America's Founding Seeker

On his 200th birthday, Ralph Waldo Emerson seems as modern as any bestselling New Age guru

BY: Interview by Paul O'Donnell

 

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Who was his audience?

This is something people would like to know better. He did seem to have a wide audience. By the late 1840s and the 1850s, he was a very prominent public figure who travelled about as far as he could on the frontier, delivering lectures. You wonder, did his audience get it, but he did seem to be able to find an audience wherever he went. He somehow had the capacity to embody this idea of the thinker at work that appealed to a culture that really was starved culturally and intellectually.

Was his audience prepared for what he was saying?

It was a period in which people had begun to feel that the usual terminology for talking about spiritual life wasn't working: salvation, heaven, hell, God, and so forth. Emerson recognized that. He attempted to reinvent religious language for a generation for whom those words were either empty or full of difficulty because of what they represented in the past.

It sounds like the 1960s as much as the 1860s.

Yes, and there was a revival of Emerson and Thoreau and that whole movement in that period.

And like some figures of the 1960s, Emerson decried materialism.

I'm glad he was spared the modern shopping mall-he would have thought it was all in vain!

I think he did address what we now call consumerist culture. He understood that people tried to express themselves in external ways--by what they owned, what they consumed, what they wore. Emerson's clear message was that you can't find satisfying and fulfilling identity by external standards. This applies in religion too: he says you can't just take the religion that your family gives you, or that your culture gives you . You have to work this out on your own.

Did he believe in life after death?

He has a great remark, "Here are people who cannot spend a day well. An hour hangs heavy on their hands. And will you give them rolling ages without end?" He makes a distinction between the immortal and the eternal. He says no truly spiritual person ever worried about personal immortality. In other words, to ask the question betrays a self-interest that is itself counter to the truly spiritual perspective.

He doesn't believe in the soul, but the Oversoul. What's the difference?

By putting "over" on it, he says it is not a personal thing. Rather we participate in a soul that is larger than we are. What he's trying to get away from is this idea that there is a core inside of me that is my soul, that I own. He's trying to say that insofar as you're connecting with the soul, you're connecting with something that is much bigger than you are. The Oversoul is a way to talk about God without getting into this anthropmorphic father figure.

What is his legacy?

I wouldn't limit it to one principle or one concept. He gave the culture a vision of religion as the solution or the working toward a solution of how we live our lives more meaningfully. You see that not only in the propositions he makes, but in his own personal difficulties and struggles. It's a mistake to see Emerson as the man who figured out all these answers and was very sure of everything. But here was a man whose vision enspirited his continuing studies, but who was never at rest in his attempt to live to the standard that he held up.

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