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RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803-1882), preacher, lecturer, poet, and essayist, was one of the men who made their mark upon the nineteenth century. He did nothing in the way of scientific discovery or invention ; he made no original contribution to scholarship or literary criticism; he took no leading part in the building up of great institutions, schools, churches, libraries, or museums; even in politics, he had nothing to do with party councils and conventions, and never held an office in his life, (except that while he was a minister in Boston he served as a member of the School Board and chaplain of the State Senate, and when he first lived in Concord he was appointed one of the “hog-reeves" of the town). for forty years he spoke directly and personally, through his voice and through his pen, to the men and women of his time, giving them a message for their inner life, and teaching them to break away from dull, formal, thoughtless, artificial ways of doing things, and live freely according to the laws of their own spirit. This was his mission in the world ; to wake people up with clear and forceful words, and to tell them something about themselves and the world around them which would be to them like a new light in their minds, changing their way of thinking and feeling and acting.
A man who does this kind of work is called a prophet. Prophecy does not mean only, or chiefly, foretelling the future. It means bringing a message to the world in regard to truth and duty, speaking for a higher Power, and delivering to others the word which the prophet has heard in his own soul. There were several other men, besides Emerson, who wrote in English during the nineteenth century, to whom the name of “prose-prophet” may fairly be given. You will find their words still active and powerful in the world, and their ideas still influencing the thoughts and purposes of men.
Thomas Carlyle's great word was Work, - do the duty that lies nearest to you! John Ruskin's great word was Life, — there is no real wealth but in a richer, fuller, warmer heart ! Matthew Arnold's great word was Culture, — know the best that has been thought and said in the world ! Emerson's great word was Self-reliance, — trust yourself, be yourself, and fear not !
Emerson had many other things to say, of course; and as you read his essays and poems you will find them full of sharp and wise sayings about all kinds of persons and affairs, keen and delicate perceptions of natural beauty, shrewd comments on society and politics, and high counsels of self-control, respect for others, industry, patience, justice, and loyalty. But at the root of all his preaching and teaching lies this idea that each of us must have confidence in himself and be true to himself, because it is through the self, through the inward, personal life of thought and feeling, that the vision of truth
and beauty and goodness comes to each man directly, in flashes of spiritual light.
This is Emerson's special message, and it will help you to understand it and to measure its value, if know something about his life and character, and the way in which he practised his own preaching.
I. ANCESTRY AND BOYHOOD
Seven of Emerson's ancestors were ministers of New England churches, all Puritans of the strictest type. Among them were Peter Bulkeley who left his comfortable parish in Bedfordshire, England, to become pastor of the church in the wilderness at Concord, Massachusetts; Father Samuel Moody of Agamenticus, Maine, who was such a fearless and zealous evangelist that he would pursue wayward sinners even into the alehouse to reprove them ; Joseph Emerson of Malden, "a heroic scholar," who prayed every night that no descendant of his might ever be rich; and William Emerson, the patriot preacher, who died while serving in the army of the Revolution. From such forefathers Emerson inherited Puritan qualities, independence, sincerity, sobriety, fearless loyalty to conscience, strenuous and militant virtue. His vision of the world was larger and more beautiful than theirs because he had the imagination of a poet; and his way of reasoning about life and trying to explain it was changed by the following of a philosophy which was different from theirs. But in the substance of his man