the special quality of Emerson is that a fragment is not just a fragment but that everything within the fragment shines forth.
Coincidentally, I was born the year before Emerson died in 1882. Also I followed in his footsteps at Harvard, and since he was a Unitarian and my great teacher of free religion, I feel a great responsibility in accepting his spiritual legacy.
Although it was called “Unitarian,” it had a deeply conservative tradition and many features which he did not like, such as mass which was derived from “The Last Supper,” a ritual which was the same as baptism, and the taking of the wafer and the wine for Christ’s flesh and blood. Emerson had doubts about this ritualism and after three years either left or was asked to leave the ministry.
Emerson criticized the mediocrity and the impotence of the church of his time which had become extremely formalized and fossilized. He especially attacked the idea that Christ was the only child of God.
He said that if Christ is the child of God, then we are all children of God, because this universe has a spiritual existence and this divine spirit pervades all sentient beings beginning with humanity. He gave this spirit the name of “oversoul” or great spirit. All humanity possesses this great spirit, that is to say, are children of God. So there are no supernatural, mysterious miracles. If there is such a thing as a miracle, then the universe as it is in its natural state is indeed a miracle.
He preached revolutionary ideas for that time and he was criticized for his radical opinions. Finally, his preaching was banned not only by Harvard but much more widely. So he went to England and visited Carlyle.
Gradually Emerson developed a profound philosophy. His thoughts evolved from the idea of the oversoul. The features that stand out are the dignity and freedom of man, his trust in humanity, and the equality of man. He reasoned that we understand and empathize with the sages of old like Plato and Christ and Shakespeare because we have the same universal oversoul as they did. He thought that each human being is like an encyclopedia and possesses within himself everything in the universe past and present, east and west. That is why all human beings have dignity and are equal. When one realizes this, he must value himself and trust himself. “It is suicidal do imitate others. It is foolish to envy others.”
In imitating others, we abandon ourselves and become like others. Since we kill ourselves, it is suicide. When we envy others, we are forgetting that we ourselves have valuable qualities. In other words, we are being foolish. He taught us to open our eyes to the fact that each of us possesses a part of the oversoul, is a child of God, and has an invaluable treasure inside him, and must do everything we can to trust ourselves to find the way to develop our own individuality and achieve self-realization.
We must seek inside and not outside. Reading books and listening to lectures are indirect methods and not the main path for attaining truth. He said that it is only by direct experience, by intuition, by direct observation, and by direct study that we attain truth. In such disciplines as Zen, a master is needed but we must attain Nirvana ourselves, not just through the teachings of the master. Emerson is famous for expressing such thoughts and for the idea of self-reliance.
His sentences are not logically structured prose but take the form of intuitive, poetic essays. So he is a wise man and not a philosopher. Or would you call him a philosophical poet, perhaps? That is why even a fragment is important and also difficult to understand. I must have an attitude of direct observation based on experience in reading his work.
Emerson was treated as a radical by his own associates. So it was that at the age of 40, he opposed the conservative Unitarians and established the Free Religious Association, becoming Deputy Chairman, and thus striving for liberalization of Christianity.
Williams, G. M. (2019). Cosmic Sage: Imaoka Shin’ichirō, Prophet of Free Religion. Uniquest Publishing.