Transcendentalism by Ralph W. Emerson

Essay, 2006

4 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Transcendentalism: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson lived from 1803 until 1882. In 1821, he graduated from Harvard. The death of his wife after being married for one and a half years and his professional failure as a Unitarian minister lead to a personal crisis. At this time of his life, Emerson traveled to Europe. Here, his conviction that God can be found within the human soul develops. At the same time, his interest in nature increases, as he feels a strong connection to it.[1] After his return to the United States and his remarriage, Emerson became a lecturer, leading the life of a distinguished intellectual. He is not particularly interested in the abolitionist movement although he is opposed to slavery in theory. After the death of his brother, who was an active opponent of slavery, Emerson finally takes part in this discussion and speaks out against slavery.

The function of transcendental criticism, according to Emerson, is its sincerity and its capacity to confront the materialistic world with contrasting spiritual values in order to achieve truly intellectual humankind. Thus, Emerson tries to confront the feeling of “alienation”[2], from which many of his contemporaries suffered. His philosophy moreover contains the divine sufficiency of the soul. Acceptance of yourself and other human beings will eventually lead to acceptance by God, an approach which is the reversal of a traditional Calvinist order of reaching salvation.

However, Emerson must not be characterized as an escapist. On the one hand, one of his major themes is the worship of nature. It is the “city of God”[3] and thus the basis for the worship of God, according to him. On the other hand, he deals with society, with problems such as industrialization and the resulting phenomenon of dehumanization of the individual. Generally, Emerson’s view on the capitalism in his country can be characterized as hesitant and critical.[4] Thus, he tries to bridge the gap which he perceives between the ideal and the real world, a fact which relates him to English romanticism with its representatives such as Wordsworth.


[1] Robert D. Richardson, Jr., “Emerson and Nature”, The Cambridge companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris (Cambridge: CUP, 1999) 98.

[2] Albert J. von Frank, “Essays: First Series (1841)”, The Cambridge companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed, Joel Porte and Saundra Morris (Cambridge: CUP, 1999) 107.

[3] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”, Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. A. C. Hearn, (Edinburgh: Nimmo, Hay & Mitchell, 1907) 194.

[4] Cf. Robert Mildner, “The Radical Emerson?”, The Cambridge companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, eds. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris (Cambridge: CUP, 1999) 55.

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Transcendentalism by Ralph W. Emerson
University of Münster
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Transcendentalism, Ralph, Emerson
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Inga Wiefhoff (Author), 2006, Transcendentalism by Ralph W. Emerson, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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