Robert D. Richardson - Emerson: The Mind on Fire

"A man cannot free himself by any self-denying ordinances, neither by water nor potatoes, nor by violent possibilities, by refusing to swear, refusing to pay taxes, by going to jail, or by taking another man's crops or squatting on his land. By none of these ways can he free himself; no, nor by paying his debts with money; only by obedience to his own genius."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson as quoted on page 384
In the introduction, the author explains what he has set out to accomplish in this work. Essentially, Richardson's quest was to find out "what kind of individual was this prophet of individualism?" Learning about this "great spokesman for individualism and self-reliance" is fascinating and inspiring.

Richardson details the evolution of one of the most famous 19th Century thinkers--from liberal Christian to Emerson's eventual philosophy which was akin to pantheism. The subtitle "Mind on Fire" was well chosen. Richardson uses it to form a thread through the work as he shows the lighting of Emerson's early mind, its climactic flame, and its eventual extinguishment just prior to death.

I thoroughly enjoyed the style Richardson chose. The biography is separated into 100 short chapters. Almost every chapter is very focused on one key person, idea, or event. This allows the reader to become enveloped in that one theme before moving on to the next chapter and subject. I found this method to allow for a clear and concise understanding. If you have 100 days to read this book, I suggest reading a chapter a day, perhaps in the morning, and then pondering the ideas expressed therein for that day. Such a routine will add a spark to your life for several months.

If you are interested in other thinkers from the period, you will find much information on Emerson's influence on and interaction with people such as Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and Thomas Carlyle.

From the quote at the top of this page, and others Emerson is credited with, one may think that his political agenda consisted of anarchy. Richardson explains (especially on page 535) that Emerson was an "autarchist" (rule by self) rather than an "anarchist". He felt people should stand on their own feet and be their own governors. Other political causes Emerson was involved with include abolition, women's suffrage, and Native American rights. His wife tended to be about a decade ahead of him on these issues.

Frequently ahead of his time, Emerson, in several ways, practiced what 20th Century UUism preaches. He left the church early in life because of their beliefs and practices at the time. The church has gradually caught up and been influenced by his teachings. About the time Darwin was coming up with natural selection a few decades before Origin was published, Emerson prophetically stated, "We have no theory of animated nature. When we have it, it will be itself the true Classification." (p. 171)

Richardson summarizes what he thinks Emerson's philosophy was as follows: (p. 538)

He continues by saying that Emerson had

"an almost intolerable awareness that every morning began with infinite promise. Any book may be read, any idea thought, any action taken. Anything that has ever been possible to human beings is possible to most of us every time the clock says six in the morning. On a day no different from the one now breaking, Shakespeare sat down to begin Hamlet and Fuller began her history of the Roman revolution of 1848. Each of us has all the time there is; each accepts those invitations he can discern. By the same token, each evening brings a reckoning of infinite regret for the paths refused, openings not seen, and actions not taken."
"The difference between landscape and landscape is small, but there is a great difference in the beholders."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson as quoted on page 401

"For those who would understand Emerson, this book is unforgettable; it is essential." -- Mary Oliver