Emerson's path to his philosophy of creativity and spiritual development was not a straight one, but the outcome of a series of difficult struggles with severe illness and grief and with a philosophical skepticism he could never entirely dismiss.
As the son of a prominent Boston minister, Emerson was destined for the ministry, but approached his future with hesitation. He was dogged by feelings of inadequacy of the profession, and he had an aversion to the pastoral duties associated with it.
There was, however, a more serious obstacle: tuberculosis, a pervasive and misunderstood disease that had an epidemic impact on early 19th century New England. It began to manifest itself in Emerson, just as he began his ministerial studies at Harvard, in a period of severely impaired vision. By the time he began writing and delivering his first sermons in 1826, his condition was worsening so much that he traveled south to Florida.
While the sea air and warmer climate no doubt contributed to Emerson's gradual recovery, it seems probable that the release from the immediate stress of studying for the ministry was also therapeutic. Emerson returned in the early summer of 1827 a stronger and more confident man. Within a year and a half he had become engaged to Ellen Tucker, and had begun to preach at Boston's Second Church, which would ordain him on March 11, 1829.
Emerson's moment of settled happiness would be short. Ellen, also a victim of tuberculosis, died in February 1831. Her death seems to have weakened the foundations of the life he had constructed for himself, contributing to his resignation from the ministry in 1832. Emerson had already entertained serious questions about the claims of Christianity during his ministry, and about whether he could fulfill his intellectual ambitions there. But Ellen's death seems to have forced Emerson "to live his own life and think his own thoughts." He embarked for Europe on Christmas Day, 1832, full of curiosity, nurturing the beginnings of a new spiritual philosophy, and hatching plans for new forms of intellectual expression.
Although it is tempting to see his resignation from the ministry and sojourn in Europe as a break in his career, it is more instructive to recognize the continuities that bound his earlier ministry with his new pursuits as an independent lecturer and author. Emerson continued to preach and maintain his clerical identity for several years as he developed a following for his lectures.
More important, he began to develop the philosophical vision that had informed his preaching. His message was to cultivate an inwardness that would keep his listeners in touch with their inherent divinity. He linked this inwardness with faith. By experiencing and reflecting on the natural world, they could discover a unified and constantly developing cosmos that shared a common origin with the human soul.
Emerson used the new form of the public lecture to work out his system in detail, beginning with lectures on natural history in 1834 and then developing an interconnected series of lectures on such topics as "Philosophy of History" and "Human Culture." His new interest in science contributed to his first book, "Nature," now regarded as the initiating text of the Transcendentalist movement.
In the book, Emerson proposed an idealistic conception of the universe in which all its interrelated parts, including the natural world and the human mind, mirrored and signified each other. "A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time, is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world."
The mind's apprehension of this cosmic unity was an exacting intellectual discipline. But in rare moments of highly charged perception, we might undergo an experience that bounded on the mystical:
Standing on the bare ground,my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space,all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.
Emerson found a receptive hearing among young, spiritually oriented men and women who were intellectually restless. Not satisfied with the standard answers of their churches, or with the moral tone of their culture, they were seeking an alternative to an increasingly conformist and materialistic society. Emerson's message appealed to the hunger for fulfillment that was not available in most walks of life.
Emerson and Fuller worked closely together to publish translations of Asian religious texts, one of the earliest appearances of Buddhist and Hindu scriptures in America. Emerson and Thoreau shared this interest in Asian religious thought, which provided them with important confirmation of their deeply held beliefs about the unity of the cosmos.
In 1835, Emerson married Lydia Jackson and settled in Concord, establishing himself permanently in a town with deep ancestral connections and an appealing surrounding countryside. Emerson's devotion to Concord was deep, and he found there a stimulating and supportive community of friends and family who were essential to his remarkably steady productivity as a writer and lecturer.
The publication of "Nature" and his annual lecture series led to two important speaking invitations at Harvard: the annual address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society on August 31, 1837, and a graduation address at the Harvard Divinity School on July 15, 1838.
Both addresses had an immediate impact. In the first, Emerson stressed the importance of an openness to new thought, and a constant process of beginning anew. His was not a philosophy for the settled or for those who lacked curiosity. "The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul."
The next year, in the Divinity School Address, he put forward his ideas as a new religious doctrine, or more accurately, as the recovery of the ancient foundation of all religious sentiment. The address unleashed a furious controversy. "In all my lectures, I have taught one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of the private man," he commented. "This the people accept readily enough, & even with loud commendation, as long as I call the lecture, Art; or Politics; or Literature; or the Household; but the moment I call it Religion, they are shocked, though it be only the application of the same truth which they receive everywhere else, to a new class of facts."
It may be difficult for modern readers to discern what was shocking about Emerson's appealing hymn to a sentiment of religion alive in every man and woman. But decades of theological controversy had produced raw nerve endings in New England. The Divinity School Address marked a break in the course of religious thinking in America, pointing to a universal, anti-supernatural, and largely secular religion.
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.