Thinking Like Emerson.

Grave of Ralph Waldo Emerson at Sleepy Hollow ...
Grave of Ralph Waldo Emerson at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Posted October 26, 2013

by Jerry Alatalo

“And one may say boldly that no man has a right perception of any truth who has not been reacted on by it so as to be ready to be its martyr.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson.  He lived from 1803 through 1882. Emerson’s father, Unitarian minister Reverend William Emerson, died when Ralph was 8 years old. Two sisters and a brother died in childhood. Two brothers died young after attaining adulthood, in their thirties. So he obviously had experienced the harshest of feelings surrounding the loss of loved ones, especially at a very young age. This must have had a profound effect, and led him in the intellectual direction he took.

Emerson was in his early twenties when, because of poor health, he found himself in the warmer weather of St. Augustine, Florida. There he became friends with the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, and considered Bonaparte’s nephew a great influence on his intellectual development.

He went to Harvard Divinity School and became a minister like his father. At a certain point he had philosophical disagreements with the direction and agenda of the church, resigned from the clergy, and became a lecturer, teacher, and writer, without the restraints of institution and tradition.

He lived for a time in England and met poets William Wordsworth, Thomas Carlyle, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was especially close to Carlyle. Emerson came to read the whole range of philosophical works, including all the major philosophers through history, and Eastern spiritual texts the Vedas and Bhagavad Gita. Emmanuel Swedenborg was one who Emerson had agreement with and admired.

Emerson’s first writings came from transcripts of his many lectures. He summed up his writings by saying that he focused on “the infinitude of the private man”. He believed that humanity could achieve just about anything. Emerson was a mentor and friend on Henry David Thoreau, and his work influenced William James, Nietzche, Walt Whitman, and many others.

His spirituality was thought of as radical when he lived. He believed that all things are connected to God, and so all things are divine. This coincides with his Eastern, Vedic influences.

Around 1867 his health began to decline and he had problems remembering facts, to the point where he had moments he couldn’t remember his own name. Emerson, after a person asked him how he was doing answered, “Quite well; I have lost my mental faculties, but I am perfectly well”.

This video is 50 minutes or so and delivered by a fellow who does a great job of conveying the Emerson writings on “The Over-Soul”. I came across the audio-book in my typical stumbling, bumbling way, listened to it and thought you may find it profoundly interesting. I hadn’t had any experience of Ralph Waldo Emerson but for some short quotes which I resonated with.  After hearing this I will say that Emerson was fearless in his travels to the furthest limits of human thought.

His words are timeless and relevant here in 2013.


I hope you enjoy Ralph Waldo Emerson.

2 thoughts on “Thinking Like Emerson.

    1. ASIC,
      I had to look up iconoclast! “An attacker of cherished beliefs” The thought came to mind that Emerson, Swedenborg (Emerson liked Swedenborg’s writings) and those men and women who lived before even electricity, radio, television, etc. only had books for “entertainment”, so there was no possibility of succumbing to “mindless distractions”. Emerson was his day’s internet junkie and surely read all he could get his hands on-probably the entire section on religion/spirituality/philosophy at Harvard. My view of him is as an intellectual explorer who was one of the foremost trailblazers, reporting the journeys into books he went on.
      Another one of millions of men and women writers/books I have yet to become familiar with.
      Thank you,


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