Ralph Waldo Emerson and Transcendence

Date: ca. 1857 George Eastman House Collection

Perhaps more than any other American writer of his day, Emerson embodied not only the intrepid American spirit, but also the extraordinary individual spirit at the very core of each of us. His many invaluable contributions to American literature, while clearly the product of a very different time and place, continue to inform and enlighten us more than one hundred years after he departed this life.

Recent contemplation and conversation have prompted me to explore the contrasts and the common grounds within our modern intellectual debate regarding the value of both scientific and spiritual insights in coming to terms with the nature of human consciousness. More specifically, there is an ongoing debate regarding how we might best seek to explain consciousness, whether it would be using only the most cutting edge technologies of modern Neuroscience and Psychology that are available in the 21st century, or to seek an expansion and sophistication of our ability to explain comprehensively the nature of consciousness by the inclusion of additional facets of both a philosophical and spiritual temperament.

According to Lawrence Buell, in his epic work entitled, “Emerson:”

“After starting down the ministerial path his family expected of him, Emerson abruptly changed course and struck out on his own as a freelance writer-lecturer. In his thirties, he achieved regional celebrity as the leading voice of the avant-garde movement known as Transcendentalism…the label was slapped on the movement by its detractors as a synonym for foreign nonsense…the Transcendentalists (thought) of themselves as a network: as a vanguard in the United States for advanced contemporary thought about Philosophy,theology, education, social reform, literature and the arts.”

Emerson provides us with a particularly profound starting point for this investigation in his essay entitled, “Experience:”

“The great gifts are not got by analysis. Everything good is on the highway. The middle region of our being is the temperate zone. We may climb into the thin and cold realm of pure geometry and lifeless science, or sink into that of sensation. Between these extremes is the equator of life, of thought, of spirit, of poetry,–a narrow belt.”

In the postings to come, I hope to illuminate the many examples of literature, science, and the spirit, which cry out for inclusion from “the middle region of our being.”

….more to come…

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7 comments

  1. jjhiii24

    Emerson still has the power to create invitation, and I am glad that you felt welcome enough to stop by and leave a comment. It has been said that brevity is the soul of wit…and you certainly have given some credence to that axiom!

    John H.

  2. Harnew

    Hey thanks for the contact. I didn’t know how to reply back from that form. I printed off numerous of essay’s Emerson wrote while I was in college last fall. And I never got the chance to read them through. They were like 18 pages each and I always got distracted. Your post reminded me that I should make time for it. Emerson inspires me and let me know it’s okay to be an individual. A lot of things he believed in I adopted but some was already natural.

  3. jjhiii24

    I can assure you that Emerson’s essays are well worth the investment of the time it will take to read them, and you will undoubtedly benefit from doing so. In a collection of essays I found recently, a fellow by the name of Stuart Miller wrote this in the introduction:

    “Each person, Emerson affirmed, is a sovereign state unto himself. Each human being has to create an autonomous, personal existence, and yet live honorably and peaceably among his fellows…human beings have to make the highest demands of themselves in order to live fully, and that such demands are, when fully realized, fully rewarded.”

    It is apparent that you are well on your way to fully realizing the demands you have made on yourself. I would only remind you, though, that the full realization may not occur before age 26, and your inclusion of others beyond that age might affirm this idea.
    John H.

  4. Harnew

    Well I have a few years before 26 so I have time. I didn’t limit the age on my site because I think everybody else is old. It’s a conceptual blog and if I would have expanded it to the 40’s it would have lost its heart. I’m considering moving it to 29. But what you said in the last paragraph made me think of Think & Grow Rich. People like Carnegie, Edison and Ford didn’t realize their dreams until they were well into their 40’s and 50’s.

    • Anne Donnelly

      I would be interested in reading Emerson’s essays. It might be quite demanding to read them, but I think I am up to it. I might need your help understanding them!

      • jjhiii24

        Most of the challenges in reading Emerson are due to the formality of his language usage, which was appropriate for his time, but which now can seem a bit archaic. He frequently references classic literature, as well as subjects that were of concern when he wrote them, but which are not currently written about very often.

        Emerson is still very accessible to the modern reader, though, and when he turns his attention to important subjects, the challenge for me is always putting the book down!

        Anyone who wishes to read Emerson’s essays and has questions about the work will receive a most willing response from me with any genuine request for clarification. I also recommend that you locate a copy of Emerson’s Journals, perhaps at the local library or on Amazon.com since they shed a fair amount of light on his thoughts and experiences, which often prompted him to construct his essays.

        Looking forward to hearing from you in the near future……John H.

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