Glossary (1)


Transcendentalism was a philosophical, literary, social and theological movement that developed in the United States in the first half of the 19th century.
An Emerson's definition of Transcendentalism:

«The Idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental, from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Königsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses, by showing that there was a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them "Transcendental" forms.» (The Transcendentalist, 1842)

QuotationA further explanation by Emerson

It is to be said that the term transcendentalism, as well as the works of Kant and the other great German thinkers--such as Hegel and Fichte--, reached the United States mainly in translation , and above all through the mediating influence of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, particularly through his Aids to Reflection (1829).
That's why we had better to speak of American Transcendentalism, since Kant's concepts were quite freely used. Besides, Kant's Critique of Practical Reason (1788) is very clear: «I call all knowledge transcendental which is concerned, not with objects, but with our mode of knowing objects....».
The American Transcendentalism, especially as it emerges in Emerson's works, is based on the search for reality through spiritual intuition. Affirming the validity of intuitive truth, the A. T. is indebted to Puritanism - even though rejecting the strict Puritan religious attitudes and fighting the strict ritualism and dogmatic theology of all established religious institutions--namely to its ethical seriousness as well as to the "doctrine of divine light", and is quite similar to the Quaker "inner light". It is rooted in the American past as well as it is influenced by the German thinkers, by Plato's doctrine of ideas and by Oriental philosophy.
As Octavius. B. Frothingham noted,

«Transcendentalism is usually spoken of as a philosophy. It is more justly regarded as a gospel. ...Transcendentalism was... an enthusiasm, a wave of sentiment, a breath of mind.» Transcendentalism in New England. A History, New York 1876, chap. VI.

But what Emerson himself says about his own "experience" gives us the most enlightening confirmation:

«...And mine is a certain brief experience, which surprised me in the highway or in the market, in some place, at some time,--whether in the body or out of the body, God knoweth,--and made me aware that I had played the fool with fools all this time, but that law existed for me and for all; that to me belonged trust, a child's trust and obedience, and the worship of ideas, and I should never be fool more. » (The Transcendentalist)

Transcendentalism was certainly influenced by Romanticism, with its individualism, and the extolling of the beauties of nature and humankind. As a result Transcendentalism expressed religious feelings toward nature, as well as the creative process, and saw a correspondence between the universe (macrocosm) and the individual soul (microcosm)--«Within and Above are synonyms», says Emerson. In this view, divinity permeated all objects, animate or inanimate, and the Human soul is part of the Over-Soul (or Life Force, or Universal Spirit, or God).

Without a doubt Transcendentalism was also influenced by Unitarianism, and included many prominent Unitarians within its circle. As a matter of fact, in a parallel way, as much this "religion of the free mind", which spread over New England during the early years of the 19th century, was more an attitude of mind than a credo, as Transcendentalism was more a faith than a philosophy. And from the "doctrine of the free mind", the core of the Unitarian movement, had come, perhaps, theTranscendentalist attitude of mind.
Other sources of inspiration were William Wordsworth, Madame de Stael, Wolfgang Goethe, Samuel T. Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle

American transcendentalism began with the formation (1836) of the "Transcendental Club", also called "the Symposium", in Boston. It was a protest against the arid intellectual climate of Harvard and Cambridge.

«The club was a forum for new ideas, a clearinghouse, full of yeast and ferment, informal, open-ended, far from the usual exclusive social clique conveyed by the word club». R. D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley & Los Angeles - London: California University Press, 1995), 246.

Among the leaders of the movement were, besides Emerson, the feminist and social reformer Margaret Fuller, the preacher Theodore Parker, the educator and philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott (*), the Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, and Henry David Thoreau. Among the other members of the movement were Orestes Augustus Brownson (who later converted to Catholicism, becoming the most eminent Catholic lay person in nineteenth century in America), William Henry Channing (nephew of W. H. Channing), James Freeman Clarke, John Sullivan Dwight, Sarah & Angelina Grumke, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne (Nathaniel Hawthorne's wife), Frederik Hedge, James Marsh, Elizabet Palmer Peabody, George &Sofia Ripley, Jones Very.

«Transcendentalism came to mean something different for each of these people. It begins with an affirmation of the autonomy of the individual, and because it celebrates the autonomy and the freedom of the individual. Politically it meant that they had to fight for freedom for everybody else, and so it pulled some of them into the anti-slavery movement. It pulled others into the women's movement. It pulled others into education. One of them, Elizabeth Peabody, founded the kindergarten movement in this country. Others got interested in American Indian rights -- actually, the same woman. Margaret Fuller became the first lull-time reviewer for an American paper. Thoreau got interested in anti-slavery. Emerson spent years on the antislavery thing. Transcendentalism began as a personal philosophy and ended up pushing all its members into reform. They became a group of reformers.»
(Robert D. Richardson, Interviewed by Brian Lamb, "Booknotes" Complete text)

The Transcendental Club published a magazine, The Dial (1840-1844), at first under the editorship of Margaret Fuller, later under that of Emerson. It appeared quarterly for four volumes.

..(*) ..See Amos Bronson Alcott's

linkRalph Waldo Emerson : an estimate of his character and genius : in prose and verse (Electronic Edition).

link Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide. American Transcendentalism: An introduction


The Unitarian Movement spread over New England during the early years of 19th century.
In 1796, Joseph Prietsley established the first openly Unitarian church in America (Philadelphia) as a result of a liberal-conservative controversy within the New England Congregationalist churches.
The conservative Congregationalists believed that humans were depraved to the core, and that Jesus's salvation was utterly undeserved by even the best of human beings. In addition, they pushed for more uniformity of doctrine. The liberal Congregationalists were more optimistic about human nature and objected to the doctrine of the depravity of human beings and the lack of free will which Calvinism espoused.

In 1805, Harvard College --the fountain-head of New England literature--elected a Unitarian as professor of Divinity.
In 1819, William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), pastor of the Federal Street Congregational Curch in Boston, formulated the basic tenets of Unitarianism in a sermon, called "Unitarian Christianity", delivered in Baltimore, Maryland, and, in 1820, convoked the Berry Street Conference of liberal ministers that led to the formation (1825) of the American Unitarian Association.

«Channing's Baltimore sermon asserted a belief in one and only one God. He objected to the doctrine of the Trinity as "subverting the unity of God." According to Channing, Unitarians believed in "Jesus Christ as a being distinct from and inferior to God." They also believed in the "parental character" of God and in this world as a place nor of penance and mourning but of education. Unitarians broke sharply with Calvinism, were opposed to emotional excesses in religion, and founded their faith on a ~ belief in that moral sense that Scottish Common Sense said could be found in all persons. Unitarianism looked on itself as the true reformation come at last. Channing himself possessed both moral force and intellectual energy. He was an accomplished and effective speaker, and he ended "Unitarian Christianity" with a call for revolution: "Our earnest prayer to God is, that he will overturn, and overturn, and overturn the strong-holds of spiritual usurpation."»
R. D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley & Los Angeles - London: California University Press, 1995), 47.

On March 14, 1821 the young Ralph Waldo Emerson heard Channing give the lecture "Evidence of Revealed Religion". «Emerson used the talk as a sort of standard or touchstone for years». (Ibi.)
Channing's sermon on "Likeness of God", which proposed a type of human perfectibility, keenly influenced Transcendentalist movement.
The enclosed Quotationexcerpt from "Unitarian Christianity" can be very helpful for an understanding of both Unitarian belief and Transcendentalist "attitude of mind".

link Unitarian Universalist Association


Two Fugitive Slave Laws passed by the United States Congress in 1793 and 1850, intended to facilitate the recapture and extradition of runaway slaves. The1850 act created commissioners under federal court appointment to adjudicate fugitive cases, and was seen in the North as punitive and tyrannical.
In 1851 some Concord citizens signed a petition asking Emerson to express his opinion upon the F. S. L.. He delivered an address calling for civil disobedience: «If our resistence to this law is not right, there is no right».
See R. D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley & Los Angeles - London: California University Press, 1995), 496-499.

linkThe Fugitive Slave Law of 1850: A Violation of Justice


Thomas Carlyle, Scottish essayist and historian, was born in Ecclefechan, as the son of a stonemason and small farmer. He was brought up in a strict Calvinist household and was educated at the University of Edinburgh.
He was already a successful essayist when he became acquainted (in Ecclefechan, 1832 ) with Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was the start of a life-long friendship.
In 1834 he moved with his wife, Jane Baillie Welsh, to London.
His best-known work is probably Sartor Resartus, published in 1833-34, which is a disguised spiritual autobiography in which, in the form of a philosophical romance, he faces the tendencies to intellectual skepticism and dedicates himself to a life of spiritual affirmation.
Other major works: The French Revolution (2 vol., 1837), On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), History of Frederick II of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great (10 vol., 1858-65).
Of him Emerson loved especially The State of German Literature (1827) Signs of the Times (1829) and Characteristics (1831), in which Carlyle denounces the materialist and mechanical age of utilitarianism and calls for a new age of mind.

«More than any other piece, The State of German Literature is the call-to-arms of transcendentalism. One can see Emerson's American scholar and Whitman's American poet in Carlyle's praise of the Fichte who said, "There is a Divine Idea pervading the visible universe; which visible universe is indeed but a symbol and sensible manifestation"». R. D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley & Los Angeles - London: California University Press, 1995), 246.

But, despite the charge of some British reviewers, there is nothing Carlylean about Emerson's Representative Men. Since On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History , to all the appearances on the same wavelength, shows Carlyle's hatred and fear of democracy--and praise of feudal society as well--while Representative Men is «Emerson's major effort to reconcile the reality of the unequal distribution of talent with a democratic belief in the fundamental equality of all persons». (ibid.)

Carlyle died in London on February 5, 1881.

link [Thomas Carlyle: An Overview] [Encyclopædia Britannica: Carlyle]


Major English Romantic poet and poet laureate of England (1843-50). His Lyrical Ballads (1798), written with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, helped launch the English Romantic movement.

link Encyclopædia Britannica: Wordsworth

Samuel Taylor COLERIDGE

English poet, perhaps the most influential of England's literary critics and philosophers of the 19th century. His Lyrical Ballads (1798), written with William Wordsworth, heralded the English Romantic movement.

link Encyclopædia Britannica: Coleridge


John Locke, English philosopher, was born in Wrington, a village in Somerset, on August 29, 1632. He was educated at the University of Oxford (B.A. degree in 1656 and M.A. in 1658), where he eventually lectured on Greek, rhetoric, and moral philosophy for four years. In 1667 he met the statesman Lord Ashley (the 1st earl of Shaftesbury). The two immediately became friends and Locke joined the household of Shaftesbury as a personal physician. Through Shaftesbury, he held minor government posts and became involved in the turbulent politics of the period.
In 1675, after Shaftesbury had fallen from favor, Locke went to France, where he became familiar with the doctrines of René Descartes. In 1679 he returned to England. From 1683 to 1688 he lived in Holland. In 1689, after the "Glorious Revolution" he returned to England and made his permanent home at Oates in Essex, in the house of Sir Francis and Lady Masham.
He died in Oates on October 28, 1704.

Locke's greatest philosophical contribution is the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), in which he expounded his empiricist doctrine, regarding the mind of a person at birth as a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which experience imprints knowledge.
According to Locke, all our ideas come from experience. No ideas are innate: the sources of all knowledge are sense experience--he calls it "sensation"--and "reflection", namely ideas which are not of things outside the mind, but reflexive and internal, a sort of "internal sense".
In addition to the protest against the principle of authority, regarding human knowledge, Locke refutes the doctrine of the divine and absolute right of the Monarch and establishes a theory which reconciles the liberty of the citizen with political order. According to Locke--Two Treatises of Government, (1690)--, men are born free and equal in rights, labor is the origin and justification of property, and contract or consent is the ground of government and fixes its limits.
Many of Locke's political ideas, which inspired the shapers of the American Revolution, were later embodied in the U.S. Constitution.

Locke's works:
Letter on Toleration (1689); Second Letter on Toleration (1690); Two Treatises of Government (1690); Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690); Some Considerations of the Consequences of Lowering of Interest, and Raising the Value of Money (1691); Third Letter on Toleration (1692); Some Thoughts concerning Education (1693); Further Considerations concerning Raising the Value of Money (1693); The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695); A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity (1695); A Second Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity (1695); A Letter to the Bishop of Worcester (1697); Discourse on Miracles (posthumous); Fourth Letter for Toleration (posthumous); An Examination of Father Malebranche's Opinion of Seeing all things in God (posthumous); Remarks on Some of Mr Norris's Books (posthumous); Conduct of the Understanding (posthumous);

link [Encyclopædia Britannica: Locke] [The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Locke] [The Victorian Web. John Locke]

Henry David THOREAU

H. D. Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts. His father was an unsuccessful shopkeeper who turned to the manifacture of pencils, that brought financial stability to the family.
He was educated at Harvard College, where he studied Latin, Greek, Italian, French, German and Spanish. After graduating he took up the profession of teaching. He soon found, however, that he would have to earn his living in some other way (above all relying on his own practice as a surveyor).
In 1837 he became acquainted with Emerson. The same year he started keeping a journal and read Nature (1836), the manifesto of Transcendentalism, which had lasting impact upon him and formed the foundation of Thoreau's version of Transcendentalism. It was the start of a life-long friendship.

«The Thoreau Emerson was seeing in the spring of 1838 was a young poet who was reading Goethe's Italian Journey, who found in Virgil confirmation of the idea thar human nature is essentially the same in all times and places, and who was interested in crystal formation. He looked a little like Emerson and people would say later that he came to have some of Emerson's speech mannerisms. He was a disciple who was incapable offawning or of uncritical admiration. He was brash, irreverent, rebellious, and amusing. But he was a disciple. Emerson once wrote: "Thoreau gives me, in flesh and blood and pertinaceous Saxon belief, my own ethics. He is far more real, and daily practically obeying them, than I; and fortifies my memory at all times with an affirmative experience which refuses to be set aside."»
R. D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley & Los Angeles - London: California University Press, 1995), 282.

«Thoreau found in Emerson a person for whom ideas were as real as things. Thoreau once told a mutual friend that "he found in Emerson a world where truth existed with the same perfection as the objects he studied in external nature, his ideas real and exact as antennae or stamina.» (Ibi., 283)

In 1841 Emerson invited him to live in his home, and in 1845 allowed him to build a hut on his own land near Walden Pond, where he completed his first work--A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published in 1849.

«I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months.» (Economy, in Walden, 1854)
«I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately», he also wrote. It was a fundamental experience for him.
His most famous essay is "Civil Disobedience" (1849), originally called "Resistance to Civil Government". It has been a very important text, since both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King picked it up. The incident which provoked Thoreau to write it is well known: he was arrested for non-payment of the poll tax--he objected that the revenues of this tax were used to help finance the war with Mexico and supported the enforcement of slavery laws.

His other main work is Walden (1854), in which Thoreau explains his motives for living apart from society and devoting himself to a simple lifestyle and to the observation of nature.
The enclosed Quotationexcerpts from "Civil Disobedience" show how similar are Emerson's views on politics and Thoreau's concept of civil disobedience.

Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide. Henry David Thoreau.

Margaret FULLER

Born in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, author, literary critic, editor, journalist, teacher, political activist, and the first true feminist of America.
In 1839 her translation of Conversations with Goethe by the German writer Johann Peter Eckermann was published.
For about five years beginning in 1839, Fuller organized gatherings of women in Boston for the intellectual and social development of the participants.
She was prominent in the Transcendentalist movement and edited the Dial for two years (1840-1842). In 1844 became columnist and literary critic on the New York Tribune--she was the first full-time female book reviewer on a New York paper--, which gave her the opportunity to increase her awareness of urban poverty and to strengthen her commitment to social justice and to the causes that concerned her: prison reform, Abolitionism, Women's Suffrage, and educational and political equality for minorities. In 1845 published Woman in the Nineteenth Century, the most important of her works and up till now a very powerful statement of the rights of women.
In 1846 she left for Europe, where she dispatched letters to the New York Tribune describing her experiences. These letters were published as At Home and Abroad (1856). In 1847 she was in Italy, where she became acquainted with the Italian writer and patriot Giuseppe Mazzini and married Marquis Giovanni Angelo Ossoli. The pair participated in the Roman Revolution (1848), and when the city fell they embarked with their child for the United States. But their ship was wrecked off Fire Island, N. Y., and all three were drowned (1850).

Certainly Margaret Fuller was the most important woman writer of that whole time.
She became acquainted with Emerson in 1836, when she was twenty-six and he thirty-three. That meeting started one of the important relationships of Emerson's life:

«For the next ten years they were in close and sometimes almost continuous touch with each other. They were friends and colleagues, but there was more than intellectual comradeship in their give and take. Emerson learned from her something about the possibilities of self-reliance against long odds. She undertook to educate his art sense, and she introduced him to such writers as George Sand. She helped him understand Goethe; she made him aware of the peculiar power of mythology, and she gave him new standards for friendship and for a kind of social openness that he found attractive but difficult. She taught him something about the situation of women in the nineteenth century.» R. D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley & Los Angeles - London: California University Press, 1995), 241.

And here is the entry of Emerson's Journal after he heard the news of Margaret Fuller's death (July-August 1850):

«On Friday, '9 July, Margaret dies on rocks of Fire Island Beach within sight of & within 6o rods of the shore.f To the last her country proves inhospitable to her; brave, eloquent, subtle, accomplished, devoted, constant soul! If nature availed in America to give birth to many such as she, freedom & honour & letters & art too were safe in this new world....
She had a wonderful power of inspiring confidence & drawing out of people their last secret.
The timorous said, What shall we do? how shall she be received, now that she brings a husband & child home? But she had only to open her mouth, & a triumphant success awaited her. She would fast enough have disposed of the circumstances & the bystanders. For she had the impulse, & they wanted it. Here were already mothers waiting tediously for her coming, for the education of their daughters.
Her love of art, like that of many, was only a confession of sympathy with the artist in the mute condemnation which his work gave to the deformity of our daily life; her co-perception with him of the eloquence of Form; her aspiration with him to a life altogether beautiful.
"Her heart, which few knew, was as great as her mind, which all knew"-what Jung Stilling said of Goethe, F. H. says of Margaret; and, that she was the largest woman; & not a woman who wished to be a man.

I have lost in her my audience. I hurry now to my work admonished that I have few days left. There should be a gathering of her friends & some Beethoven should play the dirge.
She poured a stream of amber over the endless store of private anecdotes, of bosom histories which her wonderful persuasion drew out of all to her. When I heard that a trunk of her correspondence had been found & opened, I felt what a panic would strike all her friends, for it was as if a clever reporter had got underneath a confessional & agreed to report all that transpired there in Wall street.»
Emerson in His Journals--Selected and Edited by Joel Porte--(Cambridge, MA. - London: Harvard University Press, 1982), 413.

For a better understanding of Margaret Fuller's personality, read also the enclosed Quotationexcerpt from Emerson's Journal (a 1843 entry):

link Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide. Margaret Fuller.

Giuseppe MAZZINI

Giuseppe Mazzini was one of the heroes of the Italian Risorgimento. His political activities cost him imprisonment and exile. He organized the revolutionary society called Young Italy, in Marseille, France, in July 1831. It established branches in many Italian cities. Mazzini founded newspapers, wrote pamphlets, and encouraged unification of Italy.He argued that through coordinated uprisings, the people could drive the Italian princes from their thrones and oust the Austrians from dominance of the Italian Peninsula.
The high point of Mazzini's career came during the revolutions of 1848-49, when he returned to Italy and was elected one of the leaders of the new Roman Republic. But the republic fell (July 1849) to an invading French army.
Mazzini aroused enthusiasm, devotion, and the spirit of nationalism in the hearts of many Italians. He has been called the "soul" of Italian unification.
His tireless campaign for a united republic forced more conservative groups to compete with him. His conception of popular nationalism had widespread appeal. The advent of the Italian republic in 1946 was in effect a belated recognition of Mazzini's ideas.

link Encyclopædia Britannica: Mazzini


Born in Long Island, of mixed Dutch and Yankee stock. His father was a carpenter-builder, and in 1823 the family moved to the rapidly growing town of Brooklyn, across the East River from Manhattan. He left school in 1830, to work as a printer; he spent 1838-9 schoolteaching on Long Island, 1841-5 as ajournalist. and 1846-7 as editor of the Brooklyn Deily Eagle. He disagreed with the Democratic party over political opinions; he was also regarded as a somewhat lazy editor. Out of a job in consequence, he made a brief trip in 1848 to New Orleans. In 185 IA he worked as carpenter in Brooldyn, while keeping a notebook from which grew poems published as Leaves of Grass (1855).
Emerson, whom Whitman had sent the book, read Leaves of Grass at once and found it «so extraordinary for its oriental largeness of generalization». He also wrote Whitman what has become the most famous letter in American literary history (see below).

«The effect of the letter on Whitman can be imagined. He had heard Emerson lecture and had specifically admired his ideas about the nature and function of the poet. "My ideas were simmering and simmering," William told John T. Trowbridge, "and Emerson brought them to a boil"»
R. D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley & Los Angeles - London: California University Press, 1995), 527-528.

Emerson and Whitman met several times. In Boston, in 1860, Emerson tried to persuade the poet «to tone down some of the explicit references to sex » (Ibid.) in the "Children of Adam" section, but Whitman ignored the advice. However Emerson--who had after all argued in his essay The Poet that «the vocabulary of an omniscient man would embrace words and images excluded from polite conversation»--didn't change his mind about him.

«Emerson found in Whitman the great modern poet he was seeking. Whitman found in Emerson the justification for literature itself.»
(Ibid., 531)

In one of the conversations from which Whitman's friend Horace Traubel constructed With Walt Whitman in Camden, we can find this handsome assessment of Emerson:

«I often say of Emerson that the personality of the man--the wonderful heart and soul of the man, present in all he writes, thinks, does, hopes--goes far toward justifying the whole literary business--the whole raft good and bad--the whole system. You see, I find nothing in literature that is valuable simply for its professional quality; literature is only valuable in the measure of the passion--the blood and muscle--with which it is invested--which lies concealed and active in it.»
(Quoted in Ibid., 531)

The second edition of Leaves of Grass appeared In 1856; the third in 1860. During 1863-5 he worked as clerk and volunteer hospital visitor In Washington, tending the Civil War wounded. Drum Taps appeared in 1865. Further editions of Leaves of Grass were published in 1867,1871,1872,1876, 1881,1889,1892. He continued to work in Washington until 1873, when he suffered a paralytic stroke which left him semi-Invalid for the rest of his lile. Democratic Vistas (prose) was published in 1871. In 1879 he made a journey through the West and Middle West. Specimen Days and Collect (autobiographical notes) was published in 1882. In later years he was surrounded by disciples, and well known to men of letters, though still not to the general public. November Boughs (prose and verse) appeared in 1888. Whitman died in Camden, New Jersey.

Biographical sketch based in part on Marcus Cunliffe's The Literature of the United States (London: Penguin Books, 1986), 141-163.

See the enclosed QuotationLetter to Walt Whitman, in which Emerson congratulates W. W. on Leaves of Grass.

link [Encyclopædia Britannica: Whitman] [PAL: A Research and Reference Guide. Walt Whitman]


In 1835 Emerson started a new career as a public lecturer. He was given that opportunity by the new lyceum movement, which was a sort of working people's lecture series movement.

«The lyceums were founded, supported, and directed by local boards made up originally of working people intent on bettering themselves through practical education: Lyceums provided then what YMCAs and community colleges provide now.»
R. D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley & Los Angeles - London: California University Press, 1995), 419.

Over his active career of forty years he gave some 1,500 public lectures, but would often give the same series of lectures in different places.

(1809 -1865)

16th president of the United States (1861-65), who preserved the Union during the Civil War and abolished slavery.

link [Abraham Lincoln] [Encyclopædia Britannica: Lincoln]


Emerson called "Representative Men" his "Pantheon Course of Lectures". But «His concern was not so much with the great ones themselves as with the use of the great in our education», and that's why, despite the charge of some British reviewers,

«Emerson's lectures on representative men and the book he eventually made of them are in the strongest possible contrast to Carlyle's view of heroes in Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History or in his vast just-concluded work on Cromwell.»
Robert D. Richardson, Emerson. The Mind on Fire (Berkeley & Los Angeles - London: California University Press, 1995), 413.

In some sense Oliver Wendell Holmes's assessment is right :

«Emerson shows his own affinities and repulsions and, as everywhere, writes his own biography, no matter about whom or what he is talking. There is hardly any book of his better worth study by those who wish to understand not Plato, not Plutarch, not Napoleon, but Emerson himself.»
Quoted by P. Schirmeister in her "Introduction" to Representative Men (New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1995).

As a matter of fact, unlike Carlyle's paternalistic views on this subject--authoritarianism included--Representative Men is...

«Emerson's major effort to reconcile the reality of the unequal distribution of talent with a democratic belief in the fundamental equality of all persons.
Emerson believed in equality because be believed in the adequacy of the individual, of each individual. Each great person represents, for Emerson, the full flowering of some one aspect of our common nature. Great persons are not superior to us; they are exemplary, symbolic, or representative of us. "What can Shakespeare tell in any way but to the Shakespeare in us?" Emerson is a leveler, but he believes in leveling up. "As to what we call the masses, and common men," he says toward the close of the introductory lecture, "The Uses of Great Men," "there are no common men. All men are at last of a size, and true art is only possible on the conviction that every talent has its apotheosis somewhere." This conviction is the basis not only of art but of the interpretation of art. "The possibility of interpretation," he says, "lies in the identity of the observer with the observed."4
So the lecture on Plato is not on Plato himself so much as on the Platonic element in us all.»
Robert D. Richardson, Emerson. The Mind on Fire, 414.

In the enclosed Quotationexcerpts from Representative Men, "Uses of Great Men" Emerson expounds his notion of "representative".


(From: Microsoft® Encarta® 96 Encyclopedia) Before the coming of European explorers and settlers, the Boston region was inhabited by several tribes of the Algonquian linguistic group, who resided along the coast and the interior river valleys. Archaeological evidence of their long settlement is widespread and abundant. The introduction of European diseases greatly reduced their numbers by the early 17th century.
The Boston area was visited by French explorer Samuel de Champlain and English explorer and colonizer John Smith as well as by settlers from Plymouth before the first permanent settlers arrived in 1630. These first colonists were Puritans (see Puritanism) from England, led by John Winthrop, who moved to Boston from nearby Salem. Their primitive settlement on a small peninsula (known as Shawmut to the Native Americans) was declared to be a town in the fall of 1630 and was named for Boston, England.
The town was soon made the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the population swelled as new settlers, many of them artisans and professional people, were attracted to the region. Boston itself served as the springboard for other settlements in eastern Massachusetts.
By 1750 Boston had grown into an important seaport and trading center with industries associated with maritime activities. Colonial life was dominated by political quarreling with England and by the strong secular power of the Congregational church (see Congregationalism).
During the 1760s tension with England increased as the punitive Sugar Act (1764) and Stamp Act (1765) were enacted by Parliament. Violence erupted in the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, when five colonists were killed by British soldiers. In the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, colonists dumped British tea into Boston Harbor to protest a British-imposed tax. Finally, a raiding force of British troops, marching from Boston, precipitated the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. The Battle of Bunker Hill followed on June 17, 1775, in Boston; nine months later the British withdrew from Boston, leaving the town relatively untouched for the duration of the American Revolution.
In the early 19th century Boston grew as the metropolis of New England, as new overseas markets (notably China) opened and new trading fortunes were made. Boston became Massachusetts's first incorporated city in 1822, and a vigorous program of land filling accommodated the growing population. Manufacturing assumed a greater role in the city's economic life.
During the second half of the 19th century Boston annexed several adjoining communities to increase its land area several times over. Waves of immigrants, first from Ireland and later from Canada, Russia, and Italy, streamed into the city.
Boston is a center of higher education in the United States, even more so if its adjacent suburbs are included. The two largest universities within the city itself are Boston University (1839) and Northeastern University (1898). Other schools include the University of Massachusetts in Boston (1964), Simmons College (1899), Emmanuel College (1919), Emerson College (1880), and Suffolk University (1906). In nearby Cambridge are Harvard University (1636) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1861). Tufts University (1852) is in Medford, Boston College (1863) in Newton, Brandeis University (1948) in Waltham, and Wellesley College (1870) in Wellesley. The Boston public school system is the oldest in the United States.
The Boston Public Library, founded in 1852, has one of the largest collections in the country, and several smaller private libraries, including the Boston Atheneum (1827) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1780), offer important, specialized collections. The Museum of Fine Arts (1870), a private institution, has especially fine collections of French impressionist paintings, Egyptian art, and Chinese and Japanese paintings, prints, and sculpture. More than a dozen smaller museums are scattered throughout the metropolitan area.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1881 and ranks as one of the most esteemed orchestras of the world. Boston is an active theater town with a half-dozen theaters in continuous use. Boston is experiencing a revival of opera with the opening of a newly refurbished opera house and has added a resident ballet company.
("Boston," Microsoft® Encarta® 96 Encyclopedia. © 1993-1995 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved)


Harvard College was established in 1636 by vote of the Great and General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony, and was named for its first benefactor, John Harvard of Charlestown, a young minister who upon his death in 1638, left his library and half his estate to the new institution.
Harvard gradually acquired considerable autonomy and private financial support, becoming a chartered university in 1780. Today it has the largest private endowment of any university in the world. Among many notable alumni are the philosopher and psychologist William James; and men of letters such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Robert Frost, and T. S. Eliot. More U.S. presidents have attended Harvard than any other college: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy.

On the Web : Harvard University

CONCORD - Massachusetts

Settled in 1635, on the Concord river, near Boston, the community was named Concord because of the peaceable manner in which the site was acquired from the Native Americans.
On April 19, 1775, the Battle of Concord began the military phase of the revolutionary era.
In 1830 Concord had 2,001 persons. During the 19th century the town was an important literary and cultural center. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, the sculptor Daniel Chester French, the novelist Louisa May Alcott (daughter of Amos Bronson Alcott) and Nathaniel Hawthorne lived and worked in Concord.
Located nearby is Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau lived in solitude from 1845 to 1847, and completed his first work--A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published in 1849.

Immanuel KANT

Immanuel Kant--one of the greatest philosophers of all time--was born in Königsberg, East Prussia, on April 22, 1724. He received his education at the Collegium Fredericianum, a pietistic Latin school (Kant's parents were devoted followers of the Pietist branch of the Lutheran Church), and the University of Königsberg, where he eventually, after serving for 15 years as a Privatdozent and lecturer, was made professor of logic and metaphysics (1770).
For the next 27 years he continued to teach. In this period, called his "critical" period, because in it he wrote his three Critiques, he elaborated and expounded his philosophy.

In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) he examined the bases of human knowledge and created a new epistemology, or theory of knowledge. Kant differentiated modes of thinking into analytic and synthetic propositions. An analytic proposition is true solely because of its conformity to some logical laws--in it the predicate is contained in the subject--, while synthetic propositions are true because of their connection with some intuition: they cannot be arrived at by pure analysis. For example, the proposition that all bodies are extended is not synthetic but analytic because the notion of extension is contained in the very notion of body; whereas the proposition that all bodies are heavy is synthetic because weight supposes, in addition to the notion of body, that of bodies in relation to one another.
Moreover, Kant divides propositions into two other types: empirical and a priori. An empirical proposition depends entirely on sense perception--most of the knowledge we gain through ordinary experience, or through science, is empirical: this table is brown is a typical empirical statement--but an a priori proposition has its validity without depending on any particular experiences.
Kant's thesis in the Critique of Pure Reason is that it is possible a kind of knowledge which is both synthetic and a priori.
This is what is usually called "transcendentalism", which is a term that "American transcendentalists"--such as Emerson--would quite freely use, since the works of Kant, and of the other great German thinkers as well--such as Hegel and Fichte--reached the United States mainly in translation , and above all through the mediating influence of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, particularly through his Aids to Reflection (1829).

Kant never married and never left Königsberg, where he died, on February 12, 1804. His last words were "Es ist gut" ("It is good"). His tomb was inscribed with the words «THE STARRY HEAVENS ABOVE ME AND THE MORAL LAW WITHIN ME». Namely the two things that he declared in the conclusion of his Critique of Practical Reason "fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on".

Kant's works:
Universal Natural History And Theory On The Heavens (1755); Dreams of A Spirit-Seer (1766); Inaugural Dissertation (1770); The Critique of Pure Reason (1781); Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785); Critique of Practical Reason (1788); Critique of Judgement (1790); Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786); Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone (1793); Perpetual Peace (1795); Introduction to the Metaphysics of Morals (1797).

link[Kant on the Web] [Encyclopædia Britannica : Kant]

(427-347 B.C.)

Plato was born in one of the noblest families of Athens. He was a young man when he encountered Socrates--which was the most important event in his life--and became a disciple of him, accepting his basic philosophy and dialectical style of debate: the maieutic approach (from the Greek maieutikos, meaning "giving birth"), that is, eliciting the truth by asking questions.
After the death of Socrates, Plato traveled to Italy, Sicily, and Egypt. He eventually founded the Academy in Athens, as an institute for the systematic pursuit of philosophical and scientific teaching and research. The Academy can be described as the first European university. It kept functioning, under different guises, for centuries after Plato's death.
He spent the concluding years of his life lecturing at the Academy and writing.

Plato's theory of knowledge--that is the core of his philosophical system--is found in the Republic (Book VII), in which through an allegory--the myth of the Cave--he says that beyond the world of physical things there is a higher, spiritual realm of Forms, or Ideas :

QuotationExcerpt from The Republic by Plato

Plato is one of the greatest philosophers of all times, if not the greatest. As A. N. Whitehead noted: «The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato» (Process and Reality, 1929]. According to Emerson too, who dedicated to him the first of the six portraits included in his Representative Men,

«Among books, Plato only is entitled to Omar's fanatical compliment to the Koran, when he said, "Burn the libraries; for their value is in this book." These sentences contain the culture of nations; these are the corner-stone of schools; these are the fountain-head of literatures. A discipline it is in logic, arithmetic, taste, symmetry, poetry, language, rhetoric, ontology, morals or practical wisdom. There was never such range of speculation. Out of Plato come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought. (...) Plato is philosophy, and philosophy, Plato».
Representative Men. Plato; or, the Philosopher

Plato is for Emerson the philosopher of Unity or Identity, but it is to be said that what Emerson admires about him ...

«is not finally some absolute and irrefutable truth that he discovered but the dialectical conversation through which each interlocutor is brought to formulate and assess the truth for himself and then to be responsible for it.»
P. Schirmeister, "Introduction" to Representative Men (New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1995)

Plato's works:
Euthyphron (Euthyphro); Apologia Sokratous (Apology); Criton (Crito); Phaedon (Phaedo); Cratylos (Cratylus); Theaetetos (Theaetetus); Sophistes (Sophist); Politikos (Statesman); Parmenides; Philebos (Philebus); Symposion (Symposium); Phaedros (Phaedrus); Alkibiades (Alcibiades); Hipparchos (Hipparchus); Erastai (Lovers); Charmides; Laches; Lysis; Euthydemos (Euthydemus); Protagoras; Gorgias; Menon (Meno); Hippias Meizon (Hippias Major); Hippias Elatton (Hippias Minor); Ion; Menexenos (Menexenus); Politeia (Republic); Timaeos (Timeaus); Critias; Nomoi (Laws).

link [Platonica] [Encyclopædia Britannica : Plato]

Johann Wolfgang von GOETHETavolozza

German poet, novelist, dramatist, and natural philospoher, the greatest figure of the German Romantic period and one of the most versatile figures in all world literature.

link [Johann Wolfgang von Goethe] [Encyclopædia Britannica: Goethe ]


Attitude or intellectual orientation characterized chiefly by reliance on the imagination and subjectivity of approach, freedom of thought and expression, and an idealization of nature. It spread from France and Germany to England and then to the rest of Europe and across to the western hemisphere influencing many works of literature, painting, music, architecture, criticism, and historiography over a period from the late 18th to the mid-19th century.

link [Romantic Chronology] [Encyclopædia Britannica: Romanticism]