“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Think about Emerson in context… what occurred before him that influenced him… how he used the flow of universal thought to create New Thought and transcendentalism… and our world today. How Emerson changed who we are and yet to become in the universal sense of man’s role both in nature and our own.
How did Emerson become so influential and have such a lasting influence of American thought and ideals? His ideas that became known as transcendentalism not only changed the direction of budding “American” values and thought in the 1840’s and 50’s to ultimately change the world. His “New Thought” served as the confluence of understanding how the universe – and man’s ultimate role in it fit together as one. The idea of moving beyond what we think we know and freedom to enter into what I like to call “the spirit of wonder” … and what can take others there was his forte. For Emerson, the discovery or adding to the knowledge – the wisdom we each possess – seemed to strike directly into his core. What was the “innate nature of man”. What is it that defines us and more importantly when we have an idea of what that is, then how do we become this? Emerson was able to take the next step that few had the sense to go but would if they knew how.
When thinking about the times in which people live, I try to think about what influenced them in their own thinking and writing. What I would have been doing at the time. Who would have influenced my own writing had I been the ultimate storyteller of the day… the chronicler of events on behalf of the universe – so to speak. Opening both my conscious and unconscious (what we innately know without thinking) mind to universal thought that transcended what may have been taken for granted as the status quo, and my role in challenging authority that always seems present and so self-serving. It’s why I loved the writing of Patrick Henry of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame, or my dear friend Chuang Tzu of the famous butterfly dream who loved to challenge the structure, status quo, and authority embedded in Confucian thought in ancient China.
Even the character in the movie “Braveheart” who went to his death shouting FREEDOM, along with so many more throughout history who chose to brave the storm. I would have always been alongside shouting “ya me too”! It’s as if Emerson was there too.
All three would have been known and admired and had tremendous influence on Ralph Waldo Emerson as he became the premier writer, essayist, and orator of his time. Emerson knew that we shape our actions through our thoughts and most importantly how we share them with others, so why not know the role we are here to play.
Illustration of Emerson’s transparent eyeball metaphor in “Nature” by Christopher Pearse Cranch, 1836-1838. For Emerson the eyeball was to be absorbent not reflective, as if to absorb all one finds in nature.
What was he thinking? Who is it that influenced him and us as we move through our day? For myself, Emerson’s role in history was/continues to be to take us to places we would not otherwise go by discovering and knowing ourselves and deciding to stay present there within.
Emerson used spirituality as a major theme in his famous essay, Nature. Mainly to convey his thoughts of his day. He believed in re-imagining the divine as something large and visible, which he referred to as nature; such an idea is known as transcendentalism, in which one perceives both God and themselves as one as we become one with our surroundings.
Emerson exemplified what was to become known as transcendentalism, stating, “From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake its rapid transformations: the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind, postulating that humans and wind are one.” He seemed to always be asking… “Who is it that will take the next step with these principles I am here to relay going forward?”
I often think of the aspect of nature as our own involvement as to how we (each of us) evolve. I often see myself in meditation rising a thousand feet in the air as if prepared to travel on the breeze or wind asking only… where do I go today as if I have seen and done it all before returning to the places and companions I’ve always known and lived and loved. Seeing reflections of ourselves not only in the present, but as our eternal nature over time.
What was Emerson reading that influenced his thinking and writing as if he too was traveling on that wind as well. He devoured all philosophies, thoughts, and ideas that were available to him, as if there was a need to continue this flow of ideas – this wisdom and a freedom of thought that needed to be better understood, expanded on, and most importantly put into action.
Plato, Master Eckhardt, Kant, Confucius, the Bhagavad Gita, and so many more over time whose voices deserved to be repeated as a reminder of our collective responsibility to Nature… especially our own. That freedom, virtue and nature are one and the same. That freedom depends on the quality of attention that we bring to our interactions. Only to the extent that we can be fully engaged and present with ourselves, with our children, and with each other, are we free. It was as if Emerson had been designated by those before him to tell and convey universal truth. Giving us and others the comfort to go there. Permission to rise up as say – even to shout – there is a better way. He transformed us into what we could become by following the innate nature and virtue within who we have always been and that there is nothing to fear in going there. It was here – to this place – that we are destined to follow when we too rise up to become our true selves, to become present, and catch the winds of eternity.
It would be Emerson who provided the benchmark – the cornerstone for all who would follow in what would become known as “New Thought”. It was from his writing and ideas that Emilie Cady, a homeopathic physician and author would write Lessons in Truth, A Course of Twelve Lessons in Practical Christianity that is now considered one of the core texts of Unity teachings. It is the most widely read book in Unity and has sold over 1.6 million copies since its first publication.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was an Italian philosopher, writer and composer. His political philosophy influenced the progress of the Enlightenment throughout Europe, as well as aspects of the French Revolution and the development of modern political, economic and educational thought. Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract, written in the 1750’s, is a corner-stones in modern political and social thought.
It was Rousseau, Emerson was inspired by and thinking about, when expounding on Rousseau’s writings on “the inherent rights and responsibilities of Man” and his desire to express this idea to thousands in speeches he gave across early America. He was a master orator and spoke eloquently about this passion for man’s eternal intent to find himself. For me, to connect with Emerson I must go back to his take on human nature and thoughts of the undefined – of what becoming transcendental meant to him. Having freedom to be “undefined as such”, so that we may define ourselves in conformity with our essence, our true nature. First and foremost, Emerson was all about showing the way for others. With Emerson we could all aspire to become the sage, once we find our innate nature and go there.
What was it that took Gandhi, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., to places they would not have otherwise gone as they inspired millions to seek freedom for themselves so that they too could find and nurture their eternal virtue and nature? It was by showing the way. It was the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, New Thought, and transcendentalism that had taken them there. When we think and speak of Joseph Campbell and the “hero’s journey and discovering our bliss”, looking to our source and search of our soul – it begins with knowing our history of who we have always been but forgotten. It is as if Emerson was leaving a trail, he himself had found to follow and knew the way forward knowing our past would continue to evolve into something greater beyond who we are at the present moment. He spoke to the vibrations intoned by those who had preceded him that remains constant, never-ending, and resides in nature… as the natural rhythm – that our collective universal soul sings to.
I go back to Lao Tzu and the basic premise behind the Te Tao Ching that exemplified man’s connection to nature and our responsibility to it. I am drawn to something I wrote almost twenty years ago from a verse in my own published book about the Tao Te Ching that helps to expand on this idea of connection between universal nature we find in both our surroundings and innately within ourselves. From the book I wrote about the Tao Te Ching in 2000 that was published in China in 2006:
Verse 63 – Becoming a Sanctuary to all you meet
The sage acknowledges and understands that there is nothing that is not in keeping with the Tao.
Especially true is that the Tao resides in each of us. Thus, in showing the way the sage is good at saving and directing those around him, while abandoning no one. Since the sage in essence is simply the embodiment of the Tao, abandoning or leaving behind another person could or would never enter his mind.
The Sanctuary within Oneself TianHou Palace Temple Qingdao
The sage’s surroundings are illustrative of how he sees his place in the ten thousand things. As though he is seen creating a sanctuary that reflects his innermost sense of who he is yet to become. Kind and reflective, still yet expansive, he competes with no one and no one competes with him. His strengths and weaknesses have become razor sharp as he uses them to cut through what is perceived to be truth and falsehood. While he remains on the edge pushing others to places, they would not otherwise go, he leaves no foothold for those who would follow except by accepting and following the Tao.
When he himself becomes the sanctuary for others to take refuge and follow, finding the comfort only found in the expression of the Tao, he is reminded that he who searches will find it and those who don’t only escape to wait until another day. (written June 2000)
Emerson referred to nature as the “Universal Being”; he believed that there was a spiritual sense of the natural world around him. Depicting this sense of “Universal Being”, Emerson states, “The aspect of nature is devout. Like the figure of Jesus, she stands with bended head, and hands folded upon the breast. The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship”. He was seen as a champion of individualism and a prescient critic of the countervailing pressures of society, and he disseminated his thoughts through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States. Emerson gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of transcendentalism in his 1836 essay “Nature“. Excerpts are below.
Introduction of Nature
Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres (the tombs containing relics of martyrs or even perhaps a structure or recess in some old church in which in Eucharist was deposited with ceremonies on Good Friday and taken out at Easter in commemoration of Christ’s entombment and Resurrection) of the fathers.
It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.
Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?
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. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.
Whoever considers the final cause of the world, will discern a multitude of uses that result. They all admit of being thrown into one of the following classes;
Commodity; Beauty; Language; and Discipline.
Under the general name of Commodity, I rank all those advantages which our senses owe to nature. This, of course, is a benefit which is temporary and mediate, not ultimate, like its service to the soul. Yet although low, it is perfect in its kind, and is the only use of nature which all men apprehend. The misery of man appears like childish petulance, when we explore the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for his support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens. What angels invented these splendid ornaments, these rich conveniences, this ocean of air above, this ocean of water beneath, this firmament of earth between? this zodiac of lights, this tent of dropping clouds, this striped coat of climates, this fourfold year? Beasts, fire, water, stones, and corn serve him. The field is at once his floor, his work-yard, his play-ground, his garden, and his bed.
“More servants wait on man
Than he’ll take notice of.”
Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man. The useful arts are reproductions or new combinations by the wit of man, of the same natural benefactors.
Beauty Of Nature
A nobler want of man is served by nature, namely, the love of Beauty.
The ancient Greeks called the world cosmos (kosmos), beauty. Such is the constitution of all things, or such the plastic power of the human eye, that the primary forms, as the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us a delight in and for themselves; a pleasure arising from outline, color, motion, and grouping. This seems partly owing to the eye itself. The eye is the best of artists. By the mutual action of its structure and of the laws of light, perspective is produced, which integrates every mass of objects, of what character soever, into a well colored and shaded globe, so that where the particular objects are mean and unaffecting, the landscape which they compose, is round and symmetrical.
And as the eye is the best composer, so light is the first of painters. There is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful. And the stimulus it affords to the sense, and a sort of infinitude which it hath, like space and time, make all matter gay. Even the corpse has its own beauty. But besides this general grace diffused over nature, almost all the individual forms are agreeable to the eye, as is proved by our endless imitations of some of them, as the acorn, the grape, the pine-cone, the wheat-ear, the egg, the wings and forms of most birds, the lion’s claw, the serpent, the butterfly, sea-shells, flames, clouds, buds, leaves, and the forms of many trees, as the palm.
Language is a third use which Nature sub-serves to man. Nature is the vehicle, and threefold degree.
1. Words are signs of natural facts.
2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.
3. Nature is the symbol of spirit.
1. Words are signs of natural facts. The use of natural history is to give us aid in supernatural history: the use of the outer creation, to give us language for the beings and changes of the inward creation.
Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance. Just as the ancient idea of the balance found on opposite sides of the ridge pole. In the end, nature taught that it was “complimentary opposites” that created the balance needed for all to prosper and survive.
Right means straight; wrong means twisted. Spirit primarily means wind; transgression, the crossing of a line; supercilious, the raising of the eyebrow. We say the heart to express emotion, the head to denote thought; and thought and emotion are words borrowed from sensible things, and now appropriated to spiritual nature.
Most of the process by which this transformation is made, is hidden from us in the remote time when language was framed; but the same tendency may be daily observed in children. Children and savages use only nouns or names of things, which they convert into verbs, and apply to analogous mental acts.
In view of the significance of nature, we arrive at once at a new fact, that nature is a discipline. This use of the world includes the preceding uses, as parts of itself.
Space, time, society, labor, climate, food, locomotion, the animals, the mechanical forces, give us sincerest lessons, day by day, whose meaning is unlimited. They educate both the Understanding and the Reason. Every property of matter is a school for the understanding, — its solidity or resistance, its inertia, its extension, its figure, its divisibility. The understanding adds, divides, combines, measures, and finds nutriment and room for its activity in this worthy scene. Meantime, Reason transfers all these lessons into its own world of thought, by perceiving the analogy that marries Matter and Mind.
Thus is the unspeakable but intelligible and practicable meaning of the world conveyed to man, the immortal pupil, in every object of sense. To this one end of Discipline, all parts of nature conspire.
A noble doubt perpetually suggests itself, whether this end be not the Final Cause of the Universe; and whether nature outwardly exists.
It is a sufficient account of that Appearance we call the World, that God will teach a human mind, and so makes it the receiver of a certain number of congruent sensations, which we call sun and moon, man and woman, house and trade. In my utter impotence to test the authenticity of the report of my senses, to know whether the impressions they make on me correspond with outlying objects, what difference does it make, whether Orion is up there in heaven, or some god paints the image in the firmament of the soul? The relations of parts and the end of the whole remaining the same, what is the difference, whether land and sea interact, and worlds revolve and intermingle without number or end, — deep yawning under deep, and galaxy balancing galaxy, throughout absolute space, — or, whether, without relations of time and space, the same appearances are inscribed in the constant faith of man? Whether nature enjoy a substantial existence without, or is only in the apocalypse of the mind, it is alike useful and alike venerable to me. Be it what it may, it is ideal to me, so long as I cannot try the accuracy of my senses.
It is essential to a true theory of nature and of man, that it should contain somewhat progressive. Uses that are exhausted or that may be, and facts that end in the statement, cannot be all that is true of this brave lodging wherein man is harbored, and wherein all his faculties find appropriate and endless exercise.
And all the uses of nature admit of being summed in one, which yields the activity of man an infinite scope. Through all its kingdoms, to the suburbs and outskirts of things, it is faithful to the cause whence it had its origin. It always speaks of Spirit. It suggests the absolute. It is a perpetual effect. It is a great shadow pointing always to the sun behind us.
The aspect of nature is devout. Like the figure of Jesus, she stands with bended head, and hands folded upon the breast. The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship.
Of that ineffable essence which we call Spirit, he that thinks most, will say least. We can foresee God in the coarse, and, as it were, distant phenomena of matter; but when we try to define and describe himself, both language and thought desert us, and we are as helpless as fools and savages. That essence refuses to be recorded in propositions, but when man has worshiped him intellectually, the noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God. It is the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to lead back the individual to it.
Man the Reformer / Prospects
In inquiries respecting the laws of the world and the frame of things, the highest reason is always the truest. That which seems faintly possible — it is so refined, is often faint and dim because it is deepest seated in the mind among the eternal verities. Empirical science is apt to cloud the sight, and, by the very knowledge of functions and processes, to bereave the student of the manly contemplation of the whole. The savant becomes unpoetic. But the best read naturalist who lends an entire and devout attention to truth, will see that there remains much to learn of his relation to the world, and that it is not to be learned by any addition or subtraction or other comparison of known quantities, but is arrived at by untaught sallies of the spirit, by a continual self-recovery, and by entire humility. He will perceive that there are far more excellent qualities in the student than preciseness and infallibility; that a guess is often more fruitful than an indisputable affirmation, and that a dream may let us deeper into the secret of nature than a hundred concerted experiments.
For, the problems to be solved are precisely those which the physiologist and the naturalist omit to state. It is not so pertinent to man to know all the individuals of the animal kingdom, as it is to know whence and whereto is this tyrannizing unity in his constitution, which evermore separates and classifies things, endeavoring to reduce the most diverse to one form. When I behold a rich landscape, it is less to my purpose to recite correctly the order and superposition of the strata, than to know why all thought of multitude is lost in a tranquil sense of unity