Minimalists in History: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Money often costs too much, and power and pleasure are not cheap.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson, leader of the transcendentalists and friend of Henry David Thoreau, was born in 1803. Like his father, he became a Unitarian minister.

After his first wife died at only 20 from tuberculosis, he experienced a religious crisis and eventually resigned his position as minister. After spending some time in England, Emerson returned to the US, working as a lecturer and writer.

“Few people know how to take a walk. The qualifications are endurance, plain clothes, old shoes, an eye for nature, good humor, vast curiosity, good speech, good silence and nothing too much.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson was one of the founders of a group of intellectuals that became known as the Transcendentalist Club. Other members included George Ripley, Frederick Henry Hedge, Bronson Alcott, James Freeman Clarke, Convers Francis, Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, Orestes A. Brownson, Elizabeth and Sophia Peabody, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jones Very, Christopher Cranch, Charles Follen, and William Henry Channing.

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

For Emerson, the point of plain living is for it to lead to high thinking. He believed too many people clutter their lives with the trappings of wealth. As a result, he regularly lectured “successful” people on the need for simple living.

However, he wasn’t especially fond of the Utopian societies (such as Fruitlands) that sprang up during this time. Rather, he believed in a middle way.

He felt the world of business wasn’t intrinsically evil, but shouldn’t be seen as an end in itself. He promoted a balance between materialism and idealism.

“The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson thought nature was the means to unlock all secrets of wisdom. Every person shares an “over-soul,” a common spirit uniting all of us.

Since God resides in all of us, it’s not necessary for us to attend church to communicate with God. Rather, we can experience truth through nature, which symbolizes spiritual reality.

One of Emerson’s more famous quotes about divinity and nature is known as the “transparent eyeball.”

Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.

 “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Self-reliance and nonconformity were important to Emerson. In fact, he wrote an essay entitled Self-Reliance. Here are some quotes from that essay that show what Emerson means by self-reliance. It’s not growing your own food, but thinking your own thoughts.

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.

I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.

It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage.

Insist on yourself; never imitate.

Want to learn more about Ralph Waldo Emerson?

If you’re interested in learning more about Emerson’s beliefs, check your library for a collection of his writings, such as The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. To learn more about Emerson’s life, pick up a copy of Emerson: The Mind on Fire, by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.

Also, if you happen to be near Concord, Massachusetts, visit Emerson’s old home, which is now a national historic landmark.

13 thoughts on “Minimalists in History: Ralph Waldo Emerson

  1. Who knew I had so much in common with Emerson. 🙂 His words were never needed more than today with the excesses we have today and the never-ending wish for more.

    • So true. Although I can’t say his essays are easy reading, I think his belief system might actually “sell” pretty well if more people were exposed to it, since he’s about moderation, not deprivation. Thoreau is easier to read and may be more inspiring, but it’s a lot easier to live a life of balance than to live in a small cabin in the woods.

      • No, his essays aren’t easy reading, maybe someone (you?) should rewrite his essays, modernize them. 🙂 My son recently passed me Jefferson’s Bible (I haven’t started it yet) but basically Jefferson rewrote the new testament but without the miracles or “supernatural elements”. He condensed down the entire new testament to just over 150 pages of large print and plenty of white space.

        • Thanks for sharing about Jefferson’s Bible. I’ll have to check out that out. Who knows, maybe it will inspire me to modernize Emerson’s work!

          • I took a peek at Jefferson’s Bible and found it dry and filled with the language of that time but I think you could do a fine job of modernizing Emerson’s work.

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.