Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803-18821A thinker in the sublimest sense of the term is Emerson. His philosophy touches the core of all earthly problems. "Ends," says he, "pre-exist in the means." Hence what matters is to have our highest aspirations and to cherish them in all sincerity and determination and rest assured in the faith that these will realise themselves.
He came of poor parents, but with an indomitable will and an utter self-reliance. His father, William Emerson, a clergyman, passed away when Waldo was a boy of eight. Soon after, the family was thrown into extreme poverty. It came to such a pass that both Emerson and his elder brother had a single overcoat to help them through the terrible winter. Obviously one had to stay indoors while the other was out. And who but the younger of the two? Waldo missed the attractions, affections and amusements of the outside world; but at the same time this gave him an opportunity to plunge into the sea of knowledge. Voraciously he studied. Plato's Dialogues and Pascal's Thoughts inspired all his moments. Later impelled from within he offered seats to Spinoza and Montaigne along with his previous masters. Strangely enough, he was taught from within to be cheerful in the face of poverty.
He had many antagonists. Hypocrisy and superstition were the worst of them. He fought and fought. Success was a far cry. He had also numerous friends. Truth and sincerity topped their ranks.
America, the fairest land of freedom, opportunity and progress, inspired in Emerson the thought that his countrymen should utilize all these divine gifts to strive for the divinest aims of life. Indeed America's self will gain her true stature when she lives up to her philosopher-son's towering aspirations.
Emerson's love for the American student stems from his topmost aspiration:
"Our student must have a style and determination, and be a master in his own speciality. But having this, he must put it behind him. He must have a catholicity, a power to see with a free and disengaged look every object."
In other words, he expects the American student to be a useful unit not only of the American nation but of the world-family in the making.
“The things taught in the schools and colleges,” Emerson strongly feels, "are not an education, but the means of education." For a student to be furnished with ‘the means’ is to have the responsibility thrown upon him for going on educating himself till at last the finite and the infinite within him and without are unified and form his greatened personality.
No doubt, philanthropy and charity have much to their credit. But most of the people are either unconscious or consciously unconscious about the great limitations of these two virtues. Being a genuine lover of Truth Emerson makes bold to say: "Philanthropies and charities have a certain air of quackery." Truly, few, perhaps none, are those who have got imprinted on the tablets of their hearts the great teaching of the Bible:
For Emerson poetry and philosophy were no mere intellectual embellishments. Philosophy was a dynamic factor in the shaping of his life. A man of vision, he had philosophy for its sustenance and poetry for its expression. His life was a happy blend of sublime dreams and creative gestures. He knew no compromise with his ingrained Truth. "When he (the poet) sings the world listens with the assurance that now a secret of God is to be spoken." Does it not conform to the Indian definition of the poet as the seer? Needless to say that Emerson's high idealism lifted him far above his age.
On March 11, 1829, Emerson was awarded the post of minister of the Second (Unitarian) Church in Boston. Even his worst enemy could not deny his remarkable gift of speech-making. But he had to sever himself from the Church as he had failed to be at one with his congregation regarding the method of teaching. He simply left the Church, but attacked none. It was advisable, he thought, that they should have another pastor according to their choice. But one of the reactionaries could not help saying, "We are sorry for Mr. Emerson, but it certainly is like as if he is going to hell." Neither are we to forget the immediate counter-comment made by a true-seeker: "It does indeed look so. But I am sure of one thing — if Emerson goes to hell, he will so change its climate that it will become a popular resort for all the good souls of heaven."
Emerson's love of God is too deep for form and convention. That was perhaps why he left his ministry in the (Unitarian) Church of Boston. People below his level of culture must be pitied. Also it is quite natural that they should take him amiss. Emerson seems to have sailed "strange seas of thought, alone," with deep self-knowledge. Emerson's truth "To be great is to be misunderstood" finds its exquisite parallel in Sri Aurobindo, the greatest Seer of India:
Adored he walks in mighty solitude;
Vain is his labour to create his kins,
His only comrade is the Strength within."
Happily two great contemporaries, Lincoln and Emerson, offer an historic example of mutual appreciation. During the ever-memorable Civil War in America, it was from Emerson's inspiring tongue that came out "the best and the bravest words". He fully supported President Lincoln in his mighty undertaking and addressed him as "the Protector of American Freedom". Neither could the President remain silent. He honoured the seer in the philosopher Emerson with his warm appreciation: "The Prophet of American Faith".
"The Prophet of American Faith." Yes, but more truly a Prophet of universal Faith, a seer visualising the Future in the living present:
AUM 351. (Reprinted from the author's article in "Mother India", 1963)↩