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Emerson and the Perennial Philosophy

General Assembly 2003 Event 1002A

This year we celebrate the bicentennial of Ralph Waldo Emerson's birth. A descendent of ministers and once a Unitarian minister himself, Emerson shook the foundation of established religion. When he delivered his celebrated address at the Harvard Divinity School and admonished the graduates to "go alone; to refuse the good models, and dare to love God without mediator or veil," it was his last "face-off" with organized religion. Even though he chose to follow his own self-reliant path, Emerson remained deeply religious throughout his life, with a thoroughly spiritual view of human life and the world. Moreover, during his lifetime and in the years since his death in 1882 he has exerted a profound influence on liberal theology and enriched the spiritual lives of generations of Unitarian Universalists.

Robert D. Richardson, Jr. currently lives in North Carolina, having taught at the University of Denver and Wesleyan University. He is a Unitarian Universalist with longstanding ties to our movement and the son of a Unitarian Universalist minister who served in Concord, MA. He is author of the prize-winning biography, Emerson: The Mind on Fire, which has been hailed as "the definitive biography" and the "most credible portrait of a . . .fully human Emerson." He has also written Henry David Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, winner of the Melcher Book Award, and Myth and Literature in the American Renaissance. He is currently working on a biography of William James.

Event Report

"When (Ralph Waldo) Emerson turned 70, his friend James Russell Lowell came to visit and pay his respects, and he said, 'Mr. Emerson, this is an auspicious occasion.' And Emerson said, 'On the contrary, it's a melancholy occasion.''

"And Lowell said, 'Why?'

"And Emerson said, 'Because it means the end of youth.' How can you resist a man like that? He thought in large terms. He is 200 as of May 25th, and he's not dead yet.'"

With that anecdote, which roused an audience of Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association members to laughter, Robert D. Richardson Jr., Ph.D., professor of literature and prize-winning biographer (Emerson: The Mind on Fire) gave an insightful and entertaining presentation on the essayist-philosopher's enduring appeal as a champion of individual empowerment and a proponent of human experience as the true source of and vehicle for divine understanding.

"Emerson came to announce "that whatever we might have heard to the contrary, the powers of the human spirit are commensurate with its needs," Richardson said. "Our best energies and powers are fundamentally congruent with the world, with reality. This teaching—that we are not flawed, fallen incapables, but are, at our best, a match for life—is the single deepest truth and the single greatest gift that Emerson has given us."

According to Richardson, Emerson saw himself as addressing not committees, boards, churches or other groups, but instead an "unseen friend." The individual makes choices, out of which grow his or her interactions with others. "(Emerson) insisted that as we are, so we associate'." said Richardson. "It is we who make the church, and not it, us. The source of value in an institution is the worth each member brings and contributes."

Richardson explained that this appreciation of individual power and reason is a much larger teaching than Emerson's alone. Citing the terms "perennial philosophy," "liberal Platonism" and "the eternal gospel," he explained that this approach has appeared in various forms as Persian Sufism, Greek and Roman Stoicism, Jewish Hassidism, Zen Buddhism and among the writings of such Christian mystics as Theresa of Avila, George Fox and others.

"The perennial philosophy," said Richardson, "emerges anywhere religion is a matter of personal insight rather than received texts, a matter of personal experience rather than group ritual." The universal mind, or collective consciousness'exists, and so does the individual, but the former is revealed only to the latter." In fact, Richardson explained, perennial philosophy traditions point out the cause-and-effect relationship within pairs of concepts: "'the invisible world is revealed only in the visible, the divine is manifest only in the human, the supernatural exists only in the natural world, the spirit is revealed only in the flesh."

Furthermore, because eternal insights arise from the details of the world and temporal experience, the perennial philosophy supports the need for ecological preservation and social diversity. In addition, greater social justice must come from individual acts of integrity and compassion.

Interspersing his presentation with quotes from a rich number of sources, including Jallaludin Rumi, Wallace Stevens, Jean-Paul Sartre, John Muir, Immanuel Kant, William James, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Plato's dialogue "Timaeus," and the work of his wife, the writer Annie Dillard, Richardson showed how Emerson's work built upon previous thought and influenced future writers.

As for Emerson's influence on us, Richardson encouraged his audience to rely on personal experience for ultimate understanding. "Emerson's last gift to us'is that we don't need to take it from him'" He quoted from Emerson's Harvard Divinity School address: " 'Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone, to refuse the good models'.' Refuse, then, even Emerson'.I think one can put Emerson down once he has helped you start your own team, and tell us not what he thought, but what you think. Refuse the old Emerson, and become yourself the new."

During the question-and-answer session following the presentation, Richardson addressed Emerson's influence on Unitarian Universalism: "He is our great prophet. And we should embrace him. I think his real influence is still to come."

Robert D. Richardson, Jr., is the author of, among other books, Emerson: The Mind on Fire and Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind.

Reported for the web by Jeanette Leardi, edited by Jone Johnson Lewis; Web Designer Anna Belle Leiserson

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Tuesday, April 10, 2012.

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