Keeping Quotations to the Minimum: (Disenting) Thoughts on American Transcendentalism and Ralph Waldo Emmerson

“I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

            – Ralph Waldo Emerson


Ok, I’ll do just that……………. My quote is longer than yours.”

            – Reply by Johansen Quijano-Cruz

On Transcendentalism


Even though the transcendentalist movement has several defining qualities, such as the presence of an All-Power, the deep respect for nature, and the oneness of the individual with existence, it can be better understood in one sense by what the movement was rebelling against and were trying to be different from. During the early 19th century American literature was hardly American. Certainly authors like Washington Irving talked about the American landscape, but European and ecclesiastic influences were noticeable all over “American literature”. Transcendentalists were attempting to create a uniquely American body of literature.

America already had its freedom, but America’s literature was still under European colonial influence. Because of this, the transcendentalist movement promoted the creation of literature,  essays, novels, philosophy, poetry, and other writing that were clearly different from anything from England, France, Germany, or any other European nation. Furthermore, the Transcendentalists movement can be seen as a generation of people struggling to define spirituality and religion in a different manner that had already been defined, taking into account the new understandings their age made available.

Transcendentalists thought that some all-powerful spirit gave humankind the gifts of intuition, insight, and inspiration. They believed in the use of these gifts, not in the wasting of them.

Emerson, main advocate of the transcendentalist movement, and other transcendentalists, began to read Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, as well as Mystic literature, and began to re-examine their own religious assumptions against these scriptures. Transcendentalists believed that a loving God would not have led so much of humanity astray, so there must be truth in scriptures other than the Bible as well. They believed that truth, especially if it agreed with an individual’s intuition of truth, must be Truth. While this may seem like a spiritually lifting philosophy – individual truths are universal truths – it is a largely flawed philosophy.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Son of Ruth Haskins and the Rev. William Emerson, an Unitarian minister who descended from a well-known line of ministers, Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts on May 25, 1803. Having enjoyed a great degree of respect from the society in which he lived in, William Emerson died from stomach cancer on May 12, 1811, less than two weeks short of Emerson’s eighth birthday. Ralph Waldo Emerson was, in turn, raised by his mother as well as other intellectual and spiritual women in his family.

Several anthologies and biographies mention how after William Emerson’s death Ralph Waldo and his mother were left to poverty. The degree of such poverty, however, is not specified, and given that Ruth was the widow of a respected clergyman, it can be assumed that she was under the care of both the church and the community. Furthermore, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s schooling can be seen as a testament of how poor his family really was. Emerson’s formal schooling began at the Boston Latin School [1], a school founded to educate the sons of the Boston white elite, in 1812 when he was nine. In October 1817, at the age of 14, Emerson went to Harvard College, the oldest and most prestigeous college of what is often considered the best university in the world, and was appointed freshman messenger for the president. Midway through his junior year Emerson began keeping a list of books he had read and started a journal in a series of notebooks. Emerson served as Class Poet and, as was custom, presented an original poem on Harvard’s Class Day, a month before his official graduation.

After graduating from Harvard, Emerson assisted his brother in a school for young ladies established in their mother’s house [3]. When his brother went to Göttingen to study divinity, Emerson took charge of the school.

Even though some biographies state that Emerson lived a financially conservative lifestyle, and certainly he might have lived an upper middle class lifestyle during his first 33 years of life, Emerson inherited some wealth after his wife’s death. Thanks to his wife’s death, and due to a lawsuit initiated during 1836 against the Tucker family, Emerson received $11,674.79 in July 1837.

Although $11,000.00 is by no means a substansial sum of money by present-day standards, inflation and the fluctuating value of money throughout time has to be taken into account. According to Measuring Money, a website created by Lawrence H. Officer, Professor of Economics at University of Illinois at Chicago, and Samuel H. Williamson, Professor of Economics, Emeritus, from Miami University, when determining the economic power of a certain ammount of money from one year to another, or in essence how much the money “would be worth” today, one would have to consider the Nominal GDP equation. According to their website’s calculations, $11,674.00 in 1837 is the equivalent of $104,742,784.18 [2].

Ralph Waldo Emerson was by no means a poor man. Despite his “financial conservativism”,  it can be argued that he lived a  relatively comfortable lifestyle. Perhaps his family was not as wealthy as other Boston elite, but the Emerson household was nowhere near poor. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a well respected man in his society, and worldwide during his later years in which he enjoyed his fortune. Because of his comfortable lifestyle, allowed to him because of his status as a respected reverend’s son, his trascendentalist / romantic / mystic ideas lifted straight from the Hindu Mystic tradition, are not universal, as they often exclude those who do not have enough luck to be of a wellborn family.

Some Criticism on Transcendentalism and its Ideas

According to some critics, Emerson sees the world as it really is. He looks on the temporal in the light of the Eternal. So he learns the high truths which nature teaches. They further believe that all of Emerson’s arguments go to prove merely the superiority of mind over matter. In modern theory this is called self-actualization, a state where the individual has already fulfilled all his physiological needs, feels secure and safe, has a sense of belonging, and has developed a sense of self-esteem. It is no coincidence that it was on 1836, after Emerson had graduated from Harvard and felt secure in himself, that he decided to write and publish his first essay Nature.

Of course, self actualization is an individual process. When an individual who has become self realized lives happily in the knowledge of whatever higher truth has been learned they often lead relatively happy lives. When these ‘truths’ begin to be preached, however, they become open to attack. According to anti-Emerson critics, Ralph Waldo Emerson was a mystic whose transparent eyeball had seen into the life of things. There he found a Spirit endlessly giving off friendly vibes to all sentient beings. Furthermore, Emerson’s moral mysticism was based on subordinating reason, evidence, and logic for the Intuitions of the soul where virtue is rewarded and vice punished, pessimists and skeptics are deluded, and the moral sense is innate. Emerson has reached a state of self-realization. He is now following his individual fulfillment and attempting to share it with others. However, in attempting to validate his belief with reason and external facts, just like apologetic Christians Kirk Cameron [4] and Ray Comfort [5], his statements become susceptible to the rules of evidence and the principles of scientific reasoning. When asked to expand on some of his assertions on the Divinity School Address essay, Emerson responded:

“I could not give an account of myself if challenged. I could not possibly give you one of the ‘arguments’ you cruelly hint at, on which any doctrine of mine stands; for I do not know what arguments mean in reference to any expression of a thought. I delight in telling what I think; but if you ask me how I dare say so, I am the most helpless of mortal men.”

On Nature

Nature was Emerson’s first published essay, and one of his most popular and widely studied works. In this wonderfully written masterful work of literature Emerson presents a number of flawed ideas and contradictions about man’s relationship with nature and God that presupposes certain “universal ideals” that cannot be proved. Using the art of rhetoric, Emerson skillfully tries to convince the reader that all men are equal and equally good, and that all men’s relationship to God, or “the Spirit”, should be one based on nature.

He begins by stating that we are a society that looks back, but does not live in the present. This is, perhaps, true of pre-Darwinian western world which, as Emerson states, wrote biographies and practiced archeology. However, the evolution of science and the observation of the “now” is what led Darwin to publish his theories of evolution four years prior to Emerson having published Nature. Since then, at least, western society has focused on the now and the tomorrow, to the point where only 100 years after Emerson, scientists, who focus on improving the now and discovering things for tomorrow, are, according to common conceptions, highly respected and archeologists and historians are, at best, harmless drudges wasting away their time in some ivory tower. While in truth all disciplines, those who look back and those who look forward alike, are just as valuable, society is constantly looking down on those who look back; and although it may be nice to think that this change in society was thanks to Emerson’s nature, the truth is that society is becoming increasingly secular and less spiritual, thus discarding Emerson’s ideas and adapting to Darwin’s prophesized changes.

Emerson then continues to state that man has endless potential and that there is nothing that man cannot find out. Certainly, this is a scientific postulate. However, Emerson then goes on to state that “every man’s condition is determined by the questions he would put forth”. The flaw of this sexually discriminating statement is found on society itself, and backed by the hierarchy of needs. The kind of questions Emerson wants man asking are those of a spiritual nature: he wants men – not women – to become self-actualized. However, some men do not have the chance to ask questions beyond “where can I find food for my family?” Some men [6] cannot even formulate questions properly, as they were not blessed with the opportunity of receiving formal education, or any education at all. It is obvious to an observer with an open mind and a small degree of knowledge about the world that not all men chose their station – some are born in it and society drills into them that they should be where they are. These men become slaves to the system and are not able to escape.

Emerson then commits the greatest logical flaw that any argument can have by saying that “to a sound judgment, the most abstract truth is the most practical”, and that “wherever a theory appears, it will be its own evidence”. Emerson obviously had no idea of the scientific process or of science at all. Certainly, Emerson’s language is evocative, but his arguments he puts forth are simply ridiculous. In science, no theory can stand on its own without any evidence. No theory can be the proof of its own correctness, regardless of what Emerson states. Such train of thought leads to dangerous reasoning like “God exists and he is the proof of his own existence”, or “the Bible is God’s word because the Bible says it is”. Even Noam Chomsky, a man who says that theories can be proven or disproved based on one’s own experiences, has changed his theories several times because of objective evidence discovered. Furthermore, abstract ideas about how the world works are constantly being discarded because of the inability of proving their correctness. One example is Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. In his theory, Everett states that for every decision an individual makes an alternate reality exists where the individual made the opposite choice. In other words, in an alternate dimension somewhere I am working as a software developer in some corporation because I decided to continue my studies in computer sciences and not change to language education and literature, and in yet another parallel world I am working in Burger King because I dropped out of college after my first year. According to this interpretation of quantum mechanics, the amount of worlds is endless. However, this theory cannot be proven. It is an abstract interpretation to a theoretical geometric figure that spurred a very narrow field of theoretical quantum physics – and thus, no physicist speaks of it as anything more than a part of the history of theoretical physics. Another example of how abstract thought is not preferred over concrete fact lies in Einstein’s theory of relativity. This theory includes several mathematical equations about the gravitational pull of light and about the relative passage of time in zones with different gravitational densities that are far too complex to explain here. These theories have been proven and accepted by the general science community. However, one of the original postulates of Einstein’s theory can be summarized as ‘empty space is not really empty, it has a specific mass’. Going by this train of abstract, improvable thought many have tried to ‘fold’ space: an event like folding a piece of paper to make point A and point B closer. If folding space were possible then it would be possible to travel light years in a second. However, the matter of a vacuum, just like the many words, cannot be proven, although they do make for excellent virtual narratives like Chrono Trigger and Star Ocean.

Not only does Emerson fail in explaining the inexplicable, but he succeeds in making commonplace things like language, sleep, dreams, and sex seem like some foreign concept beyond the comprehension abilities that he at first attributes humankind.

1. Language, the more complex of Emerson’s ‘inexplicable’ manifestations of human behavior, is a social activity likely come about since near the beginning of human kind. In speech humankind shows its cleverness by making a number of organs originally meant for breathing and eating work together to pronounce sounds, and then in giving meaning to these sounds. Although in many languages a string of sounds form words with meanings [7], in others they form syllables, and the combination of these syllables is what carry meaning [8]. Furthermore, some words or phrases may not carry any meaning at all [9]. Language is socially influenced.

2. Sleep is the inherent human need for rest.

3. Dreams are the result of several factors, like stress and worry, being stored in the individual’s subconscious. When the individual’s body shuts down completely the mind continues working, providing what sometimes are random images and sometimes coherent narratives in order to not shut down. It is, in a way, a self-defense mechanism, as a mind being shut down leads into a comma.

4. Sex is an act, the result of a human’s innate desire to procreate. Sex is pleasurable and humans like it.

Emerson’s incoherent ramblings become gradually worse as his work progresses. They are specially severe in the sections on beauty, where he presupposes that all beauty comes from God, and that beauty is the mark of God and completely forgets that beauty is a subjective concept whose ideal changes from individual to individual, and on language where he talks about language as if it were some mystical gift or blessing bestowed upon chosen races as those of ‘savage cultures’ have no language because they ‘communicate with drawings’. It is certainly possible to debunk all of Emerson’s ideas from Nature, but that would take more time than I am willing to invest in him.

Certainly, self-actualization provides a wonderful feeling to individuals, and anyone who becomes self-actualized, in whatever way this happens, wants to share their experience with their fellow humans. However, to generalize one experience into a general language and attempting to validate it with external examples might turn out to be a dangerous thing. Emerson, like all mystics, believed in a universal language of the self. Emerson wrote that “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, is genius.” As Gray states had he eavesdropped on the heart of Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Saloth Sar, Idi Amin Dada, Ted Bundy, and others of their ilk, Emerson might have qualified his affirmations.


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on February 20, 2010, in Literature Commentary and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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