Book Review: The Essays Of Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Essays Of Ralph Waldo Emerson, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

In reading this book it is easy to see why Emerson was celebrated in his own day but why he has a less than stellar reputation as a philosopher in our own day.  As someone who reads the book from the point of view of a Christian, the author appears to be engaged in the most banal and superficial sort of philosophizing that I would fail were I teaching a class on the subject.  Yet to those who fancy themselves as contemporary philosophers the author appears to be preaching, however unsuccessfully.  In reading this book from the hindsight of 150 or more years, this book reminds me of what would happen if a blogger of indifferent skill was given a platform to write op/eds for some hack publication like the New York Times or Washington Post and thought that this was validating his (or her) abilities as a writer, only for a collection of those works to be made for future generations to ponder at the incomprehensibility that someone of such vague and laughably incorrect generalities and abstractions could be thought of as a wise guide.  Indeed, that is the most baffling thing about this collection, that the author was apparently thought of in his time as a guide to anything.

This book is more than 350 pages and consists of two different series of essays.  The first series of essays takes up a bit more than 200 pages and contains some well-regarded essays, even if they come off badly in hindsight.  After an introduction, the first series includes essays like History (1), Self-Reliance (2), Compensation (3), Spiritual Laws (4), Love (5), Friendship (6), Prudence (7), Heroism (8), The Over-Soul (9), Circles (10), Intellect (11) and Art (12) that provide a lot of hot takes about deism and the author’s views on art criticism, generally in tidy essays of about 20 pages or so in length so as to be short enough to not be authoritative dealings of the subject matter the author has unwisely chosen to tackle.  The rest of the book is taken up by a smaller set of essays that are equally overambitious in title and not nearly ambitious enough in content, namely The Poet (13), Experience (14), Character (15), Manners (16), Gifts (17), Nature (18), Politics (19), and the author’s thoughts on Nominalism and Realism (20), which is about the most serious philosophical essay here.  After that the book ends with an index and leaves the reader wondering why the author thought himself qualified to pontificate on these subjects.

That is not to say that this book is horrible.  If the author comes off as callow and superficial, there are worse things to be than a fount of insight as to the superficial thinking of one’s era.  Indeed, this book is more useful as a historical document of conventional wisdom during the middle of the 19th century than as a record of philosophy.  People read Plato or Aristotle or Augustine or others like that because they have some sort of insight to provide, however flawed their perspective and worldview.  In the case of Emerson, though, his writing is solely of interest because it demonstrates the way that supposedly enlightened and progressive people in the mid-19th century thought of themselves and various other topics.  And just as is the case for our own journalists and pundits who spout off contemporary received wisdom, future generations will look at our own philosophizing the same way that we look back on Emerson’s and wonder why in the world anyone ever paid to see what that person had to think about anything.  And they will shrug their shoulders and be glad that they got the book from the library so that they didn’t have to pay for it themselves.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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