Ralph Waldo Emerson and His Belief in the Freedom of an Individual

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Over the course of a lifetime, many human beings are faced with challenges that shape them and opportunities to shape others. Ralph Waldo Emerson is a man who experienced much tragedy, including the premature death of many close family members beginning early in his childhood. Growing up, he felt “imprisoned in streets and hindered from the fields and woods amidst the busy commercial activity” (“Ralph Waldo Emerson's Childhood”). These and other occurrences have helped him develop the philosophies he has shared through the use of lectures and poetry. Emerson challenged traditional thought and has become known in the literary world as a major spokesman for both Transcendentalism and Individualism. Within these literary movements, Emerson wrote on several subjects such as religion, slavery, and SOMETHING SOMETHING while exploring the relationship between human beings and nature. His work has influenced others in the nineteenth century such as Henry David Thoreau and continues to influence others today, making him a seminal author.

Early Life

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born May 25th, 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the second of eight children and one of four to survive into adulthood. His father was a Unitarian minister and his mother was a religious woman. Anglican writers and thinkers influenced Emerson and religion became a topic he often pondered. When Emerson was 8 years old, his father died of stomach cancer, leaving his mom to take care of him and his siblings. Poverty was a problem Emerson faced; however, “he was not resentful of their situation, but thought it good discipline that kept his eye on the realities of life and away from frivolity” (“Ralph Waldo Emerson's Childhood”). This way of thinking grew from the difficult situations Emerson faced, and provides an example of how Emerson was shaped. His aunt, Mary Moody Emerson came to live with the family, helping to raise the Emerson children. She became a large influence on Emerson; opening his mind, teaching him aphorisms he went on to use throughout his life, and introducing him to Hinduism.

Emerson began attending school at age 9, though he was taught grammar and reading by his father beginning at age three. He attended Bostin Latin where his literary gifts were recognized. Emerson went on to attend Harvard college where he studied a wide variety of things including history, philosophy, rhetoric, and Greek. During this time, Emerson began keeping journals that he filled with quotations, comments on the books he had read, and works of his own. This led to the series of notebooks Emerson called Wide World.


After graduating from Harvard, Emerson began teaching at his brother’s school for young women in Boston. He soon realized that this was not the path he wished to take and entered the clergy; following the path of his father and grandfather. He attended Harvard Divinity School and was ordained to the Unitarian ministry. Following the death of his first wife, Ellen, at age 19 he left the ministry. Unable to find happiness, he abandoned conventional life.

He set forth on a European trip, where he further developed the beliefs he would later share such as man’s spiritual relationship with nature. On this trip, he met multiple people that helped him become the person he is remembered for. Coleridge, for example, played a role in Emerson’s pursuing of science. Science “attended to merging of body and spirit. It honored the visions of Reason, but not without proving them with evidence compiled by the Understanding. Science… was poetic, uncovering relations between vision and logic, subject and object, mind and matter, energy and form” (Wilson). In this way of thinking, Emerson was able to bring together and share his thoughts; transiting Emerson from a minister giving sermons to an author and lecturer. After returning home in 1833, he also established himself as an influential lecturer. Within the next few years, Emerson settled down in Concord, Massachusetts with his second wife, Lydia. He finally found the quiet domestic life that was lacking in his childhood home. Using the journals, he had accumulated over the years, Emerson began his work on Nature.

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Emerson has written on a variety of subjects using poems, essays, and lectures. One of his most well-known literary works is Wide World; a collection of his journals published after his death. These journals were the starting point for majority of his work. Emerson’s words touched both the minds and hearts of those who gathered to listen to his lectures. Over the course of his life, he gave more than 1,500 lectures across the United States. His early lectures were centered around the nature of spirituality. One of his most famous lectures is The Divinity School Address. This lecture was given as Harvard’s divinity school graduation address. The first set of lectures Emerson managed were focused on the philosophy of history. The lectures that influenced other in his time, continue to affect people today as majority of his lectures have been published in essay form. Emerson’s first published essay is Nature. Here, Emerson explores the relationship between nature and human beings; describing nature’s gifts and lessons. This essay became an important part of the Transcendentalist Club. This work was expanded upon and further discussed in his future works.

What sets Emerson apart from others with similar philosophies is the way he shared his thought; with vividness and imagination. He has a power and unity, that together, stimulate his readers’ imaginations and force them to think beyond the surface. The ability to share his thoughts in a manner that fueled the mind allowed him to not only share his thoughts, but also, influence others. Emerson’s work contains metaphors and…. That force the reader slow down, pause, and think. When the time is taken to consider his work,

Transcendentalism and Individualism

Transcendentalism is an American literary, political, and philosophical movement that was centered around Emerson. Transcendentalists critiqued society for conformity and emphasized the individual’s relationship with nature as well as the idea of individualism. Emerson became involved in this movement partially due to his disagreement with Unitarian thinking; specifically, the argument that miracles prove the truth of Christianity. This questioning, along with the death of his first wife, led to his leaving the ministry. He took his questions and traveled to and around Europe. While traveling, his belief in man’s spiritual relation to nature was confirmed.

Emerson found the answers to his spiritual questioning and started his philosophy in Nature. He spoke and wrote that those who believed in God could understand Him, as well as themselves, by finding and feeling their connection in and to nature. This philosophy was further explored and expanded upon in his later works such as American scholar. Together, Nature and American Scholar led to the gathering of a group that became known as the Transcendentalists. Emerson headed the transcendental club, with his work Nature being a large influencer. This club was involved in the production of a literary magazine called The Dial, which Emerson founded and edited.

In his essay Self-Reliance, Emerson exemplifies the Transcendentalist virtue of Individualism. He argues that people should not conform to societies expectations and listen to one’s own voice, rather than an intermediary’s such as the church. Emerson, along with other transcendentalist writers “established the idea that American literature should have its own concerns and voice and should not simply try to emulate European literature. Emerson's writings… stressed the importance of developing one's own talents and emphasized the importance of cultivating what is great in oneself. By extension, his writings emphasized the importance of developing an American literature that was not concerned with European models” https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/contribution-emerson-thoreau-american-literature-132203. Emerson’s emphasis on the individual touched many generations and influenced the authors that followed him.


Emerson came from a family of ministers and had a childhood centered around God. He spent part of his life preaching at a Unitarian church despite never fully agreeing with the Church’s teachings and beliefs. In his Divinity School Address, he began sharing his views, among them, that while Jesus was a great man, he was not God. Emerson argued that the church elevated the figure of Jesus Christ above the rest of humanity as well as had preachers that failed to connect the audience with God because they preached from an intellectual understanding rather than from experience.

Following this address, through his lectures, works, and further development of transcendentalism, he found that each individual can connect with God through nature. Building from the idea, Emerson explained that not only was God expressed in nature, but human beings are the part of nature that most express God. This powerful recognition requires diving beyond the surface. Along with this, Emerson believed in the moral law that judgement happens now, during a lifetime; each individual should consider his action and the consequences of the action while focusing on the development of their own character. “Emerson also believed in the law of love, that there is some good in everything. In the darkest, meanest things… Perhaps his own greatest act of love toward humanity was to share his ideas in his writings and lectures. Few people have had as much impact on the religious development of America as Ralph Waldo Emerson”. While many disagreed with this approach, his beliefs became the core of New Thought Church.


In his encounters with slavery, Emerson never believed it was right. He believed in the freedom of the individual but did not begin publicly speaking about the issue until congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. Following this act, Emerson took an active role in speaking out against slavery and participated in efforts to bring it to an end. He gave many lectures addressing the issue. Along with this, he gave money to abolitionists and invited African Americans into his home. Sharing his view on slavery involved speaking out against the majority of society and taking a stand for the freedom of each individual. He used the influence he had to share a powerful message.

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