On Ralph Waldo Emerson

Originally posted 2011

Today is the birthday of America’s greatest philosopher/essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. His Transcendentalist writings were a major influence on my 1995 Mountebanks Manifesto. I used a quote from his essay “The American Scholar” on the frontispiece: “Free should the scholar be — free and brave.” (Though in some versions I juxtaposed it with the motto of the title characters of W.S. Gilbert’s The Mountebanks: “Heroism Without Risk” — essentially the opposite sentiment).

My original paperback of Emerson collected works became dog-eared, marked up and eventually fell apart. My second copy is also marked-up. Here, for your contemplation, are some favorite passages I’ve highlighted over the years:


* “Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string”

* “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”

* “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.

* “I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me.”

* “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think…you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it…but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

* “For nonconformity, the world whips you with its displeasure.”

* “To be great is to be misunderstood.”

* “A great man is coming to eat at my house. I do not wish to please him; I wish that he should wish to please me.”

* “The Scipionism of Scipio is precisely that part he could not borrow. Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare.”

* “Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”

FROM “NATURE” (1836)

* “Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyph to those inquiries he would put”.

* “We are taught by great actions that the universe is the property of every individual in it.”

* “A work of art is an abstract or epitome of the world…Art [is] a nature passed through the alembic of man.”

* “‘Every scripture is to be interpreted by the same spirit which gave it forth’ — is the fundamental law of criticism.”

FROM “FATE” (1860)

* “How shall I live? We are incompetent to solve the times”.


I have also been influenced by Emerson’s more mystical writings such as “The Transcendentalist” (1842) and “The Over-Soul” (1841). These essays have inspired a song-cycle I have been working on for a number of years (and will no doubt take many more years to emerge). It is a sort of mash-up of Emerson and George Harrison. I am hoping to record it in federal prison so that it can be produced by Phil Spector. Think of the echoey, “live” sound! And it should be easy to find a harmonica player there.

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