Emerson and I are old friends.
I first discovered him during the summer of 2009, when I took an indefinite break to connect with my self… Those little lulls in life that serve as nice, recuperative periods. Over the subsequent years, I have found plenty of answers in his Essays.
Emerson embraced change like no other poet. The great American writer devoted his young adulthood to studying Christian theology, and trained to be a Unitarian Minister at the Harvard Divinity School. It was the same path his forefathers had trod ever since the seventeenth century. On January 11th 1829, he was ordained to serve as the junior pastor at Boston’s Second Church.
He didn’t last long. Emerson had a very strong Christian faith, but found himself in disagreement with some of the church’s methods and general practices at the time. He made the following journal entry in 1832: “I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated… I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.”
Emerson was particularly disturbed by his first experience of slavery a few years earlier. On a visit to St. Augustine in Florida, he attended a meeting of the Bible Society, while a slave auction was taking place in the adjoining yard outside. In the journal he kept during his stay, Emerson wrote, “One ear therefore heard the glad tidings of great joy, whilst the other was regaled with ‘Going, gentlemen, going!’” He couldn’t reconcile racial discrimination with Christian teachings.
Emerson fought for change his whole life. He was staunchly opposed to slavery and believed in the immediate emancipation of the slaves. At the end of January in 1862, he gave a public lecture at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., where he declared: “The South calls slavery an institution. I call it destitution… Emancipation is the demand of civilization. I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom.”
Emerson’s social and religious views were often considered radical at the time. He felt the countervailing pressures of society had broken the relationship between the soul and the surrounding world. He believed the presence of God is not to be found only in heaven, but also here on earth. For Emerson, the divine was present and accessible in all things, especially in nature and in the heart of the fellowman.
Small wonder that Emerson’s central doctrine was “the infinitude of the private man.” He published his thoughts in a series of essays, and would eventually travel across the country, giving as many as 80 lectures a year. His ground-breaking work greatly influenced the thinkers, writers and poets that followed him, particularly Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau.
Emerson was a true global macro poet. He scoured the world for best ideas and opened himself gladly to differentiating viewpoints. Throughout his life, he took a particular interest in the religious writings of the East. He was an earnest student of a wide variety of books on Eastern philosophy, religion, history and poetry. He was deeply moved by “the sentiment of piety, which stoic and Chinese, Muslim and Hindu labor to awaken.”
Young sociologist Dr. Craig Considine highlights Emerson’s affection for Eastern philosophy:
“On several different occasions, Emerson singled out the Bhagavat Gita, which to him was “an empire of thought” and “the voice of an old intelligence.” Emerson, however, did not limit his non-Christian exploration to Hindu scripture. He also translated roughly 700 lines of Persian poetry, most of which was written by the Sufi poet Hafiz, whom he described as “one of the great writers.” Emerson was not afraid of turning to Muslims in the hope of gaining knowledge. His inquest into Islamic writings makes Emerson one of the leading American philosophers who encouraged his fellow citizens to understand others through reading and research. In his remarkable lecture “Religion” in 1836, Emerson even portrayed Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, as among a class of heroes who pursued virtue rather than “worldly riches.” In his essay “Essential Principles of Religion,” Emerson shows his appreciation for other religious traditions by stating that there have been noble saints among “the Buddhist, the Muslim, the highest stoic of Athens, the purest and wisest Christian…” He added that if these saints “could meet somewhere and converse, they would all find themselves of one religion,” which reminds us of Emerson’s belief in the oneness of humanity.”
Emerson believed that all religions have great value and are thus more similar to one another than they are dissimilar. Yet, even during his time, Emerson felt that: “We are now so far from the road to truth, that religious teachers dispute and hate each other.” I wonder what he would he think if he saw the world in its present condition.
What we need now more than ever is for people to embrace Emerson’s thoughts on religious tolerance and spiritual understanding. Unless we change, things will not change; and the disharmony of the world—caused by the ever-growing chasm between the West and the East—will only get worse.