At a time when political
In a way, it is sad that
nearly two hundred years after the age of great religious enlightenment in the
Ralph Waldo Emerson was the
father figure of American literature and could justifiably be called the founder
of the study of both comparative literature and comparative religion in the
Calvinist Influences in
The year 1803 is an
important date in American history. In this year Emerson was born, and it was in
this year too that William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), the famous Unitarian
theologian, came to
According to Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), a leading Puritan preacher, men were naturally God's enemies. He was best known for his fire-and-brimstone sermons, such as his famous 1741 sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God". According to him, all mankind was submerged in God's curse and was liable to misery in this life and to eternal pain and damnation in the after-life. No man could be saved through his own good actions and volition, and only God would elect the few who would be saved through Christ. Therefore, their salvation was not due to their merit, but simply due to God's free grace and love. Having thus predestined them to eternal life, God would sanctify them through the blood of Christ and raise them to a state from which they could not fall and perish. The rest of mankind had to be sacrificed as the result of their sin for the honour of God's justice and power. It was in reference to these doctrines that in one of his sermons Rev. O. B. Frothingham described Calvinism as a creed, which "represents man as coming into the world girt in the poison robes of hereditary depravity and with the curse of his Maker on his head."
According to this creed, which held that salvation was only attainable by the mediation of Jesus Christ, the divine character of Christ had to be emphasised; but when Christ was everything, man was nothing. Believing in predestination, Calvinism denied man's free will and, in fact, man was reduced to a miserable and contemptible object that was made to suffer the eternal torments of hell due to the curse with which he was born. Another outcome of this doctrine was the implied rejection of the validity of moral laws, as they had no role to play in man's redemption. Briefly, it believed in man's depravity, the arbitrary nature of redemption through divine grace, and man's worthlessness and sinful nature.
The rise of Unitarianism in the United States
From the beginning of his ministry, Channing, "always young for liberty", decided to fight against Calvinistic orthodoxy and introduce a milder form of Christianity. In his "The Moral Argument Against Calvinism", providing a summary of Calvinistic ideas, Channing concluded:
"Whoever will consult the famous Assembly's Catechisms and Confessions, will see the peculiarities of the system in all their length and breadth of deformity. A man of plain sense, whose spirit has not been broken to this creed by education or terror, will think that it is not necessary for us to travel to heathen countries to learn how mournfully the human mind may misrepresent the Deity."
He argued that Calvinism robbed the mind of self-determining force and made men passive recipients of God's grace:
"It is a striking fact that the philosophy which teaches that matter is an inert substance, and that God is the force which pervades it, has led men to question whether any such thing as matter exists… Without a free power in man, he is nothing. The divine agent within him is everything. Man acts only in show. He is a phenomenal existence, under which the One Infinite Power is manifested; and is this much better than pantheism?"
In 1805, Henry Ware who was
an avowed Unitarian was elected to the Hollis Professorship of Theology at
Harvard. His election to that influential post was of great importance to the
progress of Unitarianism in
But of far greater
importance was a sermon preached by Channing at the installation of Jared Sparks
(1819) as the minister of a Unitarian church in
One of the main principles of Unitarianism was the rejection of the Trinity. It denied the divinity of Christ and believed in God as the only person of godhead. Its second principle was a rejection of the power of the Church. Believing that private judgement was superior to ecclesiastical tradition, it did not attach too much importance to the authority of the Church. Its third principle was that it rejected the belief in man's depravity and Original Sin, and emphasised man's divine nature.
One of the best summaries of those beliefs appears in a sermon that Channing preached in 1819. He took his text from I Thess. V. 21: "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." Then he proceeded with a description of Unitarian doctrines. His first point was that "We regard the scriptures as the records of God's successive revelation to mankind, and particularly of the last and most perfect revelation of His will by Jesus Christ." But he added that scriptures had to be interpreted by the light of reason. He believed that by applying reason to the scriptures the first deduction we can make is the doctrine of God's unity. We will discover that "there is one God, and one only". His second deduction was that "Jesus is one mind, one soul, one being, as truly one as we are, and equally distinct from the one God." His third point was the importance of moral rules and the discovery that "God is morally perfect". The fourth principle was that "Jesus was sent by the Father to effect a moral or spiritual deliverance of mankind; that is, to rescue man from sin and its consequences, and to bring them to a state of everlasting purity and happiness."
This statement implied the rejection of two of the basic dogmas of Calvinism. First, it denied Original Sin. Men were not born sinful, but they were liable to sin in their lives, and Christ's function was to deliver them from their earthly sins and guide them to righteousness. Secondly, it contradicted the belief in predestination and the redemption of the elect, and stated that Christ was sent for the deliverance of mankind.
Channing's fifth deduction was that "all virtue has its foundation in the moral nature of man, that is, in conscience, or his sense of duty, and in the power of forming his temper and life according to conscience." This was a restatement of the belief in man's basic nobility and the importance of his moral nature and conscience.
It should be noted, however, that while these ideas exhibited a complete departure from the traditional Trinitarian and especially Calvinistic dogma, the Unitarians did not regard themselves as any less Christian than others. In fact, they believed that in the same way that Christianity was a revolt against Jewish orthodoxy, and Protestantism a revolt against Papacy, so was Unitarianism a further revolt against the erroneous doctrines of some Protestant churches and contained the true spirit of Christ's teachings. They revered the scriptures as profoundly as ever the Calvinists did and, although rejecting the divinity of Christ, still they regarded him as the most excellent of all men and as a perfect example for the rest of humanity.
Emerson comes under the influence of Unitarianism
These liberal ideas changed
the religious atmosphere of
"I sometime think that you and your coevals missed much that I and mine found; for Calvinism was still robust and effective on life and character in all the people who surrounded my childhood, and gave a deep religious tinge to manners and conversations."
At times, he spoke about
the great debt owed by his generation "to the old religion which, in the
childhood of most of us, still dwelt like a sabbath morning in the country of
In his early youth, being strongly under the influence of Aunt Mary, Emerson was inclined towards Calvinism and had an almost puritanical upbringing. But as he grew older his dislike of Calvinism increased, and the broader concepts of Unitarianism inclined him towards that creed. In 1823 he wrote:
"I am blind, I fear, to the truth of a theology which I can't but respect for the eloquence it begets, and for the heroic life of its modern, and heroic death of its ancient, defenders… But that the administration of eternity is fickle, that the God of revelation hath seen cause to repent and botch up the ordinances of the God of nature, I hold it not irreverent but impious in us to assume."
About the same time, commenting on the views of a Calvinistic preacher, Emerson wrote in his Journals:
"He talks of the Holy Ghost: God of
Mercy, what a subject! Holy Ghost given to every man in
After graduating from
"The reason why I insist on this uniformity and universality of spiritual influence is because any other view that can be taken of the Holy Ghost is idolatrous. If it be received into the mind as a person and separated from God and God's common operation, that moment the ideas of God received a wound in you. All that is added to the new power is taken from Him."
Emerson, like the Unitarians, opposed the exclusive and sectarian nature of Calvinism. He also shared with the Unitarians the rejection of the Calvinist emphasis on sin, and its violent punishment in hell-fire. But although he could agree in part with Unitarianism, he was not sure that it had gone far enough. On 1st April of the same year he wrote: "The spring is wearing into summer, and life is wearing into death… and is the question settled in our minds, what objects to pursue with individual aim? Have we fixed ourselves by principles? Have we planted our stakes?"
As time went by, his doubts became more disturbing and he became more outspoken in his rejection of the Church:
"I suppose it is not wise, not being natural, to belong to any religious party. In the Bible you are not directed to be a Unitarian, or a Calvinist or an Episcopalian. Now if a man is wise, he will not only not profess himself to be a Unitarian, but he will say to himself, I am not a member of that or of any party. I am God's child, and disciple of Christ, or, in the eye of God, a fellow disciple with Christ."
This last sentence was too unorthodox even to the ear of other Unitarians. Emerson's mental conflict was at last settled. He could no longer be honest with himself and continue the ministry of the Church: "It is the best part of man, I sometimes think, that revolts most against his being a minister." In his eyes, none of the prevailing varieties of Christianity, not even Unitarianism, was any longer satisfying. They were all empty bodies whose spirit had long departed: "How little love is at the bottom of these religious shows; congregations and temples and sermons, - how much sham!"
Emerson leaves the Ministry of the Church
At last, he made up his mind. It seemed to him that "in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry." "The profession," he thought, "is antiquated. In an altered age we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers. Were not a Socratic paganism better than an effete, superannuated Christianity?" He had many strong ties to the Church. The blood of eight generations of ministers flowed in his veins. His mother, Ruth Emerson, his aunt Mary, his uncle the Rev. Samuel Ripley and Mrs. Sarah Ripley all were strong adherents of the Church and urged Emerson to stick to his noble profession. But the office had become unbearable to him. He feared that "Calvinism stands… by pride and ignorance; and Unitarianism, as a sect, stands by the opposition of Calvinism. It is cold and cheerless, the mere creature of understanding, until controversy makes it warm with fire got from below." He was ripe for revolt.
On 28th October
1832, Emerson resigned the ministry of the Church. The reason he gave for
leaving was that he did not agree with the ordinance of the Lord's Supper, but
this was evidently a mere excuse. A church committee, which included Emerson's
second cousin George Emerson, met to discuss his complaint. In the letter which
they formally wrote to him they hoped that their views would satisfy him and
that he could continue his ministry. His brother, Charles, thought "enough has
now been done (perhaps too much) for the expression of individual opinion." He
believed that his brother's duty was to stay in the Church and administer the
ordinance as nearly as he could. There is another piece of evidence which shows
that the doctrinal issue concerning the Lord's Supper was not fundamental, for a
little later Emerson declined a call from the congregation at
There were some more
fundamental problems in Unitarianism that bothered him. To him, Unitarianism was
a useful and necessary step forward from Calvinism, but it had failed to break
all the bonds and present the Truth in its universal form. It had rejected the
orthodoxy of Calvinism, but had created a new form of dogmatism. Even Channing,
the greatest leader of Unitarianism in
There was need for a new
movement which could correct the defects of Unitarianism and move closer to
Truth. Even before his college days, Emerson was looking for a new system. In a
letter to John Boynton Hill, a Harvard classmate, written in January, 1823, he
promised: "When I have been to
Stating the Principles of Transcendentalism
The first issue of The Dial, the mouthpiece of Transcendentalism, which appeared in July 1840, started with an introduction by Emerson. "The spirit of the time", said Emerson in his manifesto, "is in every form a protest against usage, and a search for principles." This was the aim of the new movement, the breaking down of old traditions and the building up of new principles. The first issue of The Dial also contained an article about "The Unitarian Movement", which was at the same time an appraisal and a denunciation. The article's author paid tribute to the Unitarians, saying: "We wish to bespeak their good will, by showing that we fully appreciate their labors and motives and the necessity there was that something should have been done." But it continued: "We are not, however, satisfied with the solution of the Unitarian movement that is now common."
The main defect of Unitarianism, according to the article, was its negative nature: "Their preaching was necessarily controversial, occupied with tearing down Calvinism, rather than with building up a new system." But now that it had done its work it had to be replaced by a movement which could build: "It describes only the surface. We would look into the nature of the deadness, corruption, and abuses of the church from which Unitarianism descended." The remedy, which was to cure the nature of the deadness, proved to be not only a rejection of Unitarianism but also a complete rejection of traditional Christianity. Its statements were as far removed from the accepted beliefs of Christian churches as possible.
The Transcendental Movement denounced the age-old doctrines of the Church as man-made superstitions. It affirmed: "During the whole of this controversy, it has been maintained that the dogmas of the Trinitarian theology were corruptions of Christianity, introduced into the popular faith by the Platonic fathers, in the early ages of the Church. This position was maintained by an array of arguments, sufficient to convince any one that could be convinced by such arguments." The article boldly stated that although Transcendentalism grew out of Unitarian theology, its teachings were fundamentally different, "for the two systems have different starting points, and tend in different directions," and that "the association is, philosophically speaking, purely accidental."
Unitarianism is so broad in
its concept that it is sometimes regarded as a departure from the widely
accepted traditional Christian beliefs. Nevertheless, the gap separating
Unitarianism from Transcendentalism is as wide as that which separates
Unitarianism from any
Although in many respects the two movements have some points in common, still a careful study of the writings of some eminent Transcendentalists reveals certain basic differences between the two, and it is not difficult to discover some of the principles in which they differ. The first basic difference was about the station of Christ himself. Although Unitarians rejected the divinity of Christ, still they believed that his station was unique in the history of the world. He was the mediator between God and man, and true salvation could be achieved only through belief in him. They held that man was not born a sinner as the Calvinists thought. It was impossible to believe that a God whose main characteristic was love and benevolence would predestine man for damnation. But they maintained that man is ignorant and does not know how best to please God and achieve salvation. So God sent Christ to guide and help mankind in its attempt for salvation.
The Transcendentalists, on the other hand, regarded Christ like any other prophet. His difference was that of a degree, not of quality. The author of the important article in The Dial proclaimed: "Christ differs from other men only in degree, and the miracles he wrought differ from other men's acts, only as he differs from them. He is to other religious teachers – to Moses, Zoroaster, Socrates, Confucius – what Shakespeare is to other poets." All those religious teachers were inspired by God and all of them revealed truth progressively according to the needs of the time. No one of them was sufficient for all time. Referring to the question of the divinity of Christ, significantly in a passage in "Man Thinking", Emerson wrote:
"The man has never lived that can
feed us ever. The human mind cannot be enshrined in a person who shall set a
barrier on any one side to this unbounded, unboundable empire. It is one central
fire, which flaming now out of the lips of Etna, lightens the capes of
In Emerson's view, not only
was Christ basically the same as any other religious teacher, he was even of the
same quality as the rest of mankind. At one time, Emerson even tried to show
that Jesus was not perfect and like any other man had some defects. He made a
list of what he regarded the defects of Christ – "no cheerfulness, no love of
natural science, no kindness for art, nothing of Socrates, of
The miracles attributed to Christ did not seem extraordinary to Emerson. Every man's life was full of miracles and, in fact, nature itself revealed thousands of miracles. But to attribute to Christ anything which was not in harmony with the miraculous nature of the universe was superstitious. In his famous "The Divinity School Address", an incredibly brave and enlightened lecture for those days, Emerson proclaimed: "But the word miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain." According to him, the common belief about the miracles attributed to Christ debases his station. Emerson exhorted Christians: "Do not degrade the life and dialogues of Christ by insulation and peculiarity. Let them lie as they befall, alive and warm, part of the landscape and of the cheerful day." The duty of every individual was to safeguard his own integrity and to try to achieve the same perfection that Christ and other holy figures possessed: "Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for those good men, but say, 'I also am a man!'"
The second difference, somewhat related to the first one, was about God's revelation. To the Unitarians, although the Bible had to be read in the light of reason, still its authenticity and importance as a source of guidance could not be doubted. Even more than that, in Channing's view it was "the last and the most perfect revelation" of God to man. But the Transcendentalists believed that man was essentially divine and consequently was himself open to inspiration. Emerson denied the absolute authenticity of the Bible and agreed with many modern scholars that probably after the death of Christ the disciples repeatedly went over their notes together and made their accounts agree. Nevertheless, he could find some contradictions in the Bible. He believed that the Messianic tradition was wrong in certain details.
In his view, truth was more important than the scripture. Even before leaving the ministry, he had remarked: "When a truth is presented, it always brings its own authority, Doth it not? If anyone, denying Jesus, should bring me more truth, I cannot help receiving it also." If certain details in the Bible were in contradiction to one's reason, reason had to be preferred and the text rejected. In a Journal entry in November 1830 Emerson wrote: "There are passages in the history of Jesus which to some minds seem defects to his character… Count them defects, and do not stifle your moral faculty, and force it to call what it thinks evil, good. For there is no being in the universe whose integrity is so precious to you as that of your soul."
Emerson believed that the Bible is inferior to us for it belongs to the past, while man's soul is living and present. "This should be plain enough. Yet see what strong intellects dare not hear God himself." Man's soul is rich and perfect and can hear the voice of God without the mediation of anyone else, "but man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present… We shall not always set so great a price on a few texts, on a few lives." According to Emerson, everything else had to be subdued before the supremacy of the soul: "Whenever a mind is simple and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away, - names, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now, and absorbs past and future into the present hour."
Emerson had a great deal of respect for the Bible, but he believed that its importance lay in the truths that it contained and not in the fact that it was divine revelation. Every other book which contained truth was equally precious. In 1839 he wrote in the Journals:
"People imagine that the place which the Bible holds in the world it owes to miracles. It owes it simply to the fact that it came out of profounder depth of thought than any other book, and the effect must be peculiarly proportionate – I have used in the above remarks the Bible for the ethical revelation considered generally, including that is, the Vedas, the Sacred writings of every nation and not of the Hebrews alone."
A third difference between Unitarianism and Transcendentalism, which was again related to the first two, was the infallibility of man's conscience. Channing had greatly enhanced the importance of man's conscience, but he was not ready to admit that it was a sufficient guarantee for the perception of moral truth. Parker tells us: "I asked him [Channing] if conscience were not an infallible guide. He seems to doubt it… He said conscience was like the eye, which might be dim, or might see wrong." But to Emerson and the rest of the Transcendentalists there was nothing more infallible than conscience. They believed that man could only believe in himself. He cannot err for "his heart beats pulse for pulse with the heart of the Universe."
Emerson went even further. To him, man was not only related to the universe but was a part of divinity itself. In his "Divinity School Address" he boasted: "If a man is at heart just, then in so far he is God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice." By trusting our conscience, not only can we find the personal truth, but we can even discover universal laws. As children of God, Emerson said, "We live but in Him, as the leaf lives in the tree… We shall be parts of God, as the hand is a part of the body, if only the hand had a will." All that one needs to do in order to arrive at the truth is to listen to his inner voice and to destroy all obstacles which exist between him and God. One of these obstacles is adherence to tradition: "When we have broken our god of tradition and ceased from our god of rhetoric, then may God fire the heart with his presence."
Unitarianism rejected the Calvinistic pessimism as regards the station of man, and celebrated the importance of reason. Channing emphasised that "the ultimate reliance of a human being is and must be on his own mind." This cold and intellectual reliance on mind and reason was replaced by Emerson and other transcendentalists with reliance on intuition and conscience. The key word in Transcendentalism was not 'reason', but 'inner light'. This emphasis on divinity in man brought charges of pantheism against the Transcendentalist creed. When Andrew Norton attacked Emerson's "The Divinity School Address" as the "Latest form of Infidelity", he emphasised its pantheistic ideas.
A fourth difference deriving from the previous ones was the question of the need for the Church as an institution. Implicit in Channing's argument and implicit in Emerson's was the belief that individuals are more important than institutions. But for Channing, although the institution had to be checked and controlled, its existence was necessary. People were in need of a minister to remind them of their duties and help them in matters of religious doctrine. The minister was not a master but a guide and a helper, and in this respect his office was indispensable. To Channing, the preacher's "great purpose… is to give vitality to the thought of God in the human mind; to make His presence felt; to make Him a reality, and the most powerful reality to the soul."
But Emerson and all other transcendentalists would wholly agree with Tom Paine's remark that "my own mind is my own church". To Emerson, there was no need for an external reminder of the moral duty, for its voice could always be heard within. Man was by nature inclined towards moral laws, and as long as a person would not follow the dictates of the conscience he could not be at rest. After attending church one Sunday in March 1838, Emerson decided that he would go no more. "I ought to sit and think", he said to himself, "and then write a discourse to the American Clergy, showing them the ugliness and unprofitableness of theology and churches at this day, and the glory and sweetness of the moral nature out of whose pale they are almost wholly shut."
Emerson believed in the existence of moral nature in the souls and consciences of men, and to him this was sufficient guarantee of man's adherence to truth. In his view, the Calvinists and the Unitarians were unaware of this reality. Soon after he left the church, on September 8, 1833 he wrote in his Journals: "I believe that the error of religionists lies in this: that they do not know the extent, or the harmony, or the depth of their moral nature… I call Calvinism such an imperfect version of moral law. Unitarianism is another… A man contains all that is needful to his government within himself. He is made a law unto himself. All real good and evil that can befall him must be from himself."
Channing believed that man could be educated in the usual sense of the word, and he was opposed to the Transcendentalists' reliance on intuition. According to him, the function of the church was to provide the necessary spiritual education. But Emerson believed that reliance on an institution created more harm than good and reduced men to blind imitators. Even if the Church had been necessary in the past, it had fulfilled its function and now it was outdated.
Channing was broadminded enough to look beyond his own particular church and accept all Christians as members of one body. Metaphysical and theological differences had to fade away in the face of a broader concept of Christianity. He could say: "Do not tell me that I surrender myself to a fiction of imagination, when I say, that distant Christians, that all Christians and myself, form one body, one church, just as far as a common love and piety possess our hearts… There is one grand and comprehensive church; and if I am a Christian, I belong to it, and no one can shut me out of it." But for the Transcendentalists, if there were any church, it had to include the whole of mankind. No pious Hindu, or Buddhist or Muslim could be excluded from it. In Emerson's view, "Sensible men and conscientious men all over the world were of one religion, - the religion of well-doing and daring."
Transcendentalism, then, was a revolt not only against an exclusive church, but even against an exclusive religion. The Transcendentalists stretched out their hands beyond Christianity in search of new truths. Truth was universal and could not be limited to any one church, or any one religion. Religion was for the sake of the education of humanity, and not humanity for the sake of religion. When a system could no longer satisfy the minds of men, it had to be discarded and new sources of inspiration had to be found. A few months before Emerson left the church, he noted in his Journals: "Very costly scaffoldings are pulled down when the more costly building is finished. And God has his scaffoldings. The Jewish Law answered its temporary purpose and was then set aside. Christianity is completing its purpose as an aid to educate man."
Emerson's Interest in the East
All Transcendentalists were in search of new scaffoldings which could raise them still higher. It is easy to see where they got the material they were looking for. The afore-mentioned article in the first issue of The Dial, which acted as a Manifesto of Transcendentalism, gives us the clue. What Unitarianism had done for its followers was to break the bonds which had held them prisoners of tradition and to give them wings for flight. "The Unitarian Movement", the article stressed, "disenthralled the minds of men, and bade them wander wheresoever they must list in search of truth, and to rest in whatsoever views their consciences might approve." Then follows the most significant passage:
"The attention of our students was then called to the literature of foreign countries. They wished to see how went the battle against sin and error there. They soon found a different philosophy in vogue there, and one which seemed to explain the facts of their own experience and observation more to their satisfaction, than the one they had been accustomed to meet with in their books."
It was the new discoveries in the literatures of foreign countries which shaped the creed of the Transcendentalists. When one studies the ideas that were set down in the article as the most fundamental principles of Transcendentalism and compares them with Oriental ideas, one discovers the very close links which exist between the two. In fact, all the new discoveries from the literatures of foreign countries correspond point for point with Oriental concepts. The writer of the article goes on to describe some of the teachings which they found in foreign literatures, and which dealt with the "same questions that exercised" them. In order to find the answers to those questions they turned initially to Zoroastrian, Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, and later on to Persian literature and Sufi teachings.
The article continued: "The first fact that fixed the attention of these inquiries was the recognition of innate ideas, - a source of truth and spiritual influence hidden in the depth of the soul." This was definitely one of the basic teachings of Eastern religions, which celebrated the divinity of man and emphasised the direct link that existed between man and God. In Chandogya Upanishad we read:
"There is a Spirit which is mind and life, light and truth and vast spaces. He contains all works and desires and all perfumes and all tastes. He enfolds the whole universe, and in silence is loving to all. This is the Spirit that is in my heart, smaller than a grain of rice, or a grain of barley, or a grain of mustard-seed, or a grain of canary-seed. This is the Spirit that is in my heart, greater than heaven itself, greater than all these worlds. This is the Spirit that is in my heart, this is Brahma."
The second inquiry concerned "the idea of the Infinite, the Eternal, the Absolute, the Necessary." They had found that God was not a separate person, but a reality that was manifest in every form of existence. The Transcendentalists found this idea more agreeable than the traditional Hebrew or Christian notion of God. "By holding to a unity of essence", the article remarked, "underlying as the basis all the diversities of things existent in nature, it rejects the doctrine of the Trinity, not like the Unitarians, by denying it, but by making it omni-unity, - not a three in one, but as all-in-one." This too is exactly a definition of Brahma, or according to Emerson's terminology the Over-Soul. Brahma is the underlying reality of the world and every man and every object is a part of its existence. Mundaka Upanishad says about Him: "He is the Lord of all, that from which all things originate, and in which they finally disappear." This seemed to provide the true meaning of God to the Transcendentalists: "They saw that God must be of this nature, or else they found a greater than He." Echoing that sentiment, Emerson wrote: "Under all this running sea of circumstance, whose waters ebb and flow with perfect balance, lies the aboriginal abyss of real Being. Essence, or God, is not a relation or a part, but the whole. Being is the vast affirmative, excluding negation, self-balanced, and swallowing up all relations, parts and times within itself."
The third lesson that they learned from the literature of foreign countries is that evil is negative. It has no independent existence of itself, but it is the absence of good. There is no such thing as hereditary sin. The Transcendentalists then believed: "As we grow wise, just and pure, - in a word, holy, we grow to be one with Him in mode, as we always were in essence." Most Eastern religions preach that evil is negative, and that when one turns one's face towards Light all darkness vanishes. Evil comes to us through our wrongdoing, not from an external source. Mundaka Upanishad preaches: "When the seer sees the brilliant maker and Lord as the Person who has his source in Brahma, then possessing true knowledge he shakes off good and evil, and, free from passion, reaches the highest oneness." Emerson described original sin and the existence of evil as some forms of the disease of weak minds:
"Our young people are diseased with the theological problems of original sin, origin of evil, predestination and the like. These never presented a practical difficulty to any man, - never darkened across any man's road who did not go out of his way to seek them. These are the soul's mumps and measles and whooping coughs, and those who have not caught them cannot describe their health or prescribe the cure. A simple mind will not know these enemies."
After leaving the church, Emerson did not become any less religious in his thinking, but he expanded his idea of religion to incorporate all other faiths. In a Journal entry he wrote: "The accepted Christianity of the mob of churches is now, as always, a caricature of the real. The heart of Christianity is the heart of all philosophy. It is the sentiment of piety which Stoic and Chinese, Mohometan and Hindoo labor to awaken." He seems to be echoing the famous sentence of Imam Ali, Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law and the first Shi'i Imam, that "the ways to God are as numerous as human beings."
After becoming familiar
with the works of Persian poets, Emerson fell completely under their spell. He
translated some 700 lines of Persian poetry, nearly half of them from the work
of the Sufi poet, Hafiz. Although Emerson borrowed many of his philosophical
ideas from Hindu and Buddhist sources, Persian poetry exerted the greatest
literary influence on his work. As it is as a man of letters that he should be
mainly remembered rather than as a philosopher or a theologian, in this field
Persian influence predominates over that of
There are many similarities
between the rise of Sufism in Islam, particularly in
It was as a reaction to orthodoxy and materialism that Sufism came into being. It exalted the importance of the spiritual aspects of religion, rather than the text of the Koran. It deified the individual, stressed the need for an intimate contact with God, and refuted the authority of the Mosque and the mullahs. It went against tradition, and in the midst of tragedy and oppression it celebrated Beauty and Goodness. In the famous line attributed to the greatest Sufi poet, Jalaludin Rumi, "We have taken the heart out of the Koran, and have left the skin to the dogs [to fight over]." Some of the leading Sufi poets, such as Attar and Rumi, paid little attention to the affairs of the world, and taught the general gospel of individualism and spiritual exultation. A few others, such as Sa'di and Hafiz, did not neglect social questions and preached a broad concept of morality and humanism, while stressing spirituality and mysticism as the basis of morality. Some Transcendentalists, such as Henry David Thoreau, preferred the solitude of Walden; while others, such as Emerson, taught the need for social participation, based on self-reliance and a personal contact with the Over-Soul.
Therefore, it is not difficult to see many points of comparison between the Transcendentalism of New England and the Sufism of Persian. Like Sufism, Transcendentalism was a revolt against the materialistic Deism of the Eighteenth Century; and at the same time, it was a reaction against the orthodoxy of Calvinism. Also like Sufism, Emerson's Transcendentalism expressed itself in poetry. In his beautiful mid-nineteenth century book on mysticism, R. A. Vaughan rightly compared Emerson to Persian Sufis. He wrote:
"Oriental mysticism has become
famous for its poets; and into poetry it has thrown all its force and fire. The
mysticism of the West has produced prophecies and interpretations of prophecy,
soliloquies, sermons, and treatises of divinity; - it has found solace in
autobiography, and breathed out its sorrow in hymns; - it has essayed, in
earnest prose, to revive and to reform the sleeping Church; - but it has never
elaborated great poems. In none of the languages of Europe has mysticism
achieved the success which crowned it in
Emerson's biographers and critics early recognised that there was a connection between his literary and mystical works and Persian literature. Emerson's son, describing the sources of influence on his father's writings, wrote: "Another influence now came in on the side of grace and finish, the Oriental poetry, in which he took very great interest, especially the poems of Hafiz. In his mature writings the influence of Persian poets was so profound that they became indistinguishable from his own work. O. W. Holmes, an early biographer of Emerson, observed: "Of course his Persian and Indian models betray themselves in many of his poems, some of which, called translation, sound as if they were original." Speaking about how widely Emerson experimented in the Persian forms, Holmes writes: "In many of the shorter poems and fragments published since May-Day; as well as in the Quatrains and others of the later poems in that volume, it is sometimes hard to tell what is from the Persian and what is original."
Yet another early critic of Emerson, Joel Benton, discovered the similarity of style and content in the poems of Emerson and the Persian poets. Writing on the quatrains and translations from Hafiz, he concluded that if the translation seems "a little more like Emerson than it does like Hafiz, the balance is more than preserved by his steeping his own original quatrains in a little tincture of the wine and spirit of Oriental thought. When he translated Hafiz, he was probably thinking of his own workmanship; when he described him, he was simply absorbed in the poet."
Emerson discovered a close
affinity between the views of the Sufi poets of
"That hardihood and self-equality of every sound nature, which resulted from the feeling that the spirit in him is entire and as good as the world, which entitled the poet to speak with authority, and made him an object of interest, and his every phrase and syllable significant, are in Hafiz, and abundantly fortify and ennoble his tone. His was the fluent mind in which every thought and feeling came to the lip. 'Loose the knots of the heart', he says… The other merit of Hafiz is his intellectual liberty, which is a certificate of profound thought… Wrong shall not be wrong to him, for the name's sake. A law or statute is to him what a fence is to a nimble schoolboy, - a temptation for a jump. 'We would do nothing but good, else would shame come to us on the day when the soul must hie hence; and should they then deny us Paradise, the Houris themselves would forsake that, and come to us!' His complete intellectual emancipation he communicates to the reader. There is no example of such facility of allusion, such use of all materials. Nothing is too high, nothing too low, for his occasion. He fears nothing, he stops for nothing. Love is a leveller, and Allah becomes a groom, and heaven a closet, in his daring hymns to his mistress or to his cupbearer. This boundless character is the right of genius."
In Hafiz, Emerson found many of the qualities that we admire in him; his self-reliance, his rejection of dogmatism, his break from tradition, his feeling of universal love, his belief in the oneness of truth. In a Journal entry, he paid the highest compliment to Hafiz by saying that Hafiz was the man that he wished to emulate. He wrote of Hafiz: "He is not scared by a name or a religion. He fears nothing. He sees too far, he sees throughout; such is the only man I wish to see and to be. The scholar's courage is as distinct as the soldier's or statesman's and the man who has it not cannot write for me."
Emerson found the same
admirable qualities in Sa'di, the other great poet of
"The word Sa'di means Fortunate. In him the trait is no result of levity, much less of convivial habit, but first of a happy nature to which victory is habitual, easily shedding mishaps, with sensibility to pleasure, and with resources against pain. But it also results from the habitual perception of the beneficent laws that control the world. He inspires in the reader a good hope. What a contrast between the cynical tone of Byron and the benevolent wisdom of Saadi."
He also admired Sa'di's love of beauty and his dislike of religious formalism. He quotes a story from Sa'di's Gulistan about when Sa'di came upon a man chanting the Koran in a harsh voice, and asked him why he was chanting. The man replied: "I read for the sake of God." Upon which Sa'di said: "For God's sake, do not read; for if you read the Koran in this manner you will destroy the splendor Islamism."
Unlike the cold and intellectual mysticism of Hindu and Buddhist sources or the monkish and pious mysticism of Christian saints, Emerson found the vibrant, poetic and exuberant mysticism of the Sufis much more appealing. Like the Sufis, his mysticism was not a devout, quietist, otherworldly form of mysticism. It was a mysticism that celebrated the glory of God in the beauty of His creation, based on individual responsibility and expressed in the language of poetry. This was the biggest influence the Sufi poets exerted on Emerson's work.
About the Author
Farhang Jahanpour is a British national of Iranian origin. He received his Ph.D. Degree in Oriental Studies from the
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