Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) is one the most notable people in the history of American philosophy. For many decades, he was a prominent lecturer, essayist and poet.
Known as the “Sage of Concord,” Ralph preached a message that emphasized personal empowerment, and he gathered a devoted following of people.
He was also the leading figure of a movement known as transcendentalism, which preached about a level of reality and knowledge that transcends the apparent reality of everyday life.
Much of Ralph’s early years were spent reading and studying. When Ralph’s father died in 1811, his eccentric aunt Mary Moody Emerson became a close figure in his upbringing, and encouraged Ralph’s independent thinking. She also instilled a love of nature in him.
Despite his family’s lack of money, Ralph attended the Boston Latin School, and then went to Harvard College on a scholarship. At age 17, he began keeping a journal, which he continued for many decades. In 1826, Ralph began a career as a Unitarian (somewhat related to Christianity) minister, but by 1832 he resigned from his ministerial career.
Shortly later, he began a lecturing career. At that time, a system of lecturing known as the Lyceum had recently started in America, and was beginning to rise in popularity. Ralph quickly established himself among the best lecturers, and later started his own lecture courses to supplement his activity on the Lyceum.
His lectures soon grew into very popular essays and books. He became a very successful author, and also continued giving lectures throughout most of his life.
Main Philosophy and Beliefs
advocated the integrity, reliance, and empowerment of the self
proponent of using imagination, creativity and vitality in one’s thinking instead of only relying on reasoning and rational power.
believed in trusting yourself.
rejected traditional authority.
believed in the mystical unity of nature, and encouraged people to find “an original relation to the universe,” and to harmonize their souls with the spiritual universe.
believed in a sacredness of the natural world and humanity, which he said was the highest source of knowledge.
emphasized spirituality over such things as materialism, but he also believed that they both corresponded symbolically. In his first published book, Nature (1836), he theorized the existence of the “Me” (the soul) and the “Not-Me” (the external world, including nature and one’s body), and felt that the universe is designed to make the “Not-Me” a secondary representation of the “Me.”
like other transcendentalists, Ralph was also a leading figure against slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation and subsequent Civil War that freed the slaves
Ralph initially attracted a predominantly younger crowd, but his lectures and books eventually reached a more diverse audience. However, many of Ralph’s views were considered controversial and revolutionary to some groups, and he met some opposition with various institutions throughout his career.
Helping Produce an American Identity and Culture
Ralph was one of the country’s most prominent critics, but nevertheless, he held a firm belief in America, and was an integral figure in creating a distinguishable American culture.
He led the way through his writing as he encouraged others to produce a genuinely American identity through literature, music, and art.
Some of Ralph’s most notable essays include Self-Reliance, Nature, The Over-Soul, Spiritual Laws, and Compensation.
Influence on Others
Ralph’s influence is very widespread. He had a direct and personal impact on Henry David Thoreau, Amos Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, and George Ripley. Ralph’s writings and ideas also influenced the work of major American authors such as Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville.
Ralph Waldo Emerson Quotes
Nothing is rich but the inexhaustible wealth of nature. She shows us only surfaces, but she is a million fathoms deep.
It is impossible for a man to be cheated by anyone but himself.
In every man there is something wherein I may learn of him, and in that I am his pupil.
The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.
Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing.
Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes.
There is no one who does not exaggerate!
Money often costs too much.
All great masters are chiefly distinguished by the power of adding a second, a third, and perhaps a fourth step in a continuous line. Many a man had taken the first step. With every additional step you enhance immensely the value of your first.
In skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed.
Beware what you set your heart upon. For it shall surely be yours.
Society is always taken by surprise at any new example of common sense.
The first wealth is health.
Write it in your heart that everyday is the best day of the year.
That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do; not that the nature of the thing itself is changed, but that our power to do is increased.
Character is higher than intellect. A great soul will be strong to live as well as think.
Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
So far as a person thinks; they are free.
As long as a man stands in his own way, everything seems to be in his way.
Today is a king in disguise.
Man was born to be rich, or grow rich by use of his faculties, by the union of thought with nature. Property is an intellectual production. The game requires coolness, right reasoning, promptness, and patience in the players.
Real action is in silent moments.
Hitch your wagon to a star.
Without a rich heart, wealth is an ugly beggar.
We have more than we use.
To be great is to be misunderstood.
We acquire the strength we have overcome.
We boil at different degrees.
Talent for talent’s sake is a bauble and a show. Talent working with joy in the cause of universal truth lifts the possessor to new power as a benefactor.
We learn geology the morning after the earthquake.
Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment.
Respect the child. Be not too much his parent. Trespass not on his solitude.
I suffer whenever I see that common sight of a parent or senior imposing his opinion and way of thinking and being on a young soul to which they are totally unfit. Cannot we let people be themselves, and enjoy life in their own way? You are trying to make that man another you. One’s enough.
Peace cannot be achieved through violence; it can only be attained through understanding.
The secret in education lies in respecting the student.
The man who can make hard things easy is the educator.
It is easy to live for others, everybody does. I call on you to live for yourselves.
Sincerity is the highest complement you can pay.
A man is what he thinks about all day long.
We are as much informed of a writer’s genius by what he selects as by what he originates.
We are too civil to books. For a few golden sentences we will turn over and actually read a volume of four or five hundred pages.
I do not hesitate to read all good books in translations. What is really best in any book is translatable—any real insight or broad human sentiment.
There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.
To the body and mind which have been cramped by noxious work or company, nature is medicinal and restores their tone. The tradesman, the attorney comes out of the din and craft of the street, and sees the sky and wood, and is a man again. In their eternal calm, he finds himself. The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.
To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of his daily food.
To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again. The heavens change every moment, and reflect their glory or gloom on the plains beneath. The state of the crop in the surrounding farms alters the expression of the earth from week to week. The succession of native plants in the pastures and road-sides, which make the silent clock by which time tells the summer hours will make even the divisions of the day sensible to a keen observer.