New England Humanism Part 3: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Like Melville, Emerson also sought to escape completely from the Christian heritage of New England. But rather than speaking of a return to paganism, Emerson argued that each generation is able to directly apprehend divine truth through its own experience, thus making religious tradition unnecessary. In his famous essay Nature (1836) Emerson writes,

“Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.”
(Nature, James Munroe and Company, Boston, 1836, page 5-6)

In saying this Emerson is assuming that fallen man can detect religious truth through the general revelation of God in nature, and that there is therefore no need for the special revelation of God in Christ or in the Holy Scriptures. This claim seems to be absurd given the staggering variety of religions, law codes and philosophies that fallen man has invented for himself, and it is also contradicted by Scripture itself. While it is true that “the eternal power and Godhead” are seen in “the things that are made” (Romans 1:20), this does not mean that the divinely inspired law code or the Gospel message can be deduced from nature by the intellect of fallen man. Rather the Bible declares that God has revealed the law only to one particular group, “He sheweth his word unto Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation: and as for his judgments, they have not known them” (Psalm 147:19-20), and that the Gospel cannot be known to the nations unless the Church sends forth preachers, “whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:13-14). Emerson’s demand that each generation receive its own unique, direct revelation from God can only lead to each generation radically altering law and morality, something that we have indeed seen in the last century.

Emerson claims that this direct perception of God is best achieved when spending time in nature, and he describes his experience of communing with God or “the Universal Being” while walking in the woods.

“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. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances,—master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.”
(ibid., pages 12-13)

Emerson is certainly mistaken in thinking that these feelings that he experiences in the woods are purely “natural” and not dependent on any prior cultural development. These feelings are obviously those of an imaginative, mystically inclined post-Christian New Englander of the 19th century who has recently studied Hinduism. I doubt very much that the Indian savages who inhabited those woods prior to English colonization experienced faux-Hindu feelings of being “uplifted into infinite space” or becoming “a transparent eye-ball” while hunting for game. The fact that our prior cultural experiences and religious and philosophical instruction determine how we experience and process God’s creation is a strong argument against Emerson’s claim that any generation or individual can directly perceive religious truth. And because prior religious instruction is indispensable for interpreting the world, in order to have any grasp of the truth we must be sure that our religious instruction is based on the infallible, special revelation of God.

Later on in the same essay Emerson further reveals his dependence on Hinduism and other forms of paganism by claiming an essential identity between God and the human soul. In Hindu terminology this is expressed by saying that Atman (the human soul) is Brahman (the supreme principle). The only thing that separates Atman from Brahman is the forgetfulness of Atman. Once an individual soul remembers his essential identity with the supreme principle, he has reached spiritual enlightenment.

“Man is the dwarf of himself. Once he was permeated and dissolved by spirit. He filled nature with his overflowing currents. Out from him sprang the sun and moon; from man, the sun; from woman, the moon. The laws of his mind, the periods of his actions externized themselves into day and night, into the year and the seasons. But, having made for himself this huge shell, his waters retired; he no longer fills the veins and veinlets; he is shrunk to a drop. He sees, that the structure still fits him, but fits him colossally. Say, rather, once it fitted him, now it corresponds to him from far and on high. He adores timidly his own work. Now is man the follower of the sun, and woman the follower of the moon. Yet sometimes he starts in his slumber, and wonders at himself and his house, and muses strangely at the resemblance betwixt him and it. He perceives that if his law is still paramount, if still he have elemental power, if his word is sterling yet in nature, it is not conscious power, it is not inferior but superior to his will. It is Instinct.”
(ibid., pages 88-89)

The end result of conflating the human soul with God is claiming that man possesses the divine attributes. In this passage Emerson even dares to assert that the sun and moon sprang from man, and that the laws of the mind of man, not God, have determined the rhythms of nature. For Emerson man is the sovereign creator, not the transcendent God of the Bible. This belief in the godhood of man has an important connection with Emerson’s violent and revolutionary political beliefs. After all, if the laws of nature are ultimately based on the mind of man, then surely man can remake the world in his own image.

Despite Hinduism’s deep theological errors, this religion did lead to a very stable and hierarchical society. Although he uses Hinduism in his attack on the Christian order, Emerson is no true Hindu, just as Melville is no true pagan savage. Emerson merely appropriates certain Hindu ideas in order to advance his own anti-traditional agenda, showing once again that the white liberal does not really respect the ideas and beliefs of foreign cultures. Emerson was a strong advocate of abolitionism and he was even a supporter of the violent terrorist John Brown. In speaking of his sympathy for Brown, Emerson says,

“I am not a little surprised at the easy effrontery with which political gentlemen, in and out of Congress, take it upon them to say that there are not a thousand men in the North who sympathize with John Brown. It would be far safer and nearer the truth to say that all people, in proportion to their sensibility and self respect, sympathize with him. For it is impossible to see courage, and disinterestedness, and the love that casts out fear, without sympathy.”

When describing the love of God, the apostle John writes “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18). Emerson, who as we have seen clearly has no respect for the Bible, blasphemously attributes this sublime love of God to a terrorist and murderer. His blend of traditional spirituality and modern social concerns is characteristic of the religion of both the New England humanists and today’s white liberals, as this religion is a hodge-podge of paganism, eastern mysticism and secular “progressivism” used to justify violent revolution, all done in the name of “equality.”


  1. Tim Folke

    I have read a number of Emerson’s writings. My impression is that the man was undoubtedly brilliant and in full command of an extensive vocabulary.

    Having said that, I also feel he had some serious blind spots spiritually. I continued for some time to try and decipher where exactly he was coming from, but as time went on the Holy Spirit gave me stronger and stronger ‘checks’ when reading Emerson, and so I finally set his writings aside.

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