- Paperback: 196 pages
- Publisher: Lindisfarne Books; 2nd edition (May 1, 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0970109733
- ISBN-13: 978-0970109736
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.5 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 11 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #429,678 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Spiritual Teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson 2nd Edition
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"A magnificent book, through which Emerson's teaching becomes again an instigator.... It contains our own best thoughts." -- ROGER LIPSEY, editor and biographer of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, author of An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art
About the Author
Richard Geldard is a graduate of Bowdoin College, The Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College, and Stanford University, where he earned his doctorate in Dramatic Literature and Classics. He has also studied at St. John’s College, Oxford. Before turning to writing, he was an educator, teaching English and philosophy at secondary, undergraduate and graduate levels. He also taught Greek Philosophy and The Science of Mind at Yeshiva College in New York, where he also supervised the General Studies program at the university’s boys' and girls' high schools. His most recent appointment was at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpenteria, California, where he taught the Greek Mystery Religions. Dr. Geldard is also on the Board of Directors of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Institute and is the Academic Advisor to the Institute's web site, RWE.org, the Internet's leading site devoted to the life and works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He is a frequent lecturer and the author of seven books, including studies of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Greek philosophy and culture. Mr. Geldard is presently a full-time writer and lecturer living in New York City and the Hudson Valley. He is married to the artist and writer Astrid Fitzgerald. His website is RGBooks.com www.rgbooks.com.
Robert Richardson is the author of Emerson: The Mind on Fire.
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But reading Emerson directly is at once an enlightening and maddening experience: "enlightening" because Emerson was a philosopher in the best sense of the word -- a lover of wisdom -- and "maddening" because he was _not_ a philosopher in any _other_ sense of the word. He was stubbornly disinclined to argumentation or even systematic exposition; his essays read more like sermons than like philosophical arguments; he preferred to deliver himself of his oracular insights without, it seems, subjecting them either to the criticism of other minds or even to the rigors of critical self-reflection, on the view that Reason was an all but infallible source of insight into truth and its objects are known with the same immediacy with which we know that we are awake. (It is a curious view of reason which makes no allowances for improvement of one's understanding.)
As a result of this take-it-or-leave it approach, his writings are all too easy to misunderstand, and for this he must bear much of the blame. For example, his remarks on charity in "Self-reliance" have led some readers to suppose that he was opposed to charity altogether, whereas in truth he believed that we are each of us suited by talent and temperament to be "charitable" to a special class of persons for whom we are therefore _truly_ responsible. Then, too, his remark in the same essay on "a foolish consistency" has been infamously and endlessly misquoted -- but even in its proper context it invites misunderstanding by failing to pay sufficient attention to the non-foolish variety of consistency (which Emerson supposed would take care of itself more or less automatically). Here again, Emerson's account of Reason, in giving so much weight to intuition, leaves strangely little room for reflection.
But in my own opinion, at least, Emerson's insights are genuine, sometimes brilliant, and essentially right, and it would be a shame if the readers who needed him most were unable to profit from his writings merely because he had been needlessly obscure. It would be nice, then, to have from another writer the guidance that Emerson himself was unwilling or unable to provide.
As you've probably guessed by now, that's where Richard Geldard comes in.
In this volume (which is a revised edition of _The Esoteric Emerson_, so don't buy them both!) Geldard does a marvelous job of exposition. He knows his Emerson backwards and forwards, and he sets out the essential features of Emerson's thought in clear and orderly fashion, chapter by chapter.
His essential "take" on Emerson, as you can tell from his title, is that Emerson is best approached as a spiritual teacher. I think this is not only correct but even obviously so; yet it is surprising how few available critical studies of Emerson are actually written from this point of view. At any rate, Geldard's exposition will provide the reader of Emerson with a much-needed "map" of the territory traversed in his writings.
I suspect that Geldard's "map" will make Emerson available to many readers who might otherwise have found him unpalatable. Some readers may, for example, be put off by what seems to be Emerson's extraordinarily cavalier attitude toward tradition in favor of present experience.
But according to Geldard, Emerson's actual meaning was as follows: "We have to break, lovingly, the vessels of our tradition in order to become one with the source of that tradition" [p. 176]. Now, certainly there is a difference in emphasis here with the religious tradition in which Emerson was brought up. But surely this is not far from, say, the Christian doctrine that the scriptures are a closed book unless read "in the Spirit." (Granted, Emerson had much more in common with the Quakers than with the Calvinists in what he made of this point. Nevertheless it is not alien to even the most theologically conservative Christianity.)
Not being a Christian myself, though, I am interested not primarily in reconciling Emerson with Christian theology but in simple exposition of his teaching. And Geldard excels in this regard: in ten straightforward chapters he sets out the essentials of Emerson's teaching and places it into the context of his life. Not bad for 177 pages of text.
There are one or two points on which I wish Geldard had done a _little_ bit more explaining (for example, on the difference between the meanings of "idealism" in its philosophical and its popular senses), since he does not seem to be presuming any prior acquaintance with philosophy on the part of his readers. But this is just nitpicking on my part. (Hey, I have my own favorite hobby horses too.) This is a fine book and it will be of immense value to anyone who wants to understand what in the world Emerson was on about.
Emerson's “individualism” is really a technique by which the individual discard all the established traditions of his society (including purported religious “revelations”) and looks within himself for the truth. By so doing, the individual discovers the Spirit or the Over-Soul, which is (of course) common to all individuals. He also experiences the Platonic ideas or forms, including the idea of the Good, which lies behind all fleeting phenomena. Emerson's emphasis on freeing the mind is also a Gnostic technique, rather than a call to splendid intellectual self-isolation and armchair punditry. The Over-Soul can only be reached through our minds, but the higher we ascend, the more do our minds conform to the universal spiritual laws of the cosmos. We also realize that whatever happens is for the good and that the universe is in perfect karmic balance.
Emerson seldom discussed who influenced his thinking, since every man must establish the connection with Spirit himself moment to moment, but he did recognize the need for a teacher, and bemoaned the fact that he never found one, while acting as a teacher and guide himself within the small circle of Transcendentalists. Geldard believes that Emerson was strongly influenced by Thomas Taylor's translations and commentaries on Plato's dialogues. He met Carlyle, Coleridge and Wordsworth while visiting Britain. The “Geeta” (the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita) was his constant companion.
Interestingly, Emerson wasn't an other-worldly mystic who simply tried to soar the cosmic heights. In many ways, he was a “Descender”, not just an “Ascender”. The material world both hides and reveals the Spirit. In one sense, it's an illusion. In another sense, the world in general and nature in particular, is symbolic and points towards higher truths. This is the ancient Hermetic idea of “as above, so below”, an idea Emerson may have picked up from the writings of Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg. Since the world is God's garment, the mystic doesn't leave the world. Indeed, humans are the incarnations of God in matter. Guided by conscience, authenticity and courage, the mystic tries to save the world by imparting as much Spirit as possible onto his fellow men. The Spirit-filled man doesn't long for Heaven or personal immortality, but pours out the Spirit where he stands.
Emerson has been criticized for not being consistent on this latter point. He usually refrained from making political statements. Emerson's position seems to have been that little can be done, socially speaking, unless the individuals are changed first. His writings do contain turns which could be interpreted as a callous “Randian” opposition to poor relief and, by extension, the welfare state. However, Emerson wasn't a political reactionary. He opposed slavery and spoke with admiration of John Brown (whom he had met). Emerson's most well known follower Henry Thoreau has been credited with inspiring Gandhi and Martin Luther King. In conversation with Carlyle, Emerson had expressed sentiments similar to those usually associated with Thoreau.
Emerson never “defended” his views through debate or apologetics, believing them to be based on an intuition most people simply didn't posses. He was a “spiritual aristocrat” in that sense. This may explain why he never wrote a popularized introduction to his ideas. Nor did he write a how-to-guide about, say, meditation. We are left with his difficult and hard-to-decode essays. Perhaps the sage of Concord had a point in doing so, but personally, I feel Geldard's book fills a gap. It's not an easy read, unless you happen to be somewhat “tuned in” to these issues, but it definitely does make Ralph Waldo Emerson's Yankee Platonism easier to comprehend. I therefore give it four stars.