Jason's Reviews > The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson by Ralph Waldo Emerson
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's review
Nov 09, 07

bookshelves: classics
Read in May, 2004

Emerson is my favorite poet/philosopher, and this one volume contains all his writings you could ever need. I agree with Emerson wholeheartedly about 33% of the time, disagree with him vehemently about 33%, and can't decide whether I agree or not the rest of the time. But he's always compelling, even if I think he's dead wrong.

The greatest thing about Emerson is how quotable he is. There are dozens of great one-liners here. One of my favorites: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

I have to admit I haven't read the whole thing, but it's not the type of book you have to read straight through. I pick it up from time to time when I'm between books and just read an essay or a poem. Always a delight.

The must-read essay for every American is "Self-Reliance." America's strain of rugged individualism starts right here with Emerson. He certainly goes too far with his philosophy of individualism when he shuns charitable giving, etc., but there's a certain attractiveness to the idea of total self-reliance. Read it, and decide the limits for yourself. Just be sure to read some Melville to counter-balance Emerson's excesses.

My personal favorite is the address to the Harvard Divinity School, where Emerson explodes the authoritarian bent of Christianity as it was then taught. Harvard, in all its openness, banned him from the school for the next forty years after the address. "Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead. . . . [I]t is my duty to say to you that the need was never greater of new revelation than now." Pretty important words in 1838. No less important now. Emerson again goes too far in this address when he belittles Christ's mission. He's right, however, insofar as he emphasizes that Christ taught that every man has divine potential. Powerful stuff.

Other favorites: The Transcendentalist (you probably read it in high school), Nature, Gifts, and Politics.

It's a great book to have on your shelf.
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