People Who Kick Buts: Ralph Waldo Emerson
What lies behind us
and what lies before us
are small matters compared to
what lies within us.
- Born on May25, 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts and passed away on April 27, 1882.
- He was seen as a champion of individualism and a prescient critic of the countervailing pressures of society, and he disseminated his thoughts through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States.
- Emerson gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of Transcendentalism in his 1836 essay, Nature. Following this ground-breaking work, he gave a speech entitled The American Scholar in 1837, which Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. considered to be America’s “Intellectual Declaration of Independence”.
- Emerson wrote most of his important essays as lectures first, then revised them for print.
- Son of Ruth Haskins and the Rev. William Emerson, a Unitarian minister.
- Ralph Waldo was the second of five sons who survived into adulthood.
- The young Ralph Waldo Emerson’s father died from stomach cancer on May 12, 1811, less than two weeks before Emerson’s eighth birthday. Emerson was raised by his mother, with the help of the other women in the family; his aunt Mary Moody Emerson in particular had a profound effect on Emerson. She lived with the family off and on, and maintained a constant correspondence with Emerson until her death in 1863.
- Emerson’s formal schooling began at the Boston Latin School in 1812 when he was nine.
- In October 1817, at 14, Emerson went to Harvard College and was appointed freshman messenger for the president, requiring Emerson to fetch delinquent students and send messages to faculty.
- Midway through his junior year, Emerson began keeping a list of books he had read and started a journal in a series of notebooks that would be called “Wide World”.
- In 1826, faced with poor health, Emerson went to seek out warmer climates. He first went to Charleston, South Carolina, but found the weather was still too cold. He then went further south, to St. Augustine, Florida, where he took long walks on the beach, and began writing poetry. While in St. Augustine, he made the acquaintance of Prince Achille Murat. Murat, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was only two years his senior; they became extremely good friends and enjoyed one another’s company. The two engaged in enlightening discussions on religion, society, philosophy, and government, and Emerson considered Murat an important figure in his intellectual education.
- Starting in 1867, Emerson’s health began declining; he wrote much less in his journals. Beginning as early as the summer of 1871 or in the spring of 1872, Emerson started having memory problems and suffered from aphasia. By the end of the decade, he forgot his own name at times and, when anyone asked how he felt, he responded, “Quite well; I have lost my mental faculties, but am perfectly well”.
- Emerson’s religious views were often considered radical at the time. He believed that all things are connected to God and, therefore, all things are divine.
Emerson was partly influenced by German philosophy and Biblical criticism. His views, the basis of Transcendentalism, suggested that God does not have to reveal the truth but that the truth could be intuitively experienced directly from nature.