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Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was an American essayist, lecturer, poet, and philosopher who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. He was a champion of individualism, freedom, and critical thinking, as well as a critic of the social and religious conformity of his time. He influenced many writers and thinkers, such as Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, into a family of Unitarian ministers. He graduated from Harvard College in 1821 and became a Unitarian minister himself in 1829. However, he soon resigned from his position due to his doubts about the validity of miracles and the authority of the Bible. He began to develop his own philosophy of transcendentalism, which emphasized the importance of nature, intuition, and the individual soul as sources of truth and inspiration. He expressed his ideas in his famous essay “Nature” (1836), which is considered the manifesto of transcendentalism.

Emerson also became a prominent public speaker, delivering lectures on various topics such as literature, culture, history, religion, and social reform. His most influential speeches include “The American Scholar” (1837), which urged American intellectuals to create an original and independent culture; “Self-Reliance” (1841), which encouraged people to trust their own judgment and follow their own convictions; and “The divinity School Address” (1838), which challenged the orthodox views of Christianity and advocated for a more spiritual and ethical religion.

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Emerson was also a prolific writer of essays, poems, and books. His essays are considered among the finest examples of American prose, blending eloquence, insight, and wisdom. His poems are marked by lyrical beauty, symbolism, and metaphysical themes. Emerson’s books include Essays: First Series (1841), Essays: Second Series (1844), Representative Men (1850), English Traits (1856), The Conduct of Life (1860), and Society and Solitude (1870).

Emerson’s legacy is immense and enduring. He is widely regarded as one of the most original and influential thinkers in American history. He inspired generations of writers, artists, activists, and reformers who shared his vision of a free, creative, and progressive society.

Emerson’s famous essay “Nature”

In his essay “Nature”, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1836) explores the concepts and ideas of transcendentalism, a movement that promoted the virtues of the natural world and the individual and regarded society and organized religion as corrupting forces. Emerson argues that nature can serve as a source of inspiration and enlightenment for individuals who seek to look beyond the surface of things and perceive its underlying spiritual essence.

He also asserts that nature is not separate from the individual, but instead is an integral part of the self and can be perceived through spiritual intuition. Emerson uses quotes and examples from various sources, such as poetry, philosophy, science, and religion, to illustrate his points and support his claims. For instance, he quotes William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey” to show how nature can elevate the human mind to a state of tranquillity and harmony: “A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things” (Emerson, 1836, p. 10). He also cites examples from his own experience, such as observing the stars, the flowers, and the animals, to demonstrate how nature can reveal the beauty and power of the universe and awaken a sense of reverence and wonder in the human soul. Emerson’s essay “Nature” is considered a seminal work in the American transcendentalist movement, and is often seen as an expression of his philosophical beliefs about the interconnectedness of all things.

The public response to Emerson’s essay was mixed. Some praised his original and poetic vision of nature and his critique of society and organized religion. Others criticized his lack of clarity, coherence, and evidence for his claims. Some also accused him of being too radical, pantheistic, or atheistic in his views. However, Emerson’s essay also influenced many writers, thinkers, and activists who shared his transcendentalist ideals, such as Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and John Muir.

For example, Thoreau was inspired by Emerson’s essay to write his own masterpiece, Walden, which chronicles his two-year experiment of living in a cabin near Walden Pond and observing nature closely. Thoreau also adopted Emerson’s idea of civil disobedience as a form of protest against unjust laws and institutions. Fuller, a feminist and social reformer, applied Emerson’s concept of self-reliance and spiritual intuition to women’s rights and education in her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Whitman, a poet and journalist, celebrated the diversity and vitality of nature and humanity in his epic poem Leaves of Grass. Muir, a naturalist and conservationist, advocated for the preservation of wilderness areas and national parks in America based on Emerson’s reverence for nature.

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Emerson’s essay “Nature” can be seen as a manifesto of the transcendentalist movement that shaped American culture and literature in the nineteenth century. It also offers a timeless message of finding meaning and joy in nature and oneself.

Some quotes from Emerson’s essay that illustrate his points are:

“To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.” (Chapter 1)

“The stars awaken a certain reverence because though always present, they are inaccessible, but all natural objects make a kindred impression when the mind is open to their influence.” (Chapter 1)

“Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection.” (Chapter 1)

“Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood.” (Chapter 1)

“Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the soul.” (Introduction)

“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.” (Chapter 2)

“Beauty is the mark God sets upon virtue.” (Chapter 3)

“Words are signs of natural facts.” (Chapter 4)

“Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact.” (Chapter 4)

“Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us.” (Chapter 5)

“Idealism sees the world in God. It beholds the whole circle of persons and things, of actions and events, of country and religion, not as painfully accumulated…but as one vast picture which God paints on the instant eternity for the contemplation of the soul.” (Chapter 6)

“Spirit is present everywhere…It is one light which beams out of a thousand stars. It is one soul which animates all men.” (Chapter 7)

“The kingdom of man over nature…is founded on the universal impulse to believe…that every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact.” (Chapter 8)

Emerson’s transcendentalism

Emerson’s theory of transcendentalism can be summarized by his famous statement: “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds… A nation of men will for the first time exist because each believes himself inspired by the divine soul which also inspires all men” (Emerson, 1841/1983, p. 68).

Emerson believed that every person has an inner light or a divine spark that connects them to the universal spirit or the Over-soul. He also believed that every person can access this inner light through intuition, imagination, and self-reliance, rather than through reason, logic, or tradition. Emerson encouraged his readers and listeners to trust their own instincts, to follow their own passions, and to live in harmony with nature.

Emerson’s theory of transcendentalism was influenced by various sources, such as the Romantic poets, the German idealists, the Eastern religions, and the American Puritans. He also drew inspiration from his personal experiences, such as his travels to Europe, his friendship with Henry David Thoreau, his involvement in the abolitionist movement, and his grief over the death of his first wife. Emerson’s theory of transcendentalism had a profound impact on American literature and culture, as it challenged the dominant values of conformity, materialism, and rationalism. Some of his most famous works that express his transcendentalist views are Nature (1836), Self-Reliance (1841), The American Scholar (1837), The divinity School Address (1838), The Poet (1844), and Representative Men (1850).

One of the key concepts of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s theory of transcendentalism is the belief in the infinite potential of the human soul. Emerson argued that every person has an innate connection to the divine, which he called the Over-soul, and that this connection can be accessed through intuition, nature, and self-reliance. He wrote, “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” (Emerson, 1841, p. 184).

Another key concept of Emerson’s transcendentalism is the idea of individualism. Emerson rejected the authority of established institutions, such as churches, schools, and governments, and urged people to trust their own judgment and experience. He believed that each person has a unique perspective and a unique contribution to make to society. He wrote, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist” (Emerson, 1841, p. 175). Furthermore, he also encouraged people to pursue their own interests and passions, regardless of social norms or expectations. He wrote, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, —that is genius” (Emerson, 1841, p. 174).

A third key concept of Emerson’s transcendentalism is the appreciation of nature. Emerson saw nature as a manifestation of the Over-soul, a source of inspiration and wisdom, and a means of spiritual communion. He wrote, “In the woods we return to reason and faith” (Emerson, 1836, p. 10). He also saw nature as a symbol of the human spirit, reflecting its moods, changes, and growth. Furthermore, he wrote, “Nature always wears the colours of the spirit” (Emerson, 1836, p. 12). Additionally, he saw nature as a teacher of moral lessons and ethical principles. He wrote, “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact” (Emerson, 1836, p. 20).

These concepts of transcendentalism have attained acceptance among many people who value spirituality, creativity, individuality, and environmentalism. Emerson’s influence can be seen in various movements and fields, such as literature, philosophy, religion, education, social reform, art, and science.

The divinity School Address

The divinity School Address, delivered by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1838, is a critique of the institutionalized religion and a call for a more personal and intuitive connection with the divine. Emerson argues that the true source of religious authority is not the church, the Bible, or the clergy, but the individual soul that can perceive the universal spirit in nature and in oneself. He says, “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” (Emerson, 1838, p. 13).

He also challenges the traditional doctrines of miracles, revelation, and original sin, and asserts that every person has the potential to become a “revealer” of truth and a “miracle” of moral power. He urges his audience, who were graduates of Harvard divinity School, to trust their own spiritual experience and to preach with courage and conviction. Emerson concludes, “Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity” (Emerson, 1838, p. 31).

The American Scholar

“The American Scholar” was first delivered as a lecture in 1837. In this work, Emerson reflects on the role and responsibilities of the American scholar in society. He argues that the American scholar should strive to be independent, self-reliant, and guided by their own intuition and judgment. He also notes that the American scholar should reject the European tradition of blindly accepting authority and instead seek to embrace new ideas and perspectives.

Emerson divides his essay into three main sections: nature, books, and action. In the first section, he discusses how nature influences the mind of the scholar and provides a source of inspiration and knowledge. He writes, “Nature is the first in time (since it is always present) and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind” (Emerson, 1837, p. 4). He urges the scholar to observe nature closely and to learn from its laws and symbols.

In the second section, he examines how books influence the scholar and how they should be used. He acknowledges that books are valuable as they contain the wisdom of the past, but he warns against relying too much on them and losing one’s originality. He writes, “Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings” (Emerson, 1837, p. 9). He advises the scholar to use books as a means of stimulating his own thoughts and not as a substitute for them.

In the third section, he explores how action influences the scholar and how it relates to experience. He asserts that action is essential for the scholar as it enables him to apply his knowledge and to test his theories. He writes, “Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth” (Emerson, 1837, p. 13). He also emphasizes that action should be accompanied by reflection and self-criticism, as these are necessary for the scholar to grow and improve.

Emerson concludes his essay by outlining the duties of the American scholar who has become “Man Thinking” rather than “a mere thinker”. He calls for the scholar to be courageous, honest, creative, and influential in shaping a distinct American culture and identity. He writes, “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe…. We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds…. A nation of men will for the first time exist because each believes himself inspired by the divine soul which also inspires all men” (Emerson, 1837, p. 15).


Self-Reliance is an essay that argues for the importance of individualism and self-trust in the face of social conformity and institutional authority. Emerson claims that “whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist” (1841, para. 3) and that “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” (1841, para. 4). He urges his readers to follow their own intuition and genius, rather than imitating others or obeying external rules.

Emerson illustrates his points with examples from history, literature, and nature, such as Socrates, Jesus, Galileo, Shakespeare, and the rose. He also criticizes the negative effects of society on the individual, such as envy, imitation, consistency, and reliance on the past. He concludes by affirming that “nothing can bring you peace but yourself” (1841, para. 50) and that “the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude” (1841, para. 51).


Emerson, R. W. (1841). Self-reliance. In Essays: First series.

Emerson, R.W. (1837). The American Scholar. Retrieved from

Emerson, R. W. (1838). An address delivered before the senior class in divinity College, Cambridge. Retrieved from

Emerson, R.W. (1836). Nature. Retrieved from

Emerson, R.W. (1841). Essays: First Series. Retrieved from

Emerson, R.W. (1983). Essays: First Series. In R.E. Spiller & A.R. Ferguson (Eds.), The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Volume II (pp. 3-184). Cambridge: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1841)

Emerson, R.W. (1994). Nature; Addresses, and Lectures. In J.E. Cabot & A.R. Ferguson (Eds.), The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo

Emerson: Volume I (pp. 3-238). Cambridge: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1836)

Emerson, R. W. (2009a). Nature. In J. Porte & S. E. Whicher (Eds.), Emerson: Essays and lectures (pp. 1-45). Library of America. (Original work published 1836)

Emerson, R. W. (2009b). The American scholar. In J. Porte & S. E. Whicher (Eds.), Emerson: Essays and lectures (pp. 51-71). Library of America. (Original work published 1837)

Emerson, R.W. (1983). Essays & Lectures. New York: Library of America.

Packer, B.L. (2007). The Transcendentalists. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Ralph Waldo Emerson. Wikipedia (2023). Retrieved from

Ralph Waldo Emerson | Biography, Poems, Books, Nature … Britannica (2023). In Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Retrieved from

Richardson Jr., R.D. (1995). Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wordsworth, W. (1798). Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey. In Lyrical ballads, with a few other poems (pp. 39-49). J. & A. Arch.


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