"Let their doubts know that you have doubted, and their wonder feel that you have wondered . . ." —RWE
“Geldard carries us to the very center of what makes Emerson so vital and inspiring.” —David Appelbaum, editor, Parabola
God in Concord traces Emerson's private journey to the intersection of the seeking mind with the Infinite. Emerson ventured this journey without benefit of tradition. Rather than depending on sacred texts, great books, or received traditions of his day—and without a teacher—he simply struck out on his own. Each day was an opportunity. Each encounter was a revelation. And to the extent a day was filled with perceptions, it was well lived.
Emerson's great gift to us is an accurate record of what he found, and how. Sixteen volumes of journals abound with rare glimpses of personal, sometimes brutally honest observation. They are immensely useful for anyone seeking a sane way beyond the labyrinthine aisles of today’s spiritual supermarket.
Emerson’s visionary eloquence to this day has the power to awaken the infinite in attentive minds. His inspiring personal example can easily lift us beyond what we’ve been taught to believe—or to doubt—about ourselves, and renew our aspiration to embody what we most want to be.
See “Excerpts & Info” for selections from the text and additional reviews.
Table of Contents
- Crisis in the Church
- The German Insanity
- Searching for Mind
- Early Visions of God
- The Calling
- Scylla and Charybdis
- Attributes of God
- The Conscious Human Being
- Limitation and Genius
- Progress of the Soul
- The World Comes Around
- I and the Abyss
“With great conviction and a wonderfully sure vision, Geldard gives us the essential Emerson: Emerson, the spiritual philosopher. There is no question that Americans need to attend to Emerson’s thought-now more than ever. It will help us immensely to have this insightful book at our side.” —Jacob Needleman, author of The American Soul.
“Geldard carries us to the very center of what makes Emerson so vital and inspiring.” —David Appelbaum, editor, Parabola
“Richard Geldard has written a magnificent book through which Emerson's teaching once again becomes an instigator.” —Roger Lipsey, author of An Art of our Own
“. . . Geldard is showing once again how Emerson unites intellect and sanctity: by properly focusing the mind, unity with God can be achieved.” —Richard Barna, Gnosis
On May 25, 1903, the small town of Concord, Massachusetts, hosted the Centenary Celebration of the birth of its most illustrious son, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The main speaker for the occasion was Professor William James of Harvard, who even today is thought of as the father of American philosophy. In a letter to a friend following his appearance, James said, “I let RWE. speak for himself. . . . Reading the whole of him over again continuously has made me feel his greatness as I never did before.” In his remarks on that May afternoon, James set the tone for the appraisal of Emerson for the next fifty years.
For Emerson, the individual fact and moment were indeed suffused with absolute radiance, but it was upon a condition that saved the situation—they must be worthy specimens,—sincere, authentic, archetypal; they must have made connection with what he calls the Moral Sentiment, they must in some way act as symbolic mouthpieces of the Universe's meaning. To know just which thing does act in this way, and which thing fails to make the true connection, is the secret (somewhat incommunicable, it must be confessed) of seership, and doubtless we must not expect of a seer too rigorous a consistency. Emerson himself was a real seer.
We have today in Emerson's complete work—formal essays, private journals, notebooks, letters, sermons, early lectures, and the testimony of the contemporaries who shared his life—as accurate a gauge of the powers of a great mind as we could hope to possess. The sheer volume of these reflections, combined with his determination to penetrate to the core of things, opens a rare door into the life of one individual's profound seeking.
Emerson’s work seems to grow as we do. First exposures to it, arising as they tend to do early in the development of the growing intellect, are generally superficial, the experiences of forced readings or youthful exuberance. The early reading experience is almost giddy and certainly fanciful. It seems to contradict daily experience; as a result we may conclude that whatever he is saying, daily experience is not part of the formula. We wonder what world he is describing. It certainly isn't the second half of the twentieth century. Second and third readings, however, stimulated from the existential perspective of our century's anxiety and failures of vision, offer a more solid basis of serious study. The work requires penetration, and more to the point, stands up to it.
As James said, Emerson was a seer. To be able to say now that Emerson's thought and seeing constitute revelation takes a certain amount of theological sleight-of-hand, but this book hopes to demonstrate one individual's high degree of gnostic understanding of the Abyss as an antidote to Post-modern cynicism. Emerson said flatly that “the best we can know of God is the mind as it is known to us.” Knowing as much as we can of Emerson's mind allows us to project out into the chasm of the cosmos as far as minds can reach. That these simultaneously inward and outward glances take us well beyond the range of traditional religious thinking will be obvious enough once we follow the trail far enough.
Emerson began his task with a courageous, idealistic beginning in the 1830s. His articulated vision of a fully realized human being has not been completed. The vision was transmitted in a fragmented literary mode to a pitifully small audience prior to the Civil War. What we now call Emersonian Idealism grew into an intellectual movement only after 1903, the centennial of his birth, when the Complete Works were finally published and became widely known outside of New England.
After the Birth Centenary, the next major impulse in Emerson studies came in 1982, the centennial of his death. The literary output of the participants in this anniversary was biographical and not philosophical. Emerson the Writer and Emerson the Man were subjected to endless Freudian analyzes and exercises in deconstruction. For the most part, he survived very nicely. Those books aimed at the general reader celebrated his life in all its earthy and emotional detail and revealed the struggle of an individual being true to his vision through life's trials and tragedies.
As we now approach 2003, the bicentennial of his birth on May 25, the next impulse may be to restore something of the philosophical validity to the wisdom literature. Steps in that important direction have already been taken by Harvard's Stanley Cavell and Yale's Harold Bloom, naturally from quite different directions. One thing these two strong readers hold in common, however, is the understanding that Emerson was and is to be taken seriously, that what he says about human life and fate is, in fact, necessary data. His great theme, the “infinitude of the private man,” now properly rephrased as the infinite potential of the individual human consciousness, asserts that each person possesses in mind the equivalent powers that generate and sustain the universe. In effect, e = mc2 is a human metaphor as well: Manifest power arises in consciousness and not just in mushroom clouds.
None of this capacity, however, yet manifests in contemporary religious and philosophical inquiry. In these environments we still stagger from the blows that scientific determinism has showered upon us. We have been told by these “reliable sources” that human beings are merely products of DNA's desire to create more DNA, that we are accidental by-products of genetic adaptation and mutation. Similarly, we're told, our consciousness—not just our brains!—has evolved from aeons of electrochemical reactions in the soup of the biosphere. We are expected to concede that matter has generated consciousness rather than the other way around.
Emerson tells me on every page that this is not so. He affirms that consciousness, the life of the mind, is part of an eternal consciousness, access to which each individual possesses. This primary fact is the place he found to “stand,” following the famous Archimedes dictum: “Give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth.” Emerson's understanding created a philosophical lever with its fulcrum beyond the confines of sensory perception. His very existence, he said, took its being from a source beyond our perceptions of nature, stars, and systems. His essential freedom and power (or leverage) came from this infinite Absolute, and from that stand he elected to participate.
Emerson's so-called Transcendent Idealism emerged refreshed and vibrant from a long strain of similar visions going all the way back to ancient Orphic mysteries. He is another Heraclitus, a solitary adversary to habit and banality, making assertions others would claim to be madness. He wrote and spoke for those who could hear his particular melody or strain of thought. It was not solely a matter of an elect or a special community of chosen believers. Who responded and who didn't was a mystery and always will be. He touched people according to their readiness to receive or their particular temperament. Often listeners or readers carried just one sentence away from a talk or reading, something that struck at their heart.
So many of these sentences have been preserved and held lovingly to heart by so many people through the years that literary critics of Emerson's work have spent time and energy examining these extraordinary pieces of grammar and syntax. What is it about them that moves us so? Consider these sentences, all in a sequence, from the magnificent essay “Circles”:
There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile. Permanence is but a word of degrees. Our globe seen by God is a transparent law, not a mass of facts. The law dissolves the fact and holds it fluid.
These are knives in the brain, cutting through the mess and general murky materialism of our ordinary perceptions. He says to us again and again: See! See! See!
How did he get there? What form of insight and inspiration results in sentences like these? Horatio might tell the Hamlet in us that it is to consider too closely to consider so, but we reply, “No, I want to know. Emerson asks me all the time not to follow him on his heels too closely, but rather to choose my own path, to achieve his level of self-reliance trusting my own thought. Yes, I want to know how to arrive there on my own.”
The passage above from “Circles” could be from Heraclitus, the great philosopher from Ephesus in Asia Minor. Heraclitus spoke sentences like these and has been quoted for 2,500 years by all manner of people. Is it true, then, that voices like this, like father Heraclitus and his son Emerson, like Socrates and his son Plato, are destined to be solitary prophets crying in the desert? Does it mean that while they speak with inspiration in the wilderness of our souls the “civilized” world must perpetuate its ancient illusions and fanciful creeds?
I call this study of Emerson God in Concord because the Concord of 1833 to 1882 (the years Emerson lived there) was a time and a place of unique vision and importance to America. The title has a double intent. On one hand, it suggests that Emerson was interested in knowing God and in giving an accurate account of his inquiries into divine nature. On the other, it suggests that Emerson himself was, in a manner of speaking, a god in Concord. I mean this not in the sense of how he was regarded, but in the sense of how he embodied the divine principles he discovered.
Emerson was not alone in his visions, but he was clearly the best spokesman of them in his circle. He saw and proclaimed what he saw for everyone to hear and know. His published work is now very well known.
This study approaches the more private Emerson as recorded in his journals and notebooks, distinct from the well-known “Works.” In his journals (sixteen volumes published by Harvard University from 1960 to 1982), we have his personal musings and early drafts of published work. We see his struggles as a writer, his personal reactions to those around him in life, illness, and death. We are present very near the moment of the revelations that emerged from the act of reflection taking place in his mind.
The center or starting point from which this text will spiral out is the famous “Divinity School Address,” a sermon delivered by Emerson to a small group of students and their guests at Harvard College on the evening of July 15, 1838. The address so shocked the faculty of Divinity College that Emerson was effectively banned from formal Harvard functions for more than thirty years. Some still say it smacks of atheism. It is a story of the nobility of Boston society, the fathers of New England religious tradition, and a young ex-minister from Concord with a passion for the truth of reality.
On July 15, 1838, Emerson traveled from his home in Concord to Cambridge to deliver his “Address” to the graduating class of Divinity College at Harvard. The six graduating students had invited Emerson, after talking with him about theism and the state of the Unitarian ministry some seven weeks earlier.
As this summer of Emerson's career began, few overtly negative declarations aimed at established religion had emerged in his lectures or published writing, even though a dozen years of journals were filled with them. His first small book, Nature, the ninety-page essay published in 1836, was not widely known, partly because it was so general. It would take twelve years to sell the first five hundred copies. In sharp contrast, three hundred copies of the address to the Divinity College students were printed late in August and sold out promptly. This one rattled the cages of the Unitarian clergy. Here was substantial controversy.
Something had finally pushed Emerson to the edge of heresy. As he prepared the “Address,” he knew perfectly well what statements would bring strong reaction from the establishment; but even he would be shocked at the vehemence and volume of the cage-rattling that ensued. His appearance in Cambridge was, as he saw it, a perfect opportunity to develop his spiritual principles a step further and to challenge the banal, stultifying world of Unitarian preaching then current in eastern Massachusetts, particularly in Boston.
Several journal entries early in 1838 reveal the state of Emerson's mind and temperament. We begin with his thoughts about speaking to the students at Harvard:
1 April. Cool or cold windy clear day. The Divinity School youths wished to talk with me concerning theism.1 I went rather heavy-hearted for I always find that my views chill or shock people at the first opening, but the conversation went well & I came away cheered. I told them that the preacher should be a poet smit with love of the harmonies of moral nature: and yet look at the Unitarian Association & see if its aspect is poetic. They all smiled No. A minister nowadays is plainest prose, the prose of prose. He is a Warming-pan, a Night-chair at sick beds & rheumatic souls; and the fire of the minstrel's eye & the vivacity of his word is exchanged for intense grumbling enunciation of the Cambridge sort, & for scripture phraseology.
Next, three weeks later, he reflected on his dreams:
20 April. Last night, ill dreams. Dreams are true to nature & like monstrous formations (e.g. the horsehoof divided into toes) show the law. Their double consciousness, their sub- & ob-jectiveness is the wonder. I call the phantoms that rise the creation of my fancy but they act like volunteers & counteract my inclination. They make me feel that every act, every thought, every cause, is bipolar & in the act is contained the counteract. If I strike, I am struck. If I chase, I am pursued. If I push, I am resisted.
Working on him through these weeks is an awareness, operating like a Platonic daimon, that he is approaching a series of strong assertions which will separate him permanently from his roots: from his tradition-bound Aunt Mary Moody, from his teachers at Harvard, and from some of his colleagues in the ministry. Three days later, he attends a meeting in Concord:
23 April. Last night the old question of miracles was broached again at the Teachers' meeting & shown up & torn up in the usual manners. They think that God causes a miracle to make men Stare & then says, Here is truth. They do not & will not perceive that it is to distrust the deity of truth—its invincible beauty—to do God a high dishonor,—so to depict him. They represent the old trumpery of God sending a messenger to raise man from his low estate. Well then he must have credentials & miracle is the credentials. I answer God sends me messengers alway. I am surrounded by messengers of God who show me credentials day by day. Jesus is not a solitary but still a lovely herald.
This clear difference in view of the nature of God—nature's daily miracles and the elevated state of human perception needed to glean the message—and this radical shift in theology will in three weeks be two themes of the address to the students. In these weeks Emerson begins to frame his argument. Before doing so, however, he first frames his temperament.
June 6. Every body, I think, has sublime thoughts sometimes. At times, they lie parallel with the world or the axes coincide so that you can see through them the great laws. Then be of their side. Let your influence be so true & simple as to bring them into these frames.
This advice is as much to himself as it is to the students. The minister standing in the pulpit, looking down at upturned faces, is tempted to sow sublime thoughts, something like going straight for the answer before the question has been properly posed. In matters of God, planting doctrine dulls the mind. A sublime thought which lies parallel to the world in such a way as to reveal great laws cannot be tossed out over the pulpit in the “prose of prose” by a warming-pan. Still more in the journal that same day:
Another thing. We resent all criticism which denies us any thing that lies in our line of advance. Say that I cannot paint a Transfiguration or build a steamboat, or be a grand marshal, & I shall not seem to me depreciated. But deny me any quality of metaphysical or literary power, & I am piqued. What does this mean? Why, simply that the soul has assurance by instincts & presentiments of all power in the direction of its ray, as well as the special skills it has already got.
This brilliant observation, so crucial to later essays such as “Spiritual Laws,” appears here as Emerson prepares his address. It is as though he feels the pique already in the objections his words will inevitably provoke, and he knows that very specific feeling marks the true path of his vision and the direction of his life. He will brook no opposition, but he will also not vent his anger in defense. Indeed, the next day he gives himself a warning about his reaction to criticism.
7 June . . . Reserve your fire. Keep your temper. Render soft answers. Bear & forbear. Do not dream of suffering for ten years yet. Do not let the word martyrdom ever escape out of the white fence of your teeth.
When July 15 finally arrived, the half-dozen students and their families, a few members of the faculty, and a few of Emerson's friends gathered in the small second-floor chapel in Divinity Hall.8 What the small audience heard that evening was, to most, astonishing. So compact was the thought, so moving the affection poured out to the young men, and so radical the implications for Christianity as practiced in New England, that even today students at Harvard Divinity School should not be able to read the address without some religious turmoil. The issues, in other words, are still with us. No person preparing to enter the ministry can afford to ignore this sermon.
We know that the address was the culmination of impressions, thoughts, and ideas gathering in Emerson from age sixteen because in 1819, his junior year at Harvard College, he began to keep his journals. In them we follow the progression to this fateful day. Early on, when still an undergraduate, he had accepted the inevitability of becoming a minister, following a long family tradition of service to the Church. From then on—through his own studies at the Divinity School, through illness and near blindness, through marriage and the death of his first wife Ellen, through the resignation from his post at the Second Church in Boston, through travels in Europe, through his marriage to Lydia Jackson and the start of a new home and family in Concord, through these nearly twenty years—he recorded the thoughts and images which build to this day and provide his platform, his place to stand.
The “Address” is direct, vivid, and uncompromising. It differs from the diffuse power of Nature in those respects. It differs also from the social and scientific lecture series that occupied Emerson through much of the 1830s. It differs from his more traditional “American Scholar” address at Harvard the summer before, in which he prodded America's lagging independence from European cultural influence and set forth his vision of “Man Thinking.” The “Address” literally breaks apart the carefully circumscribed confines of the human relationship to God, the identity and divinity of Jesus, and the fundamental purpose of human life.
In great measure the power of the “Address” comes from the sense of urgency Emerson felt, the crisis in the life of the New England Church. Even though in his own resignation six years before he had acted upon issues close to his own conscience, he also felt increasingly that the Church itself was in crisis, that Christianity in his era had lost its way. He had even begun to wonder why one should attend church at all. His journal entry in March, four months prior to the “Address,” explores those feelings:
At church all day but almost tempted to say I would go no more. Men go where they are wont to go else had no soul gone this afternoon. The snowstorm was real, the preacher merely spectral. Vast contrast to look at him & then out the window. Yet no fault in the good man. Evidently he thought himself a faithful searching preacher, mentioned that he thought so several times; & seemed to be one of that large class, sincere persons based on shams; sincere persons who are bred & do live in shams. He had lived in vain . . . I think it shows what I said on the last page to be true, that there is commanding attraction in the moral sentiment that can lend a faint tint of light to such dulness & ignorance as this coming in its place & name. What a cruel injustice it is to moral nature to be thus behooted & behowled, & not a law, not a word of it articulated.
Only in the last section of this entry does Emerson see some glimmer of positive value for people to come together in the church setting. In fact, his last thought on the matter, further down the page is this: “The Church is a good place to study Theism by comparing the things said to your Consciousness,” but there is little conviction in it. He reminds himself to busy himself in self-reflection while the sham is in progress. One is reminded of Galileo ignoring the service and discovering the laws of the pendulum while sitting in church.
What is the sham? The “Address” spells it out. First though, Emerson articulates the principles of the sentiment of virtue and the moral law upon which all true religion is founded. What he said may have seemed abstract and vague to some in the audience, but the message was clear enough and would have been familiar to most of the students.
The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted. He who puts off impurity, thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice. If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being. A man in the view of absolute goodness, adores, with total humility. Every step so downward, is a step upward. The man who renounces himself, comes to himself.
Although there lies hidden in this passage an articulation of Emerson's Law of Compensation, which remains one of the most challenging of his ideas and one that will occupy us soon, the rest of the passage articulates a position comfortable to most listeners. Not even the scowling Andrews Norton could seriously object to the assertion that “if a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God.” The phrase “in so far” would have placated the traditionalists. It is the classic idea of the imitation of Christ. Then, however, after the positive assertions of the sentiments of virtue and moral law, Emerson begins his attack.
And because the indwelling Supreme Spirit cannot wholly be got rid of, the doctrine of it suffers this perversion, that the divine nature is attributed to one or two persons, and denied to all the rest, and denied with fury.
The assertion that confining “divine nature” to Jesus and, one would assume from the previous passage, the Buddha, is a perversion of truth shows Emerson's aggressively positive method. In that previous paragraph he inclusively draws upon the beliefs of Eastern religions as proof of the wisdom of his position:
The sentences of the oldest time, which ejaculate this piety, are still fresh and fragrant. This thought dwelled always deepest in the minds of men in the devout and contemplative East; not alone in Palestine, where it reached its purest expression, but in Egypt, in Persia, in India, in China. Europe has always owed to oriental genius, its divine impulses. What these holy bards said, all sane men found agreeable and true.
The next step, after almost casually asserting that of the views so far stated “none will contest,” Emerson points out two errors in the Christianity practiced in 1838.
Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, “I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.” But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! There is no doctrine of the Reason which will bear to be taught by the Understanding. The understanding caught this high chant from the poet's lips, and said, in the next age, “This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man.” The idioms of his language, and the figures of his rhetoric, have usurped the place of his truth; and churches are not built on his principles, but on his tropes. Christianity became a Mythus, as the poetic teaching of Greece and of Egypt, before. He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man's life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.
What is a Christian to do with this passage? Emerson feels free to offer an interpretation of the words of Jesus given as quotation, a very loose manipulation of text. Most ministers are more careful to work from holy writ and then offer an interpretation. Emerson the strong reader feels free to strongly rewrite: “I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.” What devout Christians do with this passage ultimately depends upon their own experience and some attention to Emerson's intent. In his important book The American Religion, Harold Bloom has this comment on Emerson's famous passage:
Emerson, like William James after him, makes the American Religion beautifully overt, and after more than one hundred fifty years, this passage still has the capacity to give offence, particularly to Fundamentalists who cannot understand their own version of the American Religion. What makes Emerson's paragraph a superb model for American religious criticism is condensed into its key sentence: “The idioms of his language, and the figures of his rhetoric, have usurped the place of his truth; and churches are not built on his principles, but on his tropes.” . . . Emerson knows that religion is imagined, and always must be reimagined.
Emerson “reimagines” the teaching of Jesus in the crucible of his own spiritual experience. That language changes, is altered, indeed reimagined, should not surprise anyone aware of the transmission of text and the alterations of translation. Emerson's intent was well stated earlier in the sermon and cannot be mistaken. It is framed in his vision of the One Mind and his views on good and evil.
These facts have always suggested to man the sublime creed, that the world is not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind; and that one mind is everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool; and whatever opposes that will, is everywhere balked and baffled, because things are made so, and not otherwise. Good is positive. Evil is merely privative, not absolute: it is like cold, which is the privation of heat. All evil is so much death or nonentity. Benevolence is absolute and real. So much benevolence as a man hath, so much life hath he. For all things proceed out of this same spirit, which is differently named love, justice, temperance, in its different applications, just as the ocean receives different names on the several shores which it washes. All things proceed out of the same spirit, and all things conspire with it. Whilst a man seeks good ends, he is strong by the whole strength of nature.
The assertion that “evil is merely privative” and that only “benevolence is absolute and real” may strike the modern ear as naïve. After all, we have witnessed the evidences of evil incarnate, holocausts so malignant that we dare not offend such a force, we suppose, by denying its absolute existence. And yet Emerson's vision of unity hinges on the statement that “all things proceed out of the same spirit,” and the nature of that spirit is pure benevolence. Evil is caused by ignorance, is privative, and ignorance is a function of separation and absence, as cold is the absence of heat.
As he went on to say in the “Address, however,” “The good, by affinity, seek the good; the vile, by affinity, the vile. Thus of their own volition souls proceed into heaven, into hell.” What may seem a contradiction here is none. Emerson saw heaven and hell as degrees in a spectrum of affinities. After death, the soul seeks its own nature. If our affinity is to the cold, so be it. Justice, then, is natural and proper linking of lawful affinities.
Emerson raises this issue because the received tradition of his time, emerging as it did from dualistic Puritan roots, saw Satan as absolute and real, a force in direct opposition to God's benevolence. If that formulation of evil is true, therefore, we can never trust our intuitions. We must depend, therefore, on higher authority. In order to trust our intuition, as Emerson wishes us to do, we have to be able to judge its authenticity directly through the fruits of love, justice, and temperance. In Emerson's philosophy everything rises from this assertion. He states it clearly:
Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing. On the contrary, the absence of this primary faith is the presence of degradation.
What follows are examples of the degradation in the preaching of the Christian message:
. . . Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the “person” of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love. But by this eastern monarchy of a Christianity, which indolence and fear have built, the friend of man is made the injurer of man. The manner in which his name is surrounded with expressions, which were once sallies of admiration and love, but are now petrified into official titles, kills all generous sympathy and liking.
Jesus is pictured here not as Savior but as Destroyer, reducing human beings to abject idol-worshippers, seeking the shade of Apollo in the ruins of Delphi. Emerson's charge would not have elicited such virulent reaction had it ended here even with its images of petrified preaching or of churches paralyzed by banality. But Emerson is only beginning. The implications of idol worship have their effect on the meaning of human life:
You shall not own the world; you shall not dare, and live after the infinite Law that is in you, and in company with the infinite Beauty which heaven and earth reflect to you in all lovely forms; but you must subordinate your nature to Christ's nature; you must accept our interpretations; and take his portrait as the vulgar draw it.
Here is the crux. Elevate Jesus and diminish yourself, and then accept the implications: beating your breast and your head against the wall of sin; fearing the eternal fires of Hell and the wrath of God; being subservient. What are you anyway? Just a human being. Nothing but a rational animal confined to the dust and ooze of evolution, just a mass of DNA coming apart at the genes. Or, as Emerson put it: “A pagan, suckled in a creed outworn.”
Emerson's next attack was aimed at the nature of revelation itself. It is not enough that we make an idol of Jesus, but we also stop the flow of God's Word and confine it to the received tradition guarded by Authority.
The second defect of the traditionary and limited way of using the mind of Christ is a consequence of the first; this, namely; that the Moral Nature, that Law of laws, whose revelations introduce greatness,—yea, God himself, into the open soul, is not explored as the fountain of the established teaching in society. Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead. The injury to faith throttles the preacher; and the goodliest of institutions becomes an uncertain and inarticulate voice.
What is the good of preaching at all if we are restricted to what has been said before? Indeed, so-called Born Again Fundamentalist sects are growing abundantly in America today precisely because of the freedom preachers feel to interpret sacred text in the light of their parishioners' immediate personal needs. That errors are made in extracting meaning from text is a given and is not important. The test, in any case, is not the authority of experts but rather the degree to which the immediate spiritual needs of people are met. In the great supermarket of religion, people buy what attracts them as they pass down the aisles.
What has been abandoned in charismatic environments where the fruits of the spirit are free to express themselves11 is the influence of any external authority. What kills the spirit eventually in such environments is internal bureaucracy, the inevitable imposition of procedures on the spontaneous intuitions of the spirit, or “the open soul” as Emerson phrased it. Inevitably, when bureaucratic impulses overwhelm freedom of expression, thus inhibiting the free flow of the spirit, either the church atrophies or a schism occurs and a new community of worshippers is created, only to go through the same process. Even in the modern Quaker meeting, for example, where free expression of the Holy Spirit is given ample room, limits based on decorous behavior impose themselves and inhibition grows. Emerson himself was drawn to George Fox and the Quakers because their forms of worship came closest to his ideal community of the faithful. Nonetheless, given the inherent weaknesses of formal worship, he would agonize all his life over the issue of gathering for the worship of God.
At the end of the “Address,” Emerson backs away from a call to rid the culture of formal worship in churches or to establish new forms. His solution for the present crisis lies in the youth and vision of these new preachers as they take their place in the established forms of worship.
And now let us do what we can to rekindle the smouldering, nigh quenched fire on the altar. The evils of the church that now is are manifest. The question returns, What shall we do? I confess, all attempts to project and establish a Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me vain. Faith makes us, and not we it, and faith makes its own forms. All attempts to contrive a system are as cold as the new worship introduced by the French to the goddess of Reason,—to-day, pasteboard and filigree, and ending to-morrow in madness and murder. Rather let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing. For, if once you are alive, you shall find they shall become plastic and new. The remedy to their deformity is, first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul.
“Faith makes its own forms.” Places of worship will always establish themselves, where like people come together to share like expressions of faith. The history of religion in America, where fresh impulses are encouraged and constitutionally guaranteed, illustrates Emerson's point. The Unitarians grew out of the Episcopal tradition in 1796, were joined by Congregational churches throughout New England, formed the Unitarian Association in 1825, and a century and a half later (in 1961) joined forces with the Universalist Association. Such a move would not have surprised Emerson, even in 1836, when he made the following observation about sectarian differences:
There would be no sect if there were no Sect. Is this a foolish identical proposition? I mean that the reason why the Universalist appears is because something has been overstated or omitted by the antecedent sect and the human mind feels itself wronged and overstates on the other side as in this. Each of our sects is an extreme statement & therefore obnoxious to contradiction & reproof. But each rests on this strong but obscure instinct of an outraged truth.
Speaking with Unitarians in our own time, one still finds “outraged truth” in Emerson's statements concerning the exclusive divinity of Jesus Christ. The sectarian differences that persist reflect growing acceptance of individual convictions within sects, differences not tolerated in the New England sect of 1838. Indeed, as we look more carefully at the responses to the “Address,” the more we recognize the real motive behind the attacks immediately following its first presentation.
As mentioned earlier, members of the faculty of the School of Divinity were in the front pews of the chapel on July 15, 1838. Among them was Andrews Norton, a faculty member from 1819 to 1830. In his retirement Norton was working on a three-volume study of The Evidences of the Genuineness of the Gospels, published in parts in 1837 and 1844. Norton's formal response to Emerson's “Address” was the most virulent of the many criticisms published. In a letter to The Boston Daily Advertiser, August 27, 1838, Norton scattered his shot broadly, aiming in general at all transcendental thinking and then closing in point blank on Emerson in particular:
The rejection of reasoning is accompanied with an equal contempt for good taste. All modesty is laid aside. The writer of an article for an obscure periodical, or a religious newspaper, assumes a tone as if he were one of the chosen enlighteners of a dark age. —He continually obtrudes himself upon his reader, and announces his own convictions, as if from having that character, they were necessarily indisputable . . .
Early in the letter Norton accuses Emerson and his transcendental cohorts of abandoning reason in their zeal to put forward their radical views. Norton himself, however, abandons reason as the level of his invective rises. He directs readers' attention to the evil in their midst:
The evil is becoming, for the time disastrous and alarming; and of this fact there could hardly be a more extraordinary and ill boding evidence, than is afforded by a publication, which has just appeared, entitled, an “Address, delivered before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge, . . . by Ralph Waldo Emerson.” It is not necessary to remark particularly on this composition. It will be sufficient to state generally, that the author professes to reject all belief in Christianity as a revelation, that he makes a general attack upon the Clergy, on the ground that they preach what he calls “Historical Christianity.”
What comes next exposes Norton's real motive in writing in opposition to Emerson's views: his deep distress at the challenge of Authority, he himself representing the fundamental hierarchy of Christian truth and teaching, both at Harvard and the Divinity College.
. . . the main question is how it has happened, that religion has been insulted by the delivery of these opinions in the Chapel of the Divinity College of Cambridge, as the last instruction which those were to receive, who were going forth from it, bearing the name of Christian preachers. This is a question in which the community is deeply interested. No one can doubt for a moment of the disgust and strong disapprobation with which it must have been heard by the highly respectable officers of that Institution. They must have felt it not only as an insult to religion, but as personal insult to themselves. But this renders the fact of its having been so delivered only the more remarkable. We can proceed but a step in accounting for it. The preacher was invited to occupy the place he did, not by the officers of the Divinity College, but by the members of the graduating class. These gentlemen, therefore, have become accessories, perhaps innocent accessories, to the commission of a great offence; and the public must be desirous of learning what exculpation or excuse they can offer.
Here is a tense, vindictive, and personal attack aimed at Emerson the man. The letter never engages the religious issues presented by Emerson.
We know that Norton was probably predisposed to personal animosity. He had observed Emerson's unorthodox studies at Divinity College a decade before. Emerson had been prevented by near blindness from pursuing normal studies and had, instead, prepared himself for formal approbation into the ministry almost exclusively on his own. His taste in reading during this period had been eclectic, not at all devoted to the standard texts of divinity training.
Norton could have known nothing of Emerson's intellectual or spiritual pursuits. All that Norton knew at the time was that, in his view, this particular student had neither fulfilled the expected requirements nor demonstrated mastery of logical argument or scholarly discipline. Therefore, when the invitation had been extended, not by the faculty, but rather by the graduating class of the College, Norton was predisposed to respond critically.
The vituperation of the response, however, goes well beyond mere criticism of content or disapproval of a choice of speaker. Norton saw in Emerson a power which if not checked would be a genuine threat to the authority of the Church. The passion of this address told Norton that here was a Satanic force let loose in the sanctuary. Harvard itself was under attack, he thought; and unless this force were blunted now, the plague would spread and Christianity as a whole would be threatened. Also under attack in Norton's view was the social order in Boston and Cambridge, of which Norton was one of the pillars. His patriarchal and hierarchal sense of stability, created and sustained by education and respect for authority, was being challenged by this upstart from Concord—a person known by the normative community to be unstable as one who had resigned an important position at the famed Second Church, a person whose family was outside the well-established social strata of Boston society by virtue of their poverty if not by their hereditary claim to distinction.
Two days after the address, Emerson made the following personal observation in his journal:
[July] 17. In preparing to go to Cambridge with my speech to the young men, day before yesterday, it occurred to me with force that I had no right to go unless I were equally willing to be prevented from going.
He had felt the importance of this occasion and had here, in one of his typical self-reflective moments, reached an understanding with himself about the nature of anticipation and its close relation to egotism. The thought is very Platonic, a Socrates-like sense of inaction and passive acceptance in the face of high moment. Giving himself this necessary detachment helped him to approach the address with equanimity.
The observation also illustrates Emerson's sense of the importance of this moment in his life. He did anticipate, greatly anticipate, this opportunity. It was historic, even if the circumstances appeared modest: the little chapel, the tiny class, the small audience. And yet, here he was in front of the Divinity College faculty, at Harvard, officially sanctioned, at least by the graduates, to speak his mind. Did he pull his punches? Was he awed into compromise by the occasion?
We think of the personal journal as a private place where we can speak our minds without fear of being shocking or misunderstood. In Emerson's case, at least in doctrinal or metaphysical matters, the journals serve to clarify or dramatize his formal writing, while only occasionally providing uncensored thoughts. Two weeks prior to the address, presumably while it was being written—in part using material from much earlier journal entries—he penned the following in late June:
Most of the Commonplaces spoken in churches every Sunday respecting the Bible & the life of Christ, are grossly superstitious. Would not, for example, would not any person unacquainted with the bible, always draw from the pulpit the impression that the New Testament unfolded a system? and in the second place that the history of the life & teachings of Jesus were greatly more copious than they are? Do let the new generation speak the truth, & let the grandfathers die. Let go if you please the old notions about responsibility for the souls of your parishioners but do feel that Sunday is their only time for thought & do not defraud them of that, as miserably as two men have me today. Out time is worth too much than that we can go to church twice, until you have got something to announce there.
Notions about the responsibility for the souls of one's parishioners strike at the heart of Norton's criticisms. The so-called “grandfathers” did feel this responsibility deeply. They were the shepherds with innocent flocks too easily led astray by the temptations of this world. Their task, as they were taught to see it, was to protect, warn, and console. The preacher administered to life's passages: birth, baptism, religious training, marriage, crisis, and death. Beyond these boundaries, a preacher was not to trespass.
Emerson, on the other hand, was willing to trust that the individual with his or her own soul at stake will take the moral path once given the gift of reflective thought. Conscience is the key, and while it sleeps within, the individual is vulnerable to the pressures of the world. To awaken that conscience, sleeping within the recesses of the soul/mind, is what Emerson saw as the proper task of the preacher. All conversation, all formal sermonizing, should have as their goal the awakening of that self-reflective faculty.
At the close of the “Address,” where Emerson reaches the formal charge for the young graduates, he finds language so original and feelings so personal that they create the vision he so earnestly seeks to convey. It is no wonder that the “grandfathers” present could make no sense of it. They had no personal experience with it.
Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost,—cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity. Look to it first and only, that fashion, custom, authority, pleasure, and money, are nothing to you,—are not bandages over your eyes, that you cannot see,—but live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind. Not too anxious to visit periodically all families and each family in your parish connection,—when you meet one of these men or women, be to them a divine man; be to them thought and virtue; let their timid aspirations find in you a friend; let their trampled instincts be genially tempted out in your atmosphere; let their doubts know that you have doubted, and their wonder feel that you have wondered. By trusting your own heart, you shall gain more confidence in other men. For all our penny-wisdom, for all our soul-destroying slavery to habit, it is not to be doubted, that all men have sublime thoughts; that all men value the few real hours of life; they love to be heard; they love to be caught up into the vision of principles.
How many preachers or teachers of any stripe have we encountered who have the vision and/or the capacity to approach their charges in such as way as to let culturally trampled instincts be genially tempted out in the atmosphere of their church or classroom? First, one has to have a sense of what “trampled instincts” might be and, second, by what process they may be “tempted out” in the right atmosphere. Certainly Emerson knew full well how difficult these matters are to understand for those who have never seen the human being in this light, and he would devote the next twenty years to both concepts.
That few professionals in the field of religion understood Emerson was obvious from the reactions over the next six months. It wasn't so much that theologians or ministers took the philosophical tenets of Emerson's gnostic vision and opposed it per se. They simply attacked Emerson personally or else accused him of importing vile foreign (French and German) thinking into the sanctuary of English-speaking reason and tradition.
The most dramatic of these reactions came from three members of the faculty of the Theological Seminary at Princeton. J.W. Alexander, Albert Dod, and Charles Hodge issued a response to the “Address” in The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review for January, 1839. Again, what was issued was not a theological document in terms of reasoned discourse; it was a diatribe against “the nonsense and impiety” of the “new” thinking.
When Emerson asserted in the “Address” that religious truth is an intuition which can not be received at second hand, he immediately offended most teachers of theology. How else, they might have wondered, can I teach the truths of Christianity without making them the objects of instruction? Teachers unable to answer that question satisfactorily could never tempt out trampled instincts in any atmosphere. Like the officials in Cambridge, the faculty of Princeton bristled.
We pretend not, as we said, to comprehend these dogmas. We know not what they are; but we know what they are not. . . . No one, who has ever heard such avowals, can forget the touching manner in which pious as well as celebrated German scholars have sometimes lamented their still lingering doubts as to the personality of God. But while these systems rob us of our religious faith, they despoil us of our reason. Let those who will, rehearse to us the empty babble about reason as a faculty of immediate insight of the infinite; we will trust no faculty, which, like Eastern princes, mounts the throne over the corpses of its brethren. We cannot sacrifice our understanding. If we are addressed by appeals to consciousness, to intuition, we will try those appeals. If we are addressed by reasoning, we will endeavour to go along with that reasoning. But in what is thus offered, there is no ratiocination; there is endless assertion, not merely of unproved, but of unreasonable, of contradictory, of absurd propositions. And if any overcome by the prestige of the new philosophy, as transatlantic, or as new, are ready to repeat dogmas which neither they, nor the inventors of them, can comprehend, and which approach the dialect of Bedlam, we crave to be exempt from the number, and will contentedly abstain for life from “the high priory road.” The more we have looked at it, the more we have been convinced of its emptiness and fatuity. It proves nothing; it determines nothing; or, where it seems to have results, they are hideous and godless.
Where Emerson was vulnerable in this “appraisal” is in the absence of “ratiocination,” or the faculty in the intellect of discursive reasoning. By asserting the primacy of intuition, he could not very well turn his back on its revelations and argue discursively in explanation of his insights. To so would effectively cancel out the one in the syntax of the other. As he said in “Experience” about just persons, “They refuse to explain themselves, and are content that new actions should do them that office.” In his scholarly case, the new actions would be in the form of new expression, new intuitions.
The key to Emersonian syntax was trust in the incisive observation, incisively expressed. Any interpolation that had the feel of explanation about it diminished its truth as much as it weakened the impact. Most famously from “Self-Reliance”: “Nothing is sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Adding explanation to that thought in the form of definitions or examples removes its integrating power. Every attempt to amplify it reduces it and is the bane of all Emerson critics, the author included. The proper approach to Emerson is always amplification rather than explanation. What wanted amplification for the men of Princeton was the nature and authority of Emerson's revelations. That they referred generally to the content of the address as just so much “German insanity” showed their unwillingness to address the issues, much less recognize from what spiritual country the messenger had arrived in their midst. All they knew was that he wasn't from England.
About Richard Geldard
At Faneuil Hall, Boston, June, 2003
Richard Geldard is a full-time writer and lecturer living in New York City and the Hudson Valley. He is married to the artist and writer Astrid Fitzgerald.
Before turning to writing he was an educator, teaching English and philosophy at both the secondary, undergraduate and graduate levels. His most recent appointment was at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpenteria, California, where he taught the Greek Mystery Religions. Prior to that he taught Greek Philosophy and The Science of Mind at Yeshiva College in New York, where he also supervised the General Studies program at the university’s boys' and girls' high schools.
He is a graduate of Bowdoin College, The Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College, and Stanford University, where he earned his doctorate in Dramatic Literature and Classics in 1972. He has also studied at St. John’s College, Oxford.
Geldard is the author of nine books, including studies of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Greek philosophy and culture. He is also a frequent lecturer. In June, 2003, and September, 2003, he was a featured speaker at Faneuil Hall in Boston as part of the Emerson Bicentennial Celebrations. In June, 2005, he was the Keynote speaker at the re-instatement of the Delphic Games in Delphi, Greece.
Dr. Geldard serves on three Boards of Directors: the Ralph Waldo Emerson Institute, the Friends of the Shawangunks and the World Sound Foundation.