Emerson on Man as the standard of truth


Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was a man of his times — almost comically so. Yet the enthusiasm of his humanism is hard to resist, even for those of us who live on the other side of two World Wars and a few genocides. Emerson loves humanity (or is it himself?):

A man never gets acquainted with himself, but is always a surprise. We get news daily of the world within, as well as of the world outside, and not less of the central than of the surface facts. A new thought is awaiting him every morning. [Emerson on Man and God, p. 6]

You could put that on a coffee mug! While these sentiments are relatively harmless and, indeed, may inspire some healthy interest in the wonders of God through his creation — Emerson’s other musings and maxims are not so harmless. Like so:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. [Ibid., p. 6]

No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it. [p. 8]

In other words, that which serves your well-being (“constitution”), as understood by your “private heart,” is right and right for all. Postmodernism will emerge to challenge the universalism here, but nothing substantially changes. Emerson captured, with his enormous literary gifts, the spirit of his age and our age. In the title of this small book, the order of words is instructive: Man and God. Man first; God second.

For Emerson, the spirit of man reveals the Spirit of God, not the other way around.


Image: Ralph Waldo Emerson (source: wiki commons)


    • Oh yes, he is a joy to read, which is all-the-more tempting to get swayed by his philosophy. Of course, by this point in my thinking, I have been thoroughly immunized by Reformed theology and Karl Barth. So I think I’m safe!

  1. “And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is…” Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

    As both Emerson and Whitman illustrate, such sentiments are as American as apple pie. Fortunately, there is another side to the American spirit, exemplified by the work of Hermann Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, to serve as a balance against such anthropological inflation.

    • Whitman came to my mind as well. There is a beautiful garden near Pawley’s Island in SC, which has quotes like that from Whitman (not that one specifically) on stone slabs throughout the garden. I enjoy most of the quotes, but I also know the philosophy behind it…so I can’t simply enjoy the beauty of it!

      It’s been too long (not since middle/high school) that I have read Melville and Hawthorne. I was fortunate to have excellent English teachers. I’ll have to see if I can find time to sneak some of it in.

  2. “Nothing is good or bad except thinking make it so” – Hamlet

    (Of course, it’s debatable whether Hamlet actually believes this)

    • And when one’s wife is raped or child molested, let’s see how that philosophy holds.

      Heck, today, you just have to ask someone if they think torturing kittens is wrong in-itself! They are usually not very ambiguous in their response.

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