Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was born in 1803 and died in 1882, was an original and eloquent American philosopher and poet, mostly famously known for his essays, which found admirers all across the world and proved that the new democracy wasn’t composed entirely of hayseeds (a common prejudice at the time).
Emerson’s father, a beloved New England minister, provided his son with a first-rate education, and Emerson followed in his father’s footsteps, being assigned as preacher to a Boston Unitarian church shortly after leaving Harvard University in 1829. Emerson and preaching were made for each other, and the man’s eloquence, profundity, and grave but good-humored New England manner won him immediate admirers and acclaim. Emerson influenced a host of American thinkers and writers, from Henry David Thoreau of Walden fame to William James, the seminal Harvard psychologist and philosopher and brother of novelist Henry James.
Emerson preached what some saw as a thoroughly Yankee doctrine: practical, optimistic, with no room for the devil but plenty of sage counsel on how do a lot with a little and find joy in the smallest things. He was no simple grinning easy answer man, however, such as you see in hotels across America today, pitching get rich quick schemes that basically come down to—“Smile; smile a lot. Smile and think about all that money.” And the guy with the huge white teeth and microphone is smiling because he’s thinking of all that money you forked over, and now you get some fruit juice and a cracker and eighty-seven CDs that you’re never going to listen to.
No; Emerson marched to the beat of a different drummer; a real drummer, with real drums, rather than a chimpanzee hammering an old pie tin with a wooden spoon. His timeless essay “Self-Reliance,” which can be purchased for a few dollars at your local bookstore, is one of the those works that deeply inspire—many have credited this essay alone with igniting a flame beneath their sagging couches, a flame that burned so brightly and so hot that they leaped up for new horizons and didn’t look back. Emerson teaches that every man and woman has it within them to live their dreams, as even the feeblest movement forward brings a reward, which gives one the courage to make the next movement, and the next, and the next.
Another of Emerson’s famous works, a collection of seven lectures entitled Representative Men and hailed by British poet and critic Matthew Arnold as “The most important work done in prose,” studies the lives of Plato the philosopher, Swedenborg the mystic, Montaigne the skeptic, Shakespeare the poet, Napoleon the man of action, and Goethe the writer. Emerson not only describes the lives and accomplishments of these titanic personalities, he explains them in terms of archetypes. Shakespeare, for example, is the archetype, or supreme version, of all poets, and Emerson expounds on the qualities in Shakespeare that made him so. Plato, as the archetype of philosophers, stands for everyone who has asked him or herself what it means to love or be virtuous and pondered the question with an intensity and devotedness commensurate with the subject. The book’s opening essay, “The Uses of Great Men,” is an in-depth exploration of why we need, and why we don’t need, heroes in our lives; how great personalities of the past can inspire us to greatness, or hinder us in our progress, depending on how we interact with them.
Emerson’s positive philosophy, transcendentalism, which found many adherents in its time, isn’t influential as a formal movement today—and no wonder, given the horrors of the twentieth century—but Emerson’s lectures, sermons, and essays are timeless, and require no background in philosophy or theology to be picked up and simply enjoyed. You do have to be able to read, though. When you pick up your copy of Emerson, be sure that it isn’t printed in a foreign language or brail, unless you’re familiar with those languages and made the choice on purpose. Emerson was American as they come, but don’t be fooled into buying a Russian translation based on that fact, because Russian is a difficult language to read, you can’t just “sound” it out.