Dave Maddock's Reviews > The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson by Ralph Waldo Emerson
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bookshelves: philosophy

Emerson, for whom my eldest son is named, had a profound effect on me as a teenager. His essays were the first piece of "serious" literature I undertook to read for personal education around age 16. Though I can't say I wholly subscribe to them these days, his ideas on individualist spirituality resonated with me, coming from a Christian family which encouraged self-discovery--with the caveat that your discoveries were orthodox. For someone as intellectually curious as I am, this environment led to frustration as a teen when I actually did what I was told--read the Bible in earnest. From his "Divinity School Address":

It is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.

"Self-Reliance" in particular I've found myself coming back to periodically over the years and still find much inspiration in. He is most profound here when riffing on maintaining individual identify amidst society.

The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character. If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-Society, vote with a great party either for the Government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers,--under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
October 28, 2008 – Shelved
July 13, 2009 – Shelved as: philosophy

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Julie (new)

Julie Lovely.

I myself have been discarding a lot of "usages that have become dead to me" over the past 5 years or so. I find that it always causes a sense of relief and lightness of soul, even if it's scary at the same time. Taking a step along the right Path feels so right, even when it's a step into the unknown or the dark.

Can you tell I'm part Daoist these days? Not that my love for certain Christian writers is any less, or my fellowship with kind and generous souls of any religious or spiritual stripe. I like my Unitarian church - they have room for all of us, and are gentle and curious with it.

I think you're the most "serious" reader I know. I'll never forget you reading the collected writings of Ben Franklin during Chemistry class while the rest of us were playing calculator games.


Dave Maddock Can you tell I'm part Daoist these days?

Yeah, I think I've seen you mention it somewhere before. I lightly read the Tao Te Ching way back in the day. I'm starting to realize how culturally deficient I am of the Far East--a quality which I've set a medium-term goal to change.

There was a point for me when the meaninglessness of confessing doctrine (both that which was taught to me and Jesus' teaching as I understood it for myself) not acted upon was crystallized in my mind. I reject the notion that paying lip-service to an ideology does anything to gain entrance to an afterlife, if one exists. I think I have a pretty deep understanding of what truly being a follower of Jesus means and I do not want to live (and what's more, think) in manner commensurate with that understanding. I've grown tired of feeling guilty for it. The world doesn't need more disingenuous Christians.

You and my BFF Curtis (my other Goodreads friend) are the only ones I know. I'm sure I've read this sentiment before (and better stated at that), but I often feel a kinship with the authors of much "serious" literature I've read that transcends the contents of the book. Somehow I know they and I are of the same ilk--whatever that ilk is. I've so rarely had this experience with living people I've stopped expecting it. I'd guess that when people find me reading such things they assume I'm simply pompous and eccentric (admittedly I am both of those things), but I truly do often find it more relaxing and enjoyable than, say, Grisham.


message 3: by Julie (new)

Julie I tried to read "Kiss the Girls" this summer, as my current landlady has a lot of that guy's stuff and likes it. I couldn't make it through the second or third chapter. It's rare that I have to put a book down because the writing is so bad I can't force myself through it, but that author is apparently one of those for me.

I think of you whenever I see Salvation Army stuff. I'm sorry that you've had to step away from Jesus and Christianity entirely. I guess being a member of a Unitarian church means I've stepped away in some sense, but Christianity is still the world I grew up in, and the spiritual insights I gained from Lewis, George MacDonald, teachers at church, professors at Taylor University, and of course from friends and family... the ones that are True still hold true, and the ones that don't make sense to me anymore I've either put on intellectual hold, or I've dropped them - the insights, the people.

If you haven't read much George MacDonald, I'd recommend his short stories or fairy tales for an example of a "disingenuous Christian" and what that can look like. There are also volumes of his sermons that get into his specific theology, which is generally compassionate and fascinating. I love him, and he makes me glad to be part Scottish.


Dave Maddock I'm sorry that you've had to step away from Jesus and Christianity entirely.

Not entirely, but I'm making a conscious effort not to be hypocritical.


message 5: by Curtis (new)

Curtis If I might jump in...

Dave: I think I have a pretty deep understanding of what truly being a follower of Jesus means and I do not want to live (and what's more, think) in manner commensurate with that understanding.

Hmmm, point of clarification please: Do you mean that you know what truly being a follower of Jesus means in the sense that you know what Jesus exhorted of us, or in the sense that you believe you know how others who profess to be Christians expect you to act? (Or both of these?)

Of course, you've pointed me in the direction of Bart Ehrman's work, which indicates that the former is probably impossible, and that anyone who claims to know it well is highly suspect. The latter, of course, is splintered; there are as many flavors of Christianity as there are universes in the Marvel Comics multiverse. Honestly, I don't believe anyone can truly know either what Jesus actually wanted or which brand of Christianity (modern or ancient) could possibly be the "right" one.

I've always had chronic bouts of existential solipsism, though, and perhaps this is just another of those. (Of course, even such a position has its flaws: I've always privately amended Descartes' "Cogito ergo sum" to read "Cogito ergo cogito sum" -- don't even know if that's correct Latin, but it makes me feel better. :)


Dave Maddock Curtis wrote: "Do you mean that you know what truly being a follower of Jesus means in the sense that you know what Jesus exhorted of us, or in the sense that you believe you know how others who profess to be Christians expect you to act? (Or both of these?)"

I mean it in both senses though I'd use less absolute language. I wouldn't go so far as to say I know exactly what Jesus exhorted of his followers in a historical sense (though I would assert that he did not exhort "us" in modern America). It'd be more accurate to substitute "truly" in my statement with "what, in my opinion, is the most historically probable ideology of Jesus", but that's kind of wordy. ;)

I do think that we can have some insight into the historical Jesus and the arguments I've read interpreting him as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet seem the most probable to me. Certainly, there is a difference between the religion of Jesus and the religion(s) about Jesus. I could give a summary of my views on both, but ultimately I think Jesus was an extremist. Moderately following an extremist is like post-grunge music, commercially viable but soulless.



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