Saturday, May 25, 2013

Happy Birthday, Ralph Waldo Emerson

Today is the birthday of Ralph Waldo Emerson, born in 1803, dying in 1882.  While he is never likely to be recognized as a saint, his life changed much of our way of thinking.

When I was a younger undergraduate, I'd have told you that Emerson was important because of his influence on other important thinkers, like Thoreau.  Now that I'm older, I can admit that I would have said that because I didn't know enough about Emerson--and let me stress that I haven't really rectified that situation.  I can write for days about Thoreau, but I'll only be writing this short blog post about Emerson.

This morning, I'm struck by the fact that almost 200 years ago, Emerson thought that the profession of being a minister was antiquated, along with the worship that he saw being done.  People are still saying the same thing today.  Maybe we've always said it.

Emerson may have inclined to make such pronouncements because his wife had just died.  But he continued to make controversial statements, most famously, perhaps, his denial of the divinity of Jesus and his discounting of the miracles.  In most churches today, these statements would still be controversial.

The philosophical tradition with which he's most allied is American Transcendentalism.  These days, a lot of Transcendental beliefs are quite common, but they weren't accepted in the 19th century.  These days, many people might tell me of the inherent goodness of humans.  They might tell me how they see God in everything, which might be more pantheism than Transcendentalism.  Still, these ideas have passed into the popular culture to find widespread acceptance.

Lately I've come to cherish Emerson as an essayist and keeper of the personal journal.  In many ways, every blogger owes a debt to Emerson and his literary movement.

And all of us writing in the U.S. owe a debt to Emerson, who argued fiercely that our literature was every bit as good as British literature, as European literature.

Here are some Emerson quotes to inspire you.

"Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."

“The good news is that the moment you decide that what you know is more important than what you have been taught to believe, you will have shifted gears in your quest for abundance. Success comes from within, not from without.”

“Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for.”

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

And my all-time favorite:

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

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