A century-and-a-half ago, an American named Ralph Waldo Emerson walked this earth. Seven of his forbears were New England clergymen. Harvard-educated, and Unitarian, he became a minister too. But he resigned the pulpit because of his reservations about administering the Lord’s Supper. In effect, though, he remained a preacher – and then some.
In his early thirties, he purchased a home in Concord, Massachusetts. For the next 50 years, he lived there, a devoted husband, tender and wise father, responsible citizen, and friendly neighbor. In winter months he traveled as a public lecturer. That is how he afforded his lifestyle and literary career which would bring to him international renown as the “Sage of Concord.”
His essays were distillations of his lectures. A handsome man with a prominent Roman nose, his studio portraits invite comparison with the best portraits of his contemporary, Abraham Lincoln. In the words of another essayist, Henry Van Dyke, something in Emerson’s “imperturbable, kindly presence, his commanding style of thought and speech, announced him as the possessor of the great secret which many were seeking – the secret of a freer, deeper, more harmonious life.”
Emerson’s significance in our history was once part of the glue that “unified” rather than “diversified” us. His essays contributed to the fire under the melting pot. One essay that has stood very well the test of time is “Self-Reliance.” Within it are epigrams that still resonate:
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.” Or this:
“A man Caesar is born, and for ages after we have a Roman Empire. Christ is born, and millions of minds so grow and cleave to his genius, that he is confounded with the virtue and possible in man … An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”
And this: “Insist on yourself; never imitate … That which each can do none but his Maker can teach him … Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton?”
This is not the stuff of John Donne’s “no man is an island” or our modern “it takes a village.” As a young man, I was drawn to “Self-Reliance” hoping to find within it a fount of wisdom. I can’t say the essay provided keys to make life easier. Perhaps keys to make it more understandable. The years have caused me to regard the essay as more a source of provocation than satisfaction. And not without its dangers.
Consider this: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness.”
This advice looks pretty good from 30,000 feet, or the comfort of a study in Concord. But on the ground, or outside the study, it is rife with possibilities of doing harm to oneself and to others.
Or this: “Prayer that craves a particular commodity – anything less than all good – is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of life from the highest point of view.”
Maybe. But we all don’t have the persona and talent to earn a prosperous living on a lecture circuit. Sometimes we are up to our elbows in grease, sweat, and sense of urgency to get something done and get it done in the right way – either for ourself or others. In such moments, “prayer to effect a private end” does not seem “meanness and theft.” Nor does it seem to suppose “dualism and not unity in nature in consciousness.”
Emerson left our society a legacy still worth considering and confronting. To the extent that we put him behind us, we lend credence to his observation that, “Society never advances … For everything that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts.” To contemporize his illustrations: We have digital watches, but no longer can tell the hour by the sun. We have global positioning systems, and no longer know a star in the sky.