America's Founding Seeker

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

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As for Emerson, the whole tradition of New England liberalism embraced openness, and continual intellectual endeavor and questing for new insight. This is an intellectual orientation Emerson had as a birthright. His essay "Circles" is about the continuing necessity to push toward new truth: never rest in what you think to be a final truth, but always push beyond whatever circle you've drawn to draw a larger circle beyond it. That's the essence of that idea of spiritual exploration.

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.

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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.

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