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Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Man for the Ages

Updated on January 26, 2011

Remember sitting in your eleventh grade American literature class on a cold autumn day reading the essay Nature? I do. At the time I was impressed with the American writer's adroit use of the English language, but I was not yet experienced enough to fully appreciate his intriguing messages. The man was Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Recently a collection of his work, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems (edited by Robert D. Richardson Jr.), peered down at me from the local library shelf. I had to respond. Perusing its pages, words I had long forgotten about came rushing back like a refreshing spring breeze after a long Ohio winter. "Heaven walks among us ordinarily muffled in such triple or tenfold disguises that the wisest are deceived and no one suspects the days to be gods." Heavens!

What an elegant way of speaking! So Inspiring! And so relevant and reverent towards the experience of life that we all share yet take for granted. We need someone to remind us of its miracles: nature's capacity for beauty, love's transforming and magnetic power, or the unexpected joy life sometimes brings. After reading Emerson, one seems to appreciate life more.

The Importance of the Individual

Did you know that Ralph Waldo Emerson, born in 1803, is considered to be the greatest mind of the nineteenth century? He was never afraid to walk the talk and stood up to society whenever need be. His great address at the Divinity School in which he rebuked traditional views of religion and so later forfeited his ministry, reflects a fierce independent nature and (ironically) deep love of God.

"Listen to oneself," he would instruct. "Trust thyself," Emerson also wrote, "every heart vibrates to that iron string." He continued on in his essay, Self-Reliance , "There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better or worse as his portion..."


Retreat to the beauty of nature. Make the stars and the trees your classroom he would urge. In his essay, Nature, Emerson states, "In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child. In the woods is perpetual youth." He adds, "In the woods, we return to reason and faith."

Nature's value to each of us can hardly be overstated. Yet, how many individuals, per se, in our population today have experienced nature? We are too frequently, and sometimes on a daily basis, diverted or hijacked by television, sports or movies. A walk in nature can be exhilarating and should not be a sometime event. Enjoy its beauty and mystery.

A Cornucopia of Ideas

So many ideas, so little time to absorb. Reading Emerson is both a pleasure and challenge. Within the covers of his collected works, you will find an abundance of ideas, often succinctly captured in a single sentence. And often reading a single paragraph requires an investment of time to fully understand and appreciate, yet how rewarding!. Here are some profound statements among so many by this wise sage.

From the essay, Circles: "Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm" and "Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning."

From Ethics: "Nothing is so carefully secured as this, that whilst we live we shall learn" and "...we cannot see things that stare us in the face; until the hour arrives when the mind is ripened,--then we behold them, and the time when we saw them not , is like a dream."

In Self-Reliance, Emerson states, "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."

A Man For the Ages

Emerson's value to his contemporaries was just as great then as it is today. His words stimulate our thinking, and thinking is an activity we might want to engage in more often. Are we really encouraged to think for ourselves enough?

If you have not read Ralph Waldo Emerson lately or at all, I invite you to discover his genius. Even as intriguing is the life this man lead, so brilliantly depicted by Robert D. Richardson Jr. in his biography, Emerson: The Mind on Fire.

Emerson was obviously a lover of nature and would have supported the green movement of today. Visit to go green.


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      Dario Calderon  6 years ago

      wow this was great I'm actually, doing a synthesis essay on

      Ralph and Fredrick douglass your essay gave me

      a diverse perspective on the great philosopher

      thanks Mr.

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      Leslie 8 years ago

      What a wonderful essay. I cant wait for a beautiful day to read some Emerson myself. I can only imagine how he would write about nature in today's world. I look forward to going green by visiting your website at! Thank you for sharing!