Emerson: both dynamite and the breath of life

Sunday, April 30, 2006

My friend Dave Garland stops in, on his way to do the Guidelines program at TMI, and delivers me a great gift, Bliss Perry’s The Heart of Emerson’s Journals, read so long ago as to be again new. Browsing it – how nice. Emerson wrote, “One thing is certain: the religions are obsolete when the reforms do not proceed from them.” Reading in it reminds me of brother Smallwood’s description a while ago of Emerson’s effect on the young men of his day.

Emerson was an ordained minister, the son of generations of ordained ministers, born into the very highest levels of society in Boston – which then meant New England . From this position conscience and circumstance dynamited him into a new and wider orbit.

His first wife – his first love — died of TB after only a couple of years of marriage. And, after a bit, Emerson, still a young man, felt obliged by conscience to resign his position with his church. He went off to Europe at age 29, spending several months there. Aboard ship, coming home to neither wife nor profession nor settled place, Emerson wrote “[I] wish I knew where and how I ought to live. God will show me.” A couple of days later, in September 1833, age 30, he wrote this:

“I believe that the error of religionists lies in this, that they do not know the extent or the harmony or the depth of their moral nature; that they are clinging to little, positive, verbal, formal versions of the moral law, and very imperfect versions too, while the infinite laws, the laws of the Law, the great circling truths whose only adequate symbol is the material laws, the astronomy, etc., are all unobserved, and sneered at when spoken of, as frigid and insufficient. I call Calvinism such an imperfect version of the moral law. Unitarianism is another, and every form of Christian and of Pagan faith in the hands of incapable teachers is such a version. On the contrary, in the hands of a true Teacher, the falsehoods, the pitifulnesses, the sectarianisms of each are dropped, and the sublimity and the depth of the Original is penetrated and exhibited….”

That is what he meant by self-reliance! Not ego and self-assertion, but finding the place within us in which to stand, and standing there, and not being swayed by the opinion of all mankind if it meet not resonance from within.

Ten years later he says (and not just about Calvinism, of course):

“It is not in the power of God to make a communication of his will to a Calvinist. For to every inward revelation he holds up his silly book , and quotes chapter and verse against the Book-Maker and Man-Maker, against that which quotes not, but is and cometh. There is a light older than intellect, by which the intellect lives and works, always new, and which degrades every past and particular shining of itself. This light, Calvinism denies, in its idolatry of a certain past shining.”

A dozen years later, in 1855, nearly 52 years old, he makes this entry:

“Munroe [his publisher and friend] seriously asked what I believed of Jesus and prophets. I said, as so often, that it seemed to me an impiety to be listening to one and another, when the pure Heaven was pouring itself into each of us, on the simple condition of obedience. To listen to any second-hand gospel is perdition of the First Gospel. Jesus was Jesus because he refused to listen to another, and listened at home.”

Can you perhaps see just from these fragments why this man was dynamite to whatever was old and rotten, and seemed the very breath of life to the young at heart?

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