The Theosophical Forum – August 1942

EMERSON, THE SAGE — John P. Van Mater

The enumerating of Emerson's views of life as set forth in his essays might be compared to the setting forth of a whole philosophy. It is quite a task. For not only are his essays numerous, but they contain in almost every line of every page, ideas so conducive to long and thoughtful meditation, thoughts so cosmic in their scope, that indeed a complete carrying out of their chain of reasoning would be endless. Scattered throughout all his essays are those fundamental truths which underlie both Universe and Man, and which in any true philosophy form its background and at the same time its source of inspiration. It is a question of "Seek and ye shall find'; but this for the sincere student constitutes his true delight. Here in this limited space we can merely point to some of Emerson's fundamental thoughts. These, it is hoped, will entice the interested reader to pursue the inquiry further.

Predominant in all his essays stands out the principle of essential unity. "Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world." (1) Man "learns that going down into the secrets of his own mind, he has descended into the secrets of all minds." (2) ". . . the Deity in me and in them derides and cancels the thick walls of individual character, relation, age, sex, circumstance, at which he usually connives, and now makes many one." (3) To Emerson, as to every true Theosophist of any era, Brotherhood was a fact and not a belief. And this principle of Brotherhood was universal, extending throughout all, unifying everything whether great or small. For the Universe, and Nature, and Man, are of spiritual origin, and the divine manifests in each part, no matter how minute.

Because man is of divine origin, he is given a promise of new hopes, a new destiny. "Bid the invaders take the shoes from off their feet, for God is here within." (4) "Life is a progress, and not a station." (5) "Once inhale the upper air, being admitted to behold the absolute natures of justice and truth, and we learn that man has access to the entire mind of the Creator, is himself the creator in the finite." (6) Think of the infinite possibilities Emerson puts within the reach of man in the above quotations, when he states that the only real gain, the only real compensation in life, is an ever expanding consciousness. Think of the clearness of his vision of each part of the Universe, which yet perceives further the fundamental concept of the unity of all into a great organism, each part acting upon and felt by the whole, but still retaining its own individuality as a self-evolving entity.

And to Emerson each entity was not a tool with which the Almighty plays as he sees fit; but each one possesses within himself the power of expanding through the use of his will and through the operation of the law of Cause and Effect. "Cause and Effect, the chancellors of God. In the will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance." (7) "Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles." (8) And how did Emerson explain the source of the divine in each of us? "There seems to be a necessity in spirit to manifest itself in material forms:" (9) Hence, "Being passes into Appearance and Unity into Variety." (10)

To the average reader, the ideas expressed above are bewildering in their vast scope and revolutionary content. For Emerson was a cogent thinker, deeply mystical, and to one with no knowledge of occult truths it is necessary to use spiritual insight if he would penetrate to the heart of these teachings. But it is unfair to say that to the average reader he is incomprehensible. For Emerson himself has told of "the transcendental simplicity and energy of the Highest Law." (11) "Abide in the simple and noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart, and thou shalt reproduce the Foreworld again." (12) For intellectual attainment is not the primary object to be considered. The first and foremost thing is to live just as much of the Law as you understand. Therefore, it is the duty of those understanding more, to practice living to the full extent of their knowledge. Anyone then of a serious and unprejudiced mind may read Emerson, fill his cup of understanding to the brim; and if he lives up to the ideals he has gleaned, still more understanding will be his.

The distance between Emerson's thought and that of most men of his time laid him open to charges of infidelity and obscurity; and his plea for the individual consciousness as against all historical creeds, bibles, and churches, brought about much controversy. But there was one stumbling block for all those taking opposition against him. This was the character and life of the man himself. Even those differing with his views, agreed on the point that in Emerson was a pure and lofty spiritual nature. Here was a man who practised what he preached, and no one was able to find fault with him in this respect. And inasmuch as his writings were concerned, Emerson was not given to defending his statements. He always remained serene and remote and never was drawn into discussion, thereby winning over many friends from the ranks of the opposition.

And what was there aside from his philosophy that could turn people against him? His character was fine and noble; he was everybody's friend and adviser, and he did not attempt to force his teachings on anyone, but merely made them accessible to all those wishing to partake of them. But there was this that was a source of irritation to many: his statements were piercing, and when, for example, he opposed the Church by taking its teachings at their true value Orthodoxy was disturbed. "No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature." (13) "I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions." (14) "All men's prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect." (15) Emerson wanted men to think, and not to accept blindly traditional truths just because their forefathers had done so. He did not want the young American scholar to become a "bookworm," reading, and accepting what he read merely because it was stated to be true. "Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst." (16) Not that he wished men to become absolute non-conformists, but he wished each one to apply all of his faculties towards perceiving the truth before accepting any statement.

"The great difficulty is that men do not think enough of themselves, do not consider what it is that they are sacrificing when they follow in a herd, or when they cater for their establishment. They know not how divine is a Man. I know you say such a man thinks too much of himself. Alas! he is wholly ignorant. He yet wanders in the outer darkness, in the skirts and shadows of himself, and has not seen his inner light." (17)

The above is the pith and marrow of his essay on "Self-Reliance." It is because Emerson recognised the possibilities of the inquisitive American mind, and voiced his support of their individuality in his oration, "The American Scholar," that he is said to have uttered "our intellectual Declaration of Independence." (18)

Truly, Emerson was a sage and a seer, and one who not only expounded universal truths, but lived them. To interpret Nature, not by the analysis of phenomena, but by detecting the higher, spiritual quality present in all physical things, was his keynote. His confidence in the "Oversoul," or the divine within every person, as a unifying agent, and his total magnanimity and trust of all those he knew, is proof that he put his teachings into practice. Many were the devoted friends of his life, and numerous have been the attributes ascribed to him. Let us, therefore, hark to his words:

"A life in harmony with Nature, the love of truth and of virtue, will purge the eyes to understand her text." (19) "When in fortunate hours we ponder this miracle, the wise man doubts if at all other times he is not blind and deaf; for the universe becomes transparent, and the light of higher laws than its own shines through it." (20) "Let us be silent — so we may hear the whisper of the gods." (21)


1. Nature, Part 5, "Discipline" (return to text)

2. The American Scholar (return to text)

3. Friendship (return to text)

4. Self-reliance (return to text)

5. Compensation (return to text)

6. Nature, Part 7, "Spirit" (return to text)

7. Self-Reliance (return to text)

8. Op. cit. (return to text)

9. Nature, Part 4, "Languages" (return to text)

10. The Poet (return to text)

11. The Over-Soul (return to text)

12. Self-Reliance (return to text)

13. Op. cit. (return to text)

14. Op. cit. (return to text)

15. Op. cit. (return to text)

16. The American Scholar (return to text)

17. Journals (return to text)

18. Comment on Emerson by Oliver Wendell Holmes (return to text)

19. Nature, Part 4, "Language" (return to text)

20. Op. cit. (return to text)

21. Friendship (return to text)

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