The first thing we have to say respecting Emerson as a subject for writing about the Ideal is that we are aware of the irony. He spent his whole life trying to convince us that each of us is the Ideal, individually wrapped, and yet we persist in thinking it’s about him. But he himself used the examples of Plato, Shakespeare, Goethe and other “representative men” to make his points, so I feel safe in doing the same.¹ Just remember to look at the moon, not his pointing finger.
I’ve already quoted from his essay The Transcendentalist in which he makes explicit his connection to the Idealist tradition, and certainly I encourage you to read the entire essay. But another excerpt here would serve as valuable distinction between it and materialism, to show Emerson’s appreciation of consciousness as the prior reality.
The idealist, in speaking of events, sees them as spirits. He does not deny the sensuous fact: by no means; but he will not see that alone. He does not deny the presence of this table, this chair, and the walls of this room, but he looks at these things as the reverse side of the tapestry, as the “other end,” each being a sequel or completion of a spiritual fact which nearly concerns him. This manner of looking at things, transfers every object in nature from an independent and anomalous position without there, into the consciousness. Even the materialist Condillac, perhaps the most logical expounder of materialism, was constrained to say, “Though we should soar into the heavens, though we should sink into the abyss, we never go out of ourselves; it is always our own thought that we perceive.” What more could an idealist say?
This was written in 1842, but as we’ve seen his experience of the Ideal goes back much further, and permeates his first published work Nature, which, as Robert Richardson says in Emerson: The Ideal in America, “…was his effort to get it all into one statement, and he does in under a hundred pages. And it still has this electric jolt.” Early on, he gives an account of one of those moments where the Ideal passes from the theoretical into actual experience, or rather he passes from the material into the Ideal.
Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of
them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.
Later in it he devotes a chapter explicitly to Idealism, and the realm of “immortal necessary uncreated natures, that is, … Ideas”
As objects of science, they are accessible to few men. Yet all men are capable of being raised by piety or by passion, into their region. And no man touches these divine natures, without becoming, in some degree, himself divine. Like a new soul, they renew the body. We become physically nimble and lightsome; we tread on air; life is no longer irksome, and we think it will never be so. No man fears age or misfortune or death, in their serene company, for he is transported out of the district of change. Whilst we behold unveiled the nature of Justice and Truth, we learn the difference between the absolute and the conditional or relative. We apprehend the absolute. As it were, for the first time, we exist. We become immortal, for we learn that time and space are relations of matter; that, with a perception of truth, or a virtuous will, they have no affinity.
Five years after Nature, in 1841, Emerson published the works for which he is still most known: the first series of Essays. It contains his most famous essay, Self-Reliance,² but also what I believe to be his clearest and most sustained explication and celebration of the Good, which he here calls The Over-Soul:
The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character, and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty. We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.
Near the end of the essay he counsels the need for the kind of stillness that echoes Ficino’s admonition that “…we find eternal unity and the one eternity, not through movement or multiplicity, but through being still and being one.”
Let man, then, learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely; that the Highest dwells with him; that the sources of nature are in his own mind, if the sentiment of duty is there. But if he would know what the great God speaketh, he must `go into his closet and shut the door,’ as Jesus said. God will not make himself manifest to cowards. He must greatly listen to himself, withdrawing himself from all the accents of other men’s devotion. Even their prayers are hurtful to him, until he have made his own. Our religion vulgarly stands on numbers of believers. Whenever the appeal is made — no matter how indirectly — to numbers, proclamation is then and there made, that religion is not. He that finds God a sweet, enveloping thought to him never counts his company. When I sit in that presence, who shall dare to come in? When I rest in perfect humility, when I burn with pure love, what can Calvin or Swedenborg say?
In a remarkable passage from Self-Reliance he speaks to our own ability to experience the Good; but that to know it, we must let go of all our preconceptions and our “passions” that keep us bound to the realm of the changeable.
And now at last the highest truth on this subject remains unsaid; probably cannot be said; for all that we say is the far-off remembering of the intuition. That thought, by what I can now nearest approach to say it, is this. When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name;—- the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude example and experience. You take the way from man, not to man. All persons that ever existed are its forgotten ministers. Fear and hope are alike beneath it. There is somewhat low even in hope. In the hour of vision, there is nothing that can be called gratitude, nor properly joy. The soul raised over passion beholds identity and eternal causation, perceives the self-existence of Truth and Right, and calms itself with knowing that all things go well. Vast spaces of nature, the Atlantic Ocean, the South Sea, — long intervals of time, years, centuries, — are of no account. This which I think and feel underlay every former state of life and circumstances, as it does underlie my present, and what is called life, and what is called death.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain. Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.
¹I also feel privileged and humbled. Quoting from Emerson is an embarrassment of riches; more a question of what to leave out than what to leave in. And at the same time he makes me want to be a better man, to realize my own “infinitude.” I could of course sample him for weeks, but my hope is that this taste will encourage you to go to the source.
²This essay has had a long history of being read in a superficial way to encourage selfish behavior. Emerson himself was concerned in his own time as to how his words were being twisted, and in 1851, in his essay The Fugitive Slave Law, he states, “…self-reliance, the height and perfection of man, is reliance on God.”
Some additional websites on Emerson and “Transcendentalism:”
The Transcendentalism Web, at Virginia Commonwealth University
The Ralph Waldo Emerson Institute, sponsor of my DVD Emerson: The Ideal in America
Kirk McElhearn is reading Emerson’s journals!
The Emerson Society, at the University of South Carolina