idea of evolution to Emerson might be an accurate reading of the history based on outward evidence, but it left out a spiritual vitality working in communion with the temporal forces. He said, “The tap must have a higher source.” He saw nature as a great pulsating Being whose intelligence was operating on a massive scale of metamorphosis, and not a cold mechanism of chance, where the lower somehow creates the higher. To Waldo, the sluggish caterpillar remodeling into a beautiful butterfly was a reflection of a primary law of transformation. All of nature’s many faces are but a conscious urge for beauty, both spiritual and physical, not a wild fortuitous fluke, as Darwin would have it. They had different perspectives: Darwin was looking for a godless world. Emerson felt celestial impulses everywhere, blessed mysteries within every particle.
The main beneficiary of all of nature’s effort is man himself, if he will just look and listen. Here is how Emerson put it in his essay: “(In)Nature … All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulation of the Divine Charity nourishes man. In God, every end is converted into a new means. The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship.”
These are the words of a beautiful Soul. Waldo is imploring us to connect with the Divine through the staggering specter of nature.
To Emerson, nature was not just this thin film of life that surrounds our globe. It is everything in the universe, operating in concert, and made from Celestial material. But man, God’s ultimate masterpiece, has troubles galore. He said that man’s problems lie in his misunderstanding of his own nature. He wrote, “A man is a god in ruins … The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself.”
Are we not still broken and in heaps? We don’t have to gaze very far afield to see this eternal truth. The newspapers keep us apprised of the vast range of our madness. We seem forever to be pestered by imaginary terrors and milked of all good sense. He writes, “The extent and consistency of the world’s farce keeps each particular puppet mesmerized, hiding the idiocy of the whole thing in the multitude of the details.” We live in an unstable world deranged by selfishness and unruly passion. But, Waldo thinks that if we just could grasp our great inner world, we could have that salvation from our lesser selves — our carnal bodies
These lesser selves of ours cause all our troubles and trials. But, he writes: “(This) is the quarry of our future … man’s life is of a ridiculous brevity and meanness, but it is … a trial only of his young wings, and that (there are) vast revolutions of celestial societies that invite him. God is breeding angels here on earth, and only the eternal inner world can provide the stuff for soaring … It takes something God-like to free our selves from the common motives of men.”
After his little book, Nature, was published, Emerson was busier that ever. He was in demand in churches in both England and America. But in 1838, his preaching from the pulpit came to a sudden halt after he delivered the commencement address to the Harvard Divinity School graduating class.
The Harvard Deans who invited him to speak knew only of his fame, not the content of his message. He said what he really thought—that religion needed reform. He was a Christian through and through, but he thought something had gone wrong with the teaching—the fundamentals had become rigid. The individual inner search, the winged purpose of religion, had been brushed aside for an adoration of the ritual. He said, “Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the sou l… He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World. But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the … following ages.”
Emerson then looked directly at the fledgling preachers to be, and gave them his best advice. “Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. Yourself a new born bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity. Look to it first and only,— fashion, custom, authority, pleasure, and money, are nothing to you—are not bandages over your eyes …”
Waldo didn’t tell them not to be ministers, but rather to be more authentic in their ministrations. The great stories of God did not end with the Bible. We are the stuff of great stories too. Or can be. He advised, “Preach from where you have lived—not from where someone else has lived.” God’s Word is not spread by cowards or copycats.
For a long time Emerson was not welcome in the churches of New England for this audacity of suggesting that men of God be original and find their own Creator within themselves and not in strict instruction. “God does not live in the catechism,” he said.
He may have lost the pulpit as a stage, but his speech struck many as the bravest sort of holy business, and his lectures were ever more in demand. The louder his critics bellowed, the farther his voice was heard.
“Hitch your wagon to a star,” he tells those of us who would seek a better, more wholesome way to live. It is simpler than you think—just become your own person. That is your personal star. In his essay entitled “Self-Reliance, he says, “Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist … I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions … A man must consider what a blind-man’s bluff is this game of conformity. For non-conformity the world whips you with its displeasure. So what? To be great is to be misunderstood. Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh.”
Still, Emerson goes on and insists that we must carry on and risk everything, even though we may be mocked or ignored. He says: “Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? … Every great man or woman is unique … Insist on yourself—not an imitation! Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.”
He goes on, “If we live truly, we shall see truly. And it is not by any accustomed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name; the way … shall be wholly strange and new.”
Emerson is quietly whispering to our hearts: “Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place divine providence has found for you.” Find out what it is. Look inside yourself. “Every mind is a mustard seed,” he adds.
Don’t let society cast the mold for you. They only know the assembly line technique. “Each person has their own vocation. The talent is the call.” Imitation is spiritual suicide.
Emerson continued writing at a hasty pace all through the 1840s. His Essays: First Series was published in 1841, and is probably his best, most vital work. This was followed in 1844 by his Second Series. Meanwhile, Henry Thoreau moved in with Waldo and his little family—Emerson had remarried and had a son. Thoreau took on the duties of handyman, babysitter, and confidant. The two men were of different natures. Waldo was passive and thoughtful; Thoreau was more passionate and active. Finally, after two years, Thoreau took his passion out and built a rude cabin on the Emerson property at Walden Pond, where he lived and wrote for the next 26 months.
In his essays from the First Series, Waldo writes: “Man is a being whose source is hidden. Our being is descending into us from we know not whence.” He means that man is an enigma. Science tries to take the measure of man, but somehow, their yardsticks are never very satisfying because they do not include the invisible, where we actually live. Life itself is a quality, and science can only measure quantities. The most important qualitative questions of ‘Who am I and, what am I for,’ are unanswerable by science and all too often treated with mockery and derision.
Once we are introduced to the gentle inward search for the truth that lies hidden with such queries, each day becomes more significant, and in fact becomes a life in miniature. “Society is frivolous, and shreds its day into scraps.” But with an inward search, how we spend our time carries more import than how much money we can spend. Now, so much emphasis is put on higher education based upon the salary to be expected rather than the adventure to be experienced and the lessons learned. The grappling for money is perverse and a dark shroud to the true things. Wealth and high office too often becomes like a plaster of Paris showpiece to mask a lack of character.
He says, “The loss of character, the loss of self-command, the loss of benevolent disposition, the loss of purity, the loss of simplicity, of speech and of action—these are the real evils. These defile a person.
Emerson was a true seer, and I want to define seer for you. It is not a person who sees into the future. No, a seer is a person who sees deeply into the Present. He, or she, is aware of what is here now, and has escaped from the constant daydreaming that humans are enslaved to with its inane scenarios and preposterous imaginations. Always locked in what happened or what we are sure will happen, we miss what is happening.
The sages and spiritual lords of bygone times implored us to awaken from our hypnotic trance and experience this beauteous world God has presented us.
In one of his early journals, Waldo writes, “Awake, arm of the Lord! Awake, thou Godlike that sleepest! Dear God that sleepest in man, … may the slumbering attributes of man burst their iron sleep and rush, full-grown, into day. Man wants awakening. Get the soul out of bed, out of his deep habitual sleep, out into God’s universe.”
Waldo Emerson was a poet and a clairvoyant of the Present. He studied the ageless wise people of the past, and could see the old golden ideas lying everywhere he read or thought. As a poet, he would polish up his discoveries and proudly showcase them and then inspire us to think in the same places.
To Mr. Emerson, solitude was the best medicine. For all of his career of public speaking, his main source of strength and inspiration was quiet meditation where the Light would well up from inside of him. He said once, “Silence is a solvent that destroys personality and gives us leave to be great and universal. We must be alone in solitude to receive the truth.” Without this blessed isolation we are too busy fending off the distractions of life to let the spirit of the Lord well up from our depths.
Waldo thinks a man or woman of character is the backbone of the world. They are trustworthy and sturdy. He says, “Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is a function. Living is a functionary. And behavior is the measure of the person. The infallible index of true progress is found in the tone a person takes…his manners, his forms of speech, the turn of his sentences…all of his opinions will involuntarily confess it.” He means by this that our very life reflects the truth we have accumulated and are open to.
In many ways, we each are here representing our soul. He would say for us not to be an embarrassment to it. There will come a time when all the souls will congregate and our many ills or virtues will be on display. So, always try to do that which is most noble. Try to make our soul proud and be able to stand tall among its own for the things we do and think.
He thought that the spiritual, or the mind, equating the two, is the cause of the things and the life we experience. He said, “Mind is the only reality of which men and all other natures are better or worse reflectors. The spirit is the cause, not the consequence.”
Maybe it is best explained this way. We are all here today, and it was an idea that brought us. The coming into this room is like the action of the idea. Ideas are from the spiritual realm; invisible qualities that push us through our existence. If you think about the future, it is an idea only, like wanting to have a baby or taking a trip. When it happens, it is an idea whose time has come—the idea takes shape! We are all in the shape of ideas. Our moms and dads had these ideas … and here we are! We started as an idea. I don’t know about you-all, but I think I was a good idea. So, objects and actions exist only in this place; the Present. Emerson knew that the visible world is but the end result of a grand idea from an inconceivably Profound Mind. We cannot know anything; understand anything, until we realize the fact that action and matter are tied to the spiritual world. Then everything makes sense. This is not a scientific notion. This is higher stuff.
Personally, Emerson had a strong effect on the people he met. Many did not like his writing and said so without reservation; some even called it nonsense, or the biggest bunch of nothing ever written. But I was not able to find evidence of anyone who actually knew him who was not taken aback by his emanations of goodness. One said, “There was a majesty about him beyond all other men I have known.”
He lived an exemplary life, never besmirched by scandal or innuendo. He took to heart the idea of Jesus to be gentle and innocent as a lamb. Waldo lived in that innocence as best he could, free of guile and guilt, and his effect on everyone was remarkable. People watched him in quiet fascination as one watches an infant at play.
Waldo held to the sovereignty of a moral universe, a world of the laws of unity and beauty forever converging in each person. He saw each person as a potential new minister and minstrel of God, living and singing His praises. By this example Emerson lived a life of sweetness and warmth and people loved him for it.
Waldo spent the whole rest of his life lecturing and writing about his remarkable discoveries in the Present. He was celebrated among a wide assortment of people. He inspired sincere folks from all walks of life who were striving to see the same things; knew they were there, but just needed a good guide to show the Way.
The three other sublime people who graced the 19th Century in America — Lincoln, Dickinson, and Whitman — were the direct recipients of the inspiration to be gotten from Emerson’s gospel. They all read him and went out and lived straight from their own headquarters in the Present, breaking through the papier-mâché curtain that camouflages our stale and surly civilization.
In his final years they say he lost the grip on his memory and could little carry on simple conversations. Still, he kept his personal promise to himself that he would never be idle. He studied Greek until his last days. As the shadow of age began to cover him, he wrote in his journal: “Old age brings along with its ugliness the comfort that you will soon be out of it,—which ought to be a substantial relief to such discontented pendulums as we are. To be out of war, out of debt, out of the blues, out of the dentist’s hands, out of the second thoughts, mortifications, and remorse’s that inflict such twinges and shooting pains, —out of the next winter, and the high prices. Surely, these are soothing hints.”
Will there ever be another like him? I say no. He was one of those originals he asked us all to be. Once I read that he told a crowd not to wait for another great person to come over the same hill. A great person has his or her own hill to come over.
So Waldo is 210 years old, but in fact in ageless. Some people say he died in 1882, but that is simply not true. He is still alive, you know. He is here now, and everywhere we really need him to be. Emerson is just the other side of our darkest thoughts, tugging us to the Light; helping us Hitch our Wagon to a Star.
In my pre-Emerson days, I spent many years in cubicles and offices; rooted to a chair, surrounded by the accoutrements of finance—calculators, spread sheets, ledgers. I was so forlorn and miserable—perishing a little each day in my straitjacket. My life seemed already booked-up. I was living limp. I wondered aloud, “Who am I and what am I for? This can’t be it! “ And then, like magic, Waldo appeared to me. He was sitting on a book shelf like some little genie. That’s where he lives—on bookshelves. I picked up this genie in a book, and just before I opened it and let him out, I noticed that I was simmering, simmering, simmering …
Ron: I just read your essay/talk on Ralph Waldo Emerson and enjoyed it immensely. I admit that I did not teach Emerson in my English classes, though I did teach a good deal of Emily Dickinson and some Whitman. I admit I was more drawn to the Metaphysical poets of people like John Donne and Shakespeare and the less spiritual poets of their time who were able to make concrete the subtleties of emotion and thought. Still, thanks for your contribution. It was good to finds bits and pieces of my past study.