America's Founding Spiritual Seeker
Ralph Waldo Emerson's journey From Christianity to Transcendentalism
BY: David M. Robinson
Emerson portrayed Jesus as a teacher whose significance and authority arose from his grasp of transcendent moral and spiritual laws rather than from a supernatural nature. "Alone in all history he estimated the greatness of man," Emerson declared. But the attribution of miracles or other supernatural powers to Jesus falsified and obscured his real claims. "He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man's life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines as the character ascends."
Emerson avoided the controversy, believing he could best advance his views through a more complete exposition of his ideas. In 1841 he published "Essays," a collection of 12 loosely interrelated pieces that made up the heart of his new perspective on religion, ethics, and aesthetics and established him as an important literary stylist and innovator.
Emerson is perhaps most widely known for one of the essays in that volume, "Self-Reliance," an emotionally charged, aphoristically dense hymn to individualism with a defiant, almost insolent, edge. Insisting that "nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind," Emerson urges us to beware of the two chief obstacles to living a self-reliant life, conformity and consistency. We achieve fulfillment not through pleasing others or adopting their opinions or standards of behavior, Emerson maintains, but instead through recognizing and developing those things that are uniquely ours.
Resisting the pressures of others is, however, far less difficult than resisting the patterns established by our own past actions, and by the identities we have formed as a result of them. The hardest task is to "live ever in a new day," always finding the capacity for spontaneity and originality. That this spontaneity might lead others who thought they could anticipate our actions to misunderstand us should not impede us:
Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
"Self-Reliance" can be misread as a dangerously self-indulgent rationale for egotism. But Emerson's faith in the self was an expression of his larger faith in the unified constitution of things. Though the essay is at points combative and antagonistic, its underlying premises are unitary and holistic.
I behold with awe & delight many illustrations of the One Universal Mind. I see my being imbedded in it. As a plant in the earth so I grow in God. I am only a form of him. He is the soul of Me. I can even with a mountainous aspiring say, I am God, by transferring my Me out of the flimsy & unclean precincts of my body, my fortunes, my private will, & meekly retiring upon the holy austerities of the Just & the Loving upon the secret fountains of Nature.
Emerson termed this encompassing unity "The OverSoul." He envisions God in terms that transcend personality or human characteristics by referring to "that Unity, that OverSoul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other."
This concept of the surrender of the limited self operates in Emerson's ethical philosophy too. There is no discrete or disconnected act in the universe, he wrote. Each act brings its own reaction, the thing that we perceive as its reward or punishment. Useful or compassionate acts are unifying. They connect us to the whole. Those acts that are selfish, limited in goals, or cruel, diminish us by separating us from the essential energy of life. The human being, Emerson explains, "aims to be somebody; to set up for himself; to truck and higgle for a private good; and, in particulars, to ride that he may ride; to dress that he may be dressed; to eat that he may eat; and to govern, that he may be seen."
But all these schemes of personal comfort define fulfillment only in terms of consumption and material success, and diminish the significance and value of life itself. "Life invests itself with inevitable conditions," Emerson continues, "which the unwise seek to dodge, which one and another brags that he does not know, that they do not touch him; but the brag is on his lips, the conditions are in his soul." To Emerson, the spiritual life is a continuing awareness of these conditions, a living out of oneself that is also an intensely inward experience.