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The Character of Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Living Legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s friend, Frederic Henry Hedge, once wrote that Emerson’s character was “marked by absolute sincerity, independent judgment, and the freshness of original thought. His aim is not to set forth in conventional phrase the prevailing sentiment of his time, not to voice the accepted doctrine of ’good society,’ but to face what ’the brooding soul’ has revealed to him of the meaning of life.” Emerson was an individualist, thoroughly self-reliant. He went his own way with calm courage. “The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity,” he once wrote. Emerson imitated no one.

His life was marked by a stern integrity and a high sense of duty. “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think,” he said. A fundamentally shy man, Emerson disliked turmoil. Yet, it hounded him the more he published and spoke. “We know the truth when we see it, let the skeptic and scoffer say what they choose….Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.” “Nothing,” he wrote, “is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”

The Law of Compensation was central to his thinking; by it he meant that there is a basic justice to the world—a moral law which is inherent in the nature of the universe. “I have confidence in the laws of morality as in the laws of botany….I believe that justice produces justice, and injustice injustice.” The Reverend Edward Augustus Horton, one of Emerson’s successors at the Second Church in Boston, wrote, “His mind was a magnet that drew only those forms of thought that embodied ethics and correspondences, and eternal laws.”

Emerson was obsessed with the notion that the whole duty of man was to seize the opportunities given to him and to make the most of them. How much opportunity a man had was of no importance. What marked the man was what he did with those opportunities he possessed. For Emerson, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” In fact, he did not know how to stop working. His habit of writing outlived his capacity to write. He kept accepting engagements, rearranging old talks for new occasions. He lectured even after his eyes failed. There was nothing lazy about him, and this eternal optimist always saw life as an endless supply of adventures.

He was fair, open-minded, and courteous to all. He struggled throughout his life with a sense of unworthiness, but he was always called “Mr. Emerson” even by intimate friends. Intellectual stimulation was his life-blood. “When shall I be tired of reading?’ he asked. “When the moon is tired of waxing and waning, when the sea is tired of ebbing and flowing, when the grass is weary of growing, when the planets are tired of going.” He was thoroughly educated in the classics, and wrote with competence in areas of science, art, music, architecture, sculpture, and painting. He was the master of numerous languages including Greek, Latin, Italian, German, and French. He was an accomplished philosopher and an early student of comparative religions. He knew politics, public affairs, and economics. His gifts, and his opportunities, were numerous. Indeed, he made the most of them.

“Of all the distinguished men I have known, Emerson was the one who lived nearest the truth. He was truth’s next neighbor, and there was nothing between. In my lifelong converse with him, I could detect nothing between him and the truth,—not only no hypocrisy or pretense, but no willfulness, no vanity, no art to win applause, not even ambition, ’that last infirmity of noble minds.’”  —Frederic Henry Hedge

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Categories: Biographies, Cambridge & Harvard, Unitarian Universalist History